Neighbourhood Ties

#SeditionThis: Why I believe Pakistanis are the most gracious people in the world

A mother’s wish to see her childhood home led to a journey of a lifetime into what many in India consider to be enemy land.

My mother was forced to leave behind the city of her birth, Rawalpindi, when she was just 18 because of the tumultuous ruptures of Partition. She had never returned. When she was to turn 75, I thought the best gift I could give her was to take her, if it was at all possible, to the city and to the home in which she was born.

I emailed my friends in Pakistan tentatively with my plan. They were immediately very welcoming. “Just get her visa, leave the rest to us”, they said. I applied for visas for my parents and the rest of my family. It seemed then a small miracle that we got these easily. I booked our flight tickets, and before long we were on our way.

Warm welcome

Our flight landed at Lahore, and our friends drove us from the airport to their home in Islamabad. I noticed that my mother was initially a little tense. Maybe it was memories of the violence of her exile; maybe it was just the idea that this was now a foreign land, and for many in India the enemy land. I watched my mother gradually relax on the road journey to Islamabad, as she delighted in hearing my friends and the car driver speak the Punjabi of her childhood, and as she watched the altered landscape of her journey. Islamabad of course did not exist when she lived in the Punjab of her days.

In Islamabad, my friends invited to their homes many of their associates with their parents. They organised evenings of Punjabi poetry and music, which my parents relished. Our friends drove us to Murree, the hill-station in which my mother spent many pleasant summers as a child.

My mother had just one more request. Could she go to see the colony in Rawalpindi where she was born and spent her childhood in? My father wanted to also visit his college, the famous Gordon College in Rawalpindi.

A homecoming

My mother recalled that the name of the residential colony in which she lived as a child was called Gawal Mandi. My friends knew it well; it was now an upmarket upper middle-class enclave. When we reached there, my mother tried to locate the house of her childhood. It seemed impossible. Everything was new: most of the old houses had been rebuilt and opulent new structures had come up in their place. She located the building that had housed their gurudwara. It had now been converted into a health centre. But we had almost despaired of actually finding her childhood house. We doubted if it was even standing all these years later.

We were leaving when suddenly my mother pointed to the filigree work on the balconies of one of the old houses. My mother said: “I remember it because my father was very proud of the designs. He said there was none like it in the neighbourhood."

Taking a chance, we knocked tentatively on the door of the house. A middle-aged man opened it, and asked us who we wanted to meet. My mother said apologetically, “We are so sorry to trouble you, and intrude suddenly in this way. But I lived as a child in Gawal Mandi, before Partition, when we had to leave for India. I think this maybe was our home”.

The house owner’s response was spontaneous and immediate. “Mataji, why do you say that this was your home?” he said. “It continues to be your home even today. You are most welcome.” And he led us all in.

Before long, my mother confirmed that this was indeed her childhood home. She went from room to room, and then to the terrace, almost in a trance, recalling all the while fragments of her childhood memories in various corners of this house. For months after we returned to Delhi, she would tell me that recollections of the house returned to her in her dreams.

Half an hour later, we thanked the house-owners and said that we would be on our way. But they would not hear of it. We were told: “You have come to your childhood home, then how can we let you go without you having a meal with us here?” They overruled all our protestations, and lunch was prepared for around eight members of our party, including not just my family but also our Pakistani hosts. Only when they were sure that we had eaten our fill, and more, did they allow us to leave.

Caravan to Pakistan

After we returned to India, news of our adventure spread quickly among family and friends. The next year, my mother-in-law, a wheel-chair user, requested that we take her also to Pakistan to visit her childhood home, this time in Gujranwala. Given the joys of my parents’ successful visit, I was more confident. Then many elderly aunts and an elderly uncle joined the trip, and in the end my wife and I accompanied six older people to Pakistan. Our experience this time was very similar to that of the previous year. The owner of their old ancestral haveli in Gujranwala village took my mother-in-law around the sprawling property on her wheel-chair, and after we had eaten with them asked her, “Would you not like to check out your farm-lands?”

On both visits, wherever my wife visited shops, for clothes, footwear or handicrafts, if the shopkeepers recognised her to be Indian, they would invariably insist on a hefty concession on the price. “You are our guests," they would say. “How can we make a profit from our guests?”

As news of these visits travelled further, my associates from an NGO Ashagram working in the small town of Barwani in Madhya Pradesh for the care and rights of persons living with leprosy, with which I have had a long association – demanded that I organise a visit to Pakistan for them too.

Once again, the Pakistan High Commission granted them visas. There was only one catch this time: all of them were vegetarian. They enjoyed greatly the week they spent in Pakistan, except for the food. Every night they would set out looking for a wayside shop to buy fruit juice. Each night they found a new shop, and each night without exception, the shopkeeper refused to accept any money for the fruit juice. “We will not charge money from our guests from India," they would say each time. This happened for a full week.

I have travelled to many countries in the world in the 60 years of my life. I have never encountered a people as gracious as those in Pakistan.

This declaration is my latest act of sedition.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.