While I was growing up, one of the few things my rather quiet mother would often talk about was her time in Amritsar. She had spent the first few years of her married life there and was, understandably, very fond of the place. Among many other stories the one that came out most often was how, while in the town, she and father would only listen to Radio Pakistan, and watch only Pakistani TV: not only was the transmission easily accessible—Amritsar is hardly a stone’s throw away from Lahore – but also, according to her, the quality and content of the Pakistani Radio as well as television was far superior than its Indian counterparts.
My first rendezvous with Pakistani shows happened much later, in the late 80s when they had started to make way into our drawing rooms through the VCR. Like most other erudite people, who looked down upon the violent, cheap Hindi films of the era, my parents had also migrated to Pakistani shows. They would get the entire series of popular Pakistani series’ like Dhoop Kinare, Tanhaiyan, Ankahee, on video tapes and would watch them back to back, often throughout the night. Something they never did otherwise.
It will be incorrect to say that at the age of eight I followed the context or the complexity of the shows, but I distinctly remember looking forward to watching them with my parents. There was something supremely soothing about those everyday stories, which although were not the same as ours, were not entirely different either.
While on one hand the accessibility to the TV shows of Pakistan was dependent on multiple factors, some within our control, some outside of it, Pakistani music was a permanent fixture in our house. Tapes of Ghulam Ali, Farida Khanum, and Mehdi Hassan, among many others, were played every single evening in our home. To say I grew up on their poetry and their music will not be incorrect.
But this was until fifteen years ago, while I was still in my parent’s home.
After moving out like most comforting things that had to be given up in pursuit of a career, the music and memories of our neighbours were also abandoned. Even though they tried to make their presence felt occasionally, they were never paid heed to: there were more important matters to attend.
Another thing had happened in this time: The Kargil War.
After witnessing the death and destruction of the war and the failed attempts towards restoring peace between the two countries afterwards, I, like many others of my generation, had completely switched off from Pakistan. The growing terrorism and extremism there had only added fuel to fire. In just a few years Pakistan became an unknown, alienated land with unknown people and places. The only tales we heard were tales of war and terrorism; the only TV coverage we saw was that of devastation. And so, slowly but steadily, the country ceased to exist for me.
In the past few months, since I began to read more and more of Indian fiction, especially the works of Manto and Khushwant Singh centered around the partition, I was once again piqued about the place. Around the same time I heard about the recent crop of Pakistani serials that has been playing on Indian channels. My parents, who are otherwise averse to the TV, were seen glued to a certain channel at a certain time through the months that the series ran. They would even talk to me about it fondly over long-distance phone calls, often reminiscing of their Amritsar days.
Perhaps it was the conversation with my parents, perhaps the literature that I had been reading, or perhaps just plain chance, that I started looking up, and listening to, a lot of Pakistani music around the same time. Not the traditional Nazms and Ghazals that I grew up on, but contemporary music. What began with just curiosity, ended with me playing Coke Studio Pakistan in loop through many weekends and watching music videos for days at end. In other words I became my parents.
These endless hours of watching them in action taught me many things, but most importantly, it made me realize that Pakistan is not the orthodox, backward, old-fashioned country that it is made out to be. It showed me that even today, after almost 70 years of being different, often warring, entities, how similar Pakistanis and Indians are—in their music, language, culture, even looks: but for the titles, I mostly cannot tell their music from ours, their shows from ours, their literature from ours, their people from ours.
While reading a few texts, watching a few shows, and listening to a few songs does not make me a scholar in the subject, it surely gives me enough reason to believe that India and Pakistan were not meant to be broken up. And, if not for the British, the border, and the political vendetta, the common man of the two countries would probably prefer to be together—not only in music, films, television, but in everything else. I hope I live to see the day that happens.