Dear Neighbour

Bans. Danger. Polarisation. The cross-border harmonies of Indian and Pakistani pop culture have been imperilled over the last few years. But fandom, and cultural memory, survives against increasing odds.

Dear Neighbour by Sharanya Deepak; Illustration by Akshaya Zachariah for

In April this year, two teenaged cousins in Bareilly district’s Singhai Murawan village were arrested after a video went viral. The shaky cellphone video shows one of the boys at work in a shop, as a song with the refrain “Pakistan Zindabad” plays in the background.

The boys were arrested on the basis of a complaint by one Himanshu Patel, who is part of the Hindu Jagran Manch, an organisation affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Patel alleged that Naeem and Mustkim, the teenagers, “hurled abuses at India” when he asked them not to play the song.

“They only played a song like this yesterday, never before,” Shahana, the mother of one of the boys, told a reporter, “and they didn’t know what they were doing.” Her hands were joined in a plea for forgiveness.

A couple of months later, on a bus to Himachal Pradesh, I sat in front of two young men, their Bajrang Dal headbands pulled down around their throats. On their phones, they played videos about the Babri Masjid demolition in an otherwise quiet bus, hi-fiving one another as they watched. The edits included violent hate speech used against Indian Muslims—“Desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maaron saalon ko!”—Shoot the bastards who’ll betray the nation!—and exaggerated sound effects.

After a while, as the bus sped into the mountains, they switched tracks and started to play songs by the Dutch-Pakistani pop musician Imran Khan, of “Amplifier” fame. When I heaved a sigh of relief, one of the men asked me, in Hindi: “What happened? You didn’t like our songs?”

Plucking up some nerve, I replied: “How come you like the songs? Imran Khan is Pakistani.”

The men were unfazed. “Pakistani gaane best hai,” one of them said. Pakistani songs are the best. He liked the songs of Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and Atif Aslam; “Tere Liye” from the Hindi movie Prince was a particular favourite.

“But we are Hindu, so we can listen to these songs,” he said, as if reading my mind. “Muslims cannot.”

Muslim vilification has been a historic corollary of dominant-caste Hindu assertion in independent India. But in recent years, corresponding to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s dominance of the political landscape, the divide has become more widespread, and more dangerous to ordinary Muslims. The topic of Pakistan, always touchy in many Hindu households, has become touchier still.

For the Indian state, Pakistan is, among other things, a permanent enemy, and to be “Pakistani” is an attribute that is used to designate people and communities, almost always Muslims, as outsiders. While ruling governments have always exercised control over the terms of cross-border interaction, today, many of the BJP’s supporters have also claimed popular authority to dictate the terms of exile—Go to Pakistan!—to those they consider adversaries.

Deepening Hindutva ideology has crept into every aspect of society, but more markedly in the movies we watch and the music we listen to in Hindi-speaking India. That’s why the blanket ban on Pakistani artists, and the chest-beating jingoism in Hindi films of recent vintage, are two sides of the same coin.

But the state of affairs wasn’t always this hostile. And even now, a shared legacy of art, music and life is not so easily swept under the carpet. In fandom, and in artists’ protests on behalf of their fellows in Pakistan, lies a glimpse of this feeling. Here, it seems, is a world beyond the poisoned geopolitical environment. Music can often be a place of camaraderie, even if fleeting. It has been, and continues to be, in India today.


ans of Atif Aslam on the internet call themselves Aadeez, after their beloved singer-songwriter’s Twitter handle “@itsadee.” This summer, I joined audio chats on Twitter where dozens congregated to talk about their idol over three-four hours every night. The participants spanned the subcontinent: from places like Faisalabad, Mangalore, Medinipur, Dhaka, Lahore, Nanded, Lucknow. They spoke Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, Bengali, Kannada, and Dakhni. A 19-year-old fan from Nanded named Shubham told me there were days when as many as 100 people showed up.

These Spaces began at night, as participants scuffled into shared rooms, moved into verandas, and lowered their voices to avoid ticking off disgruntled neighbours. The conversations would begin with attempts at moderation for focus on Atif. But there were inevitable tangents. The fans talked about caste in India and Pakistan (lamented), the quality of Faisalabad’s water (brackish), whether Indians are all actually vegetarian (rejected), whether men lie about their age as much as women (a chorus of “Yes!”).

