The crowd breaks repeatedly into good-natured applause and cheers, led by a moustached man with a cordless mike on the road below us. He has a sonorous way of bellowing slogans from time to time, which of course we all bellow back at him. He periodically points to someone in the audience and urges that someone to yell, but curiously, every time he points, he also runs his hand quickly over his chin, indicating a beard.
Again and again he shouts: “You over there with the beard! Bellow up!”
But why does he single out guys with beards? I mean, considering this is Punjab, there are indeed plenty with beards around me. In fact, I would say the great majority of the males are bearded. (Many have turbans too.) So of what use is it to indicate a beard to pick someone out of a crowd?
Later, several khaki-uniformed men march up to the gate and back. I use that word march advisedly, for what they really do is a quick strut. Like wind-up clockwork dolls, the crests atop their turbans shaking angrily, they zip in formation along the road, due west into the sunsetting haze, turn abruptly at the gate and zip back on the other side of the road. As they turn, I notice that a similar posse, but in black and with marginally larger and angrier crests, is doing the same on the other side of the gate.
Two men, one from each side, throw the gates open with almost contemptuous flourish. Two more men, one from each side, approach the gate simultaneously in the same triple-quick strut. They halt abruptly to do high kicks that would do a Moulin Rouge can-can dancer proud. Then they continue towards each other, to end up nearly nose-to-nose.
I am reminded of nothing so much as the cockfights I once spent a day watching in rural West Bengal. The quivering crests these men wear underline that impression. Where did this elaborate, choreographed hostility come from? What about it makes us all cheer and clap and shout slogans praising our country?
Wagah, of course, that border in Punjab, that ceremony where you come oh-so-close to those ‘other’ people, where you can steal a peek and wonder just who they are and what spices up their dal-roti, and then go back to shouting slogans praising your country. Yes, those other people are easily visible, just beyond the gate. Just too far to see faces clearly, but close enough that you know binoculars would let you identify them if you knew them, close enough that you could shout out a conversation if there was substantially less hubbub around you. Many standing beside me do look over every now and then, almost in longing wonder. Who are those guys? They look like us, cheer like us, yet they’re chanting different things! Waving a different flag!
So close, as the cliché goes, and yet so far. So much like us, and yet „. wait, are they really like us? Are we like them? I can see them, but what do I really know about them? It’s just a gate, yes. Yet there’s a canyon there. Invisible, but deep.
Well, no time for all that. Gotta feel good about my country!
Remember the violence
Wagah is beguilingly strange, but the infectious enthusiasm that suffuses the place renders any question immaterial. This is showtime! Remember to collect your cynicism on the way out.
And so, on my visit to Amritsar and its surroundings it wasn’t really Wagah where I brushed up against ideas of patriotism and country. That’s what I had thought would happen, but Wagah was like going to a cricket match.
The Golden Temple, on the other hand…
Make no mistake, the Golden Temple is a vision of cleanliness and peace. You can almost see those qualities wafting from the great tank. Then you start seeing the inscriptions everywhere.
In loving memory of Sergeant Uday Singh, US Army, 23 April 1982 to 01 December 2003. Killed in action in Habbariyah, Iraq, during operation Iraqi Freedom. First Sikh who laid down his life in the war against terrorism. In memory of brave soldiers killed in action in 1965, The Poona Horse …Washer Man Chuni Lal.
Soldiers remembered, washermen remembered … and then, and then, there’s the museum.
The museum is a vista of blood and mutilation and weaponry. Here is a painting of a man being sawn in half, the two grim sawers going at it and the two halves peeling off, bending over like slices of butter. There is a painting of a man with half his head cut off, looking up at the chopper who holds that half. A man being boiled alive. A man “being martysed [sic] by mutilating his joints one by one”. Men strapped onto huge wheels, like gears, and crushed between them. Photos of 13 men, bloody in a 1978 incident, garlanded and robed and very dead.
A blood-soaked history, this. And there’s a twist to make you think of a something a little more than blood and death.
Along one wall, just above those 13 bloody men, are large paintings of Bhagat Singh, Udham Singh and Kartar Singh Sarabhai, with brief descriptions of their heroism. All called shahid, or martyr – as you might expect, for these are men we grow up revering in our history lessons.
On the adjacent wall is a painting of the Akal Takht in ruins. Dome fallen down, walls shattered. This paragraph below it:
Under the calculated move of Prime Minister of India Indira Gandhi, military troops stormed Golden Temple with tanks. Thousands of Sikhs were massacred. Sri Akal Takht suffered the worst damages Sikhs rose up in a united protest. Many returned their honours. Sikh soldiers left their barracks. The Sikhs however, soon had their vengeance.
And to the right are paintings of three men, titled:
Shahid S Beant Singh Ji (1949 – 31 Oct 1984)
Shahid S Satwant Singh Ji (1967 – 6 Jan 1989)
Shahid S Kehar Singh Ji (1940 – 6 Jan 1989)
The first two were Indira’s guards who shot her that October morning; Beant was shot dead almost immediately. The third, sentenced for being part of the conspiracy. hanged along with the second on that January day.
These three men, up on this wall and called shahid, exactly like other revered martyrs from our history. In this place that remembers so much blood; that doesn’t mention, but manages to put in your thoughts. the long nights of even more bloodshed – such as 3000 slaughtered – in the wake of Indira’s assassination.
Peace and vengeance
I walk down from the museum and step back into the Golden Temple. The serenity after the memories of great violence, the sense of peace and welcome that extends to every visitor who comes to this magnificent place, is almost overwhelming.
Yes, I have never been in a place of worship that is so clean and inclusive, that is so peaceful, that lets you be yourself so fully. Yet my mind is consumed, vibrating, taut with the horrific violence remembered upstairs.
And my mind is consumed, too, with inchoate thoughts of nation and patriotism. Now, I never cared for Indira Gandhi, and I believe history will eventually judge her harshly for the long list of Indian troubles we can lay at her door. Yet she did once lead the government of this country that I, and this Golden Temple museum, belong to. Yet this museum actually refers to her killing as the “vengeance” of the Sikhs. It actually remembers and reveres her killers – exactly as it remembers and reveres the heroes of India’s freedom struggle.
How’s the ordinary Indian visitor to this place to reconcile these things?
Yes, I have never been in a place of worship so clean and inclusive. I have also never been in a place that raised such troubling questions about the country I live in. By then Wagah has already faded a bit in memory…