It is a scene straight out of a Hindi film. The day is bright and beautiful, the long straight road is flanked by lush green fields on both sides complete with tube wells and narrow irrigating canals; there is no trace of traffic or mankind only the odd car passing by. A few narrow lanes branch off the highway every now and then, perhaps leading into a prosperous village. I want to take one of these lanes and see if the villages here are also as filmy as the landscape but I have more important matters to attend. After spending the morning, at the Jallianwalah Bagh in the heart of the border town of Amritsar, I am brimming over with patriotism and there is no way I can miss the beating retreat ceremony at the Wagah Border.
The thirty-kilometer road from Amritsar to Attari takes me back to my parents who have described the drive and the ceremony of Wagah a million times over to me. As a young couple they had spent their honeymoon years in Amritsar and I have heard so much about the town that I have a mental map of every nook and corner of the place — Golden Temple, Hall bazaar, Sadar bazaar, Model Town – you name it, and I know it. And so the drive looks all too familiar too.
The Jaliianwalah bagh had also looked familiar this morning as I crossed the hall bazaar buzzing with activity and people, dotted with hundreds of shops selling everything from swords to spices, Punjabi Juttis to Patiala shalwars. But it is one thing to imagine a place, quite another to witness it, especially something as momentous as the Jallianwalah Bagh.
As I walked inside the iron gate leading into a narrow passageway, my history lessons came rushing back. It is through the same passage that the British troops had entered the garden and had opened fire on thousands of innocent men, women, and children on the Baisakhi day in 1919. Their fault? They had gathered to protest against the arrest & deportation of their leaders under the infamous Rowlett Act. Since the park was surrounded by houses on all sides, and most exits were locked, there was no way for the people to escape. Many of them were killed by bullets fired incessantly for over ten minutes, while some, in a bid to escape the bullets, jumped into a well, and some were crushed under the feet of their fellow protestors in the stampede that followed. The incident, that left hundreds of Indian men, women, and even children dead was led by General Reginald Dyer who went on to become a hero with his people back in England.
I had, like most Indians, read the story many times over but seeing the place today was a different experience altogether. Although the park does not look much like it did almost a hundred years ago, there is little that the cosmetic change can do to alter its spirit, especially the anxiety that the musty well and the red brick walls with multiple bullet marks invoke. The picture gallery with paintings depicting the scale of the massacre, the eternal flame signifying the sacrifice of hundreds of Indians, the massive stone plinth erected in the memory of the martyrs, and the signboard that quite aptly describes the land here to be saturated with the blood of hundreds of innocent martyrs, can give even a dead man goose bumps. Driving through the picturesque road now, thinking of the scale of the tragedy, I can feel the hair on my arm stand.
My chain of thought is broken when I spot the large blue signboard announcing Lahore 27 Kms. Just then a large luxury bus passes by and I cannot help getting excited by the thought that the bus has just crossed the only permeable border between India and Pakistan.
The peaceful road leads us to unexpected clamour and chaos. Barely a kilometer away from the border, we suddenly spot cars, buses, autos, and two-wheelers jostling for parking space on and off the road. The abrupt and ugly dead end is infested with hawkers and rickshaw pullers alike who advise us to park our car and take a rickshaw until the first check point. I hear someone suggesting buying bottles of water and leaving all our belongings behind.
After duly parking the car, buying bottled water, paying thirty rupees for less than five hundred meters of rickshaw ride, we find ourselves at the first juncture towards the border. There is still some time for the gates to open and the crowds are swelling by the minute. The place looks like a mela ground now with people of all classes, castes, and religions rubbing shoulders for one common purpose: the same border that divided the country almost seventy years ago unites its citizens every evening.
The gates finally open and we are ushered into another long stretch of road with army barracks on either side. The men and women have by now been segregated. On my side of the road I spot a familiar building: a post office with read and white board announcing Attari Road Check Post, 143108. I can feel excitement building up in my gut. On the other side, where the men are, I spot a group carrying a giant tricolour shouting slogans of patriotism. To say that I am overwhelmed will be an understatement.
But patriotism is not the only thing overwhelming me; the heat, humidity and the crowds have now started to become intolerable. My little girl is on the verge of being crushed by the surging crowds; hundreds of women are pushing and shoving us from all sides, and I have to resort to pushing them away to keep my girl safe – something I do not like very much.
As the crowds grow denser and nosier, perhaps because today is eid, two men, dressed in khaki uniform riding on high ponies begin to hit the unruly mob with their batons. The women folk meanwhile are shouted at by their lady counterparts. Is this the Wagah border of my mother’s stories? I wonder as I try to ensure that my daughter and I are not killed in a stampede that looks inevitable.
The short walk from first check post to the second – where the crowd of thousands is being made to pass through a single dilapidated metal detector – takes us more than thirty minutes. But we are happy to have survived it. We are now standing at a relatively empty piece of road with Wagah on one side and Amritsar on the other. Even as we see our fellow countrymen walking with determined steps towards the border, their chest swollen with pride, we quietly make our way back towards our car