I often think about life in terms of movie plotlines, which I admit is as much a generational trait as it is a personal failing. Romance, for example, is breaking out into a synchronised Latin dance routine followed by acrobatic lifts while affirming that “Nobody puts Baby in a corner”; fear is hearing something while you’re in the shower and planning your last few minutes alive before a psychopath with mother issues stabs you extravagantly. Love means never having to say you’re sorry but more often means dying memorably in the third act.
I mention this because, as I saw the proposed talks between Pakistan and India dissolve in a litany of childish, churlish chiding, I thought of any number of breakup movies, but particularly The War of the Roses. Made in the late 1980s, it is a dramedy that shows a married couple who must live in the same house while going through a very messy divorce and who end up, quite literally, trying to kill each other. The abortive talks between Pakistan and India’s NSAs is the latest evidence that both countries are in need of some serious couples counselling. Or else.
I use the word “couple” deliberately. It’s helpful to remember that, like it or not, that’s what we are, to the world and to each other. It would be easier if we didn’t care what the other was doing, if we could just stick to our side of the house, as it were, and get along with our shared utilities while occasionally sharing the sugar. But we can’t. We watch each other, make notes of whom we’ve invited for dinner and come up with elaborate and sometimes outlandish schemes to discredit each other in public. Maybe we do it because deep down we love each other, but it is rather a waste of time. I wasn’t terribly hopeful that these talks would do much for peace in the region. But even the cynical voice in my head (which, coincidentally, has a Russian accent, as most cynical voices do) didn’t expect it to devolve into the childish rants that it did.
By now you know what happened. India wanted to only discuss terrorism, and Pakistan wanted no preconditions and expected to discuss the Kashmir issue (and here I thought NSA meant “no strings attached”). India baulked and Pakistan walked. Then came a series of personalised and frankly appalling press conferences that did little to change the view that neither side was particularly invested in the talks to begin with, which is sad. The whole charade underscored the idea that these talks were being forced on both of us, like petulant children made to take a time-out, rather than being used for what they were: an opportunity to begin change. But then again, is a dialogue of any use when you a) don’t trust the other side and b) feel like compromise is a defeat?
Look, I get it. The Narendra Modi government (like Nawaz Sharif’s) has a vast right-wing baseline it has to appeal to and the easiest way to do that is to make it seem like you can stand up to and dismiss the Pakistanis, publicly and easily. This is a trope that works on both sides of the border. Fair enough. The thing is that if anyone is committed to real change, puffing our chests in futile gestures of dominance won’t change anything in the long term. The only way our neighbourhood will prosper is by working together, and by admitting that there are people on both sides invested in not letting that happen, and in essence be committed to writing the future, not rewriting the past. This is why diplomacy is harder than dropping bombs (and also because, you know, nuclear weapons are overkill). One can make a show of strength with ultimatums wrapped in anger but the real fallout is that in a month, six months, five years later, a decade later, we will be in exactly the same situation. That’s scary. What makes me optimistic is that though our governments may be weird, our people are not.
I’m not sure we will become allies in my lifetime, but I do know that a prerequisite to peace in our household is that we start talking. Otherwise, we’ll just be a divorced couple living in a house, and that movie doesn’t end well.
Aijazuddin is a Lahore-based writer and artist