The big talking point on the nights I tuned in was an Atif track called “Rangreza,” which was featured in the recently released Indian-Punjabi movie Lover. Among the Indians, especially, the release of “Rangreza” had reignited a fantasy: the return of Atif Aslam to Indian movies.

The ban on Pakistani artists is a preoccupation with India-based Aadeez. On social media, they get together to orchestrate hashtags like #BringBackAtifAslam or #IndiaLovesAtifAslam, to protest the ban of 2019, when the All Indian Cine Workers Association banned Pakistani artists from working in Indian films in the wake of the Pulwama attack. In 2020, when T-Series’ YouTube channel took down Atif’s version of a track for a Hindi film called Marjaavaan, the Aadeez trended #UnbanAtifAslam and #WeSupportAtifAslam on Twitter and Instagram.

The ban capped a rollercoaster decade for Pakistani pop culture in India. The 2010s had started with Aman ki Asha, a joint initiative by The Times of India and Pakistan’s Jang Group to encourage cultural exchange between the two nations. Aman ki Asha characterised a period of relative openness, after the strain caused by the Kargil war of 1999 had settled.

In that decade, Coke Studio Pakistan became a cross-border hit thanks to YouTube, which allowed Indians to access its music videos for free. Pakistani recording artists had already delivered mega-hits as playback singers for Hindi films, like Mustafa Zahid’s “Toh Phir Aao” from the 2007 Emraan Hashmi-starrer Awarapan. By the 2010s, Pakistani actors were getting top billing in Hindi films. And Atif, along with singers like Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and Meesha Shafi, gained a large following in the Indian subcontinent.

“Atif and his fans don’t hide their feelings, they express them.”

Shubham, 19-year-old Aadeez, Nanded.

A major reversal of these trends occurred in 2016, after the Jaish-e-Mohammed attack on an Indian army camp in Uri, Kashmir. Encouraged by talk of retaliation by the Narendra Modi-led government, Indian producers announced a ban on Pakistani participation in new projects “until normalcy returns.”

One of the first Hindi movies that dealt with the blowback was a high-profile one: Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, made by Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions. The film featured Pakistani actor Fawad Khan as one of the love interests of the female lead, played by Anushka Sharma. Their characters were both Pakistanis, but under political pressure, Johar re-edited and re-dubbed the film to relocate them from Lahore to Lucknow, and all references to Pakistan were expunged. The following year saw the release of Raees, starring Shah Rukh Khan. Its female lead, Mahira Khan, was not allowed to travel to India for promotions. As of this writing, Hindi films are not permitted to involve Pakistani artists. (In Pakistan, a similar ban on the release of Indian films was enacted after India’s airstrike on Balakot a few days after the Pulwama attack in 2019. Pakistan’s information minister further expanded its scope, extending the ban to Indian advertisements as well.)

Atif had a concert scheduled in Gurgaon the month after the Uri attack, but it was cancelled. It brought an abrupt halt to his playback singing career in Hindi films, which had been going strong for over a decade by this time. He’d had a breakout hit with a version of “Aadat” for Kalyug (2005). When the industry pulled the plug, he’d just been nominated for a Filmfare Award for the hit “Tere Sang Yaara” from Rustom. The songs he sang in those years have achieved a kind of posterity on YouTube, with many clocking more than 20 million views. On the Jio Saavn app, Atif ranks fourth on the “Top Artists” list, with almost twice as many listeners as Sonu Nigam and Badshah.

The Aadeez remain united in their devotion to Atif’s ballads. Shraddha, a 21-year-old fan from Hyderabad, told me that Atif’s lyrics were special because they were timeless. Shubham valued the fact that Atif, being a South Asian man, wrote music that was emotionally expressive. [1] “Atif aur Aadeez feelings chuppatay nahi, dikhatay hai,” he told me. Atif and his fans don’t hide their feelings, they express them.

