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Published: August 27th 2008
You can look, but you can't sit next to the women...
At first it is a contest of which side can be louder, prouder, and more patriotic. When it is all said and done, citizens of both nations crowd at the locked gates that separate them. They cheerfully and curiously speak to each other while clasping the painted bars, knowing full well it is the closest they will ever come to setting foot on what was once a singular India sixty years ago.
After proceeding through broken-down metal detectors (or simply stepping to the side of them to get through), the Pakistanis segregate their public by gender. The men occupy one section of the curved grandstands to the left; the women go the other way. If there is any advantage at all to witnessing the border closing ceremony on the Pakistani side, it is the VIP seating arrangements they have for foreigners. For all the annoyances of being a Westerner at times, this is when it pays off. I sit next to a Thai family only a few feet from the curb. The searing heat of the late afternoon has still not let up. Most men’s shirts are soaked and stained in the back and under the arms.
Ear-piercing noise (the locals
The men are much more enthusiastic...
refer to this as music) is blasted at levels so uncomfortable, I have to scream to the Thais next to me just to converse. What are they trying to prove with such mundane patriotic banter? Is it for us to hear? Or is someone making sure that the sound blows away the gathering crowds fifty yards away in India? The stands are soon jammed on both sides and some public are seated curbside when all other seating is occupied. Occasionally the music is cut off and a cheerleader takes over on the PA system.
“Pakistan!” he screams.
“Zindabad!” responds the crowd. Pakistan Zindabad: Long live Pakistan.
“Zindabad!” they roar. The crowd’s response is firm, genuinely proud, and almost intimidating. Men pass the white and green flag with crescent and star in a bamboo staff through the stands. They take turns waving it with much fervor. In India, they too, wave their flag, but do not instinctively wrap themselves in it like their neighbors do. The Indians sing harmoniously. It looks like they have come to a concert in the park. The Pakistanis have come with a much more serious agenda. A white-bearded old man who has made a name
His Purpose in Life
He animates the crowd and pokes fun at the Indians through the gate...
for himself over the years runs up and down the lane to the delight of the public. He sports a t-shirt of the national colors, carries his own flag, and ratchets up the crowd to a more excited pitch. He poses for photos in front of the foreigners’ gallery by triumphantly raising his arms in the air to signify some obscure victory over a mysterious foe. Flag waving turns to the raising of clenched fists in unison in the men’s grandstand. It is a fever pitch of emotion; the closest I have ever seen to it is witnessing the Brazilians concentrate on their soccer team during the World Cup.
The ceremony itself is a series of stomps, angular turns, and long strides that begin at the overhang and reach right to the painted white line that demarcates the two nations. The Pakistani guards’ uniforms are something out of a B movie. They wear a black two-piece outfit with a white shoulder strap that comes down and across the chest. Various medals hand from the breast pocket. White chevrons in red trim are patched to the shoulder. A red collar of vertical white stripes reaches to the bottom of the chin.
A view of India from a few yards away...
The headpiece is an extravagant black cap with a cape of the same color that falls around the back of the neck. At the top of the cap is a decorative ornament in the shape of a peacock’s tail or a Spanish fan. The Indian guards duplicate the same pattern of stomps and marches as their counterparts. The march is a Riverdance by men in headgear with a peacock tail.
Very rarely do guards approach each other on the actual border. When they do, they offer each other a rigid salute and handshake and then go about their symmetrical routine of steps. Never does one guard cross the line into the other country. The public on both sides cheers wildly. The long strides and stomping continue only to be interrupted when the Pakistani guard stops to face India, flex his biceps, and shake his body in a menacing gesture to his neighbors. The Indian guards do not answer back with aggression. It is as if the Pakistanis have something to prove. The guards behavior, though purely for show, and the entranced crowd act like the younger brother who could never live up to the feats and achievements of the prodigal
Trumpets sound and the guards slowly lower the flags of their respective nations. Without much more bustle, they slam the gates shut, not to be opened until ten the next morning. The cheers are thunderous as the unit of military personnel recedes from the stage. The theatre of war is over. As the crowd disperses, many cling to the bars of the gate to converse with a fellow Punjabi whom they have been brought up to dislike, distrust, or hate. They reach through the gate just so they can touch each other and make a connection that will have to wait for a very long time to come.
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