Estranged Sisters: Letters Between Lahore and Delhi

This piece, produced as part of Chapter One of The MetaSolidarity Collective, presents an intimate letter exchange between two women, Natasha and Divyanshi, residing on opposite sides of the border. They candidly share their life experiences and stories related to their respective cities, Delhi and Lahore. Through discussions about favorite bookshops, city corners, friendships, and more, these letters capture the essence of their lives and their yearning for what lies on the other side.

Chapter One of the Collective (from 16th April – 6th August, 2022), dedicated to India and Pakistan, brought together a dynamic group of 57 collaborators including artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, and scholars from different cities. After months of group hangout sessions, these collaborators were paired to work on cross-border projects aimed at fostering mutual understanding and empathy. This particular piece stands as a testament to such collaboration, offering a glimpse into the powerful impact of shared solidarity.

The MetaSolidarity Collective champions transnational solidarity through technology and collaboration. This cross-border initiative, jointly led by The Blahcksheep, Lekh-Haq, and Aghaz-e-Dosti, emphasizes that solidarity is not merely an ideal, but a tangible reality to live by. By harnessing the mediums of art, academia, music, popular culture, and media, TMSC aims to spark meaningful human connections and conversations to counter the spread of misinformation, animosity, and conflict. To learn more about this initiative, visit the website.

Editor’s Note: If you’re from India or Pakistan and would like to send a letter to someone across the border, please mail us at theblahcksheep@gmail.com

Chapter One LowRes 1 1
Art by Terence-Hari Fernandes

Dear Divyanshi,

Today, after a very long time, I spent hours in a quaint bookstore in Anarkali Bazaar in Lahore. Walking between narrow aisles, I came across a row of books on Punjab published more than a century ago.

At some point, Siddiqui Saheb, a bookstore keeper, noticed me lingering in the history section. He’s an old man who’s been in this job for decades. Learning that I was interested in the region’s past, he offered me a cup of tea instead of trying to convince me to buy some books from him

We settled into the two chairs beside his desk, and piping hot tea arrived in small teacups. As we sipped chai from the dhaba across the street, I shared anecdotes of my family’s migration from Kashmir to Amritsar to Lahore. We delved into discussions about Amrita Pritam’s hauntingly beautiful poem, ‘Aj Akhan Waris Shah Nu,’ written mere weeks after the border was drawn, shattering the silence on the harrowing violence of Partition that forever altered our worlds. I couldn’t help but wonder, what has truly changed since Amrita Pritam penned those words:

Ajj Aakhan Waris Shah Nuu,
Kiton Qabraan Wichon Bol,
Tey Ajj Kitaab-e-Ishq Daa,
Koi Agla Warka Phol

Today, I call Waris Shah,
“Speak from inside your grave”
And turn, today,
the book of love’s next affectionate page.

The Partition continues to this day.

Our tea finished. He stood up and disappeared behind a door at the end of the aisle. When he returned, he was holding what appeared to be an antique poster. As he unfolded it on the floor, I realized it was a pre-partition map of Punjab. In that moment, it felt like he had stepped into the 1930s through that door, retrieving this treasure and transporting us back to a different era.

Siddiqui Saheb had read my mind. As you know, I’m halfway through my documentary project, recording the stories of people uprooted from Punjab in 1947— from their homes and the lives they once knew. I had embarked on this research years ago, hoping it would soothe my own longing and anxiety of being uprooted from home — even before I was born. These days, it feels more like an excuse to spend time with women who left their homes, to listen to their stories, and to grieve collectively. Perhaps that space for sharing loss and grief is more meaningful than any research or documentary accolade could ever be. For it is a space that was denied to millions who, like my grandmother, saw their dreams of home shattered by the harsh reality of the border.

Siddiqui Saheb talked about the painful decline in readership, as well as publishing houses and bookstores around Lahore. Delhi, he mentioned, was now the largest center of publishing books in India, whereas until 1947, it had housed only a handful of distribution centers.

“These publishing houses and bookstores were essentially gifted to Delhi from Lahore,” he exclaimed.

I squinted at him in bewilderment.

