[By Mayank Austen Soofi]
Wagah post, a road crossing dividing India and Pakistan, is one of the most-watched high-security border zones in the world. It falls between the historical city of Lahore in Pakistan and the Sikh holy town of Amritsar in India. The distance between the two cities is a mere 35 miles.
With both the countries pretending peace-talks, Wagah is becoming a tourist destination where people flock to see the comical performance of a particularly hostile ceremony between the Indian and Pakistani soldiers. This entertaining ritual, where the guards of both the nations express mock disgust for each other, takes place every evening just before the gates are to be shut down for the day.
Interestingly, the climactic scenes of Veer Zaara, a 2005 Bollywood blockbuster about a love affair between an Indian boy and a Pakistani girl, were shot at this border post.
View From the Indian Side - Looking at the 'Enemy'
Both Indians and Pakistanis flock to the border gates and wonder what lies on the other side. One Lahore gentleman joked to this photographer that the border gates were actually doing a good deed since it tempts people from both sides to travel into each other's country. In the absence of the border gates, the gentleman confessed, the secret that there is hardly any difference between the two nations would be out and then nobody would care to travel.
Coolies Employed in the International Business
Despite volatile relations between the two traditional rivals, which have led to abysmal business relations, some items are still legally imported and exported. In the above picture, crates of tomatoes are being taken into Pakistan and packages of raisins are being shipped to India.
Heavy Stuff, Cheap Labor
Blue uniforms are for Indian coolies while green is for the Pakistanis. These coolies work hard under the harsh glare of the sun and are not paid handsomely for their labors, a trait not uncommon in both the nations.
The Face of India; The Pride of India
It is a source of heated debate as to which country's border guards are more handsome, well-built, and virile. Pakistanis claim the honor since they boast of being great meat-eaters. They feel superior to the 'grass-eating Hindu vegetarians' of India. Indians do not agree.
Entering Pakistan - Checked by their Border Guards
Both Pakistani and Indian guards stationed at the border gates who record the passport details of the travelers are polite, smiling, and well-groomed. These personnel are rigorous in their duties, professional in their attitude, and do not bother themselves with the more eager promptings of their respective countrymen.
If Indian guards are particularly nice to children, Pakistanis do not fail to offer water and chairs, especially to older people.
Doorway to the Land of the Holy
This imposing entrance is called Bab-e-Azadi - 'Gateway to Freedom' in Urdu. This is ironic since Pakistan happens to be ruled by a dictator. Note that the entrance has a unique Islamic design in contrast to the Indian gate which is so secular in architecture that it is quite dull and unimpressionable.
The First Greetings
This is a hoarding by the Pakistan Tourist Development Corporation. PTDC runs a restaurant in Wagah, a charming relic from the British times. With gentle comforts of cushioned chairs and ceiling fans, it relaxes the weary traveler with tea and cookies served by uniformed waiters.
Interestingly, the Indian side of the border, though more entrepreneurial with its Sikh cabbies and cheap eateries, has no equally comfortable resting place. Pakistan wins here.
Long Live Pakistan
The Pakistani flag flies valiantly in the afternoon wind, atop the custom office. The flag was designed by Mr Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founder of the nation. The green color symbolizes Islam, while the white strip represents non-Muslim and other minority groups of the country.
Unfortunately, in spite of Mr Jinnah's commitment to establishing a modern secular nation, and despite the narrow white strip in the flag, Pakistan has failed to respect and protect its minority. In a Pakistani court of law, a Christian man's testimony is worth half of a Muslim man's and a Christian woman's testimony is worth only a quarter.
The Mysteries Inside a Custom Office
Though both Indian and Pakistani customs offices radiate a gloomy and forlorn look in their own unique ways, the Pakistani customs office is decidedly more eerie. India's customs office is darkly lit but is modern and staffed with clerks wearing shirts and trousers.
The Pakistani office, on the other hand, appears to be older and is served by officials wearing gray shalwar kameeze. But it is brighter with open corridors, sun-lit rooms and a lush garden beyond.
If an Indian visitor looks harmless and is not carrying suspicious materials, chances are that the customs formalities would be processed quickly. If you are a white Westerner, the process is faster.
A Rare Sighting
A lady walks without any male escort in a customs office corridor. She was one of the few women encountered on the Pakistani side of the border. Women dressed in shalwar kameeze, their heads covered with dupatta, are a common sight in Pakistan. They are not an uncommon sight in India, either.
It must be mentioned here that while these pictures were being clicked, the customs office was suffused with the fragrance of freshly cooked Mutton Biryani. Perhaps it was lunch time.
Inside Pakistan - First Impression
There was a stark difference between the Indian and Pakistani sides of the border. India was more colorful and was crowded with smelly dhabas, irritating touts, and boisterous tourists - mostly from the surrounding villages.
Pakistani side looked abandoned. There was no business and no bargaining. Consequently,the military presence, in absence of the civilians, was quite overwhelming.
Spying the 'Enemy'
The highway that connects Wagah to Lahore was littered with aggressive-looking and very visible army camps like these. This was not so in the Indian side where the army presence was more subdued. It was unmistakable one had entered in a military-ruled country. After all this was Pakistan - the cantonment of General Pervez Musharraf.
[The author traveled to Pakistan in September, 2006]