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Sreeram Chaulia wrote this review of Amritsar to Lahore : A Journey Across the India-Pakistan Border on Mar13,2001
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    Book rating: 4 / 5 ~
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    The Tyranny of Borders

    Travelogues with settings in the Indian sub-continent have received a tremendous fillip since the early 1990s, thanks to the profound works of Scotsman William Dalrymple (City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi; The Age of Kali - At the Court Of The Fish-Eyed Goddess), whose insightful grasp over geography, history, culture and politics of South Asia can easily shame home-bred Indologists for comparative ignorance and, I daresay, insensitivity to the stories that lie behind even the most trivial facts of life. Perhaps A.K. Ramanujan is right after all- "You want self-knowledge? Come to America...Things look clearer from a distance".

    The outsider's perspective may be more realistic, unbiased and professional when painting the landscape of a highly contentious region of the world such as India and Pakistan. The "third country national" also enjoys the privilege of securing visas, permits and the paraphernalia that define borders easier than Indians or Pakistanis. Ergo, Stephen Alter, MIT Professor and author, not exactly an 'outsider' (born in Mussoorie to American missionary parents who migrated from what is now Pakistani Punjab), undertakes a one month-long trip across the India-Pakistan border exactly 50 years after Cyril Radcliffe drew the dividing line, searching for his roots armed with "a longstanding grudge against borders".

    Beginning at Delhi whose physiognomy was transformed by partition and the influx of refugees, Alter travels to Mussoorie where George Everest set up the Survey of India way back in 1830 and produced maps and cartographic projections used years later by the "midwife" Radcliffe in 1947. The map-making and delineating prerogatives of the British empire, like Government of India Acts, were inherited by India and Pakistan with the zeal of newly carved out nation-states. From the hills of Garhwal, the author moves to Amritsar, the 'city of nectar', to hit the historic Grand Trunk Road that slices through the Indo-Pak border. Amritsar is on the itinerary because a majority of Sikh and Hindu refugees from erstwhile undivided Punjab settled there and also because the post-colonial Indian state's affair with 'secularism' ended there with Operation Blue Star in 1984. A visit to the adjacent border post at Atari for the spectacular daily-evening 'Beating Retreat' by Indian and Pakistani armed sentinels leaves the author observing an ambiguous mixture of curiosity for life on the "other side" as well as fear and hatred drummed in by 50 years of tension and nationalistic passions.

    Ignoring the comfort of air or road journeys, Alter decides to experience the 'Train to Pakistan', Samjhauta Express from Amritsar to Lahore. 50 KMs last 15 hours!. Immigration blues made notorious by corrupt customs officials and officious security personnel dampen his spirits, but he admires the tenacity of Punjabi Muslims whose families regularly hop across the border and back on both sides keeping alive ties and commonalities that politics could not sliver. Similar logjams at Wagah station in Pakistan convince him that delays and tiresome paperwork have been introduced by both States to emphasise the border and "make the two countries feel much further apart than they actually were".

    In Lahore, the former "Paris of India" that Punjabi refugees deify in common nostalgia irrespective of their religions, the historic Anarkali Bazaar reminds him of the winding by-lanes of Delhi with practically no difference in wares. Lahore Fort, populated by Akbar, seems like a literal ancestor of Agra Fort or Delhi's Red Fort, built by Akbar's successor, Shah Jahan. And the Badshahi Masjid in all its spatial dynamics appears to be a sibling of Delhi's Jama Masjid. Just like in India, independent Pakistan went on a naming nativisation spree, so that Lawrence Gardens are now Bagh-e-Jinnah and Christian missionary institutions became monuments to modern masters, a la the Minar-e-Pakistan.

    Crossing the Indus on the way to Peshawar via the Khyber Mail, the author eyes the unwinding and contrasting landscapes of the Punjab and North West Frontier Province and makes a melange of friends in the compartment, as one does in Indian Railways. There are the familiar "unscheduled stoppages", dysfunctional ceiling fans and unnerving scrambles for vacant seats! At Peshawar, he relives the romance of the Frontier during the Kipling era and the 'Great Game', looking across the rugged vales of the Hindukush Mountains, "the fulcrum of Asia", and noting the extreme porosity of the notorious Durand Line separating Pakistan and Afghanistan. He also witnesses massive contraband trade in arms, drugs and consumer durables at the Khyber Pass (consummately expounded in cricketer-politician Imran Khan's Indus Journey), once the gateway of India's conquest for Alexander, Ghazni and Tamerlane.

