The first time I visited Amritsar, I was bewildered, smitten and deeply saddened. This was in 2008, on a trip with my college friends from Kinnaird. We reached Amritsar from Delhi, after having visited other major towns of north India. My paternal grandfather, who raised me, was from the eastern Punjab district of Gurdaspur, Tehsil Batala.
Since I was a little girl, he had pointed to the wall next to our house and said our “home” is there, across the border in India. When I crossed Wagah on foot ten years ago and boarded the bus later, I was surprised as to how near Amritsar was and a bit disappointed that my grandfather had failed to come this far to rediscover his own home. He later confessed that he found the journey too burdensome to make. The journey across Wagah took several hours because the border authourities thoroughly inspected every bag and passport.
But after the border crossing, everything was the same, except that many more turbans appeared on the horizon and young women were seen riding on scooters. We were all young women in our teens and early twenties. There was a loud gasp or sigh at everything different or similar. The boards in Gurmukhi were fascinating and the sarson ke khait reminded us of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge.
Most people who have move between the two Punjabs are awe-struck by their resemblance. Particularly when the journey is made on a train or bus and one can see the lush fields. The food, the language and everything else are so alike that the Radcliffe Line doesn’t make sense. The final question everyone asks is: why the partition?
Lahore and Amritsar, are the most famous twin cities in India, partly because of their tragic separation in 1947. They are just 50 kilometres apart and a fast train like the ones we see in Tokyo would transport us from one city to another in 10 or 15 minutes.
The cities have a similar ethos, of course, as they are both Punjabi and geographically extremely close. The two cities have a comparable layout: old walled cities to defend from invaders and a dozen gates to protect those cities. Lahore has the Badshahi mosque, Shahi Qilla and old city at one corner while Amritsar has the Harmandir Sahib or Golden Temple and the Gobindgarh Fort on the other edge.
They even have the same Mori and Lahori Gates in their old cities. Both the Shah Alam Market in Lahore and the Hall Bazaar in Amritsar were badly affected during the 1947 disturbances. During the partition of India, both Lahore and Amritsar witnessed deadly riots. And much of the migration took place towards refugee camps established in the two cities. The two cities were the largest commercial hubs in the pre-partition Punjab. And they served as home to all the three major, religious communities- the Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims. Though the Muslims had a slight majority, the population was evenly balanced.
Author Pran Neville, best known for his book called Lahore: A Sentimental Journey, told me he used to study at the Government College Lahore and cycle to Amritsar to watch a film or two. Twin cities are always special. I was sent to Minneapolis as an ICFJ fellow in 2015. Minneapolis is a twin city of St Paul’s. And I often wondered what it would be like if Amritsar too was a lazy train ride away. We could have crossed over, visited the Golden Temple and returned. Friendships and professional associations could have been maintained. I could even teach at my grandfather’s alma mater, Khalsa College at Amritsar, and return by the evening.
These are urban centres that are close to each other and each grows over time. There are no precise criteria for the definition but a similar administrative setup is obviously required. In some cases, the cities grew into each other, defying borders and barriers and losing their individual identity. This is impossible in Lahore and Amritsar’s case, of course, considering there is a barbed border between the two. Still, from 1947 to 1965, there was no formal border and people commuted back and forth between the two towns. Businessmen came to Shah Alam Market and Urdu Bazaar for buying and selling.
A cluster of authors moved from Lahore to other parts of India in 1947. This included Amrita Pritam, Balwant Singh, Khushwant Singh, Krishen Chander and Pran Neville shifted to other parts of India, mostly Delhi and East Punjab. Similarly, writers from Amritsar moved to Lahore because of its status as the cultural hub of Punjab. Also, of course, transition to the closest Punjabi city must have been easier.
Punjabi poets Saifuddin Saif, Ahmed Rahi and Firozdin Sharaf moved from Amritsar to Lahore. Ahmed Rahi’s poetry collection Trinjan became a seminal Punjabi work regarding the women victims of partition violence. Manto was born in Samrala but his Kashmiri family hailed from Amritsar. He too famously adopted Lahore as his home after leaving Bombay. So did MD Taseer. These authors did not just enrich Lahore’s literary landscape, but also fuelled the Progressive Writers Movement.
Bhisham Sahni (brother of actor Balraj Sahni) and Dalbir Chetan moved from Lahore to Amritsar. I am slowly discovering their contribution to my mother language Punjabi, a language now as divided as the region itself.
However, the case for their retaining the status of twin cities still stands. The two towns, Lahore being the much larger counterpart, should have a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed by the city governments. They should aid residents or select groups from each town in the visa process, particularly the students, sportsmen, and artists to come on an exchange in the city which is next door. There is so much goodwill and shared history to explore. Of course, this requires a lot of will-power given that even the Wagah-Attari bus service is closed right now and ties between India and Pakistan are very tense. But if a group of people, particularly youngsters work on increasing cooperation, it might be fruitful, particularly when Indo-Pak relations become more relaxed.
There is great need to reignite this association between Amritsar and Lahore. Both sides of Punjab are now dominated by just one religion and have lost the multi-ethnic/multi-religious fabric that existed for centuries before partition. Today, Punjabi on both the sides has a different script and diction. The Pakistani side has the Persian and Shahmukhi script while the Indian side has the Gurmukhi script plus and Hindi vocabulary infused. There is a need for cooperation in Punjabi literature and an exchange of ideas between artists and authors from both the sides.
The Partition Museum in Amritsar can certainly cooperate with the Partition Museum in Lahore. Maybe, this idea can bloom in the virtual domain, through social media communities, even before this materialises on the ground.
One aspect of Amritsar and Lahore that can never change is their geographical proximity. Nothing else is immune to the changes of time. That day in January 2008, I was really heartbroken. This was the closest I had come to my ancestral village and the ‘home’ that was my first childhood memory. All I had was a few hours in the afternoon and that too thanks to the improved relations with India during the Musharraf era. Eventually, that too withered away and we were all left in limbo. I felt some fraction of the pain my grandfather must have felt when he was forced to leave his hometown. The sense of a loss and enforced displacement is with me to this day.
Hopefully, a new wave of cooperation and friendly ties will open new doors to our past and heritage and bring in a bright future.
First published in ‘Daily Times’