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It’s all in the name

The unfortunate Surjeet-Sarabjeet mess was created by TV news,but India’s unfamiliarity with Pakistan can produce some hilarious errors

Written by Komail Aijazuddin | Published: July 5, 2012 2:33:45 am

The unfortunate Surjeet-Sarabjeet mess was created by TV news,but India’s unfamiliarity with Pakistan can produce some hilarious errors

PAKISTAN recently tried to send a prisoner back to India. This did not go smoothly. We announced recently that Surjeet Singh,a man who’s been in jail here in Pakistan for over three decades,was going home. There was a short statement that was later picked up by the Indian media. Simple,right? Wait.

Somehow,the name Surjeet was confused for Sarabjeet,which would have been less unfortunate had Sarabjeet Singh not been another Indian prisoner in the same jail,a man now infinitely happier with his prospects. Events unfolded like a bad high school rumour with diplomatic repercussions. The wrong name was repeated so much by the press in both the countries — the two names do sound farcically similar — that even our officials began using the wrong one. No one had a clue what was going on so everyone decided to keep smiling until someone thought: “Wait,isn’t his name — ?”

The mix-up reminded me of that delightful transparent phase when the American right-wing media kept confusing Obama with Osama in a Freudian effort to convince the electorate that the president was,in fact,a 6-foot-6-inch Saudi. Still,the false hope and confusion must have been terrible for the families of the prisoners. To say nothing of Sarabjeet,whom I imagine is now feeling quite put off by the whole affair. I find the mix-up indicative of two things: One,we now have video evidence that as neighbours we have deplorable communication skills; two,if it is on TV enough times,it is fact. Welcome to the 24-hour news cycle: the dumpster diving of reportage and our new Template of Truth.

Clearly,a name is an important thing. Take the very name,“India”. I’ve often felt that in the Great Divorce of 1947,you got the name and we got the summerhouse. By now the name “India” has an identity both inherent and branded. The Incredible India campaign,which I saw absolutely everywhere a few years ago during a visit,was wildly effective (well played,India. Well played!). Even now I can’t say the word “India” without involuntarily following it up with a whispered chorus of “incredible Indiaaa.” Imagining billowing saris and twirling Rajasthanis shot in HD.

I’ve been visiting India since I was a child and I find more of us come visit than you might think. This,plus the ubiquity of Bollywood and the Star Plus/Colors-type channels we get here and abroad (tangent: why did you send us the show Uttaran? WHY?),ensure that people experience Indian culture widely. Even in 1994,I saw the tie-breaker between Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai (rest assured India,you’re still our de facto representative at beauty pageants). Despite my best efforts,I will know when Kareena Kapoor is married,or that Jaya Bachchan gave Rekha a dirty look in Parliament. I also have a vague inkling of what life looks like for some Indians. Not to sound too divisive,but the reverse is not always true. Perhaps our TV channels are not seen as much in India. Perhaps young Indians tend to think more global,less local. We all know we get along abroad (hail generic South Asian student associations) but whatever the reason,I’m often surprised by how some Indians think Pakistanis live. This is particularly true in Hindi movies.

Observe: The other day I went to see this new Shahid Kapoor-Priyanka Chopra movie,Teri Meri Kahaani,in Lahore. It was partly set in Pakistan,in a place they called “Sargodha,Lahore”. FYI: That’s like setting a movie in “Agra,Delhi-ish”,but let’s move on. Almost immediately,came out one stereotype of Pakistanis in Indian movies (the “good” one,not the “terrorist” one): the Mughal Muslim. Suddenly its like we’re from Lucknow circa 1890; everyone walking around majestically in farshi ghararas in large expansive havelis and saying “Adaab” with an orientalist upturn of the hand to anything that moves. Everyone is stiflingly formal,segregated and pious and you can hear the Azaan. All. The. Time. It’s sweet,but not altogether true.

We rarely say “Adaab” — much to the chagrin of grandmothers everywhere — and women don’t wear farshi ghararas to breakfast (sadly taken over by horrific kaftans among the contemporary fashionistas) and havelis are much more difficult to heat than one is led to believe,so we actually do have modern housing. Parts of Sargodha are much more likely to resemble the raunchier bits of Jaanbaaz. For real.

But despite everything that sometimes seems stacked against our mutual love,there are people on both sides of the Wagah border who are trying hard for lasting peace. Pakistan and India now call each other their Most Favoured Nations (better than what we used to call each other,I say),and we supported India’s bid for the UN Security Council in hopes of reciprocation (Kyunki saas bhi kabhi bahu thi!).

My own feeling is we should be fine as long as we stick to the rules of a good dinner party: get to know one’s neighbour and,for heaven’s sake,try to get the name right.

Aijazuddin is a writer and artist based in Lahore

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