In Between Imaginary Lines and Lands
In Between Imaginary Lines and Lands

Liaquatabad. I had never heard of this place before. I had heard of Lahore, Karachi, and Rawalpindi — the latter because Shoaib Akhtar is also known as Rawalpindi Express and there is a delicious recipe for Rawalpindi Chole in an old Hawkins pressure cooker instruction manual that I often consult. But not Liaquatabad.

I loved the way it sounded, rolling around in the mouth, starting with a brush of the tongue against teeth, followed by a velar stop at the back of the mouth. But I soon came to understand what this part of Karachi’s cityscape represented.

It has been a while since I thought of Liaquatabad. When this opportunity to write an essay for The Karachi Collective came up, founder Saira Danish Ahmed pointed me towards Manisha Gera Baswani’s project ‘Postcards From Home’ In the project, Baswani — who describes herself as a painter, photographer and occasional writer — photographed forty-seven artists as a representation of the year of the partition of India and Pakistan. Twenty-five Indian and twenty-two Pakistani artists were photographed in their creative spaces, and each photograph was accompanied by a text from the artist: a shared memory of a lost home.

‘Postcards From Home’ spoke to me on a visceral level. And it made me remember Liaquatabad, a place I had never visited, except in my imagination.

I first encountered Liaquatabad in Kamila Shamsie’s novel Salt and Saffron. In 1998 I had moved to Toronto from my New Delhi home in order to pursue a master’s degree in English from the University of Toronto. The department head was a soft-spoken Sri Lankan professor Chelva Kanaganayakam, who became an unofficial mentor. It was in his class of postcolonial literature that I first read Bapsi Sidhwa’s Ice Candy Man, which also came to be known as Cracking Earth.

It was the first time I read about the partition of India and Pakistan from a Pakistani perspective. The story sounded very familiar, and yet different. Professor Kanaganayakam suggested that I explore this idea, this feeling more. And so, I came to read more Pakistani authors, eager to understand the country through its prose.

Until then my conception of Pakistan had been through Indian school syllabus, occasional references in Bollywood movies, news reports and PTV dramas. The NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training) history books that I studied — I came to learn later — had been overseen by Indian historians such as Tara Chand, Nilakanta Sastri and Mohammad Habib among other academic luminaries. In the 60s, driven by the then government’s efforts of national integration, these textbooks weren’t interested in creating mythologies. Instead, they were meant to provide secular and rational explanations of India’s recent history. It was in Bipan Chandra’s textbook, ‘Modern India’, that I learnt about the facts of the partition as understood from our side of the border. There were many names and dates to remember. But other than watching Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, India’s independence and its partition with Pakistan didn’t figure in my imagination.

Hindi movies in those days didn’t usually make overt references to Pakistan (or China, for that matter) other than a few exceptions of stereotypical/comical representations of Urdu speaking villainous characters. On the contrary, there were mysterious references to “dushman desh” or the forces from “sarhad ke us paar”.

It wasn’t until I watched PTV dramas such as Dhoop Kinarey and Tanhaiyaan in the late 80s that I really saw and heard what Pakistani people looked and sounded like. Like everyone else, I fell in love with Marina Khan. I wanted to become best friends with her because she just looked like a really fun person to be with.

At the time, I was studying in a high school in Canberra, Australia. It so happened that my discovery of Dhoop Kinarey coincided with the arrival of three Pakistani siblings in my school: a teenage girl and her older brothers. I wasn’t in the same classes as the girl, but we occasionally passed each other in the hallways. It comforted me to see someone else wearing a salwar-kameez to school, as I did on the odd occasion. I didn’t feel like wearing the optional school uniform. I didn’t feel like such a nerd.

One day, when we were both waiting outside the library, I asked her: What does “La haul e vila quwat” mean? As someone who had grown up watching Muslim socials, I was conversant enough with everyday Urdu, and picked up other commonly used words such as “sanjeeda,” “mukhtalif”, and my favourite “musalsal”, from Pakistani dramas. But some words escaped my comprehension. I don’t remember what the girl told me, but I remember the smile on her face as I explained that I was watching Dhoop Kinarey and I loved Dr. Irfan’s comedy.

Still, it wasn’t until I started reading Pakistani fiction that I truly started to get a sense of a shared history. I distinctly remember the time I read a passage about Anarkali bazaar. I forget the book in which I read about this shopping haven. There were several paragraphs dedicated to the protagonist going to the bazaar with a family member, and making her way through its winding lanes strewn with all sorts of wares, its crowded gullies spilling with fabric, shoes, books, parandas, and — of course — food.

As I was reading about Anarkali bazaar, I had this feeling of knowing the place. I was thinking of Chandni Chowk, one of my favourite places in Delhi. I have often walked through the katras and gullies of this old bazaar in front of the Red Fort, sometimes on the hunt for a specific type of fabric or gota, sometimes for silver jewellery and sometimes because you always discover something new during a jaunt.

