When I went across the border with Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee in 1999…
It was billed as a historic visit. Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee would board a bus and ride across the Wagah border into the welcoming arms of Pakistan’s Wazir-e-Azam, Mian Nawaz Sharif. After years of tension over Kashmir, the Pokhran blasts and Pakistan’s nuclear explosions in the Chagai Hills, the two Premiers would meet in an atmosphere of amity and try and resolve some of the differences between the two countries.
Documenting this unique event would be a nearly 200-strong contingent of Indian media. The hacks would be flown to Lahore a day in advance in a chartered Indian Airlines flight. And I was going to be on that plane.
Preparing for Pakistan
My first stop is the Pakistani High Commission in Delhi. Armed with a visa form, duly filled in, my passport and Rs 15, I arrive to apply for a visa.
The huge iron gates are closed but there is a small window open, behind which sits the receptionist. I try to attract his attention but he is busy on the phone. “Mufti Saab, eh tussi ki kar rahe ho?” he says in Punjabi. “Mere te saare pass mukk gaye ne, aur eh journalist te aye jaande ne.” (Mufti Saab, what are you doing? All my passes are over and these journalists keep coming.)
I can’t hear Mufti Saab’s response but clearly it doesn’t serve the purpose as the receptionist gets even more agitated. “Te hun main ki karein? Bina pass de bhej dayan?” (What do I do now? Send them in without a pass?)
As this altercation continues, I can’t help but smile. I’m nowhere near Lahore, but I am beginning to feel at home in Pakistan already.
Perhaps an explanation is in order here. I am a Punjabi, whose family came from Jhelum (a mere two hours ride away from Lahore, as I am to discover subsequently). Punjabi is the first language I ever spoke and any country that converses in my tongue can’t be half-bad, I think.
Off to Lahore
When I check in at the airport, I find groups of journalists huddled around, deep in conversation. But only a few of them are discussing the political ramifications of the visit. The rest are talking about what they can buy in Pakistan, and where they can buy it from.
Sadia Dehlvi is, therefore, much in demand. Not because she is a shopaholic but because, being married to a Pakistani, she knows Lahore well. But Sadia’s presence in our party is significant for another reason as well. She lives in India with her young son, while her husband is based in Karachi. About four years ago, when she arrived in Pakistan with her baby son, she was sent back to India from the airport itself.
Wild accusations of her being some sort of spy were flung around – though never officially – and ever since she has not been given a visa by the Pakistani authorities. Her husband visits her in India and is allowed to stay for a couple of months at a time, but Sadia has always been persona non grata in Pakistan.
This is the first time she has got a visa to visit Pakistan – and then only because she is part of the media delegation accompanying A.B. Vajpayee. So, there is already one positive fall-out of this visit, whatever the next few days bring.
A 40-minute flight brings us to Lahore. We land at the Haj Terminal, where special counters have been set up for us to clear immigration and customs. As we ride to the Avari Hotel, where the media party is staying, Lahore looks incredibly clean and antiseptic. But this, we are told, is the cantonment area; the old city is quite different.
A quick change into a churidar-kurta to blend in and I head down to join the press party. We are going to be bussed to Anarkali Bazar, chaperoned by two Pakistani volunteers.
We reach Anarkali and disembark. But before we can advance even a couple of yards, we are stopped by a police jeep. When they find out that we are Indian journalists, they say we cannot venture into the market without a police escort. The Jamaat-e-Islami has called for an agitation against Vajpayee’s visit and they can’t take responsibility for our safety if we venture forth on our own.
Disconsolate, we turn back. But I am not ready to give up just yet. I rustle up three other members of our party and we head out on our own.
Just outside the hotel, there are a couple of hefty Pathan suit-clad types hanging around. Could they be Pakistani intelligence officers, keeping an eye on our party? No, we are probably being paranoid.
We walk up to them and Ashwini Kumar, editor of Punjab Kesri, asks if they can direct us to Anarkali. This is the equivalent of asking someone in Khan Market to direct us to Lodhi Gardens. But the men look around vaguely and mutter something about being new to the city.
As we look around for a cab, we find the men following us at a safe distance. This is like something out of John Le Carre novel and we are beginning to enjoy ourselves immensely. We hop on to the cab and direct the cab to Anarkali.
In the manner of journalists all over the world, we begin pumping the taxi driver for information. Both Ashwini and I speak Punjabi so the conversation goes pretty well. Is there is a good reaction to Vajpayee’s visit, we ask. “Eh te sab theek hai pur jad tain Kashmir da masla hal nahi honda, kuch nai ho sakda.” (This is all very well, but until you solve the Kashmir issue nothing can happen.)
