Saturday, June 9, 2007

ab Lahore door nahin

Every once in a while (a really long while, mind you), there comes an opportunity that justifies everything. It turns apprehensions into happy certainties, every effort into an act of love and ordinary men into heroes.

Our trip to Lahore was just that.

It all goes back some 8-9 months. I remember my conversation with Daddu during the 2003 World Cup, when Sachin decided to end the ‘irresistible force vs. immovable object’ debate once and for all. The public whipping that Shoaib Akhtar received at the hand of the master is etched on every half-interested cricket fan’s brain like burnt egg on a non-stick kettle, but only tastier.
There and then, in a half-choked/half-runaway voice, the two of us vowed that should India ever tour Pakistan, we would definitely go, inshallah.

In hindsight, the sweetest thing about the tour is the fact that we pulled it off. No big group, no travel package, no bookings, no information, no local contacts– in fact, no clue about how to go about the whole thing. Only plenty of niggling doubts, voices in the head and those belonging to others warning us of the hara-kiri we were about to commit. Plus the fact the trip was just 10 days before a huge client Sales Conference and yours truly is the only specialist copywriter in the group, and hence as valuable as a forged Brazilian passport for ol’ Bin Laden. My pear-shaped partner too had just returned from a 2-week-long annual leave and so was not the best contender for another holiday. I can hear you saying “wow!” already, but then if you know us well, chances are you’re not surprised :-)

There’s a lot of talk of Pakistanis making Indians feel right at home. We got a clue of the welcome that awaited us across the border when we uninterruptedly peed on the Pakistan Embassy walls (two times each!). Don’t blame us though– they only had one Visa window open, the line was longer than Santa Claus’ ‘get me’ list and there was no other loo in sight.

----------------- 19th March 2004:

So loaded with exactly 6 grand per person, a reassuring fax confirmation from the National Hotel, old Lahore (where Gaurav Dudeja is invitingly spelled as Gaurav Deja) and our India tees, we reached the Ambedkar Stadium Bus Terminal. It’s 4 a.m., and no – neither of us used a Shivam cab (company transport for golden employees) to get there. The bus is the same one that Vajpayee took, so we figure it’ll do. We’re impressed by the security arrangements- the guards are thorough, luggage is scanned and the sniffer dog growls at Daddu. And after a reluctant interview to Aaj Tak, we’re off!

There’s a bottle of mineral water and a newspaper at every seat, and Sholay playing on the bus DVD. It’s a 12-hour ride with 3 stops for breakfast, lunch and tea (all paid for!). Better still – there are two heavily armed Police jeeps leading the way, and one more in the back! Red light flashing, sirens wailing, traffic is shooed from our path like dandruff from a coat shoulder. Kya feel hain! Finally the world acknowledges our VIP status!

We reach the Wagah border at precisely 3 p.m. Customs and Immigrations are a real pain. There are countless papers to present, and still many more to keep safe. And considering that the only other time I’ve gone abroad is at that age when I couldn’t tell a blonde from a brunette, and that Daddu has travelled extensively only in his graphic fantasies – the process is quite taxing. Plus it’s time to change our rupees into Pakistani ones. Touts of all sizes, shapes and smells tug at us, and we willingly get swept towards one desk. Gandhis are happily exchanged for Jinnahs, and few get the irony.

All formalities done, our bus trundles into Pakistan. Instantly, nervous clapping erupts in the bus as everyone realizes that India is suddenly shut to us. A small turn of the bus’ wheels, a giant step for Ram and Daddu. A grim looking Pakistani Ranger (to our conditioned minds, every Pakistani looks grim!) enters the bus and walks down the aisle, checking. We all have polite, ‘friendly’ smiles stuck on our faces – we’re happy to be in Pakistan, thank you!

We step off the bus at their side of Wagah and await clearance. This is the first feel of ‘enemy’ soil. We sniff the air, grin foolishly and gape like a couple of old men at a strip bar. We’re actually in Pakistan!! The moment is overwhelming. This is what every Indian has identified with, thought and cursed about for years. Funnily, it doesn’t look any different from back home. There are no sullen stares, no mujahideen waiting in the bushes, no cyanide pills in our welcome tea. Instead, we find the Pakistanis smiling at us shyly, and we smile back. As we board the bus and it meanders towards Faletti Hotel (the drop spot), people on the road wave. It’s around 7 p.m. and the sun is setting, but you can’t make that out from their faces.

