“Never tell them that we are the same people,” Rajendra Sareen told me when I sought his guidance before taking on the Pakistan assignment. “If you do, they’ll immediately ask you, ‘Then why did we have Partition?’”

Sareen Saab, founder and head of Public Opinion Trends Analysis and News Service, was in my opinion the foremost among the Indians who sought to study and understand Pakistan. Even till today, more than two decades after his passing, hardly anyone else has come close to matching his insight into the mind of our vexatious neighbour. He was born and came of age there, he spoke and wrote Urdu and Punjabi and he could unerringly trace the ticking of the brain cells on the other side of the border. No sensible person could ignore advice emanating from such a source.

You might not feel the difference when running into a Pakistani in a mixed crowd at a party in the Gulf or other parts of the world outside the subcontinent. After a few weeks in Pakistan you might not feel the difference when you mix with a crowd of fellow professionals in Islamabad.

But when you find yourself for the first time among a group made up mostly of Pakistanis, there is an unmistakeable sense that you are in a different milieu. And that sense is awoken not merely by the sight of so many Awami suits around you.

I had felt a similar strangeness when I went for the first time to our Punjab, Kashmir, and even Madhya Pradesh for that matter. Although I had interacted with people from most States while living in Delhi, there is after all a difference when you walk into another’s home turf. In Lahore and then Islamabad in the first few days I certainly felt that difference and something more. On looking back so many years later, I am more keenly aware now than I was then that it was not just a matter of missing cues or reading them wrongly.

(Speaking of being on home turf or otherwise, it is a given that on neutral ground everyone is adjusting to others even if unwillingly or unconsciously. When you are in another’s home turf, you can feel the pressure of that culture since the local boys are under no compunction to adjust.)

As my ability to read the social terrain picked up, this sense of strangeness did abate somewhat. Differences that were obvious at first glance lost their sharp edges and got pushed into the recesses of the mind. However, the nuances did not fade altogether and with unpleasant incidents cropping up like coral, a mental barrier steadily developed. That did not happen to me in East Punjab or MP, not even in Kashmir. While a level of reserve in dealing with Pakistanis did become palpable, explanations of its nature and causes are tied up with analysis of macro factors and hence best left aside for the moment. For now it is sufficient to say that memories of animosity directed at me and reciprocated remain encrusted in the mind.

When it comes to the pinning down of differences, the task is not so straightforward. Sights, sounds and smells change once you cross the line between the two countries. But such variations occur when you move from State to State or even between districts in India and contrasts can sometimes be drastic. Besides, we South Asians get so accustomed to the processing of diversity almost from birth that a few alterations here and there do not entail strenuous effort.

As the irrepressible Shoaib Hashmi – Economics professor, playwright, theatre actor, son-in-law of Faiz Ahmad Faiz and master of irreverent commentary – once wrote in his column in Friday Times, “We look more or less alike, we speak more or less the same language, we eat more or less the same food, listen to the same music and laugh at the same jokes. But of course we are not the same people.”

Hashmi Saab was lampooning Pakistani officialdom’s incessant hammering on the message of dissimilarity. My intent in including his comment here is only to show the difficulty of pinpointing the distinctions that do exist. It is somewhat akin to having astigmatism of the mental vision. For a moment you are absolutely certain that you have arrived at an accurate conception of the situation in front of you and then, suddenly, “Whoa! Where did that come from?” It is not an experience that is always unsettling. Sometimes it is exhilarating, at yet other times amusing. Here I am not talking about encounters with what I would call “officially-sponsored Pakistanis”. Those experiences can be understood as soon as they begin to unfold and are invariably wearisome in the extreme.

As sought to be brought out in earlier chapters, there has been a conscious effort to contrive an ideal of what a Pakistani – especially male Pakistani – ought to be. Even if such an ideal might have been initially propounded by a non-official ideologue, it appears to have acquired official approval somewhere down the line. So much so that it is almost of the nature of a state-sponsored template. A model that is supposed to amalgamate the values he should strive for and exhibit – a self-image.

As has also been seen, these efforts by the Guardians of Ideology have at best met with mixed, or perhaps only, partial success. You do come across people who swagger about with the required Islamic martial fervour. But you will also notice that nearly all other Pakistanis present are looking into the middle distance trying to cover their embarrassment. Although no one will challenge the swaggerer because they assume he has backing, they clearly give the impression that they wish he was far away.

If most Pakistanis have not bought into the officially-sponsored model and are also discernibly not Indians, what are they? This question can be answered by highlighting the stark differences. While that may be the easier option, it might be more interesting to go through a list of commonalities while keeping a keen eye out for the points of departure.

Excerpted with permission from Never Tell Them We are the Same People: Notes on Pakistan, Kesava Menon, Speaking Tiger Books.