Amritsar, the Boarder
Amritsar, the largest city in the Punjab, is the proud home of the Golden Temple - the holiest shrine of the Sikh religion - and the not-so-proud home of the Jallianwala Bagh - the location where 2,000 Indian independence demonstrators were shot by British soldiers in 1919.
Despite these rather impressive cultural landmarks, the true tourist attraction in Amritsar lies some 20 kilometers outside the city: the Wagah border crossing with Pakistan.
In my experience a border crossing has almost always been something located on an isolated road in the far northern woods You show some type of identification: passport, driver's license, Blockbuster Video membership card, official Star Fleet Academy Identification, etc. A half-asleep guard of indeterminate national origin looks up from his tiny, black-and-white television and mutters something about the number of people in the car, their ages, and whether you are bringing any beer into the United States or bringing any firearms into Canada. You only hope the guard does connect your age - 18 - with the contents of the back seat of the car - cases of Molson Golden beer. Pleasantries are exchanged about hockey, the weather, and the most recent referendum on Quebecois independence. You then go on your way, free to drink or to hunt.
The India-Pakistan border at Wagah is nothing at all like the farcical U.S. - Canada checkpoints. It is part sporting event, part geopolitics, part Orwellian "Two Minute Hate", and part national catharsis.
The auto-rickshaw pulled into the officially sanction tourist parking lot. The driver managed to find a space among the large, well-apportioned tour buses that filled the parking lot. These buses were neither bringing people to Pakistan or meeting people crossing from Pakistan. They were there to task ordinary Indians to see the border crossing.
I got out of the rickshaw and, along with a crowd of sightseers, began to walk the 1 kilometer to the border. Along both sides of the road, enterprising Indians had set up a variety of tent-like stores - every third one with the Coca-Cola logo proudly emblazoned across its front. "Soda!" "Popcorn!" "Ice Cream!" I almost expected somebody to yell out, "Hot Dogs! Get Your Red Hot Dogs Here!" I saw several people standing around a deep-fryer making samosas, chipatis and other Indian dishes. Tables and chairs were scattered in front of the more permanent-looking tents.
Small children came up to me and offered to sell me pictures of the border. "But I have a camera." "Camera not allowed." "Yeah?! Why he have camera?" I pointed to the many other tourists carrying an impressive array of photographic and video equipment. The child just looked at me and replied, "Picture. 20 rupees!" I walked on.
The crowd had to compress into a single-file line. This was done with typical Indian panache - a chaotic crowd of people all pushing, pulling, tugging, thrusting and somehow going nowhere. It reminded me of a physics lesson - when two equal, but opposite forces are applied to an object, no work is done. I simply walked around the crowd, pushed my way to the center and entered the line. All in all, it took me two minutes to bypass the rugby scrum. The next hundred meters were something out of Disney World: a line serpentined around gardens, statutes, and border guards in rather impressive uniforms - helmets, feathers, epaulets, and ribbons. I passed through a metal detector. I did not think that it was working; I passed through without even a beep despite the fact that my carrying bag had a camera, my hotel key, a padlock and piles upon piles of worthless Indian coins.
I knew I was getting close to the front of the line when I heard the singing coming from the Pakistani side of the border. Sung to the tune of "This Old Man", the words were quite simple: "We Hate You. We Hate You. We Hate You. We're Pakistan!"
Once at the front of the line, I was direct to my seat in the "India" stadium. There are two small stadium-like sitting areas on each side of the border. Quite frankly - and one should never admit this in India - Pakistan has the nicer stadium. The Pakistani stadium has covered seating, air-conditioning for its V.I.P. booth and is topped with a portrait of some famous Pakistani leader. In contrast, the Indian stadium is a series of concrete bleachers, exposed to the sun and offering a rather poor view of the border. Despite these shortcomings, the Indians were proud of their stadium. One man told me that, "India had the first stadium. Pakistan followed. Soon India will have an even nicer stadium than Pakistan!" "Sort of like the atomic bomb," I replied.
