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A Visa for Mahiwaal: Maheep Singh

September 7, 2012

Guest post by MAHEEP SINGH

Sufi dervishes join a Sikh Nagar Kirtan parade at the Nankana Saheb shrine near Lahore. Photo credit: S Khalsa

As a child I gave my mother a tough time with all sorts of questions about the world; she would often not have answers. I would ask, for instance, why we couldn’t just go to Nankana Saheb as and when we wanted. Nankana Saheb is the birthplace of Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh faith. It is in Pakistan, on the outskirts of Lahore.

Sikhism must be the only religion in the world whose official prayers include a plea for visa relaxation. Believe it or not, millions of Sikhs all over the world do that as part of their daily prayer, the Ardas, in which we pray to almighty to grant us free access (“khulle darshan deedaar”) to the birth place of Guru Nanak and other places in present-day Pakistan, considered holy by Sikhs.

The prayer was answered for me when I was just ten years old. The Delhi Sikh Gurudwara Management Committee used to get this quota of visas, much like a Haj Committee, to visit Nankana Saheb near Lahore and Panja Saheb in Hasan Abdal, 48 kilometres from Rawalpindi. Our good luck and a political connection saw four of us go to Pakistan – my mother, my two sisters and me.

Our visit turned out to be more of a cultural orientation than a pilgrimage. I still remember that train running at a very slow speed between Wagah and Attari, the Pakistani and Indian sides of the border that divide Lahore and Amritsar. There were police and army men on their horses on both sides of that train. At the immigration the officials were cautiously looking at the papers and to our surprise there were a few people who were trying to ‘smuggle’ tea into Pakistan. We later came to know that Darjeeling and Assam teas were most sought after in Pakistan.

Older people visiting this holy place wished for much more than just answers to their prayers. There was a Hindu family with us and their agenda was to visit their old house in Pindi, as Rawalpindi is popularly called. There was a woman who wanted to buy a cloth called boski from the bazaars of Lahore. And then there were those who burst into tears when their feet touched Pakistan.

Tangawallas addressed my mother as Baaji (elder sister) in the sweetest of Punjabi. Women in bazaars touched her shawl and asked, “Kashmiri hai?” (Is it a Kashmiri shawl?) I was trying my best to feel like a foreigner in Pakistan, but there wasn’t much that was very different from a bazaar in Chandni Chowk. Two men with heft moustaches didn’t let my mother pay for my fruit chaat. When my mother insisted, they simply said, “Tusi mehmaan ho saade (You are our guests)”. Finally, I had felt like a foreigner. 

The visa came with all kinds of restrictions. We could visit the Gurudwara in Hasan Abdal but could not go anywhere else in Rawalpindi. The currency was different. The buses with rich designs on them left a lasting impression on me. The ones embellished with Meenakari were just one of a kind.

This photograph was taken recently by Shiraz Hassan at the Gurudwara Darbar Saheb in Kartarpur district of the Pakistani Punjab. The photograph shows the shell of a bomb that had landed on its compound during the India-Pakistan war in 1971. Guru Nanak is said to have died in Kartarpur. The shrine is at a distance of 3 kms from the international border. On this side of the border is another Sikh shrine, the Gurudwara Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur district

My mother’s father came to India with his family as a “refugee”. This very word was equivalent to an abuse in our house because of the shame that was appended to the word. I grew up with the stories of the Partition told by people who actually saw it happen. Here is one such story that my mother told me. My grandfather was a cloth merchant who had a quota of cotton, and now he had to submit a fee to renew his quota. Even as the winds of the Partition raged, my grandfather took them seriously and happily proceeded to Hoti Mardan to get his quota renewed. He stocked up his shop with bales of cotton cloth and proceeded to what was now India, confident that he would return home after the madness of Partition died down.

That obviously never happened. The sense of disbelief about the Partition still echoes in the second and third generations of people who lost their country in a day.

In my college days I got introduced to the theater of the late Habib Tanveer. There was a play by Asghar Wajahat with an intriguing title, Jinne Lahore nahi vekhya O jameya hi nahi (One who has not seen Lahore is as good as never born). This title holds in it more meaning for my generation than the one after. The new generation has little connection to that part of its history. Pakistan for them is just another country at best, an enemy state at worst.

Sikh pilgrims from India meeting then then Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani in Islamabad in 2008

Years ago I worked on a book on popular Punjabi legends. It described the legends of Bhagat-Puran, Raja-Rasaloo, Daani-Jatti, Heer-Ranjha, Sassi-Punnu, Jalali-Lohari and so on. These stories were traditionally told by bards, called mirasees, in undivided Punjab. I was going to title the book ‘Popular Legends of Punjab’ but then decided to call it Popular Legends of India and Pakistan. The dilemma over the title was caused by the feeling that something belongs to you but you can still not own it.

It was not just some religious places or ruined businesses or houses that we lost. It was our culture we were severed from, a part of ourselves. We could recover it somewhat if we get to visit Pakistan, not as pilgrims but as visitors.  I dream of going to Pakistan as an artist who could live and work there without restrictions. I want to roam free the streets of Lahore without being seen as a possible spy. Is that too much to ask for?

For all those pained by these borders, I end with these words in Punjabi:

Changa hoya je chenaab ‘ch dubb ke mar gayi Sohni teri
Pakistan de vize ajjkal aukhe bade Mahiwala
Heer vi teri ga laine aaN shukar hai Allah SaiaN
Waras tainu aan ni dena si ennaN Patiala


Oh Mahiwaal,
It was for the better that your lover Sohni drowned in the Chenaab
Because getting a Visa for Pakistan is very difficult these days
Oh Waris Shah!
We are grateful to the almighty that we can sing Heerhere in India
Because they would not have allowed you to Patiala

(Maheep Singh is a stand-up comic in Delhi.)

Click at the image below to sign a petition urging India and Pakistan to let people meet:

See also:

12 Comments leave one →
  1. JGN permalink
    September 8, 2012 12:07 AM

    It seems that the Punjabis nostalgic about Lahore now cares for what happened during patition! It is a non-issue for all other people from both countries.

    • September 8, 2012 2:34 PM

      That’s a lie.

      • JGN permalink
        September 8, 2012 3:09 PM

        RH, then what is THE truth? India as it is today did not exist prior to 1947. Some people wanted a country of their own. They demanded and got it. What is there to be unduly worried about that? Of course I also feel for the casualities during the partition but that happened even before I was born. So how does it affect me or the present generation in both countries?

    • Swati permalink
      September 9, 2012 1:20 PM

      You talk as though you’ve never heard of history, and why it might be important to our world.

      • JGN permalink
        September 9, 2012 5:01 PM

        Learn from History and look forward to the future unbiased. That is what I have meant.

        Two countries were born in 1947 and that is a historical fact. Now live with that reality.

    • Swati permalink
      September 9, 2012 6:36 PM

      ‘Look forward to the future unbiased’? What does that even mean, JGN?

  2. September 8, 2012 1:34 AM

    What a writeup!

  3. Ashish permalink
    September 9, 2012 10:33 AM

    Dear JGN,
    ‘IT(what happenned before you were born) might have affected how you were born, how you might be living right now, and certainly how you will live post now.

  4. September 23, 2012 8:36 PM

    In 1963, India issued a special “India-Pakistan passport” to Sikh pilgrims visiting Pakistan –


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