At the Wagha Border
It is a hot day. I’ve been told the Wagha border ceremony is something worth seeing, but I don’t yet know about the peacock hats, the funny dances, the 6ft tall soldiers and the fanfare. In a few weeks, I will travel from India to Pakistan on a journey that few people make – the plane I will take flies only twice a week, and even then the small aircraft is half empty (or maybe half full – everything is about perspectives here). It will be my first peek into a country I have not seen in 15 years.
The Wagha border sits approximately halfway between two formerly twin cities – Amritsar in India, and Lahore in Pakistan. In many ways the cities remain reflections of each other; Amritsar is home to the golden temple, the holiest site in the world for the Sikh community. The temple contains the holy book, the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, and is the site of the world’s largest langar, a kitchen serving food free of charge to temple goers all day. In return, Lahore is custodian to the triple-domed Badshahi masjid, both big and beautiful – the outside praying area can accommodate over 60,000 worshippers, and as a feat of Mughal architectural aesthetics the building is second only perhaps to the Taj Mahal.
In Amritsar I feasted on a breakfast Kulcha – a thick, fluffy disc of naan bread stuffed with keema (mince meat), and doused in butter. The delicacies of Amritsar are far from delicate. If there was any doubt about the Sikhs being warrior class, know that the lassi (yoghurt based drink) here is also loaded with butter – meals designed to give a man jaan (an Urdu/Persian word meaning both ‘life’ and ‘strength’ though perhaps the two are interchangeable, for what is one without the other). In Lahore I got to try some of the best, and spiciest chicken biryani I have ever had – the open air 10-seater restaurant sat in the middle of Hall Road, a huge, bustling shopping district; Asia’s largest wholesale marketplace for electronics. We are constantly asking for the water jug to be refilled.
If Amritsar is home to the warriors, then Lahore’s historical reputation makes it home to the poets. My cousin tells me that it is a grave mistake to ask a Lahori man for directions, he will always guide you the wrong way, such is his pride towards the place of his birth, and corresponding disdain for those who do not share in his good fortune of being a Lahore local.
Both cities lay claim to the language, Punjabi, the language of metered rhyming poetry, Bhangra music, and still the tongue in which so much of Indo-Pakistan’s sense of percussive rhythm is expressed.
The road between Lahore and Amritsar is jarringly straight. On a map it looks as though a piece of string has been pulled tight between the two cities, suggesting that the terrain between them is uneventful - no hills to avoid, no mountains to weave around, no rivers to cross, no lakes to slalom between. It may be that there are no natural obstacles, but there are certainly man-made ones – most notably the Radcliffe line, a border drawn up by the British in 1947 as a means of dividing what was not quite a single country (the British, having originally unified the diverse princely states of “Hindustan” for bureaucratic, managerial reasons) into two.
At the join between the two countries, two stadiums have been built, one on the Pakistani side and one on the Indian side, where I am now. What was once a thoroughfare is now a destination, a sight for spectacle. The gate in the middle of the road is a 20ft wide structure – painted in the green and saffron of India here on our side, and matched by a green and white gate on the Pakistani side.
The road, and the gate which bisects it, are important for me because of their symbolism. This road which once served as the connecting artery between two twin cities has been cut in two and remains now as a scar in prostration to the blood spilled in both countries 70 years ago. The spasms which accompanied the birth of India and Pakistan saw a death toll as high as 2 million, as almost 20 million people crossed a newly formed border into newly formed countries, dealing with the fighting, violence and heartache that came with partition.
The ceremony I have come to witness takes place every night. In harmony with the setting sun, the two nations’ flags are lowered in a ritual that attracts crowds of thousands. Nowadays, almost no one crosses the border because security is so tight, but I think about all these things as I’m sat in this stadium – shouts of “Jai Hind!” echoing around, the music blasting too loud to speak.
