Train to India

We asked for permission to cross the border on foot or by car, but were told that Indians and Pakistanis could not do this.

Taking off from Lahore airport, if the plane veers westwards, on a clear day you can see the border fence between India and Pakistan stretching out below. It is quite an impressive sight, this wriggly black line cutting through the landscape—a clear divider, daring the world to challenge it. It is not a defensive sort of fence, nor is it impassive. By its very design, it stands true to its purpose of unrelenting animosity, almost shouting out the message: never shall we compromise. This fence maintains every iota of the belligerence, viciousness and mistrust that went into its construction.

And what you see from the sky is an uneven, jagged line, cutting the harmony of a continuous landscape into two disfigured halves. This is not the sort of wall you get in fairy tales, which divides the kingdom of the good witch from that of the bad, although I suppose many see it that way. This wall means business. It celebrates 50 years of hatred, bitterness and enmity.

At night, it looks even more dramatic. Flying through pitch blackness, suddenly the darkness is pierced by glaring bright lights, blazing coldly in defiance of all notions of friendship, tolerance, even logic and humanity. And as you cross over this symbol of eternal war, is there anyone whose heart is not sucked dry, emptied of all hope and light? For here is a monument erected in cold iron and barbed wire, commemorating the day when sanity went off on a tangent.

The first and only time I crossed this divider, it was by train, going from Lahore Railway Station to India's Atari Railway Station. That was in January 1998, and the occasion was a wedding: the marriage of a Pakistani to an Indian. Time changes all things, and steals even the memory of that which used to be. Only a year ago, and yet almost another lifetime when we consider the events that have taken place since then, there was some semblance of tolerance between the two countries. It was at this time that my friends and I crossed over the fence, and learnt first-hand the underlying similarities as well as the hostilities between the two nations.

We had initially sought permission to cross the border on foot or by car, but were told that Indians and Pakistanis could not do this.

Once upon a time, anyone with a visa could simply walk across the border and catch a bus on the other side. No more. After a certain bout of riots, nationals of the two countries were barred, and so it has remained ever since, presumably because neither side wants to make life for those on the other end any easier.

Anyway, we decided to go by train. The bi-weekly train between Lahore and Atari is called the Samjhota Express, meaning the "friendship express".

Irony indeed, for everyone knows that what actually travels back and forth on the Samjhota Express is smuggled goods: American cigarettes, Russian items, Pakistani hot-pots, water-coolers bound for India and betel leaves, shawls, spices and cloth to Pakistan.

The ride across the border smacks more than slightly of the legendary Lilliputian wars. You can see the fence from the Wagah platform, tall and black and in two layers, with rolls and rolls of barbed wire in between. It's the dream of anyone who is addicted to spy and war novels.

The fence has high watch-towers with soldiers holding guns, and looks exactly like what a fence between two enemy states should look like. The train leaves Wagah at a slow pace, probably to inspire awe and terror.

The distance between Wagah and Atari, even at that speed, is only 15 minutes. As you near the fence, there are sign posts, telling you to Beware, Indian Territory lies ahead and even, unbelievably, Hello India, Goodbye Pakistan.

There is a padlocked gate across the railway tracks. The train reaches it and then slops. There is much breath-holding, and the gate is slowly unlocked and opened, held by a representative of each army.

The Pakistani army, which has been on the train since Wagah. gets off. The train moves forward slightly, into Indian territory. Slowly, the huge gates are closed and padlocked, and Indian soldiers get on the train.

As the train starts moving, it is accompanied on both sides by officers on horseback, riding alongside the train which is by now moving through a tunnel of barbed wire.

Five minutes later, Atari Railway Station comes into sight in an imaginary blare of trumpets.

After all this build-up, inexperienced travellers like myself cannot help but vaguely expect the grass in the 'enemy' country to be purple. Or the sky green. But no, nothing of the sort.

What we have at the border are two stretches of land that are absolutely identical on both sides of the fence. The same villages, the same people, the same language, customs, dress, and way of thinking

After all, are India and Pakistan actually so different? We have the same background, cultural or otherwise. I refuse to believe in the so-called Islamic/Arab culture that Pakistan is trying so desperately to adopt.

Same people

The similarities in our thinking are engraved so deeply that now we have unconscious mannerisms and habits that reveal our common brotherhood. It is apparent in little things that reveal our similar psyche: in the threats mothers use to discipline unruly children, in the curiosity each side has for people belonging to the forbidden land beyond the fence, illustrated by small courtesies and incidents of helpfulness that are not uncommon between the ostensibly irreconcilable foes.

For us, this was exemplified by an interesting betrayal of our dormant friendship with the other side. The Pakistani train conductor, taking pity on us (for by the time we reached Atari we had already been travelling 10 hours under tough conditions, and looked it), handed us over to his Indian counterpart.

The Sikh official immediately took us under his wing. Telling us that on no account must we travel general class on the 10-hour Atari-Delhi leg of the journey, he kindly obtained for us the practically unobtainable sleeper tickets, through considerable effort.

So much is made of the so-called 'fact' that Pakistanis and Indians are, literally and ideologically, on opposite sides of the fence. But perhaps it is not so much the people who are irreconcilable as the governments, and that too for political reasons. In the meantime, it is the people on both sides who suffer because money that could go into education, social welfare programmes, health and civic amenities, is spent in further bolstering an already swollen arsenal.

In 1984, George Orwell pointed out that for any government to maintain power, it is important to have an enemy which can be used alternatively as a scapegoat and as a red herring. That, in a nutshell, is one of the reasons for the enmity between the two countries.

Fifty years ago, there was far more actual hatred, for Partition was a violent and bloody affair. Now, much of the anger has died with the generation that experienced it, and what we have today are the effects of a continued rhetoric, cunningly and continuously rubbed in.

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Himal Southasian