Train To Pakistan
By Sagarika Ghose
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
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
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.
Nanak Chabra, Hindu cosmetic traders stelled in Baluchistan have no
time for the womens wails and quietly get down to a game of ludo.
Harouns 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?
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
fathers grave is outside Lahore. It is the first time
I have been given a visa, he tells the others. Although
my mother still hasnt.
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 wasnt
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, its 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. Nisars
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. Dont know about politics, only
about brothers, sisters and aunts.
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 dont 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.