I’ve been to Mumbai and Pune several times. But my trip to India this May was life-altering in an entirely different way. This time, I was part of a 14-strong delegation comprising members of the Karachi and Hyderabad press clubs who were visiting India as part of a peace initiative.
My last visit to Mumbai must have been at least 12 years ago. Although the city has changed to some extent, I recognised the ‘heritage sites’ and the smell of the pavements. Standing in front of the famous VT Station (now the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus), I knew that places like Flora Fountain, Colaba and Taj Mahal were nearby.
It was this familiarity that made the restrictions on our movement more onerous. (Of our delegation, however, only I was chafing at the restrictions; the rest appeared content with the hospitality of our hosts and the omnipresent — and possibly armed — ‘escort’.) On day one, my solo flight in quest of a bottle of shampoo earned me the status of ‘An Enemy of the People’. But day two made even this epithet worthwhile.
With the help of two Mumbaiker journalist friends, two Pakistani delegates and I managed to ditch both the delegation and the escort. Wandering along Colaba, we found ourselves at Leopold Café.
I was with DawnNews at the time of the Mumbai attacks. As the militants held the entire nation hostage, I could only look at the footage aired by the Indian media in grief, outrage and disbelief. “I know this place … I’ve been there … this can’t be happening …” was the constant refrain in my head. As the broadcast media is wont to do at such times, elements within the Indian press corps came out with jingoistic outbursts and immediately pointed fingers at Pakistan. And I clearly remember the angry faces of some colleagues who wanted to respond vehemently to the allegations. “Phaar do (tear them apart)” was the war cry of one of my particularly militant senior colleagues. (Thankfully, the then editor was a far saner individual who managed to prevent the imparting of misleading and unconfirmed information). And then we found out the identities of the attackers; all were Pakistani.
But till the night I visited Leopold Cafe, I never really comprehended what the attacks have done to Mumbai and to India. Standing in front of the bullet-hole punctured wall of Leopold Cafe brought to life the visuals I’d seen on TV: two young men indiscriminately spraying bullets, mowing down 10 people of the 164 killed. “Not every Muslim is a terrorist but every terrorist (in India) is a Muslim,” is what most Mumbaikers believe according to my Indian journalist friend. As journalists, we’re trained not to generalise. But the sentiments of my Indian friend echo those of most Mumbaikers I met.
That night, when we went back to our hotel, I was on the receiving end of a long harangue from one of the leaders of our delegation. Apparently, our visit to Leopold Cafe had generated shockwaves within our security detail since the cafe is a no-go area for Pakistani journalists.
During the rest of our stay in Mumbai and Pune, there were many speeches about the love between India and Pakistan. We all spoke of the warm welcome we’d received in each other’s countries and we all promised to improve relations between our countries. Despite my inherent cynicism, I want to believe all this. My sister married an Indian 36 years ago and lives in India. When her husband died four months ago, I wanted to console my sister in person. I have some wonderful friends who happen to be Indian; I want to be able to visit them. I want to believe that these peace-building efforts are real and not just oratory.
But when I put myself in the shoes of friends who spent a lifetime living in and loving Mumbai, I don’t find any warmth in me for guests from the Karachi and Hyderabad press clubs. If my Pakistani friends who were part of this delegation put things in perspective, they’d also conclude that we were treated far too nicely.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 2nd, 2012.