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‘The Other Side of the Divide’ review: Across the great divide

The cataclysmic partition of 1947 has been chronicled by many writers from Saadat Hasan Manto to Salman Rushdie. In his autobiography, Truth, love and a little malice, Khushwant Singh recalled that “the atmosphere in the Punjab had become so charged with hate that it only needed a spark to set it ablaze.”

People who lived on the east and west of a line drawn hastily by Cyril Radcliffe paid with their lives — Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Jains. The wounds haven’t healed and state propaganda is only keen to call each other’s country “enemy territory”. Votaries of peace have always maintained that more people-to-people contact is the way forward. In The Other Side of the Divide, Sameer Arshad Khatlani journeys to Lahore and comes away with some wonderful memories and glimpses of hope despite traumatic realities of the past and present (terrorism, hardened religious stands).

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The ‘other’ at home

Long before Khatlani, a Kashmiri, crossed the border at Wagah in 2013 to attend a conference, however, he faced at least two instances of the ‘divide’ at home. Growing up in Bandipora, his family was caught in the middle of an Army search-and-cordon operation following the 1989 insurgency. The family had nothing to hide till someone remembered a possible source of trouble — his collection of posters of iconic Pakistani cricketers, courtesy Sportstar. Khatlani, a young boy at the time, had the presence of mind to dump them in a compost bin. His love of cricket would land him in bigger trouble in 2002.

On a visit to Jaipur with a cousin in January he did not want to give up the chance to see Sawai Mansingh Stadium. As they clicked pictures outside the stadium, all hell broke loose when the security men found out they were from Kashmir. The police was radioed and Khatlani and his cousin were questioned for 24 hours, and asked repeatedly if they had been to Pakistan. Two Kashmiris had no business being outside a sensitive place ahead of Republic Day, they were told.

Khatlani wanted to travel to the other side of the divide, his family’s protests notwithstanding. He insists that an artificial line drawn through the heart of Punjab “cannot be deep enough to change the shared language, culture, customs, idioms and attitudes shaped over centuries.” In Lahore, for instance, everybody speaks Punjabi on the street. The Sharifs, he writes, have deep roots in Amritsar and they have created a replica of their ancestral village Jati Umra at Raiwand near Lahore.

He attended the premiere of Dhoom 3 and witnessed firsthand the love for Bollywood. Everywhere Khatlani went, people reacted with joy when told he hailed from India, and no one wanted to accept money. Most of the city’s landmarks, like the Shadman Chowk roundabout where Bhagat Singh was executed in 1931, have an India link.

Historian Ayesha Jalal shared stories about Kashmir and her grand uncle Manto; Ramesh Singh Arora, the first provincial Sikh lawmaker, told him “there are still things that unite rather than divide us.” Khatlani was also in Lahore on a personal quest — he wanted to see what remained of his grandfather’s memories of the city of “high culture”. Though Anarkali Bazaar is now “a pale shadow of itself”, the bakery of S. Mokham-ud-din and Sons — famous for its Finger Stick Biscuits, inspired by the beautiful fingers of Mayo School for Arts Teacher Lady Harrison as the story goes — has stood the test of time. More such narratives are required to bridge the great divide in the subcontinent.

The Other Side of the Divide; Sameer Arshad Khatlani, Ebury Press/PRH, ₹499.

sudipta.datta@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Mar 6, 2021 5:19:21 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/the-other-side-of-the-divide-review-across-the-great-divide/article33578722.ece

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