A Different Picture of Pakistan - A Must Read
Daily Times, November 19, 2008
While in Pakistan for about two weeks, my hectic schedule allowed me little time to turn on the TV or read the newspaper. It was just the opposite of my usual view of Pakistan from abroad, derived mainly through the print and electronic media. What I saw was very different from what I would have expected, given the media reports.
Life was quite normal: the streets were full of school-going children and office-goers in the morning and sickening road congestion in the evening shopping hours. The scene was the same wherever I went, from Sahiwal to Sialkot. There was no mention of bomb threats or jihadi attacks in the part of Punjab where I was travelling. Although from media reports it would seem that the entire country was being run by extremists.
These aspects were exceptionally important for me, because during my visit I was hosting a group of Sikh men and women led by Dr Shahmshir Singh, an ex-official of the World Bank.
After retiring from his job several years back, memories of his native village, Chotian Golatian, near Daska, started haunting Dr Singh. It resulted in a book called Vichoray da Dagh (Pain of Departing). To his credit, Dr Singh wanted to release the book in Pakistan, in Punjabi first although it was originally written in English. It is now available at major book stores in Lahore.
It took us many months to sort out the book and have it published. The unique content of the book — a rare comprehensive account of a 19th century Punjabi village — was the main factor that convinced me to take all the trouble of publishing it and then arranging a trip to Pakistan for a dozen of Dr Singh’s family and friends. Just getting them visas was not an easy task to say the least. But I am glad I was part of the creation of what I believe is the best book of its genre, and fulfilling the dream of an 85-year-old soul to embrace his native soil before the end of his life’s innings.
Before reaching Pakistan we were all very apprehensive as to what will happen to the group on their trip through Lahore to Hasan Abdal, Nankana Sahib and Chotian Gholatian. Nothing happened. They visited every corner of Lahore unaccompanied by anyone and had a good time. They visited Hasan Abdal and other places without any fear. However, this was all possible due to the excellent arrangements made by my dearest friend, Anwar Aziz Chaudhry.
The reception accorded to Dr Singh and his companions was something none of us had expected: School bands welcomed him when he went to see Mission High School, Daska — from where he and his accompanying brother had graduated before partition. Almost the entire oversized village of Choti Gholatian gathered to welcome them when they reached. People showered rose petals on them from roofs of their houses as they walked through the streets to their old home, where the name of Dr Singh’s father was still on the front door. The party also visited the newly renovated Gurdwara, courtesy of Mr Chauhdry of the Auqaf department and district administration.
I felt very strange when Dr Singh met a few of his old neighbours who were still alive. He had brought with him very nice gifts anticipating an encounter with them. Being away from my own homeland for 30 years, I can understand the pain and sorrow felt when one visits the place where one grew up. However, Dr Singh’s departure from his birth place was not voluntary like mine and hence the emotional turmoil of returning to his childhood village was much greater.
However, his visit showed again that the people from a common culture have an eternal inner bond. Temporal conflicts may create fatal clashes between people of similar stock but sooner or later the common love of belonging to the same place overcomes all differences.
I was surprised by the enthusiasm of the post-partition generation that has been taught to hate all non-Muslims, specifically Sikhs and Hindus. It was evident that the hateful ideology taught in our schools and colleges could not overcome the eternal compassion that people of the same culture have for each other. It revived my faith in humanity and the capacity of human beings to forgive and love each other. I realised that many conflicts are created by vested interests and the media.
Speaking of the media, just like we have a different picture of Pakistan created by newspapers and TV, Pakistanis also have a distorted picture of the US. Based on the media reports most of Pakistan believes that the US has gone bankrupt and the Americans are on the brink of starvation. I tried to convince those I met that the downturn of the US economy does not affect the common people as much as we might infer from media reports but it was hard for them to believe me. Just as it is hard for the Americans to believe that not only a Sikh group can freely travel through Pakistan but be showered with respect and courtesy as well.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org