That there are festive dhabas at the India-Pakistan border, perched right before the Customs Clearance area, comes as a surprise. The area has the air of a carnival. Men, women and children in colourful costumes mill about. Chhola-kulcha, lassi and juice do brisk business. Vendors tail us, trying to persuade us to buy their mineral water bottles.
Wagah is the only post on the 700 kilometre long Line of Control between India and Pakistan, which is open between the two countries. Every evening with audiences of both nationalities on their respective sides, amid boot-clamping, foot stamping and much glowering, the flags of both countries are simultaneously lowered and the gates slammed shut.
There it is, Pakistan, right behind the high voltage electricity lines. It’s hard to believe that the land stretching in front, a hair’s breadth away, is another country, another people. I’ve been told that the ceremony has been toned down in recent times and the officers exchange a handshake to mark the improving India-Pakistan relations.
‘Hum us desh ke waasi hain jis desh mein Ganga beheti hai,’ hits me as I walk towards the open-air amphitheatre where people settle down to watch the ceremony. It’s choc-a-bloc with a separate wing for women. Colours flow down in front of me, chromatic salwar kameezes, t-shirts and baby suits punctuated by swaying white handkerchiefs. For a moment I think people across the border are waving to each other. How endearing, I think, and then rudely awaken; they are only fanning themselves.
If India has Bollywood, Pakistan has Atif Aslam. “Hum hain Pakistani, hum jeetengejeetenge bhai jeetenge,” is playing on the other side now complete with riffs of electric guitar. The Indian side cranks up the volume. The Pakistanis crank up the volume even more and soon it’s an unbearable jangle.
Both sides have a heavy presence of the army, Pakistanis dressed in black pathan suits, Indians in the familiar dark khaki. By now, two people from the crowd are selected every now and then and given the tricolour, holding which they run to the gate and back. A carbon copy is on the Pakistan side, only their flag is green and white.
‘Suno gaur se duniya walo, buri nazar na humpe dalo’ plays; the Indian crowd applauds and breaks into rhythmic clapping. So here it is. The most fantastic of our Bollywood cliches are but true. The same holds for Pakistan as well, Bollywood being the one thing that unites us, as do our spectacles – the sight of the crowd on both sides are mirror images of each other. Both look the same, a riot of Punjabi colours, flapping white handkerchiefs to ward off the heat that emanates from the mingled breath of the two nations.
Amid all this, the ceremony takes place. Sporting impossibly ornate moustaches and wearing flamboyantly plumed hats, the jawans stomp and shout, perform high kicks, salute the flag, and the hyped handshake happens, brisk and perfunctory, no glances exchanged. And then the flags are lowered, the gates between the nations slammed shut. The party is over.