Two weeks into our time in India, Karen and I visited Amritsar – a city in the northwestern part of the Punjab. Sure I was excited to taste Rajma and Kulcha (Punjabi delicacies that Karen had meticulously researched). I was also looking forward to the sunrise at Sri Harmandir Sahib (the Golden Temple which is considered one of the most important locales in Sikhism).
I had already been interested in the history of the region after doing some pre-trip reading. I learned that when the British left the subcontinent in 1947 after nearly 200 years, the western half of the Punjab became Pakistan, while the eastern half became India. I couldn’t believe that I was now only a mere car-ride away from the Pakistani border (and then just 30 kilometers further to Lahore thereafter).
“Oh you should go to the border.” Lhamo (one of home-stay hostesses) told us before we left for the weekend trip. “You can see them lowering the flags at sunset.”
“Them?” I responded, thinking I hadn’t heard her correctly. “You mean like, both India and Pakistan?”
“You mean, like the military?”
“Yep. They do it every day.” She said way too innocently.
“Like together – at the same time?”
“Yeah. Just don’t go on Sunday. It’s too crowded.”
I was amazed that such a thing took place to begin with. I thought both countries were like siblings that didn’t speak anymore. Even before the nuclear standoffs and the issues with Kashmir that we hear about in the news every few years, the Punjab itself was central to the conflict between both countries. How central? The sectarian unrest was on a scale that we would consider catastrophic today and on par even with ethnic cleansing and genocide.
In 1947, countryside guerilla and paramilitary groups of Sikhs took up campaigns of murdering Muslim caravans going west to brand-new Pakistan, while armed Muslim bands did the same thing to Sikhs and Hindus fleeing eastward to India (with each side claiming the other had started the violence). It was a region where three religions had coexisted for half a millennium before it all suddenly unraveled over night. When Karen and I headed for the border we probably took one of the routes where the violence transpired some seventy years ago.
Surely, these events would be acknowledged during the ceremony. Perhaps there would be a moment of silence and acknowledgment for those that perished. At least there would be a symbolic and respectful nod from each side to the other. After all, they were doing this every day. Whatever we would see, I expected it to be sobering and thought provoking like the only other military ceremony that I can recall having attended in my life – Israel’s Memorial Day (Yom Hazikaron) at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Boy was I wrong.
As soon as we approached the barricades in no-man’s land, there was one group of men selling, “I Love My India” honky-tonk mesh hats and another group of men painting the colors of the Indian flag on children wearing school uniforms. It seemed like something that belonged at a baseball game rather than a military ceremony.
Eventually after waiting in line for half an hour with hundreds of people, Karen and I were padded down by soldiers before continuing to walk westward. We eventually approached a large stadium. When we entered, we found ourselves standing in the center with thousands of people sitting in the bleachers on all sides of us, waving little Indian flags and wearing the “I Love My India” hats and adorned with face paint.
I felt like I was a gladiator in a pit. The thought occurred to me that I had somehow accidentally agreed to be part of the ceremony and would have go into Pakistan. Thankfully, the insanity of my mind was quieted as a soldier waved all of us to a seating area by a gate that read, “India.”
Just beyond that gate was another one and a second stadium too. At the far end of it, I could just make out the word “Pakistan” in English and Arabic. And just above those words was a large black and white photograph of Pakistan’s first prime minister, Muhammad Ali Jinnah (a political rival of Gandhi).
The Pakistani side had bleachers also filled with people too – men on one side, dressed in traditional robes and women on the other. There was an area for mixed seating too.
Karen and I realized that we were only at the pre-game show.
Our stadium was saturated to the hilt with thousands piling in, while children took turns running down the center of the “gladiator pit” waving flags of India, like we were at the opening of the Olympics. The crowd roared louder and louder with each subsequent banner girl. This activity ended when the area was eventually filled with more school-age girls that had organically started dancing to Indian pop-songs heard over the stadium’s sound system. They waved their hands in the air and swirled around like they were at a wedding or in a scene from a Bollywood film.
There are two more details that occurred at that point that adds to the layer of ridiculousness. There were vendors selling cokes and ice cream to all of us. There were also construction workers welding and hammering on the top floor of the stadium – building yet another seating area able to fit around seven thousand more attendees (right now capacity is five thousand).
What could the Pakistanis have thought? They must have been distracted by the irreverence of the construction workers if not the dancing schoolgirls. Still, I’m sure they liked our pre-game show much more than theirs. All they had was one lone boy in the center of their stadium walking back and forth, waving the Pakistani flag (Karen called him the Pakistani Justin Bieber).
Finally when it was time for the actual ceremony to begin, I felt as if I was witnessing the NFL and the Hunger Games having a baby.
The pits were cleared in both stadiums. Then there were two men in fatigues, strapped with machine guns and wearing long draping black hats that looked like dreadlocks. They had sunglasses too. They marched to the beat of techno music, as the crowd screamed in reverie. On the Pakistani side, the same thing was happening only their soldiers were wearing the iconic Pakistani uniforms that I recognized from the news.
My jaw dropped after what followed.
When both sets of soldiers reached their respective gates, they were unlocked and swung open. They stood there facing each other separated by a white line (the border) which neither of them crossed, though they were close enough to smell each other’s breath.
Then it got even weirder.
There was a second processional – this time of female soldiers from the both sides. Both sets were wearing berets and sunglasses as well – and they also had guns. A second wave of loud chanting ensued. I shook my head in disbelief with the third round – a soldier with a rapier. I was desensitized by the fourth round – another cadet in a hat that looked like a peacock and making long and ballet-like strides towards the gate. With every landing of his leg, there was a loud and synchronized bang of a gong that reverberated throughout the stadium. It reminded me of the Philly Phanatic doing his pelvic thrusts when I went to Veterans’ Stadium in my youth.
Once the final round of soldiers reached their respective positions, the flags were lowered, beat-by-beat from the same gong before each one was folded.
All the soldiers then retreated and the gates were swung closed. On our side of things, a platoon of guards, threw up barricades, as a sea of people bum-rushed the front of the stadium to snap selfies. I was jealous of the Pakistanis who filtered out of their stadium quietly and with order in the distance.
I had no time to reflect on how I felt about what had transpired because exiting the stadium was an experience in itself. There was one way out for thousands of people. It was getting dark. There was not even one ambulance. We all still had half an hour at least to walk back to the highway. There was no cell-phone reception because we were in no-man’s land.
This is India. The country is full of an unharnessed energy that I have never experienced in my life.
With regard to the waltz I saw between India and Pakistan, I was somewhat let down that there was no recognition of the Punjab’s violent history and which I expected a respectful acknowledgement of. Ultimately though, I was still amused that India has a dance party instead.
When Karen and I got back to Amritsar, we went to the first Dhaba we could find to burry our trauma with some curry.
And that’s my lamentation for today.