The town of Ferozepur is not far from Faridkot. Bus would have been the best means to get there. Someone suggested a train. There is one leaving shortly. I should have stuck to my original plan. I wasn’t thinking. I took a rickshaw to the train station, bought a ticket and waited on a crowded platform. A five minute wait extends to sixty. The train stops between empty tracks. Old women have a difficult time scrambling down to the tracks and negotiating the steep steps to the train.
When I arrive at Ferozepur, I wander awhile looking for a room. I find one, checkin, have a late lunch and rest. I am too tired to even bother about Ferozepur. I have been on the road for eight weeks. The initial energy is lost. The heat of approaching summer, which seems to be already underway, is taking its toll.
In the evening I head out in search of Hussainiwala, a border post shared by India and Pakistan. It is 12 kms from here. At Hussainiwala, there is a routine every evening on both sides of the border. I am going to find out exactly what happens in this routine.
I find a tempo going that way but it is not ready to depart. I take a seat at the back. I am sitting on bulging sacks on their way to a village on the border. It is a good fifteen minutes before we leave. The man sitting next to me tells me that I may not be able to catch the routine today. It is too late in the evening. If I miss this, I may have to catch the one at Wagha border near Amritsar.
It’s a comfortable ride because the road is good. There is very little traffic on the way to the border. Soon we pass a wide river over a bridge. It is probably Beas or Sutlej. It is dammed and the gates are partly open. The water is clean but not so in the past when dead bodies would have floated downstream. This was the scene of battles between India and Pakistan. The scene today is peaceful but looking at it through shades of history, it is impossible to escape the sensitivity and underlying tension.
I am dropped off at a turn. The tempo continues its way to the village. Imagine living in a village just a kilometer from the border. Would the villagers live in fear or exhibit bravery? Would they run or defend? War to them is not something heard on the morning news in some border town. It happens at the doorstep of their homes. It is not a national affair. To them it is much more personal.
It is a short walk to an entry post. A small queue is moving quickly. I give my name and address. I am handed a little white slip with a stamp and today’s date. I keep it safely in my pocket. I am told to hurry up. After a quick security check, I go in. I walk past a moat and then across a bridge. Army soldiers are standing behind sand sacks. I become conscious of many pairs of eyes keeping vigilance. The surrounding landscape is grassy, marshy and bushy. Barded wire fences are common. So this is what the border looks.
It is a long walk to the post. Guards with rifles stand at regular intervals along the road. A small temple stands along the way. Right opposite is a Muslim mausoleum. There is a shout at the far end. Looks like the event has begun. I start running along with a few others. Officers, dignitaries and special guests are seated close to the place of action. I am directed round to the back. I enter a packed arena. I squeeze through to get a peep at what’s happening at the center.
The routine is quite elaborate but the intent is simple. The national flags on each side is to be lowered and folded away for the night. Six soldiers on each side take turns to march and salute. With each step they stamp the ground till dust rises in confusion. Each stride is long and energetic. When they march, legs are raised till they seem to reach for the sky. When orders are barked out, emotions cross over the border line. When they slap the rifles, it seems the bullet is aching to be discharged. The routine is like a dialogue. One side throws a challenge; the other side responds. The crowds cheer on.
The BSF soldiers are dressed in khaki with red turbans. Their counterparts across the border are in black. It is really a performance which the crowds immensely enjoy. When the Indian soldiers perform, their supporters cheer. If they make a mistake, the Pakistanis burst out in laughter and jeer loudly. Obscene gestures are thrown at each other. I was tempted to cheer for the Pakistanis just to see the reaction from my countrymen; but my good sense prevailed. Though there is here an atmosphere of gaiety and fun, I know how little time or opportunity it takes to create a bloodbath.
There is nothing poetic about the whole thing. It is not a cultured show but a deliberate attempt to show off. The performance is energetic but it is not beautiful. At times it is not well coordinated. The strides and stamps are wholly unnatural. The soldiers are kicking the dust in vain. Eyes almost popping out their sockets stare but these stares look silly rather than intimidating. It is a joint routine between the countries but the underlying animosity is not a performance. It is real. With the crowds assembled on both sides, divided by nothing more than a line, trouble is within easy reach.
At the end of the routine, amidst applause and cheers, the crowds disperse. It was good to see a Pakisthani officer and a BSF officer exchanging words with a handshake. Perhaps, they briefly discussed some points about today’s routine.
I am not sure how I’ll get back to Ferozepur. I hope to hitchhike after visiting the memorials of Bhagat Singh, Raj Guru and Sukhdev. These martyrs were executed in Lahore and their bodies were chopped up and cremated here. I take a last look at the Pakisthani side, its entry marked by two towers topped with chhatris and two minarets. A chaitya arch inspired by Buddhist architecture marks the Indian side. I return the way I came, past the same soldiers and their ready guns. Tourists are taking pictures with some of the BSF personnel. I reach into my pockets and search for that white slip, clearly the most important document right now.