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After Mumbai: India, Pakistan staring across the border

These last few weeks, Indian-American filmmaker Sarah Singh has been touring in Pakistan, screening her documentary, “The Sky Below”, and taking questions from an energetic Pakistani public. The film is about the partition of Indian sub-continent in 1947 and its effects in the present on either side of the border. It’s a beautifully shot oral history cum travelogue cum social commentary cum art work.

At the screening I attended, various sections of the audience grunted, cooed, dripped tears and asked each other whispered questions about public figures on the screen. When it was all over, Singh stood to receive questions. I have never seen, in so genteel an atmosphere, such barbed critique masquerading as honest and engaged opinion.

One white man who spoke with a thick British accent kept suggesting that Singh took the easy way out by making a film about partition; his every documentary student, he said, wants to make a film about partition. Others said that it was too far in favour of “The Indians.” Still others thought it was unbalanced because it showed Kashmiri Muslim leaders being melodramatic about Indian and Pakistani atrocities since partition, but did not show any Hindus flipping their lids.

At the end of the questions, my friends and I asked her to join us for dinner and some of us ended up at my place. As we sat over pizza and drinks, she told us that, in Karachi, the conversation started with, “More than half of the population of Pakistan was born after 1947. Partition doesn’t matter anymore.” She was dumbfounded.

I am dumbfounded, doubly so now that Indian and Pakistani powers-that-be are grandstanding across the border in a re-enactment of the age-old (61-year-old) peacock alpha male dance we are all so accustomed to. India says Pakistan must answer some questions about how it will act in the wake of the Mumbai atrocities. Pakistan says the terrorists were non-state actors, but we will defend our sovereign soil.

Condoleeza Rice says… strange things that don’t mean anything, but the subtext of which is that Daddy says there will be no war here today.

If that is a true reading of the situation, then my first prayer is thanks for that. There is enough news of carnage everyday without having to fear the dropping of bombs on Lahore

My second – well, I’ll let you judge.

In all the time I was tuned into the news, as the events in Mumbai were happening, what truly stopped my heart was the Chabad House, the Jewish Centre. It seemed so incidental to me, as if what they meant to do was case a number of high profile, highly populated targets, but lucked out when they found a bunch of Jews to kill in the bargain.

Of all the “enemies of Islam” there are out there, the bestest ones are Jewish. So I prayed and I prayed – please don’t let the Jews die, please let them escape somehow.

They didn’t escape and “radical Islam” or whatever we’re calling it this week won another major victory. A death toll of over one hundred and fifty people and a flurry of posturing between India and Pakistan over who’s responsible and who will pay and whose intelligence should have picked up whose murdering citizenry in their wretched dinghy in the water.

No one here is mourning. Not for the Jews and not for the Indians. All we’re saying in our drawing room conversations, our classrooms and our television sets is variations on the theme of “Oh, shit. Now what?” Talk show upon talk show is talking, but not one person has expressed unreserved condolences to the victims, or their families, or their countries, or their people.

Friends from across the border have been telling me that Indians don’t much like Pakistanis these days. They say that “perfectly rational people are talking mad suddenly!” And that’s just it – the sins of our founding fathers, which are the exacerbation of religious divisions, the carnage of border crossings, rape, murder, infanticide, war, brutality, have much greater pull on our hearts than all the peace doves and rational thought we can scrape up out of our black hearts.

We can’t even bring ourselves to mourn. Our religious leaders can’t get up and say that they condemn such violence in the name of Islam; that they will rain down fury on the next person under their tutelage who thinks that taking 150 Indians or Jews or, dammit, Jewish Indians, out with him is a good way to spend his life. They say we should stay our angers, all of us. They say God does not permit murder. They say Islam is a religion of peace.

If I hear that line one more time, I’m going to throw up on my prayer rug.

In a strange fit of sadness and self-involvement, I wrote to my friend and mentor, who lives in Seattle and is a Jew, that I apologized for Chabad House on the behalf of all of us Muslims. He replied, “Yes, I’m sure your advice proved crucial to the final formulation of the plan. The first thing I thought was: ‘How could Kyla let this happen?’ ”

It was chastening and true.

There are ways in which we have no control over this situation: these are indeed non-state actors, they do not follow any nation’s law and they don’t care if they live or die. The individual citizen nor even the protesting mass of citizens does not necessarily have the power to stop them.

Yet there are ways in which we are culpable when, in the aftermath, we can’t see the humanity of the supposed enemy, don’t have the grace to condole or room in the heart with which to mourn. That comes out of fear, no doubt, of the bugaboo that is The Jew and the more real threat of Indian retaliation.

But why should fear be a good enough excuse to fail to see that what happened in Mumbai is what happened days later in Peshawar and earlier in Islamabad, and that if it makes our hearts sink for our own, it should make it plummet for them, too? We say so often that we are victims of the same criminals, but we don’t feel like the same victims. We forgo empathy in order to reaffirm difference – as if giving over our empathy and giving over our sovereignty is the same thing.

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Kyla Pasha

Kyla Pasha is a Pakistani poet, journalist, and contributing editor to GC. Please visit her homepage here.

3 thoughts on “After Mumbai: India, Pakistan staring across the border

  1. Dear Kyla,

    Seeing as:
    1) I am technically a Jew but tend to score “Unitarian Universalist” and “Neo-Pagan” significantly higher than “Reform Jewish” on the http://beliefnet.com test
    2) I grew up with a number of Indian family friends
    3) I really love Indian food
    4) I am eating Indian food right now
    5) Devon Street in Chicago is the center of the Indian neighborhood, which also serves as the Pakistani neighborhood. Some grocery stores and restaurants specialize (Pakistani Halal” or “Northern Indian vegetarian”) while others are a more southwestern version of the Thai/Chinese/sushi place by my apartment (“Pakistani/Indian” with both flags on the awning).
    6) Devon street then goes into an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood and eventually takes you to O’Hare Airport.
    7) My favorite restaurant on Devon is a tandori place called Tiffin. They serve no beef. Their chicken tikka masala is the best thing ever.
    7) You are my token Pakistani friend
    8) You are my most aware/educated/vocal Muslim friend
    9) You were always a very good cook, and head cook on chicken night at the co-op no less

    One must conclude:
    You are personally at fault for the attacks because you were after recipes. However, one cannot blame you nor your countrymen (and women) for the atrocities nor glibness in the aftermath because they have more important things to worry about: what’s for dinner. As for the Chabad House, challah is even better with certain Indian dishes than naan because it soaks up more and gets that great gummy texture to it. It’s only natural.

    So have you considered invading China?

  2. I believe I just might be that ‘white man with a thick british accent’.

    Some questions:

    How can critique barbed or not, be anything other than opinion? Something ‘masquerading as opinion’ would imply that the audience on this night was saying the opposite of what it really thought. This was not a group of people that know each other, are you implying that they all had a sudden and random loss of objectivity? Not very likely is it, more likely that someone else has a bias (nice pizza?) and wasn’t really listening with their mind rather their heart. Is it possible that you felt indignation not on the film maker’s behalf, but for yourself given that your opinion was running contrary to the majority?

    I won’t run through the counter to the contextless misrepresentation of my comment, suffice it to say that I am white, but find it bemusing to be labelled in that way in 2009, and my accent is real… British would have sufficed.

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