Going Home to Lahore, and a World Left Behind
By PARAG KHANNA
”BEFORE I die, I want to see where I was born,” my father announced last fall at home in Katonah, N.Y., as our family was celebrating Diwali, the Hindu New Year. With that, my parents and I began making plans to travel to Pakistan. My father and his entire extended family fled from there in 1947, when India gained independence and was partitioned into Muslim Pakistan and mostly Hindu India.
It was not a trip we had been expecting to take. My father’s family left Lahore, where they had thought they would live their whole lives, after what the departing British had envisioned as an orderly exchange of minority populations exploded into a cycle of brutality and retaliation engulfing both new countries. They went first to Delhi, arriving with only what they could carry. My father, who was then 5 years old, remembers the tense train journey and the family’s difficulties afterward as dispossessed refugees. As adults, my parents joined the Indian diaspora, raising me and my older brother in Sudan, then Abu Dhabi and finally New York. For more than a decade, we have all been Americans.
Until that day last November, I had rarely heard Dad speak about the partition. It was a subject I knew I should not bring up. But now, almost 60 years afterward, he had been captured by the zeitgeist of a generation: all over India and Pakistan, the partition survivors are seizing a last chance to reconcile their contradictory memories — of terrorized displacement, but also of a rich shared culture that had to be left behind.
Peacemaking between India and Pakistan has become trendy. Chanting symbolic statements, movie stars and members of parliament are stepping across the border at the dusty guard-post village of Wagah. Since last month, Pakistan’s national cricket team has been on tour across India, bringing along thousands of cricket-loving fans and being greeted by warm hospitality — reciprocating Pakistani hospitality when India’s team broke the ice by touring in Pakistan last year.
But can people taught for decades to regard one another as enemies really come together? We wondered, in this age of a war on terror, if it was worse to travel to Pakistan as Indians or as Americans.
Flying from Delhi to Lahore after a first stop in India, I was surprised to see the plane full of mostly older people, both Indian and Pakistani. They were speaking excitedly in Urdu and Hindi, and in their unifying language, English, about plans to visit long-lost relatives, attend weddings and do business. ”Tourism brings emotional issues to a practical level,” said Rakesh Mathur, the passenger seated next to me. I soon learned he was in a position to know. An Indian, he has flown in and out of Pakistan for a decade as South Asian manager for a Western hotel chain, harmoniously supervising Pakistani employees.
On our first morning in Lahore, my parents and I, with our local driver, Latif, wandered through the sprawling market district of Anarkali, following a crude map drawn from dim memories by my great uncle in New Delhi: past the bamboo market, a left before the King Edward Medical College, adjacent to a narrow staircase leading to a white masjid (mosque). Sensing that we were lost, people stopped to help. Dad communicated in Punjabi. Passers-by, shopkeepers and bicyclists tried to help us correct our multiple wrong turns and sent us to an octogenarian tailor who stood hunched over his wooden cart of fabric and needles. Hearing that we were Indian, he asked our name, hoping to cross-reference with memories too strong to fade. Our apprehensions dissolved.
Eventually, an old tree gave it away. ”That is the house,” Dad said. It was hardly as he remembered it. His family’s comfortable three-story home was now a shirt factory, the inside structure completely rebuilt. The only familiar feature was a four-foot-high wall on the roof, separating the house from the mosque, where he remembered a white cat used to sit and stare at him.
It didn’t matter. My father beamed. And seeing the sign outside, touting ”Classy wear from New Yarke,” we joked that we might as well buy some shirts while we were there.
Perhaps we were not the first Indian travelers that the people of Anarkali had directed around their streets. The international border that in 1947 was crossed in both directions by trains full of corpses is now crossed increasingly by tourists. Though both countries still insist on issuing special stamps for each city to be visited, Pakistanis are going in droves to visit the Mughal monuments of Delhi and Agra and to historically Muslim cities like Lucknow and hot spots like Mumbai and Kerala. In return, Indians are becoming a tourist asset for Pakistan, with Punjabis flocking to Lahore and Sindhis to Karachi. Tour operators from both sides have even gotten together in an initiative aimed partly at diaspora tourists: a ”heritage revival link” connecting the cultural sites of Taxila and Lahore in Pakistan with Delhi and Amritsar in India, offering two countries for one package price.
When a taxi driver asked if it was our first time in Lahore, my dad replied half-jokingly: ”Not exactly. The first time they kicked us out.” Actually he had been in Pakistan 25 years earlier, when he was living in Abu Dhabi and traveled to Karachi for a wedding. ”All the men got drunk and spoke the truth,” he told me now. They threw their arms around him and proclaimed, ”Partition shouldn’t have happened; we’re all brothers.”
Before this visit, some of my parents’ friends in New York had wondered why they would take a trip to Pakistan. But every third uncle pleaded with them to take photos of places remembered from prepartition youth. In the Anarkali bazaar, high on their list, the baubles were the same as in any Indian market — pashmina shawls, cricket bats, miniature marble Taj Mahals, leather slippers — but with one addition, savory pomegranate juice, best enjoyed with a dash of salt.
Reconciliation seemed farther away at Wagah, barely half an hour away. My parents and I went there to watch the daily high-decibel, goose-stepping border-closure ceremony that casual travelers see as a spectacle of old colonial tradition, and political diehards view as a platform for protest. Though Indians and Pakistanis are indistinguishable, as far as we knew we were the only Hindus on the Pakistani side, and we stood quietly as an old man wrapped in the green Pakistani flag taunted the Indians watching, to the accompaniment of bhangra music, from their own side of the border. Then a man began to lead the Pakistani crowd in feverish chants of ”Allah Akhbar! Pakistan Zindabad!” and, most unexpectedly, ”Superpower Allah!” My father, in the middle of the gyrating mob, silently sobbed, then laughed.
My mother, picking up on his sense of the absurd predicament all of us were in, chimed in, ”Shoot the British.” Our driver wholeheartedly agreed.
Dad’s grandfather, a merchant banker named Bishen Narain, was the last to leave Lahore, having sent the rest of the family ahead to safety in India. As Hindu homes burned in Anarkali, a Muslim neighbor braved the wrath of the mob to escort him to the Lahore train station. When Bishen handed him the keys to the house, the neighbor said: ”Let this madness pass. You will be back soon to retrieve these keys from me.” Of course, my great-grandfather never returned.
One day in Lahore, we visited the Badshahi Masjid, which holds 100,000 worshipers and was built in 1674, in an era of tolerance: it shares a wall with a Sikh temple. When we told the caretaker what had brought us to the city, he gave us a special tour, presented my father with a saffron scarf and refused to accept any token of appreciation. We recalled an old Punjabi saying: ”If you have not seen Lahore, you have not been born.”
The night before my parents left, we drove through the elegant Shadman district and saw a large stone mansion under construction. ”I hope they’re building it for us,” my father said with a laugh.
In my family, laughter always wins over tragedy.