I remember the unease a few of us journalists felt as we landed at Karachi airport, not sure of the reception we would get. However, we got a shock of the pleasant kind when the cab driver who drove us from the airport to our hotel started to play the song Made in India by Alisha Chinai, an Indian pop star. The cab driver, on finding I spoke his mother tongue of Punjabi, became even more friendly. My fears and doubts disappeared and I felt like I was at home, among my own people.
Officially, alcohol is banned in Pakistan for the Muslim population. Only non-Muslims with a permit could buy liquor. However, liquor shops in Karachi were owned by a powerful politician, so that was not strictly applied. The first thing I focused on after reaching our hotel was to figure out how I could sustain my drinking habit on the tour. However, getting a drink proved elusive on that first night.
The next morning, I was joined by Ajay Shankar of The Indian Express in my search for a liquor store. We found one quite easily, and we were not even asked our religion or for a permit. Having ensured a supply of our life-blood, it was time to think about the cricket: the three-match One-Day series we were there to cover.
The first match was to be held at Hyderabad, Sindh, a five-hour drive from Karachi. I needed to provide a photograph to make the entry pass, but unlike my other colleagues, I hadn’t brought any with me. Thus, I was forced to search for a shop that could provide instant photo prints. What I didn’t know was that this quest would lead me to a moving experience of the traumatic history of Partition and the intense longing for “home”.
Winding stairs took me to the first floor of a building where a photographer’s shop was located. When the woman behind the counter understood that I was from India, she immediately shouted, ‘Abu, neeche aa jao, India se aye hain (Father, come down, someone has come from India).’ The girl’s excitement and the sparkle in her eyes suggested that she was thrilled by this fact.
An old man descended from the second floor. When I confirmed that I had indeed come from India, he hugged me, tears streaming down his cheeks. He had a poignant story to tell: of being uprooted from his moorings in a false hope that had ended in despair.
Originally from Uttar Pradesh, he was working as a tailor in Bombay in 1947. Like many Muslims in India, insecurity and the continuous threat of violence had instilled fear in him. When Partition came about, he was also lured by the dream of living in a country that was being created for those of his own religion, a “pure land”: Pakistan. He joined the Muslims migrating to the new country. It took him just a few months to realise that he had made a terrible mistake.
“This was not my country, not my home, not my people,” he lamented. He wanted to go back but could not, as the Indian government refused visas to all those who had migrated to Pakistan from India. “Like a bird in a cage I yearned to return home, but all doors were closed.” Even after having accepted his new Pakistani citizenship, he still felt like an outsider in his land of adoption. He is part of an Urdu-speaking Indian community of migrants to Sindh called “Muhajirs” by the natives. Simmering tension between the migrants and the locals has often spilled into violence.
This chance encounter remains one of the most enduring images of all my travels, during which I have been witness to the yearning for roots, with all its tragic and positive dimensions, among the Indian diaspora in different cricket-playing nations. During my visits to Pakistan in 1997, 2004 and 2006, I had many similar interactions that showed how deep the bonds go between the people of the two countries.
They are ties that can transcend the hate brewed by the divisive politics of their governments. The cricketing rivalry between the two nations is bitter, intense, competitive and engaging, but it is just a subtext to the larger human need for peace and bonding that can override the divisive baggage of history.
Another surprise awaited us when we travelled to Hyderabad before the first match. The hotel that had been recommended to us had no rooms available. There was no vacancy anywhere as an India–Pakistan match had come to town. Seeing us stranded in the hotel lobby, a few locals approached us and offered to let us stay with them.
Among them was an old man who had been to India. He left with a promise to check for rooms in his company’s guest house, but returned with disappointing news. However, he did bring back a large bowl of kheer (rice pudding) from his home. While the kheer was delicious, I found pieces of chicken in it. I did not have the heart to tell my vegetarian colleague Ashish Shukla, who was gobbling up his share with relish.
Finally, the hotel owner allowed us to sleep in the storeroom for that night.
The match at the dusty, breezy Niaz stadium was a disappointing outing for India, a low-scoring affair in which Pakistan overtook India’s total of 170 in the 45th over. I can hardly recall an interesting moment from the actual cricket, but I vividly remember the Indian team being loudly cheered by local fans waving at the team bus. Contrary to what we had expected, there was a lot of warmth for the Indian team, and a complete absence of hostility.
The next encounter at Karachi’s National Stadium made up for the lifeless first match. The stadium was overflowing with thousands of spectators and the contest had everything one would expect from an India-Pakistan match. It had a thrilling finish, with India needing eight runs from the last over to overhaul Pakistan’s score of 265. Off-spinner Rajesh Chauhan sealed the chase with a six, and India won by four wickets with three balls to spare. Chauhan became an overnight star in India for his unexpected batting exploits.
In my memory though, the match is associated more with crowd trouble and the Indian team’s lack of trust in the Pakistani officials and spectators. When India was fielding, the match was marred by incidents of stone-throwing from one section of the crowd. This resulted in four disruptions, the last of which – Pakistan had scored 265 for 4 in 47.2 overs at that point – was declared as the end of the innings by match referee Ranjan Madugalle when the Indian team walked off the field. The tourists refused to field further, stating they did not want to risk injury to a player.
The Indian media contingent, which included Ravi Shastri as a television commentator, was furious. Some even felt that it was part of a larger conspiracy and that it confirmed their belief that Pakistan was no place for an Indian cricket team to visit. Shastri, while talking to us, even said that he would tell Bal Thackeray (then leader of the extreme right-wing group Shiv Sena) never to allow an Indian team to visit Pakistan.
From the press box it was hard to figure out what exactly was going on, so I took a walk around the boundary line. All I could see were crowds desperate for the match to restart, with no sign of any hostility among them. Whosoever the miscreants were, they had done their disruptive job slyly and were now sitting quietly among the vast mass of peaceful cricket lovers.
I went to meet the Indian team manager, Madan Lal, who was understandably tense and jittery. “They are throwing big stones at us,” he fumed. “Someone could get seriously injured.” I realised he was contemplating not resuming play at all, which not only meant conceding the match but more significantly would have been a diplomatic disaster. I advised caution and reported what I sensed from my walk around the ground.
After much deliberation, the Indians agreed to continue the match. As Madugalle had terminated the Pakistan innings, no Indian fielder had to stand close to the boundary. The Indians agreed that the Pakistani total would have to be chased within 47 overs instead of the regular 50. After that, the match continued without disruption, and even though the crowd did not enjoy the nail-biting loss for the home team, there was no further violent or hostile reactions.
While making my way back to the hotel among thousands of disappointed people leaving the stadium, I spotted a young boy of about ten wailing loudly. I put an arm around him and asked him why he was crying. The sobbing child replied, “Log kehte hain hume inse haarna nahi chahiye (People say we should not lose to them).” His reaction was astonishingly similar to that of my relatives’ and friends’ children when India loses to Pakistan.
Excerpted with permission from Not Just Cricket: A Reporter’s Journey through Modern India, Pradeep Magazine, HarperCollins India.