By Yoginder Sikand
11 October, 2006
Pakistan Dairy: 2
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,
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
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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