When I was researching for my first book, The Footprints of Partition, which explored how the narrative of Partition had evolved over four generations, I held a few workshops in Pakistani schools to gauge students’ perceptions of the ‘other’ across the border. During the workshops I would notice teachers eyeing me suspiciously, staring at my clothes, my expressions and the way I spoke. It was only when one of them asked me which city of India I was from that I understood the curiosity. The teachers could simply not comprehend why a Pakistani would be speaking about peace and exchanges with India. They had assumed that I was Indian, visiting Pakistan with an agenda.
A year later, as I finished writing the manuscript, a colleague asked who was publishing my book. I told her I was represented by an Indian agent who had helped me secure a deal with HarperCollins, India. “You mean your book will be published in India? But why would you want that? I suppose they must be paying you good money to speak against Pakistan,” she said dismissively. The fact that the book was being published in India was enough for her to decide that the work must be anti-Pakistani. Why else would the enemy state want to publish a Pakistani writer, unless the author towed the line of the Indian establishment?
Another colleague was as upfront and blunt. “Don’t you feel disloyal to your country? Why wouldn’t you choose a Pakistani publisher? This is how India tries to buy Pakistanis.” Both colleagues had nothing to do with the publishing industry, nor did they know which publishers operate out of Pakistan. They did not care to investigate whether there were enough publishing opportunities available in the country.
Instead, it was assumed that every publishing house in India was controlled by the Indian establishment and they paid out millions of rupees in book contracts to Pakistani writers to write ill about the country. Little did they know that for first-time authors, the advance payments barely cover one month’s rent and utility bills. Explaining this would be futile for they had already made up their mind. Needless to say, they never read my book. Being published in India had almost made it untouchable.
In December 2015, I traveled across the Wagah border with my husband to attend the Bangalore Literature Festival. At this time, I was writing my second book which focused on Pakistan-Administered Kashmir. As part of the research process, I had bought books by Indian and Kashmiri authors on the valley. One of the books spoke openly about oppression and torture meted out by the Border Security Forces (BSF) in Kashmir. Rather ignorantly, I decided to carry the book with me in the hopes of doing some reading on the way.
At customs, on the Indian side of the border, a BSF official opened my suitcase. Out came the books, some mine, some my husbands. He flipped through them carelessly until he came across the book on Kashmir. I had highlighted parts of the book that I wanted to use in my research; some of the underlined portions directly targeted the BSF. His eyes opened wide and he shouted for his supervisor. “Sir, sir, look what I have found! Look what she is taking across! This is anti-India propaganda!” I held my breath, realizing the mistake I had made. The officials rummaged through our bags, in hopes of finding more anti-State material to charge me with.
My saving grace was that the book had been published in India. I told the officer I wasn’t bringing in anything illegal. After all, the book was produced in his very own country! Though he let me go eventually, such episodes are frequent at the border. My husband, who had spent two weeks in India a couple of years ago, had been asked by Pakistani officials whether he had met any Indians on his trip. To meet an Indian, even on a 2-week trip to India, was both unimaginable and undesirable.
Being a Pakistani writer, represented by an Indian agent and published in the ‘enemy’ country, can be an entertaining experience to say the least. When India and Pakistan warm up to each other, such Indo-Pak initiatives are hailed as part of the peace efforts. And then the relations turn sour and so do people’s opinions.
As Pakistani actors and movies have been unofficially banned in the country, one may worry if writers will have the same fate. Fortunately, not enough people read on either side of the border, so writers will remain removed from the conflict in many ways. No one cares enough about them to ban them.
However, in 2016 when the two countries clashed and news of surgical strikes, “befitting” attacks and cross-LoC infiltration was rife, even literature festivals had to rethink their policies for fear of attracting unwarranted jingoistic attacks. An Indian festival that had extended an invitation prior to the conflict had to politely retract the invite. The situation was too complicated, they said. Maybe next time. Maybe by then, the situation will be better, calmer.
Until then, writers are just part of the collateral damage of the Indo-Pak tussles.
Anam Zakaria is the author of The Footprints of Partition: Narratives of Four Generations of Pakistanis and Indians. A development professional, educationist and researcher based in Pakistan, she has an academic background in international development from McGill University and started her career with the Citizens Archive of Pakistan in 2010. She led their Oral History Project, collecting narratives of first- and second-generation Pakistanis.