All this talk about guardsmen falling over reminded me of India – and a visit I once made to the headquarters for the Ministry of Silly Walks.
I was staying in Amritsar and the travel desk at my hotel convinced me that I just could not leave without seeing the flag lowering ceremony at the Wagah border, which was nearby. What was so special about running a flag up and down a pole? But I agreed to go and take a look.
It is half an hour’s drive to Wagah and when we get there, it looks more like a circus than a border post. The car park is full of tourist buses, and there are lines of stalls selling ice cream and Coke and Indian flags. Crowds stream towards the border as if they are off to a football game.
I once went to a soccer cup final at Wembley Stadium in London in a crowd like this, I took my feet off the ground on Wembley Way and let the crush just carry me along, like body surfing a wave. I do the same now, only this wave is a touch clammy and smells vaguely of masala and cloves.
We are channeled through a sort of cattle race. There is a lot of mostly good-natured pushing and shoving, the mood is festive. And why not? The crowd are all looking forward to engaging in their favorite national pastime – Pakky-bashing.
I take my seat in the bleachers to wait.
Below us, the border guards are nicely turned out in festive hats with a little red and gold coxcomb, medals and white spats. Without exception they each sport a mustache, from the severe, clipped British major style to fruity San Francisco ball-ticklers the size and shape of a small rodent.
Those in charge of crowd control blow whistles and pretend they are keeping order when in fact they are shamelessly grandstanding.
It is only an hour off sunset but it is so hot inside the stadium my fingertips are wrinkled as if I have just spent three hours soaking in a warm bath. Sweat mixes with the dirt and dust so that my shirt looks like I just washed the car with it. Back home you wouldn’t get out of the swimming pool in heat like this unless you are being evacuated from a bush fire. Here you have five thousand Hindus turning out for a flag ceremony that takes place twice a day every day of the year.
They hate their neighbors that much.
On the other side of the fence the mood is conspicuously more subdued. The sexes are segregated and there seem to be much fewer of them.
I am quite unprepared for this. Every flag raising ceremony I have witnessed, and there have been mercifully few, have been sedate affairs conducted with great dignity and pomp. What happens here has neither.
While the Pakistanis watch sullen from the other side, an Indian boy jumps the fence and starts dancing in the parade ground. Others join in. The crowd loves it. They become almost delirious when a an Israeli, a large boy with colored ribbons in his dreadlocks, starts walking like an Egyptian in front of the main viewing stand. It’s all highly amusing.
I am less sanguine when the Indian flag appears. Two Indian boys run with it towards the border gate. They wave it overhead at the Pakistanis in the bleachers on the other side. The flag is soon taken up by others.
When the two Israelis take a turn at the flag I become uneasy. The crowd bays its approval. The Israelis love it, playing up to the crowd now, moon-walking to laughter and wild applause.
What are these kids doing? Here are two races of people, separated by religion, going out of their way to antagonize each other and constantly veering on the edge of catastrophic war. Has it escaped these kids’ attention that this is no different from what is happening in their own country? Isn’t this what they have run away from?
In short, what the?
The Israelis are now orchestrating the chants of ‘Hindustan! Hindustan!’ above me in the viewing stand. They want these Indians to love them, and these Indians do love them, for they love foreigners, any foreigner, who agree with them that they are better than the Pakistanis.
“Do you like?” a young boy screams in my ear. He must be all of fourteen.
I shrug my shoulders.
“You like India better than Pakistan?”
I had read in the paper that day about a Pakistani husband who had thrown acid in his wife’s face because he thought she was having an affair with another man. I had not heard of anything that monstrous happening in India.
“There are good and bad Pakistanis, like there’s good and bad Indians.”
He doesn’t want to hear that.
“Where you from?”
“India better than Australia.”
“Not at cricket,” I tell him and that really hits the mark. Australia had recently beaten India in a cricket Test match. He goes away to sulk.
Someone once said that nationalism is egoism at its most extreme; the belief that your country is better than any other country because you were born in it.
Finally the ceremony gets under way.
There was a comedy program in Britain when I was a kid called Monty Python’s Flying Circus. In it, John Cleese performed a Silly Walk, which involved taking two quick shuffling steps and then throwing the right foot so high in the air so that it reached above the ear. I now see this walk being exactly performed by the Indian sergeant at arms below us.
I gasp in astonishment.
So John Cleese didn’t make it up! He was imitating a British-trained Indian military guard!
The gate between the two countries is thrown open, not with very great dignity, but tossed aside as if it is something that tripped up the sergeant at arms and scraped his shin and who left this fucking thing lying there anyway?
He then holds both hands out in front of him like he is turning on the TV with one hand and banging it with the other to try and get a clearer picture. He rounds on his Pakistani counterpart on the other side of the gate, puts his hands on his hips, and stares him down to wild applause from the Indian side.
Three soldiers from either side now face each other for several minutes in a bizarre ritual of foot-stamping and glowering, posturing and head shaking like roosters shaping up for a cockfight. Every small gesture is met with cheers and foot stamping.
It is at once shocking, hilarious and disturbing.
Finally the flag – you remember the flag? – is lowered. The theater is over. We are done for the day.
The evening’s experience leaves me profoundly depressed. Okay, you say, it’s just theater. Does no harm.
And maybe you’d be right.
But these two countries have nuclear weapons.
And it’s not just India and Pakistan. We have all of us been waving flags at each other for a few millenia now.
What harm has it done?
Well, quite a bit.
And if you think I’m taking any side in particular, you can always read this.
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