Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Crossing the Indo-Pak border, Salman-shtyle...

Salman Khan in Bajrangi Bhaijaan

Pakistanis are among the biggest fans of Indian films but their feelings towards Bollywood productions that feature their country are a little more complicated. Most Indian films depicting Pakistan or featuring Pakistani characters are usually banned outright, as happened with Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider or Bajrangi Bhaijaan director Kabir Khan’s earlier film Ek Tha Tiger.

The traditional tensions between India and Pakistan – where even the fluttering in of pigeons from one side to the other sparks security alerts – mean little to Kabir Khan, who makes top ISI and IB spies fall in love (Ek Tha Tiger), give the top agencies the slip and live happily ever after (and hopefully add to the endangered Indo-Pak species).

In his latest offering, Kabir Khan lets Salman Khan, the biggest Bhai of Bollywood, perpetually high on oxytocin, cross over to enemy land while bypassing the rule book, only worrying over meaty matters such as what does one eat in a meat-eating country.

Bursting with empathy, Bajrangi, the quintessential Hanuman Bakht, finds himself on the other side of the Rajasthan border to help a speech-impaired Pakistani girl, who got left behind in India, reunite with her family.

It’s a dream crossover. Unlike lesser mortals, Bhai doesn’t have to spend sleepless nights worrying over the fate of his visa application – “will they, won’t they” – or having to encounter spy types to answer uncomfortable questions that could hurt his patriotism quotient, or having to bother about getting exemption from police reporting and wasting time at police stations on arrival and departure.
Of course, one has to ignore simple things, such as the little girl could have been handed over to the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi (after it had reopened) and the Being Human Bhaijaan could have been spared the ordeal of visiting a meat-eating land, or that if Bhai did not trust the Indo-Pakistan diplomats, he could have taken to the hyper-active social media.

Yet the spirit behind the movie, of peace, love and friendship, encouraging people to meet, makes you want to ignore the intrinsic flaws. Bhai rules supreme. If Bhai can cross over and melt people with his truthfulness and convictions, we too can dream of a dream cross over some day, maybe for a Lahori breakfast, or a peek into the Other Kashmir.

Realistic or not, the ever-optimistic Haider Khan, a chartered accountant in Lahore, loved the film.
“For a change Bajrangi Bhaijaan showed the humane side of Pakistanis. Ordinary people with real life problems and emotions. Not all are angry jihadi,” he said.

“For the conspiratorially minded, there was a message for the Pakistani masses to rise up and challenge the anti-India policies imposed by the military. People-power is stronger than the establishment,” he added.

Aneela Z Babar, who once called Pakistan home, and now divides her time working on gender, religion and popular culture, watched the first-day, first-show of “Calling Agent Hanuman Khan”.
Noting that she isn’t a member of “Team Salman”, she wrote in her review of the film, “Jo kaam Madhuri na kar saki in all her Madhuri de do Kashmir le lo years, wo saala ye Bhaijaan ne kar dhikaya.”

She batted for director Kabir Khan. “He has been sensitive enough not to be too patronising of the Pakistanis our Bhaijaan encounters. Bhaijaan is content in his bajrangi-ness, the Pakistanis in their salaam-dua. And sometimes the twain may meet. Though the Kashmiri girl’s first words when she is reunited with her parents are Jai Shri Ram Mama, and the look the parents’ exchange!”

She recalled an old Pashtun joke of her generation. “Perhaps Hanuman too may have been Pashtun—kisi aur ki biwi ko milwane ke liye apni poonch par aag – to put yourself on fire to keep your word of reuniting a couple.”

Bollywood fanatic Nargis Khan, a housewife in Islamabad, is celebrating the asides.
“Indians seem to admit that Pakistanis are better looking – fair complexion has to be either upper caste Brahmins or Pakistanis,” she said. She is also happy that “not all Pakistanis are bearded angry men with a keffiyeh-like scarf on the shoulders and that they do not say 'janab' and greet each other with the inverted hand gesture while saying asalam-o-alaikum.”

Khan took in the flaws as well. “Police Station Sindh is like saying Police Station Bihar. It would have felt more authentic with a local town’s name like Bahawalpur (next to Rajasthan). Also, urban Karachiwallas do not patrol the border. So what’s with the accent of the soldiers?”

India and Pakistan have a complicated film history. Before the 1965 war, Indian films played across Pakistan while Punjabi films from Pakistan were very popular across north India. After the war, Pakistan banned Indian films and the move dealt a death blow to cinema halls after the proliferation of pirated DVDs, being sold for as little as Rs 50 (Indian), and internet downloads in the 2000s.