We ask him to drop us at Anarkali. But he demurs. There are many demonstrations today. Maybe we should wait till tomorrow. We are willing to risk it, we say. After all, we look like locals and speak the language. But one member of our party is looking frightened out of his wits, so we take pity on him and decide to turn back.
At the hotel, we ask the cabbie how much the ride came to. I sit back, waiting for him to say that it is free; that’s the least he can do for visitors from across the border. Isn’t that the stuff of that famed Pakistani hospitality?
But no, he asks for Rs 500. Given that the ride would have come to about a 100 rupees, we are appalled, but manage to haggle him down to Rs 200.
Clearly, even 50 years after Partition, in some ways India and Pakistan are very alike indeed.
The highlight of the evening is a reception hosted by the Indian High Commissioner to Islamabad, G. Parthasarthy. Here, I meet Taimur Bandey, a young Pakistani who is putting a programme together for PTV World. He has been to India recently, where he saw the Delhi Test match between India and Pakistan and heard Abida Parveen sing at Madhu Trehan’s place, so we have a lot to talk about.
I ask him what he makes of the Jamaat-e-Islami agitation that is threatening to shut down Lahore. Taimur dismisses it as one of those things. Just as we have our Bal Thackerays on this side of the border, they have their Jamaat-e-Islamis.
A few of us leave early, as we have been invited to dinner by Iqbal Z. Ahmed, a prominent Pakistani businessman. I ask Taimur if he would like to join us, and soon a party of five Indian journalists and one local is making its way to Ahmed’s residence.
We settle down with our glasses of freshly-squeezed orange and carrot juice and small talk ensues. What does Mr Ahmed, who has been close to both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, make of this visit?
Ahmed is cautiously optimistic. But he believes trade is the key to normalizing relationships. “We have so many power plants that have been closed down because there is not enough demand in the country. And yet, across the border in Punjab, there is a shortage of electricity. So, why can’t we have an agreement to supply power to India?”
So far, so good. But then, that familiar bugbear of Kashmir raises its head again. Ahmed’s father, a venerable old man who spends several months of the year with his Indian friends in Delhi, says that the Kashmir problem will have to be solved before relations can improve.
But, says one member of our party, what the Kashmiris want is independence. What does that have to do with Pakistan? And in any case, how can any solution come about as long as the ISI continues to train terrorists and send them across the border?
That is enough to set Ashwini off. He begins to tell our Pakistani hosts that two generations of his family have been wiped out by the ISI. Kumar’s father, Ramesh Chander, and grandfather, Lala Jagat Narain, had been assassinated by Punjab militants at the height of the Khalistan agitation. And, says Ashwini, given that these militants had been trained by the ISI, the latter is wholly responsible for his loss.
Ahmed is beginning to look a little uncomfortable but Ashwini is not through yet. “And what is all this nonsense about Kashmir?” he asks. “We are in control and we will not give it up. In fact, I write in my paper (an Urdu publication that sells in the Valley) every day that Kashmir is ours.”
This is too much for Ahmed. “Par aap aisa kyon likhte hain? (Why do you write like that?)” he asks, in anguished tones. Before Ashwini can drop another brick, one of us intercedes with a question about Bibi’s (Benazir Bhutto) prospects and Ahmed thankfully turns away from his guest from hell.
But Ashwini is not done for the night. As dinner is served, he corners Mrs Ahmed, whose mother is from Jalandhar. “Aap to hamare taraf ke ho, (You are from our side),” he begins, as the lady smiles uncertainly in response. “Aap Ramayan to jaante honge (You must know about the Ramayan)?”
“Haan, naam to sunaa hai (Yes, I have heard the name),” says Mrs Ahmed. That is encouragement enough for Ashwini to begin reciting chaupais (couplets) from the Ramayan to her. The lady doesn’t know quite what to make of this; and nor, for that matter, do we. Thankfully, by then dessert has been served and we can wrestle Ashwini into the car and back to the hotel.
On the way, Taimur suggests that we drop by at Café Zouk, a trendy nightspot where the yuppies of Lahore drop in for dinner or a late-night cappuccino. We are game, needing to wind down after Ashwini’s little dinner performance.
Café Zouk may be in Lahore, but it wouldn’t be out of place in Manhattan. The walls are painted an interesting orange, there are zebra-striped sofas and steel frame chairs, and completing the New York ambience is the presence of several PYTs. The only incongruous touch is the loud Hindi film music blaring from the sound system.
