Beyond the Border, based on two journeys that writer-academic Yoginder Sikand undertook to Pakistan, is a strikingly unconventional account of what life is like for ‘ordinary’ Pakistanis. The Pakistan he discovers only remotely resembles the stereotypical Muslim nation of the collective Indian imagination. From Shiela, the daughter of a feudal lord, named after her mother’s Indian best friend to a rundown, local eatery owner who offers the author free food because Sikand is the first Indian to visit his stall, encounters with Pakistanis from all walks of life reflects a very different image—that of a Pakistan as diverse, paradoxical and rich in narrative as India.
Beyond the Border is not merely a quirky travelogue; it is as much a perceptive account of the Pakistani side of the story, as also the author’s tale of exploration and self-discovery. In pursuit of a more balanced view than his grandparents’ less- than-charitable Muslim sentiments, Sikand arrives in Pakistan to find out the real version for himself. Beginning with his bus ride from Delhi to Lahore, Multan, Hyderabad (Sindh), Mohenjo Daro and Islamabad, he travels across Pakistan, to sprawling cities, small towns and isolated hamlets deep in the countryside. Kasur, Gujranwala, Tando Allah Yar, Sehwan, Bhit Shah, Uderolal: nostalgic names, all, from a shared past steeped in rich Sufi traditions. The author found himself interacting with “wine-bibbing Islamists”, Leftist human rights’ activists, maulvis and madrasa teachers, journalists and peasants, amongst others. His keen interest in social science held him in Sindh (where the majority of Pakistan’s three million Hindus live) longer than intended, inter-facing with Dalit bonded labourers, Sindhi nationalists, Baluchi landlords and Bania shopkeepers.
The author enjoys warm, unconditional hospitality throughout his trip. By his own admission, he returned to India with most of his travel budget untouched, as Pakistanis refused to let him spend. While there is an occasional show of hostility towards his identity, the general experience is to the contrary. The many teary farewells he shares in the book are evidence of the love and bonding that is easily forged, and rekindled, between ordinary folk – brethren, if you will – regardless of geographical, political and ideological borders.
A departure from the customary rhetoric in Indian and Pakistani accounts of each other, this fiercely honest narrative of Sikand’s visit seeks to dispel the myths that have filtered into the Indian psyche about Pakistan being the terrible other. Neither syrupy, nor brutal, in fact, Sikand’s insight into Islamist cultures and descriptive skills unravel an informative portrayal of Pakistan that is both fair and forthright. In stark contrast to his maternal grandmother’s hatred of her Muslim tormentors, consequent to wading through rivers of blood during the riots of 1947, he acknowledges that Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs all suffered immeasurably during Partition. For in Pakistan, he heard similar stories. Recalling one such account, of a man whose grandparents were slaughtered by Sikhs, he writes, “His was the other side of the Partition story that was rarely heard in India. Most Indians did not even know of it. Needless to say, the Indian side of the horrific story was also hardly recounted or even recognized in Pakistan.” This book is truly that rare commentary, as told by an Indian in Pakistan, on the goings-on beyond the border in a place that, for many from the region, is still the land of their ancestors. A must-read.