Amritsar to Lahore is a book that covers the longest short distance between two marquee cities of Punjab as it was. Amritsar the city of golden temple and Lahore the quintessential capital of Punjab. As someone who went often to Amritsar as a child as someone who grew up listening to stories of Lahore, this book was on my reading list for quite some time. I was fortunate to meet the author at Landour last year. I have read a couple of his books earlier, but now I have 4-5 of his books in my ‘To Be Read’ shelf. Hope to read them soon.
Coming back to the book, it is a personal travelogue of Stephen Alter, who took a journey to Pakistan by road in 1997. Remember this was the 50th year of India’s partition as well as India’s independence from the British. If you are a Pakistani, the same applies to your country as well. The two countries are twins lying next to each other – they can not stay together but they can not move away as well. It is ironic that we were one country in the recent past. And today it is the most difficult country to visit for citizens of either side.
Stephen begins his journey from Delhi – the capital of India. Even though he does not need a Pakistan Visa, he still visits the Pakistan embassy in Delhi to see how it is to obtain a Visa for an Indian. Not easy. He then begins his journey from his hometown Mussoorie. He traces the journey of his ancestors who came here from America as missionaries. And he relates to the concept of home that we all have, neither our emotional claim on the territory that we call home. His journey to Amritsar tries to look at the state of Muslims in India.
He takes you through Amritsar and its turbulent past of 1947. However, I was intrigued by his journey by train from Amritsar to Lahore – a journey that should not be more than an hour but takes some 15 hours. A journey that is still full of doubt. There is a conscious effort to hurt the other. What amazes you is that people still want to cross the border and go on the other side when they clearly know they are not welcome. Stephen Alter writes in detail about the process of going from Amritsar to Lahore via train. Going by road is easier it seems. Easier but Indians and Pakistanis are not allowed to travel by road. They must travel by rail route.
What is interesting is that when stations at the border mention ‘Foreigners’ – neither Indian in Pakistan nor Pakistani in India. It means anyone but India and Pakistan nationals. In an ironic way, India and Pakistan come together as one entity when everyone else is a foreigner.
It is the Pakistan part of this book that I enjoyed the most. Probably because of my own curiosity and because we know so less about the cities of Pakistan. Most of us have never visited the country and it remains one homogenous entity for us. Stephen Alter brings out the cities of Lahore, Peshawar, Rawalpindi, Islamabad, and Murree for us. I loved his walks through the cities and their bazaars.
Did you know there is a Bazaar called Kissa Kahani Bazaar in Peshawar?
I could only imagine how people would meet here and share stories of distant lands. Nothing that Alter describes seems very different from India other than the use of Urdu. He also keeps telling us that nothing is different. One big observation that I had after reading this Amritsar to Lahore travelogue is that as and when I travel there – I need to carry my own food. It seems there is hardly anything vegetarian that you get there.
There is a parallel thread of Alter’s personal journey to re-trace the places his parents and grandparents have lived in and worked at as missionaries. He also re-visits his wife’s ancestors’ home in Lahore. There are certain poignant moments in his personal journey when he recognizes homes from his family albums. Suddenly, the family albums gained significance in my mental makeup.
If you long to go to Lahore like me, Read it.
You may buy this book Amritsar to Lahore by Stephen Alter at Amazon.
Other books by Stephen Alter: