Incredible India, or rather, Imagined India

I have not travel posted in a while, and that may have been some laziness on my own part, but I will soon.  It will be just a series of posts looking at some travels I did  a few months ago.

But for today, because traveling is not all about the sites you see and the cool pictures you put up on Facebook, it is also about the transformations you go through emotionally and mentally.  Now, I am sure plenty are thinking, “Oh gosh, here goes the overseas Pakistani/Indian-American experience and how she’s so connected to her roots and culture now post-partition” post.  While some of that may be there, I promise not to bore you, readers.

Many have said this to me, and I can say I still continue to see it.  I would say my trip to India has been interesting on two fronts.  On one front, it has been interesting to see it after only seeing Pakistan and being raised in a Pakistani family.  On the other, I also look at it from the perspective of the imagined and limited perceptions many non-resident South Asians and first-generation adults have of the “motherland” (perceptions I too have certainly been guilty of).

Let’s address the first front – and I address it with as much honesty as possible.  I am no apologist for my roots in Pakistan because they were all a matter of circumstance, not really much else.  My family’s reasons to leave may unfortunately not be something I can ever understand because there were also people in my family who did not want to leave.  Unfortunately, my teenage lack of care for all of this never allowed me to actually talk to my grandmothers before they passed away and both of my grandfathers passed away before I was even born.  However, I am thinking when I go back home I should talk to my great uncles and aunts.  Anyway, I am also not claiming to be a spokesperson for the way Pakistanis think.  I am only projecting things I grew up hearing in regards to India, and of course, not every Pakistani holds these views.  Many times, I would hear from my mother that Pakistan made sense because Muslims were eventually not allowed to be able to live in peace and continue their religious practices in India.

Then when I think about the state of Pakistan now – a Muslim country, a place where Islam is somehow sickeningly married to the formation of Pakistani identity, I ask myself, what religious freedom is there even when one is Muslim (unless you actually have money – but let’s not get into the class issues here)?  I met plenty of Pakistani Muslim families that held very backwards and intolerant views of Indian Hindus, heck even Indian Muslims.  I had a friend who claimed Indian Muslims were not “real Muslims”.

Apparently, they did not “follow the religion” the right way because they did not know it and emulated the Hindus.  Of course, because only Pakistanis are “real Muslims” (it now begins to make full sense to me, sadly, why many Bangladeshis still hold a grudge against Pakistan).  She even had the misconception that Holi was a ceremony to celebrate the throwing of Muslim blood.  Yeah, um, really?  But then I realized, it was not her fault.  I realized this is one of the effective tools of using an educational system to shape the way people think about their neighbors or about places that only remain in their imaginations (the U.S. about Cuba and now about Iran, for that matter).

Anyway, that aside, when I told people I met here in India that I had Pakistani origin, I was never once received with hate.  Rather, I was received with curiosity, just for the record.  However, I realized that there were with certain people, especially elders here in Delhi, a sense of bitterness from partition.  Makes sense when one considers even the immediate post-partition history (Mujhaajirs, anybody?).  I began to realize that many times in the Muslim community I grew up with it was hard to accept criticism, and in fact it was common to be on the defensive, when someone said Islam was spread by the sword or that Muslims were unfair to other religious groups.

Many Muslims take full pride in the fact that Islamic empires flourished so wonderfully, but then to say that they did not impose unfair laws (including heavy taxation -aka jizya- rather than being so nice as to not kill other religious groups) is just silly.  It’s fine if one prescribes to Islam as a religion, but I do not see a problem with questioning what Muslim empires did to other groups in the name of religion.  It’s common with any missionary religion, and Muslims have just as much of a dirty missionary conquest past.

Anyway, this is a question that began to occur to me when actually listening to “the other side”.  Many times the conversation was, “no offense to you as a Muslim, as you are not responsible for this…”.  I suppose I have begun to identify culturally as Muslim more so than religious, which is why I felt no reason to be defensive.  I’ll just leave it at this: it opened my ears to things that I never would have heard at home or within my family or even among many overseas Pakistani peers who have never stepped foot into India.  It was enlightening to be in a place like North India, where I could connect culturally and linguistically, but in many ways maintain a personal distance because I have very little family left in India and really do not feel any communal affinities.

