Bus diplomacy


... at the Wagah border.

... at the Wagah border.  

It's tough to be looking forward to something at four in the morning (three-fifteen if you go by the time the telephonic wake-up call came), so going to Lahore by bus didn't seem such a good idea after all. That's why we drooped (rather than trooped) in to the Ambedkar Terminal (near Delhi Gate, just behind the football stadium), from where the bus was scheduled to leave two hours hence, in the interim going through ticket check-ins and security check-outs. The bus operators, poor fellows, really thought they were running the departure lounge at an international airport. All because our bus had a pilot!

* * *

CONSTABLE Mohan tried to brighten our day. As we sipped a (courtesy) cup of tea in the post-security, pre-boarding lounge, he was like Harsha Bhogle, beaming a smile which read "weren't we lucky to be at the show". Obviously, an avid believer in the merits and culture of "India Shining", he highlighted the various facilities that were extended to us at the terminal. Pausing to swat at an uninvited mosquito or two, he delivered his punch line: "udhar kuchch nahin milega". (In his own way he was right, we didn't get any tea on our return trip but then neither did we get any mosquitoes or any of the other needless facilities. Boarding in Lahore was the simple thing of boarding a bus from a bus station!)

But credit where credit's due. The bus, a maroon and silver Pakistan Tourism vehicle, driven by a Pakistani, left precisely at six. It was not just packed to capacity but overbooked.

Thirteen late-bookers sat on tiny chairs, fitted in at the back and all along the aisle, right up to the driver's seat.

Apparently, this is a regular occurrence in this four-trip a week service (two buses run by DTC and two by Pakistan Tourism). With officials in both countries showing a heartening openness, all efforts are made to accommodate as many people as possible. These extra seats are the norm when the number of extra passengers doesn't warrant a second bus. (In fact, on our way back, the bus we were to travel in was changed at the last minute to the one that could accommodate extra seats because Delhi called to say they had extra passengers for the return trip.)

All traffic was stopped as the bus turned right from the terminal, hit Rajghat and then turned northwards, towards Amritsar and from there to Lahore.

Local and highway traffic was no problem: the bus had a police escort to clear the way for it all the 500-odd km to Lahore. Every time we entered a new State or district, the escort vehicle changed. So there we were on our way, comfortably ensconced in cushioned, reclining seats, as our bus followed a path cleared for it by a pilot vehicle, a Delhi Police "Maruti Gypsy", flashing its lights and with its siren on.

From the few hours we experienced this sensation, we could understand why all our politicians and bureaucrats love having a police escort and clamour for `Z'-level security. It's a sense of power like nothing else.

THE bus raced on, crossing Delhi's Singhu border into Haryana, then past Sonipat, Panipat, Karnal, Ambala and into Punjab, past Sirhind, Khanna, Ludhiana, across the Sutlej, Phagwara (of JCT fame) Jalandhar, finally turning off to the Wagah border, just about 30 km south-west of Amritsar. A movie was screened, "Munna Bhai, MBBS", which, even with my discman turned on full, was hard to ignore. (To be honest, it wasn't too bad, though being force-fed it a second time on the return was a bit hard to digest.) Outside, the scenery reflected the prosperity of this region. Almost all along the highway, there were small towns and settlements. Agricultural land and fields were seen less often than recreational parks, glitzy farm houses to host parties and fancy schools (one charmingly named Divine Public School).

There were scheduled stops for breakfast and lunch, at dreary government-run motels, each one sanitised by security. (Little wonder the food was so bland.) And unscheduled ones, too, when the best efforts of our escort couldn't clear the way.

Most times, a well-aimed blow with a lathi, either by a policeman on the pilot vehicle or a traffic constable on the road, would get the erring vehicle out of the way. But, when in the cacophony of sirens and horns, just past Ludhiana, a donkey dragging a heavy cartload, just froze, there was nothing to do but wait.

The traffic bandobast seemed quite elaborate and it amazed us that this was done four times a week up and four times a week down. It required so much manpower, all along the 500-odd km route. At every intersection, in every town, there was a traffic policeman or two, waving us on. Why couldn't the bus simply run from Amritsar to Lahore, a distance of just barely 50 km, which could be completely sealed security-wise, at much less cost? Wasn't it too high a price for the symbolism of Delhi to Lahore?

We got to know why much later and it lay in the deep mistrust the two States — not the people, we could definitely say after our experience — have of each other. Visas issued to visiting citizens are city-specific. And Pakistani citizens are not issued visas for any town/city in Punjab.

This has been the rule ever since the insurgency in the State in the 1980s, which the Indian government believes was backed by the Pakistanis. (Since we went on a cricketing visa, we were spared of the ordeal of reporting to the city's police station. But all visitors otherwise, to both countries, have to do so.

In fact, visas given at the border are valid only for 24 hours and it is the city police which issue the permit for longer stays.)

It was about three in afternoon, and we were quite surprised and still very fresh, when the bus rolled into India's immigration and customs post at Attari road.

About half a mile west was the Pakistani counterpart, called Wagah checkpoint. (The road crossing is popularly known as the Wagah border, the train crossing as Attari.) We were looking forward to reaching Lahore in a couple of hours but crossing that little stretch had many obstacles. It took more than four hours and it was past seven (we had put back our clocks by half an hour) by the time we boarded the bus inside Pakistan, ready to cover the 23 kilometres to Lahore.

Shortly after crossing Wagah town, the bus took a road running alongside a canal. In the light of dusk, we were deprived of seeing this seemingly beautiful approach into Lahore but before we could brood about it, we were in the thick of city traffic. Our destination was Faletti's hotel, almost in the heart of Lahore city.

Constable Mohan's words were very much on our minds as we got down. Faletti's is a typical colonial structure built in the 1880s and once Lahore's pride. But he was a false prophet.

COLLECTING our bags and organising a taxi to our hotel didn't take too long. Somehow, the impression we had about Lahore was that it was a town but how wrong we were. The 15-odd minutes it took us to reach our hotel were spent goggling at the wide boulevards, neon-lit buildings, shops and department stores (including "Pace", owned by Imran Khan), all abuzz with activity. As we were to learn, Lahore wakes up at night and stays up till dawn.

A quick check in and we were out, lured by the lights and feasts of Lahori food. But we got a bigger treat as we wandered around the liberty shopping complex. "Ax-cuse me," a pretty face popped up in front of us.

"Are you from India?" I nodded, wondering what she wanted. Another girl joined her. They were 20, perhaps younger, smart, and well-dressed. Both beamed at us. As we stood waiting, the first girl continued. "Lahore welcomes you," she said. "I welcome you, my parents welcome you, my grandparents welcome you, my uncles and aunts welcome you .... " on and on, gushing with unashamed warmth. Suddenly, getting to the Ambedkar Terminal at four in the morning didn't seem to matter.

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