I heard something similar about Atif’s “emotional range” from Sameer Rashid Shami, a musician and filmmaker from Lahore. Shami is a friend of Atif’s and a former bandmate. “Atif was singing about how he felt, people weren’t doing that,” Shami said. “Doorie,” one of Atif’s first singles, expressed the pains of when distance and silence shrouds lovers. “He was directly invoking feelings, singing about vulnerable things.”

Given India’s polarised social environment, I was very curious to know how the families of the Aadeez reacted to this fandom. “They don’t mind. In my family, my father would tell me that discriminating by caste and religion are both wrong,” Shubham told me. But he had noticed the steep increase in hatred online. “I guess people put those things online because they sound so stupid when uttered out loud.” He brought up a recent incident in Manipal, where a Muslim student was referred to as a terrorist by his professor in open class. “Muslim ladkon ko alag tareeqein se dekha jaata hai,” he said. Muslim boys are looked at differently.

Shraddha told me that the Aadeez had helped her get over the conditioning she’d experienced in school. “I used to hate them, because that is what was taught in school,” she said. “But with Atif and Aadeez in Pakistan, there is only positive emotion. The world is so large, why should we look at it from a narrow point of view?”

It made Yasser, a fan from Jammu, sad to talk about the increasing intolerance in India. He’d recently reposted a photo, on Facebook, of the cricket superstars Virat Kohli and Babar Azam shaking hands at a tournament. “I got many messages about it—shame on you for liking Pakistan, they said. But that photograph had Virat. I am a Virat fan, I support my country, my India.”

“I sometimes think that if someone has hateful thoughts, make them listen to Atif,” Farhan, a fan from Bengal, said. “Atif sunkar toh sabkay dil se dua hi niklegi.” Whoever listens to Atif will utter a prayer from their heart.


efore “Pehli Nazar Mein,” before Kalyug, there was Jal, a band which emerged from Lahore’s independent scene in 2002. Atif was a lead singer and Goher Mumtaz was on lead guitar. The band blew up in 2004 after the release of their single “Aadat.” By the time “Aadat”’s video started playing on TV, Atif had split from Jal to pursue a solo career.

In cities like Delhi, teenagers huddled outside cybercafes and Xerox shops, waiting for vendors to download songs by Jal, and also by Strings, Noori, and Junoon from the questionable but invaluable website They transferred these to mobile phones—still a novelty—through a USB cable. “I had a Nokia 6600 where I would have four-five songs at a time, and we would pay some ₹5 a song,” said Manik Sharma, a Delhi-based writer. Some of the first songs he added to his phone were by Pakistani bands. He remembered when pirated CDs for bands like Jal were sold in shops, too.

“Pakistani bands had started arriving from the late 1990s itself,” Arjun S. Ravi explained. Ravi heads Red Bull India’s media projects and is the writer of Standing By, a docuseries about India’s independent music scene. Music channels like Channel V and MTV played a big role in popularising independent Pakistani music in India by putting their videos on regular rotation. “Remember when Sayonee”—Junoon’s 1997 breakout hit—“used to play on TV, like, 53 times a day?”

Junoon was the first in a wave of bands that found an Indian audience at the turn of the century. “No Indian band was making music like that, which sounded hard-edged,” Uday Bhatia, a Delhi-based writer and film critic, told me. “It was cool and brazen.” Ravi ascribed the appeal to “a system that was around in the West, which they made their own. They had that classic rock set-up—verse, chorus, verse, chorus; they were catchy; and their band set-ups were really tight.”

“It was like the college graduation party format in the 2000s—Aadat, a Linkin Park song, Summer of ’69”

Arjun S. Ravi, writer, Standing By.

Indie-pop was having an extended moment in India, but the independent pop-rock scene wasn’t vast. “There was Pentagram, and Zero, but they sang in English.” Ravi said. “These guys from Pakistan had language, man, they were singing in Urdu and Punjabi, and the lyrical quality was great. I hate the word ‘fusion’ but I guess it was a bit of that, because of how South Asian language and sentiment was fused into the genre of rock music.”

