Are you a Pakistani?”
The first time I overheard this question, my daughter was five years old. We were attending a pre-wedding function at a friend’s home. It was 28 November 2008, and 10 terrorists from Pakistan had laid siege to the city of Mumbai with a series of coordinated shootings and bombings. Staff and guests of the Taj hotel were still trapped in a hostage crisis and rescue operations were being covered live on all news channels in India. Almost everyone at the wedding function was talking about the news. 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 was able to stop myself 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 just a misunderstanding she was clearing. Aiman is her older cousin, who lives in Karachi and visits regularly. Aiman is my children’s heroine. They write school essays on her.
“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.”
Aiman’s mother is my husband’s sister. It is summer vacation on both sides of the India-Pakistan border these days and Aiman is visiting us with her mother.
My parents-in-law are hosting all their children and grandchildren in their home in a village in east Uttar Pradesh. The adults scan newspapers and check the news on their smartphones. A new government has taken charge in New Delhi. Heinous crimes against women are being reported from across the state. My father-in-law reads editorials in three newspapers, one in English, one in Hindi and a third in Urdu. He highlights passages for me to read and discuss with him.
Litchis, mangoes and melons are peeled and cut. Children run around us, playing hide and seek in the long afternoons, when they are forbidden from going out in the sun. Someone gets hurt. They are thirsty.
They settle down to choose a film from a USB drive an older cousin happens to be carrying. For some reason, the film they want to watch today, The Road To El Dorado, doesn’t play on the DVD player. I suggest Sholay.
“It has too much fighting and Amitabh Bachchan dies,” protests my daughter. Sholay doesn’t play either, it is in the wrong format.
The only other film available this afternoon is Gandhi. Richard Attenborough’s 1982 biopic on Mahatma Gandhi. It is just a coincidence, but here are a group of children from Karachi, New Delhi and Lucknow watching Gandhi together on a hot afternoon in 2014. I sit down with the children. It has been years since I have watched this film.
I explain events and scenes to the children.
“That’s Nehru, that’s Patel and that is Jinnah,” I say, the first time they appear after Gandhi returns to India from South Africa.
“Jinnah!” exclaims Aiman. “Quaid-e-Azam.”
The afternoon has come alive for Aiman. She notices Jinnah in every scene he appears. Sahar is too tense to be able to watch the violence. She runs off to reread one of the Harry Potter books. Another child runs off as troops led by General Dyer begin to march into Jallianwallah Bagh in the film. The rest of the children watch the scene of the massacre in stunned silence. Hundreds of bodies pile up as soldiers shoot relentlessly at unarmed people gathered for a protest meeting on Baisakhi.
“I have been to Amritsar many times,” Aiman says. She is 12 years old.
The film draws towards its end.
“After this, they will launch the Quit India Movement and then India will become independent,” I say to the children, preparing them for scenes of more bloodshed. “But, there will be the partition of India also. India and Pakistan will become two separate countries.”
Aiman claps her hands. “Pakistan!”
I am startled at first and then I realize that this is where this child recognizes her part of the story. I knock my moroseness out of me and celebrate with her. My mother was 4 years old when her family 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.”
As I type this column on the roof of my parents-in-law’s home, it is close to midnight. This is the last night that the cousins are together. They have permission to stay awake as long as they want. I can hear them discussing stars in the sky. Hopping on barefoot toes, my eight-year-old comes to me and asks me if it is possible that some stars blink in the sky.
“We see something red that is blinking,” she says.
“Maybe it’s a shooting star,” I say, quite sure I am giving her the wrong answer.
She returns 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 informs me.