We’ve made friends with a team of 10 from Aaj Tak (travelling non-officially!), and we decide to book ourselves into their hotel. Their travel agent assures us that one more room won’t be a problem, and we’re only too glad. Staying with 10 other like-minded (and like-aged) Indians at a hotel that’s 5 minutes away from Gadaffi Stadium is infinitely more attractive then calling upon Mr. Tariq at the National Hotel, old Lahore (if you don’t remember why, please refer to para 5, 2nd line).

Liberty Hotel greets us with rose garlands and complimentary Pepsis, and we’re touched. The staff is beaming, and there’s no hiding the genuine warmth in their handshakes. “Welcome to Pakistan” is the common refrain, and we hear someone say “namaste” too. The rooms are decent – strong a/c, double bed, TV without remote, one tubelight strategically positioned by an insomniac electrician and a phone that must have been Alex Bell’s prototype. The loo is spacious too, so what if the shower is broken and a funny looking sherbet pourer doubles up as the bum-irrigator as well as the bathing mug! At a time when even a bus shelter will cost anywhere between 4000 and 8000 Pakistani rupees a night, our deal at 2000 bucks a day is awesome. Mana nahin karenge, as some wise men have been known to say.

After a hasty wash for me (and a loud booming noise in the loo for Daddu), we decide to check out Lahore. Our first stop is a PCO booth to inform anxious kin that we haven’t been kidnapped and won’t be appearing on an Al-Jazeera broadcast. The booth is located in an underground market, and we’re a little wary of leaving the open skies for a cramped hole where screams for help won’t reach the first step. But brave as we are, we descend and discover 2 things:
a) Phone calls (international or local) are outrageously expensive in Pakistan (new technology always costs more!), and
b) No 2 PCOs have the same ‘pulse’ system (I saved 20 bucks over a same duration call made by Daddu, yippee!)

Dinner is our next quest, and our worst shock yet. True, there are appetizing rolls of kebabs, beef sausages, Gosht, mutton whatnots and other severed limbs - only both of us are pure vegetarians! Searching for veg. food in Pakistan is like hunting for an untampered auto meter in Delhi. We ask for alu, and the waiter adds a thoughtful suffix – keema We ask for daal, and hallelujah – he smiles!! An instant later, we discover that daal for them is a heap of dry, yellow grain. It’s reassuringly called daal maash, and floats on a sea of weird-looking oil. ‘Beef tallow’ screams in our heads, but we’re tired. An open mind and empty stomach can prepare you for anything.

After food and a stroll, it’s time to hit the sack. If I’d thought dinner was my worst nightmare, I’m sadly mistaken. Sharing a bed with Daddu is like sleeping next to a dormant volcano. But the seasoned roomie that I am, the small explosions go unheard. It’s only the 4am alarm that I dread.

----------------- 20th March 2004:

A broken sleep later, we wake up to a nice, sunny morning. Breakfast is eggs and toast (ok, so we aren’t pure vegetarians!). We stuff ourselves happily and get ready. Today’s the day we collect our match tickets! The venue for collection is just across the road. 3 hours later, we emerge with paper literally worth its weight in gold. Now the entire day’s ours to roam. Lahore, be warned – India’s shining best is loose on your roads!

Anarkali Bazaar comes highly recommended, and we hail an auto. Now, compared to the ones plying on our side of the Wagah, these are shockingly tiny. You have to literally maneuver yourself into one, and even then your knees are in for a scraping. Their autos also have small swinging doors attached – which my claustrophobic pal mercifully gets removed. Little does he hear my sigh of relief. Nothing like being trapped with Daddu in a closed 2#3 space for 15 kilometers.

