I have only once crossed the Indo-Pak border on foot. Though I have a British passport, I was born in Pakistan, and I was a bit nervous in Amritsar, India. The night before I left for Pakistan, Asha, a servant who worked at my friend’s house asked me, “What is the weather in Lahore like?”
Lahore in Pakistan and Amritsar in India are only 30 miles apart. The outskirts of the two cities are much closer and it’s only the border that keeps them separate.
“There is no difference Asha,” I replied.
I am not sure she believed me. The journey itself took around 20 minutes. My friend’s organisational abilities meant that I got to the border in the sizzling midday heat.
I had expected something similar to the airport checkpoints. Instead what met my eyes was more like a bus station through which no busses passed. A few dusty shops were set in a semicircle around the main border point. This was the only official land border crossing point for one billion people.
As soon as I got out of the van, an army of vendors, porters and money changers surrounded me.
“Going to Pakistan?” a man said holding a small tumbler filled with tea, “Have your last cup of tea, in India, sir.”
I shook my head.
Two coolies beat their over eager colleagues in picking up my luggage.
An assortment of bored officials sat around under an old banyaan tree. Its shade and shaking leaves crossed over the border. A few birds flew in from Pakistan and some went over in the other direction. The Indian side of the border had a large plaque with the slogan “Bharat hamri Mahan”, written in Hindi, Urdu and English. The plaque was held up on two large pillars, decorated in Pepsi Cola colours. A few yards behind this, on the Pakistan side, an equally large board proclaimed in Urdu “Pakistan Zindabad.” This too was propped up by pillars, these bearing the colours of a Nestle fruit drink called, “Tooti fruiti.” I was about to take a picture of this scene when a small turbaned guard, who was sitting on a chair close by said in Punjabi, “Photo not allowed.”
“Sir, let me take just one,” I pleaded.
He thought for a while, adjusted himself on his chair, scratched his beard and shook his head.
“Is there someone who can give me permission?” I asked.
“Who, sir?” I asked.
“BSF officer,” he replied.
That’s the dreaded Indian Border Security Force.
“And where are they?” I asked.
“Over there,” the guard nodded towards four men napping under the shade of another tree.
The men were wearing Khaki vests and shorts. The shorts were more like underpants through the edges of which some of the BSF men’s private parts were sticking out. A well build man opened his eye lazily as I approached.
“Excuse me sir,” I asked politely. “Are you BSF?”
One by one the BSF men stole a brief glance at me and then shut their eyes again.
“What do you want?” the one who had opened his eye first asked in Hindi.
“Could I speak to the officer in charge, please.”
“Yes.” The same man said.
“Are you the officer?”
“I would like permission to take a picture.”
“Just one picture, Saab,” I pleaded.
“Why?” He asked without opening his eyes.
“I may never come back here again.”
“Let him take one Captain,” one of the other men protested, sleepily scratching his groin.
“OK. Just one,” The Captain said without stirring.
“Thank you very much sir.”
I was beaming with joy when I got back to the guard.
“They said I can take one.”
“But be careful not to cross the white line, for you will not be allowed back.”
“Don’t worry I have a multiple entry visa.” I said proudly.
After taking the picture I bade farewell to my friend and went through some large cattle type shed. Each of the Coolies, carrying a bag of my luggage on their heads, walked closely behind me. As I approached the line dividing the two countries, I noticed two coolies coming from the Pakistani side other side towards us. I was aware of the drill. The same number of coolies have to come from the Pakistan side as there are from the Indian side and the luggage must be handed over the line.
After my luggage was passed over the line, I paid the Indian Collies and as soon as I crossed the line, a Pakistan Ranger, stamped his foot on the ground and said, ‘”Assalam Alaycum.”
I smiled at him and took my camera out.
“Photo not allowed,” the Ranger ordered.
“But sir,” I protested. “The Indians allowed me to take one.”
“Did they?” the Ranger thought for a while. “Then you take two.”
My new novel is out:
In a town seething with Islamophobia…