By Anahita Mukherji
October 16, 2015
On a Wednesday night in Mumbai, a young boy and his family from Karachi found themselves sleeping on the pavements because no hotel in town would allow them entry. My colleague, Mateen Hafeez, a tenacious crime reporter with a pulse on Mumbai’s grimy underbelly, wrote of how this family was denied entry to a dozen lodges and hotels because they were Pakistani. Their valid visas were of no consequence. This unfortunate Pakistani family’s tryst with Mumbai is in stark contrast with the warmth that any Mumbaikar visiting Karachi can vouch for.
As a member of a Mumbai Press Club delegation that visited Karachi in 2011 on the invitation of the Karachi Press Club, I can vouch for the fact that there is virtually no other country where Indians are made to feel as welcome as they are in Pakistan. While it’s tempting to conclude that journalists get special treatment, the chaatwala in a busy bylane of Karachi’s saddar bazaar had not seen our press cards when he invited us into his shop and insisted on giving us free cold-drinks because he had overheard us saying we were Indians and told us we were guests in his country. His mother was from Rajasthan; meeting Indians got him nostalgic.
What struck me most about Karachi was how similar it was to Mumbai. Pre-partition, the two had long been called sister cities. Like Mumbai, Karachi has a delicious mix of cultures and communities, with its sprawling Parsi baugs, its Goans, its Sindhis and even a smattering of Malayalis in the city. Our delegation was often complemented on how well we spoke Urdu – until we told them we weren’t speaking Urdu, we were speaking Hindi.
While visiting Pakistan, for the first time I realized just how much the ordinary folk there loved Indian cinema. The Ranbir Kapoor-starrer Rockstar was playing in Pakistani theatres at the time. Indian actors were plastered across hoardings, and every other household in Karachi was hooked to Hindi soap operas. An elderly woman who could not understand Hindi got her daughter-in-law to translate the serials for her. Pakistan’s overwhelming love for Hindi cinema and serials prompted me to write this piece in 2011. I even remember a Pakistani immigration officer at the airport who took one look at my passport and asked if I was related to Rani Mukherji. He then launched off into a conversation about how much he admired the actor. Every young woman I met in Karachi was either a Shah Rukh, Aamir or Salman fan. Ironically the little boy from Karachi, part of the six member family who slept on the streets of Mumbai earlier this week, was a huge fan of Salman Khan and was dying to meet Bajrangi Bhaijan.
There’s something schizophrenic about the fact that Bajrangi Bhaijan – the story of the son of an RSS worker who undergoes extreme hardship to help a mute little Pakistani girl get back home – went on to become a blockbuster in India, while a family from Karachi could not find a lodge to stay the night in Mumbai.
But then again, there has always been something schizophrenic about the way Mumbai has reacted to Pakistan. Take for instance the manner in which the Shiv Sena, who’s muscle power far outweighs its intellect, has occasionally fraternized with famous Pakistanis while attacking others. On the one hand, the Sena is known to have hosted former Pakistani cricketer Javed Miandad, and its little princeling Aditya Thackeray recently attended an award ceremony where Rahat Fateh Ali Khan had been invited to sing. On the other hand, the Sena stalled a Ghulam Ali concert in Mumbai and blackened the face of writer Sudheendra Kulkarni over the launch of former Pakistan foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri’s book.
The selective outrage against Pakistan is often justified on the grounds that Pakistan was involved in the Mumbai terror attack. Ironically terrorists like Ajmal Kasab and his nine friends seem to be the only ones who have had no problem breezing across international maritime waters. Fishermen on both sides of the border are routinely captured, while ordinary Indians and Pakistanis have found it excruciatingly hard to get visas for each other’s countries. The idea that preventing ordinary Indians and Pakistanis from mingling with each other would, in some way, prevent cross-border terrorism is absurd.
One of the masterminds of the Mumbai terror-attacks, David Coleman Headley, had no problem finding himself a home in Mumbai. But an ordinary family from Karachi with valid visa documents, eager to explore Maximum City, found itself sleeping on the streets. Our counter-terrorism strategies don’t quite seem to work.