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    Mumbai, personally

    Bombay, personally

    'We would be stronger united. America would not dare bully us.' This is the spirit one encounters in Bombay -- Karachi's vibrant, charismatic, long-lost twin



    By Beena Sarwar

    "Pakistan?" The young woman behind the cell phone counter in an old part of Bombay appears taken aback on learning where I'm from, then glances about to see who else is listening. Apparently I'm the first Pakistani she has ever met. And I look just like anyone from her own country.

    Her name tag pronounces that she is Naseem, and she tells me that actually, her mother is from Quetta. "I wish I could see it!" she says. "I wonder what the currency looks like..." I fumble in my bag, find an almost-new ten rupee note for her -- she holds it up, studies it, and excitedly shows it to her colleagues, who gather around interestedly. As she starts to give it back, I shake my head, "You can keep it." Seeing her hesitation, I add, "It's a present from Pakistan, you can show it to your mother."

    "No, how can I? I have nothing to give you...wait!" She turns and goes to a locker, offers me an Indian note in exchange. "I've kept this for a long time, the serial number has a special meaning for me. Please, you take it," she says. It's a crisp ten-rupee Indian note. "It includes 786, the Islamic holy numbers that stand for Bismillah," I explain to my friend, fellow journalist Kalpana Sharma who is looking on bemusedly.

    At the end of all this, I have a local cell number for just over four hundred (Indian) rupees, including tax, SIM card and Rs 150 worth of talk time.

    Across town, young Arif Pervez and another Pakistani friend are going through a similar experience, but without an Indian host to provide the photo-ID and local address. "When they saw my Pakistani passport they didn't know quite what to do. They kept saying, 'No problem, we'll just get it for you sir," but there were a lot of phone consultations and surreptitious looks -- and reassuring smiles -- before we got it." The fact that he got it, says a lot for the improving relations between the two countries.

    Why are the visiting Pakistanis so keen to have local cell phones? For one thing, it's useful at an event like the World Social Forum where some 100,000 other human beings are milling about. For another, many people like to be connected, but leaving aside the high roaming charges of our parent companies, India and Pakistan are probably the only two neighbouring countries in the world where you cross the border and the roaming stops. Indian and Pakistani cell phones can't even talk to or text-message each other from their respective countries... If this is not on the agenda in the forthcoming talks, it should be.

    Back to Naseem and currency... Another journalist friend from Delhi, Bharat Bhushan, has an interesting story from his last visit to Karachi, where Qasim Bhai, a taxi driver, talked nostalgically about the 'the Victoria Asian ships' that used to ferry the Karachi-Bombay route, at 18 rupees a trip. "Nobody asked me whether my money was Indian or Pakistani," said Qasim. Hard to believe today, when we can't even change Pakistani currency into Indian or vice versa -- we have to use US dollars, British pounds or Euros.

    But the talk of a common currency has gained, well, currency. As Qasim Bhai says, "We may have become two different countries but we can come together through trade and commerce. If Europe can have euro, why can't we? I tell you these Americans and Europeans will be afraid of us if we had one currency."

    Naveed Akhtar, a 27-year-old farmer from Layyah, agrees. "Not only should we have a single currency like the euro, we should also encourage free movement across borders. While the India and Pakistan boundary should remain intact, people should be allowed go across by just registering at a check-post". ('Common currency, not Kashmir -- Bond of business stronger than break over territory', The Telegraph, December 20, 2003).

    Many people one came across in India hold similar views. Initial shock followed by a warm response is typical of what Pakistanis visiting India encounter. "There should be friendship between us, why not?" asks Abdul Jalil, a wiry, bearded riksha driver in Guregaon area. "We need to do away with these borders, we would be stronger united. America would not dare bully us."

    Many such responses come from the migrants who had have come to live here looking for work -- just like Karachi. Others are visiting for the World Social Forum, where Indian participants often asked the Pakistani delegates for their contact numbers and even 'autographs'.

    'Stage Brecht' at WSF is packed for Habib Tanvir's 'Pongal Pandit' which pokes unabashed fun at pomposity and religious self-righteousness -- the ageing but spirited director has been physically attacked for this play, even though, as he stresses, it is not 'his' but a 1935 play he revived with local, unlettered actors. Next to me, Ganesh Prasad from a village in Madhya Pradesh, writes his address down between scenes and says, "Please, some time, write to me from Pakistan." Others seated nearby join in. "Pakistan? Where from in Pakistan?" The man next to Ganesh has an uncle living in Korangi, Karachi.

    A young factory worker from UP is perhaps typical of the hundreds of ordinary people out for a recreational stroll at Azad Maidan (from where Gandhi launched the resistance) only to find the WSF closing plenary under way: "Ma'am, where are you from, Pakistan? Can I have your sign please?"

    Now strangers, we were once one. After partition, permits were gradually introduced and then finally the passport system and visa restrictions that now keep us so much apart that coming across an Indian or Pakistani in the other country is almost a shock. But so great is the yearning and the desire to meet -- perhaps now more so, as a realization seeps into national consciousness that peace is the only way forward for us -- that when you do come into contact with each other, there is more often than not, this spontaneous warmth and welcoming, and of course curiosity.

