My Lahore journey

My Lahore journey
Jahangir’s tomb

An economics professor from India with a passion for Urdu poetry finds beauty, grace, humour and warmth, and differences and similarities, in an all too brief visit to Pakistan

By Amit Basole

By Amit Basole

Before I set foot — for the first time — in Pakistan, I had already heard many stories of how Indians visiting that country were welcomed and how eager Pakistanis were to know more about their neighboring country. I have often thought that this is one way in which ordinary people compensate for the machinations and kootniti (the art of statecraft and diplomacy) of their respective governments, which usually work actively to prevent harmony and goodwill in the region.

In my limited experience (one week in Lahore, for a conference), it is indeed true that meeting a person from India pleases Pakistanis at lot. Even for those of us who are not from Punjab, it is like visiting a sibling. Someone we know intimately and yet a different person, someone who is part of our life-story and yet has a different narrative. In whose face we see a lot of ourselves, and yet who has a fundamentally different personality.


Street art in Lahore. Photos by Amit Basole.

The overriding feeling at first sight, is one of love and belonging. I am no expert on the complicated political relationship between the two countries but I know enough to know that the stuff of Statecraft is Kautilya’s and Machiavelli’s realm, not love’s domain. But then I also believe that lasting, human solutions are not to be found in Statecraft. That is up to us, ordinary people. So that disclaimer done, this piece is unashamedly about personal connections and anecdotes from across the border.

Pretending to be Pakistani

Let me start with the part where I pretended to be Pakistani to save a few rupees. I visited the mausoleum of the Mughal emperor, Jahangir, on a Monday morning. There was hardly anyone there. At the gate, the ticket-seller asked me, “Pakistani or Foreigner?”

A local friend had already warned me that I might get asked this. Pakistanis pay Rs. 20, foreigners, Rs. 500. The friend had also said that hearing my Urdu (what in India I would call Hindi) Lahoris would likely assume I was from Karachi. Unless, I thought to myself, I spoke a lot. I had noticed I kept saying “sundar” seeing beautiful things where a Lahori or even someone from Karachi would say “khoobsurat.” Such are the ways in which little differences in vocabulary have created two linguistic worlds. But this is the not the place to tell that vexed story. I also say “jaroorat” instead of “zaroorat” thereby giving away my “cow-belt” connections.

Still I wondered why the man had asked me that since I hadn’t said a word. I had assumed I fitted in nicely. I looked no different from anyone around me. And to top it all I was wearing the Peshawari cap that was all the rage in Lahore this winter.

“Pakistani,” I lied nonchalantly, to save Rs. 480.

Wazir Khan Masjid: the artistic shot that nearly got me into trouble

Wazir Khan Masjid: the artistic shot that nearly got me into trouble

Without a word he made out the Rs. 20 ticket and I was inside.

A man came up and asked if I needed a guide. Reflexively I said “no.” I don’t know why. Having lived in the US for several years, my expat habit of protecting myself from solicitations, perhaps? He didn’t press it and fell away. In India, the guide would have been a lot more insistent.

Later, inside the mausoleum, by the tomb itself, he found me again and started talking about the place. We spoke for a few minutes, mostly him talking about stones, gems and other materials used in construction. He slipped in a story about the precious stones being looted by Ranjit Singh’s men during Sikh rule. What was left, the British looted. In my mind, they weren’t equivalent. Why though, I could not say. Was it because I saw the former an innovative, just ruler and the latter as a brutal imperial power? Be that as it may, such narratives of hurt and pride are everywhere with us, Hindus talk about looted temples, Muslims about looted mausoleums. Long grievances. Longer memories. But, and here lies hope, not merely of hurt.

As we stepped out in the warm winter sunlight, he asked, “Are you from Karachi?” I smiled to myself. My friend had been right.

“No,” I replied, “I am from Bombay. I am Indian.”

Immediately his eyes lit up. He smiled broadly and said “Mashallah.” He wanted to go to India he said. He wanted to visit family. But he had had his visa rejected twice.

Wazir Khan Masjid: view from the minaret

Wazir Khan Mosque: view from the minaret

Milne Do

We then had a conversation I was to have several times, over the next few days with people from very different walks of life; drivers, office clerks, a doctor, a philosopher, and a university professor.

Most of these were men with near or distant roots in India. Some were from east Punjab, some from Delhi, Allahabad, Bombay, Bangalore, and so on. They wanted to be able to cross the border without it being such an onerous task. While the professor had managed several visits to Delhi and even met his distant cousins there, people from more humble walks, such as guides and drivers were less fortunate.

Even those who did not have roots in India were curious about the country and only on one occasion did a person say to me, “Don’t tell anyone you are from India.” This was in one of those ubiquitous motorcycle rickshaws known locally as Qinqi (Chinese name pronounced “chinchi). But even this was said in half-jest and was a piece of friendly advice, lest other people, the prejudiced ones, take offense.

