My journey to Lahore made me realise that it’s common people who keep the beacon of peace in the subcontinent alive, despite their deprivation and humiliation
By Meha Mathur
“Why do you want to go to Pakistan? We give visas to relatives, business delegations, and to people who have been there before. We don’t give visas to friends.” The officer in the Pakistan High Commission (HC) scratched his head and looked at me incredulously as I presented my application to him on November 18, 2009 (Wednesday). I had waited in the queue outside the HC for three hours. I came to know that one batch had been permitted entry early in the morning, and when they would come out, the next batch of visa applicants would get entry. When at 12.30 an anxious applicant announced that no more candidates would be allowed inside, the queue dispersed, quite dejected. But I had the number of the High Commission on my mobile and rang up, saying that I was a visa applicant, calling from outside the Commission itself, and demanding that I be granted entry, as I had arrived well within time. In fact a day before I had inquired about the timings and was an hour-and-a-half before that at the gate. Perhaps perplexed, they not only allowed me, but all those who had remained behind. This is how I landed inside the Pak High Commission, my first brush with Pak officialdom. And this is how I was sitting in front of the visa officer.
“So, whom do you want to meet in Pakistan?” Mr Zohaib Zafar, whom I befriended in Germany and who is now a very good friend of mine, I told him. “Toh kya karte hain yeh Zafar Saahab…” A slew of other questions followed. At the end of it, he listed a long list of documents which I had to procure from Zohaib: ID, passport, residence proof, employer certificate… And yes, a copy of my magazine too. I told him it would not interest him, as it was just a career magazine. “Doesn’t matter, we would also like to take inspiration from your magazine, to guide our youth,” he replied.
Back from the High Commission, I felt pretty low. I had finally taken the plunge with my Pak plans, and there was no going back. But in that process, I had landed my family, and Zohaib’s family, under tremendous threat.
So when I reached office in particularly low spirits and wrote to Zohaib that I needed certain documents, I thought that was the end of our plan. But before evening I got his reply: “Bilkul mil jaaenge”.
The papers took some time to collect, and by then I got busy with my magazine, and so, by the time I reached back the High Commission with the documents, the officers were busy with Eid plans. “You are late, we are leaving for Eid. The process will now take 8-10 days.” At my wits end, I still held my ground. I requested them, with all the reasoning prowess I could gather, why it was very essential that the process get over as soon as possible. So they kept the form and asked me to confirm in a day or two.
Back to office from the High Commission , I got a call to take back my passport the next day, as the process of verification would take some time. So, another visit to HC, to collect the passport. Next day, with passport in hand, I arrived in office, only to receive another call, that I could come back tomorrow, as I was after all to get the visa. “Tomorrow” was the first anniversary of 26/11, and I felt guilty of going to the Pakistan High Commission on that day. Still, I did go, deposited the passport, and was asked to collect the visa the next day. So on 27th November, I was grinning from ear to ear as I held the Pak visa in my hands.
But the anxiety did not end. I casually asked the officer when does the Indo-Pak border close, because we would be crossing the border on foot. He was truly taken aback this time. “You need your Ministry of External Affairs’ Permission for crossing on foot.” Earth shook under my feet. Now this was a new chapter altogether. How to manage that at such a short notice, was the big question. Next two days were spent on probing ministry numbers and contacts, ringing up friends in the Railways to find out about Samjhauta Express, and probing the option of bus. Finally, after much painstaking work, I decided on the option which I had never thought of before: the Delhi Lahore Bus Service.
So the next stop in this long planning was getting the bus tickets. Like a novice I landed at the booking counter. I would have to wait, as they would need my German friend’s passport too, who was to travel with me. So it was finally on December 8, 2009, that I was in possession of the Pak visa, and a ticket to Pakistan too. And it was not till we boarded the bus, and finally crossed the Wagah border by bus, that we could finally believe that we had made it.
The journey itself was a lifetime experience. I think I just grinned all the time on the bus, much to the amusement of my German friend Sylvia. Twelve hours of being escorted by a convoy of police jeeps made me both guilty (at the cost that the Govt has to bear each day to ensure the safety of a group of travelers) and proud (at finally getting to feel how VIPs travel). All through the journey, the traffic was held at bay to make way for our bus. But immigration was a different story altogether. At the Delhi departure site, sweet boxes had been opened up, which I had found quite upsetting. But what happened at the immigration check made the opening of sweets pale in comparison. Each lingerie item was taken out and placed on the counter. Again a series of questions, both on the Indian and Pakistani side, about the motive of my travel. One peculiar question from an Indian officer: “Anything special you want to say?” Well, the only thing special I could conjure up was that the journey had been very comfortable.
Before the journey, I was being congratulated by colleagues and friends for the brave step I had taken. It was as if I was on way to getting a bravery or peace award. But my bloated sense of achievement was put in place on the bus. A seat ahead of us was sitting a young girl, traveling all alone, who was about to join the engineering college in Lahore. An aged gentleman was traveling for the first time to meet his sister, who is perhaps angry with him for each time it’s she who travels to India to meet the brother. On return journey we met a young aristocratic’ woman with her son (perhaps 5 or 6), whose parents are in India. She was least perturbed by the fact that each time she would have to take tremendous risk to meet her family, and perhaps in times of turbulence event that journey would cease.
What makes these people want to cross the border to meet their near and dear ones? Why do families still send their daughters across, and individuals still choose their partners in the other country, knowing well the turbulent relations, the threat of war, and the probability of borders being sealed and the bus and the train service ceasing? Also occupying my mind was the question, what trauma do the families with close connections on both sides face when the spectre of war looms large?
Before I had met Aamir and Zohaib, I would have thought the Samjhauta Express and the bus service were just a political exercise. After meeting the two, I realized that the urge is strong enough to make one take any risk. When I, with little stakes, could feel so strongly about meeting the friends across, I could appreciate the deep-seated desire to meet the loved ones. I then realized, that more than politicians and bureaucrats, it’s the common people who keep the beacon of hope alive.
They swallow their pride in the face of some humiliating checks at the border. Because what lies ahead is worth all the pain. Perhaps, one day, I will write a book on those bravehearts.