Many of our writers and publishers settled in Delhi. Atma Ram, Gurdas Kapoor, Uttarchand, Rajpal and Sons left us after Partition. They reached Delhi and started their businesses in areas like Nai Sarak and Kashmere Gate.   

“Dilli di ay ronakan kaddi Lahore dian sun” 

He shared that most book sellers in Anarkali Bazaar shut down, but a few have collectively decided to stay here. Even the chaiwallah, Ibrahim, popularly known as Ibbi, who brings chai from the dhaba across the street, has been here for years. He wants to open a café for the National College of Arts (NCA) students who are his regular clients and don’t mind the rickety stools or the cracked crockery.

“This tea is truly very special. Ibbi’s cafe would be a rage,” I said. 

“But such endeavors demand money,” Siddiqui sighed. “He is already under a lot of debt.”

“The modest tea stall bears hefty responsibilities,” he continued. “That man has big dreams and bigger burdens”. 

“So Ibbi’s café will remain a mere idea,” I murmured to myself.

Siddiqui Saheb rose from his chair, concluding the conversation with:

“The dream will keep him alive.”

I watched Siddiqui Saheb as he went to retrieve books close to the window sills, drying them with a cloth and carefully stacking them on his table. Then, I leaned slightly to catch a glimpse of the dhaba through the pouring rain across the street. There, Ibbi was covering the chai pots with plastic sheets, under which the flame struggled to stay ablaze.

D, every day the sun sets on dreams and desires on this side of the border. Do wishes come true across the border?

Siddiqui Saheb kindly offered to lend me the old map for a few days and I accepted it. I also bought a few books on his recommendation. Taking his leave, I gazed outside the shop, watching the massive banyan trees sway gracefully in the monsoon breeze and absorb the rain. Cats and dogs had sought shelter under the tin sheds of shops. We saw sparks flying from an electric pole and the shops plunged into darkness as they lost electricity.

I tip-toed my way around puddles of water and reached my friend, Huria with whom I was going to see the Wazir Khan mosque. As we drove on the Mall road, the Post Office, National College of Arts, Data Darbar, Shahi Mosque were all a blur. 

We parked the car and stepped out when the rain stopped. Walking towards the Wazir Khan mosque, we stood at the Dilli Gate, which was once the gateway to Delhi. D, I paused, thinking of (im)possibly walking to you. 

“Maybe you can step into Siddiqui Saheb’s map and find your way. You never know,” Huria chuckled.

I stood there in awe trying to connect its glorious past to the present and wondered if Lahore had kept its secrets from me. If I could only discern Lahore by walking from Delhi Gate in Lahore to the Lahori Gate in Delhi. If only I could understand Siddiqui Saheb and his passion for running a small bookshop by spending an afternoon in book shops in Naye Sarak and Kashmere Gate in old Delhi. If only a cup of tea on a rainy afternoon in Delhi could perhaps reveal the gifts given to Lahore from Delhi?

It has been years since the divisions were made and borders were drawn, yet Lahore’s heartbeat seems to be quietly beating with that of Delhi.

Yours,

Tasha

P.S. Sending this letter and Lahore to your doorstep and in your hands. I plucked tiny motia flowers planted by my mother that despite the monsoon rains and storms have survived its scent.


Dear Natasha,

Funny you spent a quiet day at a bookstore and wrote to  me about it. I went to one in Delhi, too. Faqir Chand & Sons, established in 1951 — originally existing since 1931 in Peshawar. I bought a book written by Gabriel García Márquez, ‘Chronicle of a Death Foretold‘. I am waiting to read it soon. As I write this letter, I wonder if the day I spent loitering in Khan Market, you spent it in Anarkali Bazaar? 

It pains me to know that there’s a harrowing  decline of publishing houses and bookstores in and around Lahore. I am so thankful for Lahore’s gifts to Delhi. I read Amitav Ghosh’s book on partition, ‘The Shadow Lines a while ago. The book is divided into two parts, Going Away and Coming Home. There are so many things that stayed with me, one of which is the realization that even if we’re so close to each other – practically & legally – there are no chances of us being able to meet. It would be easier for us to travel to other countries in the world. To come to our own sister? Impossible. I used the word “come” and not “go” because I imagine coming to you and not going to you. 

