“Wagah border?” Every taxi driver in Amritsar chanted this phrase to us on the daily, sometimes shouting it down the street at our retreating frames. They would shrug their shoulders, and look at us curiously. “Wagah wagah wagah?”
Charmed by their dual reference to Pacman and to a local site of interest, and found out that Wagah was the lonely road that led from India to Pakistan. Given the tightness of our visas that allowed us entry into India in the first place, and what we imagined to be similarly labyrinthine processes to be granted passage into Pakistan, we didn’t see what all the fuss was about. If we couldn’t enter Pakistan personally, we certainly didn’t want to hang around and watch people get visa stamps or submit to baggage checks.
In time, though, it became clear that this was one of the major attractions of visiting Amritsar. After you had grown tired of all that history and spiritual homeland of the Sikh religion stuff, Wagah was the place to go.
We arrived as the sun crested the horizon, and parked along a road busy with foot traffic. Families and couples and groups were hiking the long path, excited and ready. Middle school boys darted from nearby restaurants to sell us popcorn and Indian flag paraphernalia. We passed through gender-segregated security patdowns, multiple checks of our water bottles and cameras, and three separate investigations of our passports and our characters. Were we, perhaps, planning on making a run for the border to Pakistan? Did we have anything untoward happening in our identification? Did we bring any cool signs to show our support of India?
Once we entered the stadium built around the border crossing, the security precautions faded in our minds. Thousands of people packed the stands, flags and banners and hands in the air, cheering and shouting and jumping. People ate bags full of popcorn and an assortment of homemade snacks, shared drinks with neighbours in nearby seats, talked excitedly about the coming event. Energy ripplied through the assembled crowd.
Guards began to dart along the road from India to Pakistan, mirrored perfectly by their complementary counterparts in the opposing nation. All officials, except for the man tasked with amping the crowd and leading nationalistic songs, were in highly formal gear, with enormous, colourful hats. There were displays of high-kicks, march-races from the end of the stadium to the actual gate, and gender segregated handshake-offs. Flags were raised and lowered competitively, then folded aggressively, then similarly raced up and down the road.
Every few minutes, the crowd amper would lead the packed Indian side in chants, while the Pakistani side attempted to best them in Urdu. Occasionally, one or both of the hypemen would approach a designated Voice Officer from the immigration officials. They would then proceed to yell a single note for as long and as loud as they could, bending forward as the yelp squeezed every last millilitre of oxygen from their lungs, while the man who outlasted his competition would be bathed in cheers and adulation from the crowd. As soon as the clapping had died down, the shoutfight would begin anew.
We imagined a slow crescendo through history, a gradual ramping up to the current level of frenetic pomp. Two lonely guards stood along the border in the mid-70s, discussing moustache-wax and M*A*S*H, old friends despite the tensions between their two nations. It would be almost sunset, and the man from Pakistan would check his watch. The last few travellers would be checked and sent over the border, their passports inked, and all of the staff would be growing weary and hungry. They would exchange a friendly, formal handshake with one another, nod, and go home to their families in their respective homelands.
And then one day the Indian guard’s supervisor would be watching. He would find their discussion of moustache wax intriguing, but would wish for his subordinate to be more formal, to show the splendour and pride of the Indian people. It was important for those crossing the border to understand the splendour of India, and for the man at the front door of India to exemplify this. Also, yearly performance evaluations were coming, and he was really angling for a promotion. To impress his boss, the Indian guard would throw a little oomph into the next handshake, a little flair into the formal nod. This guard had been taking night classes in improv at the community centre by the Golden Temple back in Amritsar, and would be happy to have a chance to show his chops in public.
The rest would be history. The guard from Pakistan, not to be outdone, and with his own supervisor closely watching, would make a show of a more aggrandized handshake, would peacock his way into and out of it. The Indian guard would start wearing formal regalia, would requisition a very fine hat. The Pakistani guard would get his coworkers to do a few high kicks, ones which they would practice at night to get just right. The Indian guard would race forward with the flag. Decades would pass as a Springfield-Shelbyville arms race of ostentation took place, perhaps changing with the era.
I imagine a time in the 1980s with sequins on the border costumes, special celebrity guests on holidays, a mother’s day celebration where only the female guards perform the aggressive handshakes and high-stepped marching. I imagine homemade banners constructed with poster paint, pep rallies and mascots. The Wagah border closing ceremony is the manifestation of actual, serious geopolitical issues and the complex relationship between two complicated nations, but is also compressed and spirited and maybe fuelled by something resembling cheering for your favourite cricket team (“Mumbai is going to destroy Islamabad this match,” Sunil told his buddies at they drove to the border).
And as the crowd dwindled, as we were swarmed by a group of pleasant middle schoolers and their excited English teachers, we considered where this border ceremony would go in the future. As decades passed, what new displays of flair and spectale would each side employ to dazzle the people? Would there be fireworks? Synchronized penguin trapeze acts? Lasers and trained seals and discount buffets for the whole family?
Or would the pageantry eventually dwindle and fade? Would old rivalries be left behind, would ceremony disappear? Would borders be redrawn, when the robots came? Would this little outpost be forgotten, and all of the passion that it saw every sunset?