    Detouring from the Grand Trunk, Alter then visits the twin-cities of Rawalpindi-Islamabad, wrestling with a masala Bollywood video that ruins sleep on the 'Luxury Video Bus' ride from the Frontier back into the Punjab! Pakistanis from Peshawar to Pindi and Lahore to Karachi are aficionados of Hindi films so much so that the government has legalised private videos, smuggled in through Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Pindi is a congested town of busy bazaars and crumbling neighbourhoods, also the headquarters of Pakistan's all-powerful military. Alter quizzed locals about political leaders and always found the average Pakistani decrying the "feudal class" who owned bungalows and Landcruisers at the cost of a bleeding under-class. The Army was always commended as upkeeper of virtue, especially in cantonment-ridden Pindi. Islamabad is Pakistan's Chandigarh, a city born in the 1960s and still building, a neatly arranged administrative enclave housing the rich and the powerful political elite of the country. Alter inevitably digresses into a reverie of images detailing Indo-Pak relations when confronted by the futuristic National Assembly structure.

    Aiming to see Kashmir from the Pakistani side, the author then moves to Murree, the hill-station that so-nearly resembles his own Mussorie. At Murree Christian School, he broods over the endangered future of dwindling missionaries in a Pakistan increasingly intolerant of its largest minority (notably since the Blasphemy Law execution of the Masih brothers) and draws inevitable parallels to Missionaries being doused in kerosene and set on fire in India. Glancing toward "Azad Kashmir" and the Line of Control from atop a hill in Murree, he expresses anguish at the poetic loss of firdaus (Persian for paradise) that Kashmir once was. In Abbotabad, Pakistan's largest military encampment just behind the LOC, he finds that the average Kashmiri thirsts after peace and reconciliation "if only India and Pakistan would leave us alone".

    Choosing the road journey on the return to India, Alter traverses the epic GT Road from Lahore to the border check-post and reminisces about the common cultural heritage of Sikhism, Hinduism and Islam that finds border-defiant holy places like Nanak's birthplace in Lahore, Sufi saint Sheikh Braham's dargah a hundred metres inside Indian territory as well as Shaheed-e-Mohabbat Buta Singh's grave on the other side of an artificial barrier. These commonalities, besides those of language and Bollywood films, provide a "curious metaphor of unity regardless of political realities", one that give meaning to the regional consciousness of being "South Asian". There is also an undeniable topographic unity, as the final lap from Amritsar back to Delhi, via Ludhiana, Jalandhar and Ambala, reminds the author of the same kikad trees and verdant fields, wallowing buffaloes and death-defying lorries along Pakistani roadways. Lastly, amidst the humdrum of the 50th Jubilee Independence celebrations at Rajpath in Delhi, Alter notes how national identities have been submerged by a rising wave of regional and fissiparous tendencies both in India and Pakistan, so that at the crossroads of a new millennium, both are ever more unsure of their respective selves and ever more inclined to resort to provocative conflict as if to regain order in crumbling internal houses. The ever-ever question, "Who am I?", remains partially answered.

    In a sentimental journey undertaken to mentally erase the barriers created by history, Stephen Alter comparatively chronicles culture, life and activity on both sides of the India-Pakistan border and offers an unbiased and highly perceptive picture. Pakistanis view Indians with a "combination of affection, indifference and animosity", a complex attitude objectively portrayed in this travelogue. While emphasising similarities, Alter also dwells on the differences in 'national culture' brought about by partition and 50 years of separation- e.g. segregation of sexes is very marked in Pakistan; differences in dietary conventions exist ("being non-vegetarian is an integral part of Pakistani identity"); and political cultures vary from an Army-adoring Pakistan to "the world's largest democracy". Even in the desire of peace between the two countries, Alter notices an important distinction between "coexistence and cohesion". While ordinary Pakistanis prefer amicable relations with India, they are "unwilling to deny the reality of Partition". Many Indians, on the other hand, wish to "reclaim a lost homeland" and challenge the two-nation theory's very basis, a viewpoint that increases the insecurity of the smaller neighbour. All in all, Alter's travelogue is a treasure-trove of information and a border-piercing cruise that will strike a chord in every sub-continental heart.