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Crossing The Border

By Yoginder Sikand

11 October, 2006

Pakistan Dairy: 2

The bus stops for a moment on the Indian side of the gate. The tall guards, as erect and stiff as stone pillars, busily stomp around amidst the blaring patriotic music that plays somewhere in the background. Such a terrible strain on almost every muscle, and the nerves, too, I imagine. In the distance I see a batch of school children excitedly heading for the gate in time for the daily evening ceremonies at the border, which, I am told, inevitably turn into heated hooting sessions between national chauvinists, religious bigots and sundry jingoists from India and Pakistan.

The bus crosses the white lines drawn across the road and we slip under an archway into Pakistan. I think I might be hallucinating and that I might actually be fast asleep and dreaming in my room in the hostel where I live in Delhi. Tears stream down my cheeks and I let my emotions overwhelm me. For me, passing through the archway is like landing on the moon.

In our welcome, burly Pakistani soldiers perform somewhat the same sort of inane stomping exercise as their Indian counterparts on the other side, throwing stiff arms in the air and beating the ground with their heels. I turn back and quickly glance at the children on the Indian side of the gate hurrying to take their seats in a stadium-like structure. Ahead, I see a clutch of Pakistani children, who look no different, jostling with each other to reach their side of the gate to be regaled with the distressing display of competitive nationalism that is due to start in a short while. I spot a bunch of Pakistani army officers lounging in cane chairs in a pool of green grass, sipping tea.

The bus veers off to the left and pulls in at the Wagah Immigration and Customs Post. The passengers pour out and push and shove at the counter to have their passports stamped. I come out last, meditating on my first step in Pakistani soil, which I deliberately place slowly, dazed at the prospect of having at last crossed the forbidden frontier. I look around me, and I see Pakistani porters, who look no different at all from their counterparts just across in Attari. The sameness is surprising, and, admittedly, somewhat disappointing. Pakistanis, after all, seem no different from folks back home.

I head to the Immigration and Customs booth. This is a small, rather shoddy structure, something like a run-down school building in any village in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Compared to it, the Attari Post seems positively plush. My passport stamped, I stand outside the building tracing a flock of sparrows streaming across from India into Pakistani skies without having to go through the elaborate exercise that we have just been subjected to.

Crossing the border has been an arduous experience and I think I desperately deserve a smoke. I approach an elderly porter, who hands me a cigarette and says, 'Welcome to Pakistan'. He tells me he's from the Meo tribe, originally from Haryana, and that his family had fled to Pakistan during the Partition violence. He is delighted to know that I have traveled in Mewat, home of the Meos, and eagerly asks me to tell him how his brethren back there live. He has not been back to his homeland ever since he left it at the age of ten. As a porter, he says, he earns a hundred rupees a day and cannot afford the cost of traveling to India.

We talk for a while about the Meos on both sides of the border and rue the plight of such divided communities. 'Meos are Muslims, but we are descendants of Krishna. We are Yaduvanshi Rajputs', he tells me, repeating a theory that every Meo I have met knows. I am a little taken aback that the Meos here have still retained something of their syncretistic tradition, which, even in India, is rapidly being forgotten.

'Allah knows best what will happen to our two countries', the man rues as I take my leave, echoing a sentiment that I am to keep hearing during my next month in Pakistan.

I enter the Customs room, where I present my luggage for checking. A rotund, officious-looking man comes up to me and, furtively glancing around to see if he is being watched, hisses, 'If you pay me five hundred rupees, you can take your bags'.

I cannot control my irritation and announce, 'No thank you ji. You can, indeed you must, check my bags. And I am not paying any money for that'.

The man knits his brows into a cross, solemnly rummages through my luggage and hurriedly dismisses me.

The driver has returned to the bus and is now furiously honking, so we file back into our seats. The bus pulls out onto the main road, and at the corner we are greeted by a fleet of awesome structures, which will continue to fascinate me throughout my journey in Pakistan—trucks, decorated from top to bottom with lights, bits of multi-coloured plastic, tinsel sheets cut into various shapes, and intricately-done paintings that cover almost every inch of their chassis—truly monumental works of art. These decorated chariots are driven by hardened, hawk-nosed Pashtun men, and they wave out as we pass them.

But besides the trucks, there is nothing that seems particularly foreign to me as we speed down the road towards Lahore, thirty-odd kilometers away. It does not seem that we have left India at all. We could just as well have been in some part of Uttar Pradesh or Bihar, quite as chaotic. The road is in a pathetic shambles and lined in large stretches by unpainted brick houses, electricity poles weighed down under thick serpentine wires, banners announcing the services of sundry hakeems and extolling various political leaders, and vegetable stalls on wheels doing brisk business. Large, neglected mounds of garbage and pools of stagnant water accompany us almost till we get to Lahore. And so do the seemingly interminable traffic and lines of soot-stained, unkempt buildings that painfully remind me of some of the most depressing parts of Mumbai. I sit glued to the window, trying to carefully examine every little detail that passes by.

The sun has now gone down and people are returning to their homes from work. The villages that stretch from the border to Lahore, announces a corpulent Lahori woman who has now assumed the role of unofficial tourist guide for the passengers of the bus, are inhabited mainly by Meo migrants from India. I peer out again and ponder how vastly different rustic and placid Mewat is from this semi-urban nightmare. I do not see any men in tehmats and turbans, as is the wont in Mewat. Nor do I see many skull-caps and beards. Clearly, the Meo men I see here, almost all of whom don the shalwar-kameez and are cap-less and beardless, have undergone a significant cultural transformation. It strikes me, and this I am to remain conscious of during my entire trip, how relatively less common the beard and skull-cap is in Pakistan than in most Muslim localities in India. This has probably much to do with the fact of Muslims being a minority in India who see their identity under threat and are, therefore, more protective and demonstrative of it. By all accounts, as the bus passes through the Meo belt and crawls into Lahore, the people I see seem no different, in terms of looks, from fellow Punjabis in India. Nothing even remotely resembling the stereotypical Muslim of the Hindu imagination—pan chewing, lungi-and-banyan clad, bearded and moustache-less. The sameness is, I must admit, somewhat disconcerting, for I had expected to be in a truly foreign country. Yet, I am glad to have discovered that the Indian stereotype of the Pakistani is largely baseless. Taking all that trouble to cross the forbidden frontier to find more of the same, I muse, laughing at myself.

It is seven in the evening when the bus pulls into the parking lot of the diminutive Pakistan Tourist Development Authority office. There is no electricity in the area and total chaos prevails. I manage to grab my bags and saunter out. An army of aggressive autorickshaw drivers assails me, offering to take me to my destination. In the darkness I look out for my host in Lahore, a friend whom I have first 'met' in virtual space—on the Internet—and whom I have met in the 'real' world just once, and that too for just half a day, some months ago in Delhi. I do not know where she stays. Perhaps she has not come at all, I begin to fear. Maybe, I think, she has forgotten or chosen to forget. Perhaps I will have nowhere to go on this very first night of mine in Pakistan, I imagine, a very dreadful prospect indeed. I start making emergency plans. I might go off to the nearest police station. Or else I might spend the night in the verandah of the Tourist centre. I quickly expel these propositions from my mind, but the thought of searching for a lodge at this hour, on a cold wintry night, is too forbidding to consider.

I am nervous and close to tears. But just then I see my host excitedly waving out. 'Welcome to Pakistan', she says, as she rushes up to me and gives me a warm hug. I heave an immense sigh of relief.


A Trip To Pakistan - Part 1
Heading for the Border

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