I could say, for example, “There is no amount of money that will bring the six-year-old girl back to life, but even so, our company will provide a reparation to the family.” I could say these words in English, Hindi, and Arabic—but not Urdu.
Indian is my nationality, but I do not hate the Pakistani driver very much.
Generally, I do not like Pakistanis, but I can work with them, because I am a professional. And yet, I have not learned Urdu.
Maybe you think it would have been practical for me to have had known Urdu.
If I had known Urdu on that day, I could have talked with the Pakistani driver. I could have asked him, “Why did you throw a water bottle to the young girl?” But what you do not realize is that he would have certainly lied to me, saying, perhaps, that the water bottle fell from the truck accidentally. Or maybe he would have said that he threw the bottle far beyond the street, and that the greedy girl ran out onto the road begging for more than simply a water bottle. But as things stand, I do not know what the Pakistani would have said to me, had I, an Indian, asked him myself, because I never bothered to learn Urdu—I do not speak his language.
I only have the translation, which another driver from northern India—who knew enough Urdu—translated into Hindi for me. When I translated the words into English, the U.S. soldiers took the Pakistani’s story for fact because Americans do not understand that the Pakistanis, as a people, are likely to lie, especially when blame is hovering, and women are wailing, and so many people are looking to make sense of what has happened, and so much seems at stake, and no man in his right mind would want to be the adult who lured a young girl into the path of an oncoming convoy—let alone the Pakistani who has actually done such a careless thing.
I could say, for example, “The estimated damage to the eighteen-wheel tractor-trailer truck that struck the six-year-old Iraqi girl was marginal.” I could say these words in English, Hindi, and Arabic—but not Urdu.
My name is not important. I am Indian. Indian is what you will remember. Indian is what you see when you look at me. Indian is what you would taste if you mouthed the syllables of my name. Indian is what you smell evaporating from my pores after I have eaten the foods I love. I am Indian, but when an Indian speaks many languages he cannot hide behind his nationality. It is my job to communicate with many different people. It was my job on that day to aid the U.S. soldiers who were to make sure that the convoy arrived safely and on schedule. It was my job to deal with the problem quickly, and then it was my job to help get the convoy back on schedule. Yes, it was also my job to make sure that my drivers—Pakistani or not—would not throw water bottles to young thirsty girls whenever they happened to wave from the side of the street, and all of my drivers did and do know our rules as facts.
Maybe—you might suggest—it was my job to know Urdu on that day, but I cannot see how that would have helped in the end. There was the other driver who managed to translate, and because I did not know Urdu, I was able to keep my composure, because I did not have to make myself believe the Pakistani. I did not have to watch his lips move. I did not have to look into his eyes. I only had to look at the words in the report, and to speak with the U.S. soldiers, who dutifully believed what the Pakistani said.
I could say, for example, “I regret feeling no sense of loss as I translated over the dead body of the six-year-old Iraqi girl, but the regret came later and it has stayed with me since—especially when I look at the pictures of my own children.”
Here is something that I have thought about often since the accident: when I was a child myself, I was playing football with my friends just outside of New Delhi. After kicking and running for an hour or so, the ball (which was the only ball we collectively owned) was finally kicked through the two piles of shirts we had stacked to make the goal, and my friend—who was the goalie responsible for letting up the goal—ran into the street to retrieve the ball and was almost struck down by a car. The driver slammed on the brakes and stopped just a meter short of my friend who had frozen in the street. Here is the translation of what that driver screamed after he stuck his head through the side window: “Next time, I will run you over. Next time, I will not brake.” The words are still clear in my mind, even if I did not really hear the words when I was a boy. None of us heard the words as a calculated threat really, but as background noise only, and we all continued to chase balls into streets for a very long time. The boy goalie ran back to us and the man who threatened him drove on. We finished the game. None of the many boys present even made a comment about the violent threat. The danger had not even registered. There was no fear. Only now, looking back as a man, do I attach a need for fear to the man’s words.
In my mind, I see the driver that almost hit the boy goalie as a Pakistani, although I know this is impossible, mainly because I—as an Indian boy—would not have been able to translate the Urdu words, “Next time, I will run you over. Next time, I will not brake,” into English because I did not know the language that Pakistanis speak, nor were there even any Pakistanis in the neighborhood where I grew up. Still, this driver is now Pakistani in my memory, and will always be.
I could say, for example, “The death of the six-year-old Iraqi girl is terribly sad, but means little. These things happen all over the world. Accidents happen even when there is no war.”
In anticipation of this sort of situation, I had been instructed to say I was sorry for the loss, so I told the Iraqi people who had gathered that I was sorry. “I am sorry,” I said in Arabic. “I am so very sorry.” But truthfully, I was only really sorry that my convoy was stalled that day, and that I was surrounded by so many hysterical and angry and confused people.
There was also a small dog that kept trying to sniff the blanket that covered the dead body, and an Iraqi man finally kicked this dog. It yelped very loudly. There were goats, and many other children everywhere. So many children moving freely always. Women mourning, men hardening their faces, staring, talking, looking at the large guns of the young American soldiers.
I was not there when the six-year-old Iraqi girl was killed. I arrived at the accident afterward. This is what I imagine: the water bottle leaves the Pakistani’s hand. As the bottle arches through the air, the muscles in the little girl’s legs engage—much like the muscles of a boy chasing a wayward ball. When she springs to recover the bottle of water, when she leaps at the chance for clean water, the oncoming eighteen-wheel tractor-trailer truck is unseen, and…
Any of those many children could have been the one to run into the street. Children cannot understand that death is real any more than that yelping dog could have known that the kick was coming when he sniffed the blanket that contained the dead Iraqi girl.
It’s not really the Pakistani’s fault either. He was trying to share clean water, which is only what any decent human being would do. Maybe another would not have been so careless, or made a better toss, but it is not really the Pakistani’s fault. I do not hate the Pakistani very much. When I see him now in my mind—head down, lips pressed firmly together, palms stuck to his thighs, fearful of everyone—I do not like him, but I do not hate him. I do not hate him very much at all.
My own children have been instructed to stay out of the street. I have told them about the six-year-old Iraqi girl who is now dead. In a letter, I wrote, “This could happen to you in New Delhi too. An Indian driver could run you down just as easily.” I told my children about the small body wrapped in blankets. I told my own children that this is what happens when you are careless about crossing streets. And I have also told my children about the Pakistani who threw the water bottle, saying that he was trying to do a good thing—that foreigners may come offering good things—but that these good things are bad more times than not. “Be slow to accept gifts from foreigners,” I tell my own children.
My children are learning English and Arabic, but not Urdu. I write them letters entirely in English. I write them also using many Iraqi Arabic phrases, providing translation guides that my wife uses to teach them. I tell my children that they should not hate the Pakistanis, but I do not think I will ever want them to learn Urdu. Hate is a powerful word, too powerful for children—too powerful for men even. “You do not have to like the Pakistanis,” I tell my children, “but do not hate them very much.”
Matthew M. Quick is a Philadelphian who temporarily resides in the suburbs of Worcester, Massachusetts. His work has appeared in AGNI Online, The Sun, The Black Warrior Review, Meridian, Portland Review, The Boston Phoenix, and elsewhere. (updated 4/2007)
His AGNI Online story “Do Note Hate Them Very Much” was named one of the Top Ten Online Stories of 2007 by storySouth.