It was a dark, grey, spitting day when I awoke in the Golden Temple and finally declared, “I’m going to cycle to Pakistan today!”
After ten kilometres, the spitting had turned into a shower. After twenty kilometres, the shower had turned into a downpour and after thirty, I had arrived at the Wagah Border, soaked and shivering like a puppy just in from the rain. I was soon warmed up though with a most fitting parting gift from the Indian border officials; a hot, sweet, milk-laden chai.
The somewhat famous Wagah post sits on a long border line – running north through Kashmir and south through the Punjab – that was crudely pencilled in by the British in 1947 to create the Islamic state of Pakistan. It left millions of Hindus and Muslims on the ‘wrong side,’ resulting in a mass ‘crossing over’ in both directions. What followed was a display of senseless, tit-for-tat violence that only religion and politics – the two institutions we look to for guidance and leadership – seem capable of inspiring. Train-loads of fleeing men, women and children were forcibly stopped and their passengers massacred. When the dust had settled and the blood had ceased flowing, some estimates put the combined number of deaths at over one million souls.
The Wagah border is also home to one of the most ridiculous official ceremonies on earth – all the more ridiculous because of the seriousness of the ongoing tension between these two nuclear-armed nations. Every afternoon, patriots and tourists flock to witness the immaculately-dressed border guards carry out the daily closing of the gates with a flurry of perfectly choreographed high kicks, shouting matches, stare-offs, chest puff-ups and the briefest of white-knuckle hand shakes. The crowds hoot and holler at this masculine display of fanatical nationalism, “Pakistan Zindabad!” comes the call from one side of the imposing fence. “Hindustan Zindabad!” is the impassioned reply. (U-tube ‘Wagah Border Ceremony’ for a first-hand look and a great laugh).
So cold, wet and intent on reaching a hot shower was I, that as I passed through one set of mighty, black gates bearing the ‘tri-colour’ and entered another set bearing the Muslim crescent and star, I forgot to exalt. For seven months I had cycled through India – infamously known within bicycle touring circles as the toughest place in the world to tour – and had made it out alive!
Cycling along the muddy, pot-holed, shack-lined roads beside tractors, rickshaws, motorbikes and various animal-drawn carts, I could have been excused for thinking that I had not left India at all and indeed, just 62 years ago, I would not have. However, after a few days in the nation’s ‘most cosmopolitan’ city; Lahore, it became apparent that there are subtle differences between Pakistan and Hindustan, not least of which were those between the Pakistanis and Hindustanis themselves.
As I strolled through the lively, narrow alleys of the Old City, sucking on the scent of freshly-baked naans, I found the Pakistanis, while still very open, to be far more chilled out than their Indian counterparts. Their lack of over-excitability, that in India was sometimes akin to a schoolgirl gushing over Bollywood hunk, Amir Khan, made it far more possible to engage in a meaningful interaction.
While undoubtedly the busiest and most polluted city I have visited on my travels, Lahore contains a special element that is difficult to describe, but which captivates travellers. For me, this element revealed itself in the amazing music of the Sufis, a mystical sect of Sunni Islam.
Qawwali – popularised to a certain degree in the West by the late, great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – is a beautiful form of devotional music consisting of tabla, harmoniums, a group of backing singers and clappers and one or two Habibs, who belt out their prayers from their often enormous frames with such fervour and passion that Allah must surely hear and feel them reverberating throughout His Kingdom.
The best in Pakistan, at one point or another, make their way to Lahore to play at the shrine of Darbar Data Sahib for something akin to an open mic night. Each group is permitted about five minutes, but may be pulled from the stage at any time or allowed to play on at the whim of what I dubbed the ‘Qawwali Mafia’; a group of overbearing, obviously wealthy men who shower eachother in five and ten rupee notes, supposedly as a sign of respect to the musicians and eachother, but as I saw it, also as a showering of their own ego. I never quite figured out what I found so revolting about the act.
Also central to Sufism is the mighty dhol; a large, double-headed drum held at the stomach by a strap around the shoulders, one skin of which goes *rat-a-tat-tat*, while the other goes *boom*. There is no better place to witness its awesome, trance-inducing power than late of a Thursday night at the shrine of Shah Jamal where the now-legendary Saeen family fill the holy space with soul-penetrating vibrations for hours on end. In an absolutely jam-packed courtyard, the air thick with hashish smoke, brothers Gonga and Mithu and their cousin, pound the skins with such amazing synchronicity, it is as though they are one being. All the more amazing is that Gonga, who has apparently played at the White House for George Dubya and his mates, was born deaf and harnesses the vibrations through his considerable frame.
When I departed in the early hours of the morning, the three of them had been sweating it out for five hours non-stop and were not slowing down. As the evening had worn on, I had felt myself being drawn deeper and deeper into the beat – into the Now. The illusion that is time had ceased to exist and I had become Present. Rocking their bodies and shaking their heads madly, fully immersed in what is, this is how the Sufi dancers know God, for he is Now and can never be anything else – He never was, He never will be, God only ever IS.