I had heard a lot about the retreat ceremony at the Atari-Wagah border, some 28 kms from Amritsar, the only road border crossing between India and Pakistan.
While we did our best to reach before time and just about made it on time, we had not factored in the weekend crowd and just about managed to squeeze into a crowded stand which only had a partial view of the gates. The mood was soon set by a large group of school girls dancing to Hindi film patriotic songs. Some foreigners too jumped in with much dancing and waving of arms and legs. It was a great setting – the evening sunset, a few Indian flags in the crowd, smartly turned out BSF soldiers who looked so tall like the Pathans of Afghanisthan and amidst a lot of patriotic sloganeering – I couldn't help but feel very proud as an Indian, proud as never before.
Be prepared for an assault on the senses. We were surrounded by smelly wet perspiration soaked Mango People who despite the mad mad rush allowed us some room to stand without being felt over! People were on a high here, suddenly it seemed that all standing in the Indian side of the balconies were feeling a tremendous rush of pride and honour in being there watching and participating in the retreat. I was keen to get started on some ‘forever etched in memory kinda shots’ with my camera, but trying to find a comfortable spot, balance myself, not tip over and yet not come in the way of someone else, was a gigantic task! We pushed through the crowd and managed to reach as close we could to the balcony railing. I could see the other side of the border – the Pakistani Rangers in their black Pathani suits and a quiet audience that sat very orderly in the audience galleries on the other side of the border.
The ceremony started with some smart drill and marching by the BSF. The jawans kicking their heels incredibly high and putting on a show of mock face-off with the Pak rangers, much to the delight of the crowd. A white line that came along with the partition in 1947 by the British demarcates the border between India and Pakistan about a yard apart. The soldiers drill with pounding long strides on the grounds as the two iron gates are shut with a final handshake. The ceremony invokes nostalgia among the visitors and offers something that one cannot afford to miss as a short excursion from Amritsar.
After a while I found myself being repulsed by this show as I found it to be too threatening in stance and too combative and confrontationalist! All this fervour was drummed and beaten up by an orchestraor (DJ if you wish) who signaled the crowds to cheer and boo according to his commands! My initial feeling of patriotism gave way to a feeling of sadness, a feeling of being let down. Perhaps because I have always had the highest regard for our army. So when they do these public theatres like at the Wagah border it felt so staged! The entire ceremony became repetitive and farfetched.
I had had enough of the hot humid weather and the milling crowd and the harsh sun and I just wanted to get back to the air conditioned comfort of the hotel room. But there was no way out from the jam packed stands, so we waited some more and finally all of us just decided to make our way despite the milling crowds who magically allowed us a path out, we left before the ceremony was completed. As I walked back to the parking after the ceremony I could not help wondering about what the soldiers would do once the crowds had melted away. Would some of them casually saunter off across the border and share a drink with their counterparts? Or, perhaps share some jokes with each other on the way the crowds behaved today vis a vis the previous weekend. What if the border had actually been drawn a few more kms north. Wouldn’t some of the soldiers guarding the frontier, be probably guarding it from the other side? What choice does an individual have in choosing his Nationality?
Posted by Mee at 21:22