The girls are in regulation black – all in Western clothes – and made up to the nines, while the boys all look like Imran Khan in his younger days, with their figure-hugging T-shirts.
Who would have thought that I would feel out of place in a salwar kameez in the heart of Lahore?
In Tourist Land
Early next morning we set off to do the rounds of the tourist spots. First on the list is Gurudwara Dera Saheb, the historic spot where Guru Arjun Dev was martyred. There is a huge police presence outside; the site has to be sanitized as Vajpayee will be dropping in later.
The gurudwara is about two centuries old and history drips from its very patina. But despite its age, it is incredibly well maintained by its small, in-residence staff. The granthi (priest) hurries out to greet us and does an ardaas (special prayer) for us. He then opens the Guru Granth Sahib and takes a hukum (that is, reads out a verse at random, which is taken as a message from God).
I ask him if a lot of people come to the gurudwara for prayers. No, he says, there are no Sikh families in Lahore; he himself is from a 100-strong Sikh community in Peshawar. But people do come from across the border on occasion. Nonetheless, he and his wife do kirtan every day – even if there is no one to listen to them – and keep a langar in readiness for any visitor.
Next stop is the Samadhi of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. This borders the Lahore Fort, which houses the Shahi Kila, the Badshahi Masjid and the poet Iqbal’s maqbara.
On the way back, we decide to stop at Urdu Bazar, near Anarkali, where Ashwini’s old house is situated. Given that this building houses the first Congress Party office in Lahore, the rest of us are easy to visit it too.
But as our car turns in that general direction, there is a sudden commotion in the streets. A 40-strong group of young men in white Pathani suits – presumably from the Jamaat-e-Islami – is advancing rapidly towards us, throwing stones at a five-strong contingent of police. Our driver shows considerable presence of mind and reverses before our windscreen is shattered and drives away at breakneck space.
We are all badly shaken. But we comfort ourselves with the thought that these are, probably, just guns for hire. After all, we have them in India too, don’t we?
Wagah, At Last
We are in our positions a couple of hours before Vajpayee’s scheduled arrival. Just when the ennui is getting unbearable, the bus finally trundles across the border. Vajpayee waves at the waiting crowd as do the other celebrities – Dev Anand, Javed Akhtar, Shatrughan Sinha, Kapil Dev, Mallika Sarabhai, to name only a few – accompanying him on the bus.
The PM alights and is greeted by Nawaz Sharif. The two men hug and the photographers go mad. The reporters exhort them to say a few words but they prefer to just smile instead.
This silence is obviously too much for Dev Anand to bear. So, he bounds across, elbows the Prime Ministers aside, and proceeds to hold his own press conference. His noises about this being a ‘historic occasion’ are interrupted by a Pakistani photographer who shouts, “Aap ki Des Pardes bahut achchi lagi (Loved your movie, Des Pardes).”
Dev extends his arm and wags a finger. “Aap ne kahan dekhi? (Where did you see it?)” The reply comes fast: on the video (which is how most Pakistanis watch Hindi movies).
By then Vajpayee and Sharif have moved on – refusing, probably, to be upstaged by a mere actor – but Anand continues to hold the fort for a little longer. A foreign correspondent is later heard to enquire if he is a comedian; which says it all about Anand’s little roadshow.
Ten minutes later, Vajpayee examines a guard of honour, as members of his delegation, his foster daughter, Namita Kaul Bhattacharya, her husband Ranjan and their daughter, Niharika, and about 500 reporters and photographers look on. He then boards a helicopter to make the short journey to Lahore.
As we ride back to our hotel, we are driven past a small contingent of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) demonstrators who are holding up placards advocating independence for Kashmir. But since Vajpayee is doing this bit by helicopter, he doesn’t have to face this.
But there is worst in store for our Prime Minister. The banquet held in his honour at Lahore Fort has to be delayed because Jamaat-e-Islami agitators are holding a demonstration in that area. They manage to stone the cars of various ambassadors who are attending the function and tear gas has to be used before they disperse.
That evening, all the press corps can talk about is whether this demonstration shows that the Pakistani government lacks the will to deal with the Jamaat-e-Islami. Or is the administration just incompetent rather than misguided? The jury is still out when we retire for the night.
A Whiff of Nostalgia
Minar-e-Pakistan is first on the agenda the next day. Prime Minister Vajpayee is scheduled to visit. But this is more a symbolic gesture (and a photo-opportunity) than anything else and after signing the visitor’s book the PM flies off in a chopper.
