Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU
REACHING OUT: April 08, 2001
The writer is the author of Passport Photos (Penguin-India) and a columnist at Tehelka.com.
Twenty-two year-old Lieutenant Thapar, who died in the effort to secure Tiger Hill, wrote to his parents: By the time you get this letter, I'll be observing you all from the sky....I have no regrets; in fact even if I become a human again, I'll join the army and fight for my nation. If you can, please come and see where the Indian Army fought for your tomorrow....
Letters like this one perhaps touch a nerve. But, it is difficult not to also see in such reports the tragedy of war. It is not simpy a matter of lives lost. It is also a matter of not knowing how or in which language to protest such a loss of life.
I was very far from Kargil during the war. In fact, I was getting married to Mona. Mona is a Pakistani citizen. She is a Muslim. I am Indian, and a Hindu. A few hours before I stepped into the Toronto home of my in-laws for the first time, two Indian MiG-27ms had been shot down by the Pakistan Army.
A year and a half later, I had decided to visit both India and Pakistan. So it happened that one recent December morning, I was narrating the story of my wedding to a group of students in St. Michael's High School in Patna. I had passed out from this school in the late seventies. After the visit to my former school, I went to a newer school in another locality. I asked the students I met in both these places to write letters to students in Pakistan.
"Will you like to be my friend?" asked Megha Agarwal in her letter. "Please be peaceful and love us, wrote Megha's classmate, I'besat Imam.
When I read the letters that were handed to me, I was not surprised to see that many of the students wrote in favour of peace. Perhaps the students had been influenced by my own story. It could also be that the possibility of dialogue - where none had existed before - prompts in each one of us friendliness and an openness to exchange. As I was to hear over and over again during my trip, the common people of both countries want peace. What I was seeing in the letters could also be evidence of this simple, uncomplicated truth.
A student in Patna's D.P.S. School posed a series of direct, if ungrammatical, questions in his letter for his imagined reader in Pakistan: "Why don't you all change the attitude of your mind? Why don't you all think in a positive way? This is all due to the wrong thinkings of your mind that both the countries are facing trouble.
Here, in this letter, the demand for peace was actually an accusation. It found the Pakistanis solely responsible for war - and for peace. A similar impulse, in reverse, was at work in a letter written some days later by a student in Pakistan. She had begun her letter: "Dear Indians, First of all hello! I am a Pakistani Muslim and I want to inform you that you are liars."
Perhaps the proper response to this rhetoric lay in a letter written by a student in Patna. Utsav Banerji wrote to a friend whom he had decided to call Aftab: "I only came to know more about Pakistan through the news shown on the television and also the news that we get from reading the newspaper. We only get the negative side of Pakistan through the news we read. I am sure that might be the case with you even. But I think we should try to cross this barrier and share a more friendly relation."
I put these letters from Patna in a manila envelope and packed my bags for Pakistan.
In Karachi, I went to the Grammar School where many years ago Mona had been a student. The students were seated in front of me on carpets - girls to my left and the boys to my right - and this morning I got a chance to read out aloud the letters of the students from Patna. I began with the one which ended with the words: "I'd like to say only that love us, care about us, because we new generation people are really looking forward. We don't want enemies and war." When I finished reading that letter, the students in front of me, several hundred of them, started clapping spontaneously.
When I told the students that I, an Indian, had married a Pakistani who was a former student from that school, a boy raised his hand and asked, "How did you convince your wife that you were not the enemy?" We all laughed. But, I think the question has more general relevance.
The common citizens of both nations have been starved of any widespread contact. The result has been not so much hostility as much as ignorance and even suspicion. There is a need for dialogue and also mutual gestures of goodwill.
There was a letter from a 14-year-old girl in Patna that I shared with the children in Karachi. "Dear Sufi," the letter had begun, and went on, "I think you people are very strict about your lifestyle. Is that so?" As I read out the lines out loud, the students, especially the girls, sang out in unison, "No...."
I read further from the letter: "I believe the girls out there always have to cover their faces all the time...I don't think you all are allowed to go anywhere on your own or interact with a lot with people." Once again, the loud, singsong response, "No."
I said to the students that I was glad that I had read out that letter to them. They had now had a chance to respond. When I would write about this, their friend in Patna would get an answer to the question that she had raised in her letter. This was what the process of dialogue was all about.
It is my conviction, of course, that this process, difficult and frustrating as it is likely to be, also needs to be carried out among adults. In the absence of such exchanges, the only letters that we will learn about are the ones that were mentioned in the dispatches from Kargil by Srinjoy Chowdhury. A major in the Indian Army had showed the visiting reporter the letter from his wife. Their son was only twenty-one days old. The letter said, "You have another one to look after now... This is a prayer, an appeal and a request. Come back in one piece. Life is so difficult. It was bearable with you around."
The letter had made the reporter reflective. He wrote: "I had seen a similar letter once. A young woman had written to a Pakistani army captain. She remembered his smile; she wanted to see him smile after he came back. It was found beside his dead body."
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