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Transcending boundaries

I returned home to Pakistan from India in January through the Wagah border. But whenever I open Facebook, it displays a translation of ‘Write something here…’ in Kannada, and I wonder how long it will take for Facebook to realise that I am back in Karachi.

This year’s visit to Bengaluru meant recovering from a gap that had stretched for more than three years. There were numerous relatives who we had to meet, to pay condolences for a family member they had lost, or to congratulate for the birth of a grandchild, or to express good wishes for a newly married couple. Three years ago I was a freshman at a university, but now I was entering this city with thoughts on how to explore its landscape in better ways, such as not exoticising every remnant of the colonial era that I came across.

There are still many traces of colonialism across Bengaluru, and that the Indian government is trying to erase — but with the intention of imposing a certain identity rather than with the aim of removing any signs of British raj. This means changing names wherever possible, for example altering Bangalore to Bengaluru. However, it is more difficult to take down material remnants such as schools.

One of these is a place where my grandfather and uncles studied, and now my cousins study – the St. Joseph’s Boys High School established during the colonial era. I had heard of it in many family conversations and imagined it through stories behind my grandfather’s trophies that glint in the dark in my grandparents’ drawing room. Now that both my cousins are enrolled there, I paid it a visit on a whim, and amidst the noise of a post-school crowd, found reminders of my courses on South Asian history – portraits of Jawaharlal Nehru and Gandhi, and a remarkable feature on the lists of house captains – all began from the year 1947.

It reminded me of such colonial-era schools that Karachi too has, but that have portraits of Jinnah instead. I wondered if all the students of St. Joseph’s Boys School would know about him, and this question was answered very soon. One day my cousin arrived from school, telling me about a Mughal painting his teacher had shown him but that had a caption in Urdu. He asked me if I would like to see it and in the manner most adults take up to brush aside children’s requests, I agreed. The next day, he had told his teacher in school that his “Pakistani” cousin wanted to see this painting. He conveyed her excitement at this news, and some days later his teacher had sought an appointment with the head of the history department. It was the latter who owned the book with the painting. My cousin was adamant that I must come at the appointed time and meet the head of history of his school, not because I wanted to see the painting but because his reputation would be at stake if I failed to show up.

This meeting, however, clashed with a bureaucratic process that all Pakistani visitors have to go through – getting an exit permit from the Foreigners’ Registration Office. For this, we have to show proof that we did not indulge in any criminal activity while in India. This proof – a statement – can be given only by a police officer, and if he delayed signing it I would not make it for this very special appointment set up by my cousin. Amid this bureaucratic hurdle, I ended up once more at St. Joseph’s, my cousin conveniently attempting to come out of one of his classes so that he could eagerly wait near the entrance and ensure that I had arrived. The school bell rang and I was led up a flight of stairs to a staff room. I gazed at the old pictures lining the walls, faded and grey, presenting the school’s special moments from more than a century ago.

What took me out of my reverie was someone who reminded me of Sarah Kay’s Mrs. Ribeiro – a school teacher in a saree, her hair in a neat short haircut. She was and holding two very interesting things – a long white folder with Baburnama and a Mughal miniature painting on it, and an old copy of Farooq Bajwa’s Pakistan History textbook that almost every O’ Level student in Pakistan remembers. She introduced herself as Gowri, the head of the history department, and with her cheerful smile made me take a seat in a sunlit tea room. There were no awkward moments – she instantly started off on how happy she was and how she had been waiting to meet me, a Pakistani, since all Pakistanis are from an “alien species”.

Ms. Gowri wanted to know more about me and about Pakistan, and her curiosity was shared by two other history teachers – one of whom teaches my cousin and had taken the appointment. Since they were in a hurry, they soon left but came in to meet me and “see” me since I had become this symbol of my country in a few days who was to arrive at the school. What struck me in particular was Ms. Gowri’s self-reflective method of teaching. Holding Farooq Bajwa’s textbook in her hands, she told me of what she knew of Pakistan, and how she had met a Pakistani teacher at a conference in Kolkata. This teacher had given the textbook to her, which she now uses in classes on the “Freedom Movement”. Ms. Gowri reads out passages on Gandhi – Mahatma for her students, but a Hindu lawyer in a Pakistani textbook. She uses the text to tell them about a parallel figure in a country that is right next door – Jinnah, the Quaid-e-Azam.

I was stunned as she beautifully narrated this. Ms. Gowri’s students ask her what the truth is, to which she tells them that none of the textbooks – Indian or Pakistani – tell the real truth. I could not quite express in words to her how important this step was – a history teacher erasing dogmatic writing of the past in her classroom. The Farooq Bajwa textbook in her hands was her piece of treasure and she wanted me to send her another one. But she did not let me leave empty-handed. The other interesting thing in her hands – the folder with a Mughal miniature on it – was my gift. I had thought the meeting would entail me looking at a painting for five minutes and going away, but this was only secondary for Ms. Gowri. She asked me if I liked Mughal history too, and as I nodded vigorously, opened the folder to show several Mughal miniatures from the Baburnama, with explanations in English, specially brought for her classes from a museum in Delhi. “This is yours. I can always get another one when I go to Delhi,” she said, and parted with this treasure only to let me have it for myself.

I went to St. Joseph’s Boys School to see a painting but came out having made a new friend. As I sit in Karachi, my friendship with Ms. Gowri has been growing by the day. We share more information about each other on WhatsApp, and exchange pictures of historical monuments, as well as books that we own on the subcontinent’s history. We document for each other, little by little, whatever exists on our side of the border.

I realise that there are so many ways of transcending boundaries. Exchanging textbooks, our views and our questions about each other seem to be among the powerful ones, for it means pulling out ideology from flimsy pages and making sure that it is not taken in the way it is meant to.

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Printable version | Jun 21, 2021 5:05:02 PM |

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