Ritesh Kayal, a Delhi-based software engineer and an administrator of the now-defunct Facebook forum “Jalholics,” believed that Pakistani bands expanded the repertoire of classic South Asian themes—like “heartbreak and existentialism baselined their lyrics.” Both Kayal and the Delhi-based writer Akshita Nagpal also used the word “democratic” to describe their appeal. “So while everyone—okay, many of the women I knew!—loved Goher and Farhan in Jal, the bassist Shazi was my man,” Kayal said.

For a generation of Indians coming of age post-liberalisation, the music of bands like Strings, Jal and Noori came to be tied up with ideas of youth and nostalgia. “It was like the college graduation party format in the 2000s—Aadat, a Linkin Park song, Summer of ’69,” Ravi said. Shami, Atif’s old bandmate, said that the bands appealed to university students in Pakistan as well. “Because it was students consuming them, they went from being, like, good songs, to anthems.”

Shami surmised that the Pakistani musicians were typically not as classically trained as the ones in India. When I shared this with Ravi, he said that was precisely what worked for them. “They wrote really well, of course, but there was that rawness to them.” He was articulating the candid appeal of untrained sound to untrained ears, a hallmark of the best-loved independent musicians and bands around the world.


 few of the Aadeez I spoke to were toddlers during the golden age of Pakistani bands in India. While the ban on popular artists has only been enforced for six years, they have come of age in this time, and have never had the chance to go to a concert featuring their favourite singer. For older fans like me, it was different. Concerts at affordable venues were a tangible way to interact with Pakistan, and young people across metropolitan India were watching Pakistani musicians in the flesh.

For people with roots across the border, it was an experience removed from the trauma of their parents’ and grandparents’ generation. One of them was Samira Kanwar, a producer and filmmaker whose family crossed over from Pakistan during the Partition. “It was uplifting to see a manifestation of Pakistan in cultural exchange,” she said, “and not only in the narrative of loss.” (Kanwar went on to make the music reality TV series The Dewarists, which ran over five seasons and featured Pakistani artists Zeb and Haniya in an early episode.)

Often, concert-goers could attend such shows for free. Many were staged at college festivals, where entry fees were small or nonexistent. Jal played at the Delhi College of Arts and Commerce in 2013, and IIT-Roorkee in 2009. Atif played at Delhi University in 2015. Strings performed in India several times in the 2000s.

On the Jalholics Facebook group, Kayal used to help arrange tickets for fans who didn't know where to get them. Once, when a fan from Ajmer wanted a ticket to a Jal concert, he messaged Maqsood “Maq” Shaheen, who managed the band at the time. “Maq was like, haan bhai, I’ll organise it,” Kayal said, “And he actually sent a car to pick up this fan and her mother, and made sure they reached safely.”

When the bands were playing in north India, shared language and culture went a long way. “We’d give them food recommendations,” Kayal said. “The Jal guys were always asking where they can eat well.” Nagpal once sent the band to Paranthewaali Gali in Chandni Chowk, “back when it was the best.”

Sarmad Ghafoor, the Islamabad-based producer who produced Atif’s early albums, remembered that a bunch of fans turned up with shawarma rolls when he was playing with Atif in 2008. This happened to Shami too—fans fed him chaat, which he loved, and nihari. (“I have to admit, maaf karein, we do nihari much better.”) The anecdotes I heard about Pakistani bands travelling in India often involved food: backstage golgappas, home-made parathas, Pakistani chholay recipes. This was the appeal to many musicians from somewhere else, boys in pursuit of shawarma and vigilant about nihari, and so in many ways, like the fans themselves.

Suyash Upadhyay, now a Delhi-based brand strategist, watched Strings at the SAARC Festival in 2007. “They killed it,” he said. “The sound quality wasn’t great, but who thought about all that in the 2000s?” He recalled the crowd going berserk when Strings sang “Jaanu Meri Jaan” from Shaan (1980). That’s also when Strings did something that seems unimaginable today: they asked the crowd to sing “saara Pakistan” instead of “saara Hindustan” in the chorus. Farah Naaz, a Gurgaon-based advocate, who was also at the concert, recalled this too. “I had my two-year-old with me. I looked over my shoulder, thinking, ‘I hope nobody complains, I’ll have to make a run for it with my kid.’”