As I’m sat here, in an area of the stadium reserved especially for foreigners, in a seat I did not need to fight over people to get to, it occurs to me that for many of the Indian nationals here, now cheering and whooping, this is the closest they will ever get to setting foot in Pakistan. Visas don’t come so easily, and few people – least of all nationals of either country – are able to make the journey from one side to the other. The entirety of what we, as viewers sat on the Indian side are allowed to know first-hand of Pakistan is visible through a 20ft square gate – a peephole into the now distant life of a former twin.
In front of me, I see a wall of people extending high into the air; there are maybe 2000 people in the stadium stand across from me, chanting, roaring words I cannot quite make out. A sea of saffron, green and white. Flags waving. This is a sporting event, people are here with their families, they are munching on snacks, chanting loud, hiding from the sun, topping up on water and soft drinks.
The ceremony starts when a man in a bright white suit, and with a handlebar moustache curled into glorious circles walks out onto the road and splays his arms out, spinning slowly like a sufi to address the crowd. He reminds me of a circus ringleader, stood with the broad backed confidence required of a man in a circle of lions. And then he roars.
“Hindustan!”, he shouts from the middle of that famous connecting road. And with conviction the response comes back from the crowd: “Zindabad!” Having myself grown up in a Pakistani family, it is a refrain I have heard many times before, albeit slightly altered. But again, “Hindustan!” and again the response, loud and booming, “Zindabad” the man in the middle is a master—he is ringleader, lion tamer, sports MC, this is a carnival, we are all roaring, he comes again, “Hindustan!, “Zindabad.” (meaning: “Long Live India!” Both countries are only 69 years old; they are both praying for longevity)
On the occasions in India when I revealed that I had a Pakistani ancestry I was greeted with curiosity. People wanted to know what it is like over there. Are they as backwards as they are portrayed to be in the media? And the same from the Pakistanis when I went there; everyone was immensely curious about what it’s like over the border. What kinds of cars do they drive over there, do they also have Toyota Corollas and Honda Civics? My Pakistani uncle was convinced that there were no luxury cars over in India. Each side reading only what they can find in their own papers.
But perhaps not surprising. From here the 20ft gate looks like a small, distant, closed window into a faraway land. I try to look over and see what I can of the other side, but it is difficult. The Indian side has filled its stadium easily, while the Pakistani side looks mostly empty, especially in the higher seats – people on the Pakistani side are still arriving. We use our cameras as binoculars and see a little into the crowds on the other side – the women there seem to be wearing hijabs; meanwhile, on our side they have pulled up a crowd of women to run in pairs towards the gate waving Indian flags in procession.
Here, the Indian side is blasting music, dancing, joyous while the Pakistani side feels quiet, backwards and unpatriotic. What I can see over the wall is only the top of the Pakistani stadium. It too is built around the road which preceded it, and at the top of the Pakistani stadium hangs a giant portrait of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, hailed as the man responsible for the formation of Pakistan, wearing his ubiquitous Karakul hat, gracefully looking down at the crowds; ironically he is the only man on that side high enough to see over the border wall into our side.
The tiny space between the Indian and Pakistani gates feels symbolic also. Pakistan’s independence day is on August 14th and India’s on August 15th. Two countries, born on the stroke of the midnight between those two days. They almost overlap, they come threateningly close to one another but are always separated by that infinitesimal moment - the midnight tick belonging to neither side but occupying the unbreachable space between them. Just like the territories – two large land masses joined together by the infinitesimal glue at the Wahga border.
The MC shouts again “Hindustan!”, and the crowd dutifully roars “Zindabad!”, I am reminded of all those times growing up when it was “Pakistan!”, “Zindabad”, but here I do not hear anything coming over the border wall. I find myself wondering how good the co-ordination between the two sides is. Maybe we can’t hear the other side because they are shouting at exactly the same time we are. Two phrases, separated only by two syllables, Hindus and Pakis, both crying for the same thing.
