Last Sunday afternoon I was with my most beloved Pakistani. I accompanied Urdu poet Zehra Nigah, 75, to Mehrauli Archaeological Park. Make no mistakes. Im not an aspiring poet and Urdu is largely inaccessible to me but it was a learning experience for this Indian to spend a few hours with this visitor from across the border.
Zehra Apa, who lives in Karachi, was in Delhi to attend a mushaira, a poetry session. Taking a break from meeting old acquaintances at her daily hangout in India International Center, she had planned the Mehrauli excursion a week in advance. Spread over 100 acres, the parks hilly green space in the southern edge of the Capital has 70 monuments, covering almost everything tombs, mosques, caravanserais, gardens, and gateways.
Wearing a light brown saree, Zehra Apa started with Jamali Kamali masjid, a 16th century mosque named after Shaikh Jamali Kamboh, or Sheikh Fazlullah. He too was a poet both in Sikander Lodhis and Mughal emperor Humayuns courts. This is beautiful, the poet said. Ive been to Delhi many times and Ive seen the Red Fort and Humayuns Tomb. But Ive never come here. Zehra Apas voice is as delicate as her poetry. It is usual for her to interpose her conversations with impromptu verses, which are so elegant that one is tempted to jot them down immediately on a notebook.
Pointing at the stone platforms built around trees in the mosques courtyard, Zehra Apa said, Its like in the villages. The idea is for people to sit under the branches and enjoy the shade. She then looked up at the sky and marveled at its blueness. While leaving, the fragile-looking lady was so overwhelmed by the mosques austere beauty that she turned around at the gate, and facing towards the monument, said, Thank you, Jamaliji.
Zehra Apa has two sons. Both live outside Pakistan. Her little granddaughter, a potential poet, is playful with words. Once she fell on the floor and suffered a minor injury. Trying to sooth her distress, Zehra Apa said, Kuch nahi hua (nothing has happened). The granddaughter replied, Nahi daadi, kuch toh hua hai (No granny, something has happened).
Born in Hyderabad in undivided India, Zehra Apa moved to Pakistan after its creation in 1947. She has been regularly coming to Delhi since 1953 when she attended her first mushaira in the city. Her audience in the Indian capital has included presidents and prime ministers Jawaharlal Nehru, S Radhakrishnan, Lal Bahadur Shastri, and Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed.
While visiting Delhi, Zehra Apa often takes her close Indian friends to Jamia Masjid, on the stairs of which she would recite her favorite verses. There are other important things to do, too. Being a Pakistani, it is not easy for her to get a visa to the enemy nation. So each time she is in the city, Zehra Apa buys enough sarees to last for at least twelve months. (The poet wears only sarees, not shalwar suits, the popular wear for Pakistani women.)
Referring to Lahore-based singer Rahat Fateh Ali Khan who was recently detained at the Delhi airport for illegally carrying more than one million dollars in cash, Zehra Apa joked, Will I be arrested for carrying too many sarees? Should I declare them at the custom check?
Reaching Rajon ki Baoli, a 16th century step well built for masons, Zehra Apa said that it was an ideal site for mushairas. The rules need to be strict. Every poet who tortures the audience should be immediately thrown into the well, she said. Soon there would be no one left on the stage.
By the time she reached the Sufi shrine of Khawaja Qutub Bakhtiyar Kaki, in Mehrauli village, Zehra Apa was tired. The exhaustion faded as soon as she started praying. Since women are not allowed near the Khawajas grave, she stood against the stone trellis that looks to the saints tomb. Closing her eyes, and clasping her hands together, the poet whispered her wishes to the saint. Perhaps it was an emotional moment for Zehra Apa. Her late husband, Majid Ali, was a devotee of Hazrat Nizamuddin, a Sufi saint of the same Chishti order as Khawaja Kaki. Zehra Apa said, Karachi is where I live but Delhi is the city of Sufis and thats why I keep returning here.
I wish more Indians could meet people like Zehra Apa, so modest, articulate, gentle, and loving. Our access to Pakistan is only through newspapers, TV channels and Bollywood films. Not surprisingly, the idea that we get of your country is that it is very violent, and that most of you are blast-happy fundamentalists and that all of you hate India. But the portrait is false. I know. Im friends with many people in Lahore and Karachi. I have gossiped with them, shared meals with them, walked with them, laughed with them and fought with them. They are as good, and as bad, as the people I know in Delhi and Bombay. And not one of them hates India.
The best way for Indians to acquire a more balanced image of Pakistan is, of course, to visit it. If thats not possible and Allah knows that it is impossible for many of us the second best thing is to just spend some time in the company of good people from Pakistan when they come visiting to our nation. In my case, that person was Zehra Apa. I must thank Hazrat Nizamuddin for such good luck.
Mayank Austen Soofi lives in a library. He has one website (The Delhi Walla) and four blogs. The website address: thedelhiwalla.com. The blogs: Pakistan Paindabad, Ruined By Reading, Reading Arundhati Roy and Mayank Austen Soofi Photos.