Trip To Pakistan - Part 1
for the Border
By Yoginder Sikand
04 October, 2006
At last the day that I have been
impatiently waiting for dawns. Sleep has eluded me, the excitement,
mixed with trepidation, of leaving for Pakistan this morning having
kept me wide awake, fidgety and nervous. The reporting time at Ambedkar
Terminus is 4 am, but I get there an hour before, just in case, I tell
myself, I miss the bus or get a seat in the rear if I am late. It is
a cold, foggy December morning, and I sit on the pavement of the deserted
road under a pale yellow street light waiting.
At exactly 4 am the gate
swings open. I head for the shed that is marked out for the Delhi-Lahore
bus. My baggage is checked cursorily by a woman who clearly appears
tired of her monotonous routine and takes her work as something of a
mere formality. The shed has no X-ray machine. 'Send a letter to the
Delhi Transport Corporation and complain', she says when I ask her why.
I ease myself into a stiff
plastic chair in the waiting room. A boy comes around with tea and biscuits.
A middle-aged man from Old Delhi walks around handing out his visiting
card to bored, bleary-eyed passengers. 'If you buy cosmetics and clothes
in Lahore you can sell them to me when you return', he explains. 'You'll
make a good bargain', he assures me.
Slowly, more passengers trickle
in. From the way they are dressed and speak, they appear to be largely
from lower-middle class families, for richer passengers generally travel
to Pakistan by air. Most of them are Pakistani Mohajirs, who have come
to India to meet relatives. And to shop, as is amply evident from the
elephantine suitcases and cardboard boxes that they are carrying, bursting
to the seams with all manner of goodies picked up from the bazaars of
Delhi. I spot a group of Pakistani Hindus, identifiable by the rolls
of posters of various Hindu deities and bunches of peacock feathers
that they have stuffed into plastic bags. Like most of the Mohajirs
in the room, they are dressed in shalwar-kameez, but they speak in Sindhi,
which I don't understand but which I think I find endearing.
The sleek air-conditioned
DTC bus pulls out of the bus stand at 6 am sharp. The Sikh driver puts
on a Gurubani tape—mellifluous and soul-stirring music. I am truly
grateful that we are not subjected to ear-splitting Bollywood cacophony.
But my relief is short-lived, for as we leave the deserted streets of
Old Delhi behind us the television screen comes alive and for the next
three hours we are regaled with Bollywood's latest inanity—a film
about two friends who cheat on their wives and enter into multiple affairs
with a posse of women. I snuggle in my large, comfortable reclining
seat, refusing to glance at the screen. I try to make small talk with
the passenger sitting next to me—a Muslim lad from Delhi who,
like me, is traveling to Pakistan for the first time.
The bus is heralded by a
police van bearing armed guards. It is laced with a snarling siren that
commands such authority that the other vehicles on the road rush at
once to the side to make way for us. The bus is followed at the rear
by another such van, making us feel quite important. We swiftly hurtle
down the highway, and in small towns where we slow down curious pedestrians
glare at us in consternation. Some of them smile and passionately wave
out. The 'Lahore-Delhi Bus Service' slogan and the Indian and Pakistani
flags painted on either side of the bus mark us out as passengers heading
for what is perceived as 'enemy country'. I ponder on what the passers-by
must be thinking on seeing the bus. Fear, hatred, envy, curiosity, or
perhaps a recognition of the fact that across the forbidden frontier
people must be quite the same as them despite the religious difference?
We stop in Pipli, Haryana,
for a hurried breakfast, and then, by noon, at Kartarpur, Punjab, for
lunch. The passengers jostle each other at the buffet lunch table with
no care for queue rules, piling their plates mountain-high with food.
My stock of cigarettes is over and I prowl around outside looking for
a friendly fellow-smoker. Elderly and suave Mr. Khan from Old Delhi
kindly obliges and rolls me a slim, somewhat flimsy, cigarette. He introduces
himself as a businessman and a graduate of the Aligarh Muslim University.
'I'm going to Lahore very
reluctantly', he grimly says. 'I have to meet my relatives, whom I have
not met for years. Although I don't want to go, my wife insists I should'.
'You'll find', he tells me, 'that the level of education in Pakistan
is very low. Most people there are ignorant, crude and slobbery. They
are full of hot air, and love boasting about themselves'. 'See how they
are jostling with each other over food in the lunch room', he points
out, not concealing his irritation. 'After a few days in Lahore you'll
be pining to come back, I assure you', he predicts.
