By Chayanika Saxena
When the media narratives and the political discourses often tell us that India and Pakistan are incorrigible antithesis of one another, an experience beyond this clichéd frame took me and many others by surprise. It was the sight of young Pakistanis singing the Indian national anthem Jan Gana Man with us Indians as we chorused our way with utmost patriotism. It was at a conference of South Asian youth in Colombo and the experience, so surreal to say the least, left us pondering about prevailing mindsets and, perhaps, a little hopeful, about the future.
Selected as a part of the Indian delegation, it was the 5th South Asian Youth Conference (SAYC) that not only carried me to the beautiful island nation of Sri Lanka, but it got me in the midst of a gathering of young and not-so-young-but-young-at-heart folks from the eight South Asian countries – India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives.
Organized by a group of young South Asian enthusiasts in association with the South Asia chapter of Atlantic Council, the 5th SAYC was convened around the theme of peace, prosperity and development in South Asia. More of a cultural conversation and not a typical (read as boring) academic conference, the participants from (almost) every South Asian country brought with them expressions of their expectations; our national and collective aspirations resounded in the halls of the conference venue and not our grievances.
Interestingly, none of the political, diplomatic or strategic ‘issues’ that I otherwise read and work on were raked up. Indians were not despised as the ‘big brother’ for a change and every one danced to the coolest Bollywood numbers and watched Bollywood hits like ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’ and ‘Vicky Donor’ together. The otherwise wary Afghans and Pakistanis exchanged hugs every day forgetting their political divide over the Durand Line and cross-Taliban extremism. The Nepalese gossiped with us about the Hindi serials they watch, making the continuing border agitation look like as though it was happening in some parallel universe. And, the long-standing Kashmir issue was left where it was - out of the sanctorum of what had become a temple of harmony and solidarity.
Carrying cross-country blood in me, with my maternal ancestors coming from the other side of the Radcliffe Line, I have always fancied declaring myself as a child of two national cultures. In fact, I was mistaken for a Pakistani all the while I was in Sri Lanka, with the truly yours bluffing with a very young Maldivian every time he saw me in the Indian cohort for he was of the belief that I was not an Indian. I did not correct him until the end because more than the sheer fun I was getting seeing him bewildered, it was gladdening for me to know that at some level we all looked, felt and expressed alike!
This South Asian melee was certainly not a new experience for me. Having spent two years of my life at the South Asian University in New Delhi - which is an academic institution run by SAARC - I looked forward to the SAYC more as a déjà-vu experience. But, it became more than just that. As the academic, heated discussions were conveniently stowed away, all that we were left with were the joys of collective singing, dancing, role-playing and peace-building exercises that worked more on our personal desires and not on what we were fed by our respective political and journalistic discourses.
In fact, some of the workshops had their inspiration drawn from what appears to be known by everyone in the whole of South Asia: Hindi movies and the (epic long) serial, Kyunki saans bhi kabhi bahu thi. One such activity had us do silent acts from folk-tales and movies likeHeer Ranjha, Sholay, depicting the viciousness of revenge and how muddled it is to pin-point who the villain, hero and victim are.
Apart from the smiles and hugs that were traded, this gathering also helped us shatter our perceptions about the quintessential ‘other’; they are no longer ‘other’ for me and are rather those who are like me, but with a different individuality. Congratulatory and loving notes were exchanged between the delegates, with the Indians dedicating their support to Pakistanis, and the latter reciprocating the warmth by joining us in singing Indian national anthem. I would not be exaggerating when I tell you that I was getting goose bumps as I held the mike, singing Tagore’s Jana Gana Mana (yes, this lady is a semi-trained singer) and saw the lot of eight Pakistanis singing with us. It was an emotional experience that concluded with warm, tight embraces.
Wrapping up this five-day long South Asian affair, the cultural night became the most evident sight of how cultures can and should melt into one another. From the foot-tapping dances on Sindhi tunes (Pakistan) to the rock anthems from Sri Lanka; the mesmerizing Bangla songs and the Nepali and Afghan folk dances were some of the key highlights of the night when we 80 people bonded like they came from the same cultural stock.
Concluding this eventful jamboree, a duet performance of mine with a Pakistani friend I made was a song whose lyrics became the prayer on the lips of every South Asian: kaisi sarhadein, kaisi majbooriyaan, mitt gayi dooriyaan, main yahaan hoon yahaan (from the Hindi movie, Veer Zaara; translated: what boundaries, what limitations; all of these have been erased for I am here now). Wish it becomes the reality of South Asia soon!
(Chayanika Saxena is a Research Associate at the Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi. She can be reached at:firstname.lastname@example.org)