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QUIET BEHIND THE POSTERS
- Beyond popular hatred and national stereotypes

The nationalism of nations other than one’s own can sometimes come as a shock. On a visit to India last month, I was unprepared for the popular hatred of Pakistan, which seemed to me more public than at any time in the past 30-odd years, even including the months of the Kargil war. One night in Jaipur, I shared a taxi with a distinguished senior government officer, now retired, and asked him how he thought the present tensions could be resolved. “Bomb it,” he said. “Bomb selected targets in Pakistan.”

He went on, “Actually, it’s too late for that now. We should have bombed that Lashkar-e-Toiba place [in Muridke, near Lahore] straight after the Mumbai attacks, but now it would look too deliberate and provocative. You know, every so often we need to show Pakistanis that we’re not a bunch of scared Hindus, which is what they think we are. We need to keep teaching a lesson. We should have bombed them when we had the opportunity.”

I didn’t argue. I was more interested to hear him talk than to raise an outsider’s objections to a bombing policy: such as — setting aside any moral, humanitarian or legal obstacles — the likely result being a Pakistan even more fractious, chaotic and unstable than it is already, and therefore an even less desirable neighbour. In any case, his talk moved on to other things — literature, food — and our taxi ride soon came to an end. He was a very civilized man who had spent his working life studying intelligence from Pakistan. What intrigued me was not his desire to destroy certain targets in that country (after all, the Americans do it regularly, while respectable Indian news magazines publish 10-point plans for Pakistan’s destabilization; it’s hardly a secret ambition). Rather, it was his idea that Pakistanis think of Indians as craven and pacific vegetarians who, in old British military lingo, “Can’t stand it up ’em”.

Surely a few wars and defeats would have demolished that Pakistani notion of the Indian military, supposing it ever existed? I haven’t been to Pakistan for a very long time — not in fact since the days of Zia-ul-Haq — but even then I never heard anyone suggest that Indians in general were cowardly. The generalizations were different: that Hindus hoarded gold rather than spending it; that they were devious rather than straightforward; that they didn’t look you in the eye when they greeted you with folded hands; that caste still organized their society; that corruption was worse (worse!) over the border to the east. I remember that these prejudices usually emerged in conversations over Britain’s allegedly pro- Indian bias. “Why do you prefer them to us?” was the basic question. “We shake hands, just like you do. We spend our money freely, just like you do. We have a holy book and a prophet, just like you do. We eat meat! So why do you like India so much?”

Mountbatten and the Bangladesh war were often instanced as the most damaging examples — that is, to Pakistan’s interests — of where this bias could lead. I couldn’t answer for Britain’s foreign policy since 1947, but the truth at a much humbler and more personal level was of course that I preferred being in India. Most foreign reporters did. Life was so much more open and various there, it had a far richer texture; people talked about things other than feudal politics and religion. I can’t speak for the present — this was 30 years ago — but on many visits to Lahore I can’t recall ever seeing a bookshop apart from the newsstand in the hotel. The newspapers were far inferior, vegetables were condescended to, conversations rarely centred on films or architecture or novels. As a nation, it seemed ill-fated and embattled. Sometimes, lying in my room and trying to read that day’s edition of the Pakistan Times, I would marvel that old guidebooks to undivided India described Lahore as “the Paris of the East”.

But, just like my friend in the Jaipur taxi, I am generalizing. When my memory settles on the particular, a different picture emerges — of the extraordinary kindness of individual men and women who had a much subtler understanding of their history and predicament, and those of their neighbour, India, than national stereotypes allow. One of the first people I met in Pakistan was Mr Hashmi, the senior public relations officer for Punjab’s provincial government. He had a big office and, so far as I could see, nothing very much to do. There were some rare bursts of activity when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto came to town and drinks and kebabs had to be laid on for the press. Otherwise, Mr Hashmi had plenty of time to talk and to remember, and sometimes to help me negotiate my stay in Lahore. When a local bank refused to pay over some money that my paper had telegraphed from London, it was Mr Hashmi who picked up the phone and appealed to them “in the good name of Pakistan” to disgorge the rupees that were rightfully mine. When some playful immigration officials at Lahore airport decided unreasonably that I needed new cholera and typhoid injections before they would let me in, it was Mr Hashmi’s intervention that prevented the rusty needle from reaching my arm.

I owe him gratitude, but mainly what I remember him for is the story of the Amritsar sweets. Mr Hashmi fled his ancestral home in Amritsar at Partition and had never been back in the 30 years since. “Oof,” he used to say, “that’s what I miss most — that Amritsar burfi. They were so delicious. I can still remember the taste. Oof! It’s impossible to get anything like them in Lahore.”

One day, returning overland from Delhi, I stopped in Amritsar and bought the best sweets money could buy: all kinds of flavours including pistachio, and beautifully parcelled in a ribboned box. I placed them on Mr Hashmi’s desk. “From Amritsar,” I said. He looked at the box in a puzzled — and, from my point of view, disappointing — way, as though sweets from Amritsar meant nothing to him. I suggested we taste them. Mr Hashmi picked one up, bit half of it, and then placed the remainder on his blotter. “Good?” I asked. “Quite good,” he said. Nothing more was said about the sweets; no nostalgic talk was released by the taste of one. Mr Hashmi’s silence implied that just as good burfi could be had in Lahore.

The moral may be this. Historical memory is an unreliable guide to the present state of things on either side of the border. People change, the burfi doesn’t stand the test of time. The more each side knows of the other in the present tense — life as it is now — the happier the future could turn out. “Under the surface of flux and fear there is an underground movement,” wrote the poet, Louis MacNeice, just before World War II. “Under the crust of bureaucracy, quiet behind the posters,/ Unconscious but palpably there — the kingdom of individuals.”

***************

I thought of these words at the Jaipur Literary Festival, where three Pakistani writers turned up to read and discuss their work. Nadeem Aslam, Mohammed Hanif and Daniyal Mueenuddin are all very different, and all very good; I swear I heard a London agent say that when it comes to finding young writing talent “Pakistan is the new India” (like brown is the new black, Devon is the new Cornwall, and Salt Lake the new Ballygunge). I asked a couple of them a mischievous and possibly even cheap question. Given the unhappy state of Pakistan — its history of continuous unhappiness — did they think its creation had been a mistake? One of them said that was too dangerous a question to answer, but another, Nadeem Aslam, gave the best reply. We could argue all day about that, he said. Yes, it may well have been a mistake. The more important and relevant consideration was that Pakistan was a fact.

To read any of these writers is to begin to understand how complicated that fact is — and, underneath the rhetoric of the nation-state, “quiet behind the posters” as MacNeice has it, how variously human. In general, I’m sceptical about literary festivals because they often amount to no more than trade fairs for authors, publishers and their hangers-on. Wine is drunk, egos are polished, then we all move on. In Jaipur, though, big audiences turned up to hear writers talk as much about their subjects (Kashmir, Afghanistan) as their method. The discussion was often more political than literary, but the nationalisms of India and Pakistan took a backseat. You might call this business of Pakistani writers talking to Indian audiences no more than well-meaning because the literary classes everywhere are usually on the same side — against terrorism, armies and politicians, the brute facts of the world. Still, it was heartening to see.

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