‘They took my money and India jersey, and gave me love in return’—my week in Lahore on a cricket visa
- The BSF jawan opened the gate, and the bus slowly rolled on to the other side. Inside the bus, there was huge applause from the passengers.
- I waved incessantly and most people waved back, with a huge smile as a bonus. That really made my day.
- I parted with my cap, my money, and finally, even my jersey. In return, what I got was a massive amount of love and affection. It felt simply out of this world.
It all started with the Pakistan Cricket Board opening up the sale of a limited number of tickets for the one-day cricket matches between India and Pakistan in March, 2004.
The moment we saw that news report, my wife Ipsita and I knew we had to do this. This was not just an opportunity to witness one of sport’s greatest rivalries, it was a chance to go to Pakistan — the place we Indians talk and read so much about, and often, despise so much.
Tickets were promptly purchased on the internet, and visa forms filled up. There is no Pakistan consulate in Hyderabad, so we made a trip to Delhi and stood at 4am in a queue of hopefuls outside the Pakistan High Commission in Chanakyapuri.
There were some like us, standing for a visa for the cricket match. Most others, and that number was in several hundreds, were people who had relatives in Pakistan and had been trying for many many months to get a visa — most of the time, unsuccessfully.
“Deposit your passport, we will inform you when your visa is granted,” said the helpful man at the counter, which I reached after about five hours in the queue.
We returned to Hyderabad and were informed a week later that the visa had come through. We were two of about 2,000 Indians who would get to go to Pakistan for the one-day cricket matches.
I have had many visas on my passport — tourist visa, business visa, visit visa. This one was unique; it read: “Cricket Visa”.
It specified Lahore only. My match tickets were only for the Lahore matches and the visa forbade me from going any place else.
Importantly, it also specified: “Exempt from police reporting”, which is otherwise a daily requirement for Indians visiting Pakistan.
The next step was visiting The Hospitality Club, one of my favourite websites which provides a platform for members to homestay as a guest at someone's home.
I had hosted and been been hosted at many places around the world — but Pakistan was an entirely different place, at least in my mind.
Was it too risky, to search for random people in Lahore and ask them for a place to stay?
I took a leap of faith and narrowed the search on the website down to Lahore and wrote to the top host in Lahore, telling him of my trip and asking whether we could stay with him for the week.
Promptly, my inbox had a response: “You are welcome.”
The Delhi-Lahore bus left from the Ambedkar Terminal in Delhi. The bus departure time was 6am. We were there at 3.30am and noticed a large queue of people already present.
There were an even larger number of people there to see the passengers off, easily in a 3:1 ratio. These people were not allowed in, and stood outside the large, iron gates of the entrance.
The passengers were a mix of Indians, Pakistanis and other nationalities.
There were about 20-odd cricket fans (mostly from Delhi, a few from Panipat and the two of us from Hyderabad), a woman and her four kids from Karachi, a man from Lahore returning from Jaipur after getting the 'Jaipur foot' (a rubber-based prosthetic leg) fitted, a mother-daughter duo from Islamabad, a Dutch lady traveling from India to Pakistan, two armed security escorts, and a liaison officer from Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC).
The security checks were more stringent than any I have experienced anywhere in the world.
The people from Pakistan said their goodbyes to relatives who were waving from outside the iron gates of the terminus. The bus started off at 6am Indian time.
There were two police vans with armed guards and lathis (sticks) escorting the bus. One in front of the bus, the other in the rear. They honked their horns and cleared all traffic for the bus to pass off uninterrupted.
The bus had three stops before reaching the border — for breakfast, tea and lunch.. These stops offer a good opportunity for the passengers to mix and get to know each other. There was a pervading spirit of bonhomie, which grew with time and each stop.
Kartarpur was the last stop before the border. There, I saw a sign board showing an Indian and a Pakistani hugging each other in the backdrop of the Lahore bus.
Delhi was written on one side of the signboard and Lahore on the other, and there was a line written below; it read:
"Dil ka darwaza khol ke aana, par wapis jakar humein bhool na jana." (Open the doors of your heart as you enter, but don't forget us when you return.)
Around 2pm, we neared the border at Attari and suddenly, mobile phone signals were blocked. There were a number of Indians crossing over by foot from Amritsar.