Anarkali Bazaar is situated in Old Lahore and as our auto splutters on, the change in the cityscape becomes very obvious. While New Lahore (especially in the area that we were staying) is very cosmopolitan in look- clean, wide smooth roads, grass knolls as dividers, fountains and Toyota Corollas (though somewhat dusty and beat-up) – Old Lahore is like our Jama Masjid area. Narrow lanes, people popping from nowhere but miraculously managing not to collide, and small rickshaws. There’s a clear change in dress too. Pathani suits, long beards and a heavy smell of ittr. To be honest, we were somewhat scared. To be more honest, pretty scared. For if there ever was a picture of extremist Pakistan in our minds, this is it. And here we are, 2 Indians in the heart of Old Lahore, dressed in jeans, clean-shaven and sticking out like a food bill for a national holiday! We kept muttering to ourselves – “Just smile politely, keep looking ahead, don’t stare back.” Inevitably, shopkeepers and the junta too curiously looks at us, and introductions are made. The tension immediately disappears. Again, we were overawed by the sheer value of the word ‘India’. Shopkeepers shake hands and offer special discounts, and stories of pre-partition days follow. One seller who had fled from ‘Mussourie Pahad’ has tears in his eyes as he asks us about his native place. Some questions are touching in their sheer innocence – this guy asked us whether Delhi-Bombay is “walking distance” while others ask us if we’ve met Shilpa Shetty (Bollywood is a huge rage in Pakistan). It’s a bonus that Daddu’s parents are originally from Multan, and we were treated like family. The hours just slip by, and many memorable moments later (like chatting with an old vendor who is a big Saurav Ganguly fan), it’s time to call it a day. So what did we buy from a Bazaar famous for its Pathani suits, bangles and non-veg delicacies? 2 glasses of fruit juice each.

By now, it around 6 in the evening, and we’re famished. A roadside cafĂ© near our hotel beckons us, and the staff is extremely kicked to have Indian diners. We say, “Pyaar toh bahut mil gaya, kuch vegetarian milega kya?” They mercifully agree to prepare a special dish of potatoes, carrots and peas. As we’re gobbling it down, I notice 2-3 dark brown lumps that clearly have non-plant origins. The waiter dismisses my concerns, saying, “Sir, voh kuch nahin…sirf meat hain.” We realize that the same gravy has been used in our preparation. Daddu shrugs his shoulders, we separate the brown thingies and continue eating. Right now, we’d kill for a plateful of cold office maggi.

----------------- 21st March 2004:

Aaah…it’s match day! We get up at 6 a.m. and slip into our war fatigues. The India tees at once make us feel proud and vulnerable. After all, it’s one thing to tell a kind face that you’re from India and another to shout it to all and sundry. Now we know what Bruce Willis felt when he wore that “I hate niggers” signboard in Harlem. But then, caution has never been one of out strong points. We ask the Pakistani hotel manager to take a snap of us holding the Indian flag, and then get going. We’ve heard that this one restaurant makes chole-bhature in the mornings, and we take it as a good omen. As we walk towards the narrow gully where it is situated, we hear some Pakistanis saying: “Dekho – chaude ho kar jaa rahen hain” (“See, they’re flaunting their Indianness!”). We enter the restaurant, and take extremely non-conspicuous seats. The chole-bhature arrives, and it’s worth every once of tension. Jai Hind! We have 2 plates each, and wash it down with some mindboggling tea.
Wonder what people see in non-veg anyway?

We’re the first two people in the queue (it’s 8 a.m.!) and some 3 hours later, we’re the first two people inside the stadium! Our stand is known as the Fazal Mahmood Stand, and it’s one of the best ones there. For some untold reason, the security guys stop the line right after the first 4 guys are in. So for close to 45 minutes, we’re the only 2 Indians in a stadium overflowing with Pakistani policia. What a feeling! A huge empty stadium, 2 Indians in screaming blue tees and some 4000 gun-toting guards! The very air is electrifying, and reality sinks in for the first time. We’re actually in Pakistan, and are about to watch a decisive India-Pakistan battle!

The crowd starts filling up, and we realize that there isn’t any separate enclosure for Indians. We’re a wee bit apprehensive, but the moment is too big to worry about. Seats are numbered, and we’ve got a killer view – high above the ground and at the long off. From where we’ll be sitting, you can see Shoaib Akhtar charging in and Sachin Tendulkar taking guard!

By 12.30 or so itself, our throats are hoarse with cheering and the match is still 2 hours away! Indian fans and Pakistanis are shouting in chorus, running in the aisles with the tricolour and the green crescent held together. You would have never thought that there were any bitter feelings between the two nations. Complete strangers are shaking hands with each other, smiling whole-heartedly and greeting each other like reunited brothers. Inevitably, there are many attention beggars too – this bearded moron keeps saying “Hindustan-Pakistan dosti zindabad!” and does an irritating jig, especially when he feels the camera is on him. To be honest, we’re somewhat weary with the ‘friendship’ theme. It’s one thing to hug a Pakistani and quite another to root for Pakistan. Aakhir mithaas ki bhi had hoti hai. So just as the fraternity feeling is at its peak, the two of us run down the aisle and unfurl our own banner in full glory: “Remember Centurion?” Centurion of course, was the venue of their World Cup debacle; the last time India faced Pakistan and Sachin did the honours. The mood in Gadaffi immediately changes – a sweet, 50 + Pakistani uncle shows us the finger, there’s anger etched on every half-bearded face and loud roars of approval from the Indian contingent. We somehow manage to make it to our seats, unharmed.

