Recent tensions between India and Pakistan have given rise to tough talk which has now extended as far as a Bollywood clampdowns on Pakistani involvement and beyond. In this article, journalist and LSE alumnus Siddharth Varadarajan confesses to the deep and long-standing ties he has with people from Pakistan, many of them forged during his time studying in London.
Emile Zola was a great man and an even greater writer. His 1898 article, ‘J’accuse…’, in which he indicted the French establishment of his day for its anti-semitism, is a classic of journalism. I am a journalist but I have neither the skill nor the courage of Zola. There is probably plenty that the establishment of my day can and should be indicted for but I will leave that to better and braver women and men. Where Zola said ‘I Accuse’, I am saying, ‘I Confess’.
Until last week, I was angry and upset with the pro-establishment television anchors and actors who were bullying the whole of Bollywood into declaring they would not work with Pakistanis any more. It alarmed me when thugs in Mumbai said they will not allow the screening of any film featuring Pakistani actors. I thought it was mean-spirited for the Mumbai film festival to scrap the screening of a 1959 Pakistani classic. I was saddened when my alma mater, Mayo College, canceled a friendly cricket match with Lahore’s Aitchison College. How would this closing of the Indian mind help protect India’s borders, I wondered.
It is only when I read the stirring words of our information and broadcasting minister that I realised the error of my ways.
“It is very simple to say art has no boundaries,” Venkaiah Naidu ji said, “but countries have boundaries … I’m not building a case for a boycott of anyone but … the people’s sentiments should be respected. When a war is taking place, you have someone doing a drama with that country, that is not expected.”
Following Venkaiah ji’s advice of what is expected of people like me, and in keeping with the nationalist sentiments of our times, I am, therefore, choosing to make a full confession.
I confess I met a Pakistani for the first time, in London, in 1982. He went to college with me and we fought and argued about all kinds of things, especially Partition and Kashmir. I confess we also became the best of friends. His son is getting married next year and I confess I am thinking of travelling to “that country” to attend the ceremony.
At the London School of Economics, where I went to college, I confess I met many other Pakistanis and most of them became good friends.
I confess that I laughed at many of their jokes, some of them quite rustic and earthy.
I confess to learning how to discuss serious subjects in Hindi/Urdu thanks to all the arguments I used to have with Pakistani friends.
I confess that in 1983 I stopped a Pakistani whom I knew to be religious from eating food that was ‘haram’. “Is that pork,” he asked the worker serving us at the LSE canteen. “No, love. They’re only sausages,” she had replied while loading his plate.
I confess that I once helped a Pakistani whom I knew to be religious have his first drink.
I confess that on a London street in 1986, I met and conversed with the Pakistani poet, Ahmad Faraz. I confess to feeling slightly overawed.
I confess to falling in love with the raspy voice of Faiz Ahmed Faiz when I first heard it on a cassette in a Pakistani friend’s hostel room in 1983. I confess to hunting down Faiz’s books, published in India by Rajkamal Prakashan, and spending hours reading and listening to his poetry when I should have been studying economics.
I confess that I recently met the Hindi scholar who transliterated Faiz’s Sare Sukhan Hamarey from Urdu to Devanagari. I confess that I unthinkingly sent to friends on WhatsApp a video recording of a beautiful poem, ‘Bahut der kar deta hoon main’, by a poet I did not immediately recognise, but who turned out to the Pakistani Munir Niazi. I confess this might have been soon after the surgical strikes.
I confess that as an undergraduate in London in 1983, I dined at the house of a Pakistani friend, where I met Benazir Bhutto, who was then in exile. I confess that I got drunk and asked her what her name was. She was not pleased.
I confess to learning the Urdu script from a ‘qaida’ – a book for children – a Pakistani friend gave me in 1984. I confess to helping another Pakistani friend learn Devanagari in 1986 when he fell in love with an Indian woman.
I confess to sharing on Twitter a folk song from Balochistan by Akhtar Chanal and Komal Rizvi. I confess to doing this before Prime Minister Modi made it OK for folks in India to like the Baloch.
I confess that I got together with Pakistani students to set up the South Asia Forum at the LSE. I confess that in 1985, we held a cultural function for Indians and Pakistanis where we celebrated the life of Shaheed Bhagat Singh.
I confess to being in touch with many Pakistani friends, mostly from my college days. I confess to attending a condolence gathering in Karachi for one of my friends who died well before his time. I confess to attending the wedding there of another friend in April 2016, after terrorists from Pakistan had attacked Pathankot. I confess to insisting my mother visit Moenjo Daro. I confess that she had a good time. I confess to thinking the Sindh Club in Karachi is grander and nicer than the Gymkhana in Delhi or Bombay.
I confess to having laughed when the distinguished father of a friend in Karachi told his worried wife in 1997 that there would be no problem with me visiting the shrine of Heer in Jhang, home of the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. “Their problem is with Shias. Siddharth is a Hindu!”
I confess to laughing when a friend of mine in Karachi messaged me that his first thought when someone mentioned the recent ‘surgical strike’ was to ask why the surgeons at Liaquat Medical College had struck work.
I confess to having helped organise an India-Pakistan friendship concert featuring the late Ustad Salamat Ali Khan and two senior Indian musicians – whom I would rather not name in case someone tries to stop them from performing in India again – at Columbia University in New York in 1990, when there was tension between the two countries.
I confess that when a Pakistani friend of mine from college was diagnosed with cancer, I flew a third of the way across the world in 2015 to attend a small reunion that I knew would gladden his heart. I confess that I joined him and a few other Pakistanis later in an impromptu protest outside the Pakistani high commission in London against the murder of Sabeen Mahmud, and that some of us drowned our sorrow at the local pub afterwards. I confess that was before the official thaw in India-Pakistan relations at Ufa.
I confess that a Pakistani friend of mine from Karachi sat with my brother, sister and me in Delhi as we said last prayers for our late father in 2014. I confess that my friend was not even a Hindu.
I confess to complaining about our fundamentalists when I last met my Pakistani friends. I confess that they complained about their ‘fundos’, and that we both cribbed about our inability to do much about any of them.
Cover image: ‘Beating of Retreat’ Ceremony at Indo-Pakistan border, Wagha. Credit: Koshy Koshy CC BY 2.0
This article was originally published in The Wire.in and is reposted with the author’s permission. Read the full piece here. It gives the views of the author, and not the position of the South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.
About the Author
Siddharth Varadarajan, an LSE alumnus, is a journalist and a Founding Editor of The Wire. Read the South Asia @ LSE interview with him here.