Footprints: Six inches and a world away

Published November 15, 2015
LEAVING the white line behind on the Wagah-Attari border.—Photo by writer
LEAVING the white line behind on the Wagah-Attari border.—Photo by writer

HOW boring it is to fly from one country to another. You hope the flight that you’ll be taking isn’t delayed, or that you don’t miss a connecting flight. Then, there is the perennial fear of the baggage being left behind.

The best way to go to a neighbouring country is to walk across. I experienced that years ago when I crossed from the US to Mexico and retraced my steps a few hours later. But it was no patch on the thrill I have felt every time I have crossed the six-inch white line that separates India and Pakistan on the Wagah-Attari border.

Last month, on my second such visit, I looked up at the birds flying from one country to another unencumbered by paperwork. It had drizzled an hour or so earlier; the ground on both sides of the Great Divide was damp but the sun was shining brightly now. Nature doesn’t recognise any man-made boundaries, otherwise the 100-plus-year-old tree, with its trunk a few inches on the Indian side of the white line, would not have allowed its branches to spread over Pakistani territory, nor would its roots have pierced our soil. Thanks to the Radcliffe Award many such trees must be enjoying what you may be tempted to call ‘dual nationality’.

Compared to last year, I found much to my dismay that the car that took me to the border had to stop almost half a kilometre from the immigration and customs hall. Now, a shuttle transports passengers and their baggage from the car park. The change came in the wake of the bomb attack at Wagah last November.

Except for the time when there is a delegation crossing over or when the Lahore-Delhi bus makes a stop, the staff on both sides do not have many people to attend to.

I met two people on the Pakistani side. One was turned back from the Indian immigration counter because his passport had less than six months’ validity. The second was Indian, who said that Pakistanis were better off because the Indian High Commission here accepts visa forms sent through a designated courier. “We have to deposit our visa application in person at the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi even if we are in far-off places like Chennai or Kolkata. And then we have to come back to collect the passport with or without the visa,” he said. “There is no shade to protect us from the burning sun or heavy rains.” I told him that I’m small fry, in no position to correct the situation.

I greeted the Sardarji manning the immigration counter with “Sat sri akaal”. He smiled and after making a few entries on his computer and stamping my passport, allowed me to go ahead — but not before directing me to a table where I had to be administered a couple of anti-polio drops. “Agar pilana hai to sherbet pilaye, yeh kya pila rahi hain aap,” I said to the woman whose job was to ‘disinfect’ me with the anti-polio drops.

One more change was that the Indian customs’ personnel opened all my bags and examined them thoroughly, even after they had been scanned by a machine. I was told that the Pakistani customs do the same when passengers cross over from India. So much for the tit-for-tat relationship between the two countries.

The cabbie transporting me to Amritsar airport informed me that the roads had been blocked by Sikh protestors venting their anger against an unknown person who tore the pages of their holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. We were lucky: we encountered only one small group that was on one side of the dual carriageway.

The border opens in the morning at 9:30PST and closes at 3:30. The gates are kept closed and except for diplomats and passengers of the Lahore-Delhi bus, no one is allowed to cross the white line. Those who are late have to spend the night in Amritsar, after informing the police.

The afternoon flight from Delhi to Amritsar on my return journey was half an hour late and to make things worse, my suitcase decided to make its appearance on the conveyor belt once I had lost all hope of ever recovering it. Devendra Singh, who had been engaged by my hosts, drove very fast to the border.

Crossing back, I saw Indians and Pakistanis seated on their respective sides of the gate, listening to the so-called patriotic songs and waiting for the jingoistic drama of the lowering of flags.

Later, at night while flying over Rahim Yar Khan on my way to Karachi, the pilot announced that the row of search lights we could see on the ground on our left are mounted on razor-sharp barbed wire. “It runs across the border,” he said. “It’s impenetrable.”

Not for birds, I felt like saying loudly. But I didn’t.

Published in Dawn, November 15th, 2015

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