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INDIA-PAKISTAN: Food Heals Historic Hostility

KARACHI, Feb 3 2012 (IPS) - If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, then the path to peace between India and Pakistan may lie in the commonalities in their cultures and cuisines.

Poppy Agha, Pakistani chef on the 'Foodistan' reality TV show.  Credit: NDTV

Poppy Agha, Pakistani chef on the 'Foodistan' reality TV show. Credit: NDTV

So when Poppy Agha, a renowned Pakistani chef, was recently served up kebabs made of okra (lady’s finger) and biryani (rice), followed by firni (dessert), the misgivings she had about India melted away.

“I was brought up in a very patriotic household with the usual Pakistani stereotypes in my mind towards India. This feeling has now changed completely,” she tells IPS from the Indian capital of New Delhi, where she has gone to take part in a reality show on food.

“You don’t have to think poorly of Indians to be a patriotic Pakistani!” said Agha, who runs a professional culinary institute in Pakistan, ladling out aromatic delights to entice the judges.

The Indian television channel NDTV Good Times, through its cookery show ‘Foodistan’, has diverted South Asia’s archenemies away from a nuclear race by pitting chefs against each other to a gruelling “cross border cook off”.

The 26-part series has 16 professional chefs, eight from each side of the border, who show what the “two most culturally rich and fascinating countries” in Asia can do with their respective cuisines.

“Cookery can be a terrific friendship builder,” said Pervez Hoodbhoy, a Pakistani physicist and peace activist. “It can transcend manmade boundaries.”

And that is exactly what the programme producers are hoping to achieve.

In an email exchange, Smeeta Chakrabarti, chief of NDTV Lifestyle, told IPS: “India and Pakistan have many common passions such as music, cricket and yes, fabulous food. The boundaries are just political, and the reality is that in many ways, the people of the two countries live and think in a similar fashion.”

“I wish the real wars were over,” said Vir Sanghvi, an Indian judge on the programme. “But, until we can be sure of that, the best way of ensuring peace is for our people to interact with each other in arenas such as Foodistan,” he told IPS.

Pakistan and India have fought three wars since independence from Britain in 1947 and a traumatic partition on the basis of religion. Their relationship since then has resembled a rollercoaster with moments of understanding punctuating hostilities over the possession of the province of Kashmir.

Mani Shankar Aiyar, an Indian diplomat turned politician, told a roomful of Pakistanis that both nations had a choice to either continue living in “simmering hostility” or engage proactively and prosper. He said 90 percent of the people on either side of the border did not nurse grudges from a dark past.

Aiyar, who was invited by the Jinnah Institute, an Islamabad-based think tank, to speak on ‘India and Pakistan: Retrospect and Prospect’ said: “History may have divided us but geography binds us.”

In India, Agha learnt to develop menus in different ways, but she told IPS that she gained much more at a personal level. “I have met some great people I can call friends,” she declares.

Zohra Yusuf, a Pakistani rights activist, believes that “any kind of contact, even a highly competitive one” can contribute to a better understanding in the long run.

“While passions may be inflamed, during a tense cricket match, for example, face-to-face interactions helps remove prejudices about the ‘other’ to a great extent,” she told IPS.

In spite of hurdles thrown in by officialdom on both sides, such as denial of visas, requirements for visitors to report to police stations and restrictions on travel, people-to-people contacts seem to find their own way.

Thus, India’s tennis star Sania Mirza could marry Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik, or the tennis duo of Indian Rohan Bopana and Pakistan’s Aisam ul Haq Qureshi could get together to start a movement called “Stop War Start Tennis.”

The Jang Group, a Pakistani media house, has joined hands with the Times of India daily newspaper in a campaign called ‘Aman ki Asha’ (Hoping for Peace) that, over the last two years, has relentlessly promoted peace efforts.

Aman ki Asha’s success depends on a plan to begin anew with the next generation of Indians and Pakistanis and get them to take the responsibility for “shedding the baggage of history.”

Stark facts such as the 250 million dollar daily expense in maintaining an electrified, barbed fence with floodlights and security equipment along the border are thrown at young participants.

The success of the Aman ki Asha initiative can be gauged by the fact that it was unaffected by the public acrimony generated during the difficult period after the terrorist attack on Mumbai in November 2008, carried out by a group of armed Pakistanis.

If anything, the peace show has been gaining ground. In 2010, ‘Chote Ustad’ (Little Master), a music reality show for young Pakistani and Indian singing and dancing talent, run by the Star Plus TV channel, turned into a huge hit on both sides of the border.

Rouhan Abbas, one of the Pakistani winners, returned home with a medal, a trophy, the prize money as well as a basketful of memories. He still misses the bonhomie that developed with young Indian participants at the show.

“The notion that India was our enemy was fixed in my mind, since I was little; that was completely erased after our Indian hosts showed us love and warmth,” Abbas told IPS.

There has, of late, been a definite thawing of the relations between the two neighbours, riding on the cultural front: enough for India to slip down to third position among Pakistan’s enemies, after the United States and Israel.

Shows like Foodistan can spread the message of brotherhood says Chakrabarti. “If you see participants from both sides and unless you are told you wouldn’t be able to tell who is from which side of the border,” she said.

“Because of travel and visa restrictions, we don’t know enough about each others’ cuisine and culture,” she said, adding that shows like Foodistan can help bridge that gap.

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