Former President Pervez Musharraf eased the ban in early 2006 and Indian films returned with the release of the colourised version of Mughal-e-AzamSholay finally played in Pakistani theatres this year, four decades after it was released in India.

Beena Sarwar, the editor of Aman ki Asha (hope for peace), an initiative launched in 2010 to encourage Indians and Pakistanis to meet, is booked to watch Bajrangi Salman in Boston.   
Even as the film runs to packed houses in Pakistan, she is not one to be taken in by this super-simplistic crossover.

“The premise that an Indian or Pakistani can cross over on a whim or for a good deed is the kind of wishful thinking you see only in films such as Veer Zara, or feel good ads, like the Google ‘Reunion’ ad, or now this film,” said Sarwar, who is part of a campaign called “Milne Do” to encourage friendships between Indians and Pakistanis. 

“In real life, the governments refuse to reflect the people's aspirations, to allow them to live in peace, trade, travel and meet. They signed an agreement to ease visa restrictions in 2012 that they still haven't honoured,” she pointed out. 

“As a result, thousands, if not millions, are denied the opportunity to meet, travel and trade with their neighbours. The Indian government requires a ‘No Objection Certificate’ to be signed and stamped by a first class gazetted officer to endorse visa applications from Pakistanis. This is not easy for most people to obtain. Once you get the visa, you can only visit the city or cities you have the visa for,” she said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently broke the ice with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif in the Russian city of Ufa, their tete-a-tete laying the grounds for a rapprochement before a pesky plastic drone on the LoC sent things plummeting again.

Mehmal Sarfraz, a Lahore-based journalist who crosses over to India several times a year (albeit with a visa), says the movie’s message is important. Bajrangi Bhaijaan seems like a usual fun Sallubhai movie but one with an important message: Indo-Pak peace, a message that is close to every peacenik's heart,” she said.

“Tensions between these two nuclear neighbours were at an all-time high just recently so this movie's release is quite timely. With Prime Minister Sharif and Prime Minister Modi trying to build bridges after the recent war of words, such a movie will play a good role in improving ties.”

Sarwar is not too sure. She pointed out that Indians and Pakistanis still have to report to the police within 24 hours of their arrival and before departure from each city they have a visa for, unless this requirement is waived. 

“The stringent visa regime is a major factor in disrupting family ties. In Boston this week, I met an uncle, a doctor who lives in Aligarh, after 35 years. My mother met her cousin last year after 50 years, whom she had not seen since her girlhood in Pratapgarh.”  

Bureaucratic delays make it difficult for even well-connected people to make the trip. “Last year, I was invited to a conference in Pune. The organisers didn't know that if they invite foreign guests, particularly Pakistanis, the entire conference has to receive clearance from the home ministry. They finally got the permission but by the time the home ministry sent the paperwork to the consulate in Karachi, it was too late. I got my passport back with the visa stamped, and with police reporting kindly waived – on the day of the conference,” Sarwar said. 

Another time when she was applying for a visa, a senior official in the external affairs ministry said they could meet if she also came to Delhi. “I replied I had only applied for Bombay and Pune, and asked if Delhi could be added on. That would be impossible, came the response.”

Murtaza Solangi, an avowed peacenik and former head of Radio Pakistan, said he’d always bat for kindness and humanity on both sides of the border and applauded the role of artists in showcasing the goodness in us. “Sixty-seven years after Partition, we still have fires of hatred burning and those working with buckets of water extinguishing them are the people who help humanity and restore our faith,” said Solangi.

"Besides countless acts of barbarism and brutality, there are many instances of kindness and humanity on both sides. People have helped each other in terrible conditions in the past and will do so in future. Artists have to do their bid to pass the goodness amongst us. When he presents evil, he does so in order to make us fight against it. When he presents good deeds, he does so to inspire us to do more…"

The moot question: Will the real Salman Khan be allowed a real cross-over to promote his films and maybe meet his millions of Pakistani fans?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A marriage (not) made in heaven...

We've been back for over six months, and even now our most read post is Crossing the Indo-Pak Border -- written in two parts. We get over a hundred hits each day, if not more, from both Indians and Pakistanis obviously wanting to know how to cross the border. 

Unfortunately for them, the post was written in a different context, and does not list "10 hot ways of sneaking into the Indian or Pakistani territory". I can almost imagine their crestfallen faces when they land at our blog with a lot of hope and stomp out in disgust.  

That brings me to the main issue, are there really as many people, in India or Pakistan, who really want to take a peek into the other country. I can't imagine non-state actors googling ways and means of crossing the border.

