MADRAS, INDIA — I didn’t make up my mind to leave India until June 1, when I turned on CNN and saw the spokesman for the US embassy urging Americans to leave the country. A day earlier I’d read the US State Department’s travel warning online, which announced that the embassy was sending home all "nonessential personnel" and recommending that all US citizens leave India. Somehow, reading this message on the Web failed to convince me to up and go.
My wife Amrita and I had planned on staying in Madras with her family for another six weeks, and everything here seemed so, well, normal. Despite tensions heating up between Pakistan and India, there had been absolutely no change in my life (of leisure) here. I still went to the club to swim and work out, I still played basketball at the local college, I still took mrithangam (South Indian drum) lessons twice a week. And nobody, and I mean nobody, seemed worried about impending war — a war that could go nuclear — with Pakistan.
Life here was so normal that the e-mails pouring in from the US titled "Getdafunkoutader" and "Bad Moon on the Rise" seemed out of place. I was tempted to agree with my Indian in-laws, who considered anyone leaving the country a hysteric. "Noah, this travel warning doesn’t apply to you," my wife’s cousin told me recently. "You’ve been in India long enough and eaten enough chutney to be a real Indian."
And real Indians who are US residents don’t listen when Uncle Sam says to leave the subcontinent. They don’t cancel their travel plans to India either. Amrita’s aunt, who lives in Boulder, Colorado, has not called off her trip to Madras later this month, and she’s bringing her eight-year old daughter. This is a woman who refuses to allow her daughter to eat ice cream in India for fear she will develop a deathly case of Delhi belly.
Amrita’s uncle from Boulder, who recently arrived in India on business, is giving us a particularly hard time about our decision to leave. "Chicken, chicken, chicken," he taunts when he calls. With some pride, he announced that his American colleague, with whom he is traveling, "is not in the least worried, and is actually quite excited to be here."
"There’s not going to be any war," Bombay-based Aunty Gita recently told me over the phone. "These guys are just flexing their muscles." Bombay is the financial capital of India — its New York City — and it’s said to be one of the three cities most likely to be targeted by Pakistan in the event of nuclear war. Madras, where I’m living, is India’s fourth-largest city and, according to the Indian press, on Pakistan’s top-five target list.
AUNTY GITA may be right. This tension may be nothing but saber rattling, and in fact, living in Madras — several thousand miles from the Pakistani border — it’s hard to imagine she’s wrong. But when I focus on the facts and not just on how normal everything seems, it seems to me that the Indians are living in denial. Denial that, right now, there are one million Indian and Pakistani soldiers deployed on the border. Denial that India may not be able to withstand the indignity of taking another terrorist attack lying down. And worst of all, denial that Pakistan would go nuclear if overrun by India’s vastly superior military.
Living amid this denial has made it difficult for my wife and me to decide to leave. To make this decision, we first needed to puncture our own illusions of safety. For me, that spokesman on CNN got through in a way that e-mails from friends and family, and even the State Department’s warning on the Internet, could not. Here was a United States official telling all US citizens — telling me, in essence — to leave.
Did I know enough about the situation to ignore him and go along with the Indians who think the US (not to mention France, Germany, Britain, Australia, Japan, and the UN, which have issued similar warnings) is making a mountain out of a molehill?
If I had relied only on the Indian media, I might have decided to stick it out. Reflecting the views of the Indian people (or perhaps the other way around), the press here has downplayed the possibility of war. While the US media treat the situation like a South Asian Cuban Missile Crisis, the Indian press treats the tension like just another story — no screaming headlines, no large print.
Sometimes the India-Pakistan news fails even to appear above the fold of a newspaper’s front page, as reflected in the June 2 edition of Bombay’s Times of India. The lead stories that day were a piece on World Cup betting and a story on the elections in the Indian state of Goa. Lower down were two stories about the rising tensions, but only one of these was worrisome. At the very bottom of the front page, the headline COULD CITY BE A SITTING BOMBAY DUCK? titled a story about how Bombay was unprepared for a nuclear or even a conventional attack. But if this story, with its accompanying picture of a mushroom cloud, worried some readers, they were probably assuaged by the story directly above it, whose headline promised, MUSHARRAF RULES OUT N-WAR WITH INDIA.
Compare this treatment of the situation with a New York Times article from the same day, EYEBALL TO EYEBALL AND BLINKING IN DENIAL, which began bluntly: "As India and Pakistan, fledgling nuclear powers, edge closer to war, the rest of the world looks on aghast at a possible nuclear exchange that could kill millions of people." Like most of the stories I’ve read in the American press, the article went on to cite the US government’s estimate that 12 million people would be killed instantly in a nuclear strike.
This kind of doom and gloom has been mocked in the Indian press, with columnists sometimes going so far as to link American fear to racism. The Times of India’s Washington correspondent recently wrote, "To hear it from the Bush administration officials, N-war is almost upon the sub-continent. Irresponsible brown folk will vapourise millions in a frenzy of irrational behaviour.... All this from a country which is the only one in history to press the N-button."
An article titled US, UK KEEP SCARE ALIVE, ASK CITIZENS TO QUIT INDIA appeared in the June 7 edition of the Economic Times (India’s Wall Street Journal). As its headline implies, this piece indicates that "the scare" is being promulgated by nervous Nellies in the US and Britain — not by the one million soldiers who remain on the border; not by Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf, who recently told his nation that the tension with India remains; and not by Indian prime minister Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who has rejected calls for an international patrol of the border.
Who’s right? Is the US overreacting, or is India underreacting? Sitting poolside at the club in Madras, chatting with Indians who probably don’t know much more than I, it’s impossible to say. Since US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage visited the two countries, the American and Indian media have agreed that tension has lessened. We hope it will decrease further after Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visits the area.
But my wife and I have already decided to leave. This has put us in an interesting position: only a horrible war will prove to the skeptical Indians that we made the right call. But for the good of humanity, I’ve got to pray for a peaceful solution to this standoff, even if it means my in-laws will think I am a big wuss.
Noah Bruce, a former staff writer for the Portland Phoenix, arrived in Miami last week. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org