It is love for real

Print edition : April 22, 2005

At the recent India-Pakistan Test match in Bangalore, fans from Pakistan cheer their team. - K. MURALI KUMAR

"DO not venture out in Peshawar at night. It is not safe," I was warned. But then, this was a night when the pre-paid card on my mobile phone had run out, Internet lines were down and there was a pressing need to contact my office in Chennai.

Visible beyond the empty stretch of darkness down a deserted, unlit street was a brightly illuminated building, a hotel perhaps. Hope sprang alive. Armed guards stood at the entrance, but a big-built, middle-aged man with flaming eyes and a silvery moustache waved them away. Then Afzal Khan extended his hand of friendship with the words, "Aap hamare mehmaan hain" (You are our guest).

In the true Pathan tradition, Afzal, the owner of the building, would not accept money for the call I made from his sophisticated equipment. Soon followed chai, biscuits and conversation on Shah Rukh Khan, Shahid Afridi and Lakshmipathy Balaji. And we had met each other for the first time only 20 minutes earlier.

On my return from Pakistan after India's historic cricket tour of that country in 2004, I was asked: "Was the love shown by the people of Pakistan for real?"

Of course, it was. Genuine beyond question.

Why else would a bright young man insist on giving me a ride back on his scooter simply because I had visited the academy of Qadir bhai - former Pakistani leg-spinner Abdul Qadir - in Lahore.

In the autorickshaws or taxis, the driver, after the mandatory question, "Aap India se hain?" (Are you from India?), would speak about his love for everything Indian, movies and music included. And he would wind up his chat with, "I would like to visit India one day."

When there is so much mutual affection and admiration, why then all these barriers? This thought, also a feeling overwhelming in nature, gripped me on the final days of the tour.

Things are taking a turn for the better and cricket is playing a key role. India-Pakistan matches are no longer "war minus the shooting" and cricket is now a catalyst in the peace process. The games represent a celebration in themselves, of shining talent from both sides.

It seems like only yesterday that the Karachi crowd chanted `Rahul, Rahul' when the Indian vice-captain was on 99. The huge gathering's warm response to an Indian victory, achieved in a gripping finish, reflected a willingness on the part of the spectators to appreciate good cricket from both sides. Ahead of the series, Karachi was considered a `rough' venue.

The game has soared over the boundaries, reached out to the hearts of the people and opened the doors of friendship. Off the field in Pakistan, Indian cricketers came together to help a cancer-afflicted young girl receive treatment at an Indian hospital and the wonderful gesture received appropriate media coverage.

Said Shaharyar Khan, the affable chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board, at the conclusion of that epoch-making tour: "In the past we tended to see these matches as very nationalistic affairs. What we are witnessing now is public opinion manifesting itself not only on the cricket field, but wherever the Indian team or Indian fans have gone to. Be it the bazaars, the shops or the restaurants, there has been a universal welcome. This demonstrates how the people look at each other in spite of all the political problems that exist between the two countries. This has been a very positive development. I am sure the political leadership on both sides will take cognisance of this."

Fireworks dotted the night sky in Lahore and it was India and not Pakistan that had triumphed at the Gaddafi Stadium. At the end of the Test series, Indian cricketers were mobbed for autographs in Islamabad, despite Pakistan suffering a reverse.

Cabbie Shahid Hussian, looking down the Margala Hills, his gaze settling on the shimmering lights of Islamabad, said, "Saab, our team going down without a fight in Rawalpindi has disappointed all of us, but the manner in which the people have reacted to the defeat, I have never seen anything like this before in Pakistan."

In the 1980s, India-Pakistan matches were often volatile, jingoistic affairs, with an undercurrent of tension, where too much emphasis was placed on winning rather than dishing out bright cricket. The cricketers, under enormous pressure, were defensive in their methods and tactics. Now, with the cricketing public on both sides maturing, they are parading their skills with more freedom.

Chennai of 1999, where a victorious Pakistan team was accorded a standing ovation at Chepauk by a crowd with a heartbeat and a soul, marked the turning point. The reaction of the spectators at the M.A. Chidambaram stadium has stayed in the cricketing consciousness of the Pakistanis.

More recently, while the crowd in Bangalore might have been angered by a tame Indian performance, it warmly acknowledged some captivating cricket from the Pakistan team. A roar invariably greeted Inzamam-ul-Haq's smooth strokes.

The Pakistani cricketers have been welcomed, mobbed and feted in India. Players from the two teams, despite the heat and the dust of the duels and the odd display of temper, hit it off outside the field. Apart from helping each other enhance their game technically - for instance, Asim Kamal would approach Yuvraj Singh for tips on fielding - they also ventured out together, sometimes for dinner. Security has been tight, but players have been able to move out freely after taking precautionary measures.

During the tour of Pakistan, Rahul Dravid visited the Buddhist monuments in Taxila, an hour's drive from Islamabad. Lahore's lively and colourful Anarkali Bazaar and Peshawar's markets, which capture the mystic of the orient, proved popular with the Indians. And during a function at a Lahore college, the crowd chanted "Bala, Bala". Balaji's habit of smiling during adverse times made him enormously popular in Pakistan.

On the current tour, the Pakistanis hugely enjoyed their ferry ride in Kochi's backwaters, appreciated Kolkata's history, and relished their stay in the Garden City of Bangalore.

While thousands of Indians supporters travelled to Pakistan last year, during the Mohali Test in March the stadium was teeming with Pakistani aficionados. There was not a single incident of friction between rival fans. In fact, they were one united bunch that lapped up good cricket from both sides.

And they travelled around the cities, visited the shops and restaurants, mixed with the local people and saw for themselves what the truth was at the ground level - the reality was a radiant smile.

At a dinner hosted by Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh for the huge contingent of Pakistani fans during the Mohali Test, folk and Sufi singer Hans Raj Hans thundered, "Together we, India and Pakistan, can be so strong."

Both the nations have seen luminous stars emerge from a labyrinth of maidans and galis, where the game blends with folklore and glory. And both the countries, a myriad of colours really on a canvas of cricket and life, have the opportunity to create a masterpiece together.

There was this image of the supporters from the two countries holding the flags together, braving rain and icy winds in Mohali. The process towards peace and friendship, gaining momentum, appears irreversible... despite the odds.

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