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On Train To Pakistan

By Sagarika Ghose

The Indian Express
16 January, 2004

Through the fog, with a chill wind clattering at the windows, a train leaps through the night, constantly hooting. The decorated Samjhauta Express, complete with coloured buntings at the windows, arrived here this evening to screaming children and flashing cameras. But the mood on board was neither syrupy nor sentimental.

Shrugs Syed Yakoob, a telemarketing operator based in New York and Burhanpur, on his way to visit relatives in Karachi, ‘‘Politician ka mijaz kab thanda or kab garam ho jaye, ye kisi ko nahin maloom.’’ (No one knows when politicians turn the heat on or off).

Shouts of khuda hafiz followed the Lahore-bound train as it pulled out of Delhi. As wafts of smoke from Bidi No. 30 (‘‘They crave this bidi in Pakistan,’’ boasted Haji Abdul Salam, a mill worker) drifted through the compartments, the travellers settled down for the gruelling journey ahead.

Arrival at Attari at 4.30 am, a six-hour wait for visas and Customs, then onto Wagah, another six-hour battle with immigration and Customs, finally, pulling into Lahore early evening.

The chic peacemakers of the Indo-Pak dialogue have said their pieces. Laloo has come and gone, SAARC has created a new dawn. Now it is the turn of the public to take the train to Pakistan. So who are our cast of characters among the 240-odd passengers, most of the carriages empty, on the inaugural run?

There is Haji Abdul Salim, a millworker from Bhilwara; Haroun Butt, shawl merchant from Kashmir; Salauddin, a metal worker; Mohammad Shafi, an embroiderer; jewellery shopowner Mohammad Nisar and businessman Salman Javed.Sarwar Jahna and Sofia from Delhi said they had never heard of SAARC. ‘‘We have waited five months for a visa,’’ they announce to the others. ‘‘We slept in Nehru Park, we huddled in the cold, still we had to wait.’’

Purushottam and Nanak Chabra, Hindu cosmetic traders stelled in Baluchistan have no time for the women’s wails and quietly get down to a game of ludo. Haroun’s wife Urfijaan rocks little boy Zeeshan to sleep.

Haroun hands around walnuts and shammi kebabs and Haji Abdul passes around more bidis. Says Mohammed Shafi, chewing on his bidi, ‘‘Hindustan mein sukoon hai. Hindus and Muslims live in peace. In Pakistan, they fight with each other. We only come to Pakistan to see our relatives.’’

Qazi Azhar Iqbal is a hardware engineer and fancies himself as a poet. He recites a poem: ‘‘Why is my phone always engaged? Is it because I only dial my own number?’’

‘‘Yuk,’’ shudders Rizwana Begum, decorated with blonde hair, orange earrings, who claims she is an intimate friend of the nawabzadas of Bombay, ‘‘what an awful poem.’’

The chatter is obsessive about lost relatives and family occasions. Rizwan Pracha and Samina Pracha from Pakistan say they miss their families and are always late for family functions because they never get their visas on time.

Salauddin got married a week before the borders closed. Having come to India before his wife to arrange their honeymoon, he ended up not seeing his new wife for two years.

Haroun Butt’s father’s grave is outside Lahore. ‘‘It is the first time I have been given a visa,’’ he tells the others. ‘‘Although my mother still hasn’t.’’

The night turns quiet outside. Through the fog, there are dim shapes of trees looking like ancient spirits gazing on yet another train across these fateful villages. Paan is passed around. ‘‘The best film of all is Mahal,’’ says Rizawan. ‘‘Nonsense,’’ counters Nasiruddin, a shop-owner from Bijnor, ‘‘the greatest film of all is Meri Biwi.’’

Debate erupts about Mahesh Bhatt daring to say he would marry Pooja Bhatt if she wasn’t his daughter. But what about SAARC? ‘‘Nobody knows what happens to the public,’’ says Salman Javed, ‘‘do they care about what an awful train this is? The delays? The harassment from the police? The harassment by Customs officials? They only want to start this train to show off to America. If you ask me, they should shut this train down. We have to bribe so many people.’’

The Samjhauta Express is not about romancespeak. Instead, it’s about the nuts and bolts of travel and endless memories and gossip about relatives. Every traveller is laden with gifts. ‘‘My daughter misses, dosas, cocnuts, chow mein and paneer,’’ says Begum Shammeem, Moh. Nisar’s wife. Items being carried across are coconuts, elaichis, pressure cookers (much cheaper in India than in Pakistan), paan and cashew.

The Samjhauta Express is about dirt poor travellers with little political sense except rishtedaari. ‘‘All I want,’’ says Hasina, another millworker, ‘‘is tie my dupatta on my sister.’’ At Lahore, Nasiruddin is engulfed by family. ‘‘Don’t know about politics, only about brothers, sisters and aunts.’’

The travellers, worn out after an arduous journey are in no mood to be sweet. ‘‘Arre what Hindu and Muslim are you talking about?’’ snaps Mohd. Shafi, ‘‘I live in Mohalla Nihariyan in Delhi, near GB Road and my children play with prostitutes, I don’t think anyone is better or worse.’’

Syed Yakoob has missed his connecting train to Karachi. ‘‘Next time they have a conference, they should all go by this uncomfortable and inconvenient train known as the Samjhauta Express.’’