09/02: The Theatre of War

Sydney Morning Herald
by Eleanor Limprecht

At the border between hostile neighbours India and Pakistan, the guards put on a fine show. Eleanor Limprecht reports.

From communalist violence to border disputes and threats of nuclear war, India and Pakistan have had a tumultuous history since their partition in 1947.

Though the bitter rivals have made recent inroads towards peace, their animosity can still be witnessed at the Wagah border at sunset every evening, when soldiers from each side march and shake their guns in a menacing - but bordering on ridiculous - spectacle that draws hundreds of spectators.

Both countries have built stadium seating for the crowds and taxi drivers make a lucrative business shuttling tourists from Amritsar, a border town in the Indian state of Punjab. Families bring picnics and cheer on the soldiers as they stomp their feet, puff out their chests and lower their national flags in a clearly contemptuous spectacle.

But rarely do these tourists actually cross the border, so it is with some trepidation that my friend and I walk through the six sets of gates and four passport checks to spend a few days in Lahore.

Taste of Lahore ... the exotic fare in Food Street.
Photo: Eleanor Limprecht

A week earlier we had lined up for visas at the Pakistani embassy in New Delhi and booked our train tickets to Amritsar.

Tell people in India that you are crossing the border into Pakistan and they shake their heads in horror. "Oh, no," said the dignified-looking Sikh on the train. "Why would you want to do that? India is very beautiful - much more safe. None of these terrorist sleeper cells, no Osama bin Laden."

The Indian border guards are not very encouraging, either. "I hope you come back soon," one says. "You will find it is not as nice as India." His friend adds: "They eat too much meat - it makes them violent."

But the Pakistani border guards do their best to quell any fears. "This is the most beautiful country. You will never want to leave," says the one with the bushy moustache after offering to change Indian rupees. He pulls a wad of bills the size of my fist from his vest and wets his thumb and forefinger to count out a stack of Pakistani rupees. I know better than to ask him for a receipt.

The first thing you notice in Pakistan is the trucks. While trucks in India are shades of grey and Delhi rickshaws are painted yellow and green, every truck in Pakistan is a work of art.

In a country where alcohol is illegal and women have to cover up, a man can go wild decorating his truck. Brightly painted and covered with baubles, bells and painted tigers, trucks in Pakistan have nothing in common with the lifeless semi-trailers that populate Australian roads. Their horns play popular tunes at ear-piercing decibels, more as entertainment for the driver than a warning to oncoming motorists.

Bus and auto rickshaw drivers decorate their vehicles with as much gusto. How much gold paint and kitsch art can they fit onto a metal frame? Plenty. And the interiors are just as extreme - I rode an auto rickshaw with a disco ball swinging from the ceiling and a driver who was so busy playing DJ that he took his eyes off the road. Despite my protests, he rewound and fast-forwarded his cassette tapes to find just the right tune for the journey.

Since the trip to Lahore from the border takes a little over half an hour, we opt for a taxi from Wagah, anticipating the sweet, cool of the air-conditioning on our sweaty skin. The driver, unfortunately, has something else in mind. "A/c 200 rupee extra," he says, waggling his finger at us in the rearview mirror.

So instead we sit in a growing pool of sweat, despite 200 rupees equalling just under $5. Here it is a small fortune. A taxi from the border to Lahore costs about 400 rupees ($9). That's minus the a/c, of course. There is a bus that takes an hour and delivers you to the Lahore Central Railway Station for 10 rupees (about 25 cents). It definitely doesn't have a/c.

Despite the lack of Western tourists in Lahore, there are facilities ranging from a five-star Holiday Inn to backpacker hostels. The best option in any city is to stay with the locals, and luckily an acquaintance invites us to stay in her family's home.

Only 24, this brilliant girl from a wealthy military family is already a divorcee from her arranged marriage two years earlier. Divorce is still rare in Pakistan and much looked down upon. Despite having her mother's support, this young woman had to fight to get a divorce and then beg her ultra-traditional father to let her move back into the family home. "At least they've given up on trying to marry me off," she says.

A few days in Lahore will dissolve all preconceptions of Pakistan. A sprawling, cosmopolitan city, it combines ornate Mughal palaces with the white bungalows and wide streets of the British colonial past.

In the morning you can walk through dusty, narrow alleys of the old city, dodging lepers and starving stray cats, and in the afternoon visit one of the gleaming, air-conditioned malls to shop for clothes at French Connection and drink coffee at Starbucks.

Visiting Shahi Qila, the Lahore Fort, during the heat of the day, we find a guide who speaks perfect English and is well versed in history. He wears a grease-stained salwar kameez - the national dress, a light cotton tunic and drawstring pants - paired with a McDonald's cap. I wonder if he is moonlighting at one of the many McDonald's restaurants fringing the city.

The cool of the evening is the perfect time to visit Food Street, a wide thoroughfare lined with vendors selling food in the Old Anarkali bazaar. The smell of grilled mutton and fresh bread greets you from a block away. Giant barbecues hold skewers of mutton, chicken and goat, while bubbling vats of oil offer up golden samosas and the Lahori specialty, fried river fish.

There are glass cases of pastel, milky sweets with young boys fanning away the flies, a man squeezing limes for fresh lime soda and a paan wallah selling colourfully wrapped packets of this after-dinner treat.

Wrapped in a betel leaf, paan can be made sweet, savoury, sweet-savoury, or any of the above with tobacco. Paan, my friend tells me, is why all the men's beards are red, from chewing and spitting the juices onto the street. I try a sample, but the flavours are too unfamiliar and strong, like eating a chunk of perfume rolled in curry.