At one point, when the music on our side lapses, I can hear a quranic verse being recited over the loudspeakers on the Pakistani side: “Ar-Rahman Al la mal quran. Halaqal insaan…” I recognize it as the verse of gratitude; a praise to God for all we are thankful for in this world. Thanks for the sun, and the starts, and the trees, and the fruits on those trees. From here, against the backdrop of dance music and laughter, the Pakistani gratitude in Arabic seems prudish and foreign.
People on both sides of the border have seen their share of tragedy, past and present. On the Amritsar side I went to visit the Jallianwala Bagh park, where bullet holes are still visible in the walls from when many years ago, a British general decided that killing thousands of people who had no means of escape was the best way to teach colonized India a lesson.
In modern times, locals complain that kilograms of heroin are being loaded onto Frisbees and thrown over the border fence by trained discuss throwers – a tactic which becomes almost impossible to police across the length of the border between the two countries. People tell me that villagers in Punjab in India wake up to heroin packages in their back gardens, which are then collected by those in the trade and sent on to fill the streets.
When visiting the Pakistan, I was prevented from venturing out and exploring too far on my own because the spectre of danger is always around. I was actively discouraged by my family from going to the Wagha border on the Lahore side because of the still-lingering memory of the suicide bomb explosion which occurred there two years ago. During the second week of my stay in Pakistan, an explosion in Quetta (far enough from where I was staying) killed more than 150 people – the numbers are mind-boggling, it would be the second biggest terrorist attack in the USA if it had occurred there, but in Pakistan it is unfortunately common enough to be mourned with familiarity.
And then, as the dance party ends and the flag waving women-turned-dancers return to their seats, it occurs to me that the gate is not peephole, or window, but mirror. We are not really looking at the other side when we come to a place like this; we are interested in seeing our own might, our own power.
The soldiers prepare to come out, they will perform, they will be dressed in glorious uniforms, they will shoulder their guns, every marching step, stomp, about turn and roar will be greeted with raucous applause. And I am forced to remind myself through all the displays of aggression, the cheering, and the fanfare that will follow in the next half hour, “That this is not for them, it is for us.”
And so the soldiers begin.
The most basic movement is the high kick and stomp. A soldier will lean back a little, bend his standing leg just enough to get his other leg high into the air – to about the same height as his head, and then unleash that leg down like the hammer of a gun. The foot comes crashing down in a stomp. It’s an affront, as if to say “Well, what are you going to do?”, a show of aggression and a show of strength, jaan, or maybe of life. A child’s tantrum mixed with a horse’s kick. The soldier, in his olive green uniform, peacock headgear, and red trim, leaps, stomps, shimmies and stomps again, around in a circle to address the entire crowd though most of his attention remains directed towards pantomime enemy at the gate.
The first two soldiers march towards the gate – straight legged and with big, wide gestures of both arms – they look like they are barely touching the ground as they race towards the gate (this is it), but then stop suddenly when they are maybe two feet away and start performing the ritual dance again: stomp, high kick, shimmy, stomp.
Lauded with cheering and applause the remaining eight soldiers march theatrically in pairs all the way along the road, from the pit of the U-shaped stadium towards the gate. We can see from their long strides, high kicks and shouldered guns that they mean business, but each time they get close to the gate they stop, turn and peacock: stomp, high kick, shimmy, stomp. They are here, confronting the God awful challenge of how to be aggressive without being actually violent, how to whip the crowd into a frenzy, intimidate the enemy, and show off their muscle – trash talking without the words. A soldier goes to the gate, stomps, shimmies then stomps again. Throughout all this the gate remains closed, and the beautiful symmetry of this ceremony is that we know that the exact same thing is happening on the other side – Pakistani soldiers, dressed in black rather than olive, performing the exact same rites and rituals.
