I grew up in Pakistan in the house of a veteran of two Indo-Pak wars and learned from my schooling and reading to hate India in general and Hindus in particular. I never questioned my beliefs; they were held by everybody around me. But a decade ago, a visit to India changed my perception of India and Indians forever. My interactions with common people gave me a new perspective about Indians. Today, I am more open and accepting of my own Indian heritage. Amidst the political tension between India and Pakistan, I got an Indian visa in a comical way, which is the way things often happen in both countries. A senior official in the Indian Embassy in Islamabad was a social acquaintance who offered to help get an Indian visa if I was interested. I accepted the offer and also requested that a good friend be included in the offer. In a few days, we submitted our visa applications — we had decided to visit New Delhi and Agra — and a week later our passports were back with visa stickers for our destinations. We booked our seats on a Delhi-Lahore bus which stopped first at Wagah where we crossed the border on foot. At the barrier, we told the immigration and customs officers that the two of us were physicians, traveling to India for tourism. We were cleared quickly. In Lahore, English can be termed as the language of elites, but in New Delhi, it is used for usual communication as well At first everything looked the same as in Pakistan, but it felt different. I immediately noticed the signs were in Devanagari script, which I couldn’t read. I also noticed several women riding scooters and motorcycles, a sight I never experienced in Pakistan. We arrived in Delhi in the evening where we took a cycle rickshaw to our hotel. I quickly learned that all the travelers from Pakistan stayed in an unclean and poorly-lit hotel in a Muslim slum of Delhi. The only silver lining was its proximity to the famous Jamma Mosque only a few meters away. I was utterly disappointed by the lodgings and could not sleep well due to the noise in the streets. I must also say I felt unsafe in ‘enemy country’. The next morning, I went to Jamma Mosque to pray. The simplicity and elegance of the mosque reminded me of Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, both magnificent examples of Mughal architecture. As I knelt in this very peaceful place, I watched hundreds of pigeons flying above the mosque and then come down to sit on the broad open space around me. While leaving, we noticed a group of Muslims gathered outside the mosque, protesting against the government. It strengthened my pre-conceived notion that Muslims were not happy in India. There were many necessary things we had to do before we could start sightseeing. We went to a police station for the compulsory registration as a tourist from Pakistan. Next we had to get our return tickets. When we arrived, the clerk told us that all tickets were sold out; none would be available before our visas expired. I tried to explain that we didn’t want to overstay and the visa specified that we could only use bus service as a means of travel. He knew our position very well; he was deliberately being uncooperative. I had to “grease his palm”, at which time he finally found two seats in a bus that was leaving on our preferred date. We found out that Paharganj was a middle-class area in Delhi where we could find clean and reasonably priced hotels. It was true, but all hotel managers refused to rent us a room when they found out we were from Pakistan. Finally, two Sikh brothers allowed us to rent a room. We went back to the police station and the clerk refused to register us for the new address. He told us that all Pakistanis stay around the Jamma Mosque and that we should also stay there. My reason — an untidy and noisy room — was not enough to convince him. George Washington’s dollar bills saved me the second time that day. One can understand that I was not impressed with the first twenty-four hours in Delhi. The next day we were able to begin exploring the city. We walked to Connaught Place and were very impressed by its architecture. The stores are arranged around outer and inner circles with long hallways in front of shops, giving a feeling of openness and grandeur. We went to a South Indian restaurant and ordered rice dosa made with lentils. The food was presented with peas, beans, pickles, and different sauces. Several varieties of cheese came on a tray of real banana leaves. Buttermilk was delicious, salty and full of strong spices such as cinnamon and pepper. I had never tasted food like this before. As a result, during our stay in India, South Indian food became our automatic choice for comfort food. While walking down the streets, we visited several prosperous bookstores and many roadside bookstalls. It made me feel jealous of India, fearing that this kind of reading culture was disappearing from Pakistan. Many people spoke English. In Lahore, English is the language of elites but in New Delhi it was a language for usual communication. I was very amused to see monkeys jumping on roofs and trees. And also elephants and cows walking in the streets. My friend said she experienced a very big difference; walking in Delhi she felt invisible while in Lahore, as a woman she was often scanned by men. In Delhi, she was just another human. But we experienced the worst of the city as well. Most of the city smelled like ammonia. It was amazing that men did not hesitate to urinate anywhere and anytime. That pungent and displeasing smell was part of the environment and was impossible to avoid. The next day we took a sight-seeing trip in a cab whose driver, Asif, was our guide as well. He took us to the Delhi Emporium, a market for handicrafts from different parts of India. We bought some typical tourist things such as models of the Taj Mahal, coasters, and printed cloths. The next stop was the famous India Gate which I had seen in several Bollywood movies. Then we visited the Old Fort (Purana Qila), followed by Humayun’s Tomb, our final destination of the day. In my opinion, this Mughal tomb had beautiful gardens and most magnificent architecture that we had seen so far. It was not hard to notice the frequent public display of love and affection, the sight you rarely encounter in Pakistan. The next day we planned to visit places of historical importance in Sufism. Getting to the tomb of Hazrat Nizamuddin was a real nuisance. It was located in a thickly populated and highly congested area of the city. We had to pass hundreds of beggars and panhandlers to reach the tomb, as well as many more inside. Almost a mile before the tomb, walking along narrow streets, people ask you to leave your shoes with them and walk barefoot to the tomb. In this and so many other ways, this place was a total tourist trap. I was expecting some peace like I experienced visiting the tombs of Baha-ud-Din Zakriya in Multan. In contrast this place was crowded and loud. We did not stay long. The tomb of the famous poet and musician, the great Amir Khusrow, was located in the same premises. I felt heartbroken for not paying genuine homage, from the depth of my heart, but loud noises and the over-crowded courtyard