My palms began to sweat as our taxi approached the border; my nerves were clearly getting the best of me. My husband and I had promised our families we wouldn’t do anything risky on our month-long journey through India. But seeing as how we often chose adventure over just about anything else, it was little surprise that we’d found ourselves driving straight for the India-Pakistan border.
India and Pakistan share a history riddled with conflict. Before Britain withdrew from the Indian subcontinent in 1947, it split the fertile Punjab region down the centre, between the cities of Amritsar and Lahore. Over the years, disputes over religion and the divided Kashmir region have led to violence and bloodshed, with one of the most recent skirmishes leaving nine civilians dead.
Despite this tense relationship, both countries come together every sundown to produce a zealous, passionate ceremony that marks the nightly closing of the border. Leaving the smog of Agra and the majesty of the Taj Mahal a few days early, we’d hopped a train bound for Amritsar, eager to witness this high-stepping performance for ourselves.
From Amritsar, a 30km drive west brought us to the town of Atari, on the Wagah border, the only legal crossing between India and Pakistan. Hundreds of Indian nationals were already gathered. Hawkers were penetrating the crowd, touting pirated Beyoncé CDs, Taj Mahal models and jalebi, a traditional neon-orange Indian treat dripping in sugary syrup.
Just outside an official-looking cement bunker, waiting spectators were sectioned off into two lines; one for men and one for women. In a country as chaotic as India, the lines were unexpectedly orderly.
I waved goodbye to my husband and joined a long row of crouched women resplendent in brightly coloured saris. A stern-looking border guard tapped me on the shoulder, motioned to my husband and pointed to a separate line marked “foreigners", where visitors of both sexes were allowed to mingle. After an inspection of our passports and a brief frisking, we were ushered down a long paved path that led to the official border, where the ceremony would take place.
A single paved road roughly 100m long stretched from our side of the border in India, through two towering open iron gates, and over to Pakistan. Grandstands and sidewalks lined both sides of the street and there appeared to be a hierarchy to the seating assignments. Special Indian guests and VIPs were placed in the stands closest to the border gate, followed by the cement bleachers exclusively set aside for foreigners. Indian men, women and children sat along the sidewalks and in the large grandstands behind us.
From our section, just beyond the border gate and less than 50m away, Pakistan’s grandstands were clearly visible. Seating on the Pakistani side was separated by sex, with many of the women clapping to music, waving green-and-white Pakistani flags and excitedly chatting with one another. A quick pan to the left revealed the stoic faces of the male Pakistani spectators, none looking overly thrilled to be there.
Clad in a white tracksuit, our MC for the evening encouraged shouts of "Hindustan Zindabad!” (long live India!) from our side of the border, while echoes of "Pakistan!" could be heard coming back from across the gate. Clapping, dancing and general frivolity were set against the catchy tempo of “Jai Ho”, from the movie Slumdog Millionaire. It was hard to remember that we were literally toeing the line between two countries that have a tumultuous and violent relationship.
The ceremony began with a bang. Or, rather, a yell. The participating Indian border guards appeared in their official khaki uniforms, draped in prestigious medals and donning sky-high red-fanned hats that resembled the plumage of a macaw.
A stone-faced guard stepped up to the microphone, inhaled deeply and then let out a long bellowing yell that was echoed from the other side. He was in direct competition with his Pakistani counterpart. Two men from two different countries, less than 100m apart, were participating in a good old-fashioned scream-off.
Once our guard was finished with his battle call (the Pakistani guard outlasted him by mere seconds), he briskly marched down the lane towards Pakistan with five of his barrel-chested companions following suit. They strutted to the centre of the road and began a series of synchronised stomps and kicks, their extravagantly plumed headgear and severe expressions miraculously never wavering. Every now and then, a guard would send a menacing glare towards the Pakistan border as if to intimidate his rivals.
At this point, the patriotism in the crowd was palpable; each section was roaring with cheers and applause. The border guard that had led the battle call took off down the road, completing a series of stomps and high kicks at the gate – at one point almost kneeing himself in the nose. His Pakistani counterpart was completing his own staccato dance of martial arts manoeuvres. They ended at the same time, concluding with a long-held death stare aimed towards the other.
This machismo display continued for another 20 minutes, with each of the six competing guards having his time to shine. I found myself relishing in the revelry, clapping to the music and gasping when a guard accomplished a particularly high kick. The intense performers continued their routines with all the pizazz one would expect from Michael Jackson wannabes, cheered on by the enthusiastic crowd.
The show came to an almost anticlimactic end when each nation’s flag was lowered at precisely the same time. If I had blinked, I would have missed the brief handshake (a display of good faith) exchanged between the two head guards. And with the final fanfare, the gates were satisfyingly slammed shut.
As the crowd began to disperse, my husband and I remained seated, absorbing what we had just witnessed. India and Pakistan may have a long history of conflict. But it’s also heart-warming to know that every night, just for a brief moment, both countries are unified through the closing of their border gates.
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