“Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.”
— George Santayana
A few years ago, before my maternal grandmother was overwhelmed by her long, slow slide into forgetfulness, I had the idea of taping our conversations. I would visit her nearly every weekend at her home in Islamabad. We would settle down with a hot cup of tea and then I would ask her questions, usually about her childhood and her life as a young adult in Amritsar.
It was in the course of one such conversation that, nudged perhaps by the memory of a number of my Indian friends at college, I asked my grandmother if she had any Hindu friends as a child. “Of course I did,” she said. “I used to go to school with them. They would come to our house and we would go to theirs.” Encouraged by such a positive response, I pressed on, “So, if Hindus and Muslims got along quite so well with each other, what was the point of Partition?”
It was then that she explained, “Well, they only really came into our courtyards, you see, and that is how far inside their houses we were allowed to go.” As she paused, I found myself wondering about the significance of the courtyard. Almost as if on cue, she continued, “Their parents did not allow them to eat or drink at our houses, you see. Not even a glass of water. Perhaps, they thought us unclean.” Determined to be fair, I asked, “And is that what you thought of them too?” “Perhaps we did,” she said, and lapsed into silence.
The story stayed with me long after our recording sessions came to an end. However, it was not because I believed that every Muslim living in pre-Partition India would have had a similar experience with Hindu friends. In fact, I was sure that for every story of Hindu prejudice towards Muslims, there would be one of Muslim prejudice towards Hindus. I was also convinced there would be an equal number of stories in which both rose above their different religious affiliations to come together purely on the basis of humanity. For me, the point of the story was somewhat different: that, despite the seeming similarities between them, a large number of Hindus and Muslims remained aliens for each other. It seemed to me that even though they had occupied the same political space for generations, Hindus and Muslims had essentially remained locked in separate and distinct cultural and personal spaces. It seemed that this deep-seated spatial division needed only a trigger for it to erupt into violence, which, if it had not been provided by the waning power of the British empire, would have come through another source.
You may argue, however, that nearly 70 years on, the situation has surely changed, so why bring this up now? I suggest two reasons for doing so: firstly, so that we may remember that Partition was not merely a political solution but that the majority of Hindus and Muslims willingly parted from each other because they believed that they were too inherently different to integrate; also, an important reason why the situation seems different today is because we actually have a separate country, and to bear these thoughts in mind when we interact with our friends across the border, so that we may strike a balance between engagement and assimilation.
Secondly, and more importantly, I bring up this story so that we may make all efforts at individual levels to identify as Pakistanis rather than as persons of a specific ethnicity or religion. For each time we isolate different ethnic or religious groups from others within Pakistan, so that they no longer interact with one another at a cultural or social level, we sow the seeds of alienation and separatism, which unless actively checked can lead to our disintegration into parts so small that ultimately, each individual may need his or her own country.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 14th, 2014.
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