HUMOUR: BIRDS BEYOND BORDERS

Published December 5, 2021
Illustration by Radia Durrani
Illustration by Radia Durrani

Chandragupta Mauriya, Ashoka, Sher Shah Suri and a few Mughal emperors must have tossed and turned in their graves when Sir Cyril Radcliffe cut a line across the historic Grand Trunk Road, creating an international border that divided the Subcontinent into India and Pakistan in 1947.

That one line made perpetual enemies out of people who, although they may not have had any love lost between them, nonetheless had coexisted for at least 1,000 years.

One such border crossing is at Wagah, almost equidistant between the two historic cities of Lahore and Amritsar, that are some 60 km apart. Wagah has achieved a celebrity status amongst international borders thanks to the “flag-lowering ceremony” — also known as the “beating the retreat” ceremony — that takes place here.

The Indian Border Security Force and the Pakistan Rangers have made Wagah the venue for an elaborate coordinated march and flag-lowering ceremony that has been discussed in many TV talk shows across the world and is now even imitated by a number of other countries.

On either side of the border, soldiers dressed in crisp, pressed uniforms with elaborate headgear, assemble at Wagah, two hours before sunset. Large crowds, on both sides, cheer them on in a charged atmosphere, their state of frenzy fuelled by a steady dose of patriotic music, drum beating, slogan chanting and flag waving.

At the Wagah border, the daily flag-lowering ceremony assumes all the drama of warlike preparation. But the indifference to this Pakistan-India match by some random birds appals a Pakistani spectator

These soldiers parade and posture in the most flamboyant manner, for an hour, before lowering the flags of their respective country for the evening, closing the gates with a loud bang and calling it a day. At a private dinner, a high-ranking military accounts officer was once overheard calling it the most expensive ceremony to see which country can raise its leg higher without the reciprocal pleasure associated with the act.

I have been to see this ceremony many times, and it is truly a unique experience that brings out your patriotism and leaves you with a feeling of nationalistic pride and a sense of superiority. So, on a recent trip to Lahore, I decided to instil the same feelings of patriotism in my young kids, and perhaps to renew my own, and arranged a trip to the border.

Conforming to George Orwell when he said in Animal Farm, “All animals are equal but some are more equal than others,” I called up a friend in uniform who called up his friend who arranged a VIP visit for us, lest we have to “mingle with the crowds.”

On the intended day, we arrived wearing our green-and-whites, with faces painted and sporting headbands to show our love for our country. Lo and behold, we had front-row seats. For the camera, we posed with the soldiers who towered over my 5’10” frame and made me wonder if they would not be better off in the NBA. Then, immediately embarrassed at my materialistic thoughts, in my heart I saluted the soldiers for their service.

As the national anthem was playing, our chests puffed up with pride. The beat of the drum drove us into a frenzy. We were seated but periodically got up to chant Pakistan Zindabad! and Allah o Akbar!

Just when I turned around and glared at them in anger, bang! The Pakistani gate closed and the birds took off towards the Indian side, again.

The ceremony started. The soldiers marched and stomped the ground. I wondered if they had medical insurance for the knee-replacement they would surely soon need, because no human leg was meant to be used as a jackhammer, lifted high above one’s head and then drilled down on the ground in an earth-shuddering manner repeatedly. Again, I scolded myself for having such thoughts, and refocused on admiring the soldiers instead.

After all, what’s one missing or dysfunctional limb in the face of national service?

I resumed my journey to higher patriotic grounds. This was easy given the surroundings. I was now fully engrossed in the parade and clearly felt that our soldiers had superiority over the Indians. They towered over our vegan “neighbours” and our soldiers’ legs were definitely rising at least six inches higher than the ‘enemies’. Kareena and Katrina aside, we are better-looking, too. Hell, Katrina is only half Indian, and Kareena is — okay, back to the parade!

I glanced across at the Indian crowd and was convinced that in a hand-to-hand combat I could prevail over not the proverbial 10 but a dozen or more. Well, maybe not the stocky Gurkha over in the third row — but they are Nepali, anyways, and I am sure someone else could take care of him.

I turned my gaze to my home crowd, my kids and the herd emotions filled me with patriotism even more. Now I was captivated by the spectacle before me and admired the deft movements with which our soldiers were lowering the National Flag — also a cut above the lacklustre, business-like flag-lowering on the other side. Our green is a deeper green, too!

As the flags came down, I sat back in my seat, my head in the clouds of national superiority and my chest puffed out with pride, when suddenly I heard a bang that left me startled. I looked towards the source of the noise; it was the Indian gates closing.

I was not the only one startled. Two doves sitting on the Indian side of the dome, disturbed by the loud bang, took off and flew casually across the border, straight past me, and sat on the dome behind me on the Pakistani side. For some reason, I got confused and angry at the audacity of the birds and their utter disregard for international borders. A border over which we have fought three wars, lost countless lives and spent trillions at the cost of keeping our nations away from education and access to health. Stupid birds!

Just when I turned around and glared at them in anger, bang! The Pakistani gate closed and the birds took off towards the Indian side, again.

Staring down at me, while en route to India, they appeared to be mocking me, and dropped a souvenir that landed on my shoe. I watched them in utter disbelief and anger as they landed unfettered, this time on a treetop rooted in no man’s land, the small corridor left between the two borders. This old tree has stood its ground and has branched on both sides, providing shade and fruit.

I turned my gaze down. There it was. On my shiny, black shoe. A white blob of bird-dropping transforming into a smudge — the peace-symbolising doves’ response to my emotions and thoughts which, if left unchecked, may have prompted me to start beating my own war drum.

The writer is Inspector General of Prisons, Balochistan and has served in the Police Service of Pakistan in various positions in Balochistan and Sindh.
He can be reached at ugsid@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 5th, 2021

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