Thick. Immovable, impenetrable thickness, surrounding me in all directions–no one willing to budge. Any sense of privacy, of individuality, disappears as skin touches skin, someone’s hand pushes my back, a woman crunches my toes, a child wails in my ear, and amidst it all, a stream of sweat drips, ceaselessly, relentlessly.
I am in a sea. I am in an ocean of orange and green and white, of the frequent shouts of “Hindustan Zindabad!” (“Long live India!”), being held back by a single gate. And just like a huge body of water, this sea of people continues to swell and bulge against the gate, the anticipation of a single moment fueling an unspoken energy that defies the crippling heat. A sudden spark of hope sprouts in one section of the crowd, rippling through, as the murmurs increase and feet creep forward to the gate, only to be dashed back into the original state of affairs by a guard who emphatically holds his hand in the air, Not yet. For we are all waiting for one thing. That moment, when the gate to Wagah Border, the famous border between India and Pakistan right outside of Amritsar, Punjab, will let a crowd of over 15,000 people every day overflow to their seats in the stands to watch the ceremony of the changing of the guards.
When those gates finally open, the crowd billows forward. But it’s not a simple wave. It’s a tsunami of people, pushing, shoving, shouldering ahead. I reach ahead to grab my mom’s shoulder as she too tries to make headway. I try not to shout in pain at the elbow digging into my side or the heel stamping on my own foot, but when, I feel the skin in the middle of my back pinched and twisted, I can’t help but turn around with an “Ouch!” and a glare at the guilty woman with the remorseless face. You see, this was my first time in many years being in a crowd in India. In the next week or so, as I would experience more and more of them at various temples or monuments, my own tactics sharpened– I learned how to push my own way through, stick my arm out to the side to block others from bypassing me, and loudly accuse the woman behind me of pushing, to prevent her from taking my place. It’s funny how quickly mob mentality can set in; the same behavior that I despised would soon become my own. Right then, however, I simply wanted out.
I don’t think I have ever appreciated air as much as when I finally pushed through the gate. I ran to catch up to my mother, who was worried about my father and brother finding us. Everything from the lines to the seats were separated by gender, except for the foreigner’s gallery and the VIP stands. Someone had mentioned to us that as foreign passport holders, we could potentially gain access to this gallery. In hopes of this, my mom decided to stand in a different line, while I went to secure us a seat in the commoners’ stands, which were arranged around the road that connected the two countries, in case it did not work out. Neither of us would have any way of communicating with each other.
I’m not exactly sure how long I saved that seat next to me. I amused myself for a while by taking pictures– of the crowd, the two sides of the border, the waving flags. As a result, I almost lost the seat I had saved for my mother seven times, and each time, I had to frustratedly explain in Hindi that this seat was for my mom, and you, obnoxious woman in a large sari with an Indian-flag-patterned hat could NOT just ignore me and sit down anyway like the previous four people.
Just when I had pretty much given up hope of finding my mom in this massive mob, I heard, “ANNNIIIISSHHHHAAAA!” I turned around and when I finally saw her, her face absolutely desperate, I shot up my hand. She motioned for me to hurry over, and I ran (well, as fast as you can run through thousands of people), relieved to see my family waiting in line for the foreigner’s gallery.
An hour later, we were sitting two stands closer to the border, and I was waiting on the curb of the road itself. The stands and the curbsides were now full beyond your wildest imagination, and a crowd had formed behind the gate as well for those who no longer had room to sit down. The sun was so atrocious that I could no longer feel the difference between sweat and dry skin. Suddenly, applause and excitement made me quickly turn to face the road, where two young girls were each carrying an Indian flag and running up to the Indian side of the border and back. By the time my mom recognized that a line was forming for people to run with the flag, I had already grabbed her and was running down to join the line. We too ran up and down with the flag, the smile on my face plastered so wide, that my cheeks began to hurt.
Another hour later, the dancing started. Indian songs, first patriotic, then Bollywood, and finally, the most questionable of all, “Jai Ho,” blasted through the speakers as more and more people from the stands, young and old, Indian and not, took to the road to dance. It was fantastic, and my camera could not have enough of it. The energy, the excitement invigorating every one of us, made the heat almost bearable.
Slowly, we could see those on the Pakistan side joining the stands as well. There were not as many, and we later learned different accounts for the reason why. Some said that it was because of Ramadan, others mentioned the fact that they charged a ticket to come to the border, and still others simply stated that they simply were not as interested in it.
Amidst all the noise, I heard an American woman next to me ask her friend the reason for all of this. The other woman, an American photographer, looked surprised at this question. A faintly condescending expression settled on her face as she said, “Well don’t you know? These countries hate each other. This is their way of showing each other up.” I turned away as my mouth dropped open in shock, but not before I heard the first woman’s response: “Really? But that’s ridiculous!” Out of the corner of my eye I saw the photographer put her hands on her hips, and say, “Well hon, haven’t you noticed that about India? It’s pretty ridiculous. It’s all a show.” I would like to point out that this is NOT the reason I was there, or any of my family members, and I would guess a large proportion of the crowd there that day. I regret not turning around and questioning her statement, not necessarily to confront her, but because I think it would have made for an interesting conversation. As I saw a man raise his arms again and again in the air, demanding the crowd to become louder and louder in their shouts of “Vande Mataram” and “Hindustan Zindabad,” as he looked over his shoulder at the Pakistan side to see what they were doing, I realized that maybe there was more truth behind that statement in certain individuals than I wished to admit.
It had been over three hours since we had first arrived at the original gate when the official ceremony finally started. To be honest, the ceremony, though impressive, does not truly register within me as the most memorable part of the day. It mostly involved the guards on either side walking with high legs, kicks, shouts, and lining up on either side of the border, professing their pride in their country as the crowd responded with applause and cheers. The one exception was the flag ceremony, in which either side raised their flags, and then slowly lowered them but diagonally downward to the other side, so that the flags themselves crossed, a declaration of friendship.
With my camera battery thoroughly exhausted, my family, like the thousands of others there began to file out of the stands. As we were leaving, I suddenly saw people facing the Pakistani side of the border and waving. I ran to join them, realizing they were waving at people on the Pakistani side who were also leaving. Within seconds, I saw them turn toward us, and immediately begin to wave back at us.
I thought about the photographer woman’s words and grinned. This is why I was there– it was the symmetry of that moment. It was the fact that, at that moment, if I could have looked down from the sky, I would see a division between two groups of people with two different labels that were doing the exact same thing: waving at each other. So what if the government itself did it for show? So what if the prejudices and stereotypes still exist among people on either side of the border? The fact that people stood there on the other side, waving back to me with smiles on their faces was enough for me to hope, to believe that those possibilities beyond the status quo actually exist–to wish that one day, I could actually meet that one little girl over there, standing on the white bleachers with the bright, smiling face waving her green, Pakistani flag, for us to be independently proud, together.