December 7, 1992 – 11.30am, just after short recess, my class teacher asked me to pack my bag, and escorted me to the foyer coordinator’s office; my mother had come to collect me from school. She was panicking, and before I knew it we were rushing home.
Earlier, mum had been driving my 87 year old grandfather, Pitaji, to my paternal Uncle’s home in South Bombay for his birthday that day. They encountered a naka bandi en route, in Mahim, a predominantly Muslim area of Bombay. Cars ahead of them were frantically turning back in an attempt to escape the stone pelting. Babri Masjid (the mosque of Babur) had been demolished the previous day, and communal riots had broken out in Bombay. My father was in New Bombay on work that day, and didn’t return until a week later, when the riots had subsided.
Those next few days, Pitaji was visibly disturbed. “I haven’t seen this kind of tension since the Partition”. 47 years ago, he had abandoned his home, Narain Niwas, and all his belongings, in Karachi, and ridden his last and most uncomfortable train ride to ‘this side of the border’ along with his wife and seven sons.
Until then, the Partition was only a chapter in the history books. Now, it was real. It was when I saw the change in Pitaji’s otherwise composed demeanour that I realised how profound an impact the Partition had had on peoples’ lives. The life that followed couldn’t have been better, but the memories of that day were deeply embedded. Suddenly, there was more to my lineage than ‘my father was born in Karachi and my grandparents migrated to India during the Partition’. Suddenly, there was a curiosity about the life that they had led on the other side.
Growing up, I listened with amazement as my mother told me stories about the India-Pakistan wars. Days on end, they’d be tucked into their homes, all windows covered with newspaper to block off any light or signs of habitation, and hear sounds of military aircrafts hovering outside.
But there were more pleasant things that also touched my life. Listening to my mum’s favourite Nazia Hassan song Disco Deewane as a toddler in the early 1980s, watching pirated video tapes of the Pakistani play Dhoop Kinaray with my mum’s Sindhi friend, watching in awe as Imran Khan accepted the 1992 World Cup, listening to music by the Pakistani pop band Strings in my early teens, and the rage over Zeba Bakhtiar when she starred in Raj Kapoor’s film Henna.
My first direct interaction with real Pakistani people was while studying in Canada. Most of my desi friends at university turned out to be Pakistani. It amazed me how we similar we were, and how comfortably we coexisted, given the ugly history our countries together had had.
Most of the hikers I met during my early backpacking trips couldn’t stop raving about hiking in the Karakoram Mountains. And that’s when the thought of going to Pakistan crossed my mind for the first time – I could visit the beautiful north, and then make it south to Karachi, where the majority of my family originally came from. Pakistan soon made it to my list of top three countries I want to visit, only to remain a permanent fixture after being completely shot down by first my mother, and subsequently my husband.
Recently, as part of the requirement for my British passport application, I dug out a bit about my family history, and learnt a bit of Pakistani geography and current affairs! There’s more to it than just a Karachi connection. Pitaji was born in Lahore; my maternal grandfather in a town I always thought was fictional, but which actually exists – Dera Ghazi Khan – before moving to Peshawar. My paternal grandmother grew up in Quetta, which, until the day I found out was her birthplace, was a part of Afghanistan in my mind. A day after I discovered the Quetta connection, the city made big news. A series of bomb blasts had killed about a hundred people. Not a day has gone by since that people haven’t died as victims of terror attacks.
Sixty six years on, Narain Niwas still exists. On a street just off I.I. Chundrigar Road, the financial district of Karachi, renamed from McLeod Road (we’re similar even in our obsession with renaming things with a colonial legacy!). The plaque bearing the Narain Niwas name is now covered with another one bearing the name of the current owner, but it still exists.
This month, on the occasion of Pitaji’s 108th birth anniversary, I wish that one day I will go back to where he came from, and one day I will find out first hand is there such a thing as Karachi halwa or Pakistani fine dining. And if all Pakistani restaurants in Pakistan are also called Lahore, or witness what exactly makes Lahore so important on the Pakistani food map. One day, I will add personally acquired Pakistani rupees to complete the collection of ‘British India’ and ‘India’ coins that Pitaji bequeathed me.