The train from Pakistan

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Exactly 68 years ago, Attari saw trains arriving and departing with mutilated corpses. Today, the station is deserted. But the Agreement Express, run for half a year each by India and Pakistan, connects two regions shorn by a line.

“Attari station,” assistant station master Roop proudly tells me, “is the only international railway station in the country.”

He goes on, “I realised I had been posted in an important station when my teacher (at the railway training institute) at Chandausi called me to find out how Attari was different from other stations. Imagine a teacher wanting to know that from a student.”

International railway station: the description would bring to mind images of a busy station, but at 7.30 pm on a Wednesday, Attari station is deserted. Not a soul in sight, except for the occasional pair of rifle-carrying guards from the Punjab Railway Police, wearing black-and-red turbans, walking past. Then there is Roop, the assistant station master on duty, sitting in an office that dates back to 1862 and surrounded by equally ancient communication devices whose functions are known only to railwaymen.

“You see the ceiling?” he points upwards, “I just got it renovated. It was about to fall.”

Attari is the last station on Indian soil before Pakistani territory begins. Wagah station, barely 2 km away, lies in Pakistan. Lahore is only 24 km away, whereas Delhi is 472 km. So we are almost in Pakistan: had Sir Cyril Radcliffe’s pen moved slightly eastwards on this spot, we would have actually been in Pakistan.

A thin line between ‘almost’ and ‘actually’ — that’s the >Radcliffe Line.

Time heals everything. Exactly sixty-eight years ago, Attari saw trains arriving and departing with mutilated corpses. Today it is deserted. A train still runs between India and Pakistan, twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays. It runs between Delhi and Lahore and stops at Attari and Wagah for immigration clearances.

 

For six months, the train is run by India, the following six months it is run by Pakistan, but it bears the same name: Samjhauta Express, or Agreement Express. The Agreement Express began running in 1975 — one of the outcomes of the Simla Agreement signed by Indira Gandhi and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1972.

Roop gets busy on his phone, searching for a video on You Tube that underscores his importance in the giant machinery called Indian Railways: a BBC documentary on the Samjhauta Express. He finally traces the video and hands over his phone for me to watch.

“So tomorrow is Thursday, what time is the train from Pakistan scheduled to arrive?” I ask him.

“It usually comes around noon.”

“If I come at noon, can I watch the train coming in?”

“Yes, you can. But I won’t be here, you will meet my senior, Mr S.S. Madan. He is on the verge of retirement and knows a lot more about the history of the station than I do.”

*

Thursday noon: the sun is merciless. The 'international' railway station, wears a deserted look even now. No waiting passengers, no hurrying porters, no shouting vendors.

On Platform No. 1, a lone emaciated dog is sleeping under a bench. Platform No. 2 — separated from No. 1 by two railway tracks and a wire-mesh wall — is equally empty, save the occasional gun-toting sentry strolling its length. The building on that platform is fairly new, with large glass panels, but the glass is tinted and one doesn’t know what’s going on inside — it is the immigration hall.

On Platform No. 1, I walk into the ancient office where I had meet Roop the evening before and introduce myself to Mr Madan who is now occupying that chair. But he is too busy to talk to me.

“The train will be coming any moment now. Please come back at 2 o’ clock,” he tells me.

“Can I watch the train coming in?”

“But it will come on Platform No. 2, you are not allowed to go there.”

“Can’t I watch it from here?”

“That you can.”

It’s not only very hot, but also very humid, but the wait is worth it because it is not every day that someone who has read Train to Pakistan also gets to watch a train from Pakistan.

As I wait in a shaded corner of the platform, very close to the yellow slab that identifies the station in three languages — Gurmukhi, Hindi and English — I am asked, from time to time, by policemen, uniformed as well as those in plainclothes, who I was and what I was doing there.

I want to tell them that I am waiting to watch the train, but they won’t believe me because no sane man will get drenched in sweat just to watch a train. So I tell them I have an appointment with the station superintendent, which is equally true.

