Isolating Pakistan would simply harden the border and heighten the tension that complicates these two men's lives. And the lives of all of us who live here. Yes, we must uncover the terror links, the facilitation, but no, we must not sharpen the paranoia or confuse the state with the people, the great majority of the people. And we must not give up on dialogue by other means.
Since the death of Osama bin Laden there have been calls, mostly from abroad, to make an outcast of Pakistan. I would like to suggest we take the opposite route.
That Osama was eliminated by the very nation that once sponsored his cause should surprise nobody. The Americans, like any power, have a beady eye and a blank menu. The states of the region, waiters all, must look on and hope to snaffle a chop. But what's in it for the man peering through the plate glass? I share my glimpse of the least practical way forward.
When the news broke I was at my mechanic's garage here in Dehra Dun. The man is a Muslim: he is a good mechanic who operates by instinct, a shrewd businessman who runs a tight if jerrybuilt ship, and a hopeful family man who does online surveys at night for extra money. Just another dweller in the subcontinent making his way. Good, he said. Good he's gone. Such people make, have made life difficult for every Muslim. He meant in this country and in Pakistan and throughout the world.
Kill him, my good friend of the dagar veena, master musician and another Muslim, felt obliged to say of another man whose fate we were discussing last year. He was speaking of Ajmal Kasab and the stay on the execution awaiting him for his part in the Mumbai attack.
What do these men from different walks of life share apart from their Muslim faith? A wish to get on with their lives wherever they happen to live so nobody can impute to them loyalties to the other side. Because they understand in a way that politicians and rabble-rousers alike do not that there is no other side.
Isolating Pakistan would simply harden the border and heighten the tension that complicates these two men's lives. And the lives of all of us who live here. By making those sides colourfast. Yes, we must uncover the terror links, the facilitation, but no, we must not sharpen the paranoia or confuse the state with the people, the great majority of the people. And we must not give up on dialogue by other means. Dialogue of any kind will be harder if al-Qaeda ever replace the present rulers of Pakistan. Time is short, and there's enough wounded pride about at the moment to sink a ship of state. Even in Chanakyan terms that's not what we want next door.
But I'm not here to be practical. Why not instead take a leaf out of my friend the musician's book? (Except he plays by ear, by tradition, by history, by instinct, by each moment of his being.) Push out an alap. Extemporize. Make overtures — and rebuffed, make more overtures — a whole barrage of them. Political overtures, of course, but equally I mean the hand of common friendship. A cultural barrage. Not just an arts offensive but a rapprochement in the widest sense of culture, everyday life. To be made now, at this difficult, at this impossible time.
Music, certainly. I have only to write the word and all our commonalities leap to my defence. Our defence, theirs and ours. These cross-border traditions are so well known I will say no more on the subject, and let my friend of the veena simply begin to play. When I heard him in Beijing last year I wept in my seat. Embarrassing, but what can you do? A Pakistani in my shoes would have done the same.
But also movies, television — theirs, ours, which both sides watch — theatre, all the performing arts. They wanted Madhuri in exchange for Kashmir, remember? Nice story, but it represents a real wish for something much more, something always unstated because it's in the realm of fantasy. Our tendency is to leave it there because we don't want to sound infantile, we're big boys now.
I wrote a little nursery rhyme once for a regional magazine on the Indo-Pak lesson. The editor didn't pay me, or paid me in kind, a year's subscription, while the other contributors would have got the usual fee for learned disquisitions on the border. I understand the poor man's plight. (I see a hasty editorial board consultation, a scratching of heads, and this compromise.) But the decision spells out an old prejudice against the mixing of poetry and politics.
Yet common people speak poetry, more poetry than they think, or perhaps they think more poetry than they speak. And they have their own notions of politics. They would be happy at the thought that the song and dance they love could bring about a change at this time, simply a juncture, like any other, but a moment fraught all the same with possibility. So, let there be Madhuri. (Where is she when they need her?) More Bollywood tie-ups, music festivals, film festivals, festivals of every kind, not more isolation. The very language of dialogue, of diplomacy, locked into the reigning discourse of the day, could do with some evolution, some freeing up. At any rate men and women in power (Madame Rao for example, addressing the French with a cool head yesterday) can surely be persuaded to smuggle some of these goods through in plain covers. And then there is the simple matter of information.
There is an immense hunger for knowledge of life across the border out there, and here is something newspapers can satisfy. Features on everyday life in a small Pak town would catch a reader's eye far more readily than your standard reportage on the latest skirmish. When my wife and daughter travelled by train and bus through Pakistan on their New Zealand passports they were besieged with questioners at every turn: what was India like, but really what was it like? With my Indian passport I would simply have hobbled them on their journey. But I have not forgotten the thrill of standing on Pak soil when conducted through the fence for a brief minute in the Rann of Kutch. After a half century lived in medieval ignorance of life across the border, I stood there not as a conqueror but as a marvelling citizen of undivided India. The ritual bluster of patriotism, the firecrackers in the street when a cricket match is won, drown out another voice, the voice of persistent and unassuaged curiosity. What are they like? Is it possible that the belligerence we assume on either side is overstated? More likely the majority are indifferent, and indifference is not impermeable. A single paragraph will do the job, a cunningly crafted column inch can breach the wall of mistrust.
Once curiosity is piqued it knows no limits. As in the lab so in the world. Look at recent redrawings of the political map. Imagine the no-longer-indifferent, the now-curious, the sick-of-hostility, the newly-awakened raising their voice in a growing chant, over against the growl of military menace and orchestrated distrust. A voice getting louder and harder to ignore every day till it becomes a presence massing at the sham border, a border made real by blood, the blood of real men and women from both sides, sent to their deaths in obedience to another music. Sometimes in my head I can hear this crescendo and see another outcome altogether to the history we're obliged to repeat.
Is it possible that rusty fence on that border can come down, the border itself disappear? (Who would have thought that of the Berlin Wall?) There is life after Osama. There will also be death, deaths. But what the hell. There could equally be union.
Really! Do I really believe that? I truly couldn't say. But there are other futures far more unthinkable.
It's all very well for outsiders to plot our fate. The masters of war I can understand. Quite as keen but with no clearer mandate are opinion makers and fellow travellers in the diaspora. I remember the American Irish in the seventies, more Irish than the Irish in their support for the IRA, sending guns and money for the cause, flying the flag. Indian Americans will be up in arms too after Osama, and proxy warriors of every nation. But exiles never have to face the bullets. We are the ones who stand to gain or lose, everything in the case of a nuclear exchange, much in the case of another conventional war.
I will now shut up and hand over to the member from Realpolitik. But I have conquered my fear of naïveté. Trapped by this fear we surrender not just to the ISI and al- Qaeda but to the NATO whose jihad killed 600,000 in Iraq alone on the way to Abbottabad. Six hundred thousand. No, we should not be ashamed to speak our fantasies.
It's all talk. So let's ground it, airily. But air it on this ground.
Put your body where your mouth is.
Talk from here.
(Irwin Allan Sealy is the author of The Trotter-nama and other novels. He lives in Dehra Dun.)