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A Trip To Pakistan - Part 1
Heading 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 far

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 [email protected]

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