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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Wagah

Manto’s Toba Tek Singh is probably one of the most extraordinary pieces of satire ever written. Ripping into the utter mindlessness that was Partition, the story questions the very concept of sanity in a land where, it could be said, with very little exaggeration, everyone had gone mad. If you haven’t already, you can read the short story here in the original Urdu or a Devanagri transliteration or (only if you have to) an English translation. You can also listen to a reading of the story on YouTube [part I, part II]

After reading the story though, should you want to live the satire, and get a first-hand glimpse of the madness that powered Manto’s genius, all you have to do is get on a train and make your way to Amritsar. At a short distance from the city is the only land border crossing between two nations representing a fifth of the world’s population: Wagah. Of course, being a border crossing between two nuclear states is hard work and it’s unfair to expect it to work for long hours. In deference to this sentiment, every evening at five-thirty, the crossing is closed.

And what a closing it is.

The gates themselves are fairly unimpressive: made of iron and about as big as what you’d get outside any school. What’s to watch though us how they are shut. Watched over by avuncular portraits of Gandhi and Jinnah on either side, soldiers theatrically goose-step up and down the tarmac multiple times, stopping every 5 steps or so to stomp the ground after swinging their legs through an impossibly wide angle. If this reminds you of roosters in heat I suspect that was exactly what was intended. To leave no doubts as to the whole foul theme, both sides have massive rooster-style combs crowning their hats which quiver impressively as and when a soldier brings down his boot from shoulder height to stomp the ground.

Watched on by a crowd on either side of the border, all of this is preceded by an impromptu dance/bhangra performance (only on the Indian side though; the Pakistanis take their border crossings seriously) and the marching was interspersed with patriotic slogan shouting and cheering led by a man on a mic wearing, for some reason, a white track suit. The day I’d gone, the Indian side was impossibly crowded and we so comprehensively outshouted the Pakistanis that I couldn’t even hear their slogans. In contrast to the overflowing Indian stands, the Pakistanis barely filled up theirs; a reflection of the ratios in population between the twins or a general indicator of the lack of enthusiasm of the Pakistanis in Pakistan maybe.

Leading up to the Indian side of the gate was an amateurishly built monument to the Punjabis killed during 1947 which everyone roundly ignores or at best uses as a temporary bench to sit on after all that bhangra. With so many people visiting the place, a soft drinks stall there does brisk business (and suffers from an infuriating lack of change). There’s also a BSF souvenir shop which sells stuffed toys and Monte Carlo woollens at a whopping 40% discount (I liked a sweater but they didn’t have my size)—exactly the sort of stuff you’d like to buy at border crossings.

7 comments:

Tarun Goel said...

http://www.abhivyakti-hindi.org/gauravgatha/2003/tobateksingh/tobateksingh1.htm May be this link is easy and simple to follow.

Hades said...

Thanks, Tarun!

Tazeen said...

That one is epic, you know the kind of things one get to hear there?

Indians screaming - our stadium is bigger than yours.

Pakistanis screaming - our soldiers are taller.

Everything else aside, my 4 year old nephew crossed the two set of barbed wires because he wanted some candy that he saw on the other side. My sister and I screamed to get him back, an old Lady on the Indian side told us not to worry, got hold of him, bought him that candy and returned him to the barbed wire. The Indian soldier who gave him to us labelled him the youngest cross border infiltrator.

Hades said...

@Tazeen,

Haha, that is quite a story. Your bhateeja seems to be quite the handful. :)

The time I'd gone there were a group of kids who couldn't decide which side of the road they'd like to be on (i think they had relatives stationed on either side). So in between all that frantic marching and chest puffing, you'd suddenly see a bunch of kids scurry across and then back again. Pretty funny.

poosha said...

That's a lovely story Tazeen! :)

Vikram said...

Why would anyone want to visit such a place ?

Hades said...

@Vickram: Well, if we draw an analogy between nationalism and religion, Wagah is, I guess, a sort of pilgrimage spot. Also, Wagah plus the Golden Temple make a nice weekend trip if you live in Delhi!