The closest I have been to you was when I visited the Wagah Border.  As a kid, I was not aware of what anything meant. I saw the whole ceremony and saw no difference in the people on the two sides. The same dusk befalling all of us. That night, I tried to look up more history beyond whatever I was taught in school. I read the words partition, loss, grief repeatedly — words that I just knew the meanings of, words that I couldn’t define for myself. Even now, as I write this letter, I still find it difficult to define them.

Fatimah Asghar’s poem ‘Kal’ has made a home inside my head. Kal, I started writing this letter and kal, I hope I finish it and send it to you. In our language, kal is both yesterday and tomorrow. On sad days I think our tomorrows will never come. Kal nahi aayega. But kal toh gaya na? Toh aayega bhi zarur. I tell myself, trying to overcome the sad days. In her poem, Asghar knows that Allah can bend time. If that is true, I hope time actually bends. 

I keep dreaming about waking up in a different bed. When I look out the window, it is not my neighborhood but the hue is similar. The pigeons look fancier. Upon actually waking up and staring out of my window, I see the grey pigeons, and I am disappointed. If I were to see a fancy pigeon here in Delhi, can I assume that it has traveled across the border? I keep thinking about the multiverse because I watched ‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’ recently. If the multiverse exists, I hope that in one of those universes, the colonial borders were never created. In one of those universes, there is no partition

You’re right, decades of partition has changed everything. Can you imagine a world without partition? I’m curious to know what you think, what Siddiqui Saheb might think and what all the people you’ve conversed with, those who had to leave their homes, think. I don’t know about wishes coming true on this side of the border, but the sun rises here with aspirations and love every single day.

When I read your letter, it was as if I was in the bookstore with you, sipping chai and listening to your conversation with Siddiqui Saheb. If I had a wish, it would be to stand in front of the Lahori Gate here in Delhi and actually walk towards you. For now I can just stand before the gate and you’ll see me waiting for you, waiting for us, waiting…

Delhi 5

I used to go to college every day, sitting with an open book on the metro, and forgetting to look out of the window. As a kid, gazing outside the window was the best thing to do, but as I grew older, I seemed to have forgotten the simple pleasures of it. When we decided to write to each other, I began to look around. I started getting off at random stations, just to see what Delhi looks like. I see people, each with their own thoughts racing through their minds. I see abandoned dogs, tiny cats, the same old big phone towers, electricity poles, and the web of wires overhead. The sky paints itself in myriad colours, trees sway, and sometimes butterflies flutter by. And countless people walk by once again.

Natasha, what do you see in Lahore? How is it any different from Delhi? What sets us apart, if there’s a distinction? Is it our language, our clothes, or something else? 

Nothing. At the end of the day, I guess, we’re just estranged sisters. I believe you when you say that Lahore’s heartbeat seems to be quietly beating with that of Delhi. 

Thinking of you,

Divyanshi


Divyanshi Photo

Divyanshi Dash

Divyanshi is almost done getting a literature degree from the University of Delhi and she does not know what to do next. Her work has appeared in The Walled City Journal, Ayaskala, Stone of Madness Press and Yearbook of Indian Poetry in English among others. Even though she is currently based in New Delhi, she lives between reading and writing. 

“Being a part of The MetaSolidarity Collective has been an incredible journey. It has taught me so much and given me a deeper understanding of Partition, changing my perspective and making me more sympathetic towards those affected by it. My time with The MetaSolidarity Collective has been an enriching and fulfilling one that has broadened my horizons and expanded my worldview.

WhatsApp Image 2023 08 12 at 6.48.52 PM

Natasha Javed

Natasha is making her first documentary on Partition.

“It was quite inspiring being a part of The MetaSolidarity Collective. The collective successfully pulled an incredibly talented and supportive group of people from India and Pakistan. It was heartening to see how the group almost instantly bonded over food, music, history and humor. Overall, it was an enriching and memorable experience.”

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