Monday, December 20, 2010

Call Of The Border

If you happen to be outside the Golden Temple or the Jallianwala Bagh Memorial in Amritsar in the late morning or early afternoon, you can see several men standing here and there, muttering...border, border. What they are offering is a ride to the Wagah border about 30 kilometres away. Actually, Attari is the Indian town nearest to the International border, while Wagah is in Pakistan, on the other side of the border. A retreat ceremony is held daily at sunset at the border. Over the years, it has become a major attraction. Hordes of tourists flock to the site everyday to witness the ceremony. One can go in a shared taxi or one can book a taxi entirely for oneself. We opt for the latter and strike a deal with a driver after some negotiation. It is not yet time to go. He promises to meet us outside the Golden Temple at 2.30 in the afternoon. One has to go early to be able to beat the crowds and secure a good place in the stands.

He keeps his word. We set off in his 'Mrooti van', leave the hustle and bustle of the city, go past the magnificent building of the Khalsa College and drive through the sprawling campus of the Guru Nanak Dev University. We are on NH-1, better known as the Grand Trunk Road. It is a wide avenue lined with shops and businesses on both sides. There are many marriage halls, a go-karting centre and a water park among other establishments along the way. I am happy to see such normal activity so close to the border. I read somewhere that things were not so good until a few years ago and this stretch used to be deserted in the evenings.

As we near the border, the shops and other commercial outfits are replaced by fields. They are like large green carpets with yellow flowers in between. After about 50 minutes, the driver parks his van outside a restaurant called 'Aman Ummeed'. Very nice name for a restaurant that is right on the border. It means 'Hope for peace'. We leave our belongings in the car in the care of the driver. You are not allowed to carry anything other than a camera, mobile phone and wallet beyond this point.

There are separate queues for men and women. It is a walk of about 500 metres. We notice Customs offices on the side of the road before reaching the scene of action. Men and women are made to sit separately. The stands fill up very soon. Patriotic songs are playing loudly in the background. The border is flanked by two massive gates, one on the Indian side, the other on the Pakistani side. They are kept shut most of the time. Both India and Pakistan have arches situated a few metres away from the border. The arch on the Pakistani side sports a large picture of Jinnah looking towards India. The respective flags are of course in place on both the arches as well as at the gates.

I can see the Pakistani stands clearly from my seat. They are not even half-full. The Pakistanis are playing patriotic songs too. On the Indian side, the BSF personnel are raising pro-India slogans and people are responding enthusiastically. The BSF people invite some young women to come down from the stands and hand them large Indian flags. The women take turns in running towards the gate carrying the flag. Soon, some elderly ladies join in the run. Lot more come down and start dancing to the music that is blaring from the speakers. A smart BSF officer who is supposedly in-charge of the proceedings is running around. He is doing his best to whip up patriotic emotions amongst the crowd by playing songs, raising slogans and organising flag-runs. When there is a momentary silence, slogans from Pakistan are clearly audible. Each side tries to drown out the other side's slogans by screaming louder and louder. It is easier for the Indians as their number is larger.

The crowds are made to vacate the road to make way for a bus. The gates are opened. A shiny silver bus operated by the Delhi Transport Corporation, full with passengers, appears on the scene. It is on its routine Delhi-Lahore-Delhi run. It is greeted by loud cheers from the crowd thronging the stands before it goes past the Indian gate and enters into Pakistan.

It is time. One of the BSF guards unleashes long and loud wail-like cries to signal the beginning of the retreat ceremony. They are met by similar ones from the Pakistani side. Then two lady guards march towards the gate in smart, synchronised steps. They are followed by pairs of men marching in similar fashion. Once at the gate, each of them raises one leg very high in the air before stomping it hard on the ground. Almost identical actions are taking place on the other side. There is heroism, bordering on aggression, in the gestures of the guards on our side, as well as theirs. The Pakistani guards are dressed in dark olive green uniforms. A guard on each side starts pulling the rope of the flag on his side. It is done with such precision and perfect timing that the flags meet at a point to make a perfect cross. Then the flags are taken down and folded neatly. The Indian flag is carried back and brought to the BSF building while the Pakistani flag goes to the other side. The flags that were fluttering at the arches are brought down too.

That is the end of the retreat ceremony. The gates are shut. People start dispersing. We come down the stands and walk towards the gate. We are just a few steps away from the gate when the guards tell us we cannot go any further. We are looking straight into Pakistan. It is a feeling like no other. One cannot help being sad about the fact that the vast expanse of land on the other side, that the guards in olive green are guarding ferociously, was a part of our great country just 63 years ago, but was torn away from us after a series of unfortunate events. The historic city of Lahore is just 30 kilometres from here. Amritsar and Lahore could as well have been twin cities with their people sharing the same weather, same food, same language, same customs and same culture. But that was not to be. This is the place that was witness to the exodus that took place across the newly-formed border at the time of partition.

Photos by Prateek
Today, the same place hosts a show held with pomp and pageantry, put up by India and Pakistan with mutual understanding and precise timing. I wish and hope that both the neighbours show the same understanding in all other matters too. We cannot undo the ugly scars inflicted on our psyche by the partition, but we can surely lessen the pain caused by it with some positive actions.

Some tips for visitors:

* Do not carry any valuables with you. Only mobile phones, cameras and wallets are allowed. Even water bottles and ladies' handbags are not permitted.

* Mobile phones cannot be used in the border area as there are jammers that block the signals.