That leaves me with the only other suspects: Lovers. Who else would want to read a blog and decipher how to cross over. My belief is strengthened by the occasional emails we receive asking us for advice: Should my khala ki beti marry an Indian? Or my friend is marrying this girl from Karachi, whom he had met in London, will he be allowed to visit her family in Pakistan?

I don't know. 

Being a die hard romantic I would want to give wing to such relationships -- you know Milne Do and all that -- but then my head rules over my heart. 

The romantic in me died when I blogged about an Indian lady who had met and married a Pakistani in the UK in the 1950s or so. The marriage lasted only a few years and by then she was a green passport holder. Her return to India was ruled out. Her stay in Pakistan was imminent. A Pakistan which was no longer home. 

My mind raced back to the issue of Indo-Pak marriages yet again when I got an email from an independent Pakistani filmmaker on a related issue. I started thinking if it was really worthwhile to go ahead with such marriages.

It's fine that you do not carry the baggage of Partition, meet in a third country, decide to marry and stay put in that third country.

However, trading passports for a marriage, is not recommendable. I think marriages in itself are tricky and it takes a lot of effort to keep the boats from sinking. Imagine the plight of a wife, it is mostly she who has to relocate, who gets stuck in India or Pakistan after adopting her husband's nationality. I shudder at that thought.

I know its about pyaar vyaar. But is it really worth crossing the border for?

Take the plunge only if you are a braveheart and are prepared to face the consequences if, God forbid, love flies out of your marriage.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Four legs good...

Jalebi, an indoor cat, who is now forced to fend for herself in Islamabad

As I walked to Attari, the Indian side of the border, after a rather extended stay of about six years in Islamabad, the solitary thought that plagued my mind was: will I ever go back?

Following our sudden exit from Pakistan, it seems like an impossible task - almost as impossible as finding forever homes for our many rescued street cats, some of whom we were forced to leave behind.

We met some of the loveliest people during our stay and would value our association with them for life, yet I wouldn't want to cross the border for them. I would want to go back for Itty, a little kitten, who was poisoned by someone four years ago and timely intervention helped save her. I would want to go back for Jalebi, Chicklet, Chocolate, Chammak Challo, Hero, Kaalo, Nargis - the list is long. I would want to go back for Rocco, a pup with severe fungal infection who was left at our gate some years ago.

I have always been fascinated with cat and dog stories, especially the ones caught between two unfriendly security posts: Saadat Hasan Manto's "The Dog of Tetwal" who wagged his tail happily at both Indian and Pakistani soldiers but sadly "died a dog's death"; I am intrigued by the female dog that Sarah Singh captured in her award-winning film "The Sky Below", the one who criss-crosses the India-Pakistan border near Pul Kanjri, a small village near Amritsar, for her lunches and dinners.

When I heard about this dog, I wrote to Singh requesting her to send the clip of the film where the dog appears. "I was there during the mid-day sun, and against this metallic web of lines, a black female dog edged her way through from one side to the other, negotiating the twists and turns of the barbed wire in a manner which suggested her familiarity with the routine. A deft approach by hungry dog in the rising heat," she wrote.

"...got to the fencing that denotes the border area of the two Punjabs near Pul Kanjri, a small village about 20 km from Amritsar - quite a lot of barbed wire that weaves in and out and circles around itself as it creates a barrier about 10 ft high and 5 ft thick - with an electric current running through to fry those who test the division at night..."

Just as I was stepping out of Pakistan, I, too, noticed a little black dog wagging her little tail at the Zero Line. She let me touch her and also shyly posed for a picture before disappearing into the greens of Pakistan. She breezed in and out of "the enemy country" making me so envious of her freedom. No wonder they call her Lucky!

Lucky made me think of a late friend's suggestion, who always dismissed my worries of crossing over with our pets with his seemingly funny, "You cross first and ask them to follow". Unfortunately, my pets were not so Lucky!

We rescued over 20 cats (and fed many more) and three dogs in our stay in Islamabad. The first set of cats, who turn six on September 20, came to us when they were three weeks old. Our fourth rescue is from near Lal Masjid and we lovingly call him General!

Often we would get asked why we kept so many cats and that too jungle ones. Once a security officer came to our place while my husband was away. He sat me down and after a lot of dilly-dallying got to the point. "So what is the R-E-A-L reason for keeping so many cats?"

