FARANGI IN TOWN: Lines in the dust —Ella Rolfe

Coming back to my adopted city, I can see afresh how badly its hinterlands need a government which will take care of them

I spent last week doing something few Pakistanis have a chance to do. I spent it in India.

The fact that nationals of the two countries find visiting each other such an intractable task, of course, reflects sixty years of mistrust, animosity and occasional war. No point rehearsing that again. Neither is it made easy for foreigners to cross the line: it is one of life’s irritating little ironies that one can live half an hour’s drive from the border, yet be required to sit on a bus for five hours north to get the correct stamps and stickers in one’s passport before venturing that small way east.

Finally crossing as a foreigner at Wagah, however, is an experience worth meditating on. The expected multiple checks and layers of bureaucracy (presumably the five men on each side who separately checked and signed my documents all have to feed their families somehow) are not actually as bad on the Pakistani side as on the Indian; I came away with a feeling that perhaps Pakistan has been through enough interesting governmental experiments since 1947 to make it forget the finer points of British bureaucracy.

India, on the other hand, has spent the last sixty years honing and sharpening slavish bureaucracy to a fine, fine art. Japanese tea ceremonies have nothing on the man behind the table at the start of the long, hot, rucksack-laden walk to Pakistan. Nor on his colleagues about 200m, 220m, 400m and 700m later.

On my way out of Pakistan, I was too excited about my upcoming holiday to note the differences which crept in around me as I passed those highly decorated double gates. On the way back in, however, my more mellow brain allowed me to view Pakistan with an outsider’s eyes for the first time in five months.

Lines in the sand are notorious for their arbitrary nature — the ‘impartial’ (i.e. unqualified and ignorant) aristocrat employed to fix the Indo-Pak border in 1947 was allegedly so afraid of the consequences of his actions that he discarded all his maps, hired a car with blacked out windows, and told the driver simply to drive north by whatever route he chose — and crossing land borders tends to be an anticlimactic rather than a geographically humbling experience. The Uganda/Tanzania border to the west of Lake Victoria is quite good: one goes through more security trying to get into most Sub-continental railway stations. But this particular line carries the weight of too much history (beginning with the destruction of western self-confidence, it can never be just history) to fade imperceptibly from one country to another. There are visible, immediate differences.

The colour of the clothing. India-side are hundreds of porters, truck drivers, and other hangers-around dressed in bright colours, many sporting the eye-watering orange of traditional Sikh turbans. Women in Pakistan, of course, have access to just as fantastic a kaleidoscope of colours as their sisters in India, and make full use of them; but there are few women on either side, this being a crossing point mostly for trade and industrial traffic at half past ten on a Tuesday morning. Thus the orange-wrapped drivers’ Pakistani counterparts are all clad in far more sober beige, grey or brown shalwar kameez, the only thing a man can get away with in Pakistan.

Also, there are fewer of them: while the Indian side bustled with as much vigour as the rest of the country on the mornings of both my crossings, the Pakistani side seemed sleepy and deserted, as if not quite awake. The sparkling new ‘terminal’, clearly designed to impress incomers and unarguably superior to the Indian facilities, felt like it had not had its plastic wrapping taken off yet.

Having cleared the final barriers on my way back in, I had to ask at the tea stall to find a taxi; whereupon the proprietor vaulted the counter, disappeared and returned with a slightly unreasonable asking price and his own vehicle, one of the most battered I have ever seen. I am sure not every visitor to Pakistan is greeted by a taxi whose boot has to be cleared of thick cobwebs before it can accommodate their luggage; but I did feel that this only confirmed my impressions.

Indeed, the colour of the whole landscape was different. The avenue of trees planted by some bright spark along the road on the Indian side seems to echo a more general greenness that contrasts starkly with the barren, brown and wide open Pakistani landscape. Can sixty-odd years of differing policies and events really turn a line on a map into a visible rupture? Can governmental instability really be writ on the land in so tangible a way?

Driving into Pakistan, the dust started to billow and the fields were a less vivid shade of green. Houses seemed to lack architecture, existing simply as blocks of jutting and irregular blocks, whereas Indian village houses looked like they had been designed. Damage and disrepair were everywhere present. Pondering environmental degradation and mentally connecting it to decades of dodgy government, I even began to wonder if the temperature in Lahore weren’t slightly higher and the climate more oppressive than in Amritsar.

As I write it has been a slightly cooler day on the Indian side, a matter of a couple of degrees; I have no way to prove that a certain economic and political lag in Pakistan has resulted in dustier soil and higher temperatures in its part of leafy Punjab, but it’s a possibility.

In fact, I cannot substantiate any of the above. However, as a raw foreigner once again, albeit briefly before the familiar streets of my part of Lahore dulled my senses to the new, perhaps my random observations do count for something. Coming back to my adopted city, I can see afresh how badly its hinterlands need a government which will take care of them.

The writer is a staff member at The Friday Times

Source: Daily Times, 28/7/2008

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