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Thursday, 19 April 2007

An evening at the Wagah border

A trip to the Wagah border to see the flag lowering ceremony of India and Pakistan sounded quite exciting.

But when I sat on the stadium overlooking both the borders, it was something else that fascinated me.

Here, sitting on each side of the fence were the kind of people I had probably only seen in the cricket matches.

For us, patriotism is a word so completely restricted to the history books that the sight at Wagah border seemed so out of the world.
As the Indian side of the stadium slowly filled up, a BSF jawan in a war cry kind of tone shouted Bharat Mata ki jai, Hindustan Zindabad, Vande Matram and in the backdrop were old patroitic movie songs like Nannna Munna rahi hoon. To give the jawan company were a 500 odd Indians who were more than eager to shout Bharat Mata Ki Jai.

Then began what seemed like a daily ritual run of Indians to the border gate holding the tri colour flag. In no time, around the jawans gathered clusters of men, women, old and young all fighting for a two minute possession of the national flag.

And I was there, wide eyed and jaws dropping in surprise seeing all this. Was it real patriotism or just an obsession to show love towards India in front of the estranged neighbours? I couldn't quite understand ...

A memorable journey

We were forewarned by the staff of our hotel not to reach the border too early. But getting the first chance to witness the daily ceremony at the only Indo-Pak road crossing, we didn't want to miss a thing.

So we set out from Amritsar at sharp 3.30 in the afternoon. While we could have travelled in a shared auto for the 30 km drive, the heat made us opt for a taxi.

The half hour drive took us through long stretches of the golden wheat fields ready for harvest. As I saw the board for the Attari international railway station, my mind instantly went back to the movie Veer Zara.

That was the closest I had seen of the Wagah border. Thoughts were racing across my mind ... it was on Samjhauta Express, the train bound to this very place to pass over to Pakistan, bombs recently took away so many innocent lives. For me, those things were just a part of the newspapers and television. Never did I know that I'll be here, driving across those very places.

We reached the border at 4.15, after stopping on the way to buy cold drinks since our cabby cautioned us that everything will be too expensive there.

We discovered that we were not the only earlybirds. The place was already quite crowded with scores of people waiting for the entry to begin.
At 4.30, people sprinted across the long stretch of road which led them to the stadium overlooking the border.

Almost everyone seemed so fascinated to look at what lies beyond the barbed wire. These fences would have separated the two countries for decades but the eagerness to know more about each other seems ever increasing.

The spectacle

The closest we have seen of the beating retreat is the January 29 ceremony on TV. But this beating retreat across the border was of a different kind. As I said earlier, the two-hour long wait was not uneventful.

The antics of the enthusiastic citizens kept us in rapt attention even as we struggled hard to keep our heads covered from the scorching sun.

Our neighbours were also busy cheering with the patriotic songs of their country. Suddenly to our amusement, we also heard an English track being played from the Pakistani side but we couldn't make out its patriotic connotation.

Pakistanis, though considerably less in number, seemed to be much more spirited. Somehow, their Pakistan Zindabad sounded much stronger than our Hindustan Zindabad.

As my husband busied himself with clicking picture after picture, my mind wandered along looking at the sets of people sitting across the border ... same dress, same language and same history.

We're all here sitting just a walk across from each other but still the distance is too far to be bridged. A man-made catastrophe which has given nothing but blood shed through all those years ...

Well, there was not much time to sit and think because I suddenly heard the songs being switched off and the Indian guards with long, red pagdi taking their positions at about 6 p.m.

A huge cry and we saw a jawan marching across to the gate. Ditto was the scene with the green uniformed jawans across the border.

Turn by turn, the finest fighters marched towards each other at amazing pace with their leg lifts that could tear any normal limbs apart.For about five minutes, the gates were flung open as the jawans from both the sides displayed their martial skills.

A salute and a hand shake and both were back in their own territories. The half an hour ceremony drew to a close as Indian and Pakistani flags were simultaneously lowered, respectfully folded and brought back.

As they dispersed, the Pakistanis could be seen frantically waving and trying hard to draw attention from the Indian side.

The sun had gone down by this time and at the Indian gate was going on an elaborate photo session as more and more people kept turning up and requesting for some more time to click pictures.

Some jawans were very friendly and it was obvious that they are used to entertaining such requests every day.
It was about this time when a White lady came up to me and struck a conversation. Clad in a cotton salwar kameez, the Irish who was accompanied by a Keralite nun seemed curious about our reaction to the gate closing ceremony.

Comparing it to the clash between North and South Ireland, she asked me if I thought this border dispute could ever be solved ... India seemed to have impressed her as she told me, "This country has something different in every place I go. These three months have been quite a learning experience for me."

I smiled at her thinking how even we are learning new things about this country every day ... Our Wagah border experience was also one of them.

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