We have rather more important business to conduct. We are going to resume our abortive search for Ashwini’s ancestral home. We pile into two cars along with our three Pakistani escorts, Bibi Gul, Bilaal Malik, and a pretty young fashion designer called Maleeha.
After a few false starts, we finally trace the Gyan Vyapi Mandir which Ashwini’s uncle has given to him as a landmark. Of course, this has long since ceased to be a mandir. Various families have taken it over and the room where the shrine was located has been converted into a godown.
Tracing our way back from there – and with some help from the locals – we finally find the house. As we walk in, Ashwini is beside himself with excitement, rushing from room to room as he tries to recreate the image of his family home as it must have existed half a century ago.
Then the hunt begins for the Sheetla mandir. My mother, who lived in Lahore as a young girl, used to worship there and has told me many stories about it. We ask around and are finally led to a small gate, which apparently leads to the mandir. The statue of a lion on the gate – though in a state of disrepair – is enough to convince me that we are in the right place.
We enter the gate and step into a rabbit warren of small rooms, in a dilapidated condition and overrun by dozens of children. One man steps forth and offers to lead me to the shrine, stopping only to point to faded sign on which is written – in both Hindi and Urdu – ‘Sheetla Ma ka Mandir’.
My guide takes me into a little room where a young woman is making tea on a stove and asks if I can be led inside. She has no objection and so I enter her house and am led to the little alcove where the murti used to be kept. This alcove, where Ma Sheetla’s idol was once placed, is now used to store suitcases and other household stuff of the family.
My guide informs me that this room has been partitioned since then and the other side of the wall has the little iron grill through which devotees would give their offerings. He takes me across to this room, which belongs to his own family.
The Sheetla Mandir complex, it turns out, has been taken over by refugee families from across the border who settled down here and made it their home. My guide and his wife are from Mewar in Rajasthan and came to Lahore after Partition. His wife insists that I have a cup of tea before I go but I am in a bit of hurry and have to refuse. As I leave, several young girls, ranging in age between four and 14, run behind me and tug on my dupatta. When I turn around, they shyly hold out their hands to be shaken.
I am touched. This is the first sign of genuine affection that I have been shown since arriving in Pakistan. And somehow it seems fitting that it should come from people who came from across the border.
Highs and Lows
Vajpayee’s finest hour comes at the civic reception that evening. Speaking without notes and straight from the heart, the PM makes us all proud of being Indians. Vajpayee begins by saying that some people would question the wisdom of his visiting Minar-e-Pakistan, where the resolution to form Pakistan was moved. This could be interpreted as putting his seal of approval on Pakistan.
But, asks Vajpayee, “Kya Pakistan meri mohur se chalta hai? Uski apni mohur uske liye kaafi hai (Does Pakistan need my seal of approval? Its own seal is quite enough for it.)”
After that, the Indian PM has the largely Pakistani gathering eating out of his hand. They laugh at all his gentle sallies, clap at the rhetorical flourishes and listen in rapt attention.
My attention, however, is half-focused on a man a few tables ahead of me, who pointedly failed to stand up while the Indian national anthem was being played. After the speeches are over, I walk up to him and introduce myself. It turns out that he is a Pakistani journalist, Nasrullah Ghilzai, who works for the weekly Taqbeer, which is based in Karachi.
Why didn’t you stand up when the Indian national anthem was played, I ask him outright. He smiles and says, “Well, you may not agree with my views.”
“I probably won’t,” I reply, “but I’d still like to know why you did that.”
“In my view,” he says, “India is an enemy country. All this (he points to the guests milling around at the reception) is just protocol. This doesn’t mean anything to me. India has done certain things to Pakistan that I can never respect it for. And not to respect the national anthem is not to respect India.”
The viciousness of the sentiment prompts me to probe further. Where is he from?
From Lahore. Well, yes, he lives here now, but where is he from originally? Ghilzai looks uncomfortable. “My family is originally from Hoshiarpur, Punjab (on the Indian side of the border).”
Did he come over during the Partition? Yes, says Ghilzai, he came across as a five year old on the shoulders of his grandfather.
And did he lose anybody during those dark days? Yes, he lost nine members of his family.
In the context of memories like these, his decision to disrespect the Indian national anthem is more understandable – though, to my mind, it is still indefensible. More importantly, if memories like this still linger on, how much hope can we hold out of a India-Pakistan entente?
But, as Vajpayee said in his speech, we have tried to be enemies for 50 years; why not try to be friends now? After all, we can change our history but not our geography. And given that we have to live as neighbours, why not give peace a chance?