The tall man strode into the hall dressed in a simple white shalwaar kameez, a pair of traditional Peshawari shoes (khedis) and a black jacket. The packed hall of about 900 people exploded into thunderous cheers and a standing ovation. Young boys and girls jumped up with excitement, thumped their tables and filled the air with whistles. The welcome befitted a rock star. The man in white moved to the stage and commenced speaking. He spoke clearly, simply and in elegant Urdu; every member of the audience could understand him. His thoughts were crystal clear — he stood for a multi-cultural and secular framework, believed in a corruption-free society, condemned attacks on minorities and their places of worship, and had faith in the young and rapid economic development. Each proclamation drew acclaim from the audience. Clearly the speaker was the darling of the youth of Pakistan. Seeing the stunned disbelief on my face, a Pakistani manager remarked, “For us, he is your Sachin Tendulkar, Virat Kohli and Amitabh Bachchan, all rolled into one!” True. Mr Imran Khan, the former captain of the Pakistan cricket team and now an important leader of the opposition, was generating mass adulation, bordering on hysteria. He represented hope and peace. “Why should we vote for you next time, when we Hindus are facing problems? Our temples are being attacked in Larkana,” asked young student Raj Gujar. “The attacks should be condemned,” responded Imran. I was taken aback that a youngster would dare to ask such a sensitive question publicly; I was even more surprised to see Imran respond with a straight bat. With his rugged, Pathan features, brilliant declamation skills and shining sincerity, Imran could have cemented a place in the movies but he bravely chose a road not taken: secularism and modernity. The mistrust and hurt of partition has become ingrained amongst Indians and Pakistanis. Over the years, radical elements have fanned these doubts into fears in both countries.
“Is it true that Muslims in India are persecuted?” asked a middle-aged lady of me, as I shopped for khedis for my father, who had spent his childhood and youth in Lahore, the Paris of the East. I was in the crowded 200-year-old Anarkali bazaar and was taken aback by the bold and blunt query. The lady had realised that I was an Indian, as I struggled to put together some local currency to pay the shopkeeper. “Madam, I could be the only Hindu and Indian in this ancient, beautiful market of about 15,000 Pakistani Muslims yet I shop here, alone without fear. So how can about 177 million Muslims in India be frightened?” I asked her. “Remember, we have as many Muslims in India, as there are in Pakistan,” I replied. I could not help adding, “Look at many of the nationally admired idols in India: actors Dilip Kumar (Yusuf Khan), Shahrukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Nargis Dutt, Madhubala (Mumtaz Jehan), Waheeda Rehman. We have had three Muslim presidents, Zakir Hussein, Fukhruddin Ali Ahmed and Abdul Kalam. One of the richest Indians is a Muslim, Azim Premji.” The lady summarised, “So perhaps politicians and media exaggerate issues.” The shopkeeper refused the money for the shoes after my passionate response.
Every stone, every pebble in Lahore holds a secret. It conceals centuries of history in it — from the Mongols, the Mughals, the Sikhs and the British to the present. Lahore is not just a petite town; it is an open book of history. The spring festival adorned Lahore with bright yellow and pink flowers at every corner. Lahore, after all these centuries, resembles some beautiful lass in bridal finery. It is clean and tidy. The gurgling canal runs through the centre of Mall Road, providing twinkling chimes throughout the day. Tradition merges elegantly with modernity, the ruins of Emperor Akbar’s Lahore Fort blend with contemporary villas and hotels. Islamabad is modern, a steel, cement and glass city. Its five star hotels have world-class amenities and services. The 367-kilometre M2 motorway from Lahore to Islamabad covers the distance in five hours, crossing the highest pillared-bridge in Asia at the Salt Range.
Pakistan also teems with entrepreneurs. Seema Aziz runs 450 outlets of fashion garments, branded Bareeze. Omar runs 400 outlets of a leading footwear brand, Servis. Both are market leaders. Romana has just launched a children’s wear retail brand. Azfar bhai leads a pan-Asia event management organisation to enhance professional skills. Shazia runs a chain of schools in the country. These entrepreneurs are the new face of Pakistan.
Despite all the differences that plague the two countries, Bollywood movies and songs are immensely popular in Pakistan. Movies, music and cricket can bond these two distant neighbours. The moment a Pakistani delegate, shopkeeper, hotel staff member realised I was an Indian, I would be transformed into a special guest and they would want to put their best foot forward. New friends like Nabeel, Syed, Rahail, Nofil, all young students, pampered us with Punjabi lassi (a yoghurt drink), pickles and melodious songs at the Monal restaurant, on a mountain near Islamabad. Islamabad seemed like a twinkling fairyland from the top of the mountain. On return to India, my father’s face lit up when I presented him with a simple bottle of water from the land of his birth and youth. Seeing his delight, I reflected, here are two neighbours united by centuries of culture and tradition but divided by a rottenly managed partition and a mountain of misunderstandings. “In my most painful and toughest moments in climbing Mount Everest, I told myself, one step at a time,” lectured Suzzanne Houby, a speaker at our symposium in Islamabad. Suzzane would know. She was the first Muslim Arab girl to conquer Mount Everest in May 2011. India and Pakistan can also wallop the mountain of misunderstandings one step at a time. The fresh, youthful breeze blowing across both the countries may usher in new possibilities.
The author visited Pakistan as part of the Harvard Business School Pakistan Study delegation in the first week of April. He has worked for Unilever in Asia, Latin America and Africa. A Sir Dorabji Tata Scholar, he has authored a book, Agenda for a New India