It's deja vu all over again -- apologies, Yogi Berra -- as I listen to what Indians returning from Pakistan over the last few weeks have to say about their reception there. Because they remind me of my own trip to Pakistan nearly nine years ago, the way my own eyes opened wide. And there was even a small cricket connection then ... but read on.
I made sure to get Asim Hameed's autograph before we left Lahore. For all I knew, the next time I saw him he might have been on TV, playing cricket for Pakistan against Brian Lara or Shane Warne or Chaminda Vaas. Then how would I get his autograph? So if Asim ever hit the big time for Pakistan, I knew I could tell people: I met that man. He once gave up an opportunity to play a major match just to take care of us in Lahore.
I wish you only the best, Asim. For that's what you gave us.
Asim was a volunteer at the Lahore Convention of the Pakistan-India Peoples' Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD), held in November 1995. That meant he was at the airport to welcome us delegates from India, arranged for buses, took us to our hotels, helped with our baggage, escorted us to cultural shows and more. With several other volunteers like him, he made sure our stay was comfortable and hassle-free. (Which it really was).
But Asim was also an up-and-coming cricket player, an all-rounder already making a mark in domestic cricket. While we were in Lahore, the England 'A' team was in town to play a Pakistan Cricket Board XI. Asim would probably have been in the PCB XI. Except that he had volunteered for the convention. Amazed to learn this, I asked Asim in the bus on our last day: "Why didn't you play?"
"Well," he said simply, "I'm with you and this is more important."
There were many remarkable moments in our time in Lahore. This one may have been the most remarkable of them all.
PIPFPD had its beginnings in 1994, working on getting people from both countries together to talk about the issues between us. Lahore was the second full-scale convention the Forum held; in the years since, there have been others in Peshawar, Karachi, Calcutta and Bangalore. One hundred delegates from all over India went to Lahore that November. Not all of them met Asim, but I know they all encountered the spirit he exemplified. And because of that, because of the conversations I had with Pakistanis ranging from taxi-drivers to journalists to volunteers like Asim, I came home convinced of the need for, indeed the urgency of, more meetings between ordinary Pakistanis and Indians.
The outpouring of feeling between the countries in recent weeks only underlines that. What price do you put on such gestures as Pakistanis waving the Indian flag in their stadiums, cheering on the Indian team? What emotions did we feel when the skies above Lahore lit up with fireworks when the last one-day match was won -- by India?
This is not to say that meetings and dialogue are ends in themselves. Certainly, there's no denying the fund of goodwill we came across, the same goodwill the people who crossed the border this March found too. I often feel that's the reality we should take note of and live by, not the supposed "realpolitik" that self-proclaimed "hawks" speak of so smugly. Tapped and used judiciously, that reality can become a potent force for peace. Yet with all that, there's also no denying the number and complexity of the issues between our countries.
But the truth is that I sensed a promise of peace precisely because the goodwill we found in Pakistan was tinged, often enough, with a definite hard edge. This was no wishy-washy feel-good stuff.
Take, for example, what I heard from Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, one of Pakistan's most accomplished physicists and an outspoken activist for peace. One evening over coffee in a Lahore restaurant, he said to me: "I feel so sad urging that Kashmir be allowed to choose if they want to join us. Because I truly believe they'd be far better off in India, or even independent, than in Pakistan. But your Government has messed up the situation there so badly that most Kashmiris are completely disillusioned with India."
What could I say? Like it or not, and I didn't like it, could I really deny that this is the sorry impasse Kashmir is caught in?
Yet how is this to be resolved? Via that fantasy so many Indians give voice to, even in these days of goodwill? India, they say, should simply "wipe Pakistan off the face of the earth", and all will be peaches and cream. The simple-minded grotesque-ness of this might be funny, if those who urge it weren't so serious. Grotesque, not least because any effort to destroy Pakistan would mean bringing destruction on ourselves.
Then again, those who urge this path are also prone to add: "We might lose a couple of hundred million, but we will wipe them out." Apparently they believe a country can inflict and live through this kind of carnage, and that's acceptable.
And apart from the prospect of widespread destruction, there is the gargantuan expense of waging war. A day after the Lahore convention, "The Nation" in Lahore carried an article by Brigadier (Retd) AR Siddiqui, a participant in the Convention. In it, he made a detailed estimate of the cost of one day -- just one day -- of war. The figure he came up with: Rs 7.17 billion. He did not account for the enormous cost of preparing for war, and staying prepared, the cost we are paying every day right now. Nor did he make provision for the highest cost of all: injuries and deaths of men on both sides. But even without those, Rs 7.17 billion per day is, as Siddiqui pointed out, "a horrendous expense that neither side can realistically afford." Nine years on, that "horrendous expense" will have inflated.
Whichever way you look at it, war is just not an option. And if it is seen like that, if we then search honestly for solutions to all that stands between the countries, we might just find solutions, too, to our respective internal problems. Whether poverty or civil strife or the fading rule of law or many more, the failure of the two Governments to address them is the reason they prefer to distract us with hostility directed at the neighbour.
When we reached Tabaq, Mohammed refused to take his fare. "You're from India," he said, "so it's free."
That breathtaking gesture was still on my mind when, back in Bombay, my wife recounted what had happened as she tried to call me in Pakistan one night. At the Central Telegraph Office, she asked for the call to be put through. A man beside her muttered: "Marathi boltat, mag Pakistan-la phone ka lavtat?" (You're speaking Marathi, so why are you calling Pakistan?).
So if we ever overcome perverse attitudes like that, ever make peace a lasting reality, Asim Hameed may finally get to play big-time cricket. But if I know him at all, I suspect that won't be much of a concern. Because giving up his chance at a career-making match in Lahore would have had its compensations.
"This is more important", he said. I remember.