Nationalism and Other Drugs


Nationalism and Other Drugs

Illustration: Akshita Monga/ Arré

“Accept the good.”

That is the parting message, which Jerry leaves for Audrey in the 2007 flick, Things We Lost in the Fire, that inspired the above title. Jerry is her dead husband’s best friend and a man riddled with addiction, but Audrey helps him even though his familiar presence is a painful reminder of their loss. Their relationship is complicated by the loss of a spouse, a heroin habit, and the growing pains of fatherless children. Pushed away, Jerry relapses, until Audrey returns to give him strength, while she is able to give closure to her husband’s unfulfilled dream of ridding Jerry of his disease.

“Accepting the good” then, is a glimpse of the light at the end of a tunnel, the “symbiotic saviourship” that is eventually born out of this troubled relationship. Jerry is her albatross and her lighthouse in equal measure.

The film has little to say on international conflicts, though. Geopolitics is no family drama, after all. But like Audrey and Jerry and their complicated history of love and hate, there are two nations, India and Pakistan, with deep ties, shared history and culture that cannot be undone. Beneath the false bravado and the chomping at the bits, we’re helpless as ever when it comes to coping with the loss, the fear, and the irrational hate that this conflict has sustained over decades. Rocked by dark times, consisting of violent conflict and unrelenting rhetoric, we react by chipping away, instead of accepting, the good.

Whether it is Team #AmanKiAsha or Team #ReleaseTheKraken, the fact is that the two nations cannot ban each other from their consciousness. When tragedy strikes, we train our frustration at an assortment of actors, cricketers, and other popular figures by banishing or boycotting them. As Subhash Chandra announced when pulling out Pakistani artists from his Zindagi channel, we love these people. But their presence on television, hoardings, in theatres, and on the stage is simply too much of a reminder of our latest pain. Our anger reduces “Pakistan” to a euphemism for “stay away”.

Out of sight, out of mind. Except, of course not, as Audrey realises after abandoning Jerry. Meanwhile, he knows that doubling down on drug abuse will not help him cope with his loss of contact with the family, which is also a lesson we could use, for we are Audrey, and we are also Jerry.

All the incessant talk of boycotts and bans becomes a norm, until it is no more just talk, and then the bans become a norm, too.

In India, the wounds of Uri have not yet healed, all surgery aside, and even the civilian needs something for the pain. Our two opiates are entertainment and sport, so they have borne the brunt of our abuse. Since there is little escape to be found if Pakistani markings keep cropping up on every pill, apparently, only the premium, unadulterated Indian stash can numb our pain. But while we may not want Pakistanis working on the sets or acting in Indian flicks, our newsroom drama continues to provide ample entertainment set around our estranged neighbour, complete with bad graphics of nuclear explosions. We may have refused to play cricket with them, still we’re quick to rip on Shoaib Akhtar’s bad English – which I think is a wonderfully unintentional, dark tribute to our collective colonial history.

Pakistan, in many ways, remains beloved to us and we are unable to look away. Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, in a manner of speaking. This only adds fuel to the fire, pushing us farther apart while doing little to improve any nation’s security.

This isn’t a campaign to #BringBackFawad, though. There’s a very good chance I wouldn’t recognise him if I saw him. Nor is it about the nature of art or the spirit of sport. It’s about the false notion that this counts as healing, when it’s actually self-harm. Such attempts to undo ties among people, not governments, only serve to exacerbate our grief.

Taking the form of impotent rage, it distracts from what’s actually rotten, such as the propaganda of various political camps, peddled by mostly television and social media, which spikes our discourse on the conflict in both nations. What is Uri now but a talking point for upcoming state elections, and of the subsequent attacks within a month?

All the incessant talk of boycotts and bans becomes a norm, until it is no more just talk, and then the bans become a norm, too. Should the release of a movie require that the Maharashtra chief minister meet with a thuggish organisation to hammer out some compromise?

Each measure which distances the people of the two countries effectively preys upon our empathy, the vicious cycle of retaliatory measures fuelling the anger and the hatred, to the point where we bully even our own, as in the case of Karan Johar.

And while we begin our descent down this slippery slope, there is no abatement of hostilities on the front, only our reduced attention span. Perhaps it’s time to stop giving ground to voices, which prey upon our pain. Perhaps it is time to accept that Pakistan is our albatross and our lighthouse in equal measure. And as Jerry suggests, perhaps it is time to stop shooting ourselves in the foot, and simply accept the good.