From their appearance, it seemed most of them were headed for the cricket match. A few entrepreneurs had put up a well-stocked shop selling Indian cricket jerseys, Indian flags and banners. Their unique selling point: this is the last place where you can buy this stuff.
Beyond is a different world. Prices were moderate, and an Indian shirt with No. 10 and Tendulkar written on it could be bought for 200 Indian rupees.
Next was the customs check-post at Attari, India. Amidst a lot of confusion and a sea of blue shirt wearing porters, our passports were collected by a couple of stern looking officials. We filled in our forms and in about two hours, we were checked out of India.
Pakistan was clearly visible a few meters in front, but we had to wait for our luggage to be loaded back on to the bus (which, necessarily, is done by the porters because the authorities don't allow you to carry your own luggage).
After a few photos with the Indian flag in front of the bus, and a cold coffee, we were back in the bus. The next leg of the journey was a few meters of physical distance, and many light years of perceived distance.
After all, this was Pakistan!
The six-and-half foot tall, well built, Border Security Force (BSF) guard was standing in front of a massive gate just ahead of our bus. It had ‘INDIA’ written on it in big, bold letters.
The BSF jawan opened the gate, and the bus slowly rolled on to the other side. Inside the bus, there was huge applause from the passengers.
For many on board, it was an emotional moment. I was one of those.
Being on the other side of the Wagah border meant I was nearing the place where my parents were born, where they learnt to walk and take their first steps, where our family used to live and a lot, lot more.
In a few minutes, the bus stopped again — this time on the Pakistan side of the border for the formalities to be completed. Systems there were relatively more streamlined than at Attari, and the queue moved faster.
After the formalities were sorted out, we had to get our luggage checked once again. Like Attari, there was a lot of confusion among people there, before it finally got done.
I started getting mobile phone signals again. Surprisingly, it was the Airtel Punjab (India) network that was the strongest, so I made calls to my parents in India, from Pakistan, on an Indian network.
Just outside the café, some of the porters were asking passengers if they want to exchange currency. I gave them currency notes with Gandhi’s picture and got back those with Jinnah’s.
The bus passengers were asked to head towards the PTDC cafe, for a complimentary tea. The manager of the cafe took control of operations to meet this sudden spurt of Indians, and was endeavouring to increase the turnaround time of the cheese sandwiches.
As we awaited our sandwiches, a framed photo of Jinnah adorned the wall right in front of us. To the side were a few Pakistan Tourism posters, all of which had the words ‘Visit Pakistan’ firmly written in bold font.
We got back to the bus and continued onwards. The first thing I saw thereafter, was another entrepreneur, selling Pakistan cricket team jerseys, caps and Pakistan flags.
As the bus moved on, there were hundreds of people on the way who were eager to catch a glimpse of it. They were on the roads, in shops, in houses.
I waved incessantly and most people waved back, with a huge smile as a bonus. That really made my day.
There was a railway crossing in front of us, and the gates were closed. The escort of our bus walked up to the railway cabin, got the aspect of the signal changed and got the gates opened.
Our bus passed through. A goods train was seen waiting a few metres away. That was a remarkable sight to see. A train was stopped to let a bus pass by.
We headed into Lahore in about half an hour, and the roads were dominated by the Daewoo city buses, some double deckers, Mehran Suzuki cars (the exact equivalent of India's Maruti Suzuki 800), rickshaws, tongas, chand gari (a six-seater vehicle), and dozens of motorbikes.
We crossed Aitchison College (where Imran Khan studied, informed the liaison officer), the Pearl Continental Hotel (where the cricket teams are put up) and a number of buildings from the British era.
In some time, we were at Falleti's Hotel, another hotel from the British times, and the bus' final destination.
As we got down, there were people from the press taking photographs. They asked us to pose with the Indian flag, which we happily did.
We got down, and in a few minutes were able to locate The Hospitality Club friend. His name was Naseem. I called him Naseem sahab.
He took us home after driving us through the Mall Road, the High Court, the Postmaster General's office and the Secretariat.
While driving, he made dozens of phone calls to neighbours and relatives and invited them to his place for the evening.
At Naseem sahab’s place, there were scores of people who wanted to meet us, talk to us, and express the fact they are extremely happy at our being there.
