Not too dissimilar

Aman ki Asha | 20 Aug, 2014

The News | 20 Aug, 2014

Translated into French, Urdu

Wagah border
Wagah border, between West and East Punjab in Pakistan and India

Until I moved to Pakistan for a few years after graduating from college in California, I wouldn’t say that I saw my Indian or Indian diaspora friends as anything other than fellow South Asians – brown brothers and sisters who had similar tastes and values, but who supported the wrong cricket team and prayed in a different way.

In Pakistan, I inquired and discovered what caste my Hindu ancestors belonged to, having been asked by a colleague on my first day at work (at a women’s rights NGO!)

In Pakistan, I learned the South Asian prejudices that South Asian beauty was predicated on a light skin-tone and, for men, sharp features and height. I learnt too that these features were associated with higher caste Indians and with Muslims – descendants of invaders were regarded as more beautiful than the indigenous people who had constructed the Indus’ most ancient civilisations. Why, then, the likes of Shiv Shena only target Muslims in India as foreigners (many of whose ancestors were Hindu), seems a bit arbitrary.

It was in Pakistan that I learnt how, in spite of inhabiting an Islamic republic, Pakistanis carried forth their un-Islamic caste prejudices, and that these prejudices allowed many of us to feel superior. By learning how somewhat physically different we were from many Indians, I also learnt how similar our mentalities were to my image of them.

For all the prejudices I ridiculed, I started subconsciously imbibing them, and my recent friendships with Indians and Hindus have been coloured by them. Where I previously had yearned for dark and lovely South Asian girls, I started favouring the light-skinned ones, and I’ve enjoyed teasing Brahmin girls I’ve dated that they had lost their caste. (Apparently for fear of losing hers, one of my ancestors refused to share the crockery her son had used, let alone hug him, once he had converted to Islam.) I now guess (to myself) a person’s caste by considering their surname and looks, and try to figure out whether their life choices (profession, partner, extra-curricular activities) have been affected by it.

Hussein was the first Indian friend I had made since I had started living in Pakistan. We connected through blogging while I was in Lahore and he was in Mumbai.

We were initially drawn to each other by a fascination with each other’s otherness. He wanted to know what Pakistan was like, his thirst having been whet by a book called Husband of a Fanatic about my (and Amitava Kumar’s) relatives in Pakistan, and about Hindu extremism in India. I had never known a Muslim Indian, and wanted to know whether he felt marginalised, what his daily struggles were and which cricket team he supported. (I myself failed Norman Tebbit’s test of being a true Brit for failing to support England.)

When we finally became friends in the UK, he shared with me Tehelka’s coverage of the 2002 Gujarat riots, and then details of his own tragic loss in those riots.

Despite seeing an indecent proportion of his compatriots support the man responsible for inciting those riots, he tells me that he is glad that his grandparents didn’t cross the border – I understand his view: whereas in India, you aren’t safe being a Muslim, in Pakistan you aren’t safe being the wrong type of Muslim. Pakistan and India aren’t too dissimilar.

Aman ki Asha is a joint venture between Jang Group and The Times of India Group – Pakistan and India’s largest newspapers groups

Similar pieces by me:

Pakistan, rebranded, co-authored with Kapil Komireddi for The Boston Globe

Welcome to Rwanda, authored as The Lost Pakistani for GQ India

What have foreigners done for Britain? authored as The Lost Pakistani for GQ India

Contrasting pre- and post-Partition Lahore, ghost-written for my grandmother in The Friday Times

Other pieces of writing on caste in Pakistan (not endorsed for quality or content):


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Hira says:

    That is pretty interesting Imad. Have you ever been to India?

    1. imadahmed says:

      I was denied a visa!

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