M6 gave way to A74 (M), seven miles north of Carlisle. "Failte gu Alba" reads the board - Welcome to Scotland. Sparkling holiday sky above and not a bump on a seamless motorway below made the crossing of borders hardly noticeable. Road signs did not change, as large-fonted, ample and helpful as all along the route. The landscape remained unaltered, fertile vegetation continued undisrupted beside the dual-carriageways.
No tollbooth, no bridge or traffic-choked narrowing, no Wagah-like display of exaggerated patriotism; only a fly-by-sign one could have easily missed rummaging for the tissue in the purse. Yet, the history shared by the two peoples on either side has had its blood-spilling conflicts. This was one of the most contested of borders; the upcoming Scottish referendum in September 2014 is proof of how the bone is still stuck.
Coming from a culture which makes a ceremony of every departing, and entry, at rail stations, airports, thresholds and barbed wires, this matter of fact crossing leaves me nonplussed.
I am reminded of the other time I had travelled by road to 'see' a land border, the Petrapole checkpoint into Bangladesh. In my early twenties, accompanying my sister and a few of her college mates, we had journeyed by bus to Bongaon and from there sitting astride a van rickshaw, got deposited among the huddling crowd, several feet from a rusty gate.
The early morning decision at the city bus depot on a seemingly 'different' expedition began to wear a less exciting colour. No one had had any idea what exactly we were supposed to do 'after' we had 'seen' the thing. Having travelled all morning, to catch a distant glimpse of weathered ironwork and a human melee didn't sum up to quite the expected adventure.
Goaded by encouraging whispers from our van driver, two of the boys walked up to an officious looking gentleman. He appeared as stumped as us. None of us were trying to slip through without papers, the usual kind most serving this post were accustomed to stop. Going over was not the motive, we still had parents to rush home to before late, there would be a 'crossing' of a worse kind if we failed to.
The officer took us to meet someone who was clearly the superior in charge. The senior asked our names and what we did. He never gave his; by now, the audacity and absurdity of our enterprise had struck us dumb, we forgot to inquire.
He must have concluded that there was nothing illegal about our innocent, although unusual, desire to be acquainted with this material symbol of our political statehood. He instructed the first officer to 'show us the gate'. We stood awkwardly by it. We could go out a few steps, the man smiled, escorting us to the middle of the no man's land, the yards between the two parallel gates. The opposite check post was named Benapole, rhyming as two brothers' might in a Bengali household.
Through 'their' rails we spied a bottle green Toyota. Those were the days before 'foreign' cars were plentiful on Indian city streets: the boys cheered.
My eyes followed the red soil; it did not change reaching the other side. The weeds crept away underneath the gate posts, undeterred by the lack of appropriate 'papers'. Tall trees appearing alike to our inexperienced urban eyes, grew on both ends of the unwired, bare stretch. I recalled the absence of wires read of frequently in headlines, the cause of diplomatic headaches and BSF nightmares.
Even the language on the distant signs wasn't alien, like Scottish from English, but the same I spoke at home: Bengali.
So, the birds could fly freely across, the grass could choose its scraggly path. Only we, the humans were locked apart. Our violent histories had scarred this earth a deeper red, there was no staunching the grief of those memories of suffering. Two iron gates had put an end to the northernly Goalondo ferry ghat, through which my maternal ancestors had arrived, never to return 'home' again.