Naseem then took us to another friend’s place, where I mentioned that my parents were born in Lahore. The friend whose house he had taken us to had come from Saharanpur, way back in 1947.
The man was thrilled to bits on seeing us, and he took off the watch he was wearing and put it on my wrist. Then, he took off the pen in his pocket and gave it to Ipsita.
We were blown away by the gesture.
The next day, I managed to track down the respective houses where my father and mother were born. It was a very special moment for me.
KL Sapra, my father, lived on Dev Samaj Road, and Neerja Sapra, my mother, lived on Nisbet Road.
The two houses might be nondescript today amongst the sea of houses in Lahore, but for me they represented places where my parents had taken their first steps, played, fallen, walked, talked and learnt to get their first bearings of the world.
These were also the places where they had to undergo, at the age of five and two respectively, the horrific trauma of Partition, leaving their homes behind and escaping in the laps of their parents, with fear and frenzy all around.
On the 21st of March, we were at the Gaddafi stadium. I was in my Indian-team-blue jersey. Outside the stadium, there were a stupendous number of Pakistani fans gathered.
We all waved and smiled at each other. Many, many people came up to us, asked us questions about India and exchanged pleasantries.
The Police got us inside the stadium through a special queue for Indian visitors. Inside the stadium, though, the enclosures were common to all.
There was a college girl who was wearing a T-shirt saying: “Nothing feels better than kicking Indians.”
Ipsita walked up to her and told her: “We have come from far to be here in Pakistan, I am sure you don’t mean what’s written on your shirt.”
The girl turned extremely apologetic. In a few minutes, she became good friends with Ipsita and we posed for pictures with our respective flags.
The match had started. In the stands the crowd was having a lot of fun — thousands of flags, banners, musical instruments, and Mexican waves going around the stadium.
Flags of USA, Bahrain and the UK were visible as well. There were Sikhs in tri-colour turbans and a man with a Ronaldo jersey.
A guy in a Pakistani-green jersey got us two glasses of Pepsi. An elderly person offered us paan.
Indian ads were displayed all over the stadium. When the screen on the ground showed the information minister of Pakistan, the crowd shouted: “Lota! Lota!” (meaning an individual who is double-faced and a turncoat, a term commonly used for politicians in Pakistan — could be used anywhere, I feel).
The crowd chanted "Lota" for every politician who was shown on the screen. The Pakistani crowd is good at inventing slogans. The most common slogan was "Match tusi le lo, Aishwarya saanu de do" (Take the match, give us Aishwarya).
When the screen showed Indian actors Sunil Shetty and Mandira Bedi, the crowd cheered like mad.
There was a Pakistani man whom everyone calls baba, dressed in all green, waving the flag, who goes everywhere the Pakistan team plays.
He too was cheered for whenever he was shown on the big screen. He was in the Imran Khan enclosure, adjacent to the Javed Miandad enclosure where we were.
During the innings break, the public address system played popular music. Many of the tracks were Bollywood songs. Many in the crowd were dancing and swaying to the beats.
After a while, "Dil Dil Pakistan", started blaring on the sound system. This one made the crowd go especially crazy. There was frenzied dancing and waving of flags.
After the interval, the cricket continued. Good shots were cheered for by both sides. The Pakistan team flattered to deceive and India won convincingly.
The crowd was disappointed, but genuinely happy for us.
People walked up and said ‘'congratulations'’ and “well played”. A man even walked up to me and offered his Pakistani flag in exchange for my Indian one. We posed for a photo with him.
Similarly, another person asked for my blue-coloured Indian cap as a souvenir.
I gave my address and cards to countless people. A few of our fellow spectators took our autographs as well.
People were desperate for Indian souvenirs. I ended up giving away all the Indian currency notes that I had in my pocket – with an autograph on them as well.
I parted with my cap, my money, and finally, even my jersey. In return, what I got was a massive amount of love and affection. It felt simply out of this world.
The next few days after the first match were spent going around Lahore — Badshahi Mosque, Minar-e-Pakistan, Ravi River, Mall Road, Government College Lahore, Punjab University, Kim's Gun and Kim's Book Shop.
We shopped around Anarkali and then went to Lahore Railway station. The train station is my favourite place in any city.
