Abrar Hassan, an engineer turned YouTuber, was treated like a long lost relative, cousin, or one could even say son, when he traversed India on his motorcycle earlier this year. Starting in Kochi, Kerala, he ended his 30-day trip by crossing into Pakistan at the Attari-Wagah border in Punjab.
Abrar Hassan, Punjabi-Pakistani-German vlogger
I learned of Abrar’s channel in early 2022 thanks to a recommendation shared by Sakshi, who as it turns out had similarly been alerted to this mild mannered travel vlogger by her parents. If you need proof word of mouth marketing works, then this is it! Other than the fact that Abrar’s content was well made and felt genuine, this chain of recommendations shared another aspect of his identity, we are all Punjabi too. While Abrar hails from Nankana Sahib in Punjab, Pakistan-the birthplace of Nanak, the founder of Sikhism-the rest of us: Sakshi, her parents and I, are Indian Punjabis from different parts of northern India.
Dispersed like seeds from a pod
Punjabis as a diaspora are not only spread across the world but also far and wide within India. Though like most groups they sought opportunities to work and fanned across the subcontinent especially in three industries – agriculture, construction and transportation – the dispersion became even more widespread after the partition of India. Hindus and Sikhs from the new nation of Pakistan crossed over in hordes, were housed in refugee camps and eventually resettled in developments often called refugee colonies. Seven decades on, the generation that saw partition first hand is dwindling, but the stories of that period are alive and so are the memories of what used to be the flourishing province of Punjab.
Punjabiyat across the border
When the Radcliffe line was drawn, Punjab was divided into east and west. In western Punjab, also called Lahnda Punjab, remained the beating heart of Punjabi culture and language: Lahore. While in the eastern part, often called Charda Punjab, was the center of Sikhism: Amritsar. For Dārji, my late paternal grandfather who hailed from Bhrariwal village in Amritsar district, traveling between these two cities barely 50 kms apart (~31 miles) wasn’t unusual or uncommon. I recall ambling along the lanes of Amritsar heading back to our ancestral home in Bharariwal – a straight walk from the Golden Temple via Hakimawala gate – and marveling at the beauty of the architecture. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on the blog, many multistory buildings in the old city were built using a mortar that incorporates lentils. Years later as a young adult listening to renditions of Bulleh Shah’s “Shehar Lahore or Kamlee” helped paint a picture of what Lahore’s lanes would have been like. His questions about bricks (eent) and windows (bāriyan) telegraphed a city similar in architecture to Amritsar. For the generation that went back and forth between these two centers of Punjabiyat, neither of this was unique. For those of us deprived of the whole Punjab, to be able to see inside each other’s respective Punjab is riveting.
A common music, language and spirit
I remember one breezy evening in Jodhpur, when my mother had put on a selection of qawalis sung by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and ensemble, Darji who had been relaxing in the lawn called her and said thank you with moist eyes. He went on to relate how he had heard those same couplets sung at a shrine in Lahore. This was pre partition and he would frequently travel between Amritsar, Lahore and Lyallpur (now Faisalabad) while pursuing a bachelors of science at what was then known as Punjab Agricultural College and Research Institute.
The same music remains relevant and popular today. So is the ascendance of shows like Coke Studio Pakistan which have brought Punjabi and Sufi music to a wider audience while introducing us to stellar artists like Ali Sethi, Meesha Shafi and Momina Mustehsan to name a few.
A kindred spirit aloft a motorcycle
In this context when Sakshi suggested we watch Abrar’s YouTube channel, we weren’t exactly excited since travel vlogs hadn’t been part of our viewing habit but also not averse. He spoke Urdu and Punjabi and was doing something novel that not a lot of people from the subcontinent had done or shared before. But as soon as we started, around the second episode of his journey from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia, we were hooked. Here was a traveller doing what he loved and enjoyed without much pomp and show. His humility, open mindedness and candor was refreshing and endearing. Abrar’s Punjabi was the icing on the cake. His quips to himself and Rangeeli (his motorcycle) when he took too wide or narrow a turn, lost balance or had to face strong winds became something to look forward to because we could relate to the linguistic sentiment expressed. Sitting snug in our den we certainly did not relate to the perils he had to face. And that kept us on the edge of our seats, enthralled and hoping he would be fine.