 

Soon I get talking to a friendly plainclothes officer, with a blue turban — he says he is from the intelligence department of the police. He tells me that arrival of trains from Pakistan are largely eventless affairs, because people who take the train are most poor people visiting their relatives in India. They invariably come from Sind and the Pakistan side of Punjab, and are headed to cities and villages in Indian Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, apart from Delhi. It is the sole responsibility of their hosts in India to ensure that they do not stay on, or stray from the city they are meant to visit, and that they take the train back to Pakistan before their visa expires.

Even as we talk, a sunburned man with a yellow turban hesitantly approaches the officer. His name is Dalbir Singh, and he has driven all the way from Majitha, 50 km away, to receive his maasi da munda — aunt’s son — and his wife. They are on the train that should be pulling in at Attari any moment now. He wants to know from the officer whether they will be detraining in Attari or in Delhi. The officer says he has no idea, it all depends on the destination printed on their visa; there have been occasions, he says, when passengers meant to detrain at Attari have had to travel all the way to Delhi and then come back to Attari. The 50-year-old Dalbir Singh, who is going to meet his cousin for the first time, has no choice but to wait. It has taken him a year of paperwork and repeated police verifications to facilitate the travel.

The train comes into view, moving very slowly. As if inch by inch. “Now all the passengers will be thoroughly checked, by all the agencies, including intelligence,” says the officer, as he prepares to cross over to Platform No. 2 by going around the wire-mesh wall.

“Can I come with you?”

“Of course not.”

Dalbir Singh, looking nervous, waits with me. The train pulls in. It’s an Indian train. The train’s signboard identifies it as Samjhouta Express (and not Samjhauta Express), perhaps in keeping with the local pronunciation. The first half of the train is made up of goods wagons and the second half, passenger coaches.

Not many passengers are in the train, perhaps some 100, many of them women and girls. They nervously look out of the window, their faces not showing any of the joy associated with train travel. Perhaps they know that even though their journey has just ended, another journey has just begun, a long and tedious one: immigration clearance.

The arrival of the train from Pakistan has quickened the pace of the turbaned railway police guards. One of them, a tall, menacing Sikh, asks me impatiently, “Who are you? What are you doing here?”

I tell him I am waiting to meet the station superintendent.

“Then wait in his room, not on the platform!” he snaps at me.

The station superintendent is busier than before. “Sorry, I am going to take much longer.”

I decide to leave. It’s way too hot to hang around. I feel sorry for Dalbir Singh, who has no choice but to wait. We shake hands: the wait — mine for the train and his for his relatives — had made us acquaintances.

*

For lunch I stop at Sarhad — ‘the food and culture park’ — which is close to the Attari station and which sits on the Grand Trunk Road, barely a kilometre ahead of the India-Pakistan border, popularly known as the ‘Wagah border’. A mural in the forecourt depicts the horrors of Partition, while a part of the handsome red-brick building serves as an ethnic wear boutique for women: “Exclusive Pakistani dresses only at Sarhad.”

 

Sarhad, the Urdu word for border, is the brainchild of Damanbir Singh Jaspal, a retired IAS officer — a distinguished-looking Sikh gentleman, who happens to be having lunch at the restaurant when I walk in. I decide not to disturb him while he is eating and order my lunch — a Lahori thhaali.

“I have an emotional connection with Lahore,” Jaspal tells me when I meet him later, “my father was born there, he studied at the Government College there, and so had my grandfather.”

And so to assert to the world that Lahore and Amritsar are, culturally, one and the same — and that a Punjabi is always a Punjabi, no matter which side of Radcliffe Line he lives in — he built Sarhad two years ago to celebrate the common culinary heritage of the two cities. Most of the spices used in Sarhad’s kitchen come from Lahore.

“We are closer to Lahore than to Amritsar,” says Jaspal, “Lahore is barely 22 km from here, whereas Amritsar is about 40 km away.”

Lahore, for him, is closer sentimentally too. After all, it is his — to borrow an expression often used in Tamil Nadu — “native place”. That the city happens to be in Pakistan is a mere technicality.

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