“We all did it,” Upadhyay said. “A crowd of thousands, singing ‘Saara Pakistan’ at the top of our lungs.”


t was February 2020, and I was subsumed in Pakistani music YouTube. Outside, the world burned. Two days before, Hindu-dominated mobs had stormed working-class Muslim neighbourhoods in northeastern Delhi on the provocation of a Union cabinet minister, sparking mass violence. Of the 53 killed, 36 were Muslims. Many fled their neighbourhoods, and some were missing even after months.

The days after the pogroms were long and paranoid. Every time I heard the azaan in my neighbourhood, I sat up in bed, listening for saffron-clad vigilantes emerging vengefully from its lanes. I texted my cousins, Muslims living in a predominantly Hindu neighbourhood in East Delhi, to check on them constantly. “All okay?” I wrote. “Sonay de, yaar,” one of them replied. Let me sleep.

On YouTube, the world was very different. Under a video of the singer Hasan Raheem’s “Aisay Kaisay,” an Indian commented: “Hey man, my mom loves your music. Love from India.” About Momin Saqib, who went viral for his comedic rant after Pakistan lost to India at the 2019 Cricket World Cup, another Indian: “Yeh banda mera favourite hai.” This guy is my favourite. Under the video for “Aadat,” an Indian user said: “I believe music has not kept into a boundary, this song it’s a expression of a broken heart only.”

Salaams from India and namastes from Pakistan dominate these comment sections of music and dance videos, in what sometimes feels like the simplest place on the South Asian internet. The heights of this fraternalism are on display in the fandom for Coke Studio Pakistan, which recently completed its 14th season. On their channel, Indian fans feel free to be wistful, hysterical and often envious about the show’s music.

“But this is unsurprising, really,” said Rohail Hyatt, who spearheaded the show in 2008. “Nation-states are much younger than the histories of music that are woven all across South Asia. Of course, they take on different meanings to listeners, as is documented in the comments. But shared histories just exist. They always have. No one, in no position of power, can counter that.”

“Kya Bombay, kya Karachi,” the singer-songwriter Ankur Tewari replied, philosophically, when I asked him about his influences from across the border. Tewari produced his first album Jannat (2008) in Lahore. “I’m not really thinking about where a tune is from. I was never like—oh yes, this is from Pakistan, that is from Nepal. But I guess it does matter now. For some people, everything has a brand of: where you are from, or rather, are you from here?”

On that trip to Pakistan, he played cricket and ate like a king, and no one allowed him to pay for anything. When Tewari returned, he recommended Zulfiqar Jabbar Khan—the producer of the most recent season of Coke Studio—to compose and sing the song “Laaree Chootee” for a Hindi movie called Ek Chalis Ki Last Local with his band Call. “We just shared resources,” Tewari said. “The atmosphere, even though it wasn’t perfect politically, allowed exchange.”

In Punjab, then and now, musicians have consistently defied the border with collaborations. For instance, the folktronic duo Hari and Sukhmani worked with Lahore-based Noori for their song “Yaariyan” in 2016. Despite the 2019 ban, Sidhu Moose Wala worked with Bohemia on “Same Beef” which was available on the Yash Raj Films channel until recently. A year ago, they collaborated again on a song called “These Days.”

“I can consume all this new Pakistani music online, but that isn’t the same,” Ravi told me. “I don’t think we can say the internet solves all problems. To be able to bring musicians down, to watch them in the skin, that’s something else. Call me old-school, but it’s a crying shame we can’t do that anymore.”

Sukhmani Malik, one half Hari and Sukhmani, said that the virtual closing of the border had led to a kind of cultural loss. It echoed the feeling of something her grandfather used to say about the splitting of Punjab: “Batwaray ke baad, gaanay vaalay utthay gaye aur sunnay vaaley itthay.” After the Partition, the singers left for Pakistan, and their listeners remained in India.


his separation from the sunnay valay has had material repercussions on the gaanay vaalay. Sarmad Ghafoor told me that the “Bollywood and India stamp” mattered a great deal in the Pakistani music scene. “The industry was larger, the venues more numerous,” he explained. “And playing in India was and is more lucrative, since there’s more disposable income. There was a big culture of concert-going already, so more people came to watch us play.”

