For any Pakistani, a visit to India starts with the excruciating task of applying for a visa, the fear of not getting it, the praying to get it and the nightmare stories of time lost at the immigration (it's the same for Indians visiting Pakistan, if that makes you feel better).
In March, I applied for a visa soon as I found out I had been selected for a conference in Chennai, a month before the event. I filled in the forms and sent in my passport. And waited. The organisers in Chennai had said they would be in touch with the Indian Embassy in Islamabad about my visa. But just a week before the conference, they had no news except that the Indian Embassy in Islamabad had not received my "clearance" yet.
Three days before the conference, I called up Malini, who was responsible for the logistics in Chennai. She said the Indian Embassy had just contacted her, asking the Asian College of Journalism (ACJ), the host college for the conference, to provide more details of the participant from Pakistan. More details! I had already submitted all kinds of extra documents like bills, my baptism certificate, my employment letter, a letter stating that I live with my parents and so on, for fear this would happen...
Finally, the day before my flight, I was told that my passport had been sent to me. But it was March 23rd, the Pakistan Day holiday, and the courier services offices were closed. By now my only concern was to get my passport back, visa or no visa. All thoughts of "I-want-to-represent my- country" and "This-will-be-a-great-learning- experience" had gone to the dogs. All because of bureaucracy and security checks which could have been done earlier, just because I was a Pakistani... and to top it all, a journalist!
The passport had been sent via courier, TCS. I called and found that their delivery time starts after 3 pm. I was supposed to be at the airport at 2 pm for the flight. I begged TCS to let me swim through the mail that they just received to dig out my passports. Of course they said no. But, worried about my passport, at 11.30 am, I landed up at their office anyway. Bless Pakistani large hearts. Seeing my state of franticness, an official helped me find the envelope with my passport.
I tore it open and flipped through the pages of my passport... Yes! I had got the Indian visa. And I had a flight to catch in less than two hours. Now my worry was to ensure I didn't forget any important documents I might need for Indian immigration, and yes, the expected grilling by the immigration officials after some seven hours of travelling via Colombo to Chennai because there were no direct flights available...
My fears about the grilling weren't misplaced. In Chennai, after a long wait in the longest and slowest line (of course) at immigration, when I finally reached the counter, the officer took one look at my passport and exclaimed, "Pakistani?! You have to go to our office madam."
Feeling conspicuous - all the lines had been cleared - off I went, trying to stay calm. In the special office, there was a barrage of questions, including about my "police reporting exempted visa". I had nothing to hide, so I was very relaxed. The officer asked me the same questions over and over again. I tried to answer him straightforwardly without rolling my eyes. Then I was handed a long, tedious form to fill, especially for Pakistanis. Finally, two hours later, the officer handed me back my passport. I went back to the immigration counter and handed over my passport.
"Pakistani!" said the officer. "Yes, Pakistani," I replied in a calm voice. "Where are you from in Pakistan?" he asked. "Karachi," I replied. "Karachi? Karachi?" "What do you mean, sir? Yes Karachi Karachi!" "No, you look like you are from Chennai!" "Sir, that's because my ancestors are from Chennai," I said with a fake smile. "Oh!" he smiled. "Enjoy your stay." "If you let me go, I promise I will," I muttered silently to myself as I took my passport and moved out.
My visit to Chennai was wonderful and worth all the aggravation of visa and immigration. But as Pakistan and India ease their visa policies, I really hope the new protocols have no strings attached and we stop treating each other's citizens like criminals. Let Indian nuns come to Pakistan and serve the poor without having to deal with paperwork and police visits, let people who have crossborder spouses live in peace with each other, let long lost relatives meet, let there be religious pilgrimages in Lahore and Goa... If all this happens, relations between people and subsequently the governments will only improve.
I don't need to be your 'bestest' friend in the whole wide world to be a friendly neighbour, nor do you!
The writer is a Pakistani journalist working for The News International.
Thursday, May 31, 2012
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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