One Fine Evening

Serenading at a New York City dinner party, Junoon rocker Salman Ahmad’s call for social change in Pakistan is a reminder of mirrored atrocities in India

Pakistani investigative journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad’s body was found dead in a canal in northeast Pakistan on 31 May 2011. BANARAS KHAN / AFP PHOTO
01 July, 2011

INDIA AND PAKISTAN are like two drunks stumbling out of a bar on a dimly-lit street. They part ways, going in opposite directions, but frequently stop to look back in the dark. "Bloody drunk", each mutters at the sight of the other.

On both sides of the border, grief or outrage felt when news comes of an atrocity or a massacre on the other side is always mixed with a degree of satisfaction. "What else can you expect from them!" "We’ve been saying this all along. You should have listened to us." "Let me tell you one thing…" The Internet is a huge portal to this shared reality: just read the comments where Indians or Pakistanis offer their opinions on the role of the state as well as citizenry across the border. "State-sponsored terrorism!" "Occupation in Kashmir!

The remarkable truth is that it is not only the responses—complacency mixed with contempt—that mirror each other. Often, the news from both sides also appears to be identical.

In early June, a short video-clip from Pakistan made the rounds on the Internet. It showed an unarmed young man in a park in Karachi pleading for his life. He was surrounded by Pakistani Rangers, one of them holding a G3 assault rifle at the youth’s throat. For a few moments the young man could be seen begging the soldier for mercy before he was pulled away and then shot to death in front of the camera. The news reports said that the Rangers had suspected the youth of petty theft.

A day or two later, another short video-clip arrived in my mailbox, this one from India. It showed a horrifying incident that had taken place on 3 June in Forbesganj, in my home-state of Bihar. When the clip started you saw a young man lying on his back on the ground. His eyes were shut and he had a large swelling on his forehead. The sound of a fly buzzing was probably his breathing. A constable with a lathi in one hand and a rifle in the other walked away from the man, and just as he did so, a slim police officer entered the frame, running, and then jumping with his boots on the prone man’s face. He did this repeatedly, abusing and kicking the unconscious youth. Then there was footage of another youth, dead, lying on the ground. And a woman on her back, her brains pouring out on the sand.  Also a child lying nearby, dead from bullet wounds. In this case, the news reports said that the residents of the village, made up mostly of Muslims, were protesting the closure of a road when they were assaulted by the police.

These are grim events and it is possible I am imposing a false symmetry on them. What I really want to understand is: how is one to respond to suffering, especially when witnessing it at a distance?

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I was recently invited to dinner at the home of a Pakistani doctor in New York City. There was desi food. Biryani, qeema, baigan bharta, dal cooked to such perfection that one could taste even its fragrance, and rotis replenished as soon as they were gone from the plate. Nusrat was singing on the stereo. From the large glass windows of the thirtieth-floor apartment, I could see Central Park, a splash of green treetops. Inside, the walls were lined with bookcases filled with titles in Urdu and English.

There were ten guests. One of them was a tall, goateed man with his long hair held in a ponytail. He was wearing a maroon cap on his head and necklaces with gems around his neck. I recognised him from the photographs I had seen of him. He was Salman Ahmad from the Pakistani Sufi-rock music group, Junoon.

When we were seated for dinner, it was announced that we needed to reflect on the crisis in Pakistan. Just a few days earlier, Pakistani Taliban militants had made a daring attack on Naval Station Mehran, destroying two surveillance aircrafts and killing at least 10 security personnel. An older gentleman raised the issue of rampant corruption and asked what was to be done. Our host, the doctor, dressed in a red shalwaar-kameez, her dark hair falling down to her shoulders, said to Salman Ahmad: "Darling, share your ideas. You have a passionate idea."

