CULTURE & ARTS
10/29/2015 11:16 am ET Updated Nov 05, 2015

How To Make Friends With Your Country's Enemies

See, touch, love.
Mallika Rao

An aunty famous in my community for the grip she kept on her son’s love life is said to have issued a warning. We mocked it, but I admire its brutal simplicity. "Seeing leads to touching," it went. "And touching leads to love."

I was in Pakistan to see, touch and love, a logic I’d used in a last ditch email to the country’s ambassador to the U.S. the night before my flight. At that late hour I still didn’t have my visa, despite the efforts of connected friends. Because my parents are Indian, a Pakistani official in D.C. confided to me, I probably wouldn’t get it.

Even the child of Indians might love Pakistan if she could only see it, I argued to the ambassador. To the official's surprise, I got the visa the next day.

In Islamabad, I visited the house of a painter, Sana Arjumand. It was a pleasantly moody two-story in a nice neighborhood. Water stains crept from the ceilings. A bowl of lit frankincense sent plumes between us. Around the house a handful of women performed various jobs I couldn’t identify. Arjumand’s husband, a muscular man in his early thirties, shook my hand and left to join friends for the night.

We'd met at a gallery party for a group of journalists I was traveling with on a fellowship, assembled from around the world. I had no intentions of peeling off. In a quiet corner we conducted a standard interview, me juggling a wine glass and recorder. At some point, she asked where I was from.

In Pakistan, when questioned by those I don’t know, I say I’m Sri Lankan. Sometimes I refine the pretense with a shawl over my head: Muslim Sri Lankan. I am paranoid, but not by much. The cutting of India into two parts -- India and Pakistan -- left emotional fault lines. Something happened when Hindus and Muslims moved in opposite directions, in the largest mass migration in history.

The code by which the two faiths had lived in relative stability for centuries changed. Fetuses were carved from the bellies of pregnant mothers. Infants were found roasting on spits. Today, no one still knows who owns Kashmir, beyond the terrorists. Deadly riots spring from disputes so unsolvable they sound like riddles: Is it unethical to eat cows? If a temple existed before a mosque, is that reason to destroy the mosque?  

The painter Sana Arjumand earned notice for incorporating the Pakistani flag into eerie scenes of isolation. As she and the c
Sana Arjumand
The painter Sana Arjumand earned notice for incorporating the Pakistani flag into eerie scenes of isolation. As she and the country change, she's moving toward the iconography of love.

I get the sense that my presence in her home suits Arjumand’s sense of rightness. Four years ago, she had her first child, a girl named Aroush, meaning "angel of paradise." Soon after, Arjumand started painting moons.

Her star rose fast after her graduation in 2005 from the country's premiere art school, the National College of the Arts. She won acclaim for deconstructing the Pakistani flag into its elements: the color green, the moon and stars, draped and studded onto sad-eyed figures.

Striking and scary, the paintings attracted attention. The deep color and odd anime faces (exaggerations of Arjumand’s own deer-like features) landed her representation in New York -- a rare coup for a young Pakistani artist -- at the Aicon Gallery, a platform for work from the subcontinent.

"There is a part of it that’s like lying, just to give people what they want," she says in a cloud of frankincense, of those early works. Aroush flits in and out of reach, begging to play. She seems to sense in me an easy mark, this new friend uninitiated into her games.

Aroush’s birth jumpstarted the moon series and a new style altogether, void of humans. The closest I see to tumult, flipping through Arjumand’s latest catalog, is a pair of moons with crazy insides, resembling bacteria in a petri dish.

Moons are metaphors, she explains. Like a person in love, they reflect light off another source. She had a son a few months ago. Birthing children brought her to this model. She loves recursively, loves them for loving her, an act of nature rather than choice. She tells me we are built to love.

A new series by Arjumand explores the moon as metaphor for love.
Sana Arjumand
A new series by Arjumand explores the moon as metaphor for love.

Fatigue over Pakistan’s public image is turning artists inward. The star everyone talks about in Lahore these days, a smiley six-footer named Waqas Khan, eschews "guns, bombs, and veils" for the simple form of the dot. On a visit to his studio, he showed me the fine tip of his pen. His work is meditative. He spends hours a day crouched at a canvas, propping one hand with the other so his dots can flow as if from a mechanized hammer.

Both Khan and Arjumand cite Sufism as an influence. The mystic branch of Islam is predicated on the broadness of our capacity to love. Within it, the moon and the dot symbolize wholeness and light, respectively. The erasing of the human figure from work feels Sufi too, a nod to the philosophy’s tenet of egolessness.

Arjumand tells me a story of meeting a critic at this year's Art Dubai festival, a major art showcase for the region. Disappointed at the showing, the critic remarked that she "thought Pakistani art would be more political," Arjumand says.

"Sitting in a home is politics," she tells me, defiantly. "This right now."

She swats Aroush away and I ask if she knows of the famous Sylvia Plath metaphor of love as reflection. It’s dark, I warn. A mother is a cloud. The rain puddle is the child, a distillation of the mother herself. In the puddle lies a mirror image of the cloud dissolving in the sky until it is gone. Our children, with their buoyant resemblance to ourselves, reveal our erasure in their very faces.

