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United In Grief

The world at large has benefited from the notion of a ‘global village’ in the last 20 years or so, where borders were deemed to have become largely irrelevant, distances seemed to have shrunk and people at large have felt closer under a united banner. Certain geographical barriers, however, have remained bereft of any such feelings of kinship and ties despite having a lot more in common than nation states that have managed to transcend a lot more in terms of cultural differences and mindsets.

A prime example of such an exception is the India-Pakistan relationship. Time to time again these 2 neighbors have tried to come together on the negotiating table to try and overcome points of conflict but over and over again the people of these countries have had to face disappointments on that front.  The issue of Kashmir has become a sticking point and the biggest impediment for both sides to overcome.

Along the way, incidents on the other side of the border have occurred that have made matters even more complicated as our counterparts have accused the State of having sponsored terrorism there.  The last in the series of these periodic brazen attacks on the heart of India’s financial district Mumbai wreaked such havoc that even the civilian public developed an animosity and an air of suspicion about anything Pakistan, demanding all severance of ties till Pakistan brought to justice the perpetrators of these attacks.

Being married to an Indian national I have continued traversing across the border even during the worst of times and indeed always sensed the coldness beneath the surface, the accusatory stares, the awkward questions, the demeaning ‘police registration’ process, the senseless entry/exit point restrictions (there are direct flights from Karachi to Mumbai but I am restricted to enter and exit through Delhi and Delhi alone).

The bizarre rule where dual nationals such as British Pakistani’s or Pakistani Americans have to travel on their Pakistani passports rather than allowing them to feel even remotely liberated or protected whilst on the ‘other’ side. Of late even our side has started responding with nonsensical drawn out procedures in what looks to be a tit for tat routine.

My wife -the mother of a 2 year old- was stranded here for almost a year because the powers that be, could not decide whether she was a ‘safe entity’ even after having spent 8 years here without any problems before. None of these measures help ease the burden of a long and bloody history between these two neighboring countries.

Fast forward 6 years from the worst attack on Indian soil and Pakistan experienced its own 9/11 perhaps worse (although it is so hard to quantify loss of any human life) in that the primary target was not a financial nerve center, nor a military intel base but school going children from the ages of 4 to 18.  The world shuddered and recoiled in horror because even the last of the unspoken rules of combat had now been broken and trampled on by people who are only masquerading as humans.

A few weeks after these attacks, still brooding about how this unthinkable had come to pass I landed at Delhi airport, expecting yet another bout of the same routine questions. This time however, I was pleasantly taken aback by the demeanor right from the get go.  As I approached the passport desk a 40 something year old passport control officer without even asking me for papers asked me something on a different note.

‘Yeh kya hogya? ‘Not quite understanding what he was referring to I asked ‘jee’? He repeated ‘yeh kya hogya, aap ke desh mein, in darindon ne masoom bachon ko maar diya?’ (what has happened in your country? These animals killed innocent children?). He was not quite done either; he said this is it you need to take your country back.  Young blood needs to step up and replace old corrupt status quo politicians they can’t protect us from such animals they are too busy filling their coffers. Both there and here.  “Yeh log insaan nahe janvar hain inn ki apni aulad nahe?” (do these animals not have children of their own?) he questioned.

There was a queue forming behind me otherwise this conversation may have gone on for a lot longer. We may not unite often in moments of happiness but in this moment of unspeakable horror we were united in grief.  Suddenly I felt more comfortable entering India.

This was just the opening soliloquy of what was to be a recurrent conversation throughout my entire trip.  I caught a connecting flight from Delhi to Mumbai (surprisingly my first visit to the city). Each cab I took, each restaurant I sat at, even the Foreigners Registration Centre officials (considered to be the most forbidding ones in the country) it was more of the same.

The urge to strike back at the monsters, the blood of innocent children should not go unanswered. Each conversation restoring my faith in humanity that tiny bit more. The most pivotal moment of this entire leg of my trip was yet to come though. Outside a coffee shop on a busy junction near Colaba about a 100 metres down the road from the scene of India’s most horrific attack my eyes fell on a big black banner that had the words

‘Our hearts bleed with our Pakistani brothers and sisters on the barbaric slaughter of their innocent children’. There it was a public enunciation of the underlying sentiment of the people there. The location of the banner left an even bigger impact than the words.

By the end of this leg of my trip I told my wife that she should proceed with her mom on to Kolkata (her actual hometown) since I was enjoying the vibrant pulse of Mumbai so much and decided to join her a few days later.  I frequently travelled back to my hotel after a night out with friends, sometimes even choosing to catch the last local (train) all by myself without any reservations what so ever.

Perhaps this is just a momentary phase and a temporary thaw in a long history of conflict between two countries that will just not be shrugged off.  But perhaps, just maybe, this time we may not let go of this catastrophe. This chance to find common ground and to remain united in the face of a common enemy. No doubt there will be more blood spilt countless more precious lives will be lost in this battle on our home front against sworn foes of humanity and our way of life but not losing sight of the real adversary will be our most potent weapon in this conflict.

Marshall McLuhan the man who coined the term Global Village, wrote “we would all become not the unwilling but rather the unwitting workforce for social change.” In his opinion, change will not announce itself or even arrive by ambush (as some leaders in our midst have tried advocating recently), but instead creeps up on us.

Perhaps it has, or perhaps our problems are more insurmountable than McLuhan or my mind can comprehend.  All I know is my recent trip has given me reason for cautious hope.  It has also given me brazen courage to be able to start mourning openly and demand accountability for each life lost in this conflict.  Be it Shia, Sunni, Barelvi, Deobandi, Hazaras, Pathans, Sindhis, Punjabis within our borders at least.  Perhaps, one day we will be emboldened enough to reach out and grieve with our ‘sworn enemies’ the way they are grieving with us today.

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