Language seems to bind Pakistanis more than religion.

A Muslim who chooses to stay with her Hindu friend rather than her son when she comes to his city; a man whose father was cut into pieces by Hindus during Partition goes out of his way to help a Hindu stranger from India… Nine days of meeting people like this in Pakistan left me wondering about the kind of transformation in Indo-Pak relations if only people were allowed to meet freely.

Having covered Hindu-Muslim violence in India for years, where the only identity that mattered was religion, it came as a revelation (Bangladesh notwithstanding) that language binds Pakistanis more than religion. Whether it was the security guard in Sindh Assembly or journalists at the Karachi Press Club or a writer in Islamabad who wanted to treat me to a Sindhi meal, what mattered was neither my nationality nor my faith; just that I was a Sindhi. As I marvelled at the way journalist Shams Keerio and his friends packed the gifts they had flooded me with, they shrugged away my gratitude, “Think of us as handymen from Ulhasnagar.” The Sindhi township on the outskirts of Mumbai was familiar to most Sindhis; and almost every Sindhi asked about the state of the language in India.

The strength of this bond was best exemplified by journalist Syed Karam Ali Shah’s story. His grandfather, after whom he’s named, was a Deputy Superintendent of Police in Hyderabad (Sindh) during Partition. As the Hindus fled Sindh, he forbade his neighbours — the famous Seth Vishindas family — to leave and guaranteed their safety. The friendship has stood the test of time. The DSP’s daughter, now 78, stays with her Hindu friend whenever she comes to visit her son in Karachi. The two friends gave birth within a day of each other on adjacent beds in the same hospital. Their children grew up playing Holi together. “We visit their temple during Diwali; I’ve also gone to the Sadhu Belamandir (in Sukkur),” says Karam Ali. “Didi Indra even took my mother to India when her nephew was getting married.” That was in 1992, when the Ayodhya agitation had polarised Hindus and Muslims in India. Karam Ali rues the departure of Sindhi Hindus during Partition. “Sindh lost its beauty. We are still suffering the loss. Outsiders, barely qualified to rule, took over our cities.”

Decades after they migrated to Pakistan, two Maharashtrians yearn to hear their language. “Mee Marathi bolooshakto (I can speak Marathi),” wrote Sanaullah Kazi to show he had not forgotten his native tongue, now rarely heard even in his home. As a young man working for British Petroleum in Qatar, Kazi’s friendship with Pakistanis led him to see the newly-born country as a land of opportunity. Despite fierce opposition from his family in coastal Konkan, he came away in 1950 finding a home amid Konkanis in Karachi’s Bombay Town. But when it was time to marry, he returned to his village, Murud, to wed someone who could speak his language; when his children were born, he returned again, to show them his ancestral village.

Kashiaahestu?” asked the wife of barrister Khurshid Hashmi, principal of Karachi’s S.M. Law College. As soon as he heard I was from Mumbai, the principal called up his wife: “You’re always grumbling that there’s no one who can speak your language; here’s someone from your state,” and handed me the phone. The voice at the other end talked longingly about Pune, its “cultured citizens with their fierce loyalty” to their city, and about her alma mater, (Nowrosjee) Wadia College. Had I had more time, she would have insisted that I come over for a meal.

Her effusiveness towards someone from the state she had left behind is understandable but how does one explain her husband’s graciousness? His father, a prominent Muslim Leaguer, had been hacked to pieces by a mob on August 28, 1947, while returning from his farmhouse in Punjab; his mother had been just 26. An elderly Sikh neighbour had persuaded them to leave and escorted the family, including Hashmi’s grandmother, to a refugee camp in Jalandhar. His father had been a landowner; the house they were given in Karachi resembled a cattle shed. He remembers coming home from school to find his mother weeping. His elder sister, who’d seen their father killed, woke up screaming at night. In all, 48 members of his family had been killed, said the principal, pausing frequently to control his emotions. “That was not the way to divide the country. We were co-existing peacefully.”

Even while expressing gratitude to “this land and its people” for having “received us with an open heart”, Hashmi hoped he could see his village once more some day. Understanding my desire to see his college, which had been my father’s alma mater, he traced the copies of my father’s admission forms.

These were Muslims who’d made Pakistan their home, but still carried a yearning for their lost homeland. On the other side was Manmohan Singh, who despite having to pay jiziya to the militant “Lashkar-e-Islam”, had chosen to stay on in Khyber Agency rather than migrate to India. The jiziya — “only Rs. 1000 a year” — kept the Sikhs secure, he said; besides, Muslims had to pay much more. Indian Sikhs, rued Singh, had lost their way. Three Sikh families that he knew had migrated to India but returned disillusioned. “The Taliban admire us for the way we uphold the principles of our faith; they wish Pakistan’s Muslims would do the same,” he said.

The flip side was narrated by a Pakistani Muslim whose family hailed from Madhya Pradesh. His cousin from MP visited frequently but on his last visit, more than a decade ago, observed that no one in his host’s family got up for the early morning namaz, and that the women didn’t observe purdah. “You are too advanced for us; we practise Islam better in India.” That was the last time he heard from his cousin.

If Islamic Pakistan wasn’t the Promised Land for this man’s Indian relative, India too disappointed many Pakistani non-Muslims. Dai Solanki, a panwali outside Karachi’s ancient Neti Jeti temple, admitted that her relatives had gone to Ahmedabad but came back. “How long can others support us?” she asked. What about the fear of conversion? Bani, the old caretaker of the temple, snorted. “Convert us? They dare not.” The only trouble her family faced was after the Babri Masjid demolition, she said, when her home had been destroyed. But not even that had tempted her to migrate. “My birth, my marriage, my children’s births, our lives and deaths, everything is here. Pakistan is our home.”