I visited Lahore for the first time around 2004…or rather I had to; it was work related. The family was apprehensive; so was I. But I could not have been more wrong. I realized in the course of my numerous visits, how far our perception of our neighbouring country was from reality.
Welcome to Lahore
The first time I visited Lahore, I stayed at the Pearl Continental. After checking in, I promptly got a call from the general manager welcoming me to their country and hotel. He mentioned that he’d noticed in the check-in register I was Indian; in the course of our conversation he also gathered I was vegetarian. And from thereon, for the rest of my stay he and his staff ensured that I was served pure vegetarian meals.
One evening I decided to dine at The Village, a recommended restaurant in a posh residential area. I could immediately see that what I had heard was true; Pakistanis love our Indian movie stars. The walls were covered with photographs of film stars, including one of Dev Anand that I remember clearly. I proceeded to have a leisurely dinner, at the end of which the restaurant manager waived away my requests for the bill. Apparently, my vegetarian meal had immediately alerted him of my nationality.
On another occasion I visited the famous Anarkali bazaar to eat at the equally famous Food Street. I had decided to take an autorickshaw. As always, the locals strike up a conversation if they suspect you are Indian. Much against my protests, the driver waited for most part of the night till I was ready to go back to my hotel and refused to charge me a single paisa for the whole trip.
Now that I had been going to Pakistan frequently on work, my wife decided that she wanted one of their famous carpets. So on my next trip to Lahore, I went to a store in Liberty market. Upon discovering I was Indian, the shopkeeper insisted on dropping me back to the hotel (with the merchandise), but not before taking me to dinner at a restaurant in Lakshmi Chowk. While dropping me off he requested me for my telephone number. I gave it to him a little hesitantly. On my return to India a few days later, I get a call from the shopkeeper enquiring if my wife had liked the carpet.
Lahore Museum and its hidden treasures
But the incident that stands out the most in my mind, is the time that I happened to be in Lahore on the day of Karthink Purnima. In the Hindu and Jain belief, it is considered auspicious to visit a temple on that day. I did the second best thing; I decided to visit the Lahore Museum, which I’d heard was a repository of several Jain treasures. The day happened to be a Friday and much to my disappointment, the museum was closed. The guard directed me to an office behind the museum, where I had the good fortune to meet Ms. Humera Alam, the director of the museum.
I expressed my desire to see the Jain artifacts in the museum, citing the fact that I was leaving back for India that same night. She told me in all her years at the museum she had never met anyone, Jain or otherwise, who had remotely expressed an interest in these forgotten treasures. She immediately set out to see if the museum could be opened specially for me. I could see that she tried hard, making calls, trying to get special permissions, etc. But it didn’t happen. She was extremely apologetic at her inability to help me. My own disappointment was overshadowed by the warmth exhibited by Ms. Alam. There was no need for her to go out of her way to help an Indian stranger but she did.
Over the years…
Over the years and after so many visits to our neighbouring country, the feeling that I came away with, was that most Pakistanis would prefer to erase the past; they wish that the Partition had never happened. Somewhere there is also an element of remorse in their belief that India and Pakistan are like brothers that were separated at birth; and in the years since their separation, India has gone on to become an economic powerhouse as compared to Pakistan.
Yet, despite this, their warmth and generosity towards Indians is outstanding. This is noticeable even in their business transactions with us; one can clearly see the extra effort they make to ensure a deal happens.
I have been to Pakistan several times since then. On almost every visit, I’ve had occasion to experience their hospitality. The Pakistanis generally are a hospitable lot; but they are especially welcoming of Indians. There are too many occasions to count but these few stand out in my memory.