- We sat across from each other, a flickering candle between us. It was a mellow moment. “Would you have ever married a Pakistani?” he asked.
Inside the well-rounded cosmopolitan atheist persona of Shujaat Rizvi, there was a Pakistani nationalist and Islamist waiting to come out.
I turned out to be the catalyst, unfortunately, for this ‘homecoming’. Today, when I sound a bit wary about cross-border alliances, I have reason to believe that even if you share a faith, the political dimensions leap out like dragons. There are many relationships that cannot even venture into the circus arena as static cable wires, phone lines and meetings die slowly. More importantly, they bring out certain prejudices that we do not know we possess. Our earlier conversations about Sartre and Sinatra came unhinged as it soon turned into a battle of, and for, national and religious identity.
The day I landed in Islamabad, Shujaat decided to take me for dinner. We sat across from each other, a flickering candle between us. It was a mellow moment. “Would you have ever married a Pakistani?” he asked.
We were not young. I was newly single, hammering the nail on the coffin of a marriage gone wrong; he was a confirmed bachelor.
I had never thought about people as countries, but apparently that baggage had gone along with me. “Perhaps...” I muttered, afraid even of hypothesis.
“It is easy to get you a Pakistani passport and even an ID card. All that can be arranged.”
“I said I did not mind marrying a Pakistani, I did not say I would live in Pakistan.”
“This is a better place. You can walk with your head held high. You don’t have to suffer during communal riots. This is an Islamic country. There is no pretence.”
He was curious about the Muslim women in India. When I told him about the relative freedom of movement, at least among the urban, educated woman, and cross-religious alliances, he flared up. “I do not think Indian Muslims can get equal status by marrying their women to Hindu men. It is nauseating to imagine...”
He could not understand that relationships were not based on religion. “With such westernised and modern views, do not tell me that the man would say Islamic prayers before, after and during their intimate moments.”
Shujaat’s knowledge of this aspect was based on biased news and stereotypes, mine on experience. His prism only showed him a Muslim utopia. Was this about the scriptures or nationalities?
“If you don’t have a problem about nationalities, then why would you not live in Pakistan?” he queried.
“I cannot even live in America.”
“I think your attachment to your country is like a bad habit. Like smoking it can cause cancer. I am sure Muslims in your country would feel the same.”
It was a curious exchange at many levels – he appeared to be testing me personally and politically. Rather than a candlelight dinner, it seemed like Roosevelt’s fireside chat to his people via radio.
He had been active in student politics and his ideological leanings were leftist. He was clear that if he married an Indian, they would have to live in a Muslim country. It surprised me, for he was educated in the West and had worked outside too. In fact, during his stay in the US, he came close to getting involved with an Indian woman.
“Not just an Indian woman, but a Brahmin one. There was this desire to have an affair, a short affair.”
“So, would you not become impure?” I asked, since he often alluded to my cultural impurity.
“This would not be about love but hate. It is like war. You don’t love the land you occupy.”
This was territorial, whichever you looked at it – geographically or psychologically. We drifted apart, never to meet again, characters leaving the stage empty for more biases to resound.
- - -
(c) This is my column in Express Tribune, April 12.
Some portions in this piece are from my book ‘A Journey Interrupted: Being Indian in Pakistan’.