    At least, that is what one found in Bombay -- or Mumbai, as the Shiv Sena government re-named it in 1996. Locals use the names interchangeably, although many persist with the old 'Bombay' as an assertion of its multi-cultural, rather than Marathi, identity. It reminds one so much of Karachi -- it has the same commercial pull, the same sea laps its shores. "Mumbai is the finance capital of the nation, the industrial hub of everything from textiles to petrochemicals, and it's responsible for half the country's foreign trade. But while it has aspirations to become another Singapore, it's also a magnet to the rural poor. It's these new migrants who are continually re-shaping the city in their own image, making sure Mumbai keeps one foot in its hinterland and the other in the global market," says The Lonely Plant Guide to India. They might have been talking about Karachi...

    "Karachi is just like Bombay was 20, maybe 30 years ago," comments the filmmaker Anand Patwardhan as we taxi our way across town, from the incredibly crowded Dadar area where he lives to meet friends for dinner at a more uptown area. If that's true, Karachi's city government would do well to study Bombay's problems and preempt some of them. A lot of positive steps have been taken in the older areas of the city, where historic old buildings have been cleaned up, entire localities preserved, and roads fixed. The more secular minded Bombayites or Mumbaiyas, grumble at how roads and buildings have been renamed after 'Chatrapati' Shivaji, the Marathi king, but most people still use the old names.

    Kalpana's driver Shashi is Marathi, but he doesn't like the Shiv Sena or any of the other Hindutva types. "They just create trouble," he grumbles as we navigate the coastal road past the famous Haji Ali mosque at the end of a long causeway that places the mosque in the middle of the Arabian Sea. The same sea that laps the shores of Pakistan...

    Behind us, huge hoardings of Bal Thakeray are being put up to celebrate the Shiv Sena leader's birthday. Shashi, who lives in a 700-room 'chawl' (tenement) in south Bombay, doesn't have much time for such politicians. "Look at how much they spend on these things," he grumbles, adding, "He's a mahabadmash, only creates laphars. These politicians only foment hatred.

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    Shashi is proud that his own locality with its 5000 voters has never seen a communal clash. Their dada or community head is a Nepali Gharwali, who has held that position for the last 25 years. "He never thinks of his own religion or caste when it comes to the community. He puts the interests of the people first. And we have all religions and castes living there, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, everyone lives together." Obviously, leadership matters.

    Despite the sceptre of communal riots that has haunted India particularly since the Ayodhya mosque was razed, Bombay has on the whole remained peaceful, even through the next round of carnage, Gujarat. Muslim names are openly displayed at sweetmeat or garments shops, and most of the riksha or taxi drivers one encounters seem to be Muslim. But the spirit of reconciliation and the desire for friendship appeared strong in most of the ordinary people -- shopkeepers, taxi or riksha drivers, commuters -- whom the visiting Pakistanis encountered, regardless of religion or caste, with perhaps a few exceptions.

    "It seems that the city has decided that it wants no part of this communalism after the last horrific lapse at the time of the Ayodhya riots," says Kalpana. "It's too much of a strain on business." Karachi re-visited.

    We come across people, mostly young men, lining up for the opening of a photographic exhibition of Marathi forts by Bal Thakaray's son at the famous Jehangir Art Gallery in the picturesque old area in the city's south. "Always a communal angle," says a young artist friend of Kalpana's we run into, referring to the Shiv Sena's idealizing of the Marathi rulers who resisted the Mughals. The politics of identity, ethnicity, religion, nationality still have a pull. But more and more people seem to be realizing that it is the politics of humanity which will prevail if humanity is to survive.

    Upstairs, the Gallery Chemould is exhibiting a thought-provoking show called 'Cities, Countries and Borders" -- wood-cut prints by the New York-based artist Zarina Hashmi, who has friends and relatives in India and Pakistan.

    "The line is just in everyone's head," says Zarina Hashmi, who will be exhibiting in Karachi and Lahore this month. She is talking about the print titled 'Dividing Line' that evokes the line between India and Pakistan. "Our generation has come to peace with it a long time ago. So if India and Pakistan are holding peace talks now, I'm glad. I just wish they had done it earlier." (The Indian Express, January 14, 04).

    Shireen Gandhi, who runs Chemould, is keen on joint art exhibitions and projects between Indian and Pakistani artists. She is already in touch with several about such possibilities.

    Haresh Shah, a member of the Khadi and Village Industries Commission, wants Pakistani designers to style his textiles, and work out a value-added deal for both the Indians and the Pakistanis. "We can work out a special quota for each other," he says. "We could even work out barter deals, and pool our resources to fight our common problems, like poverty, illiteracy, battered women, or whatever."

    This is the spirit one encountered more than any other, during that all-too brief visit to what seems to be Karachi's vibrant, charismatic, long-lost twin.

    But a word of caution for any Indian or Pakistani travelers crossing the border -- all the excitement and enthusiasm at being able to take a direct flight is likely to be dampened by the surly immigration officers on both sides. If the Pakistani officers in Karachi took forever to clear us, resulting in an hour-long delay to the flight, the Indians on the other side were no better. They herd Pakistanis into separate lines, and a 'registration' procedure which should take no more than half an hour ends up taking three times that much.

    At the end of it all, if you have an open mind, the trip is still worth it.

    Love,

    Muhammad Badar Alam

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