22 April 2024 04:39 PM



At Wagah: Tum Bilkul Humjaise Nikle

Six days ago I crossed the border on foot between India and Pakistan. From Delhi I had flown to Amritsar. There were three of us, one each from Delhi, Kashmir and Gujarat. We all were on a family visit, not a conference. These days hardly any one travels across the border, both sides, for any official reason .

From Amritsar to Wagah it was a smooth ride. Our taxi driver has been transporting me and my friends for 10 years. He came to the airport with our order of dibbas of Kaju ki Barfi from Bansal Halwai of Amritsar. It saved us from carrying mithai from Delhi, considering the small 15 kg baggage allowance. With three suitcases and one bag of Mithai we entered the Integrated Border Post. Inside the immigration hall there were few small groups awaiting their turn.

Some women who seemed from a village in Punjab were trying to approach the busy official who ordered them to sit and wait their turn. A family of three, a young Pakistani man, his Indian bride and his father were having some trouble, we could not make out what. A Pakistani woman with two small children was struggling with filling a form. We took the mandatory polio drops (Pakistan is polio free but no one was aware of this) and were lectured by the health worker that it was good for us.

Another wait and I was called to the immigration counter. The man took a long time reading every page of my passport and occasionally looking up at me. When he asked 'Madam aap kya karti hain' I did not give my usual answer 'I am a writer'. I was refused a visa to US two weeks ago because I did not give 'evidence' of being a writer. So I decided to say 'I am former Member of former Planning Commission'. The man's deadpan look did not change. 'So what do you think of Dr Manmohan Singh?' I tried to hide my irritation by giving short polite answers. More scanning of the screen and my passport pages. A long while I stood before him while he sat still eyes fixed on his computer screen. Then, stamp stamp stamp. My ordeal was over. But my two companions were grilled for a much longer time. A Kashmiri Muslim and a Gujarati Hindu was for the interrogator, the end of imagination! 'Koi conference hogi' They did not fall for that bait and said simply that they were visiting friends. After a long stretch and much consultation, their passports were stamped.

At the border our passports were examined at three points and subjected to more scrutiny. As we crossed the Indian side, I was amazed to see that a new arena was coming up. This is the place where every evening, to the sound of loud patriotic film music and cheering/jeering crowds, the change of guard ceremonies are held. I had started visiting the border 25 years ago with Shri Kuldip Nayar. At the stroke of midnight between August 14 and 15 we lighted candles at our side, while on the other side at the exact same hour Pakistanis did the same. On our side there was an all night Jashn which the other side could hear though not see.

The arena was a space for military posturing of both sides to the lowering of their respective flags. An identical arena existed on the other side. What I saw this time was that a gigantic new structure had come up in place of the old one. Cost of tearing and building could have fed a village for a year. An old man from the other side brought his cart and we entered the more modest arena titled Islamic Republic of Pakistan. 'Bibi we will also build a shaandaar one soon'.

A short walk brought us to the building where examination of documents began, carbon copy of what had transpired on our side. Repeated fingering of pages. The immigration hall was almost empty. Young women behind the counter, as expected, were pleasant and efficient. The men were slightly abrasive, the fact that we were three women may have been one reason. The last three times that I have visited Pakistan I saw that super efficient girls, some of them in headscarves, who were much smarter than male officers. On the Indian side the only women we had seen were friskers at the gate.

The customs person waved us on with a wan smile, 'Welcome ji!

With a sense of relief we walked to the waiting shed from where the shuttle service runs. There were three of us and one lone Indian man. The first 20 minutes were a pleasant wait. Perfect weather gave us a sense of euphoria. We were joined by the woman we had seen earlier who was returning home to Punjab with her two children. She was complaining that the little ones were hungry. Another half hour went by. 'The shuttle must be waiting to fill up with departing passengers' a porter helpfully explained. Joy! An empty shuttle went inside the immigration parking lot; to turn around and pick us up, we thought. Within minutes it emerged with a well dressed lone man, sitting on a lone seat; all the rest were empty.

Abandoning my reserve, I jumped up and waved my arms for him to stop. He took one look at me and looked away. I could not believe it. He looked like a sarkari afsar. Having been a fairly high ranking afsar myself I recall how guilty I felt whenever I went on an airport buggy while elderly people like me were trudging along the long halls of Terminal 1. 'Roko Roko' I said and grateful people got on. But this shuttle with the lone man sped away. At the waiting shed there was more wait with growing hunger and thirst.

Finally when the 16 seater arrived after a 70 minute wait there were no passengers; its only occupant was the driver.

Rattling over a distance of 2 kms we reached the 'parking' which was really not a parking lot at all. It was another waiting station from where the receiving cars were called by Pakistan Rangers to pick up their passengers. No car came. This was another slip because the driver who was waiting two kms away in a shed did not hear the call; there was no amplified announcement system. By miracle or chance he finally arrived.

Our two unfortunate countries are the only parts of the world where one another's phones do not work. So we could not speak to the driver. What we had gained on the Pakistan side in terms of immigration logistics was thereby lost in the long and unnecessary wait. Problems of musafirs trying to cover a distance of 310 miles have become successively worse in 70 years. Both countries vie with one another in making our travel tedious and undignified.

Fehmida Riaz, a brilliant poet from Pakistan has expressed the identical duality of Pakistan and India in very few words

Tum bilkul hum jaisey nikley
Ab tak kahan chhupe tthe bhai!

(Syeda Hameed is a former Member of the Planning Commission)