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A Babe Shows A Way
August 18, 2003
In the famous Vietnam photograph, the girl runs down the road, running from an American napalm attack on her village. It is buried under a horrifying black cloud in the background. Her mouth is open in a scream of terror that you feel you can almost hear. She is naked.
When I first saw this image, I was a teenager, grown up on the romance of war. I treasured my book about Japan's superb Zero fighter, pored daily over descriptions of fighting at the Somme and Leningrad. I drew pictures of great air battles between India and Pakistan, between ever more fanciful opponents (Ancient Rome vs China?).
But even today, decades later, I remember how this one shot out of Vietnam soured that romance. I remember thinking: this girl is not nude, she is naked. There is a difference and it matters. The horror that had stripped her of her clothes also stripped war of every pretension I had infused it with. This was war, naked to the world. Naked to this one teenager.
And clear as every sad crease on that slender girl was, the truth about war was clearer still: it is a monster that, left to itself, will devour us all.
So that picture captured, in inches square, a great tragedy in its entirety. It put in my mind all the sorrow, injustice and inhumanity of years of grimy battle in Vietnam. It reduced to crumbs, like this one teenager might have crushed a biscuit, the idea of glory in war. All that, through one black and white photograph. Such was its power.
Every now and then, images like that come our way. Remember the forlorn yet steadfast figure, clutching ordinary bags as he stops a line of Chinese tanks in Tiananmen Square? How precisely he spoke for the yearning in China, the dilemma of standing up to a regime that thinks dissent exists only so it can be smashed. Remember the tears in the eyes of the man pleading for mercy in Gujarat as ghastly violence engulfed that state? How clearly we recognised in those brimming eyes our own tragedy: a country gone mad, a country unable to bring justice to its own people.
Remember, too, the armless boy in Iraq, biting his upper lip to fight back the tears that we, on the other hand, can't stop. The jawan home from the front during the 1992-1993 riots in Bombay, bewildered that because he has the name he does, his home has been ransacked and destroyed. The child buried in rubble in Bhopal, sightless eyes staring nevertheless into our very conscience.
In every case, the inches square tell us all that's really worth knowing about the sadness they represent. After all, what else is there to discuss if, while you're away defending your country, your own neighbours loot and vandalise your home? What do you discuss, anyway, with people who offer endless rationalisations -- "they" had to be "taught a lesson," it was a "matter of national honour," so forth -- to explain away a great crime?
Yet there are also times when yes, an image reminds you of tragedy, but also of all the hope and goodwill that could be, if we so wanted. Think about it: How many chords did Noor, the Pakistani child operated in Bangalore for a heart condition, touch in this country? How many parents saw their own children in those round cheeks, those tiny fists; saw themselves in the grateful faces of her parents? Noor laid soft and stubby fingers on all our hearts.
But look at her this way: had we not had that line that Radcliffe drew on a map of these parts, Noor would have been just another Indian baby treated for a medical problem. Sure, there might have been a few eyebrows gently raised at the need for her to travel 2,000 km for the treatment. But that apart, there was nothing remarkable about her experience. It is that line -- the pregnant, heavy, profound legacy of that line -- that makes it remarkable. How many chords did Noor touch in this country because she is Pakistani, and through her gift of life we can't help but remember the death that lies between them and us?
That is why Noor is a symbol, even a mirror to us all.
She hints at what our two nations could be, if they moved up and away from what they are. She tears to bits the symmetric ideas we cherish, on either side of the border. If all Pakistanis hate India, what were Noor's parents doing bringing her here and smiling in wonder at all that happened to them? If all Indians hate Pakistan, what explains the doctors who treated her,
the great affection poured on her?
Still, the photographs of Noor remind us of all we have lost -- blood, lives, opportunity, maybe our souls -- to the years of hostility between India and Pakistan. How many soldiers on either side. How many ordinary citizens. How much money poured into this unending conflict. All gone. Gone too are dozens of countries -- in the sense that though they started like us, they have leaped ahead of both South Asian giants in fulfilling this fundamental responsibility of any nation: giving its citizens a reasonable life.
Gone, because we would rather hate and kill across Radcliffe's line. And because we would, we even have those who mutter questions about the treatment of Noor, of this Pakistani child, of this Pakistani child because she is Pakistani. This little girl, they think, must carry the burden of terrorism and war and betrayal, even an entire religion. What do you discuss with people who will do that?
Indeed, some of us have lost our souls.
Yet Noor takes home to Lahore armloads of affection. That should make us ask, as we finish celbrating another middle-aged birthday this month: why are we held hostage by this hostility? If proud hawks will promote the need to be hostile as the "real world" way, just how out of touch are they with this real world?
No, the real world is the joy Noor's parents -- yes, her Pakistani parents -- felt. It is the chance at new life some doctors in Bangalore gave to their infant daughter. That is the symbol for India and Pakistan: the new life that we might find. And that, too, is the power of an image.