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Line of zero control

May 13, 2011

The assassination of Osama bin Laden notwithstanding, it’s been – dare I say it? – a typical month for Indo-Pak relations.

Over the past few weeks, fishermen who strayed past invisible maritime boundaries have been released as well as arrested. Ballistic missiles have been test-fired, harsh words exchanged, allegations hurled, stale postures adopted. As always, trust deficit governed the exchanges. It’s all been way too familiar.

In 2005, I had promised myself that I’d remember the Narayana Hrudayalaya whenever I felt depressed about Indo-Pak relations.  Here is an excerpt of that story , as it appeared in my book Bangalored: The Expat Story.

On the day I visit the Narayana Hrudayalaya (NH), two contrasting items in the newspaper catch my eye. One: 101 Indians are arrested in Karachi for fishing in Pakistani waters. Two: the Pakistani cricket team lands on Indian soil to play the home team in an honour-or-death series. Strangely, one doesn’t feel the irony. India and Pakistan have starred in such thrilling comedies for five and a half decades. They are known to brand the other’s back with a hot iron while smiling for Western cameras; and to make visible preparations for war while furtively seeking diplomatic solutions. Hence it is natural for the fishermen soap opera to go through another dull rerun while star sportsmen hone their skills in a strikingly different “net session”.

What takes me to NH, I ask myself? Oh yes, the innocent face of Noor Fatima. In 2004, this two-year-old Pakistani girl mesmerised the Indian media the moment she crossed the Wagah border. From there, she travelled south for a cardiac operation at the Narayana Hrudayalaya in Bangalore. And the city went berserk.  Every cameraman with ambition clicked her and every scribe recorded her repetitive heart murmur for eager readers. No exaggeration. Legend has it that a few days after his arrival at NH, Noor’s father, finding the hospital’s PRO waiting at the gates for a VIP, is reported to have asked in all earnestness:

‘You mean someone other than me?’

Why wouldn’t he ask that question? People recognised and stopped him on the streets for a salaam. Hoteliers fed him free biryanis. National politicians sent his daughter bouquets, local ones came visiting for a photo-op. And school children wrote her a boxful of greeting cards.


Fairytales are like that. This one has an ingenious plot. An innocent Pakistani girl will die unless a skilled Indian doctor takes a scalpel and patches her heart. At the right moment, the diplomatic skies open and the sun shines for her all the way to Bangalore. Add a few songs, a comedian and racy dialogues and you are ready to threaten Bollywood records.

‘Noor was the beginning of a new era,’ says Vasuki. ‘in the sense that before then, patients had to fly via Dubai and lose precious time, not to mention money. With improved relations between the two countries, flights, buses and even trains are operational. And Noor ushered in a new era in NH too. We got 62 patients from Pakistan before her and 212 since.’

Revisiting this story now, I find that some things have changed for the worse. Since 2009, the Narayana Hrudayalaya has received only around 25 patients from Pakistan, all of them for cardiac surgeries. Perhaps this drop in numbers can partly be explained by the fact that many more Indian hospitals – such as Apollo, Fortis, CNC, Medanta, Moolchand, Artemis, Max Healthcare etc – are actively focusing on medical tourism, which is a major growth segment in India. Indeed, given its low cost and high quality propositions, India is fast catching up with Thailand, the current global leader in medical tourism. An ever-increasing number of patients visit India from Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. While an extensive study needs to be conducted to ascertain ground realities, I daresay Pakistan hasn’t contributed to this upward spiral.

Consider this: the Narayana Hrudayalaya still receives 5-6 queries a week from Pakistan. Most of these potential clients query multiple hospitals to identify the best package deal. Even accounting for a uniform distribution of patients to all hospitals, one would expect more than 25 patients to land up in NH in the past 2.5 years. One possible explanation is that a significant number of Pakistani patients choose to travel to places like Thailand and Singapore, even if it means spending more money.

Why? One can hazard a guess: visa. Trust deficit at play. A manifestation of the political reality. Those Pakistanis who have tried visiting India will tell you that getting a visa is no walk in the park. I personally know an eminent Pakistani journalist who couldn’t attend a family wedding in India. Even when visas are given, they’re valid for specific cities and, usually, the short term – around two weeks. This means that Pakistanis will find it difficult come to India for medical conditions that take longer to treat.

Here, right here, is the biggest victory attained by the gun-wielders – they’ve managed to sabotage positive opportunities to a great extent, and in doing so, impacted people-to-people interactions. This reduces the possibility of somebody like Mohammad Ilyas, a newsagent in Lahore, making friends in the Shivajinagar area of Bangalore. Or of a Naheed Jamshed from Rawalpindi exchanging rajma recipes with a Gurmeet Kaur in the general ward of a sanitised hospital.

In these diminished times, we have to keep counting the few stories of hope available to us, as if they were prayer beads. Maybe we can seek inspiration from celebrity models – pairings such as Shoaib-Sania, Bopanna-Qureshi, Rehman-Adnan and even Veena-Big Boss – to keep the idea alive.

Today, the Indo-Pak border is porous to terrorists and almost impermeable to the aam aadmi. The solution lies in turning it the other way around.

After all, what the bullet has lost, the biryani can easily win back.


Eshwar Sundaresan is a Bangalore-based writer, freelance journalist, ideator and entrepreneur. His works are Googlable.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.