It’s hard, she admits. You do feel erased. Working in the house with kids underfoot is not easy. Loving them, even recursively, can be trying. She points out the exercise bike occupying prime real estate between the dining and living rooms, a reminder to force herself back to a normal state.

Journalists are meant to maintain a cruel distance. We break into minds to share our findings with strangers. Arjumand makes me want to be her friend. The dangerous pitch of her career attracts me, the movement away from a New York gallerist’s wishlist to a primordial simplicity that may not travel well. Then, there is the weird satisfaction of putting two twins split at the heart back together: a Pakistani and an Indian.

We talk generally of market pressure. She questions the concept of "commercial galleries," a term I heard in Lahore to distinguish between the good (not commercial) and the bad (commercial). She doesn’t believe in the distinction. "Everything is on Facebook," she says. She explains this later: everything can find a buyer, and everything is for sale.

Once a political artist who dealt in the imagery of war, Arjumand now focuses on subjects of the natural world.
Sana Arjumand
Once a political artist who dealt in the imagery of war, Arjumand now focuses on subjects of the natural world.

It’s nearing 10 pm. I say I should probably go.

"You realize my house is safer than the Marriot," she says, the question ending like a statement. Does this mean she likes me? I feel like a seventh grader.

I assume she’s referring to a few years ago, when the hotel I’m staying at was bombed. I tell her I heard about it. Back in America I watch a grainy video of a yellow dump truck detonating on the path I took to get in and out each day. The explosion left 54 dead people and a crater as deep as 10 swimming pools.

That was 2008, the same year Arjumand went to India for the first and last time. Her first piece after graduation, an oil painting of a Pakistani flag, went to an Indian gallerist in Delhi. The sale made her "question this thing in the air," she says at her dining table. "This story always about us and India."

As it happened, she and I were there at the same time. Not long after she left, 10 men from Pakistan arrived in Mumbai by boat. They sprayed gunfire through the city’s poshest hotel before killing dozens on the streets. I’d seen a few of the bullet holes, revealed reverently by a cousin on the wall of his favorite pub as if unveiling an image of god.

Arjumand got a visa before the men ended everyone’s chances. "I felt there was so much hope there at that time," she tells me. I think back and say I can remember that too. Headlines blared of "India rising" and GDP wins. Today the top stories, if not about rape, are stories of mob killings and Hindu extremists.

I say all this out loud, as if in a court of law for trying countries. She tries her side. We talk about the glint of barbed wire outside her house, bushes of metal shoved into walls throughout the country so men with AK47s can’t leap them. "Nowhere feels safe," she says. She tells me how sick she felt dropping Aroush off at school after seven Taliban gunman slaughtered a school full of children in Peshawar. She admits to thinking about leaving sometimes.

“Safety is a strange thing,” she says. “Nothing is safe and everything is safe. Look at that airplane that disappeared." She means Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. "It was supposed to be safe. People are getting shot down in America," she continues. "It’s supposed to be safe. When I went to the Bronx, people were like, ‘What are you doing there?’”

I laugh in recognition. My dad said the same about Brooklyn when I moved there. My Delhi aunt nearly torpedoed a three month internship in a central neighborhood of the Indian capital until I showed her the crime rates in Chicago, where I’d gone to graduate school. No place is all safe, and nowhere deserves only love. 

Sana Arjumand

Exchanging our mutual disappointments reminds me of the way to bond with friends in childhood: complaining about parents. As it was then, we are quick to defend. Arjumand calls Pakistan "mad but beautiful." I suggest that India connects us, that we both belong to it. As I say this I hear that I sound patronizing. For a moment I glimpse the shape of Pakistani pride: new and twisted and glittering with promise.

We find another topic on which to relate. Lying. She tells me how she sat alone in a rickshaw in Delhi and decided to pretend to be Indian. Her family, she recently discovered, crossed over from the Indian side in 1947. I swallow the thrill of this connection. I remind myself that she is Pakistani.  

The frankincense is dying in wilted spurts. I say it looks like I should really go, even the smoke is tired.

She sends me with her driver, waving goodbye with Aroush at the door to the garage. I can’t see well in the night. So I am surprised when we are back. Mother and daughter walk to the car. "Aroush wants to drop you," Arjumand says sheepishly. 

In the surgical light of my hotel room, I can see I am involved in diplomacy as canny as any state meeting. She was right. Politics -- Greek: "of the people" --- unfold every night. Letting a guest into your home where she can drop the lie between her teeth is politics. Baring your country’s raw heart is too. It helps if your daughter is irresistible. She can guide your guest by hand up the stairs to the canvases with layers of fresh paint covering the old work, the stuff with sickles and spikes and the founder of your country hanging from a noose. She can say, "I like your friend, mommy," and the woman with the different parents feels a thaw where ice pierced her heart the day she heard the word "nuclear tests" out of her father’s mouth. She is melting in your home and it is you and your daughter who’ve done it, who’ve made this stranger go home to tell the world that we are all moons shining light off another.

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