I would loathe going to cremation grounds without a reason. In fact, I loathe going there even with a reason. But to go to a cremation ground with tourism as a reason?
For India, Pakistan friendship, I went visiting cremation grounds at Chandigarh as tourism activity. No, it was not morbid at all.
I was not loathe to do so. And I learnt how deeply could human beings be interested in each other. Even in each other’s dead ones. India, Pakistan bonhomie has many faces. This too was one of them.
Pakistan delegate’s tourist delight: cremation grounds!
“CAN I please see the cremation rounds?” Coming from a tourist, this was a highly strange request. But the interest was genuine. And as the tourist was a delegate of the World Punjabi Conference – whose biggest achievement will be to prise open a cultural window, so the brothers next door can peep through – the query was admissible.
“How much does it cost to burn a corpse? What do they do to the ashes?”
At Chandigarh’s Sector 25 cremation grounds, Imran Akram of the Lahore edition of Dawn newspaper was firing questions. This was the first time he had been to a cremation site. Also, this was the first time he had seen so many turbaned Sikhs in any town. Back in Lahore, a Sikh jatha’s visit was like a cultural event on stage.
“Do girls wear skirts to bazaars?” asked freelance film journalist Tufail Akhtar from Lahore.
The information gap has been so acute between the two Punjabs that people speaking the same language, singing the same folk songs and using the same four-letter words often seem little acquainted with each other’s lives.
Many were surprised by the first thing that hits middle class families’ front door every morning – the newspaper. At Shivalik View Hotel, where the delegates were putting up, the former Director-General of Pakistan Information Ministry Izaz Ahmad, couldn’t peel his eyes away from the newspaper’ mastheads. And licked his finger to flip-and-count the number of pages twice.
“This is unbelievable,” he exclaimed, ruing that newspapers like Dawn, The News, Jung, Daily Express, The Nation, The Friday Times cost Rs 10-Rs 18 daily in Pakistan, keeping circulation low and quality journalism outside the reach of most. “News magazines like Herald cost Rs 100!” he exclaimed, flipping through copies of India Today and Outlook.
“How much a family must earn to have two kids in a good school, a house of one’s own, and a car and a cell phone level of living?” Akram had phrased his query politely. But then to get the right answer, he asked – of course profusely apologizing – “How much do you earn, Sir?”
Very often, delegates seemed satisfied at finding out that people had the same problems. Despite the scorching afternoon, many landed at the Rock Garden. “This is great,” exclaimed Mohammad Abbas Mirza, a poet from Lahore. “Exchange it for Anarkali Bazaar,” someone was trying to walk away with a bargain.
“You still have pedal-rickshaws here? That’s sad,” this was a Lahori’s view.
This time the Indian friends didn’t retort.
“It felt human to grant a point,” he said.
“But I presume it is okay to pull a rickshaw if you can vote and throw out a Prime Minister,” the Lahori was in a generous mood.
The Indian smiled. Both understood. Mutual understanding is what the spirit of bonhomie and the endless World Punjabi Conferences are all about.
At a lunch for Pakistani scribes, an Indian journalist got up to allay any unnecessary misunderstandings. “Please ignore this talk about removing the borders. These are emotions. We do understand the realities,” he said. “You can raise the barbed wire to double the height, but please keep the gates open,” said a Pakistani journalist.
The spirit, indeed, was of understanding.
It was in this spirit that I could go to a cremation ground as a tourist guide.
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