The Other Side of The Border: One Pakistani’s Attempt to Understand India

By Meiryum Ali

At the age of 19, in 1962, my grandmother boarded a train. Fifteen years after the partition of the British Indian Empire into the sovereign states of India and Pakistan, she and her little sister were moving permanently from Lucknow, India, to Karachi, Pakistan.  In India, my grandmother left behind her ancestral home and her parents’ graves—in Pakistan she earned a college degree, met her husband, set up a new home, and raised her Pakistan-born son, now my father. My grandmother would later say it was on the train that she decided that she would never come back, because India meant nothing to her anymore. For the 51 years she has spent living in Pakistan, she has kept that promise. She, like the millions of Muslim Indians who uprooted their lives during the Partition chose to only look forward. Pakistan represented the new dream – a land where Muslims could thrive economically and socially away from fears of marginalization and intolerance towards Muslims in India. Their language, Urdu, became the official language of Pakistan; their dress and food became a part of Pakistani culture. My grandmother was not born a Pakistani, but she became one.

At the age of 19, in 2013, I tried to book a flight to India. If, at my age, my grandmother had thought only of the future, I wanted to understand the past, and present. I would stay at the home of a Yale friend, Nitika Khaitan, in Delhi for one week, and she would stay at my house in Karachi. “Simple,” I thought. The physical line my grandmother crossed in 1962 also demarcated a new way of thinking about what it meant to be Indian or Pakistani post-1947. This was something I needed to see for myself, as a Pakistani in India.

But  it was not so simple – if the exhaustive Indian and Pakistani government visa restrictions did not get to us, our parents would.

“No.” My parents’ response over dinner finally put an end to the “But I need to go to Delhi” mantra I had been reciting for the last month. That Nitika’s father had flat out refused to send her to Pakistan should have been my first warning that my parents would be no different.

“Girls in India are raped,” my mother first said, referring to the 2012 Delhi rape case that had caused international outrage.

“But girls in Pakistan are raped too. Girls in the US are raped—Mama, girls in New Haven are raped,” I said exasperatedly. My parents ignored this. Of course, college in America, a whole ocean away, was somehow more palatable than a visit to India, our next-door neighbor.

My father tried a different tact: “1947. 1965. 1971. 1999.” Counting down on his fingers, he turned to my mother. “Am I missing one of the wars?”

“Siachen Glacier, proxy war in Kashmir, 2008 Mumbai attacks.” My mother calmly noted. “You realize you want to travel to a country that has nuclear arms, right?”

I did know that the states of Pakistan and India had outright waged war against one another while steadily stocking up nuclear weapons. Each side blames the other for its aggression. It’s what every newspaper from one end of the subcontinent to the other sensationally reports on.

Cross-border travel between India and Pakistan hardly exists. The 1800-mile long border has only one road crossing at Wagah, where each sundown Indian and Pakistani troops face off in a highly chauvinistic flag-lowering ceremony, marked by goose-stepping soldiers, jingoistic cheers, and extreme levels of ceremonial pomp. Indian and Pakistani fishermen who accidently drift to the wrong side of the Arabian Sea are routinely arrested by border police and indefinitely detained. Forget people — while researching cross-border trade for my summer job at a Pakistani national newspaper, I discovered that when goods leave India for Pakistan and vice versa, instead of taking the obvious land route, they are shipped through Dubai. Neither Nitika’s nor my parents were exactly enthusiastic about the fact that both of us had to register at respective police stations immediately after leaving the airport. For my parents, India was dangerous, for the simple reason of my passport.

Given these restrictions it is not surprising that the first time most Pakistanis meet Indians is in a foreign country. When my parents lived in foreign countries as expats, some of their best friends were Indian couples. I am forever hearing about “so and so auntie and uncle” who now live in Bombay or Calcutta and have called to congratulate me on my college acceptance, or to say how grown up I look in pictures my parents post on Facebook.  My parent’s objections with India lay in its government’s policies, not with its people.

The map below depicts important locations in Nitika and Meiryum's stories (Brown/TYG).
The map below depicts important locations in Nitika and Meiryum’s stories (Brown/TYG).

I first met Indians at Yale’s International Students Orientation (ISO). I was not alone. Many of my high school friends from Karachi who went to college in the US returned with close Indian friends. They were like us, but with slight differences.  We spoke a mash of Urdu and Hindi.  We fought over the correct way to cook Maggi noodles, a type of immensely popular spicy instant noodles similar to ramen. We dressed the same (with subtle differences) and could hum the same Bollywood songs.

Considering our states’ hostility, our similarities initially shocked me. Yet as time went on, I learned a more surprising fact—even homesick international students can unite only up to a point. Consciously or not, Pakistanis prefer to focus on what makes us different, while Indians like to point out what is same. After all, is that not the argument made by both countries?

Former high school classmates and I together complain all the time about this one sentence: “Oh my god your accent is so exotic! Are you from India?” No, we are not from India, and we make a point of it. Pakistani flags are often draped around our dorm rooms, as if we could not be more obvious. Sure Bollywood remains popular, but Pakistan’s own mix of politics, TV shows, and pop culture references accumulated since the Partition feel that much more sharply different when abroad. The Yale South Asian Society represents all South Asians, yet some students still felt the need to form Yalies for Pakistan (YPAK). At UC Berkeley, the Pakistani Student Association fought for Urdu to be placed under a separate department from Hindi.

Early in my freshman year, a classmate asked if I was Pakistani. When I asked how he knew, he explained that his time spent living in an international boarding school had made him particularly sensitive to South Asians. “You Pakistanis have different faces, your accent is lighter and you tend to be louder and more aggressive,” he said, without the slightest hint of political correctness. It was exactly the kind of generalizing statement that would likely offend an Indian and with which a Pakistani would probably agree.

For me, India is defined by the Indians I meet at Yale.  In some way, every Yale student learns something new from his or her interactions with the university’s sizeable international population. But it India is not just any foreign country: here is the country that I studied in history textbooks, that I heard about in the news. For Pakistanis at Yale, the abstract concept of India suddenly has a face—someone in your class or residential college that you may like or dislike or not know well, just like any other Yale student. In the U.S. I feel much more Pakistani, but I also see an Indian as just another one of the crowd.

And yet back home, for now at least, I cannot afford the same luxury of indifference. Just before I left Karachi this summer for New Haven, a Pakistani soldier was killed on the border. Pakistan blamed India, while apparently firing upon Indian-controlled Kashmir, and India blamed Pakistan. Tensions rose, fingers were pointed, governments were badmouthed etc. etc. My parents put on their best “I told you so” face. The India firing upon us was the same India that I had wanted to visit at this very time. That the other side of the border would remain this elusive is something neither I, in my Yale bubble, nor my grandmother, when she crossed the border in 1962, could have anticipated.

Meiryum Ali ’16 is an Economics major in Pierson College. She can be reached at