A Pakistani family is sitting right behind us, and their daughter is a big India fan! She asks us shyly if she can have our flag, and we’re too awestruck to answer. She drapes the flag over her shoulders and cheers loudly every time an Indian batsman hits a boundary. Wow!

We find two empty seats in a fully-Indian row, and shift base there. Not for security fears but because we’ll be so much louder there. The rows behind us are filled completely with young (and thankfully urban) Pakis and we instantly hit it off. I think I mentioned that Bollywood is a rage here, but we came to know its exact extent only in the stadium. At one stage, India was 94/4 and we were expectedly quiet. In this morose silence, we hear a chuckle and a voice from their camp adds: “Itna sannata kyon hai bhai, Gabbar aa gaya kya?”

Talking about the nice crowd, it would be sacrilegious to not mention the Pakistani women. I think it’s worth patching up with the Pakis just for the chaaaaaaaance of getting to know their femmes. There was this shorthaired fair goddess sitting with the Paki gang we befriended. (Mom, guess this means ‘no’ to that oil-dripping, computer-literate, Carnatic-singing Thiruvananthapuram bahu you would have had in mind!)

Getting back to on-field action, we realize that a hungry belly can’t fuel a yelling throat for long. It’s time to grab a bite. Inside the stadium (with some 3000 Indians), we are confident of finding something vegetarian. But it’s apparent that Pakistani hospitality does not extend in this direction. The stalls are loaded with keema samosas, mutton biryanis, beef rolls, chicken tikkas and other dead bodies. The match will end at around 11p.m. and we’ve been here since 8 in the morning. We pick up a couple of ice-creams, Pepsi & chips and return to our seats.

The match is tense, gripping, and the atmosphere is awesome. There’s a Mexican wave going, and it’s a crazy feeling to be part of something that travels so fast. Just as we’re suitably awed (and tired), an anonymous pioneer starts a whistle wave. Imagine 4000 people in one enclosure all whistling at once…and then the adjacent 4000 pick it up and so on – till you can actually ‘feel’ the sound moving from stand to stand! Good respite for the larynx too!

The target is 293, and we’re watching each ball with bated breath. Every time we’ve loudly cheered a batsman, a wicket has fallen. We decide to “shut the f#*k up” till we’re within sniffing (or is it biting?) distance of the mammoth Pakistani total. The friendly Pakis are very sporty - they’re now singing “dil ke armaan aasuon mein beh gaye! We ignore them and vow that if (and inshallah when!) we win, we’ll give it back. But that time seems a lifetime away.

Finally!!! India’s last recognized pair (Dravid & Kaif!) are still batting, and the score is 260/5. Just 34 more to get, a million balls remaining and 5 wickets in hand! Now where are those Pakis? We get up and with a roar, ask: “Itna sannata kyon hai bhai, Gabbar aa gaya kya?” There’s no answer. A few balls later, the home crowd starts trickling away. Our hands are blood red, but only a traitor won’t be clapping.

We’ve won! Daddu hugs me like he’s seeing me after 14 years, and we turn around to do a bit of our own singing. Facing 8000 shattered Pakis, we begin “Saare jahan se achcha…” and the other Indians join us. Nothing on Earth can compare to bellowing your national song in the face of countless Pakis right after India has defeated Pakistan in Pakistan (I’m sure we must have pissed off many security guards – thank god they didn’t have itchy fingers!). In fact, fresh goosebumps are appearing as I’m typing this.

We leave the stadium, hugging every man in blue. An innovative Sardarji whisks out a dhol from nowhere, and there’s bhangra happening on the streets of Lahore! We join in the frenzy and after many more hugs, find ourselves at our hotel. We change and head towards a fairly ‘western’ joint for dinner. With a completely useless look at the menu, we request the Manager to make us plain cheese pizzas. He agrees, and we have a feast. Of course, there’s cold coffee to wash it down.

----------------- 22nd March 2004:

 We wake up tired, but happily so. We came, we saw, we conquered! And now it’s time to go home. We ask our waiter to get us an English Paki newspaper – we’re damn eager to see the headlines, and pose for a snap with the paper (sort of like the hostage videos!). Our waiter does the needful, and as he’s pouring us the tea, asks us whether we have a spare India tee. He wants to wear one, and he says that guys in his village are big India fans! Well, what can one say? We give him both of ours. We were planning to keep them as happy mementos, but there’s no way to look at our waiter in the eye and refuse. His love is real.

