This ad from Google India brought me to tears

The World

About a week ago, I sat down to dinner with my friend and host at his apartment in Delhi. My friend turned on the TV and we found ourselves eating in silence, watching a captivating three-and-a-half minute commercial about two long-lost friends, one from India and one from Pakistan, being reunited after decades, thanks to their grandchildren and Google’s search engine.

The fictional ad, titled Reunion, shows an old Indian Punjabi man named Baldev telling his granddaughter, Suman, about his childhood days and his dear friend Yusuf. The two boys lived in Lahore, Pakistan, until they were separated during the 1947 partition between India and Pakistan. That’s when Baldev’s family left Lahore to come to India and the two friends lost touch. Sensing the pain and longing for his old friend in her grandfather’s voice, Suman searches on Google for Yusuf’s contact information, reaches out to him and convinces Yusuf to pay a surprise visit to Baldev on his birthday. And thus, thanks to Google, the two friends are reunited.

I’ll admit, I was moved to tears by the ad. Over the next few days, I watched my friends and their friends (some Indians, some Pakistanis and South Asians living in the US) post and re-post the YouTube version of the commercial. The video has had more than 1.5 million views on YouTube. Twitter was alive with conversations about it, too. Clearly, the ad has moved Indians and Pakistanis alike.

And here’s why.

The ad touches on the sensitive issue of the Partition. Before the Brits left the subcontinent in 1947, they divided the Indian subcontinent into two — Pakistan (which at the time included Bangladesh, until the country gained independence in 1971) and India. It was a response to growing religious tensions between Hindus and Muslims, and the demand from important Muslim leaders to have a separate country.

It forced people to migrate across borders. Hindus fled to India and Muslims to Pakistan. This was accompanied by widespread communal violence. Women were raped, and men, women and children brutally murdered. It was an event that scarred people of both nations. The two countries have remained in conflict over the decades. They’ve engaged in several wars and continue to fight over Kashmir.

And yet, people on both sides of the border have fond memories of the past in the other country, and the friends and family members they lost touch with. My family has no connections to Pakistan, but friends of mine do, and their stories have stayed with people and are part of people’s consciousness, at least here in northern India.

Indian historian Urvashi Butalia writes about the Partition in her book, The Other Side of Silence: “Partition was not, even in my family, a closed chapter of history — that its simple, brutal political geography infused and divided us still. The divisions were there in everyday life, as were their contradictions: how many times have I heard my parents, my grandmother, speak with affection and longing of their Muslim friends in Lahore, and how many times with irrational prejudice about 'those Muslims'.”

It is that sense of “affection and longing” that the Google ad taps into. That’s why we Indians and Pakistanis were so touched by it. A friend of mine from Lahore told me the ad got her and her friends talking about how their grandparents, in their last years, talked so much about India.

And this brings me to another fact about the Google commercial, that what it shows — the reunion — is unrealistic. Simply searching for people on the other side of the border, finding their whereabouts, and searching for visa requirements is far from enough to reunite long-lost friends, and definitely not in time to give someone a surprise birthday visit.  

Movement across the India-Pakistan border is heavily restricted. Few visas are given out. The visa requirements are stringent and the process is time consuming. Even when people get visas, they suffer humiliation by government officials and the police. (Read this Indian-Pakistani couple’s experience of trying to visit each others’ home countries.)

But there’s a growing demand, on both sides of the border, to ease visa restrictions, to allow more people to travel across the border. There’s a growing recognition that peace between the two countries can only be possible when people of the two countries are allowed to meet, and interact, in person.

There seems to be some movement. In September, 2012, the two countries eased some visa restrictions and added new categories, including for tourist visas. But activists say this isn’t enough. Read more about that in Pakistani journalist Beena Sarwar’s blog.

This brings me to how I began 2013. I spent New Year’s eve with Beena Sarwar and her family and friends in Cambridge, Mass. It was my first time meeting so many people from Pakistan, and some who were of Pakistani descent, but had grown up in the US. And if you saw or heard our heated discussions about geopolitics, South Asian literature and the American media’s coverage of South Asia, you couldn’t tell we were from different countries. We all shared a love for a good argument, a heated discussion — complete with hand gestures and fueled by good food.

I remember thinking at the time that it was sad I had to travel all the way to the US before I met folks from my neighboring country, Pakistan. It’s a sentiment shared by many Indians who’ve lived in the US. 

So, here’s hoping the years to come will let us Indians and Pakistanis travel more freely across the border, both to reunite with long-lost friends and to create new friendships.

The new Google ad may be unrealistic, but at least it creates a vision of something we can work toward.