Uneasy Neighbours and a Near-Empty Coach

On the Friendship Bus between Amritsar and Lahore, there is still plenty of room to stretch out

01 August 2010
Lowering respective flags during the daily ‘Beating the Retreat’ ceremony at Wagah.

I FIRST LAID EYES ON PAKISTAN in 2005. I had come to Amritsar to see the Golden Temple and, on a whim, decided to hop in a cramped share jeep and head to the village of Attari, the westernmost settlement along India’s share of the 2,500-kilometre Grand Trunk (GT) Road. By the time I arrived, the sun was dropping quickly towards the horizon and the only motorable crossing point along the Indo-Pak border was about to shut for the day. The jeep dropped us off about 100 metres from the border and we walked briskly along the barbed wire-lined road towards Pakistan. None of us were planning to cross to the other side, though; we’d come for the lowering of the flags, the famous border closing ceremony that had become a cash cow for Amritsar’s taxi drivers.

Our little group was halted along with hundreds of other spectators at a large gate. Khaki-clad officials made a symbolic attempt at crowd control, barely able to corral the hyped-up masses into an amphitheatre-like arrangement of seats. I found a spot to stand, along the side of the seating area from where I caught occasional glimpses of the proceedings when my view was not obscured by the heads of three towering Scandinavians. I spent the next 45 minutes listening to aggressive shouts and grunts being exchanged by border guards, occasionally getting up on my tiptoes for views of the soldiers’ high kicking legs and the bobbing plumage of their headdresses. Finally, two sets of massive steel gates running along the Radcliffe Line were slammed shut, creating a seal between the Indian and Pakistani halves of a divided Punjab, one often referred to as the Berlin Wall of South Asia.

NEARLY FIVE YEARS HAD PASSED before my next visit to Attari. India and Pakistan were now sexagenarians and India had put a hold on peace talks with their western neighbour since the terrorist attacks on Mumbai. Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram has made one subsequent visit to Pakistan this June, the first by an Indian official since 26/11, and one of the issues brought up besides shared 26/11 intelligence was easier access to visas for Indians and Pakistanis. Being granted a visa still involves many hurdles on both sides of the border—for me, an American, the hassle was mostly bureaucratic—and for now, the easiest option for Punjabis to cross their partitioned land is still the ‘Friendship Bus.’

Margot Bigg  is an independent journalist who writes on travel, culture and the arts for publications in India and abroad.

Keywords: Pakistan Margot Bigg Mumbai attacks P Chidambaram Golden Temple Indo-Pak border Radcliffe line Wagah ceremony Punj-Aab Express attari