Tuesday, 6 December 2011

How to intimidate the enemy

Borders are strange places. Coming from an island, I still find arbitrary delineations between different countries vaguely surreal. The fact that land tends to look pretty much the same on one side of the border as it does on the other reinforces how artificial even our most important constructs are. But if borders in general feel slightly unreal, the border between India and Pakistan, just west of Amritsar, is completely bizarre.

This wasn't my first time visiting a border between two countries with less-than-friendly relations. The border between North and South Korea is the most heavily fortified in the world, and a visit to Panmunjom, about 25 miles north of Seoul, is a must-do for most tourists to the South. At Panmunjom you can "walk into North Korea" by circling the negotiating table that sits exactly in the middle of one of the huts that straddle the border. Outside, the North and South Korean soldiers face off, wearing identical stern expressions but contrasting uniforms (the Northerners like something from the pages of a history book, the Southerners like something from Robocop). On the Northern side there are enormous letters attached to the landscape saying things like "Our General is Number One", and the picture is completed by two ludicrously large flagpoles (I believe the Northern one was until recently the tallest in the world, and the flag is so heavy that it never actually flies).

It's a fascinating but also rather sobering place to visit. The border closing ceremony at Wagah near Amritsar is equally fascinating but of another nature altogether. Here, two of the world's most jittery nuclear powers face off against each other - with a military display that's frankly as camp as a row of tents, accompanied by one of the most jubilant party atmospheres I have come across in India.

On either side of the road at the border, the authorities have erected enormous stands for the audience, who flock here in their thousands every evening to watch the show. On the Pakistani side the genders are strictly segregated; on the Indian side they mix freely and dance to the upbeat Bollywood tunes pumping out from the speakers (until the business gets underway, when they are told to sit down by the soldiers, who enforce this very strictly).

On both sides, a man with a microphone did the business of getting the crowd well and truly worked up, while dignified sari-clad ladies queued up to take their turn with one of a set of enormous Indian flags; once they got it, they ran up and down the road like schoolgirls with both flag and sari flapping crazily behind them.

You may have noticed the quite extraordinary headgear modelled by the Indian soldiers. I'm not sure the historical origin of these, and I have to admit that, extremely capable though I am sure the Indian army's finest are, I struggle to find them particularly intimidating in this get-up:

They are mirrored on the other side of the border by Pakistani soldiers in similar attire, although I can't help thinking that the more sober colours and big facial hair on display on the Pakistani side maybe achieve the desired effect rather more:

But the real show starts when these guys get moving. They wait in line for the real business of the evening to begin:

Then, on a given signal, two female soldiers from either side march with really quite astonishing speed - seriously, it looks like they are jet-propelled or have wind-up motors attached - to the border gates, which are ceremonially opened.

Then, two by two, the male soldiers reel off from each side and approach the gate themselves, at the same improbably fast clip, punctuated by high kicks that any chorus girl would be proud of. At the border they meet their Pakistani counterparts with a tightly choreographed display that's somewhere between a Haka and a tango. This goes on for about half an hour before the gates are finally slammed shut again. It all runs like clockwork and every move is executed with a degree of precision that the West End's choreographers would envy. And the whole while, the crowd on either side goes crazy, whooped into a chanting fury by the men with the microphones. 

There's no sense of hostility really, which is odd considering the history of relations between the two countries.  It's like one big party. And it's very evident from the way in which the two sides mirror precisely each others' actions that these guys must spend quite a bit of time rehearsing the whole thing together. I suspect that at quiet moments they probably have a gossip over a cup of chai.

Show over, we followed the throngs back away from the border and toward our waiting vehicle, reflecting on the odd ways of humanity and the strange ways in which nationalism manifests itself. The po-faced hostility at Panmunjom and the pomp and posturing at Wagah stem from similar situations of mutual distrust and unresolved conflict, but they could hardly be more different.

Borders really are strange places.


louisejourdan@gmail.com said...

You described the experience so well. I have done the border ceremony 3 times now with various visitors and it was funny to actually recognise some of the soldiers(is that what they are called?)in your photos. I think Waggah Border is where they send all the tall Indians.

Isabel said...

I have to witness this one day. I love your pictures!

TD said...

Hey Chris...your blog is just under mine on the 'latest blogs' listing on expat blog, so I had to take a look. And so fitting that your latest entries are on Amritsar - I'm going for my second visit, taking one of my best pals from Oz there on the weekend! It's exciting to read about it through someone else's eyes and anticipate it all over again. It looks like you'll have to go back at least one more time though - I'm quite certain you didn't make it to the world famous chhole kulcha walla or you'd definitely have posted about it!
Keep up the great blogging :)

Sonya said...

Great pictures! I keep looking at air fares to come and visit you. I can't afford it. I can't afford to go anywhere outsider South America.. Which in itself is no bad thing. xx