By Asif Noorani
13 May 2017
Some stories from my past are still clearly etched in my memory.
In 1955, I travelled to Bombay as an accompanying child on my mother’s passport to visit my ailing grandfather. The following year, I went again to attend my uncle’s wedding.
But when I went in 1964, it was a different story. I was a 22-year-old MA student who had a passport of his own by then.
In those days, two types of passports were issued to Pakistanis, one exclusively for travelling to India, and the other an international passport to travel to other countries.
It was not easy to get the international passport. When you did finally possess one, you discovered that it had a list of countries, rubber stamped manually, to which you could travel to.
On my preceding two trips to Bombay, we sailed on board the steamship SS Sabarmati.
When I travelled on my own in 1964, I decided to do something different. I took the Lahore-Amritsar train this time, which was later given the name Samjhauta Express. I was excited for the long ride and the adventures that were in store for me.
I went by train from Karachi to Lahore and then to Amritsar. From Amritsar, I took the Howrah Mail to Lucknow, from where I took another train to Allahabad. Finally from there, I got onto an express train to Bombay.
But I bought a one-way train ticket because I wanted to sail back from Bombay to Karachi by the good old Sabarmati.
Back in the day, getting a visa was easy; whoever applied for it was granted one.
However, the visa fee was high. It was Rs15, which was a third of a one-way journey by ship between Karachi and Bombay.
Visitors from both countries now pay Rs100, which is perhaps the only fair aspect of the tit-for-tat relations between the two states.
Passports and visas used to be handwritten.
My 1964 passport had one mistake.
The clerk-cum-calligrapher, who filled every entry neatly with a felt pen, had forgotten to add the letter ‘i’ at the end of my surname, Noorani.
I protested but the man at the counter told me the changes could only be made if I paid an additional Rs10.
What made matters worse was that it would take two days to get the job done since the assigned person had a lot on his plate.
But one of the agents who ‘liaised’ between the applicants and the passport office staff overheard my argument.
He informed me that the correction could be done for Rs2.
I readily agreed to it since it was much less than the sum I was told to pay initially.
My passport was taken to the relevant clerk who used the same pen to add the missing letter. The arrangement suited all three of us.
The trip from Karachi to Lahore was uneventful, which was in contrast to what was to come on my train ride to India.
After going through immigration and customs, I boarded the Amritsar-bound train.
Before the train started moving, a woman stepped into the compartment, escorting her father who walked by the help of a stick.
She said that he had to go to Shahjahanpur in Uttar Pradesh because her eldest sister was gravely ill.
The worried, young woman was looking for someone to take care of her father since his escort changed his travel plans at the last minute.
I agreed to escort him since I was going in the same direction.
The train to India moved slowly.
It briefly stopped at the Wagah platform, where the Pakistan Railway police exited the train.
The borders were not marked by barbed wires nor was there a gate on either side of the railway line.
I could see birds flying over the border. There was a stray dog going from Pakistan to India.
Slabs fixed quarter of a mile from each other marked the border.
It was only when passengers saw Sikh farmers working in fields that they realised they had entered the neighbouring country.
Soon after, the train stopped at Attari, the first Indian railway station when you’re coming from Pakistan.
At Attari, the Indian Railway policemen boarded the train. Their uniforms were strikingly similar to the ones worn by the policemen we had left behind ten minutes earlier.
The red uniform of coolies at the station in Amritsar was no different either, nor the call of tea stall bearers.
They chanted ‘Chai Garam’ the same way. There was, however, one difference: their tea was served in disposable clay cups.
As the train halted, I saw people rushing towards the immigration counters. I couldn’t because I had to help the old man on his feet.
I was compelled to walk slowly. In those days the concept of senior citizens’ privileges did not exist.
With so many passengers on the train, just three counters for everyone arriving at the station were not enough. The only concession I was able to get was to let the old man sit on a bench, while I stood in the line holding two passports in my hand.
But by the time the entry visa was stamped on our passports, the Howrah Mail had steamed out of the Amritsar station already.
But I was reassured we could travel on any train with the ticket we had bought from Lahore.
That was a relief, though a short-lived one.
Going through customs was another ordeal. As the jovial Sikh officer took out all my stuff from my suitcase and enquired about the contents of the book Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot, the Sealdah Express had also left.