Sameer Rashid Shami spoke of the Hindi film business as a “giant, daunting animal”—a huge deal for any artist from Pakistan. As we spoke, he reminisced about Atif’s first days working in India, when the singer would record at Yash Raj Studios or somewhere else that was “massive.” “This idea of a large, roving industry for music with many working systems that have been in place for decades—that really was something,” he said. “We still don’t have that in Pakistan.”

Live music was the primary way to make music in Pakistan, Shami explained. “We don’t have a royalty system on album sales yet. In India, if you knew how to negotiate”—he meant back in the days before streaming services—“you could make some income on sales.”

The damage from the ban has been palpable, Shami said. “Take Fawad Khan, for instance. He had just started making it big in India. He’s a talented artist, and he was so good in the Bollywood films he did.” His old friend Atif, he said, loved playing and recording in India. “People forget that artists have lives, and feelings. They work really hard, and they did it because they love Indian audiences.”

Shami recently worked as an assistant director on The Legend of Maula Jatt, which became the highest-grossing film in Pakistan’s history. Globally, it’s also the highest-grossing Punjabi film of all time. Yet, the film did not release in India, because of the prohibitive measures in place. “When I started Maula Jatt, I thought—here is a film from Punjab, about a Punjabi folk hero. Honestly, it breaks my heart that I cannot show it in India, particularly in Punjab,” Shami said. “I even joked with the team about putting up a massive screen at Wagah, so that people on the other side can watch it.”

(The film is reportedly scheduled to release in Indian Punjab on 30 December and is already facing backlash. A leader of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena has said that his party will not let the film release anywhere in India.)

On this side of the border, popular Hindi cinema increasingly caricatures and vilifies Muslims. “The industry has created dog whistles that act as pacifiers to those that side with this regime,” Uday Bhatia, the writer and film critic, said. “Kajal around the eyes, meat spreads and actors like Ranveer Singh in Padmaavat eating them in a way suggesting depravity: all this is prevalent now.” To seed cues like this in the minds of people is dangerous, Bhatia noted. The all-powerful dominant-caste Hindu is constructed at the cost of everyone else.

“I even joked with the team about putting up a massive screen at Wagah, so that people on the other side can watch it.”

Sameer Rashid Shami, musician and assistant director, The Legend of Maula Jatt.

In 2014, Shailja Kejriwal founded the channel Zindagi, which was responsible for popularising Pakistani dramas like Zindagi Gulzar Hai to Indian viewers. Today, Kejriwal and her team at Zee5 continue to produce content from Pakistan, like Churails and Qatil Haseenaon Ke Naam, which air in India, even as Zee5 is currently banned in Pakistan. Political bans throw up roadblocks; Kejriwal said that “insularity inadvertently affects the content industry and its culture.”

The reception to Zindagi, she recalled, was “so good, and heartening”—in tune with the longstanding popularity of classic Pakistani shows like Dhoop Kinare among discerning Hindi audiences. “The shows on Zindagi were relatable, people loved them for their good writing and great acting,” she said. “Pakistani shows do this thing where they follow an insight to the end. Like in Zindagi Gulzar Hai, they seem to be asking, from various perspectives: zindagi gulzar kab hoti hai? When is life beautiful? They don’t mine a plot for clichés so it can last forever. People understood and related to these insights.”

“A ban on anything, from across the border or within India, is our loss. Behta hue paani ko rokenge, toh phir cheezein toh sadenge hi,” she added. If you block the flow of water, there will be rottenness. It was a metaphor for the repression of ideas, and the barriers on free exchange of art and film.

The surveillance of Muslim South Asians extends to Indian and Kashmiri Muslims. Uday Kapur, co-founder of the label Azadi Records which represents Kashmiri musicians Ali Saifuddin and Ahmer, told me that getting bookings for them is challenging. “The point of Azadi Records is not to sterilise the music,” Kapur said. “Ahmer, for instance, writes about the state of affairs in the Valley, growing up as a young man under Indian rule in Kashmir. The scene isn’t really ready for messages from music that are considered contentious by most.”

