Mian, Biwi Aur Wagah

Mian, Biwi, Aur Wagah was the name of a play Arman, my husband and I went to watch a couple weeks after we got married. Although the play deserves a blog post of its own, I was inspired by its title and thought of writing about my experience of travelling to India through the Wagah border for the first time.

When Arman and I met in Karachi a year ago, we were both supposed to head back to Delhi in a week’s time. Lo and behold, we decided to cross the Wagah border together and take a train from Amritsar to Delhi. I was really excited because my Bollywood dreams, ever since I had watched Veer Zara, were finally going to come true!

But at the same time, I was extremely nervous. You see, I had never travelled to India through the Wagah border before, either because of circumstances or my mother’s not-so-irrational fear of the infamous India-Pakistan border. This time, though, I had Arman with me. I reckoned he was probably an expert at crossing the Wagah border by then because of his numerous visits to Pakistan. I assured myself and subsequently my mother that I was in good hands!

We went to Lahore first from Karachi and stayed there for two days. Since I had never really been around Lahore before, Arman and I went to explore the usual touristy spots in the city albeit with our own little twist! After spending two beautiful days in Lahore, we left for the Wagah border on the morning of the third day. The weather was lovely with rain clouds hovering over the sky as we drove alongside the mighty river Ravi. It took us about half an hour from DHA to reach the area from where the way to the border begins.

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I was told by Arman that since the 2014 Wagah border suicide bomb attack, the border security has been tightened quite a bit. As we approached the first security checkpoint, which is now several miles ahead of where it used to be prior to the attack, an army ranger asked the driver and Arman to step out of the car with our passports.  In the next checkpoint a few miles ahead, we were asked to bring out our bags for initial checking. Being a woman, I was extended the not-so-surprising courtesy of sitting inside the car while the men took care of the due processes.

A couple checkpoints and several miles later, we finally reached a point beyond which the car was not allowed to go. As we were saying our goodbyes to the driver, a motor vehicle looking like a train at a kid’s park started to come towards us. We quickly loaded our bags on the train-car and soon the driver started heading towards the immigration office a few miles behind the line of control. I wasn’t too surprised that it was just the two of us on the train-car and wondered how many people travel between India and Pakistan via this historic border.

As we approached the immigration office, I began to get a tab bit nervous since it was my first time crossing over to the other side on foot. Going through the immigration at the Karachi airport was also nerve-racking with everyone asking why I chose to study in India out of all places. I wondered what it was going to be like with the immigration officers sitting so close to one of the world’s most politically charged borders. To my surprise though, it was much lighter than my experience with the immigration officers at the airport. There was no queue first of all so nobody was in a rush. Moreover, since the only way forward was towards India, most of the officers were not shocked to know I was going there. In fact, some of them were even familiar with the rare occurrence of students from Pakistan going over to the other side to pursue studies.

We were done with our immigration within half an hour and then came the moment I had been waiting for my entire life – walking towards the Border I had always heard about, watched films on and studied about and finally crossing it. I know it sounds dramatic but it felt like all my life had led up to this one moment. As we reached the Border, I was astonished, to say the least. There were two huge gates right in front of us with about 4 feet of land between them. There was a line painted in white which had begun to fade, suggesting many a foot had walked over them over time.

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“Is this it? Is this what all the fuss is about?” I couldn’t help but think out loud! Arman shrugged as if he never cared about the fuss anyway. As we approached the first set of gates towering over us, a Pakistani ranger standing there asked us to show our passports. The look on his face was funny to witness when he saw that both Arman and I had different passports – his Indian and mine Pakistani.

Once he gave us the go ahead, my excitement knew no bounds. Was I really about to cross over to the other side? Was I really going to be in a different time zone, half an hour ahead by taking a few steps ahead? It was was all very surreal. You see, when you fly to India, it’s all very normal. It’s like flying to any other country from one airport to another. Crossing the border and suddenly being on foreign soil was something I had never done before; so it was a rather novel experience for me.

As I crossed to the other side, I cannot describe how happy I was. It almost felt like a homecoming. “I am home!” I exclaimed. Arman was enjoying watching me throughout and he even documented my first ever Wagah border crossing experience. In an interesting turn of events, as we were walking away from the line of control where the huge iron gates stood, we noticed a stray dog on the Indian side casually scurrying over to the Pakistani side and nobody stopped it. At that moment, I realized how privileged the dog was to simply come and go on either side of the border without any passport, visa or any other regulations. We asked the BSF soldier if the dog was Indian or Pakistani and he simply shrugged. The dog was just a dog, unaffected by nationalities, identity politics and such nonsensical ideas of division such as borders. And suddenly, I wished I could trade places with that stray animal and be a wild wandered in its true sense!

The immigration on the Indian side of the border was also a smooth experience. Everyone was really nice to us and in fact, I felt it was much more relaxed than the process of immigration at the Delhi airport which I was used to, till then. At the Delhi airport, when the poor immigration officers see a Pakistani passport, they are suddenly clueless as to what to do. Their usual job of stamping the passports of the foreigners coming in suddenly becomes much more complicated once the green passport is handed to them. Sometimes, when I was lucky to get an experienced officer on the other side of the immigration counter, it wasn’t so bad. They would ask for the necessary paperwork and I would be through a couple of minutes, although still spending longer than the average time someone spends at the counter. However, if the experienced officers are on a break and you get stuck with someone who is new, the entire line behind you gives you dirty looks for holding up the line for a long time, as the new officers try to do the needful with perplexed emotions.

Once we were done with the immigration, we made our way out to look for Arman’s regular cab driver who always picks him up from the border. Since our train from Amritsar wasn’t for several hours, we decided to go to the Golden Temple. I was ecstatic because I always wanted to go there. It was such an ethereal experience visiting this esteemed holy place for the Sikhs that it deserves a separate blog post. We stayed there for some time, listening to the beautiful kirtans – the singing of sacred hymns by the Sikh devotees from the Guru Granth Sahib, their holy book.

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Soon it began to get dark and we had to say farewell to the magic of the Golden Temple and make our way to the train station. I was eager to travel on an Indian train for the very first time. Even in Pakistan, I hadn’t travelled by train often but once we boarded our first class air-conditioned carriage, I felt it was much better than the AC train I had travelled on, back home once. This train was also perfect because it was going to reach Delhi first thing in the morning at 7; so we could peacefully sleep through the night and wake up as we reached our destination.Since my first ever experience of crossing the Wagah border, I have been travelling back and forth through the border and to be honest, it has really made my life easier. It’s way less expensive than flying – either taking a direct PIA flight which runs once a week or taking a flight through the UAE. If anyone out there wants to travel to India or Pakistan, I would recommend taking a train across the beautiful landscapes of our countries to reach Lahore/Amritsar and then crossing the Wagah border on foot. It is quite a fascinating experience, to say the least (to be honest, no words can describe that experience and do justice to it). Still, I hope you enjoyed reading about mine and plan to cross the Border at least once in your lifetime!

Since my first ever experience of crossing the Wagah border, I have been travelling back and forth through the border and to be honest, it has really made my life easier. It’s way less expensive than flying – either taking a direct PIA flight which runs once a week or taking a flight through the UAE. If anyone out there wants to travel to India or Pakistan, I would recommend taking a train across the beautiful landscapes of our countries to reach Lahore/Amritsar and then crossing the Wagah border on foot. It is quite a fascinating experience, to say the least (to be honest, no words can describe that experience and do justice to it). Still, I hope you enjoyed reading about mine and plan to cross the Border at least once in your lifetime!

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