I was not allowed to sit in the foreigner’s section, given that I didn’t look foreign, and I didn’t want to tell them that I was. This was ironic, given that — as a Pakistani sitting on the Indian side of the border — they would consider me to be even more foreign than most foreigners.
The two people I was traveling with were allowed, and found themselves the choicest seats from which to see the spectacle. I had to sit way in the back, where the crowd was aggressive and male, and the soldiers were far-off and blurry.
The spectacle that my friends and I had come to see was the border ceremony at Wagah that takes place between Pakistan and India every day at sundown. The ceremony is as colorful, loud and grotesque an exhibition of nationalism that you will ever see.
The soldiers — massive, seven-foot men brought in to out-measure their counterparts in a region where the average male height is 5 feet, 5 inches — shout, stomp and strut before a frenzied crowd as they lower the flags and shut the gate. The crowds do their part as massive speakers blare jingoistic anthems meant to drown out the noise from the other side. People dance, sing, flex their muscles and deride the soldiers across the border.
The Pakistani side has a novel spectacle — an old man wearing green robes runs from behind a pillar, stands right in front of the gate and waves a massive flag. The jeering crowd around me was shouting, “Attack!” and “Let’s rape their sisters!”
Completely by accident, I happened to be wearing a green shirt (the color of Pakistan and Islam), and I feared I would be found out. I ended up crying at the hatred shown by the people under the veneer of celebration.
The rivalry between India and Pakistan goes beyond the ceremony. The border is lined with barbed wire, machine-gun turrets and tanks that are backed, ultimately, by nuclear weapons — a harsh reminder of how serious both countries take their rivalry to be.
There is no natural border between India and Pakistan. Cyril Radcliffe, the English lawyer who marked the border between the two nations when the British quit India in 1947, drew lines that went right through people’s homes, dividing fields, pastures and villages.
The ceremony that I was now witnessing is more indicative of the similarities between Indians and Pakistanis than their differences. The people that were chanting “Pakistan Zindabad! Hindustan murdabad!” (Long live Pakistan! Death to India!) shared the same physical characteristics, language and clothing as the ones hurling their own imprecations on the other side of the line. They even insulted each other’s mothers and sisters using the same expletives. It seemed like they were shouting in a mirror.
So what is it that divides us so? Why do we hate each other so much that we’ve fought three declared wars, a fourth that was undeclared, and might even fight another?
The easy and perhaps most convenient answer is religion, but that is wrong. Pakistanis believe that being Muslim sets them apart from India, and so we create an identity for India, too; they are non-Muslim, or more specifically, Hindu. India is not, and has never been a completely Hindu country. The fact is that we don’t have any distinguishing characteristic on which to hang separate national identities. There is nothing to distinguish us from one another, save our passports, and those were given to us.
Each evening, at the end of the flag-lowering ceremony, the crowds of Indians and Pakistanis go back to the same homes, eat the same loaves of naan and sleep on the same charpoys. In the morning they drink the same yoghurt drink called lassi.
My friends and I are not any different.
Saim Saeed, one of the very few Pakistani high school students to have studied in India, is currently a senior at Bard College.