Security officers meant to tail us, whom we fondly referred to as Bhais, followed me around in the neighbourhood when I went barging into houses to rescue kittens who were too small to scale walls, or when our outdoor cats went missing; or as on one occasion, a kitten stuck its head into a washing machine tube and we were called to pull her out.

After the first few months of following me around on the kitty-spotting and kitty-rescuing mission, the Bhais, I think, finally realized there was no hidden agenda in my expedition to the neighbours.

Once we had a dog trainer over for Rocco. The Bhai stopped the trainer after his session with Rocco, and asked, "Are you training the dog to attack us?" The trainer, who was pushing to extend his session from a month to three months decided against it.

We were also not so lucky vis-a-vis the Bhai brigade when a Pakistani lady offered to adopt Itty. She came home to see Itty, liked her and was taking her home in her car when she got chased and stopped by the Bhai at the end of our street. The lady was bombarded with questions on her association with us. She drove back, dumped Itty back into our house, and left with a resounding, "I don't want so much trouble for a cat!"

Getting a home for street cats, who are of mixed breed, is not easy on either side of the border. Itty never found a home again. This prettiest cat in town is the one I would go want to go back to Pakistan for. Also, Chiclet, the little kitten we rescued from the neighbour's washing machine; Chocolate, her son, whose only interest in life is food; and Chammak Challo, a semi-Persian cat, who sashays down the street with the toms fighting to get her attention.

Much as I love quoting Orwell's "two legs bad, four legs good", for Pakistan, I'd like to change that to "two legs good, four legs better"!

(The post was first published here:

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

We are back!

After spending 5 years and 10 months in Pakistan we are back in India. We hope to start blogging about our life and times in Pakistan soon. Stay tuned.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

I can haz another kitteh...

My husband and I love cats. I have no memory of a white cat I had when I was about 4-5 years old or that I had decided to leave home with her in protest when my little sister was born; but my husband's family has always had cats and my mother-in-law almost missed our wedding because her 13-year-old cat was sick.

It was our first day in Islamabad and someone mentioned that three kittens needed a home. The kittens were about three weeks old and we agreed to take them in. Seeing our enthusiasm that someone then gently told us that the kittens were not Persian, Siamese or Burmese. For us, the sound of kittens was enough!

The cutest foursome: General, Mohtarma, Motu and Chutku

The story of our lives did not end with three kittens. On an evening out, my husband and I saw a kitten being kicked by a young couple and we decided to bring him home too.

General, Mohtarma, Motu and Chutku were perfect stress busters at a time when things were hot politically (BB's assassination, emergency, elections) and we were also trying to cope with a personal tragedy.

Motu's fitness mantra: yoga
Happiness, for us, was in the cats and we fretted if they were not eating right or had been in a fight. Some times we even overdid it. Like the time Mohtarma had a C-section and was returned to us in a semi-conscious state. We thought she was dying. While I cried in private, my husband sat near her box and sobbed, "Mohtarma, please don't die!"

Kitu, Mohtarma's daughter
Four years on, we have about 20 cats and counting -- all rescues off-the-street.

A hard day's night!
That also puts us high on our neighbours' hate list. We've had to barge into homes (with Bhais in tow) to look for missing cats; or fight with people who treat their backyards, where our cats may or may not have sprayed, like a jannat ka tukda; smile at unkind comments such as yeh toh aapne ghar ko zoo bana liya from landlord; or quench people's curiosity over the real reason why we keep so many cats -- woh bhi jungli; friends asking sarcastically: so whats the count?; and guards having a good laugh when we call out for Chammak Challo or Chocolate.

Chammak Challo
Taking care of scores of cats is surely not easy. We regularly chase Toms in the middle of the night and keep moving furniture to the garage to make room for more and more....We also leave our bedroom window open (in peak winter/summer too) to let in Itty, our outdoor cat, when she thinks she has had enough of the outdoors.

This September we celebrate the fifth birthday of our first set of four cats and, so far, we've loved every moment with them. In that sense our Pakistan posting has helped us rediscover ourselves -- and I, for one, would love to chuck my current profession to become a full-time cat-keeper.

Unfortunately, we've also seen a lot of cats die -- and one being maimed for life. Time has helped us cope with these tragedies, but what do worry about now is our cats' future upon our return to India. We do not know if these cats are Pakistani or Indian - something we love checking with them all the time -- or if we would be allowed to cross over with them but the thought of leaving behind even one kills us.

Cocoa, our special needs cat
That doesn't mean we are shutting the door on our feline friends yet. Meet Tiger and Hero the newest additions to our cat family.


Tiger, our newest
And do remember to join in for General-Motu-Chutku-Mohtarma's fifth!