Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Border Closing Weirdness

India and Pakistan have long been less than model neighbours. They have an intense rivalry that stems from a dispute over their northern border – they both want Kashmir and they both feel that the other party has no right to it at all. The absurd pinnacle of this rivalry came back in 1998 when the two countries began exploding nuclear warheads in an grave display of oneupmanship that threatened to render the whole point moot by destroying the world.

Thankfully, they never extended to exploding these warheads over each other’s borders, but the sweaty, mustachioed antipathy is still alive and screaming. Every day at around 5pm, on the only land crossing between the two nations, all the angst and nationalism is stirred up and set loose with the gusto of an atom bomb.

As with everything in India, it all starts with a mad rush. This mad rush occurs on the 1 km stretch between the outer gate, where there has been tightly packed chanting and dancing since 4 o’clock, and the grandstands surrounding the inner gate, the actual spot where India stops and Pakistan begins. The outer gate opens at 5, and the stands soon fill up (being foreigners, we were directed to the VIP section.) When the stands are full, people sit on the edge of the road.

The last cross-border bus of the day passes through. The uniformed driver shakes hands with the guards and everyone, literally everyone in the crowd waves goodbye.

The music starts up, from both sides. For the entire afternoon, everything that happens here on the Indian side is mirrored over on the Pakistani side, including the raising of the volume of the poppy but patriotic music.

Two flags are produced, and people line up for the chance at running with the flags down to the main gate and back. This is a big, big deal. Scuffles threaten to break out between Grandmas when someone pushes in. When the men are allowed to join the queue, the two lines disappear and are replaced by a swarm of eager flag-bearers. Soldiers step in and attempt to restore order.

After a couple more laps down to Pakistan and back, two supremely chuffed men are chosen to take the flags to the highest point on the VIP stand and begin waving the colours furiously at their counterparts on the other side.

Dancing begins. The PA is pushed to the brink of implosion in the effort to drown out the Pakistan-themed tunes blasting over from the West. The women dance separately from the men, who stand at the dividing rope, seeing how close to the girls they can get before being threatened by a stick-wielding guard. Everyone chants manically as the MC works them up with some call and response cheers.

The ceremony begins. The guards emerge from out back where they have been warming up by way of star jumps (these guys actually need to be very elastic to take part in this). The first event is the yelling competition. A few of the guards take turns yelling into the microphone as loud as they can for as long as they can. A pair then march off and position themselves between the gates of the two countries. Everyone cheers.

There is some more yelling, and then the guards march melodramatically towards the gate (to more adoring cheers). It’s quite amazing that they can move like this, given that they are in special shoes that look like boots, but are actually high heels. These guys have to look taller than the Pakistani guards. In a few years, they’ll probably all be on stilts.

The flag waving continues.

By now everyone has been sitting in the pulsing heat for an inordinate amount of time. With no shelter from the sun, my memory didn’t quite encode everything that happened next. It is all just a blur of extremely high kicking, fierce expressions, more yelling, a strange thing where the ropes of the flags are endlessly tossed about and of course, more cheering from the perspiring masses.

After numerous ceremonial false starts, the flags are ever-so-slowly lowered. For once there is no cheering. Everyone is concentrating acutely on making sure both flags come down at the same time. If one were brought down before the other, there’d be riots.

The flag is whisked away, to rapturous cheering. For a brief second it is presented like a newborn to a sea of ecstatic fathers, and then locked away for the night. More cheering.

And the ceremony is finished. People descend to the road and mingle with the guards to have their photos taken and to stand five-deep at the gate yelling to people on the Pakistan side. The entire process took about two hours.

I imagine it was far more theatrical than the closing of most of the borders we’ve passed through on this trip, which I assume would consist of a lone guard cheerfully locking the padlock on the boom gate then striding off to count a pocketful of unofficial ‘border taxes’ charged to na├»ve gringos, keyring swinging on his index finger as he whistles a happy tune. But the ceremony serves an important purpose, because these two countries obviously need an outlet to blow off their nationalistic steam. As long as they continue to confine their game of keeping-up-with-Joneses in this bizarre forum, along with the odd game of international cricket, we should all be safe.

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