NEW DELHI-If you want to hear the sound of a billion Indians laughing, go back to the days and weeks after 9/11. Watching America deal with its entry into the Terror Target Club by running directly into the arms of Pakistan was a subcontinental-sized irony that didn't go unnoticed in this country, where the Brat Pak has been sticking it to its big brother for decades through the Kashmiri Line of Control. It's through the LoC that Pakistani-trained cells regularly slip into India to recruit, train and execute-in the name of Free Kashmir. That, and the name of Nah-Nah-Nah-Nah-Boo-Boo.
This ability to attack through the LoC is really the only negotiating chip Pakistan has, and it knows it. The circle is kind of sad, and goes like this:
Pakistan says, "Get out of our Kashmir tree house or we won't stop poking you in the eye."
India says, "Whatever, pipsqueak. It's my tree house."
Little Pakistan pokes Big India in the eye. "Ouch! You little: fuck!"
Pakistan giggles. And so on.
A couple of weeks after arriving in India last September, I got my first taste of what Indian negotiators call "cross-border terrorism." It was a decent sized attack. Three homemade bombs ripped through bustling markets in the capital, including one in the narrow-laned hostel district, just across the street from where I was staying. It was the eve of Diwali, a major Hindu festival, and the bazaars were packed. Sixty-seven people were killed. The street carnage was gnarly; entire blocks littered with limbs and spattered with blood.
Just off the boat and unsure what it meant, I just gulped, watched and listened.
There was about a day of saturation news coverage, some heightened security at a few places, and then-nothing. Dissolve to normal. The ease with which Indians rolled with the triple attack was nothing less than, and in some ways more than, Israeli in its stoicism.
Immediately I was endeared by it. Here was a country that had figured it out: Build and maintain a sophisticated intelligence operation. Search and destroy. And when a cell slips through the net, do not rename the calendar or start attacking abstract nouns. India has learned to live with terrorism, if only because it has no choice. After watching this country take a deep cut, then spit and calmly suture the wound like John Rambo, my respect thickened.
Only my relief was thicker. Before moving to India, I was haunted by two bad visions. One was a viper attack, still a surprisingly common way to die over here. The other was dozens of nuke-tipped Ghauri CBMs rising off forest-camo flatbed trucks in Pakistani Punjab, then arching gracefully over the Rajasthani desert heading south, where most of them would successfully detonate.
So I was relieved to witness my host government calmly absorb the attack, obviously the work of any one of a dozen Islamic groups active in India, most trained and funded in Pakistan and based in Kashmir. As I slowly removed my hands from my eyes, I saw that it took more than a triple bazaar blast to get sabers rattling in New Delhi. Like the December 2001 daylight guerrilla attack on Indian parliament-that almost did the trick. But this? Spit and suture.
In January there was some outrage when a militant shot a star Indian engineering professor point-blank at an academic conference in Bangalore, but it was muted by a smug recognition of the jealousy and desperation inherent in the act of targeting an intellectual symbol of Rising India.
Things got a little more heated last month, when two small but powerful homemade bombs-ammonium nitrate packed into lunch boxes-detonated in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi. This is the famous pilgrimage town where Hindus come to cremate their loved ones on the banks of the Ganges. At dawn the dogs of Varanasi compete with ash-covered "Black" Sadhus (holy men) for the breakfast flesh of incomplete cremations. At sunrise the truly faithful still take a devotional dip in the river, even though everyone knows that by the time the Ganges hits Varanasi, its brown waters are pretty much as filthy as they look.