Series of excerpts from Not Just Cricket by Pradeep Magazine..
Having spent my early years living on cordial terms with Kashmiri Muslims, and as a child receiving a lot of love from individuals of the Muslim faith, I was keen to visit Pakistan someday. Cricket writing provided me with that opportunity. My first visit to Pakistan was in 1997, when I was the sports editor of The Pioneer. Even in the best of times, India’s cricketing relationship with Pakistan has been frosty. By the time I started covering the sport more regularly, India had stopped touring Pakistan. India’s tour to Pakistan in 1984 had been abandoned midway due to Indira Gandhi’s assassination. After one more series in 1989, it took eight years for the relationship between the two countries to again be cordial enough for India to agree to play a three-match One-Day series in Pakistan. From the early eighties, India was blighted by terrorism, riots and social unrest; we witnessed the beasts of prejudice, xenophobia, hatred and bigotry on the rise, which threatened the very survival of India as a democratic nation. By 1997, despite an unstable coalition government in power, relative peace had returned. After a period of economic reforms under the minority government led by Congress’s P.V. Narasimha Rao, which lasted its full term of five years from 1991, the 1996 general elections again saw no single party winning a majority. The BJP formed a government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, but they lasted no more than a fortnight, failing to find sufficient allies to reach the majority figure in Parliament. V.P. Singh was offered the post of PM but he refused. Eventually, H.D. Deve Gowda—a former Karnataka chief minister from V.P. Singh’s Janata Dal— became Prime Minister, leading a United Front government. He remained in the hot seat for 324 days before another leader from the same party by the name of Inder Kumar Gujral took charge. Gujral was a migrant from Pakistan, and he worked towards a peaceful relationship with the neighbours during his 332-day tenure as Prime Minister. In May 1997, the Pakistani team visited India to play in a One-Day series celebrating fifty years of Independence. The Pakistani Board wanted India to reciprocate and participate in their celebratory matches in the autumn of that year. The Indian government approved the tour. I was among the half-a-dozen journalists who were assigned to cover the tour by their respective media organizations. Apprehension and excitement were the two contrasting emotions that gripped me as I applied for a visa at the Pakistani high commission at Delhi’s Chanakyapuri. During the process, I came to understand that ‘Kashmiris’ were categorized as being different from Indians in the eyes of the Pakistani government. After effusively welcoming me into his room with a warm smile, the visa officer’s face changed to a frown as he flipped through the pages of my passport. ‘Sorry, you can’t get a visa,’ he said, pointing at the page that mentioned my place of birth as Srinagar. He said that they were not authorized to issue visas to Kashmiris; special permission would need to be sought from Islamabad to issue a visa to me. However, they could not complete that process in time for me to depart on schedule for the tour. I pleaded with him, and though he expressed helplessness, he said he would try. Fortune smiled on me and I was finally granted a visa. I was to realize later that my place of birth was a problem even with the Indian authorities. Renewal of my passport became a tedious process each time its validity expired. Apparently, there was a strict protocol in place for the passports of all Kashmiris born in the Valley, Hindu or Muslim, even those like me who had been living outside the state for decades. Before clearance, their residential address and antecedents in the state had to be verified by the local police, and this led to delays each time. I remember the unease a few of us journalists felt as we landed at Karachi airport, not sure of the reception we would get. However, we got a shock of the pleasant kind when the cab driver who drove us from the airport to our hotel started to play the song Made in India by Alisha Chinai, an Indian pop star. The cab driver, on finding I spoke his mother tongue of Punjabi, became even more friendly. My fears and doubts disappeared and I felt like I was at home, among my own people. Officially, alcohol is banned in Pakistan for the Muslim population. Only non-Muslims with a permit could buy liquor. However, liquor shops in Karachi were owned by a powerful politician, so that was not strictly applied. The first thing I focused on after reaching our hotel was to figure out how I could sustain my drinking habit on the tour. However, getting a drink proved elusive on that first night. The next morning, I was joined by Ajay Shankar of The Indian Express in my search for a liquor store. We found one quite easily, and we were not even asked our religion or for a permit. Having ensured a supply of our life-blood, it was time to think about the cricket: the three-match One-Day series we were there to cover. The first match was to be held at Hyderabad, Sindh, a five-hour drive from Karachi. I needed to provide a photograph to make the entry pass, but unlike my other colleagues, I hadn’t brought any with me. Thus, I was forced to search for a shop that could provide instant photo prints. What I didn’t know was that this quest would lead me to a moving experience of the traumatic history of Partition and the intense longing for ‘home’. Winding stairs took me to the first floor of a building where a photographer’s shop was located. When the woman behind the counter understood that I was from India, she immediately shouted, ‘Abu, neeche aa jao, India se aye hain (Father, come down, someone has come from India).’ The girl’s excitement and the sparkle in her eyes suggested that she was thrilled by this fact. An old man descended from the second floor. When I confirmed that I had indeed come from India, he hugged me, tears streaming down his cheeks. He had a poignant story to tell: of being uprooted from his moorings in a false hope that had ended in despair. Originally from Uttar Pradesh, he was working as a tailor in Bombay in 1947. Like many Muslims in India, insecurity and the continuous threat of violence had instilled fear in him. When Partition came about, he was also lured by the dream of living in a country that was being created for those of his own religion, a ‘pure land’: Pakistan. He joined the Muslims migrating to the new country. It took him just a few months to realize that he had made a terrible mistake. ‘This was not my country, not my home, not my people,’ he lamented. He wanted to go back but could not, as the Indian government refused visas to all those who had migrated to Pakistan from India. ‘Like a bird in a cage I yearned to return home, but all doors were closed.’ Even after having accepted his new Pakistani citizenship, he still felt like an outsider in his land of adoption. He is part of an Urdu-speaking Indian community of migrants to Sindh called ‘Muhajirs’ by the natives. Simmering tension between the migrants and the locals has often spilled into violence. This chance encounter remains one of the most enduring images of all my travels, during which I have been witness to the yearning for roots, with all its tragic and positive dimensions, among the Indian diaspora in different cricket-playing nations. During my visits to Pakistan in 1997, 2004 and 2006, I had many similar interactions that showed how deep the bonds go between the people of the two countries. They are ties that can transcend the hate brewed by the divisive politics of their governments. The cricketing rivalry between the two nations is bitter, intense, competitive and engaging, but it is just a subtext to the larger human need for peace and bonding that can override the divisive baggage of history.
Another surprise awaited us when we travelled to Hyderabad before the first match. The hotel that had been recommended to us had no rooms available. There was no vacancy anywhere as an India–Pakistan match had come to town. Seeing us stranded in the hotel lobby, a few locals approached us and offered to let us stay with them. Among them was an old man who had been to India. He left with a promise to check for rooms in his company’s guest house, but returned with disappointing news. However, he did bring back a large bowl of kheer (rice pudding) from his home. While the kheer was delicious, I found pieces of chicken in it. I did not have the heart to tell my vegetarian colleague Ashish Shukla, who was gobbling up his share with relish. Finally, the hotel owner allowed us to sleep in the storeroom for that night. The match at the dusty, breezy Niaz stadium was a disappointing outing for India, a low-scoring affair in which Pakistan overtook India’s total of 170 in the 45th over. I can hardly recall an interesting moment from the actual cricket, but I vividly remember the Indian team being loudly cheered by local fans waving at the team bus. Contrary to what we had expected, there was a lot of warmth for the Indian team, and a complete absence of hostility.
Excerpted with permission from Harper Collins.