It’s ticklish business navigating a cemetery. There’s that saying, “Someone’s walking on my grave,” prompted by some chill running up the spine. Travel thoughtfully, not least the great river valleys of the world, and you find stories of near cosmic scale lying at your feet, stories that send a shiver through the soul.
A traverse of the Punjab passes through immense fields of standing grain which seem ordinary enough at first blush. But they are not. This is ground zero of Asia’s Green Revolution. It was precisely here in the early 60s that the hinges of fate swung India away from mass starvation. A burgeoning population, then near 460 million, had outrun the capacity of traditional farming to sustain it. India was exhausted and hungry.
Then came Norman Borlaug and the wizardry of agro-scientists. In a few short years, hybrid grains bolstered by irrigation and new inputs began to yield bumper crops of wheat and rice across Punjab and Haryana. The spectre of famine was not only banished, but India became a major exporter of grain. It is estimated that Borlaug’s innovations spared a billion people from starvation. He went on to win a Nobel. That story of triumph lies beneath the traveler’s feet.
But you’d also be crossing a memorial field of sorrow with few equals. When, 72 years ago, they took a scimitar to old India, slashing it in two along purported religious lines, the Punjab plains saw the greatest exchange of human populations ever witnessed in modern history. Millions of Sikhs and Hindus trekked out of the now Islamic state of Pakistan to find haven in India. And millions of Muslims, fearing a minority future in India, left en masse to seek new lives and safety in Pakistan. The passions loosed upon farming villages, towns and cities beggars the vocabulary. Generations of accumulated wealth and history were abandoned in desperate flight. And those passions soaked the Punjab in a bloodbath whose memory haunts the two nations still. Some say three million lives were lost on these very plains. The numbers do not begin to tell the agonies of that terrible hour. That too lies silent beneath the feet.
Having exchanged greetings with the immigration authorities at Wagah, I collected my documents – passport and yellow vaccination certificate – and prepared for an afternoon bus ride into Lahore to rally with my travelling companions. But not before a moment of drama.
That not-to-be-missed spectacle at the border crossing is a testosterone fueled display when the frontier gates close at evening. So charged is this daily ritual that it draws hundreds of tourists who range themselves in galleries beside the gates. There the rival guards on both sides of the troubled line set a bar for strutting and mutual intimidation unequaled anywhere on the planet except perhaps by the haqqa of the New Zealand Maori. It’s as though the distilled fury of history is incarnated in lockstep and uniform as a frontier pageant.
Better that than live fire and the blood-letting itself.