This one time, for example, I had gone to Chandni Chowk with my sister on a cold winter’s day. As we were wrapping up our trip, we were both craving a warm treat, and happened to come across a halwai selling gajar-ka-halwa from a hole-in-the-wall shop. We ordered two plates, and were handed piping hot halwa in small dona pattal (leaf bowls). I still remember the dark red, fudge-like treat, swimming in ghee and sugar. I haven’t tasted anything like it since.

Lajpat Nagar's Central Market, one of New Delhi's busiest shopping neighborhoods, offers many delights to passersby including mouth-watering chaat, 2019, image credit, author

As I was reading about Anarkali Bazar in the book, those familiar tastes, sights and sounds of Chandni Chowk came to my mind. Sitting in Toronto, I suddenly felt like I was in two places at the same time. Similarly, when I read descriptions of Lahore and its monuments, I was reminded of the imaarats I saw in my walkabouts in Delhi.

Of course, I understand that both cities have a shared Mughal history that connects their landscapes. And when I read about the mohallas of Lahore or Karachi in the works of writers such as Shamsie, Mohsin Hamid and Mohammed Hanif, it’s perfectly reasonable that they remind me of nukkads in New Delhi. I understand the logic of it. There’s a kind of magical quality about a well-written passage that is able to transport you to that physical space, and especially a space that you have never visited before; but it reminds you of home.

The PTV dramas that I watched in my youth familiarized me with the language and the people. However, since they were predominantly confined to the drawing rooms or work environments (such as corporate offices or hospitals) of the characters, I didn’t get a sense of the geography of these cities. It wasn’t until I started reading these books that I started to feel what it might be like to inhabit these spaces.

Take these lines from Salt and Saffron, for example, where the central character Alia is on a plane about to land in Karachi:

I’ve always loved the brashness of that city, the resolve that turns on lights, night after night, not really in the hope of outstarring the sky, but just for the sake of contesting … As I watched the land below, an area of lights winked, once, twice, and disappeared. A sigh, half exasperated, half amused, went around the cabin. ‘Bijli failure,’ someone behind me said needlessly, and we all waited to see how many lights would flicker on, signifying back-up generator power. Only a handful, and the voice behind me said in Urdu, ‘Well, looks like it isn’t Clifton or Defence.’

I didn’t need the following explanatory lines to tell me that Clifton or Defence are upmarket parts of Karachi. I could hear it in, what I perceived to be a slight sneer, of the fellow passenger’s voice. As it happens, Delhi also has a neighborhood called Defence Colony, built initially for the veterans of the Indian armed forces. I had an army brat friend who lived in the neighborhood, which was known as one of the cool parts of town where you could find a dhaba, coffee shop or restaurant with a bar within walking distance.

The detail of the distinction between the haves and have-nots by access to back-up generators and therefore electricity was familiar to me; except, in my circles people talked about their inverters, while I sweated out through yet another batti gul power cut in my part of Delhi.

These days, I don’t really need a book to take me to the streets of Lahore or Karachi. Whether it’s via Instagram or Snapchat, I can now visit neighborhoods across the globe. I can go on walks and drives with random people. I can watch someone get a cup of coffee or hookah/sheesha at Cafe Pyala in Karachi at midnight. Or see someone else driving through empty streets near Jinnah International Airport while listening to Falak Shabir’s “Saajna,” and then grimace as a Yo Yo Honey Singh tune starts playing.

But in those days before social media or apps connected us, it was Pakistani books and their geographies that connected me to a country I have never visited. Even today, when I meet someone from Pakistan, and they find out I am from New Delhi, I can predict a part of the conversation. They will likely remember a story an elder in their family told them, of the neighborhood they grew up in, near a market or some similar marker. Is that place still there, some of them ask me. We locate each other in those physical spaces that live on in our collective memories; one which didn’t get bifurcated when India and Pakistan were cleaved apart.

As for Liaquatabad. As it turns out, I know many places like it in New Delhi. The next time I visit them, I will remember that a doppelganger neighborhood exists in Karachi. And I wouldn’t even need a passport to travel there in my imagination.

Title image: A lazy weekend afternoon at Horniman Circle in Mumbai, where tourists gather to visit the Asiatic Central Library and marvel at the old architecture,2019, image credit, author

Aparita Bhandari is an arts/life reporter based out of Toronto. She produces and co hosts a Hindi podcast on Bollywood called She's also the creator of the Hindi fiction podcast

Share this post

There are no comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Start typing and press Enter to search

Generic filters
Exact matches only
Filter by Custom Post Type
Filter by Categories
Shopping Cart