Investigative crime reporter Jyotirmoy Dey was shot dead in broad daylight in Mumbai on 11 June 2011.B STR / EPA

Ahmad said he had recently sent out an email saying that Pakistan needed a revolution. Looking around at everyone at the table, he said that Pakistan "requires a massive social change. It requires a non-violent change." He began talking of his early days as a singer, when he had been a student at King Edward Medical College in Lahore, and what had shifted in Pakistan since then. "There was a frustration we felt… What we experienced in college, I’d now multiply it to the nth level." When he was a kid, "everyone wore their art as a badge of courage." But now it was as if the country were on "a different planet". Pakistan was standing at the brink. "Out of 180 million, a full 100 million are under 20. They can become suicide bombers or we can build on their potential."

The man sitting next to me saw that I was taking notes in a pocket-size notebook. Putting his drink down, he took my notebook and wrote:TWhy do you care about the clichés this guy is repeating? I didn’t know whether this was a rhetorical question. I wrote uncertainly under his words: I am interested in what happens one fine evening around a dinner table. It is a challenge. How do I describe this?

Meanwhile, Ahmad was going on. He said that 35,000 innocent people had died in the current turmoil in Pakistan. Society was polarised. "If you change civil society, you change politics," he said, and to achieve this change he had a program. It was called A.R.T. This was his slogan: A for Aman, or Peace; R for Rozi, or employment as well as economic stability; T for taaleem, or education.

Someone said in response, "I likes it already."

The older gentleman who had first spoken of corruption now proposed that Ahmad could perform at "a string of concerts from Karachi to Peshawar". Ahmad was especially interested in education. He said: "The very first verse of the Quran says ‘Read’." Our host said: "After the first major battle in which the Prophet Muhammad fought, he wanted each Meccan to teach the children of Medina. The Prophet had proclaimed that now they were going on to a greater jihad." The mention of children prompted another riff from Ahmad. He said: "I have a great life. I get to jam with David Crosby. But I have children and I would like my children to grow up in the land I grew up in."

Last May, Ahmad said, he was playing at a concert in Alexandria and the scene there reminded him of Pakistan. When the call for Mubarak’s ouster came from the streets, people had been dismissive, saying: "These are yuppie kids." But just a few weeks later, Mubarak was gone and Egypt was free. Ahmad took heart from this. He felt using social media was a crucial step. He also spoke of a video he had made called "Accountability". And then, somewhat melodramatically, he asked his small audience around the table: "Aman, rozi, taaleem… are you willing to die for it?"

These questions, as well as any doubts I might have had, disappeared after dinner when Ahmad began to sing. He had taken his guitar out of his case and, perhaps out of courtesy to the non-Urdu-speaking guests, he first sang Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ and John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’. Then, he broke free with Bulleh Shah’s ‘Na main Musa na Pharoan’ and ‘Dil Dil Pakistan’. My notes end here because I was keeping time, clapping lustily with both hands, while Ahmad sang titles made famous in the West by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

A good time was had by all. The next morning, which was Memorial Day holiday in the US, there was a Direct Message for me on Twitter from journalist Omar Waraich in Islamabad: "Pls tweet this hashtag #FreeSaleemShahzad. He’s a journo, missing for over 24 hrs & Human Rights Watch believes the ISI has taken him."

Then news came that they had found Shahzad’s abandoned car and his wristwatch. His corpse was discovered in a canal.I read in a report that when his tortured face was shown on television, Shahzad’s wife, Aneeta Saleem, said: "My handsome husband! Just look what they made of him." I don’t know whether Saleem Shahzad died for A.R.T. I guess he thought he was just doing his job. And by all accounts he was good at it. Perhaps Salman Ahmad will sing a song about him when he goes on that tour from Karachi to Peshawar.

A few more days passed. Then, the other shoe fell. News came that Jyoti Dey, the journalist who headed the special investigations team at MiD-DAY, had been shot in Mumbai. Dey had written about the underworld for two decades. Four men on motorcycles put five bullets in him in Hiranandani area of Powai. The killing took place, as Indian newspapers like to put it, "in broad daylight".

Now, I’m waiting for a dinner invitation to another home in Manhattan. This time the discussion should focus on India. When it comes to protest, it seems we like to fast. But I’d like food and drink. It will be nice if there is some music. Kailash Kher? He might be a bit too mystical. But maybe the rock band Indian Ocean could do the trick.