So What If I Am A Muslim? So What If I Am A Pakistani?
Of Gandhi, Jinnah, shared childhoods and entangled histories | An excerpt from the book, My Daughters’ Mum by Natasha Badhwar
‘Are you a Pakistani?’
The first time I overheard this question, our firstborn child was five years old. We were attending a pre-wedding function at a friend’s home. It was late November 2008, and ten terrorists from Pakistan had laid siege to Mumbai with a series of coordinated shootings and bombings. Staff and guests of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel were still trapped in a hostage crisis and rescue operations were being covered live on 24X7 news channels across India. Almost everyone at the wedding function discussed the unfolding events. Besides the hundreds of injured, 166 people would die in this attack.
‘What is your name?’ an older child asked my daughter.
‘Sahar,’ she answered.
‘Are you a Pakistani?’ asked the child.
I gasped involuntarily but I held myself back from jumping into their conversation.
‘No,’ said my daughter. ‘Aiman is a Pakistani. I am from Greater Noida.’
I didn’t need to rescue my child from this ‘slur’ just yet.
It was but a tiny misunderstanding that she had to clear. Aiman’s mother is my husband’s elder sister. By extension, Aiman is Sahar’s older cousin who lives in Karachi and visits us in India regularly. Aiman is also my children’s heroine. Sahar wrote about her in an essay in school.
Aiman is my best friend. She wears jeans and T-shirts and doesn’t like wearing skirts. My mother says I learnt to eat potato chips from her. Aiman loves to cycle very fast in her colony and has many pet animals. She has rabbits, a cat, and fish in an aquarium. She has to keep the rabbits and fish safe from the cat.
In the summer of 2014, when schools on both sides of the India–Pakistan border were closed for vacations, Aiman visited us with her mother. My parents-in-law were hosting all their children and grandchildren in their home in east Uttar Pradesh. The adults scanned newspapers and sifted through headlines on their smartphones — there was political upheaval in New Delhi; heinous crimes against women were being reported from across the state. My father-in-law read editorials in three newspapers — one in English, another in Hindi, and a third in Urdu. He highlighted passages for me to discuss with him.
Litchis, mangoes and melons were peeled and cut. Children ran around us, playing hide-and-seek in the long afternoons — they were forbidden from going out in the sun. Someone would get hurt. A few were thirsty.
They settled down to choose a film from a USB drive an older cousin happened to be carrying. They wanted to watch The Road to El Dorado, but its format wasn’t compatible with the DVD player in the house. I suggested Sholay.
‘It has too much fighting and Amitabh Bachchan dies,’ protested my daughter. That wasn’t her definition of entertainment.
The only other film available was Gandhi — Richard Attenborough’s 1982 biopic. It may have just been a coincidence — but here was a group of children from Karachi, New Delhi and Lucknow watching Gandhi together in a village in Uttar Pradesh. I joined them. It had been years since I had watched Gandhi. I had been overwhelmed and inspired when I had seen it first as a twelve-year-old. Our school had booked an entire cinema hall for its students.
I explained events and scenes to the children as they unfolded on the screen.
‘That’s Nehru, that’s Patel and that is Jinnah,’ I said, the first time they appeared.
‘Jinnah!’ exclaimed Aiman. ‘Quaid-e-Azam.’
The afternoon had come alive for Aiman. She noticed Jinnah in every scene. Sahar was too tense to watch the violence. She ran off to re-read one of her Harry Potter books. The youngest child left the room as troops led by General Dyer began to march into Jallianwala Bagh in the film. The rest viewed the massacre in stunned silence. Hundreds of bodies piled up as soldiers shot relentlessly at unarmed people gathered for a protest meeting on Baisakhi. It was 13 April 1919 in Amritsar.
‘I have been to Amritsar many times,’ twelve-year-old Aiman said. When she travels between Lahore and New Delhi by bus, her mother, Nishat, always shops in Amritsar. They visit the Golden Temple, too.
The film drew towards its end.
‘After this, they will launch the Quit India Movement and then India will become independent,’ I told the children, preparing them for scenes of more bloodshed. ‘But there will also be Partition. India and Pakistan will become two separate countries.’
Aiman clapped her hands. ‘Pakistan!’
I was startled at first and then I realized that this is where the child recognized her part of the story. I let go of my dismay and began celebrating with her. My mother was four years old in 1947 when her extended family and she came to Amritsar as refugees from Lahore.
When Aiman visits during her school holidays, she gets her holiday homework along with her. Her English books are just like mine. She studies Urdu and not Hindi like us. In her holiday homework, she writes about the things we do together. So do I.
The hours slipped away. It was close to midnight. This would be the last occasion for the cousins to be together. I was sitting in the covered verandah, while the children lay on folding beds arranged side by side on the open terrace. They had permission to stay awake for as long as they liked. I could hear them discussing the stars in the sky. On tippy-toes, my eight-year-old came to me and asked if it was possible for some stars to be moving.
‘We see something red that is blinking,’ she said.
‘Maybe it’s a shooting star,’ I answered, quite sure I was giving her the wrong answer.
She returned to break the news to her cousins.
‘Mamma, in this world there are many different worlds like India, America, Pakistan, but everywhere there is the same sky,’ my youngest child informed me.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and author of the book My Daughters’ Mum.