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Nihal Chauhan | January 08, 2004 15:53 IST

Assalamu Alikum

Part I: The road to Pakistan
Part II: Visiting a hostile country

July 1, 2003, dawned bright and clear in sharp contrast to the feelings raging within me. However, the drive to the airport blew all cares, including the scary Time article and the images it had conjured, out of my head.

Hasty goodbyes, last minute parental instructions, a quick trip to the foreign exchange counter, check-in and, finally, we were ensconced in business class luxury.
Three hours later, the flight touched down at Dubai airport where we spent six hours in transit. It was close to midnight when we queued up for the onward flight to Karachi.

In the days leading to the trip, I had prepared myself mentally and emotionally because I wanted to reach Pakistan with an open mind, devoid of prejudice and historical baggage. Yet, as we boarded the flight to Karachi, the words care and caution were blinking warnings in my head.

I knew there were Pakistanis in the crowd around me. The same Pakistanis I had heard so much about on television, in newspapers and magazines and on the Internet. They hated India and wished every possible ill on my country and my people. They supported the ongoing terrorist activity in Kashmir and the rest of India.

I checked again to make sure my passport could not be seen. It was the only document that proved I was Indian. My ever-cautious parents had taken away every other identity card that linked me with India.

On closer examination, I realised I could not spot a single Pakistani; everyone looked so Indian! Where were the tall, large men with stern faces, long beards and Pathani salwar kameezes?

Two hours into the flight, just before we landed in Karachi, all non-Pakistanis were asked to fill a disembarkation form. I wondered if this was a diabolical device aimed at helping the dreaded ISI to get more details about us!

Going through the form, I hit a roadblock -- the NIC number. What on earth was an NIC number? God, how I wanted everything to be filled in just right so as not to have problems with the Pakistani emigration -- those big, burly men who only wanted to harass us poor Indians. I was a bit relieved when I realised everyone around me was just as ignorant. If I was going to be jailed for not filling the form properly, I had plenty of company.

We landed at the Jinnah International Airport. In typical sub-continental manner, people had started getting up, even as the cabin crew repeatedly 'requested' them to stay put in their seats till the plane taxied to a complete stop and the seat-belt sign had been switched off. Every detail of these last moments registered clearly in my mind. I was one of the last passengers to get off; I felt reluctant to leave the aircraft's safe and neutral confines.

Jinnah International Airport was overwhelmingly green in colour. I felt just as green when I thought of the NIC number and the incomplete disembarkation form. At the emigration counter, we realised to our horror that only two of us had the disembarkation form. Here, I was worried about the NIC number and there were three of us with no form at all! We mustered the courage to ask a nearby guard where we could get more disembarkation forms.

Contrary to our expectations, there was no frantic whistle-blowing; we weren't frog-marched to an interrogation chamber. The guard merely referred us to a bored-looking official. That uninterested individual proffered a sheaf of forms that we grabbed quickly, heaving a sigh of relief.

But some of the forms in that sheaf did not have anything printed on them; that left us with just two valid forms. Once again, we approached the official warily, lest we anger him. He handed over one that was pink in colour; we had been given an embarkation form!

Throwing caution to the winds, we approached the official again and he told us in a monotonous drone that it was okay to fill in the embarkation form; we only had to strike out the word embarkation and write disembarkation instead. As for the NIC number, he said it needn't be filled. My, how quickly we had reached India! I felt perfectly at home.

We returned to the emigration desk. Lots of thoughts rushed through my head. What would these people be like when they came to know I was Indian? Would they be nice, curious or downright mean? The lady at the counter asked for my passport. When she saw I was Indian, her smile tightened. Could this be a harbinger of things to come?

Our paperwork took more time than that of other foreigners. We were made to look into a contraption that clicked our photographs. Then, we proceeded towards the exit. The look on the face of the guard there when he saw my passport cannot be described. His expression changed from irritated, to amazement, to happy and courteous. He smiled broadly and said, "Assalamu alikum."

I replied with a surprised "Dhanyavaad."

Outside the airport, we began searching for our hosts. After a while, three guys came up to us and asked if we were YIP participants. Two of them were in jeans, one wore a pair of shorts and one wore his hair long, rock-style fashion! This was my first sight of the modern, urban Pakistani and it definitely did not fit my definition of 'Pakistani people.' Haider, Safi and Nabeel helped us with our bags. I noticed our bus had a police escort. How important I felt at that moment. We had a number of people looking at us. Real cool.

We were on our way to the Textile Institute of Pakistan, some 40 kilometres outside Karachi. I had already forgotten we were in Pakistan, in one of its 'dreaded' cities. Though I tried to grasp every detail, looking for differences between our two countries, there really weren't any. Except for the buses, which were brightly painted, full of glitter and intricate truck art, if you could call it that. Everything else looked so Indian. Karachi and its outskirts looked like any northern area in India.

We finally arrived at the Institute, our home for the duration of the workshop and the conference. It was sprawling, set on lawns that seemed to roll on forever. We could hear the voices of some of the female participants. I expected to see them wearing salwar kameezes or something equally traditional. After all, we were in an Islamic State. But when they came out, I saw that I was quite wrong. Quite, quite wrong...

Part IV: Pakistan: A new perspective

Image: Dominic Xavier

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