f632ef8e9e1d8b46bf99f022ed4bfd49-2The evening sun is still high on the horizon as I drive down the legendary Grand Trunk Road from Amritsar to the Wagah Border, 28 kilometers (17 miles) away. The countryside hasn’t changed much since Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, with stretches of fertile green interspersed with simple farming villages. The monsoon rains have added a certain lushness to it. Paddy fields stand out as brilliant green patches. Milestones indicate the distance from Lahore, once Amritsar’s twin city. In the distant past, my grandfather would travel this road every day from Amritsar to attend college in Lahore. And he sometimes took my grandmother with him (those were the days of teen marriages) to buy jootis. I see the bustle of a car park and small stalls selling Coke and mineral water, and I know I’ve arrived. A stall owner shows me Pakistani currency written in Urdu with Jinnah’s portrait stamped on it. He got it from travelers on the India-Pak bus who stop for a break. He asks if I want to buy it and I wonder if that might be illegal. As I walk the last 15-minute stretch to the border, I cross the manicured buildings of Customs and Immigration. I walk under an imposing arch and the final gate comes into view—a high wrought-iron thing painted saffron, white, and green, which separates India from Pakistan. A few feet behind it is the Pakistani gate, painted dark green with a white crescent and star on it. As I walk up to it, I see a thick white line running in between—the Radcliffe Line. If the gates were open, and if I walked just a few steps, I would be in Pakistan. I look up curiously to see the people across. I find them looking eagerly back. Are they searching for a glimpse of their past, too? The tiered stadium edging the road is brimming with enthusiastic people, here to watch the Beating the Retreat ceremony. There must be over 10,000, and I am told the number rises to a good 25,000 over the weekend. I see a similar crowd on the Pakistani side, mostly from Lahore, which is just a 20-minute drive away. The best day to come here is Friday, I am told, when the Indian crowd is manageable, but the Pakistani side is chock-full.
f632ef8e9e1d8b46bf99f022ed4bfd49-3This daily ritual between both the nations was started in October 1947 by Brig. Mohinder Chopra. He felt the need to restore dignity and peace between the two nations after the horrifying events of Partition. At sunset, when the bugle is blown and the flags of both the nations are lowered, it symbolizes the end of the day and hence a retreat from war, as a throwback from the Mahabharata days. Of course, this concept of daytime war is no longer valid, but the symbols remain. Over the decades, the simple flag-lowering has given way to a more elaborate show. Tall constables wearing khaki uniforms and starched red turbans, which add at least six inches to their already six feet-plus height, walk up and down. I stand up to talk to one of them, and find myself straining my neck to make eye contact. Later I ask the commanding officer of the 12th Battalion whether height is a criterion for selecting soldiers for this ceremony. He smiles, and nods an affirmative. The evening resonates with cries of “Hindustan zindabad.” I hear the answering call coming from the Pakistani side—“Allah illallah.” The chants are picked up by the crowds and soon the whole stadium is roaring with patriotic fervor. The hot, sultry weather soon soaks everyone with perspiration, but does nothing to dampen their zest. Thank God for a few stray clouds! The clock shows 6:30 p.m., and a hush falls over the crowd. “Beating the Retreat” has begun. A guard of six soldiers comes out from the BSF office, marching crisply on their heels. They stride the length of the road to the gate and back. I see a parallel guard across the gate doing just the same. The crowd roars its approval. After some marching and foot-stamping, the gates finally open to show the long road ahead to Lahore. The Pakistani Rangers are wearing dark green pathani suits trimmed with red, with the mandatory tall starched turbans.
f632ef8e9e1d8b46bf99f022ed4bfd49-4A pair of Pakistani guards comes marching to the border line, where they are joined by their Indian counterparts. The soldiers from both sides make menacing mock-gestures to each other and angrily shake their heads like strutting war cocks! While marching, they raise their feet so high that the soles of their heavy boots face the sky. It’s a wonder they don’t fall backwards. It’s like a fascinating war dance, each step perfectly synchronized with the next. How much practice must go into this? After some more marching and shouting commands, the soldiers get ready to lower the flags. Both nations have their flagpoles on opposite sides of the road. Holding their flag cords, the soldiers stand across the road from their pole, so that the flags can slide down in a beautiful angle from the top. The sun holds steady on the horizon for just a moment. The poignant notes of the bugle ring out in the countryside, as both the flags are lowered in total coordination. Halfway through, they both meet each other and for a moment merge into one entity. It’s a rather grand spectacle. The flags are carried in with full reverence. The ceremony ends with the gates shutting for the night. Afterwards, the crowds surge to the closed gates to catch a glimpse of each other. Perhaps there is a curiosity about the folks on the other side of the border. I see a bevy of fair women on the other side, wearing pretty salvar suits. There isn’t much to differentiate the Pakistani Punjabi women from the Indian Punjabi ones, except perhaps that more of them have their heads covered. Most men on the other side are wearing pathani suits, while the Indians are attired in trousers and shirts.
f632ef8e9e1d8b46bf99f022ed4bfd49-5I seem to be seeing a reflection of myself across the gate. It seems strange that the two countries are divided by such a great border and rift, when all they seem to be divided by is just two meters of land. As the crowds thin down, a BSF officer escorts me down a path that opens next to the gate. It runs along the Radcliffe Line, and is edged with vibrant bougainvilleas and a manicured lawn. I see small triangular pillars that are placed throughout the entire length of this international border. India maintains the even-numbered ones, and Pakistan takes care of the odd-numbered pillars. After some distance, the painted border line degenerates into a line of red triangular flags that runs through the green fields. The officer tells me that farmers enter these fields through special gates between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. to do their regular farming unhindered. If anything, they get armed patrolling of their fields! The lush fields bear testimony. As we return home to Amritsar, I see that the gates have opened again and the Indian and Pakistani officers are talking to each other. There is an easy camaraderie between them. As I walk away after sunset, I turn back for a last glimpse of the few Pakistani stragglers across the gate. They, too, seem reluctant to leave, clinging to the past. They slowly walk away, driving back to Lahore through lands and green fields similar to mine, back to a culture that mirrors mine. How similar we are, and yet how distant. Twilight falls quickly across the quiet countryside.

Payal Khurana writes from Amritsar, India.

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