It was a chilly February morning in 2012 when I first stepped beyond Pakistan’s gate at the Wagah border. My companions walked across, entering Indian territory, but I stopped for a moment, standing in ‘no man’s land,’ a stretch of land that belongs to neither Pakistan nor India.
Pakistan’s flag and Jinnah’s portrait were on one end. The saffron, green and white of the Indian flag and a portrait of Gandhi were on the other end.
Standing in the middle was one of the most surreal experiences I have had. Neither here nor there. Neither at home nor in what is perceived as ‘enemy territory.’
Since then, I have crossed the Wagah border a couple of times. It is always a ceremonious yet divisive feeling. There is a clear sense of what is being left behind and what is ahead.
The flags, the gates, the guards, the Sikh turbans, the shalwar kameez, are all symbolic of what is ‘us’ and what is the ‘other.’
Whenever I thought of a border, it was these images that conjured up in my mind. I imagined all Pakistan-India borders to be as divisive, as ceremonious, and as militaristic as the Wagah border.
But in the months and years that followed, I would come to experience — and imagine — borders far differently.
The first time the image of a border was deconstructed for me was during a visit to Kasur in the summer of 2012.
I was there to conduct an interview with a Muslim man who had migrated from Amritsar in pursuit of his love of a Sikh woman who was settled in Kasur.
1947 would, however, uproot her from Kasur and their love story would be left ruptured and unfinished, as many Partition stories were.
Since the border was relatively porous until the 1965 war, he would continue to cross over (to what was now Indian territory) to locate his love.
His efforts were futile but he decided to remain in her pre-Partition village in Kasur to keep her memory alive. It serves as a testament of his love.
It was while I was trying to locate him that another family opened their doors to us, hosting my companions and me with drinks and eateries.
After we chatted for a while, they offered to take us to the ‘border.’ Instantly, I imagined guards and gates, rigid boundaries and barriers. Instead, I was greeted with a row of plants that were meant to serve as the border.
A small white milestone indicated where the Pakistani territory ended and the Indian territory began, but I wouldn’t have spotted it if our hosts hadn’t pointed it out. I was startled by how easy it would have been for me to cross over.
Our hosts told us that people often do, especially their guests who are not familiar with the region. So do their animals, who are unable to grasp the geographical realities. Though they were not easily visible, security officials on both sides kept a lookout for such trespassing.
Animals are frequently returned but I imagine that people meet different fates, languishing in jails on the wrong side of the border for the accidental crossing over.
It is also at such borders that Indians and Pakistanis come into close contact every day. As farmers work in the fields by the border, the ‘other’ isn’t an exotic enemy, but in a way a part of their everyday lives (though they are prohibited from speaking or interacting with each other. Glances may be permitted).
In fact, the division at such villages has been so arbitrary that during the 1965 war, when the Pakistan Army took over some Indian property, Ashiq’s (one of our hosts) maternal village had become a part of Pakistan and he had narrated stories of walking around, drinking water and resting in his ancestral village.
During other time periods and in different parts of Pakistan, India and Kashmir, wars have redrawn temporary or permanent boundaries, leaving those by the border in constant uncertainty.
Remarkably, it was during this visit that Ashiq also told me of a melathat took place at this border, at a mazaar located on the line of division.
Indians and Pakistanis came together in Sahwan (a month in a local calendar, usually in July, depending on the weather) to pay their respects under the watchful eyes of the Rangers.
It was here that Ashiq’s father was able to meet his relatives whom he had been separated from at Partition.
Over time, I would find several other such stories, of people uniting at the border that was meant to divide.
In Kashmir, the Line of Control (LoC), is ironically also a point of reunification for families. The Neelum River, which serves as the LoC in various parts of Kashmir, shrinks in the winter months.
After the 2003 ceasefire, when cross-LoC firing reduced considerably (only to be heightened again overtime), divided families would gather by the river to catch a glimpse of each other, to yell across and share fragments of their lives over the water that separated them.
A refugee from the Indian-held Kashmir that I had interviewed in Azad Jammu and Kashmir told me of how he met his mother by the river after about a decade of being apart.
“We all came together at Keran [a village by the LoC]. My mother and sisters were on the other side while my brothers and I were on this side.
“My mother became so emotional seeing her sons that she tried to jump in the river to come to us. I was trying to jump in too.
“But people were holding us back…I remember we stayed there all day…everybody was crying. One boy actually dived in. He couldn’t bear being separated from his mother in makbooza [occupied] Kashmir.
“The Indian army caught him. We don’t know what happened to him after that…”
Though social media and other forms of communication have slowly replaced these interactions, for some time the river was the only point of reunification for families like the refugee I spoke to.
It was at their point of division that they could come together. The border/LoC then stood to unite — for fleeting moments at least — the very people it had divided.
In Kashmir, and in India and Pakistan, the Partition and its aftermath pushed people out of the their homes and into alien territory.
Many times, people just hopped from one village to another, with their old home in close proximity to their new home.
From where they live, they can at times still see their past as a constant reminder of who they were and who they became as Partition survivors.
Just like their past and present, the borders here — unlike at Wagah — are blurry watery lines of what is home and what is enemy.