हिन्दीಕನ್ನಡമലയാളംதமிழ்తెలుగు

Indian cricket fans clean bowled by Pak hospitality

Published: Sunday, April 4, 2004, 16:31 [IST]
 
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Lahore:After dreaming for years about visiting the "forbidden land", 33-year-old Indian national Lungsanliu Gonmei this week finally set foot in Pakistan, anticipating hostility, abuse and rejection.

Instead she found Pakistanis who welcomed her as a long-lost relative -- as they have the thousands of other Indians who have crossed the border in the past few weeks to follow the first full cricket series between India and Pakistan in almost 15 years.

"I feel taller," said Gonmei, struggling to put into words a jumble of emotions, as she stepped onto Pakistani soil at the Wagah border crossing last Tuesday.

The large crescent moon and star of the white and green Pakistani flag flapping on the customs house in a gentle but overheated breeze told her that she had indeed left behind her homeland and was now in unchartered territory.

Territory which she had since childhood perceived to be peopled with hostile men who treat women badly and who are anti-Indian; where Islamic hardliners are trained to sneak across the border and attack civilians in Kashmir, raid the Indian Parliament and rake Hindu temples with gunfire.

"Pakistan has always been for me a forbidden land," said Gonmei, who grew up in India's restive Northeastern State of Manipur and who now works as a journalist in New Delhi.

"My views of Pakistan have always been negative," she said. "I have had the impression that Muslim women are badly treated and that Pakistani people are anti-Hindu and anti-Indian."

She formed these opinions, she said, from lessons at school and by being taught the long history of warfare between the two countries; through reading books; by bellicose statements made on both sides of the border; and by being exposed to anti-Pakistan movies made by Indian directors.

Before taking advantage of the easier access to Pakistan afforded by the cricket tour -- Indians are able to get visas by showing they have bought a ticket to a match -- Gonmei had only ever encountered one Pakistani.

He was a journalist who worked with her during a stint on the Peninsular newspaper in Doha in 2000.

"He was nice and very warm. I was the only woman editor on the newspaper and when I was taken around to meet staff, he was the only one who extended a hand to welcome me and offer friendship," she said.

Through speaking to him over the weeks, she began to review her ideas about Pakistanis -- but a lifetime of fear-producing propaganda hampered the process.

"I tried to reassess but couldn't convince myself," she said. "I was still left with the feeling that Pakistanis in general are anti-Indian."

Interactions with locals during her four-day sojourn in Pakistan as well as her experience at the cricket ground for the final One-dayer last Wednesday, have, however, helped move that process along a little further.

The shift began at the border itself, where Pakistani officials, including border guards, took time out to joke and swap banter with her.

It continued as she moved slightly deeper into Pakistan along the 30 kilometer (19 mile) highway from Wagah to Lahore, where the terrain was familiar to her -- water buffalo, small villages, rice paddies, wheat fields. Not unlike vast swathes of India.

Against this was the less familiar -- the Urdu script, the men dressed virtually uniformly in the salwar kameez (baggy trousers and long shirts), the numerous mosques, the roadside foodstalls offering mutton kebabs and the fast food stores boasting beef burgers, the Sufi music being played in the stores and the buses where men and women are segregated.

Interactions with locals while touring the city of Lahore as well as her experience at the Gaddafi Stadium for the final One-dayer last Wednesday helped her unveil even further the mystery of the land that she had wanted to explore more than any other simply because it was "forbidden".

With Pakistani fans at the stadium waving Indian flags and vice versa, Punjabis from both sides of the border dancing together in front of the stands and rival fans sitting among each other discovering they aren't the ogres the politicians have long made them out to be, the impact of the cricket experience was significant.

"We are clean-bowled by your hospitality, Lahore" read one huge banner being paraded by Indian Sikhs. "Win or lose we are forever friends," read another.

"The welcome we have been given in Lahore is overwhelming," Virag Thakkar, an information technology expert from India's Western Gujarat state, said.

"My parents didn't want me to come but I'm glad I did. It's been the trip of my life."

His thoughts were echoed by other Indian fans. "We've only received love and affection," said industrialist Gopal Bhushan Gupta.

"I left my seven-year-old son behind because I was scared. I wish I hadn't -- the people have been so loving towards us," said housewife Radhika Goel.

"We can't wait for Pakistan to tour India now so that we can give their fans the welcome they've given us," said student Shikha Gupta.

Crossing the border again two days later, Gonmei was humming a chirpier tune.

"Lahore is much more peaceful and safer than I expected," she said. "Women can walk around the streets at night and feel safe.

"I enjoyed speaking to the women and some of the men were quite nice. I would like to have interacted more with people but it was difficult. The society is very closed."

She had harsher criticism for some of the men. "They stare at you all the time and some try to touch you."

Having tasted a sliver of life from "the other side", however, she now wants more.

"I would like to travel around Pakistan and meet other Pakistanis. It is very important that we get to know each other better."

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