The Other Side Of The Divide: Impressive Read With Elements of Travel, History, Conversation

What makes The Other Side of the Divide an impressive read is that it combines a literary extraction of experience with years of reading to produce a nonfiction work that has elements of travel, history, conversation, and journalistic observation

The Other Side Of The Divide: Impressive Read With Elements of Travel, History, Conversation

By Sushil Aaron

In the 1970s and 80s, Indians used to imagine how unbeatable a joint India-Pakistan cricket team would be if the country was not partitioned in 1947. This was, in some ways, a fantasy to cope with the domination of the West Indies and a hope that a united unit could do better than the underachieving teams at the time.

Sunil Gavaskar and Majid Khan were openers in one version of the dream team. G R Viswanath, Zaheer Abbas, and Javed Miandad followed to make it a formidable middle order; there were debates about Wasim Bari and S M H Kirmani as wicketkeepers. Then there was the delight of imagining an Imran Khan-Kapil Dev pace attack with Sarfaraz Nawaz coming in at first change, and great spinners Bishen Bedi and E A S Prasanna completing the attack. No other team could match this combination, surely no one could argue with their record.

Of course, this was a fantasy, cricket selection is a matter of luck – there is no guarantee that these players’ lives would have worked out the same way in an undivided India. But that Indian teenagers could fondly imagine playing with Pakistanis in the same team speaks to a time that no longer exists.

Nowadays, Indian reactions to Pakistan span the spectrum. There is implacable hatred for the country in some quarters, vitriol directed at it is motivated by anger over terrorism or designed as a dog whistle to exert everyday pressure on Indian Muslims. Some disgracefully even celebrated the plane crash in Karachi in May 2020. On the other end, thousands profess their love for Pakistani music and television dramas – one has only to see the comments on any Coke Studio (Pakistan) song on YouTube to comprehend the fervour among Indians.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani
The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan
Penguin Ebury Press (March 2020)

Regardless of the vantage, there’s no doubt that Indians are singularly uninformed about Pakistan in general. Most would fail basic geography tests; is Lahore to the north or south of Islamabad and where do they lie in relation to Rawalpindi? The reasons are not hard to divine. There is no established tradition of allowing journalists to be posted in each other’s countries; tourist visas are hostage to political ties and academic production on Pakistan in India is negligible and often bereft of quality.

Bigotry thrives amid the absence of elementary insight; there has long been a market gap in India for a readable account of Pakistan – and fortunately, Sameer Arshad Khatlani, a Kashmiri journalist, has filled it with a charming, insightful book in The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey Into the Heart of Pakistan.

Khatlani visited Pakistan briefly in 2013, crossing over the border at Wagah to the city of Lahore, and was lucky to be introduced to various aspects of Pakistan by journalist friends he encountered through the ‘Aman ki Asha’ conferences and cultural events. But what makes The Other Side of the Divide an impressive read is that Khatlani combines a literary extraction of experience with years of reading to produce a nonfiction work that has elements of travel, history, conversation, and journalistic observation.

Khatlani’s work is a model for aspiring writers on how to construct a book – every significant encounter with a person or a landmark is narrated with a fluent, light touch, and these become provocations to introduce historical context and vignette. Thus, the instance of asking his father-in-law to pick up his Pakistani visa while he is away from Delhi leads to a section on Partition and the distress that Pakistan invokes in Indian Muslims, who see it as a political project that sacrificed vulnerable millions to protect ‘the feudal entitlements of minuscule landed elites, who were the mainstay of the Muslim League.’

Khatlani watches the reception to Dhoom 3 at theatres in Lahore and delves into the fate of Pakistani cinema while it was throttled in the Zia years. He reports on the craze for Bollywood and its related gossip, the one-time obsession with Madhuri Dixit, and the enthusiastic welcome that Naseeruddin Shah, Gulzar, and Nandita Das received in those years of detente.

Pakistani women love Indian dresses and there is a huge demand for Indian paan as well. He visits parts of Lahore that his grandfather loved as a young man and explains the city’s place in history and literature (and as William Dalrymple pointed out, Milton featured Lahore in Paradise Lost as among the ‘great bustling Mughal cities revealed to Adam after the Fall as future wonders of God’s creation’).

Lahore was also the place where Jawaharlal Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah first met and travelled together, setting off a friendship that was to irrevocably alter the future of the subcontinent. Khatlani uses various turns in his journey to explore features of Pakistan’s history and society, such as the dominance of the military, the country’s uncertain tryst with democracy, the effect of the Zia years, and the paradox of Punjab’s political dominance alongside the marginalisation of Punjabi language in public life, as compared to Urdu.

