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.

1 comment:

  1. Liked the "Mrooti" variation. Hoped to see more of it in the narrative but couldnt find any