I was barely 12 when I made the trip to Amritsar and Wagah border.
This was my first travel without family, a bunch of insane 12 year olds with just one teacher we were 35 of us and against all odds managed to have a fabulous time.
To quickly talk about the city it’s most well-known for The Golden Temple which is the holiest of all shrines for the community of Sikhs in India. Its also home to Jallianwala Bagh a site of one of the worst massacres in the history of the Indian struggle for freedom. Along with that its known for its proximity to the Indo-Pak border and its so called twin city on the other side Lahore. Just a little while away from Amritsar is Wagah Border one of the points used as a gateway between the two nations.
Between the walls, the dust, the robustness of Punjab lies deep sorrow that is engraved in every heart and every breath of the people of Amritsar. There is this automatic sense of patriotism that hits you when you visit the border and jallianwala bagh too. An inane sense of pride in the sacrifice of others. These are deep things which I will come back to once I tell you the story of my first trip to Punjab.
We climbed onto the bus waiting to say bye bye to school and the Coca-Cola bottles already opened. Sour punk passed around and chips of various brands flew from here and there. The ride that ensued was almost uneventful except for fighting for leg space, window seats and the last packet of food. We’d packed to survive a frat party just without all the alcohol. Well, we were just 12 back then.
Reaching Amritsar in the morning, we checked into a hotel called Hotel Deluxe. This by far was the most run down hotel I have ever seen in my 21 years. The poor boys had sheets instead of walls and there were no toilets to be seen. Flabbergasted Sapna maam our class teacher back then had us check out till we went on a search for another hotel which would gladly take 35 of us hopped up on too much sugar. We then moved into a better place and then dressed to leave for Jallianwala Bagh.
You walk into a crowded market slip into a winding alley and it opens into this garden, well that’s what it used to be back in the day. There is this sudden somberness that slips like a deathly shadow through everyone. Theres a quick hush in the air where even the most insensitive little twerps shut up and just look at this enclosed piece of history. Your feet automatically move towards the wall, fingers running over the bullet marks from 80 years ago. You look over the edge of the well where many a mothers jumped with their babies to just stop the bullets from killing them. You put yourself in the place of all those who died, almost a 1000 people, harmless civilians celebrating baisakhi, you look towards the narrow entrance where most of the rounds were fired, and you can almost taste the helplessness in the air. I remember standing there and slowly I felt morbidity crawling on my skin. I felt this sick cloying in my throat as it became difficult to breathe.
We left, some carrying the same feelings, some shook them off but I have a feeling that even almost a decade later we all have a memory of how we felt standing there.
Next on the itinerary was of course The Golden temple, while on the way someone realized that early morning maybe a better time to visit since it was Guru Purab that night. The Sikh new year, we grudgingly agreed to be woken up at 4 am and somehow all toppled off the bus and straight to bed.
4 am before the sun could rise, 35 tweens were woken dressed and shuffled in a line to the waiting bus. We reached the holy shrine while it was still dark, girls with chunnis on their heads, boys with hankies around their foreheads. I could never imagine a place that large could be that full. There were people everywhere at 4 am! We got into the queue to enter the sanctum sanctorum. The line stretched across the sarovar and halfway around the perimeter. By the time we covered half the distance the sun was high and shining. People started getting dehydrated and post maybe a four hour wait or more if memory serves right, we entered the inner realms of the Harmandir Sahib. And was it worth the wait or what?
There is this soft glow that emanates from the dome and gives everything an almost ethereal feel. The yak’s tail fan goes round and round in the priests hand as you stand witness to both the might and the piety of the Sikhs. The Guru Granth Sahib in front of you, you feel a presence in the room, almost like catharsis is settling into your bones. You kneel, you lower your forehead to the almighty and you sit. Your eyes stare into the distance as you look for answers and questions both. I remember this as being my first visit to a Gurudwara considering I was not of the same faith, but there is something unique about Sikhism, their belief in their gurus and their belief in themselves is what guides their religion. Some of the most tenacious men and women I have met in my life follow this faith. Everything has its flipsides and we were witness to those as we went around the temple looking at the ruins from Operation Blue Star. In all our might and anger we forget the sanctity of a place, we forget that peace and love for all humans is ingrained in every brick in those walls. And we use those same walls to hide our crimes and cover for our misgivings.
I remember post all this being stupendously hungry and eating langar for the first time in my life. Food prepared by devotees for devotees, the Harmandir Sahib kitchen had one of the coolest kitchen machines I ever saw even in my career as a chef. They had this machine which made rotis, and it was humongous. The rotis moved on a conveyor belt from being just a lump of dough to being perfectly round and delicious. Children, men and women of all ages did the service also known as kar seva. That meal left some lasting flavours in my head.
Wagah Border. At 21 I’m a child of a fairly peaceful time. I haven’t seen full out wars with the exception of Kargil, for me patriotism was a feeling saved for the cricket matches, Independence Day and the Republic Day Parade. I love my country and I always will, but that raw emotion, the blood rush, the heady feeling I’ve only felt at Wagah.
The sound of the soldiers boot heels on the tarmac, the flag that flutters even without the breeze, every spectator shouting themselves hoarse. I remember shouting. A lot. Enough to lose my voice for a couple of days. If I’d have been older maybe id have cried a little too.
Stories of pain, of sacrifice, of the Partition, of long lost family, of prisoners of war, of treason, of traitors and of heroes echo form both sides of the border. Rolling fields of mustard, and a coiled wire of steel. That’s what separates us from our origins. From our history. A lot of us came from across, and settled this side and the other way too. Will we ever get to see our birthplaces or those of our ancestors.
Thoughts that stray across my head as the gates close at sundown, the flags at half mast and sounds of Bharat Mata Ki Jai linger in the air.
Back onto the bus, and off to Delhi again.
I write all this a decade later, colours in my head have changed and peoples faces are missing as are names and exact minute to minute details. But Amritsar you changed something inside me, thank you.