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Every day after school, noted Pakistani travel writer Salman Rashid would see the rusty old cream and green coloured bus lying in a heap on the dusty Lawrence Road in Lahore. It had a glorious name, the Waltzing Matilda, like the Harry Belafonte song, with names of cities it had been to and once promised to take people to — London, Paris, Calcutta.
“I left Lahore in 1979 and went to live in Karachi. And sometime between 1979 and 1984, the bus disappeared,” Rashid, a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, told TOI. The year 1979 was also when the Iran Revolution and the Russian occupation of Afghanistan changed the geopolitics of the region. By the 1980s, the borders of India and Pakistan had “become difficult,” as Rashid put it. The buses disappeared. Over the past fortnight, a photograph of people boarding a London-Calcutta-London bus has been circulated several times over on social media. It could be fake news, some wrote. Or a prop from a production, others said. It was neither. A lot has been written about the scattered history of these intercontinental overland journeys. But for those who had encounters with the Indiaman, as the bus in the photograph was called, and other intercontinental services like it, it is only in hindsight that it appears so extraordinary. The entire overland trip could cost between £85 and £145, not cheap but definitely more accessible than air or cruise travel at the time. Indiaman, run by London’s Garrow-Fisher Tours was the first bus connecting London and south Asia, starting in April, 1957. “Twenty thousand miles of thrills” is how it was advertised, promising to take its 20-odd passengers through France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and India. Over the next decade or so, 32 more operators followed, including Swagman Tours, Tentrek Expeditions (meant as wordplay on ‘Tantrik’), King Kong, Crazy Bus and, reassuringly, No Sweat Overland Tours — with redesigned old buses, refurbished fire trucks and refitted double deckers. The journeys would take about 20 days each way. “The route was not new — it was the old Orient Express track. What these companies did was formalise it,” former BBC journalist Nazes Afroz, now based in Delhi, told TOI. “Two friends of mine, Mandira Sen from SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London) and Amit Jyoti Sen from Cambridge took one of these buses in 1978 to return to Calcutta. This was before the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. But the border from Pakistan was closed. So they could come up to Kabul, had to take a flight to Amritsar and then a train to Calcutta.”
These companies would arrange everything — they’d ask passengers to keep their passports and 10 photos ready, some got the visas done too (Schengen visa for Europe would only be introduced in 1985) and while some buses offered enough room to stay in the bus, others arranged hotel rooms. Penn Overland offered “fully air-conditioned” buses while Albert Travel said the bus would be “your complete home while you travel” (it did 15 trips between 1968 and 1975). But why did people take the bus? “In the ‘50s, very few people would have been able to fly. Most people would travel by ship,” said Afroz. By the ‘60s, there were two kinds of overland travellers on these routes — those who took organised bus tours like Indiaman and those who went with the far-from-formal Hippie Trail. Another friend of Afroz, Nick, had actually bought a bus with some of his friends when they were university students at Oxford and driven it up all the way to Afghanistan. “They redesigned the bus and came up to Khyber Pass — they could not go beyond, this was the late ‘60s. So they left the bus there, crossed over into Pakistan and then entered India. Nick came to Calcutta and stayed on, teaching English at Ballygunge.” The journeys did come with some surprises. Like Roger Neave, a 26-year-old Oxford graduate in the late 1950s who decided to give up his job as a production controller because he was “bored silly”, to become the driver for a bus that went from London to Bombay. “On graduation I joined three other graduates in a Land Rover to India. They were on their way home to Bangalore and New Zealand. I dream of my overland experience and have not forgotten the sight of a Penn bus in Delhi. Can you use me?” he wrote to Penn Overland, one of the intercontinental bus services.
They agreed. And he got on that bus. “There would be around 15-20 passengers. They’d make stops at hotels where the guests could stay. He would often just sleep in the bus,” said Christopher, his nephew. “On one of these journeys, he met a young Australian woman. To cut a long story short, he ended up falling in love, married her and stayed in Australia. That’s when he gave up the job and just settled there.”
Roger passed last year. But his sense of adventure is what seems to have defined the journey for most from the West. “It did not seem extraordinary to western youth at the time. They were young. It was fashionable. Cheap buses were advertised in the alternative press. You didn’t have to be wealthy. My bus went to Lebanon, Afghanistan, Kashmir and Nepal. All I knew was that they produced the hashish I smoked in London,” UK-based musician-songwriter Richard Gregory, who did the Hippie Trail in 1974, told TOI. “It did seem extraordinary to my parents’ generation … I still sing the chorus of ‘Dum Maaro Dum’ occasionally.”
Gregory acknowledged that what the people of south Asia made of the route is too often overlooked. And perhaps that’s where lies the difference. Those travelling eastward looked for adventure, those going westward were often looking for a new life. “My dad recalls this service leaving from Palika Bazaar in Delhi. It was a 15-day trip. He tells me it was mostly people from Punjab who were migrating from here. From London, it would be a Hippie crowd,” Anubhav Srivastava, a Mumbai-based investment manager, told TOI. On a Twitter thread, an Iranian-American writer narrated how his father, six years old at the time, took the trail in 1958 from Tehran, travelling through Turkey, Bulgaria, Switzerland and Iraq. “For Asians heading West, the trip to Europe offered a glimpse of how Western ‘progress’ was intertwined with genocidal industrialised violence, the scars of war still visible up close.” And while many of those who took the westward journey often looked for the “exotic” faraway places — the Penn Overland brochure, with its understanding of adventure as “mingling with a motley crowd of pilgrims” and an offer of a “nomad” package, or the Indiaman brochure with its liberal use of cow photographs and Hindu religious motifs — those headed west were often students or professionals, besides those making return journeys. Westbound fares were also higher, by up to £20. “Roger had to keep himself armed while driving the bus. There were cultural differences and he did have trouble at border crossings sometimes,” Christopher said.
But for those who encountered these buses in their cities, markets and bus stops, their disappearance means a life left behind. “As a teenager, I’d see these London-Calcutta-London buses parked outside Nedous Hotel in Lahore, opposite the zoo. They would be here for a couple of nights and then they’d be gone. The last time I saw one of those was in 1967 or ‘68,” Rashid said. Around the same time, across the border, in Delhi, people would hear bus conductors call out, “London, London,” at Connaught Place and not make much of it. “My uncle GR Karthikeyan, Narain’s father, told me this when I was leaving for London. He’s 78 now,” Meenakshi Sai, a Coimbatore-based entrepreneur who drove from her city to London over 70 days in 2017 to mark 70 years of Independence, told TOI, referring to F1 racer Narain Karthikeyan’s father. The tragedy of the India-Pakistan border is that those white people who created it are free to cross both ways and it is only us, who they divided, who can’t The Connaught Place buses were ubiquitous at the time. “I grew up in Delhi through the ‘60s and ‘70s. The bus office was behind Scindia House, down the lane in the middle of the block. Buses used to remain parked there, occasionally with the flower power and ‘60s pop art paint jobs,” Dr Sanjeev Jain, a professor at the department of psychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in Bengaluru, told TOI. But borders tightened. The buses stopped. And now, when a photograph is circulated on social media, it takes everyone by surprise. Rashid said, “The tragedy of the India-Pakistan border is that those white people who created it are free to cross both ways and it is only us, who they divided, who can’t.”