The shadow lines

The shadow lines

‘Lahore, Oct 15, 2009: Blast reported at Elite Forces HQ.’ A month before, sitting securely at home in Bangalore, almost two thousand kilometers away from the action, the headline would have registered as the merest blip on my mental radar. Now it made me shudder and mine the piece for details. For, in the last week, my notions of borders, neighbours and geography had undergone a sea change. After a family vacation in Amritsar, I now had a new status — Wagah-returned. And Lahore was suddenly not all that far away.

Few tourists from these parts who ‘do the north’ go all the way to Amritsar. It is a pity, because Amritsar has much to offer that is unique and historic, apart from, of course, all the charms of a small, friendly town in prosperous, fertile Punjab.

As pure as gold
The biggest draw, of course, is the Harmandir Sahib, or the Golden Temple. In its 400-odd-year history, the temple, constructed by the fifth guru, Guru Arjan Dev, in 1577, has been witness to both great joy and great tragedy, having been desecrated and destroyed over and over again — by the Mughals, the Persians, the Afghans, and most recently, in 1984, by the Indian Army, during Operation Bluestar.
But it has always emerged resurgent, and today, it stands as a proud and serene symbol of the valour, resilience and deep faith of the Sikh people. The holy tank in the middle of which it stands is known as the Amrit Sarovar, or the pool of the nectar of immortality, and it is from this that the name of the city, Amritsar, is derived.

As you leave the clamour of the small streets of the old walled city behind and enter the temple complex, your feet bare, your head covered, a quiet begins to settle on you. Crest the Clock Tower stairs, and the whole serene panorama of the Golden Temple unfolds before you — the glint of the golden dome as it catches the rays of the sun, and its reflection in the vast, still pool, the melodious strains of the kirtan from the sanctum sanctorum, the faith of the hundreds of people inside who are engaged in every kind of entirely voluntary sewa — sweeping and mopping the cool, clean marble floors, washing the plates in which the delicious karah prasad is dispensed, handing out water to thirsty pilgrims — and the absolute quiet.

It is marvellous to watch the mingling of the sacred and the secular in this holy space — people of every faith being made equally welcome, as symbolised in the four entrances to the sanctum sanctorum, the composition of the Guru Granth Sahib, which contains the wisdoms of Muslim and Hindu saints apart from the Sikh gurus, and the rituals taken from every faith — the very Islamic touching of the forehead to the ground, the Christian practice of following the kirtan with your own hymn book, and the very Hindu practices of circumambulation, the taking of Prasad, and the custom of putting the deity (the holy book in this case) to bed each night and waking it up each morning.

Within walking distance of the Golden Temple, at the corner of two crowded shopping streets, is the small, nondescript park called Jallianwala Bagh. As you walk through the narrow passage leading to the park, down which, one fateful day in April 1919, 90 pairs of British boots marched on their way to a bloody mission that changed the course of the nationalist struggle in the Punjab, you will still feel the goosebumps. Inside, apart from a memorial to the 379 official casualties, is the Martyr’s Well, into which panic-stricken innocents jumped, and bullet-riddled walls, which tell their own chilling tale.

But perhaps the most impactful, most memorable, and most surprising Amritsar sight is the BSF’s Beating the Retreat ceremony each evening at the Attari-Wagah border, a 40 minute drive from the centre of the city. A frisson of excitement coursing through us at the thought that we were actually going to the Indo-Pak border, we jumped into the first taxi that offered to take us there and back, with not even the glimmer of an idea about what to expect.

The first surprise was the number of people. Hundreds and hundreds of Indians — men, women, children, urban, rural, soldiers’ families, civilians — were making a beeline for what was obviously a very popular daily event. The second was the upbeat, cheery, we’re-on-a-picnic mood that pervaded the ‘stadium’ on the Indian side — jingoistic Bollywood songs on full volume on the PA system, to which children from the audience danced with gay abandon, an emcee from the BSF whipping up the crowd with nationalist slogans (commendably, there were no anti-Pak slogans, either from the emcee or from the crowd), and BSF jawans racing threateningly towards their Pakistani counterparts and staging mock battles with them, the audience lustily egging them on.

The third was a glaring lack of similar excitement from the clearly-visible stadium on the Pakistani side, where a few men — men you could not tell apart from the men on this side — clapped desultorily at their own side’s mock battles. You didn’t need a fancy degree to tell which side had the clear upper hand in this particular psychological battle.

Blood line
Feasting on microwaved Maggi noodles, crisp fresh pakoras, and Coffee Day Express coffee — yes, at the Indo-Pak border! — we began to understand for the first time what the people of Amritsar and Lahore, two cities just 45 km apart, had gone through in the last 62 years, ever since an unthinking, uncaring pencil had drawn a line that would turn brothers into enemies, neighbours into killers, and homes into refugee camps. The irony of it was tragic — that the line was drawn so close to a city whose faithful believe in the equality of all religions, and do not themselves belong to either of the two warring groups.  
And suddenly, unbidden, a snatch of a song from a movie about a star-crossed cross-border romance surfaced from some dim recess of memory — Tere des ko maine dekha, tere des ko maine jaana / Jaane kyun ye lagta hai mujhko jaana pehchaana / Yahaan bhi wahin shaam hai wahin savera... It had never rung so true before.

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