A hedge it was. The neighbours on both sides had nurtured it assiduously over a period of 50 years. The barrier now concealed from us in the east the greens that were fabled to exist across the frontier.

Gurdwara Lahore Fort
Gurdwara Lahore Fort. — Photo by the writer

Never having ventured beyond, my own picture of the alien west was coloured by the exotic hues created by others who had viewed the landscape decades earlier. Many of an earlier generation had vivid memories of their youth spent in a wondrous city. Lahore. For them, Lahore was the most vibrant metropolis of undivided India. An unmatched centre of culture and education, they never tired of narrating, the capital city of a capital state, the original Punjab. The social environment of the time was modern, open and interactive, our records confirm. It inspired art, music, films, sport. During the first half of the 20th century every young man and woman with talent or ambition, gravitated to Lahore, so we were told. We were regaled with the memories of our seniors: of colleges set in sylvan surroundings; of eating places serving a myriad and heady mix of cuisine; of sports extravaganzas witnessed by knowledgeable lovers of the game. Even as it pleasingly combined the traditional and the modern, Lahore had grown up as a nodal point for organised protest against an oppressive colonial regime. The Punjab of that day had fashioned pacifist and revolutionary alike. Lahore was home to freedom fighters, and to distinguished jurists who defended them in court, at risk of political reprisal at the hands of entrenched rulers.

So massive was the migration of people of various communities across the new international border in 1947 that almost every family in our Punjab carried certain indelible memories of the times spent on the other side. Over the years, the new generation, at least in the east, developed a curious form of collective vicarious nostalgia for sounds and sights relating to the west. This fascination, and longing, was fanned not a little by hostilities that broke out periodically between the two sides. My first visit to Pakistan, in the month of April 2004 (hopefully it will the first of many to come) in a small group of three families, was tinged with great expectancy. "How would we be received?" we wondered apprehensively, alive to the recurrent political tensions between the two nations. How real was that wonderful world so fondly remembered by the last generation?

Our trepidation was unfounded, as it transpired when we crossed the international line at Wagah, near Amritsar. The other Punjab turned out to be an absolute anti-climax. My disappointment was no different from that of the boy in the childhood verse who ran away from England expecting to see a spectacularly different world in the next door Scotland.

My "wonderment" too, was at seeing the sameness of the two Punjabs. The Pakistani Rangers, gruff and jovial, who escorted us from the line, differed only in the style of their uniform from the amiable BSF officers who delivered us. Money-changers pursued us to exchange our Indian rupees (which commanded a premium, we realised) for Pakistan currency.

On the roadside cattle and goats munched as carefree as their owners lolling on cots outside nondescript dung plastered huts. The spoken word was Punjabi, Urdu (like our native Hindustani) being preferred for formal discourse. Chaotic traffic greets the visitor entering Lahore. Donkey carts and cyclists cut across the path of brand new Japanese cars driven by well heeled young businessmen. Our scooter rickshaws are replaced by the equally overloaded ‘Gingze’ (pronounced Chinchi)- a breed of a three-wheeler imported from China adapted to local conditions. The traffic police are inured to the prevalent laissez faire. Foreign-made motor-cycles take the place of our indigenised scooters, but the drivers do not bother to even display the mandatory helmets in their hands, as our youngsters do.

A dual economy stares us in the face in Lahore, much as it might in a Ludhiana or a Batala. A few shopping arcades liven up localities such as ‘Gulberg’ or ‘Liberty’. Here modern architecture has spawned some high-rise buildings for the corporate. Complete orderliness prevails in the cantonment, and in Model Town, where manicured public parks vie with stylish private lawns. The aristocracy is alive and well. Large landowners have invested wisely, combining enterprise in farm and commerce alike.

The landmarks of old Lahore are intact. Anarkali, with its streets so narrow that the upper floors of its buildings almost block out the sunlight, the strong lighting creating a daytime atmosphere even at midnight, not least on account of heat emitted from the lamps. The shopkeepers haggle, as they would in Mai Hiran, Jalandhar. They are delighted to receive Indian visitors. They enquire with great curiosity about the bazaars their parents had once traded in—in Patiala, Jalandhar, Amritsar.

Food Street is a gourmet’s paradise. Cheek by jowl with western-style pizza parlours are humble kulfi-sellers and kebab-wallas displaying meats exposed to the elements, as to vermin. Diverse retailers, travel agents, homoeopaths, and wonder of wonders, palmists and astrologers flourish in adjoining booths. No cause for homesickness for any in our party! Incongruities abound. Right on the bank of an open waste-water drain on the outskirts of Lahore stands the dignified government office of Director, Land Reclamation. An accurate parallel would be the office of the State Pollution Control Board astride the Hudiara drain that carries sullage from Amritsar, ironically into Pakistan territory.

Poverty is visible in the streets of Lahore. Many slums, we learn, had been relocated by the state government recently; the encroachments and hazards removed. The locals have great pride in their city. The Government College, citadel of higher education, is now a deemed University. The Forman Christian College (my father had insisted I must see his old hostel in Ewing Hall) is similarly revered, along with Kinnaird College for Women. Some famous names have been changed, as in India. The Lawrence Gardens are now Bagh- e Jinnah.

