We were greeted with drumbeats, garlands, and slogans at the entrance of the theater. There were shouts of 'Visa-free India and Pakistan' from the assembled crowd. on the stairs stood dozens of young people with gelled hair, carefully trimmed goatees, and baggy jeans.
Their hands flung back carelessly or pressed together casually in front of their chests looked rather empty without the cigarettes that would have completed the profile. The boys were lean with flat stomachs, bulging biceps rippling out of their branded tee shirts. The girls, many of them chewing gums, stared at us with amused eyes. They had no dupattas (a scarf or covering for the head and upper body worn by women).
It was our first evening in Lahore. We were a group of around seventeen Indians – singers, writers, intellectuals, retired army generals, priests, and peace activists – who had come to Pakistan to take part in a three-day seminar for a visa-free South Asia. We had crossed into the country the same afternoon and had only managed to refresh ourselves in a guest house situated in the Gulberg residential district of Lahore before being driven to this nearby auditorium to attend a play being organized in our honor.
A Snapshot from the Play – Sisters Reading Letters
Being Right and Polite
A grey-colored stone bust of Mr Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the man who divided India and created Pakistan, smiled at us in the lobby. Many of us Indians draped our rose garlands around the bust of this gentleman, one of the most controversial figures of the twentieth century. It was a politically correct act and the older people among the Pakistanis admiringly watched us from a distance. They then overwhelmed us with a renewed vigor of hugging and back-slapping.
Inside the Theater
The young people, so dripping with attitude, spoke to us in American accents while escorting us to our seats in the auditorium. Many Pakistanis waiting inside rose from their seats and started clapping as we embarrassedly fumbled our way in the artfully lit darkness of the hall. We blushed, smiled shyly, and shook hands with the people, still disbelieving to find ourselves in Pakistan, when the Urdu-speaking hostess called us to the stage for a group photograph to be taken.
After the formalities were performed and the two-minute welcome speeches recited, everyone settled down to watch the play.
Some Tender Moments
A young girl dressed in black jeans and a white shirt climbed up on the stage and introduced herself as Bakht Arif. She launched the evening by singing a Hindi devotional song which lamented the cruelty of men and wondered how human beings, children of the same God – Ishwar and Allah being his other names – could be capable of killing their fellow men by creating divides of religions and borders.
The song did not disappoint. It subtly played its part and gradually engulfed us with its beautiful sentiments. Heads bobbed up and down like rippling sea waves across the dark hall. There were murmurs of 'how true, oh how true' among the audience. To make the mood more somber, Ms Arif's voice was so sweet, her tune so full of sad reflection, the expressions on her face so visibly reflecting pain and anguish that some ladies even fiddled with handkerchiefs. Most men were shy, and perhaps ashamed to cry, pretended to appear unperturbed.
It was not difficult to fall a willing victim to the melancholic magic of the song. There were many Pakistanis present in the hall who dreamed the impossibility of someday traveling to India, the country that weighs so heavy in their mindscape; the land they see only in Bollywood spectaculars; the motherland which once was theirs but no longer.
There were also quite a few Indians present in the hall who were awed at this rare opportunity to be in Pakistan and who believed they wouldn't be able to visit it again. And now these Indians and these Pakistanis were actually sitting together, looking at each other for the first time, hearing each others' voices, discovering that they were so similar and yet so different, listening to this moving song being rendered without the aid of any musical instrument.
Amidst such divided people, the song mournfully dwelled on the root cause of their divide, the rift between the Hindus and the Muslims. How could one remain unaffected?
Usual Sub-continental Snags
The play was titled Kahin Dair Na Ho Jay (Lest It Be Delayed) in Urdu. It had an unpromising start. There was no curtain in the first place. The back area of the stage, being used as a green room, was shielded by a white sheet which seemed to have been borrowed from a shabby household. There were shadows furiously swarming around behind it.
Suddenly somebody appeared from behind the sheet with a cane chair and placed it on the front of the stage. He was swiftly followed by somebody else who angrily murmured something to the first somebody and took the chair back. The first somebody looked appropriately guilty. This provoked further confusion among the actors, providing a sufficiently long interval of time to look around.
The first thought was that Pakistanis looked so, well, normal – like Indians.
On a more careful observation, however, one finally managed to discern certain differences. The ladies were more regal looking. Not even one was dressed in a sari. They all wore shalwaar kameeze (Shalwar are loose trousers and the kameeze is a long shirt), with kameeze so tight that it was difficult to avoid noticing their huge breasts. There were a large proportion of elderly women who looked like Indira Gandhi and Golda Meir, their smart bobbed hair streaked with straight dashes of grey. Many had white-pearl necklaces adorning their necks. Almost all the women were smoking.
