I wake up to the sound of the Azan, the Muslim call to prayer, at the crack of dawn. My ears adjust to the familiar noise and it takes me a moment to realise that I’m not at home in Karachi. I’m in Jaipur, India. Although it is a cold Rajasthani morning and I am caught somewhere between feeling comforted and confused (I am in town for a literary festival), I fall back to sleep feeling very much at home.
Despite our shared heritage, culture, history, languages and memories, both India and Pakistan have managed to create the impression that there exists a gulf between their peoples. Wherever relations between the two countries can be hindered, they have been. Our phones don’t connect to each other’s countries, for ordinary travellers to get a visa is a process so complicated it may as well include a physical obstacle course, we don’t trade freely and we have even managed to turn the most boring sport in the world – cricket – into a constantly tense encounter between our peoples.
But that’s the outside. That’s not how Indians and Pakistanis feel when they are with each other. I can think of no country in which I am more warmly received than India. (And a Pakistani passport is not exactly a hot welcome card anywhere).
. . .
I visit Jaipur’s red sandstone Jaigarh Fort, once controlled by the would-be Mughal Emperor Dara Shikoh. The 18th-century fort contains the Jaivana cannon, cast in 1720, and the largest wheeled cannon ever built (so large that it was almost impossible to use). The view is spectacular and I am reminded of the Ranikot Fort, in Sindh’s Kirthar range, which Pakistanis will tell you is the second largest fort complex in the world (or the biggest, if you don’t count that long wall in China). Ranikot was most likely built in the 1600s though no one can say with any accuracy who built it – it could have been the Persians, maybe the Arabs, possibly even the Greeks.
Getting into the monumental theme, I go with a friend, Italian war reporter and novelist Ortensia Visconti, to visit the temples of Galta and Surya Mandir (the Sun Temple), on the outskirts of Jaipur.
The monkeys at the temple complex are manic and deceptively cute looking. Little boys sell you bags of peanuts to feed the monkeys, though you’d have to be suicidal to stand in the middle of 200 crazed monkeys with just one bag of peanuts. We make an offering to the temple at the top of the hill and are given a blessing by devotees of the Sun temple. The only real danger we face is being deserted by our rickshaw driver, a natty gentleman whose mudflaps read, “Make love, not babies.”
. . .
My family originally came from the deserts of Rajasthan. I remember this as I wheeze through the dust of the city. Squirreling some hours to rest in the beautiful Haveli Hotel, where I have now taken possession of two electric heaters, I excitedly go through a sneak peek of the beautiful and haunting photographs by Charles, Earl of March, from the soon-to-be exhibited series Nature Translated. Known for the vintage car and racing festivals he hosts at the family seat Goodwood, in Sussex, Charles began his career as a photographer in 1975, working on the set of Stanley Kubrick’s film Barry Lyndon, and was also heralded as one of Britain’s premier still-life photographers.
The Nature Translated photographs have an ethereal, eerie quality. Like everything Charles does, they are, above all, exceedingly elegant.
I am also re-reading Alba Arikha’s memoir Major/Minor, about growing up in 1980s Paris. Her late father was the painter Avigdor Arikha, and it is about his journey, as well as her own. Samuel Beckett, her godfather, features, as does her mother, the poet Anne Atik. It’s a tender portrait of an extraordinary family, of growing up, of art and love.
. . .
At breakfast at the crumblingly beautiful and sub-Arctic Haveli, a waiter with a very impressive moustache pours my coffee and says in a loud and booming voice, so everyone can hear, “Where are you from, Madam?” I feel obliged to answer because at least three tables are waiting for a reply. Where, I ask, sinking slightly into my chair, does it look like I’m from? “India,” he suggests. Almost, I reply. “Bangladesh?” Close. “Afghanistan?” Sort of. The waiter’s moustache droops slightly. “China?” No. He thinks for a moment and warming his hands on the Thermos, taps his fingers impatiently. “Pakistan?” I nod. I worry I’ve disappointed him as he feigns a smile and wanders off towards another table. Before I’ve managed to take more than two sips of my tea, he’s back. “I didn’t say Pakistan, madam, because it is the same thing. You know, we used to be one country.”
. . .
Back home in Karachi, I get on with researching my next book, which is, conveniently, about Karachi. Of all of Asia’s mega-cities – Delhi, Bangkok, Calcutta, Tehran – Karachi has surprisingly few narrators. Everyone is afraid of it but is not entirely sure why. It was Pakistan’s first capital, the city that ought to have defined the country. Now it’s an uncertain, violent metropolis. But there’s still something beautiful about it to those of us who live here. It’s a refugees’ city, a place whose borders opened to welcome in foreigners, strangers and stragglers. A city that never said no to anyone – not until now, at least.
. . .
While I have been away from home, my brother Zulfikar – college student, artist and environmentalist – has been working on the Indus river, saving its dolphins from being stranded in shallow canals. (The dolphins are almost blind – the rivers are silted and they use echolocation rather than sight to get about and to feed).
These are some of the rarest mammals on earth and among the last major living species of river dolphins, along with those found in the Ganges and the Amazon.
So, while I was larking around the lovely Havelis and giant fort complexes, my brother was saving mammals, coordinating his own research with the offices of the World Wide Fund for Nature in Pakistan and writing an impassioned plea for these endangered animals.
I’m eight years older but I learn a tremendous amount from my younger brother.
Fatima Bhutto’s memoir ‘Songs of Blood and Sword’ is published by Vintage