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Journey of a lifetime

Three years ago, Saurabh Saket had travelled all the way to Pakistan to watch cricket and came back a changed man. March 22, 2004 is a date that will forever be engraved in his memory. He narrates his experiences...

india Updated: Nov 13, 2007 03:58 IST
Hindustan Times

Indian fans eagerly await the visit of the Pakistan cricket team. They look forward to the renewal of an age-old rivalry, fierce on-field duels and an action-packed, charged-up tour.

That, however, doesn’t seem to be the case this time around. The quintessential India-Pak 'do-or-die' scenario seems to be under threat.

What can this change be attributed to? Is there a new maturity or simply a case of fan fatigue or, in fact, a lull following the Twenty20 triumph, which assumes that scores were finally settled in South Africa? No one knows.

I happened to be part of the lucky few who saw India triumph over Pakistan in Lahore in 2004. Pakistan in 2004 was an eye opener at many levels, not just at a sporting one.

Crossing over

Pakistan always seemed so distant. The State propaganda, the Bollywood jingoism and the passionate war cry of every Indian cricket fan — it is hardly a wonder Pakistan is viewed as the ‘enemy’. As an Indian visiting Pakistan for the first time, it was tough to be removed from such cultural and historical baggage. But as time would prove, most of it was illogical.

Mine wasn’t a train to Pakistan. It was a bus. As I prepared to board it on that March morning among armies of mediapersons, I began to get aware of just how special this visit was.

Behind ‘enemy’ lines

The bus journey was long and arduous — 10 hours, to be exact. Wagah was the last frontier before we went us taraf. As we waded through customs and struggled against the heat and chaos, we reminded ourselves of the larger goal of getting to Gaddafi Stadium on match day. Suddenly, every trouble seemed worthwhile — the physical exhaustion and the mental trauma of paperwork seemed trivial. A lifetime’s opportunity awaited us. Finally, after three hours, we made it.

Those moments as we drove into Pakistan were unforgettable. Through the bus windows, we glimpsed the Pakistan Rangers. There was an uneasy silence in the bus, not one of nervousness or anxiety but one of soaking in the moment. Soon, all visions of angry people lining up to ‘welcome’ us faded in the distance and gave way to sights of locals waving vigorously at our bus as it made its way into Lahore. An overwhelming feeling was slowly creeping into our minds — “Isn’t this supposed to be Pakistan, the country we love to hate?” The shops, huts, roads and even the people looked similar to those back home.

Eating our hearts out!

After resting for a bit, we headed off to Bundu Khan restaurant to start a culinary experience I will probably never forget. I had finally understood what ‘mouth-watering’ meant. Lahore is a heaven for foodies.

But if you are a veggie, Pakistan can be hell. Breakfast, lunch and dinner all have the same unabashed favour of beef and chicken.

As we worked our way through what seemed like our greatest supper, we experienced a dose of Pakistani hospitality we still stand smitten by. Our hosts just wouldn't let us pay the bill, which was longer than the Radcliffe Line that separates the two countries.

People from every strata came up and in no uncertain terms professed how happy they were to see us in their country.

Some traced their lineage back to India, some were curious about their neighbours, while some were just happy to see their ‘brothers’. Then there was a watchman I’ll never forget. With a lot of emotion he said: “India aur Pakistan ek maa ke do bete, bichchar gaye to kya hua?” Every single Pakistani we met after that, including the last Pakistan Ranger we met at Wagah before we hopped across to India, epitomised the sentiment some way or the other. For me, that simple statement symbolised everything about the trip.

Games people play

We played our own cricket match as well. Getting together with our Pakistani friends, we played a couple of games in Muslim Town in Lahore. It was a superb feeling. The result here was different from the actual ODI — we got creamed, to put it bluntly. But we have never had so much fun losing. What needs a mention here are the taped tennis balls that Pakistanis learn their cricket with. No wonder Pakistan has produced a legendary line-up of fast bowlers over the years! I must mention the seven-year-old boys playing next to us, bowling yorkers as if that's what they were born to do!

What good Dilliwalas usually need after a tiring but inspiring defeat is a drink. As you would expect, public sale and consumption of alcohol is banned in Pakistan. But notice that I mention ‘public’. In came our ever-gracious hosts, Omar and Shehzaad bhai, and with them another gesture of their impeccable hospitality. They treated us to good old Pakistani Scotch. Fittingly, the whisky was called ‘Vintage’ and was specially brewed at Murree, a hill station in Pakistan. Needless to say, we had more than one for the road.

Match day madness

On match day, we got ready in our India T-shirts and headed off to the Gaddafi. The atmosphere was festive and the excitement was palpable. All of us realised the enormity of the moment. Till a few months ago, it was sacrilege to even imagine an India-Pakistan encounter. And now, here we were in Pakistan about to witness a rivalry which makes the Ashes look like a mohallah duel.

Indian fans packed themselves in the Imran Khan enclosure and soon there was a sea of green and orange.

The sloganeering had started. But even though a minority, we didn't feel any discomfort or dominance.

For some of us, the match was a success even before it started, simply because we stood witness to images of ‘people to people’ contact no could have imagined.

Indians and Pakistanis ran around the stands together, draped in their respective flags, smiling and shouting. Gradually, Indians held Pakistani flags and vice versa and everybody sang. That for me was one giant leap for mankind.

Cricket is a great game. There were no Indians and Pakistanis at that time, just passionate lovers of the game, oblivious to any boundaries.

To see the renowned supporter of Pakistani cricket, Chacha, as he is called, waving the Indian flag was inspiring. We stood silent as the match twisted and turned and India seemed like heading for defeat. Suddenly, the only cries of encouragement to Dravid and Kaif, as they soldiered on, were from a handful of Pakistani schoolgirls! They literally took India through the slump and once things looked up, everybody joined in. We won.

But somehow, each of us was feeling a little bad for Pakistan. It felt strange. One Pakistan fan appreciated the great performance from the Indians and told me: “Kashmir le lo, Dravid de do. Baki koi masla nahin!”

Singing a different tune

Indian fans suddenly decided to celebrate the victory by singing the national anthem. Can you imagine the high of singing the national anthem on the soil of a nation that has been a sworn enemy for half a century? But then occurred the most poignant moment of the entire trip. Straight out of a dream Bollywood script, our Pakistani hosts joined in and clapped while we sang. We of course returned the compliment when they sang out their anthem. This could be branded as jingoistic and sentimental outpourings quite divested from reality, but the truth is that all this did not happen in the glare of cameras or supervised by politicians — strangers just got together and became friends in that beautiful moment.

The next day we left for home. It's difficult to not get a strong sense of history when you stand at Wagah. The sight of a Pakistan Ranger and a BSF jawan staring at each other makes you a little speechless. Minutes later, we turned into excited children, shaking hands and clicking pictures with the Rangers. March 22, 2004 will be forever engraved in our memory.

First Published: Nov 13, 2007 03:29 IST