It was all about the power of the written word at the first panel of eShe’s Indo-Pak Peace Summit Led by Women this month, where authors and publishers from India, Pakistan and UK got together to discuss books and stories that touch hearts even across borders.
The panel, titled “Power of the Written Word: How Literature Can Build and Rebuild Ties”, moderated by Mehvash Amin, Lahore-based editor and publisher of leading literary journal The Aleph Review, saw fascinating dialogues on community building through our shared history, language and even sense of humour.
Delhi-based book critic and author of Mr and Mrs Jinnah, Sheela Reddy shared her journey across borders in search of Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s complete story – a man who was ‘vilified in one nation and valorised in the other’.
“I couldn’t unearth anything about Jinnah in India and I kept thinking I’d find everything I wanted to know once I reached Pakistan. But when I went there, I realised I had fallen into the same trap of ‘othering’ him that India had done to him. It was the Pakistanis who told me, ‘He basically lived his life in India so you will find what you want in India’. So I came back and that’s when I started to see Jinnah as one of us, as one of India’s freedom fighters, and not the ‘other’, and that made a big difference,” she shared.
She added that it was only after the book was published that she realised, to her delight, that she had unwittingly touched a chord on the other side of the border, and was even invited to literature festivals in Pakistan to speak about Jinnah and his young bride’s story.
Festivals are, in fact, a time-tested space for like-minded souls to bond and discuss ideas. Which is why publisher Preeti Gill set up Majha House in Amritsar as a place for Punjabis from anywhere in the world – India, Pakistan or the diaspora – to come together with a shared language and cultural roots. The events they host bring together literature, music and poetry.
“I always felt that Punjab and the perception of Punjab in the rest of the country is pretty weird,” Preeti said at the Summit. “People think there’s only ‘agriculture and no culture’, as if you don’t have any kind of intellectual capital in Punjab. It used to really gall me and irritate me – how is this possible? There was a time when Lahore was the city of culture; you have the best writers and best literature coming out of there,” she said indignantly, sharing that Majha House is an effort to put Punjab centre-stage.
“Partition is still like a living thing over there in Amritsar. They haven’t forgotten Partition, it’s still there, the stories are still there, the people are still there,” Preeti said.
The telling of stories was also the string that took filmmaker-writer Natasha Badhwar from sharing stories of motherhood to becoming a poster-couple for interfaith marriage. “The story I did NOT set out to write was the story of my interfaith marriage. I did not feel there was anything exceptional about it. I did not see a story there. But the world made a story of it in the last eight years,” said Natasha, who is also the media lead for the people’s campaign Karwan-e-Mohabbat.
She said, “Interfaith love in India – particularly love relationships between Muslims and Hindus – has been exceptionalised, criminalised, victimised and politicised. So I felt this is something that one can’t stay silent about, this is a story that needs to be normalised once again. It’s born of necessity. My husband and I will stand on pedestals to tell the story if that’s what it takes.”
She shared an episode of her little children being called ‘Pakistanis’ in the playground because of their Muslim names. Since they were innocent of the slur behind the tag, they replied that their cousins were Pakistanis and they were Indian.
“You really think that your class, your privilege, your education, and your location in history is going to protect you from the prejudices that belong to the past but you discover that they don’t and then you have to negotiate with them,” she shared.
Award-winning UK writer Alice Albinia agreed that a certain stereotype has been built around Pakistan and its people, and it did initially impact her decision to travel to the country to follow the path of the Indus river after having lived in Delhi for a few years.
“It exists, this kind of thing – when you say the name Pakistan, there’s this kind of fear. You have to step into that space. I told myself, look, you can live with this paranoia and don’t do anything or you can just be sensible, meet people eye-to-eye, they are just people. And of course, it was all fine. But a lot of it is mental.”
She also regretted how the political borders between the two nations had cut through centuries of the “deep geography, deep history and deep culture” that they have in common. “The more I saw of the culture in India and Pakistan, the more I felt how tragic it is that there’s a border. I had to do these ridiculous journeys to get to the other side of the river.”
She added: “It’s not even religion that’s dividing people; there are shrines on the river for both Hindus and Muslims. In fact, the last thing I expected to see in Pakistan was the syncretism of South Asia. There have been efforts by the state to erode that syncretism but, wow, it exists, and it’s still there.”
The syncretism of two cultures has carried forward into today’s times as well as columnist and bestselling author Moni Mohsin testified. Her character Butterfly – a silly but warm socialite from Pakistan – won hearts on both sides of the border because of three reasons, she explained.
“The first was that I was using the language that is common to the whole of the subcontinent, we speak like that only,” she mimicked. “It’s familiar and as soon as something is familiar it stops being scary.”
The second was her use of humour. “Humour lowers the temperature, it thaws the ice,” she explained. The third reason, she said, for why Pakistani plays found resonance in India many years ago was because, “They recognised all those tropes – the put-upon daughter-in-law, the hideous mother-in-law, the interfering neighbour, the frenemy… they recognised those.”
Moni also endorsed eShe founder Aekta Kapoor’s vision of a South Asia Union where one could travel without visas, like in the European Union. “Every time I travel in those countries where you don’t need even a passport, just an ID card to cross borders, I feel such a sense of loss. I wish this is not just a dream but becomes a reality one day,” she said.
Eventually, panelists and listeners had to agree, there is a lot more in common between Indians and Pakistanis than we care to admit – both failings and strengths. As Sheela Reddy put it, we are like the Bollywood stereotypical twin sisters separated at birth, constantly curious about how the other is doing, what is in her mind, how she lives. And the written word is the most powerful medium to explore the other side without visas, at least for now.