November Issue 2009
Encounters of Another Kind
When the venue was Lahore, I would have jumped at the chance even if it was a conference on poodle-grooming. But the invitation was for a gathering of mediawomen, a breed arguably closer to Rotweillers — and definitely a greater incentive to seize the opportunity.
Lahore is a city of evocative layers even for someone like me with no ancestral connections. The first time it settled dreamily into my subconscious was when I came across a reference in a book on Armenian settlements in undivided India, which I was proof-reading as a schoolgirl. The book was written by Annie Basil, a friend of my mother and published by my father. In it, the poet who had migrated there from his homeland had written, “Isfahan is half the world/Provided there is no Lahore.” The thought and its expression just blew my mind.
In a more adult formative period, I lapped up my first editor Khushwant Singh’s tales of his rites of passage at Lahore’s Law College, and the intellectual ferment of the place. Twenty years later, I sat rapt by the descriptions of Anarkali Bazaar by Rai Bahadur Singh Oberoi, whose biography I was writing for Penguin. Rai Bahadur was 94, slowed down by a stroke, but none of this seemed to come in the way of his memories of watching the caravan of commerce and lissome beauty as a callow youth in this bewitching serai.
Lahore was so physically close, and so politically distant when, just two years ago, I had gone to Amritsar and had been persuaded to witness the daily dusk-time Beating Retreat at Wagah. There was something of the absurd about the security forces of either side exaggeratedly kicking high their jackboots, and the amassed crowds on either side screaming their parodied patriotism.
Now here we were on October 9, 30 Indian mediawomen along with a much smaller Bhutanese delegation crossing that same checkpost. This time there was no frenzied jingoism, only the fragrance of garlands as our Pakistani counterparts beamed to receive us. Stepping lightly on to the other side was an act laden with self consciousness — and metaphor.
Bangladesh has had its own fractured history with Pakistan, but India’s is more replete with symbolism. So, apart from our going to attend the first regional conference of South Asian Women in Media (SAWM), for me, and for many of my colleagues also crossing the border for the first time, it was a metaphysical breaching of thelakshamana rekha, a gesture of fellow-feeling. Genuine, undoubtedly; open-minded, of course, but not unqualified.
It’s unpleasant but not untrue to say that Pakistan is more obsessed with India than vice versa. So it was only natural that the bilateral would keep hijacking what was congenitally a multilateral concept. As naturally, the resentment was felt and expressed by our colleagues, especially from Afghanistan who, quite rightly believe that they live with politicised violence sired in a similar stew on a more daily basis. Ironically, even the Indian delegation from Jammu & Kashmir voiced its protest. This was over 26/11 overshadowing what they have had to live with — and die from — for longer decades, again as a matter of routine recurrence, not merely in one set of images that riveted the country and the world in horrifying disbelief.
But for my newfound Pakistani colleagues I am sure as much as it was for me, this bilateral exchange was necessary. As journalists we have to be objective and report the truth as we see it, or perceive it. To think that a regional body will automatically defuse the separate and overlapping tensions among the countries of South Asia is naively unrealistic, and not even a stated goal. Nevertheless, face-to-face is so much more helpful than eyeball-to-eyeball when downsizing hostility.
It was also chastening to receive firsthand confirmation that India is not always the benign Big Brother. Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives, Sri Lanka, all of the SAWM member countries spoke about their chafing under the giant in their neighbourhood, its might, highhandedness or simply unenlightened self-interest. To be fair, they expressed these feelings only when questioned, but it was important for me to ask, listen and recalibrate my beliefs.
This is what any multicultural encounter is all about, and as always, the bigger learning and benefits are extracted from outside the conference hall. The lines, and what lay between them, became more explicit, leading at least to better journalism if not a less volatile South Asia.
The big internal conflicts we know, but smaller places slip between the cracks of our consciousness. I cannot cite a better example than the Maldives. On the first evening, the only veil worn by its delegation leader, Irushaadha Abdul Sattar, was pinned on the back of her curly mop and matched her flame red gown.
She spoke with a quiet fire on stage the following day, talking about how difficult it was for women to write on the subjects that only women will relate to — underage concubines, for instance, or how gender power had been swamped by the tsunami. Women lost their conventional position of managing the island because the men who formerly were always out fishing, now stayed back in safety, and then expectedly seized control
Irushaadha pointed out the piquant problem she faced even over the logo of SAWM. The ruling clergy thought the female symbol dominating it was a cross “and that we were there to convert people to Christianity. So we have dropped the emblem and use only the name.”
There was so much to learn, and so much left unlearned because politicians such as the Federal Minister for Information, Qamar Zaman Kaira, and his predecessor, Sherry Rehman, who is something of a media darling in India, arrived and made their pitch on the last day. The Peshawar blast on the eve of the conference, and the more audacious and embarrassing hostage taking at GHQ had kept the political VIPs holed up with their own concerns, and it seemed as if the first SAWM regional conference would have to conclude without their ‘gracing.’
In hindsight, the organisers and the participants probably welcomed the fact that the prime minister, the chief minister of the Punjab, and the speaker of the National Assembly, a woman, did not take up the invitation to inaugurate/address the conference. Fewer spiels, more time for productive interaction.
I must also mention how rewarding it was for some of us Indian journalists to have caught up with each other after years. Like the dramatis personae of any partition, we greedily gobbled news of those who had crossed over to other media. As we excitedly recounted our shared tales of newsroom and legendary editors, the younger ones may have been bemused by the schoolgirlishness of the ‘dowagers.’ But I am sure that, at some subterranean level, it also plugged them into the nervous energy which is so vital to journalism, and hooked them more deeply to a profession which is as much about adventure, discovery and fun as it is about the usual clichÃ©s of power and making a difference.
I had expected the Pakistani delegation to be dismayingly glamorous. I wasn’t disappointed, but it felt good to see how competently women everywhere can conduct a conference. This one was considerably challenging seeing that it comprised highly individualistic delegates as well as delegations not politically on the best of terms.
We loved the hospitality and the food, even the misspelt but appropriately acculturated ‘Chowmian’ at the high tea when we checked hungrily into our hotel. We plunged into the rogan naans, the qormas and the aromatic biryanis at the informal Peeru’s or the grand gubernatorial mansion, and even at our venue hotel, Avari Towers.
We would have liked more opportunity to explore Lahore’s fabled streetfood and bazaars (Liberty Bazaar was tantalising just outside our hotel). And to have done so without the commandos. But they added their own slice of dangerous excitement. When their escorting vans raced though crowded avenues shoving other cars off the carriageway, and jumping red lights, I wasn’t sure if they were ensuring security, or endangering it. But when one of them said, “Aap ke liye hum jaan dey saktey hain,” there was no reason for us to doubt it.
Net—net, our interactions as women, journalists and both made me come away with a fuzzy, warm feeling. Maybe because I’m a hopeless sentimentalist. Maybe because I’m a hopeful human being.