Symmetry and Dissymmetry

Crossing at Wagah

Relatively few people cross into Pakistan from India – such are the nature of relations between the two countries. Fewer still cross on foot, as the Friends Without Borders team did on 24 March, carrying tens of thousands of children’s letters of friendship – by hand – from India into Pakistan.

The Wagah border, our point of crossing, is all about symmetry. Approach it from either direction, the landmarks are exactly the same: military bases (1 km); food vendors, auto rickshaw wallas, and kids hawking souvenirs (500 m); immigration offices (150 m); customs offices (100 m); outer gates and stadium seating for the daily border-closing ceremony (30 m); the border gate (0 m).

The famous border-closing ceremony takes place each evening beginning at five pm, and draws hefty crowds on both sides. Although most who come to witness this strange spectacle are Indian tourists, it is also a hot date venue for both Amritsaris and Lahoris and many young couples are in evidence. It is a sad irony that almost none who come to see the border from the grandstands will ever be able to cross it – though a few are old enough to have passed this way as children during the nightmare of partition. The difficulty of obtaining a visa is simply too difficult and daunting.

The ceremony they flock to see is a bizarre cross between the Nuremburg rallies and Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks. Like everything else at Wagah, it is choreographed in perfect symmetry. Nationalistic slogans are echoed from Indian stands to Pakistani, and back again. The boisterous sloganeering “[Hindustan] [Pakistan] zindhabagh!” is syncopated to perfection by heavily microphoned twin MCs. Spontaneity would disturb the carefully balanced Kabuki of the event.

The goofy, martial dance routine, performed in mirrored precision by matching border guards is not really worthy of description – or of witnessing, for that mater. You can find photos of the ceremony on the web if you like this kind of thing.

The Wagah ceremony is poor theater. But more than that, it represents missed opportunity. My Indian friends assure me that the daily ritual is taken as “good fun” by both sides; but one wonders why this aggressive, jingoist, militarism should be on display at all. I know many educators and activists who believe in the power of drama to teach and to heal. I’ve written recently about Talent, and NGO in Old Delhi that uses drama to impart the history of the city to kids who will never crack a history book. A Mumbai NGO called Possibilities uses acting to elucidate issues from teen angst to environmental values. CharityFocus volunteers in Bangalore have been performing street theater for several years to heighten AIDS awareness. These are only a few examples. In two countries that can hardly produce a film without elaborate song-and-dance numbers, surely someone could be found to choreograph a border ritual that speaks of peace, friendship, and mutual respect.

Instead, we get a delicately balanced display of symbolic muscle flexing. It is more-of-the-same in a line of discourse that should have been declared tiresome and counterproductive a generation ago. The only aspect of the ceremony that implies cooperation is the fact that both armies must have worked together for weeks to draw-up the absurd symmetry of the ballet.

Symmetry, of course, is the politically expedient aesthetic. It decries equality and sameness. It removes all risk, all nuance, and all ambiguity from a no-you-first-no-I-insist-you-first presentation. Since the advent of the Arthurian roundtable, symmetry has always been the preferred sop for warriors, diplomats, and other petulant children. There is nothing quite like aesthetic mediocrity to put everyone at ease.

If there is any dissymmetry to Wagah, it is in the way in which travelers are treated on one side of the border and the other – at least judging from our experience.

As we left India, we endured one last, intensive reminder that the sadistic vestige of the British Raj resides in the Indian bureaucracy. In fact, it took our team more than three hours of conferences with immigration and customs officials, telephone calls and telefaxes to and from Delhi, a seemingly endless stream of forms-to-beget-forms, negotiations with officials from the porters’ union, and more than our share of anxiety to get our team of properly documented Indians and Americans the last 150 meters. No sooner would we receive hard-won clearance from one petty official, he would “go to lunch” and leave us at the mercy of an underling who had received no authority to pass us; and the pattern would repeat itself until, in an ironic twist on the Peter Principle, we were finally dealing with officers lowly enough to simply follow prescribed procedures, see that our papers were in order, and let us through.

Crossing at Wagah

The Times of India reporter who had been filing stories about our project all week from Amritsar was so appalled by the bureaucratic bullshit, that she swore to write an exposé on what she witnessed. Out of deference to the joyousness and symbolism of our crossing, she agreed to delay the publication of her poison-piece until after our project has run its course.

By comparison, the immigration and customs officials in Pakistan were courteous, welcoming, and efficient. The entire process of documentation and registration, at both entry and exit, took a matter of seconds or, at most, minutes. This points to one dramatic difference between the two countries. In Pakistan, which is run by a military junta, the big dogs can make life hell – serious, life-threatening, rot-in-prison-without-trial hell. But the little dogs seem largely imbued with empathy for the daily struggles of their fellow citizens (and visitors), and go out of their way to make life a little easier. In India, on the other hand, the big shots couldn’t care less about the common individual. The lives of these classes of people never intersect; and if, perchance, they did, the oligarchs would never even notice the occurrence. But there is no police officer, train conductor, or parking lot attendant in India – none who has ever been issued a cap, whistle, or shoulder epaulet – who doesn’t absolutely relish the exercise of their petty authority and the control it gives them over the average citizen. In the world’s most sprawling democracy, this is the ultimate democratization of the ugly side of power. It is like never-ending fraternity hazing, without the contrived excuse of alcoholic stupor.

We finally sidled through the gate at 4:00 pm, just as it was swinging shut for the evening.

Crossing at Wagah

On the Pakistan side, the reception could not have been more generous or loving. We were garlanded with roses when we walked across the Wagah border by our Pakistani volunteers, who had been waiting for the crossing as long, and as anxiously, as we had been. Four dhol drummers hammered dance beats and press photographers snapped more hushed polyrhythms as we paraded into Pakistan

The roses were intoxicatingly fragrant, and soft and cool on the neck. It was the perfect antidote to hours of bureaucratic hell and carrying of heavy letters.

Crossing at Wagah

When we crossed back into India a week later, we were treated to a replay of the garlanding, surreal for its stunningly ironic lack of similarity to the original event. This time, the strings of roses were draped around our necks by an immigration official who had earlier caused us so much unnecessary bureaucratic difficulty and delay as to distinguish himself even amid the superb team display of incompetence, arrogance, and Kafkaesque mindlessness. In the days since our departure, it seems, he had seen our Public Service Announcement on television, heard about the Prime Minister’s press release, and read about us in all the newspapers. “These are VVIPs. Friends Without Borders. World’s Largest Love Letter, you know,” he announced knowingly to one of his colleagues, as if the very notion of our crossing into Pakistan had been his idea in the first place.

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1 Response to “Symmetry and Dissymmetry”


  1. 1 pegasus 4 December 2006 at 6:15 am

    are we allowed to cross the border on foot?
    I thought train/bus service was compulsory


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