What a blast!
On April 19, there were two bomb blasts in the heart of Peshawar - a low-intensity one outside a police-run school, as parents were picking up children, that killed a small boy, followed hours later by a second detonated by a suicide bomber, in the famed Kissa Khwani Bazaar (story tellers' market), killing over 20 people, including one of Peshawar's senior-most police officials.
There was a haunting Associated Press photograph in newspapers the next day: four schoolgirls in their school uniforms in the back of a van being taken to safety. One clutching a water bottle. Wide-eyed with fear and bewilderment, they can't be more than six years old. A Dutch friend in New York sent news of the Peshawar blasts via Facebook, providing the link to a BBC report. "Hundreds of people have been killed in militant attacks across Pakistan since the military launched operations against the Taliban last autumn. Peshawar has borne the brunt of this violence," concluded the report.
This happened just a couple of days before I, along with some colleagues, left Karachi for Lahore for an India-Pakistan dialogue on 'A Common Destiny' being organised by the peace initiative, 'Aman ki Asha', where I work. Former ambassadors, ministers, foreign office dignitaries, armed forces officials, academics and writers at the meeting debated on strategic issues that cause tension between India and Pakistan. The convenor was 'General Shanti' - Mahmud Ali Durrani, Pakistan's former national security advisor and ambassador to Washington.
Among the Indian delegates was Admiral (retd) L Ramdas, whom I first met in 1998 in Japan at an anti-nuclear gathering following India and Pakistan's nuclear tests. We've met subsequently at conventions of the Pakistan-India People's Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD), the largest people-to-people lobby for peace between the two countries, of which he is Chairperson Emeritus in India.
PIPFPD has held annual joint conventions bringing together hundreds of Indians and Pakistanis in various cities almost without a break since 1995 until the last few years. After meeting in Delhi in 2004, they were to meet in Pakistan in 2005. But with the intensified fight against 'terror', the Pakistan government did not find it appropriate to grant visas to over a hundred peace-loving Indians 'for security reasons'.
The 2005 PIPFPD Convention was to be held in Peshawar, but this is a city that, as the BBC report noted, has borne the brunt of the violence since this war began. Other venues were suggested, but Pakistan's governments since then have had their hands full with the violence.
Some see it as the last gasp of a dying order. Others think things will never get better. Personally, I go with the first theory. Those who share the Taliban's worldview are an anachronism, irrelevant in today's world. That is why they are fighting so hard to preserve their warped ideas of morality, honour and religion (mindsets not limited to Muslim extremists; their counterparts are abundant in other communities too).
Admiral Ramdas saw it as a hopeful sign that India recently granted visas to a large delegation of Pakistanis (55) to attend the People's SAARC being held in New Delhi at the same time as our 'Common Destiny' discussions. "Perhaps the governments are thawing out," he said optimistically.
We took some Indian delegates to see 'Mama Mia!' a live, theatrical song-and-dance show produced by the young and talented Karachi-based former New York banker Nida Butt. My 13-year-old daughter saw it at one of the packed nights in Karachi last September and liked it 'way better' than the movie. It was pricey entertainment but well worth it, and not just because the proceeds go to Developments in Literacy, an education-related charity
Kiran Choudhry, the Oxford-educated lawyer playing the lead (Donna Sheridan, played in the movie by Meryl Streep) is an amazing singer. The entire cast did well, belting out the live numbers with aplomb and performing the slickly choreographed dances with verve and grace. The band, In Time, is stupendous. At the Karachi shows, they had to play backstage, emerging at the end to standing ovations. The larger Lahore stage allowed them to be out front, adding tremendously to the whole performance. As I had felt in September, the Indians with us were taken by surprise at "the amount of talent out here" as one of them put it. As in Karachi, the Lahore show drew packed halls and standing ovations. What a blast! Yes, and theright kind.
The writer is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker www.beenasarwar.wordpress.com