Three themes

There are three themes about South Asia that emerge from The Other Side of the Divide. One is that the emergence of India and Pakistan as independent countries are mere moments in a broad span of time in the region. Nationalist narratives highlight 20th-century developments but inevitably abbreviate our sense of history; elements that go into making the present are consequently excised in storytelling – the long interfaith experience of humanity is obscured, thereby subjugating national imagination to a securitised view of reality.

Bollywood, for example, has many connections to Lahore which we hear very little about. The city’s film industry was the third biggest in British India after Mumbai and Calcutta. Film-maker Dalsukh Pancholi’s studio launched the careers of many including singer Mohammad Rafi, actors Pran and Om Prakash, and music directors O P Nayyar and Ghulam Haider. Yash Chopra was from Lahore as were Dev Anand and Balraj Sahni – and it was Haider that Lata Mangeshkar called her ‘godfather’ for giving her the first big break in Majboor in 1948 after the singer faced several rejections.

And those connections did not cease with British India. In fact, the India-Pakistan relationship looks very different from the vantage of both the Punjabs and communities in Rajasthan, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Kashmir, and other parts of north India, as Khatlani skillfully brings out.

In fact, most Indians understand very little about Punjab’s history; they assume that it is defined by the experience of Partition violence alone. But Khatlani points out that the undivided Punjab had a much more layered history because it was a very mixed province for centuries. Muslims, for instance, accounted for 49.1% of Amritsar’s population prior to Partition. Gurdaspur and Ferozpur had sizeable Muslim populations and the Amritsari elite fled west, where they shaped Lahore and Pakistani politics.

Undivided Punjab, Khatlani says, overshadowed Uttar Pradesh and Delhi in some ways, by producing, for instance, some of the greatest literary figures of the twentieth century in Muhammad Iqbal, Saadat Hasan Manto, and Faiz Ahmad Faiz.

Punjab also has a longer history of mutuality and belonging which are not easily extinguished by the imperatives of geopolitical calculation. The history of Sikhism, for instance, is very much bound with engagement with Muslim communities. Guru Nanak had a Muslim teacher, Maulana Qutab-ud-din, who taught him Arabic and Persian; Rai Bular, a Muslim, was Nanak’s first devotee outside his family and the one who persuaded Nanak’s father to tolerate his other worldly pursuits.

Bular figures in the Guru Granth Sahib and donated large tracts of land to Nanak which became part of the Nankana Sahib complex, one of the holiest shrines in Sikhism. Bular’s descendants to this day lead the celebrations on Nanak’s birth anniversary and the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) has wanted to commemorate Bular’s ‘immense contribution’ to Sikh history.

The portrait of another Muslim, Nawab Rai Kahla, hangs in Amritsar’s Central Sikh Museum, in recognition of his courage to provide shelter to Guru Gobind Singh. There’s more: Baba Farid’s verses ‘are an important part of Guru Grant Sahib’, Mian Mir, a Sufi saint from Lahore, is ‘widely believed to have laid the foundation’ of the Golden Temple, while Ram Das, the Lahore-born fourth Sikh guru, established Amritsar’s foundation in 1577 around an estate that emperor Akbar had granted to his wife, Bibi Bhani.

Khatlani explains the bonds of Lahore and Amritsar very evocatively and concludes 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.’

The book is a reminder that the nation is both fluid and restrictive as a concept – in that individuals can adapt to living under its rubric regardless of their ethnic or religious composition but that it is not expansive enough to transcend the other attachments produced by history. To elaborate on the latter, Indians can become US citizens and still have a longing for ‘home’ while others can be formed anew by the political community they find themselves in.

Khatlani writes about Christian military figures who served with distinction and fought valiantly for Pakistan in its wars; he speaks to Ramesh Singh Arora, a grassroots activist who caught the attention of Nawaz Sharif and became the first Sikh lawmaker in Pakistan’s Punjab.

Arora’s grandfather stayed back in Pakistan at the urging of his close Muslim friend – and the family has no regrets about his decision. Partition had scarred the social fabric but did not uproot Punjab’s syncretic culture. ‘Do not be surprised that my family stayed back and is not doing badly either,’ Ramesh told Khatlani. ‘There are still things that unite rather than divide us.’

The thing about those like Arora is that neither side can project their purist fantasies onto him. Pakistanis cannot consider him an alien because of his religious identity, neither can Indians lay claim to him for that very reason.

Nationhood specialises in the production of such ambivalences – and it is the job of a writer to reveal the textured nature of humanity. As Khatlani goes about encountering Pakistanis going about their work, traversing malls, bookshops, art galleries, and restaurants, going gaga over Bollywood, and showering affection on visiting Indians during the 2004 cricket tour, he draws on their life experience and history to reveal that Pakistanis, like Indians, are more than what their establishments portray them to be. The Other Side of the Divide is the mind-cleansing antidote that India needs – it is also a book that will help Indians better understand themselves and their own country.

This is a slightly edited version of political commentator Sushil Aaron’s review of The Other Side of the Divide first published in

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