Little Amjad stands outside the Bari Imam shrine in Islamabad, thrusting plastic bags for sale through the barbed wire fence. Like the other boys with him, he doesn’t go to school. He makes Rs.100 a day selling the thin and brightly coloured bags for Rs.2 a piece — no fuss over micron thickness here.
As he looks at me with hope, my camera gives me away. He thinks I am a tourist, which means dollars. He grins in disappointment when I tell him I am Indian but he’s excited to have met one. Even the female security guard asks me a lot of questions about India. In the women’s section in the shrine, many of them tell me it is an honour to have met someone from their favourite nation. Coming right after I was told to leave Pakistan in a week’s time, it couldn’t have felt better.
This was how it was when I left for Pakistan in August 2013. After landing in Islamabad around midnight, we went to buy a can of drinking water from a chemist, where we experienced our first taste of welcome. From then on there was practically no one who didn’t exude charm or warmth; the sinister exceptions came much later. With a visa that was restricted only to Islamabad, and which had to be renewed every three months, the paperwork was enormous; the many trips to the External Publicity (EP) Wing, our contact point, were meant to tire us out. Even there they were nice, always ready to offer a cup of tea and words of solace that the visa would be renewed.
Right from the time I reached, there was a constant flurry of activity and plenty of news. The All Parties Conference which endorsed a dialogue with the Taliban, the weeklong series of blasts in Peshawar, especially the attack on the church which killed over 80, the sporadic attacks on the media, the sectarian killings, the blasphemy cases, the Mumbai attacks trial, Parliament and Supreme Court, apart from political party press conferences and other meetings and seminars, all kept me busy.
A subject of interest In December, the federal government decided to prosecute the former military dictator, General (retd.) Pervez Musharraf, slapped with charges in many high profile cases but who had secured bail in most of them. Covering the trial in the special court meant getting a pass which was graciously granted to me. I had access to Parliament as well, with my pass usually ready on the first day of the many sessions I attended. There was the Jamaat-ud-Dawa’s Hafiz Saeed who had held some rallies, the really large one being on ‘Defence of Pakistan’ day, and directed largely against India and the United States. Covering the Mumbai attacks trial was initially easy, with the lawyers and the prosecutor more than eager to talk to you. Then, one day, I was told not to call anymore for information as my reports were causing trouble.
A word on my spooks. Being an ardent admirer of the Thompson Twins in Hergè’s classic Tintin comics, I didn’t think that I would have my own experience with the bumbling duo. I first saw them at the visa office where they made it a point to get so close to me that they almost bumped into me. It soon became a regular affair. They didn’t stand outside my house till the last two days, but always met the people I did interviews with and asked them questions about me. My friends too were not spared. They were keen on knowing whether my discussions had centred on the Pakistan Army or defence, which was hilarious; with friends there are so many other things to talk about.
The bumbling moment came when they followed my husband and I on Trail six, a charming hike up the Margalla Hills behind the Faisal Mosque. It was obvious that it was their first hike as they kept asking the others on the trail the way back and thought we would return that way too. They gave up halfway and decided to wait for us to return. At the top we found a path that traversed all the way to Pir Sohawa, the highest point in the hills and decided to follow it. I don’t know how long they had waited for us in the blazing sun with no trees for shade and I am sure they didn’t take to that kindly.
‘Write on culture instead’ Early on in January, >I was warned by the EP wing that my visa would not be renewed . There was no reason given. I used to submit applications at regular intervals to visit other parts of Pakistan such as Taxila, Lahore, Peshawar and Mohenjo-Daro after the Sindh government had invited us to cover the festival, but there was no reply.
But it was in March, after I had interviewed Mama Qadeer Baloch who had walked over 3,000 km from Quetta to the capital with his small band of followers, most of them relatives of missing persons, that things became serious. A top official grilled me for an hour on why I had done an interview which was “anti-Pakistan” and then demanded to see my notes. He accused me of jeopardising my chances of a visa renewal with such stories, and advised me to write on art and culture instead. Amused, I told him that art and culture were limited in Islamabad and that I had done my best. If the government was so keen that I cover only these subjects, it should have sent me to places of great cultural interest in Pakistan like Taxila, which it hadn’t. I had interviewed Abida Parveen, a personal favourite, on her astounding new album, “Shah Jo Raag,” done a feature on Haroon, the genius behind “Burka Avenger,” and other stories.
For lasting ties One of the first people I had met was Shoaib Sultan Khan, a bureaucrat, whose inspiring rural development initiatives and connections with India made for a great article. He will remain for me the most interesting person I met there and will leave behind a legacy of lasting ties with rural communities in both countries. For a story on the oral history project, on Partition, being collected by the Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP), I had met Khalid Chima and his wife, Nasreen and Dr. Naeem Qureshi, and it was among the memorable meetings I have had. Nasreen lamented that she belonged to a really small minority which still believed in secular values and that they were more endangered than anyone else in Pakistan. The venerable Abid Hassan Minto had the most interesting memories of the Left movement and he jocularly accused me of taking down too many notes (doing a PhD) for a newspaper article. Though I couldn’t visit the Murree Brewery, its CEO, Isphanyar Bhandara was most gracious in granting me an interview in Islamabad. I was glad to hear and know that the spirit of Pakistan lives on despite so many restrictions.
Terror came close to home when the F-8 Markaz — which I used to visit often, and just a stone’s throw away from my house — was bombed on March 3. I heard staccato firing followed by two deafening explosions which shook the house and rattled the window panes. Scenes of devastation were in store at the district courts with pools of blood and body parts everywhere. Soon after, the bombing of the fruit market in the city was a terrifying reminder that the peace talks with the Taliban were not going anywhere.
Thoughts on the media More shocking news was in store with attacks on Raza Rumi, a kind friend and host, and Hamid Mir, whom I used to often meet in Parliament. He prayed there every Friday. It was shocking that journalists you knew were now either out of the country or in hospital. Some of them were dead too. Despite talk of there being a vibrant press in Pakistan, it was under great stress with repeated attacks and a veiled censorship which meant that certain things couldn’t be written about. Yet, brave journalists and columnists continued with their writing, against all odds.
As I was leaving Pakistan, my thoughts were on the warmth I had received, the many friendly people I had met but equally so on the intimidation I had faced from some quarters. However, I will cherish my hikes, the long walks and some of the good friends I made. I will also remember how the ‘other half’ lives in the capital, in sprawling slums with their broad and stinking gutters; the women from Skardu collecting firewood near an opulent hotel; the threatened Christians huddling under tents after being displaced from their homes; the plight of the Ahmadis and Shias, and a certain grimness that lay behind all that opulence.
And, finally, the subject of culture. The obsession with Bollywood and Indian film music always threatened to dominate our conversations with the only cinema in Centaurus Mall running to full houses even when the most mediocre Hindi film was screened. This was the real Pakistan with people always ready to welcome you and help you along. The salesman at my favourite Khaadi store offered me loyalty points after some last minute shopping. I told him it was too late, I was leaving the country and Indians didn’t get loyalty points here!
Clearly, there are two states within this nation, two states of mind, and, regrettably, the twain shall never meet.
This article was corrected on May 21, 2014 for a grammatical error