On 22 July 2012, I received a message on my Facebook Page. Dr. Karan Chaudhary sent me a message, a short travelogue of his journey to the Mecca of Indian Riders, Leh.
Little did I know that this guy was going to take me to the other side of India, the forbidden land, Pakistan.
Long ago in 2006-2007, when I was still in the college, I saw the flag ceremony at the Hussainiwala Border near Feerozepur. There and then I decided that I will walk through these gates one day, to the other side, to the land that once was a part of India.
Five years later since that supercharged flag retreat ceremony, one day the same Karan told me that there was a conference being organized in Islamabad and I think you should go.
I ignored it first.
Later on, I carefully went through the details of the event. The conference was worth a visit, the South Asian Youth Conference . The first edition was held in Bangalore and it was a grand success. It was a platform to know people not only from India but from seven other countries as well.
The journey started with a visit to Pakistan Embassy High Commission in Delhi. With Australian Embassy on one side and French on the other side, the Pakistani HC looked a little out of the place. Actually, the bus stand of my hometown Sundernagar is far better than the Pak HC in Delhi.
After wasting two days at the HC because it wasn’t possible for me to make them understand what I wanted. They were too much concerned about me going alone and that too on foot.
I wanted VISA for Pakistan with a permission to cross over on foot. I thought I was the only one doing so, which wasn’t the case actually. Other than me, 6 people from India also crossed on foot. But mine was the only case that was going to get screwed. That’s what I had thought.
The Universe has its own ways. I got my VISA on my desk three days before the conference, along with the NOC to cross over on foot. And by then, I was the only one I knew was going to do so.
I started from Shimla on 3rd and reached Lahore on 4th, and on 5th I was dining in Islamabad. That reminds me of an old dialogue from Border movie, “Nashta Jaisalmer mein, dopahar ka khana Jaipur mein, aur raat ki daawat Delhi me”. I had no such intentions.
And to be honest, I was not even interested in the conference. The only reason I applied for the conference was because I was getting a chance to go to Pakistan, that too on foot.
I started from Shimla, my bus broke down near Solan, I lost the ticket thereafter, and then there was cash crunch on the other side of border. Indian friends in Islamabad ran out of cash and they wanted me to get dollars for them, on a Saturday night when half of the Chandigarh was sleeping and rest was drunk.
I somehow got hold of 140 USD, which in Pakistani currency would fetch me approximately PKR 13k. It would work, I told myself.
I wanted to start my journey from the Harmandir Sahab (The Golden Temple) in Amritsar. Every morning, and this is an assumption that it happens every morning, the Granth Sahab is carried on a palanquin to the main shrine and the entire corridor shines as if someone has sprinkled gold in the air.
It was 3 A.M. in the morning and I could see thousands of pilgrims, Indians as well as foreigners lined up to catch a glimpse of the Granth Sahib. The Golden Temple is immensely popular among the foreigners and I could see multiple groups of firangis doing sewa in the Gurdwara Sahib.
However, what happened before the prayer processions was even better.
As soon as I got down from the bus, I hurried to find a rickshaw so as not to miss the prayer processions. I saw an old and fragile man looking at me. I asked him to take me to the temple. He said 30 Rupees citing the early morning reasons. I didn’t bother arguing with him as I knew we were just a few hundred meters away from the Gurdwara.To my amazement, he was pulling the rickshaw with one hand. He was not even smoking, so I was wondering what kept his other hand busy.
And then I figured out that he didn’t have his right hand. It was an amputated hand, and his right arm lasted until his elbow. And the way he was pulling the rickshaw was impeccable. I have tried to pull a rickshaw once in Delhi and believe me it is a gut-busting job (and that’s the reason I do not negotiate with rickshaw pullers).
I asked him how you manage in the traffic; Amritsar traffic is nasty, fatal at times. He smiled and asked me to wait and watch. As soon as we approached the temple premises, I was astonished to see the gathering there. It looked like 10 in the morning.
And there he was, Billa- the one handed rickshaw puller, smoothly passing his rickshaw through the narrow lanes.
There could not have been a better start.
And now the idea was to walk on foot from Attari to Lahore, 30 Kilometers. There runs a train from Amritsar to Attari at 7:30 in the morning, just a matter of one hour and 4 Rupees.
Now, the real journey started, I inquired about Road to Pakistan in the Attari village but to no avail as no one was really bothered about the other side of border.
I managed to find one Sardar Ji who guided me properly. And did I tell you that Attari looks like the Heritage Village of Himachal Pradesh, Paragpur in Kangra.
Sitting in Shimla or Delhi, one would think that Indo-Pak border is nothing less than a war front. One would be justified to feel that way as our pompous flag ceremonies give away that impression easily. However, such is not the case. And because I have been to the Akhnoor Border as well, I can surely say that the animosity they show at the time of ceremonies is just to pump the masses.
There’s a Customs and Immigration Post at the border. It’s a huge complex 500 meters before the border and on an idle day, it takes not more than 15-20 minutes to go through every formality. I was lucky as it was not a busy day and the Kabbaddi Match was scheduled two days later, so no rush at all. I was told that this is one of the busiest borders between India and Pakistan. Diplomats, kabaddi players, politicians, pilgrims, and goods move from our side to theirs and vice-versa.
On my way to the border, I saw hundreds of trucks lined up for Customs Check. It was a different world. Truck drivers sleeping on and below their trucks, tents pitched on the roadside. I sat inside a tent for a while and spoke to drivers. They didn’t give a fuck about India or Pakistan; they called it sheer stupidity not to open the borders when it was one of the most viable options available for trade and industry.
But when was the last time we allowed illiterate truck drivers decide for the nation!
Soon, I was at the border, the Indo-Pak border, the one that divides two nations. Everybody wanted to know why I was going alone. If only, I had any answer.
The gates remain open in the daytime and close only after the ceremony.
And before I could realize, I was in Pakistan. The other side, the dreaded world, the lost brother, whatever you call it.
Nothing changed, I didn’t find any difference. Everything looked the same.
Just that the time had changed, literally!
My mobile was still receiving signal from India yet I could not make any call. Mobile jammers may be.
And then someone asked me, “Musalaman ho?”