The men on the other hand, with their beards and trademark shalwar kameeze, were more traditional in their appearance. They acted as if they were lackeys of the ladies. The young girls were like young girls everywhere – restless, giggling, and whispering with hands covering their lips. There was a child, not more than ten years, sitting demurely with her head covered in a white dupatta. She remained serious and looked all-knowing, as if matured far beyond her age.
The disorder among the actors was still not resolved. The hall continued to hum with murmured conversations carried out in hushed tones. Suddenly, the sound system made crackling noises and spluttered to life.
More confusion followed. More muffled shouts and screams emanated from behind the sheet. More running around took place. More of everything described so far happened again before the speakers came alive with Bhangra music.
A Sikh bride-to-be and a Sikh groom-to-be sat down on the extreme ends of the stage, which we were told by a female voiceover, should be understood as a locality in Amritsar, a neighboring town on the Indian side of the international border. The bride's sister and other women friends sang a mischievous Punjabi folk song wishing marital happiness. The lyrics were aimed to playfully tease the groom whose friends, in turn, did a wild Bhangra dance around him.
The scene lasted a couple of minutes before the song came to an end. The actors amusingly realized it pretty late and continued to dance, provoking laughter from the audience (we Indians stifled ours).
The next act focused on the bride shyly sharing gossip about her would-be husband with her sister. The play was set in a terrible time of history, when India was cracking up and Pakistan had just came into existence, when Muslims were killing Hindus and Sikhs, and Hindus and Sikhs were chopping up Muslims.
As usually happens in plays and films depicting such themes, a party of Muslim rioters, played by the same actors who were earlier dancing as the groom's friends, came flashing their paper swords. With the cries of 'Allah Ho Akbar' echoing in the hall, they forcibly snatched the bride from her sister and took her away.
The younger sister was left weeping and shocked. The voice-over narrated that the Sikh bride was kidnapped and taken away to the neighboring city of Lahore, a city which at the last moment was hastily given away to Pakistan by the departing British during the re-drawing of India's map.
The Plot Thickens
Time journeyed along in the play. The entire audience was bewitched by now. The sister who was kidnapped to Pakistan was made to convert to Islam and later married to a Muslim man. Gradually adapting herself to the Muslim way of living, her only wish was to see her younger sister in Amritsar across the international border. The enmity between India and Pakistan had solidified and it was impossible for the poor, non-influential people of the two countries to visit their relatives and friends on the opposing side.
Meanwhile the sisters, one Sikh and the other Muslim, one Indian and the other Pakistani, exchanged letters regularly. Sadly their desire to meet in person remained unfulfilled. The sisters lived separate lives, gave birth to babies, were widowed, and became grandmothers, but the continued tensions between the two nations did not enable them to reunite with each other.
Inevitably, the hopelessness of the heart made the sisters, both bent and worn with age, frustrated and broken.
The Despair and the Helplessness
Both Indians and Pakistanis watching the play could understand and empathize with the sisters. We were painfully aware that Amritsar in India and Lahore in Pakistan had a convenient distance of less than forty miles separating each other. In fact the Indians amongst us had our lunch there that day!
We were aware that in spite of so close a distance, most of the Pakistanis watching the play would find it easier to fly to Atlanta than to drive to Amritsar. We realized that in spite of the fact that it takes a longer time to commute between the two extremities of Bombay than to travel from Amritsar to Lahore, most Indians would never get to visit this great city.
All this when it could be so comfortable, inexpensive, and easy to travel between the two nations!
In the afternoon, while crossing the international border, the formalities and the ceremonies that Pakistanis reserve for Indians and the Indians reserve for Pakistanis were so complicated and intriguing that we could not help from sighing in exhaustion at the end of it.
On the other hand the westerners, both Americans and Europeans, had an effortless time while crossing the border. They were even permitted to drive in their own cars! We all wanted to be white people.
Yes, we could understand the heart-breaking frustration of the sisters.
It is no big deal to travel between the two cities but for the invincible border, which is like a barrier that makes the other side so unbelievable and unreal it becomes tantalizing to imagine wild things about it.
Coming back to the play, the older sister finally managed to cross the border into India, but it was too late. The younger sister had died.
It was Excellent
The play, very deservedly, received a standing ovation in the end. Despite the amateurishness, it was cleverly scripted, boldly executed, and extremely well acted. We all were moved.