History is kept alive in Lahore. The Lahore Fort proclaims its lineage as the ancient dominion of legendary Luv, the son of Sri Ramchandra, the ideal Hindu king. The fort is a protected national monument, preserving, to some extent the Diwan e Aam, the Diwan e khas and the harems constructed by the Mughal Emperors who later occupied the fort at the height of their power.

The fort houses evidence of the decadence of the Mughal Empire- some poetic manuscripts of the tragic last emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, along with priceless nineteenth century murals from the era of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Indeed Maharaja Ranjit Singh is highly regarded, we learnt, as a brave historical figure, whose Sikh empire dared the rising might of colonial Britain.

We are taken to the tomb of Anarkali, the legendary court dancer, the dalliance with whom created a romantic image for Prince Salim, later the Emperor Jahangir. It is confounding that access to Anarkali’s tomb is restricted, since it is located within the official archives, in a government building. The Secretary of the Department of Archives is Bhullar, a Muslim Jat. Bhullar has that the typical Hail-fellow-well-met approach of the extrovert landed gentry. He enquires from us about the Bhullars in Eastern Punjab, with whom he claims kinship. Bhullar is delighted to learn his kindred are flourishing as progressive farmers, and also distinguishing themselves in the professions especially as police officers.

I am highly impressed at the quality and management of the Grand Trunk Road, as it takes off from Lahore to reach Islamabad, Pakistan’s national capital that now dominates its twin city, the traditional Rawalpindi.

The traffic on GT Road is extremely orderly, controlled as it is by a highly visible National Highway Patrol, whose members pounce enthusiastically on any traffic violators. Mehboob, my driver points out a bank van that follows the police vehicle on the highway. The function of the bank van, he explains, is to deposit all traffic fines imposed by the patrol, insulating the offenders against exploitation by the police officials. A charming innovation to tackle a malady common in our country! The road traverses the three rivers of Punjab, Ravi, Chenab and Jhelum. A parallel superhighway between Lahore and Peshawar, commissioned recently could, in quality of construction, as also the fluidity of traffic movement, liken to any motorway in Europe. It scarcely seems the same country as typified by the good old Lahore behind us.

If the town of Lahore is a study in contrasts, the city of Islamabad, perched on the edge of the state of Punjab, transports us to a fairy tale world. Modern architecture, stylish and innovative, has created a marvel of a city of immaculate streets, shaded drives, modern shopping malls and high-tech application, befitting a prestigious national capital. A showpiece for foreign visitors, Islamabad can be pictured as a grander Chandigarh transposed to an international stage. The most visible difference from Chandigarh is in respect of strict regulation of urban laws.

Islamabad is situated at the base of a mountain range, as Chandigarh is, but the city has not so far succumbed to the pressures common to a developing economy in the Third World. Legislation is enforced, we find; encroachers on public land, and slums, are non-existent. Islamabad is spread over an undulating area measuring 900 square kilometres, of which 220 square kilometres serves as parks, with 460 square km preserved in the original rural setting. The urbanised portion covers just 220 square km.

Even as we gape breathlessly at this picture-postcard of a Utopia, the hotel porter brings us rudely down to earth. "What attractions could there be for Indian visitors?" he questions innocently, unimpressed with the regulation and compliance of urban laws. "Nothing special to see in Islamabad," he avers. What excite him are cricketers from India and Hindi films. It is the fantasy of a foreign land brought alive by the medium of television that is for him the ultimate reality, not his own elite city. Truly, distance has leant enchantment to the view, at least to a young man like this.

Casual conversation leads the locals frequently to launch a general diatribe against authority, represented by the politician, the petty civil servant, and amazingly, even the military. Governance is a major issue. Dissatisfaction with the quality of public service is articulated by the porter, the taxi-driver, the cloth retailer, the phone-booth attendant. The man in the street seems fairly apathetic to the form of administration at the very top, be it military rule or a variation of democracy.

Most people are fascinated with the functioning of Indian democracy, to learn about an environment novel and alien to them. There is grudging admiration for the system of elections that are then in progress in India. They are somewhat reassured when we intone about similar visible ills of the system in India- the partisanship, the venality, the divisiveness of public figures. Pakistanis talk openly of the weekly charges- it’s called ‘hafta’ as in India levied by petty police constables. They gripe at a deteriorating system of education that has created numerous inefficient school boards whose writ, absurdly, is limited to single districts in the state of Punjab.

There is great resentment among the traders as well as the farmers with regard to the latest decision of the government to regulate the movement of wheat grain district-wise . Hotly discussed is an initiative of the government of Pakistan to effect democratic decentralisation in administration. The powers of the Deputy Commissioners, heretofore regarded, as in India, as the eyes, ears and hands of the government, are to devolve upon elected nazims in the districts. How common, how tempting it is to rail at the establishment! I am transported back to an India of an imperfect polity, to a Punjab that derives its name from its original five waters, yet squabbles for its professed share in two and a half of these rivers.

— Photos by Ishan Tankha/ Today