Like many large stations in India, this one also has a locomotive outside, with the star and crescent prominently displayed in front.
We met a number of porters, who were very happy to have a mehmaan from India visit the railway station.
There is a 'Meeting Point' at the station, quite similar to the ones in many other parts of the world. There is a big clock on top of it. I bought a platform ticket, which cost Rs5 (Pakistani).
The platform was maintained by a private party, and was quite clean.
Two big photos — one of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and another of Mohammad Iqbal (author of the poem, Saare jahan se achcha, Hindustan hamara, which almost became the Indian national anthem) adorn the entrance to the platform area.
Samjhauta Express, the train to India, was to leave from the far end of Platform No. 1. This platform also had a McDonalds and a Pizza Hut outlet. There were bookstalls on every platform, mostly selling Urdu books.
As we moved on to other platforms, we could see the Khyber Mail. It goes from Peshawar to Karachi and was on Platform No. 5. We went inside, and saw the AC, Economy AC and non-AC coaches.
On the platform, there were vendors selling all kinds of eatables. The only problem for me, a lover of railway platform food, was that vegetarian food was hard to find!
The Karakoram Express, which is a fully air conditioned train, is the most prestigious train from Lahore, quite similar to the Rajdhani Express in India.
After the station, I made a second visit to Nisbet Road and Dev Samaj Road, to the houses where my parents were born.
There was a lavish spread for us at both places and the current occupants of the house were over the moon on seeing us.
I had heard from my mother that she once fell close to the staircase of the house and had a fracture when she was one-year-old.
She said didn’t remember any of it, but the constant story telling about the incident from her elder siblings was what she had narrated.
I told this story, of my mother’s fracture, to the current occupants. They said it had happened to some other children in their family as well.
So things hadn’t changed all that much in more than 50 years. Children were still falling and getting injured at the same spot. We all laughed.
This was one more of the hundreds of times during the week, that I had felt connected to a set of unknown people in an inexplicable sort of way.
Then, like the blink of an eye, it was our last night in Lahore. In the evening, we (all our recently acquired friends, totalling up to around 20) went to the Food Street on Gawal Mandi, for a farewell dinner.
Although finding vegetarian food wasn't very easy, people's willingness to do just about anything for their mehmaan made it a song.
That had been the feature of the entire trip — wherever we had gone, people had been warm and friendly, eager to meet, say assalaamu alaikum, shake hands and extend hospitality.
Most people didn’t accept money for food, saying it was their privilege to have been able to offer food to their guests.
Many conversations took place as well. This included conversations on contentious issues like Kashmir. Views ranged from moderate to extreme.
None of those views, no matter how extreme, came in the way of people taking extraordinary care of their guests and bestowing upon us the most incredible hospitality that anyone could.
The staggering opinion was that Kashmir aside, we must increase people-to-people interaction, end restrictions on visas, allow trade, allow communication, allow each other to just be.
People said these steps should be taken urgently, and were really happy that things were looking up between the two countries.
Many credited the Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee for being a visionary statesman who can bring peace and friendly ties between us.
Many people have relatives in India, and India is very much on the top of people's agenda. Indian soap operas are extremely popular, and shape a number of perceptions about India.
The only time we noticed disappointment was when people realised that Indians don’t sleep in Kanjivaram sarees, as some saas-bahu soaps seemed to suggest.
In all, the few days spent in Lahore had been an overwhelming, out-of-this-world experience. It helped that we were up-front with everyone about the fact that we had come from India and were polite and courteous.
Finally, I would recommend to all Indians — please visit Pakistan, meet people, talk to them, interact and get to know this place better.
We carry a lot of myths about Pakistan, and it is only when we interact more, talk more at the people-level that we can have a brighter, less bitter, and more friendly future.
Interactions that take place between individuals are different from state politics, and have no resemblance whatsoever to what we read in the papers or watch on TV.
There is a huge gap that exists between perception and reality, on both sides of the Radcliffe line, an artificial divide.
My visa prohibited me from going out of Lahore, but I hope there will be a time when I can experience other cities and historical sites as well: Mohenjodaro, Harappa, Karokoram Highway.
For now, I feel fortunate to have been to Lahore, and as they say there, Jine Lahore nahin vekhiya, o jameya nahin.
Now I can happily say I have been born.
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