I was at my wits’ end but our coolie sympathetically told me that the Kalka Mail would take us to Ambala, from where we could catch another express train.
The Kalka Mail departed late and made an inordinately long stop at Ludhiana. The name was not entirely unknown to me since it was the hometown of one of my favourite Urdu poets, Sahir Ludhianvi.
We missed our train yet again by the time we reached Ambala.
But there was another twist, this time for the better. A coolie at the Ambala station told me that the Howrah Mail, which had left Amritsar without us, was delayed because of engine failure. It was to reach Ambala in ten minutes.
Much to my surprise, the train was overflowing with passengers when it arrived. There was no way I could board it with the old man and our baggage.
But coolies always know the shortcuts. Ours took us to the Attendant’s Compartment, which was a legacy from the colonial days when servants were accommodated in a special compartment, while their sahibs and Memsahibs travelled in first class.
With the exception of three police officers, there was no one in the compartment.
The coolie struck a deal. We paid Rs10 for the two of us and the elderly gentleman was given a berth, while I spread out myself on the one opposite his. That made my fellow traveller feels more secure and comfortable.
As soon as the guard whistled and showed a green flag to the engine driver, three college students entered the compartment, much to the annoyance of the policemen.
One of them introduced himself as the son of a deputy superintendent of the railway police.
I had a strong feeling that he was taking the constables for a ride. The trick worked and the policemen were cowed down.
I did not want to reveal my nationality, but suddenly the old man asked, “What time did we leave Lahore?”
“Oh, so you have come from Pakistan!” one of the boys said with a tinge of aggression in his tone.
“You must have celebrated Pandit Ji’s death,” he presumed.
The Indian prime minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had died a month or two earlier.
“Well, we don’t celebrate anyone’s death, not even our enemy’s. As for Pandit Ji, we admire him for many of his qualities. I have read all his books avidly,” I replied coolly, though I was nervous inside.
We could have easily been thrown out of the moving train, with or without the consent of the policemen.
“What books did Pandit Ji write?” they asked each other. Like most of their counterparts in Pakistan, these students were ignorant about books.
When I gave them details about The Discovery of India and Glimpses of World History, they looked at me in awe.
I became much more relaxed at this point.
Soon, one of them reminded me, “You haven’t answered Chachaji’s question yet”. I told the elderly gentleman that we had left Lahore at noon.
I was then showered with a barrage of questions about Pakistan, which were just plain queries.
The malice had melted and had given way to the mellow tone they had throughout our conversation thereafter. They even ordered dinner and shared it with me.
The old man needed to use the bathroom but before I could come to his support, our new friends rushed to help him.
The next morning at the Shahjahanpur station, they helped him disembark from the train and got a coolie to pick up his luggage.
His son-in-law was there to receive him and to give the good news that his ailing daughter was in much better health.
He gave me a warm hug and shook hands with the other men. We jumped back into the train and it started moving again.
Little did I know that a fresh problem was in store for me.
A new batch of railway policemen had replaced the old one.
They were told by the ones who had departed that they could ask me for money for travelling in the compartment.
I turned down their demand and didn’t have much problem dealing with them because my new friends jumped to my defence.
“He will come to receive me and then you’ll have had it,” he threatened the officers. The trick worked and peaceful coexistence, a term much often used in those Cold War days, ensued.
The officers were interested to know the salary structure of their counterparts in Pakistan but were disappointed when I told them that I was not sufficiently equipped to answer about their pays and perks.
“All I know is that their uniforms are the same as yours,” I said, which didn’t seem to interest them.
“I hope they are less corrupt than our cops?” one of the young men said.
It was not a query; he merely wanted to tease the men in uniform.
As the Howrah Mail steamed into Lucknow’s Charbagh Station, I was given a warm farewell by the young men. They had also bought breakfast from an earlier station for me but not for the policemen.
Surprisingly, the policemen became friendly too.
They helped me find a coolie and warned him not to charge more than the rate etched on his metallic armband.
The boys took down my postal address and promised to write to me.
But even the warmest relationships built during train journeys don’t last.
No letters were exchanged.
But certainly the memories remain, at least for me.
Asif Noorani, a peacenik, has been writing articles and delivering lectures in India, Pakistan and the US on the need for closer relations between the people of the two subcontinental countries for several years. He is the author of four books, including Tales of Two Cities, which he co-authored with distinguished Indian columnist Kuldip Nayar.