Our visits to the bazaars, shopping malls and other public spaces were an opportunity to see and experience Pakistani society beyond the postcard versions. Amrinder Singh and Inderjit Singh, the two handsome turbaned young men in our group, were always the center of attraction for the locals. “Sardarji ik selfie” was the common request wherever we went.
During our visit to an “Akhara” (wrestling school) in Gujranwala, a huge poster of past games titled “Rustam-e-hind” held in Pune in 2013 hung on the walls, symbolizing the possibilities of bringing together people through sports.
As long as the trucks ply in Pakistan, art will continue to thrive. I was astounded at the high level of pride the owner takes in his truck. Vibrant motifs cover every inch of space, both outside and inside the truck, as we discovered when we rode in one from Jhelum to the Rohtas Fort.
Interestingly, there is a pattern to this seemingly colorful chaos. The front of the truck is the place for religious imagery like pictures of mosques, etc., and the sides of the truck depict the landscapes of the village and home of the owner while the back of the truck is a place to express the tastes and preferences of the owner, for example, film heroes and pop culture.
While a Bedford truck costs about 12 lakh Pakistani rupees, the owner will spend up to 8 lakhs additional on decorating it. These high costs incurred in decorating the trucks are proof of how these proud owners are putting their money where their mouths are and not just giving lip service to art as most better-positioned folks all over world do. I can’t think of a better example of art thriving at the grassroots level. Can you?.
The shrine of Madho Lal Hussain in Lahore honors the relationship between Shah Hussain, a 15th century Sufi poet, and Madho Lal, a Hindu Brahmin. Our visit to the shrine was during the weekly Thursday evening “dhamaal” performance. We watched enthralled as a trio of drummers, including the famous Coke studio star dhol (drum) player “Pappu Sain,” drummed with vigor while a “malang” devotee danced in abandonment.
Such a celebration of love, transcending religion and gender, could only exist in a multicultural society as 16th century Punjab. I was amazed this tradition is still alive and thriving in Pakistan today, overriding all stereotypes that continue to persist.
A country is, after all, known by its people. We had the pleasure of meeting some doyens of Pakistani society, which make the country proud. Our visit to Kathak dancer and singer Bina Jawwad’s home and school in the village of Chahal was a memorable evening filled with dance, music and food.
The students of Harsukh School, run by Aftab Sheikh, treated us to a delightful Kathak performance. The highlight of the evening were traditional Punjabi melodies sung by Bina Jawwad and her talented daughters, Zainub and Ismet, accompanied by Usman Latif and tabla maestro Ustad Riaz Hans.
The building complex includes their homes, school and guestrooms and is a modern example of traditional Mughal architecture, which does not use any concrete or steel in the construction.
Meeting artist, curator and art historian Salima Hashmi, the dean of the Beaconhouse National University, was a peek into the contemporary art world. We talked about some of the challenges faced by artists and activists like her. She was at the time working on the Faiz festival and curating an art exhibit commemorating the 550th birth anniversary of Baba Nanak at the vibrant Alhambra center in Lahore.
In most patriarchal societies like India and Pakistan, women and their contributions are much less acknowledged and valued. I was delighted to meet many inspiring Pakistani women, including Salima and Bina, who are pioneering leaders; Rafia and Anam, who personify Lara Croft-type badass female cops in uniform, and Imaan and Sumaira, conservation architects emerging in their careers.
While these strong women are trailblazers in Pakistani society, a vast section of the society still appears to be in the clutches of social dictates, observing purdah (covering) in public, following strict modes of dress and just not as visible in public. With today’s fast pace of change in our lives, it is my hope that more and more Pakistani women will continue to claim their place in the sun.
Taking a break in Islamabad amid arts and crafts created by local artists, we were indulged with a medley of folk dances, from different regions of Punjab, performed by a talented group of male dancers.
A tour without culinary experiences is like a flavorless dish. We tasted Punjabi cuisine at its best, from the world famous Chapli Kebabs to sarson ka saag cooked in lassi shared from the home of our tour host Jahandad Khan.
Amid the modern malls and highways of Pakistan, one can still glimpse vignettes of an era long past in Charda Punjab. At Gurudwara Sacha Sauda, I was amazed to see a man hoisting a traditional leather mushk (water bag) on his shoulders, something I had only heard about.
Later, Amrinder shared photos of a farmer plowing his fields with a bullock and a wooden plow while I remembered seeing fields irrigated by a wheeled drip irrigation system. It is the reality of our world, where huge disparities still co-exist.
Pakistan has had a mixed relationship with Sikhs varying between extremes of hatred in the years after the partition to a warm welcome today. It would be naïve to think one visit can change decades of mistrust between our communities.
A visit is a first step in building trust and friendship. I have taken that step and hope that many others like me will also do so, bringing us closer to an enduring peace for our homeland.
In Pakistan itself, there is a positive change reflected in the visibility of Pakistani Sikhs participating in public service. Pawan Arora serves as an important officer in the Governor’s office, while Major Hercharan Singh is the first Sikh to serve as a commissioned officer in the Pakistan army.
I am told the official narrative has been heavily Islamic in content, but today I find there is increased awareness and participation by Pakistanis themselves to discover, learn and preserve the heritage they share with other religious communities. This ownership by citizens has been pivotal in creating a ripple effect, which has not gone unnoticed in the diaspora.
Authors like Haroon Khalid have written engaging books, and Nadhra S.A. Khan and Khizar Javed have done extensive academic research on Sikh heritage. Iqbal Qaiser and other citizen-historians have put in the hard work of finding Sikh heritage sites and documenting them.
Shabir Shah, a popular social media vlogger, has connected Sikhs and Punjabis from all over the world as has Lovely Singh of Punjabi Lehar YouTube channel.
Afzal Saahir’s poetry touches a chord in all Punjabi speakers, and social entrepreneurs like Jahandad Khan Tanoli and Salman Kazi are connecting Sikhs with their lost heritage through tourism.
It is the sum total of the work of these passionate stakeholders, who are reclaiming this shared heritage as an important part of Pakistani national heritage, which will change the misleading narratives of the past. This is the only way our common heritage will succeed in bringing people together in the true spirit of Baba Nanak’s legacy.
My visit has changed me personally. Today, the citizens of Pakistan are not just Pakistanis. They are people first. They are no longer the demonized “other” for me. Many among them are my friends now.
This is what a personal connection has the power to change. And this is exactly why governments are wary of enabling such experiences.
This is particularly true for my home state of Punjab, which is the historical gateway to the rest of India. It is always in the crossfire of any military escalation between India and Pakistan.
As neighbors, sharing a 500km border with Pakistan, Punjabi’s must see through these shenanigans. In the absence of this understanding, Punjab will continue to pay a very heavy price.
As an artist says – Peace is a tune anyone can play.
(The spectacular photographs and videos taken by Amrinder Singh and A.K. Sandhu enhance this reflection. Always have artists in your group )