Artists Break Down Barriers Between India, Pakistan

Two of the biggest media groups in Pakistan and India have orchestrated an attempt at a peace initiative called Quest for Peace. The goal is to bring the two nations together through music, literature; and other cultural and business interactions. They held one of their first conferences last week, and Steve Inskeep speaks to Mohsin Hamid who attended the meeting.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Pakistan and India are preparing to talk again. It would be a big deal if those nuclear armed rivals improved relations. Among other things, their confrontation makes it harder for them to cooperate against terrorism.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Some Indians and Pakistanis are already talking. They're not diplomats; they are filmmakers, artists and writers, including the Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid. He wrote the provocative novel "The Reluctant Fundamentalist." Now he's taken the provocative step of crossing the border.

Would you just describe where you live in relation to the border with India?

Mr. MOHSIN HAMID (Author, "The Reluctant Fundamentalist"): So I live in Lahore, which is a city of eight million people, and about 10, 15 miles from the border with India. If you drive half an hour from my house, you get to a border crossing.

INSKEEP: So that is the geographic distance between Pakistan, where you are in Pakistan and India. What is the distance in human terms between the two countries right now?

Mr. HAMID: It's pretty vast. For a Pakistani to go to India at the moment, it requires getting a visa, which is very difficult to get. It's like going from America to the Soviet Union in the Cold War.

INSKEEP: And that is the state of the relationship right now.

Mr. HAMID: It is a bit of a Cold War relationship, although strangely because we watch Indian TV stations every night here in Pakistan - they listen to our music - so we're neighbors, we speak the same language, but we have this Cold War relationship.

INSKEEP: So, what is this series of discussions in which you've become involved?

Mr. HAMID: It's called amunkiasha(ph), and it's been sponsored by two big media groups in India and Pakistan. It means sort of lovers of peace. The idea is to get Pakistani and Indian, you know, musicians, rock bands, novelists, filmmakers to come and do public performances or conversations in each other countries and hopefully create a more human sense of who the other people are.

INSKEEP: Why is that necessary?

Mr. HAMID: I think it's necessary because attempts have been made on both sides to really demonize the other group. So in India, when I went there, it was incredible, because people don't realize how similar Lahore is to Delhi. For them, you know, Lahore is this place of suicide bombings. And those things obviously do happen here. But if you came to Lahore and you went to Delhi, you would find them very, very similar cities.

Similarly, in Pakistan, when people think of India, you know, we think of a very different country with a real Hindu culture. And while, of course, India's majority Hindu, what's surprising about it as a Muslim Pakistani is that it isn't really that different at all.

INSKEEP: I suppose it's worth reminding that these are two countries that were separated at birth.

Mr. HAMID: That's right. They were separated in 1947. Pakistan became a Muslim majority part and India was a Hindu majority part.

INSKEEP: So the idea was to overcome some of that bitter history and just talk. So how did your first journey go? What did you do?

Mr. HAMID: Well, I first had to get on the plane and go through a lot of security and then flew into Delhi, where there was a separate line for Pakistanis. You have to fill out this additional paperwork. I was lucky because I got a visa that didn't require police reporting. But most Pakistanis who cross and most Indians who come to the way(ph) have to do police reporting, which is going to a police station in every town that they visit, registering as soon as they arrive, and registering before they leave the town.

INSKEEP: And you got up on a stage with an Indian?

Mr. HAMID: Yeah, with an Indian filmmaker named Empial Ali(ph), who is a hotshot young Bollywood director.

INSKEEP: What did you guys talk about?

Mr. HAMID: You know, we talked about just funny stories. So he was telling about how he had - on one of his soundtracks - he had a Pakistani musician, Rahav Fateli(ph), and he was very worried about the backlash that he might get in India for it. But it turns out that Rahav was nominated for an Indian music award and actually won the award.

And, you know, I talk about other stories. The time that I was in Bombay and I had to spend the morning at the police station in the evening hours on national television in India.

INSKEEP: What happened exactly?

Mr. HAMID: Well, it was funny. You know, I went to this police station and then I waited for this guy, and he didn't have anybody else to register but me, but was clearly not keen on doing it quickly. So, he took a tea break and went away for an hour. We just waited and waited and waited. And eventually he did come back and after a few hours I was registered.

And then at night the manager of the hotel is saying, oh, how great it is to have you staying in our hotel and there's a TV set up by swimming pool and all these people are watching. And I thought, you know, what a big journey to have in one day.

INSKEEP: So when you were done with your talk, you got back on a plane and went to your home country, Pakistan.

Mr. HAMID: You know, it was very strange because the flight is so short - it's 40 minutes on an airplane. You don't finish going up before you start coming down. And sitting next to me by complete chance was a woman I knew, a Pakistani artist who is married to a Hindu man, an Indian man. And so she had to fly out of the country every three months and, you know, he can only come to Pakistan every so often.

So on the flight back you realize how close we are. You know, it's less than New York and Boston. And we speak the same language - you know, we're married to each other, and yet once you get out of the airport, suddenly it feels like a door shut behind you and you're in a different world.

INSKEEP: Mohsin Hamid is author of "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" and a participant in conversations between Indians and Pakistanis. Thanks very much.

Mr. HAMID: Thank you.

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