In 2021, Kapur said, Ahmer was booked to play a gig in South Delhi. Prior to the show, the venue’s manager, who was “involved in local politics,” objected to the content of Ahmer’s music. Kapur and Ahmer were threatened with police action if they continued to play it. “This happens, man, especially with Ahmer. His largest audiences are still in Srinagar.” Despite the challenges, it was important for Kapur to stand by artists who are in a minority on the scene. “And I hope for collaborations too. Imagine if the Azadi rappers could collaborate with someone like Faris Shafi? How cool that would be.”


too, have history connected to Pakistan. But my family doesn’t belong to the northwestern regions of the subcontinent. We come from a small group of Tamils, who, generations ago, found their way to Rawalpindi. For us, home has been the place where our dialects most settle, where our hearts conjoin with others in common temperament. For my great-grandparents this was Rawalpindi, for my grandfather Karachi, and for my father and my sister and I, it is Delhi.

“Imagine if we could visit Karachi as easily as Bombay,” my sister says to me sometimes, as we sit in bed, eyeing the embroidered hems of Pakistani salwars on Instagram. We think aloud of the food we’d eat, the places we’d see, the jewellery we’d buy, if we ever found ourselves in the city that lives endlessly in our minds.

But music is the one thing we can listen to, and, if anything, it has only gotten better with time. Pakistan’s recent crop of musicians are making music that is exciting, dynamic, diverse. And even, I think on some days, unmatched.

But a lot has changed from the time I listened to Jal and Strings as a teenager. Despite viral social media posts about common trash talk; despite cricket matches where boys jump in full desi coordination to “Pasoori,” these moments of listening and reception are fraught. They do not compare to the carefree memories of more tangible cross-border exchange. They feel more like a brief respite from reality, and less like the way things are, or can be.


t was in the plunging depths of a dark, endless 2020 when I started listening to Hasan Raheem. I watched the video of “Aisay Kaisay”on loop, as he danced on a Karachi street under pink skies and whipped out one perfect Urdu lyric after another. In his videos, Hasan reaches into the depths of the city he lives in, code-switching, eating takatak rolls on the street. It didn’t feel very different from how we lived in East Delhi.

In 2021, locked into my immediate life, Hasan’s music became the only thing that got me through. With his perfect diction and singular, cool-kid manner, Hasan was exactly the musician I needed at the time.

“Jaan bacha raha hai Hasan,” I texted my friend with a link to “Paisa.” He's saving our lives.

“Museebat ke waqt padosi hi kaam aate hai, bro,” she wrote back. Only neighbours come to aid in times of need.

Sharanya Deepak is a writer from New Delhi, India. She is one of the editors at Vittles Magazine; and a current fellow at South-Asia Speaks. More of her work is available on her website:


My friend Makepeace Sitlhou, unbeknownst to her, put this idea in my head when she said to me “now don’t go write one op-ed on Aadat or something.” The fabric of this essay began with the fans of Atif Aslam who trusted me despite my dodgy, makeshift Instagram profile. Many thanks to them. 

Thank you to Sameer Rashid Shami, Sarmad Ghaffoor, Arjun S. Ravi, Uday Kapur, Ritesh Kayal, Manik Sharma, Shailja Kejriwal, Uday Bhatia, Bhanuj Kappal, Nishant Nayak, Rohail Hyatt, Samira Kanwar, Ankur Tewari, Akshita Nagpal, Anand Krishnan, Suyash Upadhyay, Farah Naaz, Sukhmani and Hari, Aakar Patel and everyone else. Thank you to friends across the border Daniyal Ahmed, Tooba Syed, and Zoya Rehman for their assistance and ideas. To Maliha Khan, sorely missed, for talking to me about how legacies live within us all and telling me stories of Karachi, where my grandfather left half his heart. 

Most of all, a thousand shukriyas to all friends and artists across the borders—aap hai toh hum hai, aap nahi toh hum nahi.