On each side of the border, people waved their respective flags; yelled insults to the other side; and sang patriotic songs. Sadly, none of India's song was as catchy as "We hate you!!" Most of India's songs boasted about India's greatness, the strength of its people, the richness of its land, and its 4-0 record in wars with Pakistan. Every so often, a young man would stand-up, blow a whistle and lead the crowd in a pro-India cheer.
What was truly interesting about this crowd, was that it - more so than any other thing that I have seen in India - represented a true cross-section of Indian culture. In the V.I.P. viewing area, several paunchy, middle-aged men sat and politely applauded when somebody started a cheer. In another section was a middle class family: the mother wearing a pink sari, matching sneakers, and designer sunglasses; a small child in jeans, a plaid oxford shirt and thin-framed glasses; and a father in khaki pants and a blue knit shirt. Elsewhere in the crowd - obvious by their smaller size, manner of dress, and general submissive demeanor - were representatives of the lower classes. I wished I could show this scene to the Swiss man I met in Dharmasala who felt that he knew the real India because he spent time with a $100 a day guru.
Shortly before sunset, soldiers from each country performed a ceremony to mark the end of the day and the closing of the frontier. With the beating of drums, the blowing of whistles and the grunt-like orders of an impressively uniformed man, several Indian soldiers exited one of the border control buildings and began to march towards the border. The crowd in the Indian stadium jumped up, cheered, yelled, waved, and carried on as if a favored sporting team had just taken the playing field. Meanwhile, from the Pakistan side of the border, came howls of derision, boos, and chants. India returned the favor several minutes later when the Pakistani border guards exited their control building and marched to the border.
From this display, it was obvious that the Indian Army does not spend much time drilling its forces with parade ground technique. In contrast to the ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington - where the uniformed servicemen march with robot-like precision and unison - the Indian soldiers resembled a group of school kids told to walk in a single line. Each solider marched at his own pace; they were out of step; some looked at the crowd and waved. At one point one solider paused to have his picture taken, causing the several men marching behind him to collide. It was typically Indian: despite all attempts to bring order, chaos still prevailed.
The commander barked, "At Ease." In the American and British Armies, "at ease" means that you stand straight with your arms at your side, behind your back, or on your hips. "At ease" still implies some form of military discipline. In India, "at ease" must mean do whatever you want. The soldiers, still in some semblance of a line, dropped their guns, slouched, rolled their heads around their necks, talked to each other and swatted flies. I am even convinced that I saw one reach down and scratch his ass.
One solider broke from the line and paraded in front of the border crossing. He did a simple, high-kick march. Shortly after, a Pakistani solider walked in front of the border - kicking a little higher, and marching a little crisper. The crowd in Pakistan cheered. Then an Indian solider march - higher, crisper than the Pakistani solider. But this time he ended his march with an additional flourish: a one-legged 90-degree pivot before returning to his squad. The Pakistanis would not be out done; their next man marched, kicked, and pivoted 180 degrees.
During these displays, I heard a "bang bang" coming from a child's voice. Several seats over from me were a small child about five or six years old holding a toy pistol. Every time a Pakistani solider marched in front of the border, he took his gun, aimed it at the border and said, "bang". His parents looked on approvingly.
By the time I turned my attention back to the border display, the guards were performing marches that would shame any self-respecting NFL player who just scored a touchdown. There were kicks, pivots, one-legged balancing tricks, gun tosses. I was waiting for somebody to moonwalk or perform a somersault. The crowd became silent. The commander of the border guards approached the border. He blew his whistle. He proudly walked to one side of the border crossing. He then marched across - he kicked so high his legs almost reach his head, at the end of the crossing. He performed a full 360-degree pivot with one leg above his head. He then faced Pakistan, took his gun and did a series of drills: twirls, crossing the shoulders, behind the back, and above the head. He clanked the gun against the ground and walked back to his regime. The Indian crowd went wild - they waved their flags; they jumped around.
The leader of the Pakistani forces did an equally impressive display of martial techniques. Over a child's shouts of, "Bang Bang" I could hear the Pakistani crowd cheer, clap, and stomp their feet. With flourish, the Pakistani guard shut the gate and the border with India was closed for the evening.