* Men and women go in separate queues and sit separately. It is a good idea to fix up a meeting place where you can meet with your family/friends after the ceremony is over. The souvenir shop under the stands is an ideal place for this purpose.

* Reach the venue at least 90 minutes before the ceremony starts in order to get good seats. The time may vary in winter and summer and can be checked at the Punjab Tourist Information Centre in Amritsar. They have a booth/office near the railway station.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Temple Of Gold, A Pond Of Nectar

The free bus from the railway station to the Harmandir Sahib, also known as Darbar Sahib drops us at the gate. The entrance is simple. No ostentatious decorations. Only rows of blue, gold and silver streamers hanging overhead along the path that leads us inside the complex. There are no beggars, and no shops selling flowers or other offerings either.

The place where you must take off and deposit your footwear is impressive. There are rows after rows of shelves slightly under the ground level. They are manned mostly by elderly gentlemen. There are benches where you can sit while you remove your shoes. And washbasins to wash your hands after you have deposited them. Very thoughtful indeed. Walk a little further and you step into a shallow pool of running water. Your feet get a nice wash before you enter the holy premises. As you step out of the pool, there are jute mats and other mats made of a very nice green material, running along the entire length of the marble walkway that surrounds the pond  on all four sides.This makes sure that the floor does not remain wet and that there are no dirty feet marks anywhere. The entire temple premises are spotlessly clean. As you start walking along the path, the golden edifice in the centre of the pond gleams in the mild winter sun. Soothing strains of Gurbani waft in the air. They are singing it live in the sanctum sanctorum. Some people are walking quietly, others are sitting in the covered corridors on the sides with their eyes closed, and some are bending down, touching their forehead to the ground in reverence.

I stop at a window to buy some 'kadah parshad'. It is a kind of porridge made with whole wheat flour, oozing with ghee. Now we are on our way to the bridge which will take us to the temple. It is built on a square platform in the middle of the pond. It is a beautiful shrine, adorned with intricately carved panels of gold on all four sides.The crowd is moderate and people are waiting patiently in a queue. Volunteers are standing by silently, keeping an alert eye on the surroundings. I am trying to keep my head covered with my dupatta. But it does slip off. Every time that happens, I get a polite reminder from a volunteer to pull it over my head.

We pass through the Darshani Deori to enter an ornate chamber. This is the holiest of holy places for Sikhs all over the world. People are silent, bending in obeisance in front of the sacred Guru Granth Sahib. It is covered with a heavily decorated maroon quilt. There are flowers, a group of  people is sitting and singing, others are moving about. It is very calm and serene here, in spite of the presence of so many.

Little later, we head towards the langar. Volunteers hand us a steel plate, a container for water and a spoon. We enter the hall and take our place on the mat. The chapati, daal, kadhi and rice is simple, but delicious. It is amazing to see how people cook and serve food, and wash the dishes with a spirit of service...sewa. Thousands eat here everyday and the langar is open 24 hours in a day.

Photos by Prateek
 I go to collect my shoes. The gent who hands them over to me is a senior citizen. He joins his hands in a polite namaskaar to my 'thank you'. And I feel thanking him is so inadequate. The passion with which he is standing here, handling the footwear of thousands of strangers is something to be admired from the bottom of one's heart. I join my hands and the words 'Sat Shri Akal' tumble out of my mouth.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Diwali Specials

Oh, what a treat! I have on my table 13 Diwali issues, neatly stacked, fresh, waiting to be read... and enjoyed. They are all in Marathi, brought out by reputed periodicals and newspapers just around Diwali. I don't know when this practice of publishing special Diwali issues started, but they were certainly around in my childhood. Most Marathi households, with their meagre budget, could not afford to buy these issues. Traditionally, they were borrowed from neighbourhood lending libraries and savoured by the whole family. Diwali was the undisputed 'king' of all festivals and these issues added to the festive spirit. The Diwali package consisted of new clothes, home-made goodies, school holidays, firecrackers and Diwali special issues back then.

Later, for several years, I lost touch with them. We moved cities. Diwali became more commercial and no longer meant the same to me. But I knew the issues were still being published. I am not sure if television and internet made a dent in their volume. Occasionally, a kind friend or relative passed on an old issue to me. I liked reading short stories, interviews with prominent personalities, articles, travelogues and more. Some issues specialized in humour. They featured cartoons, satire, short stories and poems laced with humour and double entendre...from funny to naughty to off-colour.

Photo by Prateek
This year, just for old times' sake, I decided to buy Diwali specials. I had never bought them before. It was not easy to get them as I have lived outside Maharashtra most of the time. Now in Chennai, I wondered how to go about it. I fished out a card that a sales person had thrust in my hands when I was visiting a renowned book store in Pune. I sent an e-mail requesting them to send me a list of all the specials that were likely to be out this season. They sent a list of about 350 titles, neatly classified into categories such as general, literary, women, health and beauty, mystery, crime, cookery, cinema, religious, spiritual, children, humour and Astrology. I was pleasantly surprised on two counts. First, because the store responded to my request so promptly and professionally, and second, to see that the specials are being published in such large numbers. I picked 13 well-known titles out of that list and placed my order. Now, some e-mail exchanges later, the issues are sitting at my home in all their colourful glory. Many of them are printed on superior quality glazed paper. I like their newness. And the crispness of the pages as I turn them over. I am looking forward to reading them over the next few weeks. A slice of the old times...acquired using modern technology.