Know Your Neighbour As Yourself

The People Next Door by TCA Raghavan shows us that in the history of India and Pakistan, reality is stranger than fiction.

As Indians, the very mention of Pakistan’s name invokes a range of emotions. In fact, it might be extremely difficult to point out when, in the intense period of 70 years, this has not been the case on either side of the border. Although many reams have been written about the India-Pakistan history, we often tend to revisit landmark events and places, forgetting about the stories of the people that were part of this history.

TCA Raghavan’s book, The People Next Door: The Curious History of India-Pakistan Relations examines 70 years of India-Pakistan relations “through the eyes and words of actual players and contemporary observers.” This makes it richer than those histories that aim at dispassionate analysis, for human beings are anything but dispassionate. TCA Raghavan masterfully brings out the humanness in these neighbours’ destinies since their birth.

History lends to us the benefit of hindsight. It allows us to keep alive what once was and may never be again. But histories of nations soon become the subject of dispassionate analyses –depriving the reader of the spirit and the human fallibility behind these events. The People Next Door fills this gap; it is a comprehensive, lucid chronicle of two nations with a focus on its people. Although TCA Raghavan disclaims at the beginning that he elaborates only on select issues concerning India and Pakistan while taking a cursory look at some of the others, Raghavan’s narration of history flows smoothly. The narrative itself is superior – balanced, tempered and invested, allowing the reader to immerse herself in the relations between both the countries.

The story begins at 1947-1948, in the harrowing period right after Partition as the world watched India and Pakistan lay the foundations of their governments and their relationship with one another. Over the course of the remaining chapters, Raghavan takes us through many other milestones in the India-Pakistan relationship, always adding flavours of humanness in them – be it the event of the Pakistani diplomat in Delhi on a state visit dropping by his ancestral home to meet his friend, or when Pakistani rock bands and Bollywood were used as diplomatic instruments, or brothers separated at Partition meeting years later as High Commissioners of the separated States.

One of the things that stays with the reader, the beginner and the academic alike, is how effortlessly the author breaks down tense and complex diplomatic scenarios. The reader sees Indira Gandhi navigating Pakistan, Afghanistan against the backdrop of simultaneous events unfolding in her own country. The tension between Ayub Khan and Nehru is almost palpable every time the Kashmir issue casts its shadow. We smile with diplomats and premiers as they switch easily to Urdu and Punjabi, the familiar linguistic thread that runs through the fabric of India and Pakistan.

Probably one of the best decisions that TCA Raghavan takes as an author, is selecting which parts of relevant landmark events the book should focus on. For instance, when speaking of the accession of Jammu and Kashmir, an event on which there is plenty of commentary already, the author instead compares this with the case of Junagadh (whose Nawab actively sought to accede to Pakistan) and brings out the strange consequences that followed (including an account of how, even in the 1980s maps of Pakistan showed Junagadh as part of its territory).

Each passing chapter shows us how reality is stranger than fiction in the history of India and Pakistan, how Punjabi and suave Urdu shayari are successful in soothing neighbourly tensions. Strung together by surprising coincidences, heartening anecdotes of cross-border friendship, and dark episodes still alive in the minds of both nations, the People Next Door is thorough and enjoyable.

With enough time, history becomes a clinical narration of events, slowly forgetting how instrumental many people were in steering the course of nations. The People Next Door brings these people back to life again, allowing them once again to paint the reality of times long gone and destinies forever sealed.