By Sidrah Roghay and Ammar Shahbazi
Flight PK 272 from Delhi was late by two and half hours. Yet, the five students from India looked happy, if a bit tired, when they finally landed in Karachi. Now they could sit back and relax. Welcomed the Pakistani way, garlanded with flowers, they felt at home. After a reception at the Rotary Club in Clifton, their host families - Rotarians who would take care of them over the next ten days - took them home.
The Delhi-Karachi flight time is about the same as Lahore-Karachi - about an hour and a half. But difficulties in obtaining visas ensure that few Indians or Pakistanis make the journey. Usually, only those visiting relatives, attending meetings or conferences, or who need medical care across the border are considered for visas. The Indian students feel lucky to be part of a Youth Exchange Programme organised by the Rotary Club and Aman ki Asha that facilitated their ten-day trip.
In Pakistan, the Indian students had fun. They got to choose where they wanted to go and what they wanted to do every day - apart from a few "mandatory" official dinners and high teas. Their daily routine in Pakistan was similar to any teenager on holiday, with late nights, late mornings, and leisurely breakfasts with host families before deciding how to go about the day. But these youngsters also had a mission: to discover the 'real' Pakistan and to contribute to building bridges between their own country and that of their hosts. A side effect of these spontaneous plans was that it made it tough for the reporters and photographers assigned to follow them to keep up pace!
They spent the day after their arrival at the domed white marble mausoleum of Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, a Karachi landmark with sprawling gardens that make it a popular recreation spot. Besides being shown areas that are closed to the public, like the well-lit basement that contains the actual tomb, they also visited the small museum where the Quaid's black Cadillac and white Packard stand on regal display. They stood in awe, appreciated Jinnah's taste, and got to know him better as a person during their guided tour. The girls particularly enjoyed hearing about his sister Fatima Jinnah (a dentist by profession) and wife Rattanbai, the two most important women in his life. Sachi Bhuttani was all praise for the filmy love story of "Jin" and "Ruttie", the flower of Bombay.
The visiting students also enjoyed the shopping malls and other market places they managed to visit. They unanimously agreed that although the malls in India are "bigger", the bazaars are "very much the same". The similarities include the routine bargaining that often ends on a compromise both parties are happy with.
"The only difference is fashion. Here the women's kurtas have reached a sweeping length," observed Bhaviya Mahajan, an eleventh grade student. "Back in India we still wear them short above our knees."
The silver jubilee celebrations in Karachi of Javed Jabbar's Banhn Beli were an eye-opener, where they were able to meet people from far-flung villages in Tharparkar, Sindh who have benefited from the NGO's focus on development in the area. The Indian students were inspired by meeting women who had struggled against status quo, and achieved a status in life, now able to make their own decisions and earn a livelihood.
The students were struck by the similarities of developmental problems in both countries. "Illiteracy is India's problem as well. In fact, all developing countries more or less face similar issues," said Bhavya Mahajan.
"But there are kind people on both sides who help the poor and that is what matters," added Sachi Bhuttani, another 11th grade student.
At a visit to the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry, (FPCCI), they met students from the SITE Model School, for most of whom it was the first time ever meeting 'real life Indians'. During the roundtable discussion, the students discussed ways to promote peace between India and Pakistan. Moved by the moment, Karan Raghav, a student of finance, read out a poem on Indo-Pak friendship that he had written on the way.
They were invited to the US Consul General's residence, where they shared their Pakistan experiences, speaking of the hospitality and the warm, familial relations they had struck up.
"There are a lot of similarities between the people of the two countries, but it is more important to respect the differences," said Karan.
The acting US Counsel General emphasised the importance of people to people contacts in strengthening relations between the two countries and expressed whole-hearted support for Aman ki Asha and of the Rotary Club and Aman ki Asha strategic partnership.
The students also visited two hospitals at different ends of the city - Aga Khan University Hospital near Karsaz, and Memon Hospital in Arambagh. "What I liked about AKU - apart from the fact that it is non-profit - is that they put notices like 'Do not give cash' at various places, warning the patients," said Prakash Bhagat, a round friendly man in his fifties, who was leading the student delegation. "I will make this suggestion to our hospital when I go back."
Among their more fun experiences was a cruise on the Arabian Sea and a visit to one of Karachi's gorgeous sandy beaches, which are of course part of India and Pakistan's shared coastline. This is the best weather for these outings, when the sea is tranquil under the clear blue winter sky with its bright sun and cool air.
"I had never been to a beach before," says Parth Singhania, "The cold wind slapped our faces, it was mind-blowing".
Another must for a visitor to Karachi is of course 'Itwar Bazar' - the famous Sunday Bazaar at the far end of Defence Housing Authority. The vast weekly market with 25 lanes (now paved) has covered stalls selling everything from books and clothes, shoes and bags (second hand as well as new), to bed-sheets, towels and kitchen items, fruits and vegetables - not to mention the food court at its centre which serves everything from bun kabab to burgers and haleem. Awe-struck by the huge flea market, and the hard work shopkeepers put up for one day, they shopped till they dropped.
"We do have such bazaars in India, but this one was really huge, and the prices were throwaway," said one excited delegate.
But most importantly, they met ordinary Pakistanis and experienced a side of Pakistan that the mainstream Indian media fails to bring to them. They lived with people they found very similar - speaking the same language and sharing very much the same values despite belonging to a different religion and dressing more conservatively. Some of the host families even had a 'Dadi' who worried if they got back home late and reminded them of their own grandmothers back home. All agreed that this was "far better" than a five star hotel.
"Living with a host family has a much more personal touch; you can't be this comfortable in a hotel," says Parth Singhania, a chartered accountancy student.
They leave with a very different picture of Pakistan than the one they had in mind about the neighbour they were always taught to abhor. The Pakistani students who go on the exchange visit to India as part of this programme may well have similar experiences on their forthcoming visit early next year.
Friday, December 30, 2011
An online video about Sikhs looking after a mosque built by his ancestors inspires
the writer to re-connect with his past across the border
By Syed Saadat Hu
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The News on Sunday Special Report: India Pakistan prisoners more editions
We probably didn't need to do this Special Report. Newspaper stories don't matter when it comes to Indians in Pakistani jails and vice versa. In fact, 'vice versa' sums it up. We do to them what they do to us.
Except when the two countries decide to begin talking, yet again! This time a little before the foreign secretary level talks, some Pakistani prisoners were released by India (and vice versa must have happened) and some more were release....read more
For the past 2 years the Jang Group and Geo have been working on a project of great national interest; one that we hope will help usher in an era of peace and prosperity in the country and indeed, in the region. And one that hopefully all Pakistanis can be proud of. more
The Jang Group has entered into an agreement with the Times of India Group, the largest media group of India, to campaign for peace betw