The overwhelming sense I had from all my conversation was that the “milne do” campaign is right on target. Open borders and easy movement of people will constitute a major step forward. One knee-jerk response to this idea is that it will make easy the movement of terrorists also – which not seem to me to be a very strong argument. For one, I don’t think the arbitrarily restrictive visa regime that has many loopholes and room for discretion actually is a deterrent of any serious kind.


The ubiquitous Qingi (“chingchi”)

Secondly, the very act of allowing easy movement will create an atmosphere in which resistance to homegrown militant groups with a divisive agenda will grow on both sides. Perhaps Pakistan will come closer to the South Asian cultural milieu and this will halt the move towards its Arabisation (on that note, at least one person insisted on saying Khuda Hafiz, instead of the now ubiquitous Allah Hafiz). For their part, perhaps Hindus will welcome the fact that Islam has created South Asia as much as anything else has, and give Hindutva the boot.

A dream come true

My most exciting interaction, a dream come true really, happened with Ahmad Javaid, recently retired Director of Iqbal Academy, a well-known philosopher versed in tasawwuf (Sufi philosophy) as well as Western thought, and a literary critic. He has lectured extensively on Urdu and Persian poetry, Western Philosophy, Islam, and so on. I had wanted to meet him ever since I got hooked to his You Tube lectures  (on Meer, Ghalib, and many other topics, which I cannot recommend highly enough).

On hearing that I was vegetarian, he arranged for us to meet at one of these “urban village” restaurants that try to create a rustic atmosphere and serve rural-influenced food. In this instance, makkai ki roti and sarson ka saag, among many other offerings. While I waited for Ahmad Javaid sahib to arrive, I took a stroll down the street and saw some vibrant street art on the walls (see photos).

Over lunch, Ahmad Javaid, his student, Omar (who had made the meeting possible), and I spoke, unfortunately all too briefly, about the role of Islam in South Asia, India-Pakistan relations, Urdu literature and the status of Muslims in India. He has thought deeply about what we, the people of South Asia created over the course of a thousand years of the confluence of Hindu and Muslim confluence.

Shalimar Gardens

Shalimar Gardens

In a lecture on Amir Khusro, he notes that the true creative power of Islam is visible, not in Muslim majority regions, but in India, where it confronted a non-Muslim majority that never became subsumed under it. This created a South Asian spirit of coexistence. “Hum ghair ko gale se lagate hain. Yeh hamara tareeka hai,” We embrace the other, that is our way, he noted.

“What has Islam given South Asia?”

Sufi thought and Urdu, he replied. (A friend later protested, half-jestingly, what about biryani and brocade weaving!)

Deeply interested in Western as well as Hindu thought, Ahmad Javaid told me that he has recently been lecturing on Shankaracharya. In the spirit of mutual understanding, he noted, not only should we partake of each other’s festivals (a fact that is clear to many, yet easily forgotten), Hindus should know who Ibn-e-Arabi is, and Muslims should know who Ramanuja is. Festivals are primarily cultural entities, not religious. Lekin ab, Hinduon ne apni tehzeeb ko apna mazhab bana diya hai aur Musalmanon ne apne mazhab ko apni tehzeeb. Hindus have made their culture their religion, and Muslims have made their religion, their culture.

Ahmad Javaid has travelled to India several times, including for the purpose of participating in Sufi-Yogi meets. Interestingly, when I brought up the cloud of suspicion and segregation that is the lot of Muslims in India, he replied very directly and simply, “Woh Pakistan ki vajah se hai,” that’s because of Pakistan. Open borders are the key, when people meet, conditions will be created for a federation or something of that sort.

Are there people who think like this, here? I asked.

Yes, he said. And there will be more if visa restrictions are lifted.

Data Darbar

Data Darbar

‘Mushkil pasandi’

In passing I want to note another theme that Ahmad Javaid has broached in his lectures. We have grown used to insisting, he says, that everything be brought to our level of understanding (har cheez ko hamari satah par laao). Instead we should cultivate a spirit of mushkil pasandi (difficulty-loving).

One day, going off the beaten track of both conferencing and tourism, I went to the Shah Alami area of the walled city. There is a large market here. I went there for a close friend whose grandfather had a small tailoring shop in this area before he left for Kanpur at the time of Partition. We knew nothing of where the shop might have been, but walking in that area I tried to imagine how it must have been when Lahore was a city of Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus, all of whom thought it their own in an intimate way.

Of course I could not imagine anything for very long because the crowds and traffic were so intense that one had to be on high alert all the time. It was like being in Chandini Chowk, in old Delhi, maybe even a little worse! I took a very short, shared ride in the ubiquitous Qinqis from Shah Alami to Urdu Bazaar. It is here that the interaction mentioned above took place.

A smiling, well-dressed man in shirt and trousers sitting next to me saw the iPhone in my hand and made small talk by asking me its price. I told him I had borrowed it from a friend (true) and did not know the price. Then he asked what I did and where I was from. I told him.

On hearing “India,” he said, “Can I tell you one thing? Don’t tell anyone you are from India.” And he explained his reasoning, that folks would be prejudiced.