Eating happens late in Lahore, and at 10pm the crowds are just flowing into Cooco's Den, a restaurant overlooking the Badshahi mosque. The mosque and fort are brilliantly lit at night, surprising in a city that still suffers daily power outages.

The restaurant is in the home of Iqbal Hussein, an artist who has made his living painting women from the red light district of Lahore, the Heera Mandi. He was raised in this house, which used to be a brothel run by his mother and sisters. His paintings decorate the walls: huge canvases of voluptuous, sad-eyed women brushing their hair or lounging on sofas.

Despite having found success in the art world, Hussein has turned his childhood home into a restaurant, and the top three levels of tables are on terraced rooftops with a breathtaking view of the city. Young men work the grills and tandoori oven on the street below while waiters lift the food in wicker baskets over the side of the roof.

The waiter is concerned by our lack of male guardians, and gives us a lone table on the highest terrace, overlooking the rest of the scene.

The plates piled high with grilled chicken and lamb are eaten with fingers and folds of warm naan - no knives and forks here. Despite barely enough light to see your food, and warm Sprite instead of wine, the food is divine, especially for a meat eater just over the border from India.

Crossing back into India the next day, the border guards are anxious to hear of the trip. The Indian customs officer checking our bags reads the jackets of the novels by Bapsi Sidhwa and Mohsin Hamid, Pakistani authors whose books are available in Lahore. India gets few books and no newspapers from Pakistan and I wonder if he is curious.

"Have you ever been there?" I ask, gesturing across the rolls of razor wire. "No, but we are much better at cricket," he says, grinning, as he hands back our bags.


I have always wondered about this Indian fascination to discredit everything linked or related to Pakistan. While Pakistanis are often blamed for having too India-centric thinking, I believe the truth is entirely opposite. I am not in the know regarding the cause of this obsession when India is superior to us in size and resources. What exactly do they have to fear from Pakistan?

The article above shows how Indian guards at the Wagah border spread negative propaganda about Pakistan to visitors when said guards have never even been to Pakistan. They are just too set in the 'India is better than Pakistan' mindset. This article can be read here [backup]. You can judge the truth for your self on this Pakistan-centric obsession of Indians. Claims of this article being biased are fruitless since this is from an Australian site.

Exactly how does eating meat makes a person more violent than a person who doesn't eat meat? Even the premise is laughable. The stereotypical thinking regarding terrorism is something I consider a very invalid point. I don't begrudge Indians pride in their national cricket team. The iconic players like Tendulkar really are good at cricket. However, one only needs to look at any international cricketing site to find the cricket rankings. The results of these rankings would prove that too much pride borders on making oneself dangerously delusional. The results speak for themselves.
Asad  Travel 
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Comments made

Indians always thought of us this way, even in pre-partition days. The really disturbing thing is that they are successfully spreading this nonsense in the Western world.
Its better that our embassies in the west and elsewhere gear up to fight this kind of nonsense. Unfortunately their only role seems to give some special people special and nice jobs.
13/02 11:22:32
A few notes in balance/as playing the "Devil's Advocate":

I'd expect Indian guards on the Pakistani boarder to be "obsessed" with Pakistan; they don't have much else to do, do they? Pretty boring duty except when the bullets start flying.... (As for Indians in general living in the US, except for the Partition, I haven't heard them say much about Pakistan. In India proper, who knows?)

What exactly do they have to fear from Pakistan?

Ummn, an estimated 60 nuclear weapons? Pakistan isn't too far from posing an extensional threat to India.

Exactly how does eating meat makes a person more violent than a person who doesn't eat meat? Even the premise is laughable.

Well, I agree, but it's a well established stereotype in the US in politically correct circles. The middle of the US ("Red America") is held to eat too much meat and be too violent, and there is supposed to be a connection between the two.

Go figure; we don't have many real Buddists to propagate such a theory....

- Harold
19/02 07:22:59
@ Harold:

Boring duty? You must be joking... Bullets don't fly anywhere on the borders except maybe in the mountains somewhere like Siachin. There is no chance of such a thing happening without a full-out war. These guards draw huge crowds of people to watch them in the evening. It is a ceremony each evening.

Where do you live in the US? Look at states like NY where there are small Indian/Pakistani communities. Sometimes, they are friends like no other and sometimes enemies out for each others blood. The latter is more common inside the respective countries than in a foreign country like US but it still exists.

Look up information about Indian organizations like RSS, SS, VHP and who have significant political sway with the government. Look at their charters and training facilities.

Ummn, an estimated 60 nuclear weapons? Pakistan isn't too far from posing an extensional threat to India.

They have fear of 60 nukes when they them self have over 100 nukes, quite a few of them pointing at Pakistani cities? That is ridiculous. These weapons are what guarantee Mutually Assured Destruction and they have already stopped a war from happening a few years back when India brought its armies to the border.

There are no expansion plans of any kind. Kashmir is a disputed territory and technically, not a part of either India or Pakistan even though maps world wide show otherwise. Just think for one minute; the disparity in resources (military, land size, etc) is 1:5. India has a huge advantage in nearly every field and a huge media presence. 1:5 disparity in resources should make us more frightened of Indians than Indians should be of us.

Well, I agree, but it's a well established stereotype in the US in politically correct circles. The middle of the US ("Red America") is held to eat too much meat and be too violent, and there is supposed to be a connection between the two.

These 'politically correct circles' are wrong then. This is absolutely ridiculous but as you say, it is a stereotype which are often enough wrong.
19/02 20:55:22

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