We hire a cab to Faletti Hotel (buses for Wagah leave from there!) and cross our fingers. You see, our visas expire today and so we have to get out of Pakistan, no matter what. Do or die, as Gandhi said. The only hitch is that no buses leave for India today, and our visas strictly require us to use the same mode of transport back. If you came by bus, you gotta go by bus! We decide to take a chance at Wagah, and see if they’re allowing visitors to cross the border by foot. After all, we have nothing to lose except our freedom.

Bismillah ur rehman ur rahim – they’re allowing cricket-visa holders to walk the Wagah! We shove our passports for processing, and are asked to produce our Visa papers (a funny sheet filled in quadruplicate; a copy each must be submitted at Immigration/Emigration).
Problem is, we’ve left ours at the hotel.

We beg and plead with the officials. Tell them that we’ve had a wonderful trip and are carrying back fond memories of Pakistan. That they can tally their records with the visa stamp on our passports. Nothing moves them. Rules are rules, they say. We try to look as innocent and pathetic as possible, neither of which comes naturally to us.

A guard asks one of us to step inside. There are 5 of us – 3 of our pals from Aaj Tak too. He empathizes with us, and says that our hotel is at least 30 kms from the border. In order to save us the inconvenience of going back and getting the Visa papers, this kind soul is willing to accept ‘cab charges’, a mere Rs. 1000/- in all. We bargain, claim we are broke students and offer Rs. 500/-. The deal is struck for Rs. 600/-. People are the same on either side of the border.

Wow! We’re actually walking the Wagah. Even the phrase has a nice ring to it. This is something not allowed normally, and we’re thrilled to be a part of history. The road is wide, clean and lined with Pakistani Rangers. They’re dressed in all-black, with a comforting slogan on the back: 'No Fear’. They glare at us, till we ask them to pose for a snap. Then on, it’s all smiles and “hope you come again!”

 We stand on ‘No Man’s Land’ – a small area that belongs neither to India or Pakistan and faces both gates. It’s unbelievable how an extremely undistinguished stretch of tar can make your spine tingle with joy, and the hairs on the back of the neck jump.

We walk another 5ft. and are back on Indian soil. Phew! A wonderful trip aside, there’s no equivalent to having your feet (and the rest of you) firmly planted in India. We can pee on the countryside (and Daddu can blow his horn) and no one will say anything. There’s truly no place like home.

Ignoring shouts of “chilled beer!” from the roadside dhabas (they’re aware that Pakistan is officially as dry as an unopened diaper!), we hire a taxi to Amritsar station. The two of us have seats on the Shatabdi Express to Delhi. We reach Amritsar early and visit the Golden Temple, which is humbling. Then it’s back to the station to catch the train.

All good things must come to an end. Euphoria bursts as we near Delhi – it’s around 11 p.m. and my dogged Horlicks Client Servicing guy has called. He wants to know if I’m back, as there work waiting at the studio next morning.

----------------- Final thoughts:

So how was it, should a low-IQ reader finally ask? Apart from all that is written above, there is much more. Innumerable stories of warmth, touching hospitality and little bits that mean a lot. Like the dhabawallah in Liberty Market, who vehemently refused payment for our dinner. The strangers who gave us a lift till Gadaffi Stadium, saying that “how can our guests walk till there?” The unknown man-in-the-stadium-queue, who paid for our Pepsis while we waited for the gates to open. The bookstore that gave me a 30% discount after learning that we were Indians. The waiter who said, “Inshallah – kal aapki team jeete, aap itne door se khas dekhne aaye ho!” Our Paki pals in the stadium, who roughed up other Pakis (as these guys were unwilling to vacate our seats saying “no one’s sitting according to the seat numbers”). The list is really endless.

The match aside, the best thing about the ‘Bus to Pakistan’ has been a shattering of perceptions. If die-hard Paki haters like me and Daddu can change, it should be easier for others. Some 50 years ago, a huge mistake was made. Only a fool would continue to propagate it.

Peace, love, empathy
Ram Cobain
Gaurav Dudeja


Tequila said...

Ram - this is so well written. i could see the stadium, the waiter, that shorthaired girl ...all so vividly.

ram cobain said...

heya aks

i hope you can see the beer and the tequila shot vividly too!


peace, love, empathy