Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Of Memories and Reality - At the Wagah Border

A little girl stood by a gate, staring at the other side. A few minutes earlier, the place had been buzzing with activity, and an aura of importance had hung over the area. Now, it was calm and peaceful, and men who had stared straight ahead without blinking were now smiling and talking with others, completely at ease. 



A wide expanse of nothingness followed by a few people on the other side was the scene which stretched out ahead. Behind her was the same, a few people standing around, here for the same reason that she was – curiosity. Only a few men in uniform looked like they belonged here. She stepped forward, intending to touch the gate, but one of the uniformed men held out his hand in a gesture that she obeyed at once, even without thinking. Her mother stepped forward, explaining that she couldn’t move further, since it was a restricted area, and that this was the farthest they were allowed. The soldier smiled at her, and, bending down, told her what she already knew – that the wide expanse ahead was called a No-Man’s-Land, and beyond that was Pakistan – the country we are so close to, yet so distant from. As her mother spoke to him, he said that yes, he did know the names of the guys on the other side. They were the only people he got to speak to, apart from the tourists who ventured to this corner of the country.

On our side...


That was about 30 years ago, and that little girl was me, visiting the Wagah Border with my mom, aunt and uncle, and that is my only memory from that trip – one of the first trips I actually remember.

On the other side

Fast forward to the present, and I am at the Wagah Border once again, a mother this time, Samhith in tow. He is almost the same age as I was then, and I wonder what his reaction to the place will be.

The first thing that strikes me is the crowd – the sheer numbers who have gathered here to watch the lowering of the flag! The wide expanse of nothingness is gone, replaced by acres of a modern bus terminal – the only means of getting to a country we share the most with, but know the least about. The border itself has changed. The gate is still there, but it’s no longer just a fence. Around it is now an amphitheatre! At least, that’s how it strikes me!

That's just the steps... the amphitheater is beyond... 


We hunt for a place to sit, but we are too late.... and we thought that arriving two hours in advance was early enough!!! As my sister in law and son find a perch to see the ceremony from, I choose to let go. This isn’t the place I remember. This isn’t the place I want to be. I had heard of this, but the reality is much worse than hearsay. Remembering all the You Tube videos of the Flag Lowering Ceremony, I decide to skip it, and watch the people instead.

Craning their necks to get a glimpse..


I can’t help but wonder – what is it that brings people here? I came here to remind myself... and show my son... what a border is... a line drawn by man, on a land that belongs to nature. The fields on the two sides of the gate are the same. The people gathered on the other side look just the same. Equidistant from this border are two cities, each of which has an important place in our country’s history. On our side is Amritsar, on the other side is Lahore. How I would love to visit Lahore, a city I have read so much about, but it’s a city closed to me, unless I can give a specific reason for my visit. That is what draws me, and that is what I had hoped to communicate to my son – to try and teach him that the people on the other side weren’t monsters, that they were just like us.





However, I doubt that it’s the border which draws the crowds. It’s the Flag Lowering Ceremony, instead, which is the primary tourist attraction. 

what the whole ceremony, or should I say, mela, is for..


The ceremony takes place every evening, at sunset, as the flags are lowered for the day. It is an impressive ceremony, with the flags being accorded full honours, the elaborate military rituals adding to its importance. It was opened to the public as a means of bringing the common man closer to the soldiers of our armed forces. They deserve every bit of the lustful cheering. After all, it is they who guard our country, who make it safe for us to sleep peacefully.



However, like almost everything these days, this too has been commercialised, and today, the border takes on the look of a ‘mela’ or a fair, which, I feel, trivialises the entire thing. People lounging on the lawns because they didn't find space in the amphitheatre, eating, talking, playing.... I wonder why come all the way for this! There is now a food court there, catering to all those who come and grab a seat early in the afternoon, for the programme which starts at sunset. There are toy shops, designed to keep the kids occupied, and then, there is this....



He is probably among the most vocal of the salesmen at the border. What is he selling? CDs of the ceremony, priced at Rs.100. 



He is not the only one. There are many of his ilk, and these CDs seem to sell like hot cakes! He even has a small TV set up at his stall constantly screening the ceremony. 



Why would I come all the way to Wagah and then see the ceremony on the TV? And if I can buy the CD, why would I stay on to watch the TV instead of heading straight back? These were the questions I grappled with, as I stood by and watched the constant stream of his customers, and wondered how much he managed to make in a day!

We waited for the ceremony to end, and the crowds to disperse, before heading towards the gates, desperate to remind myself of that day long ago. But things had changed irrevocably since then. Where a soldier had once stretched out an arm to stop me from approaching the gates, there were now barricades, with thousands struggling to get an inch closer, to click a photograph.... to make their own memories.



