Op-ed: Indian journey —Munir Attaullah
After talking to Indians from all walks of life I came away with three powerful impressions. The foremost is how little Pakistan really figures in their overall thinking, particularly in the south
If I attract flak from certain quarters for emulating Irfan Hussain today, doing one of his travelogue numbers, so be it. With Vajpayee visiting us, I thought it only appropriate to travel in the other direction, and readers may be interested in what gives with our neighbour.
The border crossing at Wagah was hassle-free, probably because this facility is strictly limited (why?) to those few with a foreign passport (or the specially privileged). A 30-km taxi ride to Amritsar cost Rs 500. The landscape and the lush fields, the villages, the houses, and the rural infrastructure of roads and canals, the ever-creeping urbanization, the people, and the way they dressed, spoke and went about their business, were all powerful reminders that this was, after all, just another part of Punjab. Of course you knew you were on the ‘wrong’ side simply because of the turbaned Sikhs on view, and the visibly much larger number of women confidently participating in the public hurly-burly of life.
From Amritsar to Delhi the idea was to take the deluxe and non-stop train service, but a convoluted set of circumstances botched that plan (though my Indian friends later suggested that had I greased a few palms at the station — some things never change irrespective of where you are — a seat would have magically materialised). As a result, I paid Rs118 for a standard seat on the slow train.
The last time I undertook such a humbling but entertaining journey with the salt of the earth was from Lahore to Karachi by Tezgam over 40 years ago. Not much has changed. Yes, the fine soot particles from a steam engine are missing, the ubiquitous mobile phone is a new reality, and the passengers are obviously better off, but the essence of the rail journey seemed eerily frozen in time. The platform jostling, the dirty and smelly compartment, the hard, uncomfortable wooden benches, the screaming little brats, travelling hawkers selling everything from tea and lassi, to boiled eggs, samosas, fruit, peanuts and channas, an ensemble of very basic musical entertainers, the obligatory alms seekers, the student group passing the time playing cards, all brought back long faded memories.
My dress and demeanour, and the intermittent attempts at reading a book in the poor light, were the object of quizzical but respectful curiosity by my fellow travellers, so it was a while before anyone attempted to engage me in conversation. But once they discovered I was from Pakistan and spoke Punjabi, I was a star for the rest of the journey. Thus, for all the discomfort, it was still a serendipitous and heart-warming experience. One conspicuous observation is worth recording. The railway stations and the trains (as well as planes and airports) are all no smoking areas and everyone abides by the stricture.
Until the late eighties I used to chide my Indian friends on how comparatively far behind they were of Pakistan in the modernisation process: the roads were poor, the telephone service pathetic, cars antedeluvian, consumer goods shoddy, the airports and air services shabby, and even the thinking somewhat smug, insular and bureaucratic. A decade or more of sustained growth and liberalisation have produced unbelievable changes. And, given a domestic saving rate in excess of 20%, expanding exports and foreign investment, and a rapidly increasing middle-class hungry to further improve its living standards, the show appears well and truly on the road. Yes, one cannot escape from the demeaning and still visibly widespread poverty, but the economic ‘feel good’ factor is a palpable reality across the border, and let no one ever underestimate the many positive side effects on a nation’s psyche from the resultant fallout.
Here are some striking random numbers: ONGC — their OGDC equivalent — alone has a market capitalisation in excess of all the companies listed on the KSE combined. In the Delhi metropolitan area, at least three English newspapers can each claim a readership of well over a million. The capital city, once clogged with traffic, now boasts of more than fifty fly-overs. In a Delhi suburb, a wholly private enterprise is building a complete mini-city (including two beautiful golf courses), bigger than the Lahore cantonment and DHA combined. That said, I must add that their airports at Delhi and Bombay, even though built about the same time as the Jinnah terminal, are still pathetic when compared to Karachi or Lahore airports!
After talking to Indians from all walks of life I came away with three powerful impressions. The foremost is how little Pakistan really figures in their overall thinking, particularly in the south. The Test match against Australia, even in the serious English-language papers, was a far bigger story than the good news from Islamabad. Uppermost, by far, in every one’s mind were the prospects and opportunities for economic self-advancement. And the thaw in our relations is viewed primarily in terms of the likely economic benefits which will follow. But what I found really depressing was how very few Indians (including the educated and sophisticated lot) had any idea at all of what Pakistan and its people are really like. As most have never visited our country, pre-conceived notions, and the caricatures promoted by the media, abound — almost without exception. What an overwhelming surprise awaits them when they finally cross the border! And is that not a wonderful reason for us to make it easy — unilaterally — for them to get a visa and open their eyes?
Munir Attaullah is a businessman