NEW DELHI: Shaila died in a Karachi hospital on the day when the Army camp in Uri was attacked. Threatening war drums kept her brother, Nazim, a dear cousin of mine, from traveling for the last rites. That was the best he could have done. Forbidding paper work would have been in the way for Shaila’s burial in the family graveyard in Mustafabad near Rae Bareli. So she was buried in Karachi. Nazim wept on my shoulder in New Delhi.

Joint families have dispersed but the sentiment to get together for marriages and death still lingers. This week, even as you read this column, we shall congregate at Nazim’s house to remember Shaila.

In Dubai, my cousin Shireen’s dilemma is of a different order. With some effort, she could have attended the funeral in Karachi. She decided not to. Shireen lives with a paranoia: she is averse to having her Indian passport stamped by Pakistani immigration. Thereby hangs a tale.

Daughter of left liberal author, my uncle, Saiyyid Mohammad Mehdi, Shireen did her Masters in Sociology from JNU, married a Pakistani cousin Abbas, and had a daughter, Mariam. Given her background, Shireen was obstinately opposed to giving up her “secular” Indian identity for a Pakistani one. Mariam born in India, equally stubbornly clung on to her Indian passport.

These compulsions forced Abbas to find work as a banker in neutral territory – Cayman Islands. In the balmy weather, when Shireen was in the family way again, she decided to hop across to Florida for good gynecological support. Thus came Rabab into this world, not only pampered by the most opulent medical facilities but also with access to a gift from the gods – an American passport. She was born in America.

In Herbert’s great poem, The Pulley, God exhausts all his treasurers on man but keeps for himself the “Rest”. This has multiple meanings. In other words, God’s gifts will come with “repining restlessness” so that man does not forget Him.

Well, Shireen had her share of God’s convoluted gifts. A tall, lovely, 28 year old, on a wheelchair, immobile and comprehensively challenged, is Rabab, carrying the world’s most priceless travel document – an American passport.

For long years, Dubai has been their chosen “neutral” territory from where they branch out to relatives resident in either of the countries for which their papers are valid.

To make life easier for her beloved Rabab, Shireen has kept an option in New Delhi near our daughters, her adoring nieces. The problem is that Rabab needs a visa, which is difficult to obtain when Indo-Pak temperatures are high. But she has an American passport? That does not matter. Her father is a Pakistan citizen. Period. But she is challenged. Doesn’t matter.

God’s other gifts to Shireen were soon to be packaged with further complications. The older daughter, did superbly at university in Canada, fell in love with a Haitian film maker with a Canadian passport. It therefore made sense for her to acquire a Canadian passport, supremely confident of her Indian attachment. She was born in India and if an Indian passport is no longer her “birthright”, (she thought) at least an OCI or an Overseas Citizen of India identity card would be hers for the asking.

It turns out that is not the case. Let me quote the official document that has been handed to her.

“As per the MHA’s OCI ruling no person, who or either of whose parents or grandparents or great grandparents is or has been a citizen of Pakistan, Bangladesh at any time or such other country as the Central Government may, by notification in the Official Gazette, specify, shall be eligible for registration as an Overseas Citizen of India Cardholder.

In view of the existing OCI rules, you are not entitled for grant of OCI card facility being one of your parents of Pakistani origin.”

But wait a minute, she was born in India; until two years ago she had an Indian passport. That does not matter. Her father’s nationality trumps every detail in her past. Shireen and Mariam are frantic. Will she get a visa for a wedding in the family in India in November?

I realize more than most people that these are abnormal times. In fact my career as a foreign correspondent would have been impossible without unstinted help, on a personal basis, from friends in the foreign office. Additionally, visas for friends and relatives, on both sides of the border, were there for the asking. My friends were a strand in the vast mosaic that kept the nation’s sanity. Thanks to them visiting relatives from Pakistan envied us for the friends we had. “Bhaiyya, can we buy land here?” It all seems so distant in time.

When some of us accompanied the then India’s External Affairs Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee to Pakistan, I invited colleagues K.K. Katyal and M.L. Kotru, among others, to visit relatives in Karachi. The idea was to share with them the Mohajir experience. A teenage cousin of mine took my breath away:

“Bhaiyya, are they Hindus?”
Yes, but why do you ask?”
“Because they look just like you.” The boot was on the other foot those days.

My mother, an eternal optimist, a great favourite of Shaila, Nazim, Shireen, Abbas, indeed our entire universe, died three years ago, determined to believe that sooner or later mists will lift and peace will descend. The following couplet was an article of faith with her:

“Banda maza us milap mein hai,
Jo sulah ho jaaee, jung ho kar?
(There is great pleasure in the togetherness
Which happens after a big quarrel.)

(Cover Photograph: thousands living in border villages along the Kashmir borders flee for their lives)