My own ancestors in Pakistan lived in the Northern areas of Kashmir. Thankfully, they were spared from the bloodbath of partition, but have instead been concerned with that thinner liquid: water. When I visited Kashmir, I got the chance to see Mangla Dam, a water storage, energy producing dam constructed in the 60s, after a water sharing treaty was struck between India and Pakistan to divide up the six rivers that flow through this valley. As I sat in the night time air looking out over the vast body of water, it struck me that this water was in fact the amniotic fluid from which my family was born. When the water spilled, everyone knew immediately to pile into cars and rush to higher ground – the water from the reservoir was slowly creeping upwards and submerging entire villages, leaving behind only the tallest mosque minarets peaking above the water like needles through cloth.
When the dam was built, and the people moved, it marked a shift from rural living to town life. In town life, the electricity turns on and off every hour, and every time the minute hand strikes twelve the fans either all shut off exposing everyone to the heat, or the fans come back on, bringing respite with them. The Kashmiris here know that much of the electricity produced by the dam travels south to power office blocks and apartment complexes in Lahore and Karachi. They look out over the hills, at the huge man-made reservoir which contains their former homes and farms, and reconcile this with the fact that the electricity rarely lasts more than an hour because the country as a whole doesn’t produce enough.
I think also about how the rising water levels meant that people who otherwise would have stayed rooted were forced to move, and some, like my family, too this as a prerogative to move far away in search of better. My mum wanted to be a doctor when she was young and supposedly had the mind for it, but her parents persuaded her to go to England and get married at 19. In those days, a person didn’t rebel against their parents wishes, but I think my mum was a rebel – at the wedding ceremony she threw off her headscarf and ran out of the room because she was so upset at having to forgo a further education. After she moved to England my uncle’s tell me the first letter they received from her said something along the lines of “Why on Earth did you send me here. I hate it here!”
My mum’s dad was shrewd and business minded and with his Mangla dam relocation package he bought a plot of land in a prime location and bought a few shop fronts to start his own business. These business genes seemed to have diluted a little over the years though (maybe as the dam waters have been rising!) because although my two uncles are doing reasonably well at their respective shops (selling shoes in one, and crockery in the other) their sons seemed to have stagnated – all my big uncle’s sons still live at home in their father’s house and work as staff at their father’s shop; none of them have been able to accumulate enough money for a place of their own. Economically this whole area felt to be working on it’s own timescale – shops that have been around for 50 years seem to remain unchanged in the last 15.
The heart of the dispute between Pakistan and India takes place in a region close to where my family in Pakistan lives - in what the Pakistanis refer to as 'occupied Kashmir', headed up by cities like Srinagar. Every evening while I was in Pakistan, the nightly news was telling us more about the most recent "atrocities committed by Indian forces"[sic]. 60 people killed yesterday, 30 more the day before. Little of this coverage received international media attention, but the people living where my family lives, in a part of the world called “Azad Kashmir” (
free Kashmir to the Pakistanis; “Pakistan Occupied Kashmir” to the Indians), could not turn their attention away from their news screens – evidence of Indian transgressions that go unreported on mainstream Indian news. This is part of the reason they left all those years ago, and I have benefitted immensely from their effort.
The climax of the ceremony comes when finally the closed gate – the window, the mirror – is flung open to loud roars. The barrier of all barriers has been cast open once again. The crowd is carnal at this point. But though the physical barrier has been opened, the psychological one remains, and as the ceremony continues – each soldier taking his or her turn to perform the rites and rituals; stomping, kicking, marching, roaring; I notice that the soldiers will get close to the open gate but will never dare to cross that imaginary line separating the two countries.
With the gate open we catch glimpses now of the Pakistani soldiers properly, and they are indeed dressed in black, and they do indeed perform the exact same dances as those on the Indian side. We catch even lesser glimpses of the Pakistani people, but they are too small from here to properly recognize – too small to really matter. The final end to all this comes as the two countries flags are raised and then lowered diagonally so that for one brief moment in their descent, from the correct angle, it looks as though the two flags are touching – but this is just an illusion, like the two countries touching at Wagha, or the two independence days sharing an infinitesimal midnight, the flags are still separated by the smallest but most palpable of gaps.