At the age of 38, I sometimes feel middle aged, and wonder often if a mid-life crisis is setting in, but never have I felt as old as I did then, trying to remember the memory of me as that little girl, listening to the soldier at this very same border. I don’t know what Samhith has brought back as his own memory from this trip (as of now, it seems to fluctuate between despair that he couldn’t get a better spot to see the ceremony, and pride that he did see it) but I do know one thing – that it’s probably not a good idea to re-visit places and try to re-live memories! 

19 comments :

  1. Thanks for writing this Anu. So if I now go sometime I will keep my expectations realistic.

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    1. Mridula, considering you havent been there before, you might actually enjoy the whole experience... its the comparison which spoils it.. and chhavi will love all that hungama! kids do!

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  2. Wow!! This is an awesome write up. Loved the way you narrated it. Would definitely visit this place and as you mentioned, I dont have a specific reason to convince the authorities to take me beyond the borders.

    http://rajniranjandas.blogspot.in/2013/02/colours-of-maha-kumbh-mela.html

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    1. Thanks Niranjan! unfortunately, few of us do....

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  3. Some times I just sit and wonder, what if this had not to happen, what if we were still one?
    I don't think there is any difference of opinion between the common man on either side.
    What if.......

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    1. just imagine the possibilities... how different things would be.. but would they be better? we will never know, will we?

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  4. The heat , fervor and passion here is maximum in the list of places I have roamed till date .
    I remembered my trip. Thanks for sharing.
    My post on Wagah
    http://www.aboutomkaar.com/2012/09/amritsar-vaishno-devi-temple-and-wagah.html

    Travel India

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    1. Yes, Vishal.. the heat and fervour is what I am talking about too.. you shd have been there 30 yrs back to see how peaceful and calm it was... and how serene... thoughts which promote peace, not war... today, this passion does nothing to bring about peace, which is what is needed most in these days.

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  5. Beautiful post Anu. I always wanted to know about this. But the sheer numbers of visitors is disturbing, as if there is so much to see! Really, it is what has divided us, so many years. I wonder if it is the longing of the heart to just step across, even if it be for a moment - the air and the light, the earth and the sun are the same:))) Thank you for sharing

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    1. Thanks Julia! I can understand the curiosity.. of wanting to see what the other side is like... but its a place for introspection.. for wondering about the purpose and effect of drawing lines on earth.... somehow i can not think that its a place of showing off our patriotism.. if indeed patriotism it is...

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  6. We went there on a pretty hot day and it was very tiring. And as you said, too much commercialization!

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    1. Yes, Bindhu.. we were there in May too... and it was such a hot day! imagine ppl sitting there since 12 just to see the show at sunset!!!! just too much commercialization!

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  7. What a lovely post Anu! You really took us to your childhood.

    Reminded me of my visit there a few years back.

    Yeah it's the passion, heat & the 'patriotism' which is at its peak. While cheering with the crowd something happens to us on both sides and we wonder 'are we really so different"?

    I think it is similar to watching a cricket match in stadium vs TV or being at Rajpath for 26th Jan parade or watching it on TV.

    And when I went there, the CDs were available for Rs 60/- Yeah, bought one. :)

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    1. Thanks Nisha.. when I went, the other side was almost empty. there were just a bunch of kids there, and they were so quiet... and this side was so noisy we could barely hear ourselves think!!!! the contrast was so huge, maybe thats the reason I felt as I did... and then again, there was that earlier experience.. so i guess all in all, i wasnt really mentally prepared for it :D and i havent been either to a cricket match or even for the R Day Parade.. since i avoid crowds!!

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  8. You brought back wonderful memories of Punjab.Thanks! And you went to Amritsar in May, probably the hottest time of the year! I believe Punjab in general should be visited during Feb-March or in Oct-Nov, to avoid gettin baked in the sun or freezing in the winter!

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    1. THanks hd_online.. I completely agree with you.. but unfortunately, my choice of dates are governed by school holidays, not the best season! I hope I can go there again in better weather so I can enjoy it more.

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  9. I haven't visited the Wagah Border yet, Anu, and I do hope to see it one day.

    As for memories and revisiting places, it is a tricky thing, isn't it? Just as we accept that we change, people change, cities change, perceptions also change and so do memories. I visited Jodhpur recently after 30 years, and it was a bittersweet one. Childhood memories clashed with an adult's critical eye and I came away happy and confused at the same time.

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    1. I hope you get to visit Wagah soon so I can read about your view of the mela! and thats so true.... second visits, esp after a long time, can be tricky indeed. waiting to read about jodhpur now.

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  10. Wow, amazing post! I love how you narrate your experience. You tell the parade is every evening, I would like to know if soldier women participate at the parade everyday too. Thank you so much!

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