left me with little choice but to leave. I crossed out my plan to return on Friday night for Qawwali. Walking back, we accidentally found the tomb of the greatest Urdu poet, Ghalib, in a dark and dusty street. It was quiet and peaceful there and we paid our respects to the great master. We decided to visit Rashtrapati Bhawan, the presidential palace, the next day. Before entering the premises, it was necessary to go through security check posts. Maybe it was a random search or maybe the guard noticed something about me that led him to ask me to provide identification. Without hesitation, I handed over my Pakistani passport. Once he noticed the green passport, he called his co-workers for help and they started to grill me with questions. Why are you here? Are you drawing maps of the presidential house? Do you have any gun? Do you work for ISI? I stayed calm and answered them the best I could. But to avoid even more drama, when he asked me if anyone in my family works for the military, I did not give an honest and complete answer. I just wanted to avoid all the trouble. They let me go to the gardens and advised me to stay away from the palace buildings. I had not seen a garden more beautiful than this before. The flower beds were full of attractive, colorful flowers which were gently watered by old fountains. I forgot all the anxieties aroused by the earlier security incident and enjoyed the garden fully. The garden is only open to the public for less than a month a year in spring season, so we were lucky to be at the right place at the right time. That evening we visited the Red Fort and attended a very creative and imaginative sound and light show. ”Time,” a voice from a Fort window, tells us the history of Delhi.” The next two days we spent exploring New and Old Delhi. New Delhi was busily preparing for the Commonwealth Games and many areas were being physically transformed. We walked through several parks, including the Lodhi Gardens, Amir Khusrow Park, and the gardens around several tombs. The city had worked hard to preserver many historic monuments and now all those places were huge tourist attractions, bringing fame and money to India. The next day we took an early morning bus from Delhi to Agra that made a stop in Mathura. Once we arrived at the Taj Mahal I was mildly impressed by its beauty, but it did not give me palpitations. I believe Himayun’s Tomb and the Agra Fort were more beautiful than the Taj Mahal. Afterwards, the bus took us back to Mathura and I stood in line with the devotees who wanted to visit the Lord Krishna Temple. I was too naïve to realise that Mathura was not part of Agra district and I did not have a permit to visit it because of city restrictions on my visa. I realised the security check was strict, but I remained cool as I knew no one could judge from my face that I was from Pakistan, but in my heart, I knew that my visa didn’t allow me to visit this town. When I was close to entering the temple, I realised that the security checking was far stricter than at any other place even including president’s house. The security officer asked me to take off my jacket, lift my trousers up to my knees, and turn out my pockets. He then started to pat me down. He asked me to show him my wallet, which he checked carelessly. What else is in the pouch? He pointed to my bag. I was carrying my Pakistani passport in it. I was really afraid of that question, and my heart sank. But I tried to look calm and answered, “travel documents.” I also tried to fake a Delhi accent. He did not inquire further; I was safe. I then went inside the temple, where I saw the statue of Krishna, a diamond in his beard and wearing a gold crown. A pundit near me asked where we were from I was not ready for another interrogative session so I answered, Delhi. “But, you don’t look like a Delhi-ite,” he replied. With fear of getting caught, I intervened, “my father was from Mumbai (it’s true) and mother from Amritsar (also true).” Soon, I realised that the pundit did not have any interest in my background; all he wanted was to get some money from us. That was the only easy way out of the situation for me as well as I was not in a position to argue. At almost all tourist places, foreigners pay a several-times-higher entrance fee than Indians. We easily passed the test to be Indian and had paid a nominal entrance fee, just as we had when visiting the Taj Mahal earlier that day. But all the money we saved this pundit took away from us. The most interesting aspect of the trip was interacting with different people in the streets, parks and restaurants. When anyone found out that we were from Pakistan, they showed care and love for us. It made us feel special. I believe another great advantage Delhi had over Lahore was it’s multicultural and multi-religious society. Simply interacting with people of different faiths and backgrounds starts to build tolerance in society. The owners of our hotel were very friendly and helpful. We enjoyed our conversations with them in Punjabi. We also made some acquaintances in a neat by tea stall and enjoyed talked over cup of freshly brewed tea. Although I found Delhi and Lahore similar in many other ways, they have their own separate identities as well. Dilliwalas present themselves as more cultured and well-mannered than Lahorite. Dilliwalas use more literary and polite language than I was used to hearing in the streets of Lahore. Dilliwalas generally showed more social education and progressive attitudes. I noticed several institutes and organizations that were working for the betterment of handicapped people, rehabilitation centers, and human rights offices. Women are more liberated and confident there; that contrast is quite obvious. I did not notice a single incidence of a women being intimidated. I really appreciated these positive social vibes in Delhi. Overall, the social fabric and interaction with others left me with a very positive impression of India and Indians. I was on-edge and apprehensive most of the time during my stay. I think this was the result of anti-India propaganda directed towards us for years. My interactions with the bus ticketing fellow, police department, security officer at the president’s house and the pundit did not help overcome my paranoia. The thing that really helped was my interaction with the local people. They were welcoming, pleasant and helpful. I went to India thinking that it was a hostile place, but while there I discovered we had a lot more in common than I had previously realized. Language, food, history, mystical traditions and culture connect us at several levels. I came back with a sense of loss that I was cut off from my own history and culture. The political rupture has done great damage to our common heritage, which is now only selectively owned by the people from both side of the border. Nowadays, I usually introduce myself in the U.S. as a Pakistani. But if someone asks me first,“ Are you from India?” I usually reply that my parents were from India, but I have lived in the States for the past several years. Even a decade later that is the influence of the visit to Delhi on me. Published in Daily Times, May 2nd 2018.