If you grew up in northern India, a visit to Pakistan is always a somewhat surreal experience. It’s like passing through a looking glass to a place that manages to feel both foreign and deeply familiar at the same time.
It’s not just the obvious things – food and language – that make Lahore and Karachi feel almost like home. At the gym at the Sheraton in Lahore i encountered a hugely overweight man who spent a desultory half hour on the exercise bike while glued to his phone.
Perhaps this is a familiar sight in other countries too, but the only other place where i’ve witnessed this check-the-box approach to a workout is India. Moral of the story: it’s easier to redraw national borders than to change mental habits.
Needless to say, not everything is familiar. In privileged pockets of Pakistan, the availability of alcohol at a party creates a frisson of excitement absent in India, where the well-off take the availability of wine or vodka or Scotch for granted. And despite the shared language, there’s always room for verbal miscues. “We don’t say ‘bina’, we say ‘baghair’”, warns a friend as i order tea for us in Lahore. “You’re outing yourself.”
Not surprisingly, Pakistan feels much more religious than India. Pakistani liberals bemoan the gradual replacement of the Persian “khuda hafiz” for goodbye with the harder-edged “Allah hafiz”. But on the street, at least in Lahore, the latter appears to have triumphed.
The default greeting – even at a hotel that’s part of an international chain – is not the secular “good morning” or its equivalent, but “assalam aleikum”. Rooms come equipped with prayer mats. God is everywhere.