Pakistanis love Boroline. Do you remember Boroline? It is a soft, white cream that comes in a dark green tube with a flower-shaped round black lid. It smells of childhood. They love Himalaya products, Khadi handmade soaps, Pudin Hara and Hajmola. Suits in pastel shades with Chikan embroidery are highly coveted and you will not believe how devoted Pakistani women are to imitation kundan jewellery from pigeonhole shops in the old cities of Lucknow and Delhi. For their men, they like dark Fabindia kurtas in size XXL.
If you are a Pakistani and this list makes no sense to you, then you are probably not my Pakistani relative. Most of them are based in Karachi and are originally from Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. They are charming and fun. They love Indian street food but never confuse chhole-bhature or sambhar-dosa with real food. Snacking is for entertainment, fruits are for decoration, but real nutrition only comes from proper meals. They love paan and participate in searching for good paan everywhere they travel in India. It is safe to say that they are into food. This is also why they have grudging respect for Hing Goli and Isabgol.
When you visit them, do not offend them by not eating enough. I have done it once by having only dal-chawal at a feast hosted in my honour and now I am afraid to visit them again. They are very generous with gifts. Sometimes the khussas (handmade leather slip-ons with embroidered or painted uppers) are the wrong size but they are so beautiful that you keep them forever.
Their children love binge-watching American TV serials and uploading hashtagged photos on Instagram. They carry their own packets of chips and Oreo and consume all the Wi-Fi in your home. Some of them wear more foundation than their peerless skin requires. They love shopping and I have no clue how they deal with storage in their homes or remember where their things are. They have the first position in the world as far as the size of their suitcases is concerned.
I also know many Pakistanis who are not my relatives. Posh Pakistanis are very posh. Really, there is no Indian who has not spent his or her first visit to Pakistan just gawking at how worldly-wise, good-looking, fashionable, literary, articulate, comfortable and friendly Pakistanis seem to be. They also laugh full-throated laughs, leaving us wondering where to hide the pieces of our shattered notion of India’s superiority over neighbours. They make us feel not-posh-enough.
Besides the elite, urban upper class, I know another Pakistan. In 2007, I conducted a workshop in documentary film-making at the Interactive Resource Centre (IRC) in Lahore. When Farjad Nabi, a film-maker who was consulting for IRC, first called to invite me, I told him that the only thing I wanted in return was four visas for my family. Armed with their invitation letter, I went to the high commission of Pakistan in Delhi and agreed with the visa officer that everything was better in Pakistan, particularly the prices of vegetables in his hometown, Jhang, versus those in Delhi’s Khan Market. He gave us non-reporting visas to Lahore.
In my class at IRC, there were trainees from rural areas near Mardan, Multan, Peshawar, Larkana, Gujranwala, Hyderabad and many other far-flung cities of Pakistan. There were young men and women. There were Muslims, Christians and Hindus. They reminded me of trainees I had worked with in Bhilai in Chhattisgarh. The same energy and insights and an organic aptitude for their cameras and editing software. The same combination that every workshop has of the very quiet techie, the theatrical performer, the friendly asker of too many questions, the slow and steady one, and the enthusiastic one who gives a demonstration of all the mistakes one can make.
Madiha and Nazish were two women from Mardan in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Madiha arrived in class well-dressed, with her waist-long hair open and wearing high heels. Within a few hours, I was sending off all the trainees in groups to take their first set of shots on the streets outside. As I handed a video camera and tripod to Madiha’s team, I asked her to change into comfortable footwear.
“Oh I’m okay,” she said.
“Do you want to tie your hair?” I said.
“No,” she said. She smiled confidently and walked away.
I judged Madiha. I had no doubt that women can be excellent videojournalists, but I did expect them to dress for the role. I had done it myself, always wearing running shoes and practical clothes when I went on location as a cameraperson.
Madiha turned out to be a natural. She conducted interviews effortlessly and had a natural talent for composition and shots. I looked at her work and came face to face with my own bias against women. As a professional breaking gender barriers to become a news videographer in India, I had internalized that my femininity would come in the way of my ability to be proficient at work. I could be identified by my baseball cap and sports shoes whenever I was on location. Madiha taught me a life lesson.
Later, when we became friends and I confessed my bias to her, Madiha told me that she had indeed changed her entire dress code to work in Lahore. She worked as a radio presenter in Mardan and every time she had to step out for an interview, she would cover herself from top to toe in an abaya and a veil.
“In Lahore, no one would take me seriously if I stepped out like that,” she said. Her long open hair, her colourful clothes and stilettos were liberating for her. Later, Nazish and Madiha made a film called Two Women And A Camera to document the growing restrictions in the lives of the Pashtun women of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It was edited in Delhi by the acclaimed film-maker Reena Mohan. I learnt from Madiha that you don’t have to peel off your skin and become someone else to do good work. You can be you. It works.
From the same workshop, Sadar Jan, who is from a town in Sindh called Dadu, continues to send me links of the documentaries they have made over the years. I show them to students and trainees in India. A mother battles poverty and drug abuse in a slum in Karachi. Another woman dresses up as a man every day to cycle to work. An orphan in a village makes a living singing the songs of Kumar Sanu from Bollywood films. A transgender person laughs, cries and dances as she shares a day in her life. Dying crafts are documented along with the stoic pride of their craftspersons. Our stories in India aren’t that different from those in Pakistan.
In Lahore for the first time, my husband was fascinated by the Punjabis. He was in awe of the combination of the Punjabi language with Lahore’s extreme etiquette, humility and literary fluency. Pakistan’s Punjabis broke every silly stereotype he had harboured, having only been exposed to the variety called “Delhi Punjabis” till then.
What else do I know about Pakistan? Pakistanis are very witty and get extra points for being very good at laughing at their own selves. They love cats and their country. You don’t need me to mention Coke Studio. Coke Studio music and their videos are like a modern shrine where ancient spirits of our shared culture are channelled. Coke Studio touches even those who don’t understand a single word of the lyrics.
On assignment for work in Almaty in Kazakhstan, I became friends with Nasim Zehra, a journalist from Pakistan. Later, we met again in Delhi and Lahore. She brought me silver earrings from Lebanon. I told her that we had named our youngest child Naseem.
When Indians and Pakistanis meet outside their own countries, they discover that they have a natural affinity for each other. It’s the same when we find each other on social media. We get each other’s jokes. We get each other, even though we have heard many times that we aren’t supposed to.
Hate doesn’t come easily to everyone. It isn’t a failing on our parts, you know, it’s a privilege we have. Just hold on to it.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and mother of three. She tweets at @natashabadhwar and posts on Instagram as natashabadhwar.
Read Natasha’s previous Mint Lounge columns