I am somewhat disappointed,
and I know the perils of generalizations. I tell Mr. Khan that many
Indians are probably no different. I've seen Indians breaking queues
and fighting over food. And I've seen my share of 'ignorant, crude and
slobbery' fellow Indians, too. That, however, does not seem to shake
his confidence in his convictions.
The bus heads down the flat
Punjab plains till we get to Attari at around 3 pm. We pass by a ruined
mosque in a hamlet outside the town, just a few kilometers from the
border. The thought of the tens of thousands of Hindus, Muslims, Dalits
and Sikhs who must have waded through rivers of blood and passed by
the mosque in 1947 on their way to the newly-created states of India
and Pakistan swirls in my mind. Who knows, I ask myself, how many people
must have been slaughtered in this very village all in the name of religion
and nationalism? I shudder at the thought, seeking to push it out of
my mind, trying to think, instead, of the prospect of crossing the border
soon and wondering what awaits me on the other side.
The bus crosses a heavily
guarded gate and stops at the Customs and Immigration booth. I rush
out of the bus, pushing and shoving and behaving quite like the passengers
whose behaviour at lunch time Mr. Khan so sternly disapproved of, for
I have been told that the procedures here can take up to several hours.
I walk up to the counter and present my passport. The surly man on the
other side of the window glances at it and then looks me up and down
suspiciously. 'This is not proper', he says, ruffling through my documents.
My heart sinks. Perhaps I will not be allowed to travel further, I think.
I ask him what the matter is, but he orders me to sit down. 'I shall
call you shortly', he says sternly.
I am nervous, but, I tell
myself, I have no reason to be, for my papers are all in order, at least
as far as I know. Half an hour later, the man shouts out my name and
I nervously approach the window. 'There's no problem, you can go', he
says imperiously. I grab my passport before he can change his mind.
I pass out of Customs and then sit on a cement bench in the sun, relieved.
Half a mile ahead I see a massive gateway that marks the end of Indian
territory. Beyond that I can spot a similar structure on the Pakistani
side. My heart trembles. Pakistan. So near, but, yet, it appears, so
I keep myself amused for
the next two hours pottering around in the limited space that passengers
have access to. I walk down to the barbed wire fence that stretches
as far as I can see, a short distance behind the border. Across the
fence, although still in Indian territory, I spot farmers in their tractors
cultivating their fields. I trace a group of elderly Pakistanis walking
down the road, having crossed the border on foot. An Indian delegation
goes up to receive them. I see the two groups excitedly embracing each
other, slapping one another on the back and giggling like school children.
When they pass by near where I am standing I catch snippets of their
conversation in loud Punjabi. They all look somewhat the same, barring
the two Sikhs in the group.
This display of camaraderie
suddenly brings to my mind the mosque at Attari. I think of the irony
of the border gates that I can see in the distance. I start depressing
again. I curse the idols of religious exclusivism and nationalism in
my mind. I think of my own mother's family, who had fled what is now
Pakistan in 1947. Some of them must have passed through this route on
their way to Delhi. I think of Mr. Khan's relatives in Lahore, who must
have undertaken the same journey, but the other way. I think of the
other passengers in the bus, who must, too, be from divided families,
each with their own gory tale to tell. I think of the tyranny of power
and the ego, the meaning of suffering and the human capacity for evil.
I think also of God and His mysterious ways. All this is, of course,
immensely distressing and I calm myself down with a bidi that an elderly
and kind porter shares with me.
The passengers have now completed
their formalities at Customs and Immigration. We lunge into the bus
and head, at last, for the border. A stony silence prevails and the
garrulous passengers appear grim-faced. I sense a strange mix of the
fear and excitement that the allure of the forbidden entails overcoming
me like a powerful, irresistible wave. Tears well in my eyes as the
bus reaches the awesome gate and there I see the land of my grandparents
lying before me, just a heavily barricaded metre ahead.
Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for Jawaharlal Nehru Studies,
Jamia Millia Islamia. He spent a month [December 2005- January 2006]
in Pakistan, his first trip there. He is now writing about his trip.
Countercurrents will be publishing it in weekly installments. The author
Would love to have your comments. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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