Cut to 2023 and as Abrar came close to wrapping up his travels in the GCC countries, we hoped he would travel to India. It only made sense. He had previously driven across Europe to reach Pakistan, done the Middle East and GCC, and in the process amassed a huge following amongst the Indian diaspora in GCC countries. Each meetup during that trip was chock-full of invitations to a meal, stay or to India. I was just as excited as Abrar when he finally shared that he was indeed heading to India.
Abrar Hassan in India: Would he like the food?
When Abrar finally landed in Kochi I was curious to see how he would react to the food. He had eaten dosa-sambar once during his GCC trip and liked it. But the food in Kerala would be much more than just that. In fact as a North Indian my knowledge of the cuisine of Kerala or other southern Indian states was perhaps only a notch above Abrar’s.
Southern Indian foods – way more than idli, sambhar and dosa!
While an Indian anywhere in the country is never far from sourcing characteristically South Indian fare – dosa, sambar, chutneys, idli, vada – those few dishes only scratch the surface of complex food cultures. It’s the same as Indian food worldwide being reduced to a cream laden version of Mughlai food. Ask any North Indian or Punjabi or Awadhi and they’ll tell you that we do not cook like that at home!
Rediscovering the joy of eating through the eyes of Abrar Hassan
Seeing Abrar embrace regional cuisines and enthusiastically try new foods had my husband and I thinking about all the varied things we had never tried. There was also a sense of joy in seeing him comprehend how to eat these foods. To our minds the incongruence of a person who looked and spoke like us yet did not understand how to eat something as simple as dosa and sambar was initially confusing until we consciously kept in mind that in Pakistan there might not be easy access to such foods. Once that was understood, he was another foreigner, no matter how similar, who was experiencing India for the first time.
But as he went from Kerala to the Nilgiris, Karnataka, Goa and then to Mumbai it became pretty clear we were getting an education not just in road tripping through those regions but also in their food. The variety of gourds, lentils, various curried dishes, and snacks was immense. True to form, Abrar did not shy away from trying new things – like the honey sold by a local along the highway in Munnar or the time he was flagged down in the next episode and taken down a narrow, winding path by an enterprising man to finally be served a freshly cooked meal that ended with payasam. That meal had me salivating too!
Abrar and I have a common appreciation for this unique snack/breakfast
Just before Abrar and his travel and filming companion Kathrikeyan left Kohlapur to head to Mumbai, they ate something unique for breakfast – misal pav. That meal became a favorite of Abrar’s and he mentioned it right until the end and even later in an interview with a Pakistani podcaster. The layering of textures and flavors in misal pav is unique and unabashedly bold and powerful. Just as Abrar, I had not tasted misal pav until about six years ago in the home of a Gujarati friend based near Boston. It took several years and a move across the world for me, an Indian, to taste misal pav and I can assure you Abrar’s reaction wasn’t overblown. The memory of that home made misal pav has stayed with me for many years and I have often thought of recreating it. Abrar’s love for this snack and breakfast has once again invigorated that desire. So pretty soon I will make misal pav.
As it turns out I have two things in common with Abrar – our shared Punjabi identity and appreciation for misal pav.
Openness and humility – lessons Abrar’s travels can teach
The further north Abrar travelled not only was he greeted by larger crowds, the food he was offered became easy to identify and similar to what he knew from home. In the short time he spent in India – just 30 days from start to finish – he opened our eyes to things we hadn’t seen, eaten or thought of. What had begun as a pandemic viewing activity where we could live vicariously through him became a lesson in much more – open mindedness in thought as well as palette.
As I finish writing this dispatch, it is the end of August 14 in the US and already the 15th in India. For us it is the in-between time between Pakistani and Indian independence days.
Jingoism and nationalism aside, for the large majority of diasporic Punjabis these divides melt away as soon as we hear our sweet maa-boli (mother tongue), Punjabi. Our shared language was the first thing that drew us toward Abrar’s content. And while there are times we might disagree with his thoughts or wish he would probe some things a bit more, we are still going to watch him as he continues on his adventures.
If you haven’t already, I highly recommend watching Abrar’s travels whether they be in India, Europe, Middle East or the Gulf countries. Link to his channel is below.