So many stereotypes broke down.  And to be quite honest, I now can say with certainty that the Pakistanis I have met whose patriotism is based upon hatred of India (sadly too many) need a big reality check, considering Pakistan’s political, economic, and social state.  Forgive me if I speak from an “outsider” perspective as I have not lived in Pakistan for a long amount of time, but growing up in the Pakistani culture that my parents tried to maintain and being around family who is there, neither Pakistan nor India benefit from being enemies, ESPECIALLY Pakistan.  From such a young age, I could already see the chip Pakistan had on its shoulder about its status in South Asia, and today, I see how that “chip” essentially has hindered its progress.

It may be snobby or “Westernized” to say of me, but Pakistan’s obsession with being an overbearingly [Insert brand of incomprehensible “Islamic”] nation, down to the comporting of people’s personal lives, has taken way too much priority in many’s psychological perception of “what it means to be a Pakistani”.  NO doubt, Islamic identity is intertwined with Pakistani identity and that will not be undone anytime soon, but it has become scary to see how that intertwining has become so tight that it has trumped opportunities for, at the very least, public safety, economic opportunity, and social mobility.  And sadly, the people in Pakistan who want to change this or even challenge it are dismissed or seen as “unpatriotic”

Anyway, I will not go into any more Pakistan criticism, as I heard a scholar say at a conference, “You do not need to critisize Pakistan, Pakistanis already do enough of it themselves.  They are probably the most self-critical people you will find.”  I can certainly identify with that, but I think every Pakistani’s self-criticisms are motivated in different ways (i.e. some people believe Pakistan’s downfalls are due to its ‘not being truly Muslim’ or ‘trying too hard to be like those Indians’, while others realize it obviously has nothing to do with that), so the reflection still needs to continue and be refined.

On the second front, it does really shock me to see how Desi parents in the U.S. continue to hold onto a South Asia that has been gone since the 1970s.  It is funny when I hear Indian or Pakistani parents back in the US say things like, “goodness look at the lewdness and bad morals that (insert South Asian nation here) has adopted.”  It sure is easy to say so while sitting comfortably in our lives where the aim in the first place was to “give our children better lives” (i.e. a Western education and iPhones that protect them from the nasty old “third world”).

Do people still living in South Asia not want the same things our dear immigrant parents wanted for us?  Not everyone can just immigrate can they?   Many of my friends from India would tell me how strange they found the strictness among Desi parents towards their children in the US and UK.  There was a small secret these parents need to know: South Asia has moved on, despite cultural practices that still prevail and still overshadow .  Is the West the only country entitled to “wanting nice things” or working towards them?  I guess so, in many people’s minds.

I remember talking to a friend of mine over a Skype 3G connection and he was shocked to know that India actually had 3G.  Though of course, because the connection was a little slow – the first assumption was – it’s Indian 3G, so he thought that’s why it mus have been slow.  The fact is, it was my older version iPhone that was causing the problem.  It is an extremely mundane example, but a very interesting way of looking at how India is depicted in many imaginations back home.  Assessing “where a country is at” is not done by simply comparing it to how things are “back in the U.S.” or in Europe.  It’s narrow and in many ways very ethnocentric, but sadly, it’s the norm.

And sadly, many Desi parents living in America reinforce this behavior in their children by not stopping it.  I am glad my mother would discipline me severely if we I complained about, for instance, lack of a/c in Pakistan or about the food, or really about anything that bothered me.  It taught me patience and it taught me to learn how to adjust.  I can say it is a huge part of the reason I love travel, and it developed my level of patience and adaptation (thanks, Mom.)  Of course, there will always be things that will be “American” about me.  Nobody is saying that just because one goes to another country to completely adapt everything, but I suppose it takes a lot of self-conscious awareness to adapt to uncomfortable conditions.  Although I do tend to wonder how much of a “pat on the back” is deserved just for “withstanding” it, when many people “withstand” it everyday.

No doubt, there are things that are wonderful about life in the U.S., but I find every time I travel somewhere how much my mind is renewed with the idea that I am lucky enough to realize how much of a bubble we live in back in the states when it comes to the world.  For instance, we expect everyone else to know about U.S. pop culture, our history, our ways of doing things, but when asked to do the same for other nations that we deal with, we fall short.

I guess we are not willing to “lower” our ideas of a “good life” because that would  mean we do not have a bar of expectations that we set for countries we visit.  What a tragedy.  That bar seems to be blocking a view of the the beauty we always seem to be seeking or expecting, but are never able to find.  Perhaps it is because we forgot what bars are supposed to do: limit.


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