By Neha Naqvi
25 March, 2014
I arrive at New Delhi’s Ambedkar Stadium Bus Terminal a full 30 minutes before we are required to be there. It is a nippy 4am and the guards wear their fatigue with a quality of vehemence.
At security, the person inspecting baggage wants to know if I have a knife in my bag. He points to his screen and I crane my neck in an attempt to see what he sees. Could I accidentally be carrying a knife, I find myself wondering. I proceed to have my papers (and my person) thoroughly examined. Eventually, I am seated along a dank corridor with 60 minutes to spare.
I awake to find the corridor packed. Quite a few people are travelling from New Delhi to Lahore this morning. The room is full of kindly weathered faces. There is a quiet sense of the inevitability of travel, in their eyes.
Young children (their parents in tow) tear through the hallway. I overhear snatches of conversation. A lot of my co-passengers are on their way to visit family. This makes me smile. A woman on the receiving end of my grin shuffles uncomfortably in her seat.
Someone announces that the bus or Sada-e-Sarhad (Call of the Frontier) is ready to board. Passengers are hurried along, not unlike cattle. A handsome elderly man with a flowing beard asks to use the restroom. He is given a withering look and informed that the bus will not wait for him, should he choose to linger.
I discover that the passenger bus connecting New Delhi, India with Lahore, Pakistan is roomy, air conditioned and packed to the brim. An elfin man with an easy smile is responsible for everybody’s comfort. The bus soon finds its rhythm, chugging along surefooted, in the direction of the Wagah Border.
Being lulled to sleep on a packed, sturdy bus makes it almost possible to separate from it the reality, that 1947 bore witness to upheaval and loss on an unspeakable scale. Close to 14.5 million were ripped from their homes on either side. Nearly a million people died crossing over.
Heavy restrictions on the flow of traffic between Border States are in place.
It took until 1976 for the Samjhauta Express to pave the way for passenger services enabling human exchange. It was in 1999 that the bus followed suit.
Despite bumps along the way, with the suspension of services whenever bilateral tensions simmer to a boil – the bus carries on. It runs on either side (and back), a flicker of hope for a shared past and historical ties that run deep.
Two hours in, we have made a pit stop for breakfast. I find myself sipping a cup of tea with the resplendent Sheema Kermani. It turns out that Sheema and her band of players are heading home having performed their piece, Kafir, all over Delhi, including the vibrant campuses of the Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Infused with the poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Sarojini Naidu and Hazrat Ameer Khusrau, the play is Ismat Chughtai's piercing take on love, complicated by religion and increasing levels of intolerance. Sheema makes it a point to carry her creative works across the border every year. How else can we hope to find our collective humanity? We have got to ask questions that demand our compassion. I find myself in her debt.
We get back on the bus and hurtle on. The elfin man, who I now know as Sharma jee, has struck up a conversation with a family on their way home from a wedding in Punjab. Their bags are bursting with sweets. They are full of stories about the sights and smells in their brother’s home. They will be back for the heavily anticipated births of his children, they assure Sharma jee.
I nod off and miss out on a few of the remaining pit stops. The little girl on my left is tugging on my sleeve. It is already time to go through customs and immigration, this side of the border. Where did the day go?
Elaborate security is underway. No one cracks a smile as the authorities comb through us. The bus is set to cross the border, where we are told security will be replicated with exacting precision.
We watch for the opening and closing of the border gates. I am unsure what to expect, but nothing prepares me for the potent throngs of people – all ages – on either side shouting slogans, waving flags.
Hindustan-Hindustan-Hindustan! They shriek. Pakistan-Pakistan- Pakistan! Comes the echo.
The bus glides past them, indifferent, and it is all rather surreal. As I look from face to face, on the inside and the outside of the bus, I feel a palpable sadness that I do not have the words to express.
Neha Naqvi has been an advocate for human rights and gender justice issues and has worked with leading civil society organisations over the past decade. She has a Master of Laws from Columbia University (USA) and a Bachelor of Laws from the National Academy of Legal Studies and Research (India).