But in general, whether they knew I was from India or not, I found Lahoris to be strikingly graceful, warm, and polite. Lahore is often compared to Delhi. They were both Mughal capitals and in some ways, though for very different reasons, they are both “Punjabi cities.” But for me the resemblance ends there. Even a casual observer of Delhi notes its abrasive culture. For this casual observer, Lahore was the opposite. Let me illustrate with an anecdote.

Radha Krishna.png – Shah Jahan’s Sheesh Mahal with Radha Krishna murals

Radha Krishna.png – Shah Jahan’s Sheesh Mahal with Radha Krishna murals

‘Meri Jaan”

At Shalimar Bagh, the man sitting inside the ticket window did not appear to notice me as I stood waiting. He was bent low over a book writing something. After about half a minute, he looked up. This has happened to me many times in India. At this point the transaction takes place without a word about the earlier lack of acknowledgment. Perhaps the ignoring is deliberate, a sort of “weapon of the weak,” perhaps, a registering of protest and a taking back of one’s time, in a small way. But something else happened here.

The man was profoundly apologetic. “Oh, I am so sorry, I didn’t see you. Please forgive me.”

He repeated his apology after making out the ticket. And what’s more, he seemed genuinely sorry. When would this ever happen in Delhi? I wondered.

This wasn’t the only time something like this happened. Coincidentally, I have witnessed three small road accidents this year, in Agra, in Munnar (Kerala), and in Lahore. All three were minor collisions resulting in a small amount of paint and body damage to the car I was in. But the altercations between the drivers were a study in contrast.

In Agra they came to blows. In Munnar they had a quiet but animated conversation (I could not understand what they said, as it was in Malayalam). In Lahore, there was much joviality accompanying the discussion, including a policeman suggesting to the driver that a bodyshop could take care of the damage and the driver laughing at the obviousness of the comment.

I don’t mean to put more cultural weight on these anecdotes than they can bear, lekin phir bhi… Perhaps it was just this driver’s personality. I had noticed, earlier, in the parking lot outside Data Darbar (the shrine of the patron saint of Lahore, Data Ganj Bakhsh) he got into an “argument” with the parking lot attendant over the latter’s refusal to give him a receipt. Without a receipt the driver could not be reimbursed, he pointed out. The interesting thing was that during the entire argument, which lasted around two minutes, the driver kept calling the attendant, meri jaan (my dear) in an affectionate way.

Another amusing incident took place at the Wazir Khan Masjid in the walled city. This mosque constructed by Wazir Khan, the governor of Lahore during Shah Jahan’s time, is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. While I am generally very respectful of mosques (even touristy ones) as primarily places of worship, I got carried away by the beautiful motifs adorning the walls and in my attempt to get a good shot, I lay belly down on the ground, feet directed inadvertently straight at the Qibla. The maulvi sahib on duty there immediately called me out for this gustakhi.

I rose sheepishly to my feet, apologizing. But I was with a Lahori friend who smoothed things over. And thanks to this friend, we were also able to go up to the mosque’s minaret for a view of courtyard and the walled city. Of course, going up the minaret is also not a thing one is supposed to do, per se, but tourism and commerce do corrode the edifice of faith.


 Lakshmi Chowk: Elephant motifs and Islamic inscriptions

Lakshmi Chowk: Elephant motifs and Islamic inscriptions

Wherever one goes, Lahore’s syncretic history is never too far away. Whether it is this very interesting building I saw in Lakshmi Chowk, with elephant motifs adorning its imposing gate (on the top of which you can see Allahu Akbar inscribed), or the Radha-Krishna miniature in Shah Jahan’s Sheesh Mahal in the Fort, or indeed, on a more touristy note, a Mary-like figure in the famous Cuckoo’s Den run by the artist Iqbal Hussain, overlooking Aurangzeb’s Badshahi Mosque. One can imagine a time in the past and perhaps to come in the future when people of all faith congregate at Data Darbar on a Thursday evening.

I will end, fittingly, with my last conversation, at the passport control desk at Lahore Airport. A young girl in uniform looked at my immigration stamp and casually asked, “How did you like it here?”

“It was wonderful, it felt really nice.”

And then she took me by surprise. “Yes, they all say that,” she replied. “And then they come back with…” at this point she made a gesture as if she was firing an automatic rifle.

I protested. “No, not everyone is like that. It is a political game, isn’t it?” Clearly I had said the right thing, for she broke into a broad smile and agreed.

Brief though my visit was, what stood out was the breathtaking beauty of Lahore city and above all the warmth and friendliness of its residents. Even the uniformed girl at the passport control desk.

The writer is Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Besides an abiding passion for Urdu poetry and Sufi literature, he has a PhD in Economics from University of Massachusetts Amherst and a PhD in Neurobiology, Duke University.

One thought on “My Lahore journey

  1. Ms Muneerah Begum khan

    Facts of life make an indelible imprint on our minds. It’s true both countries are similar in many ways but still far apart. It’s the people who can bridge the gulf between the two countries, if only we keep religion on the back burner.


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