North Tour: Amritsar, Wagah & Dharamsala: Everytime we touch

7 March

DHARAMSALA: It’s past 4 a.m. as I write this, and by the time I finish, the sun could be on its way up. The air temperature is just above freezing in a hotel so cold its water pipes might be frozen. Jordan, Nikokas and I have two large rooms with large beds, large sofas and large chairs. There’s a lot of options for distributing our body space.

But all I want to do is curl into a ball and keep myself warm. This space seems far too generous in light of the living arrangements of the day and night past.

India is known for its crowds. In malls and in train stations. On the streets and in bazaars. In movie theaters and in candy stores. If you can’t see a wall of humanity in an Indian city, it’s probably because you can’t see. And even if you’re blind, it’s impossible not to hear it, smell it, breathe it in or push yourself against it.

Today – rather, yesterday – I experienced three very different kinds of crowds.

Our sightseeing began in the afternoon with a visit to India’s largest Gudhwara (Sikh temple) – Amritsar’s Golden Temple. It’s hard for me to decide what I found more remarkable about the place – the sheer size and grandiosity of it, or the number of people it was able to enclose.

In spite of the elegant architecture, it was probably the latter.

Thousands of pilgrims were herded through a queue two meters wide and two hundred meters long to get to the main temple in the center of the complex. From the back of the line, RK told us getting through would be about a 40-minute trip.

About 20 minutes later, a man told us we’d probably have to wait an additional hour or so.

It took even longer.

I stood with Anaïs, Jordan, Sam and Serenity. Though Nikolas, Kelsey, Amanda and Nisha stood two arms-lengths away, that was much too far to attempt any kind of communication. Sometimes we’d look down and be unable to see the ground. The 32-degree (C) midday heat was bearing down relentlessly, testing our tolerance for each other, our sweat, and our accompanying smells. Every five minutes or so, two guards would lift a wooden barricade at spaced intervals, and the mob would shuffle, shoulder and push its way into each inch of remaining space.

Yet the experience was not an unpleasant one.

I was always surrounded by people I knew. I felt no need to worry about the friendliness of the touches I was receiving. Even were I to have been alone in the crowd, the atmosphere would have been a cordial one; the pilgrims were only there to worship, not plunder, grope or steal. The closeness was reassurance. Getting to the end was the reward. After nearly two hours of standing in line, we got there.

The crowd gathered at Wagah’s India-Pakistan border was a rather different one.

I traveled within a stone’s throw or two of Pakistan yesterday, but before you keel out of whatever you’re sitting in with horror, don’t subject yourself to misinformation. Wagah, on the Punjab border, is a safe place from which to take a look at India’s closest neighbor. Just before sunset, we went to observe the closing of the international border, an elaborate ceremony of pomp, military marches and patriotic songs. Thousands of observers, including a sizeable smattering of tourists, gathered to see soldiers conduct an elaborate ceremony complete with high leg kicks, tri-color flag-waving, and fluffy red hats.

This happens every day, by the way.

Patriotism abounded on both sides of the border. On India’s side, I recognized several patriotic anthems from the years of independence such as Vande Mataram. The chants seemed to start spontaneously. Like at a college basketball game, half the crowd would holler one word, and the other would recite its complement back. There was no doubting the crowd’s nationalism and the fervor with which they demonstrated it. It was an excited crowd, but not an angry one.

The thing is, Pakistan didn’t look all that different from the country whose soil I was standing on. The distant yells from the grandstands across the border implied Pakistanis sound about the same, too. But 100 meters away was a country with different laws, different ways of life, and a completely different perception to the outside world. There’s a long, sad, story behind the border separating these two countries, and I saw the sun set right over it.

I think I finally understand why Indians and RYE students have such different attitudes towards personal space. In a country of 1.2 billion people, space is limited, and given what’s been fought for it, space has an additional value. In public, personal space can be impossible to find, so it’s flaunted and cherished in private. Go into almost any upper-class living room and you’ll find the furniture spread as widely as possible. The bigger the house, the more space to stretch out. And the homes IYE students stay in tend to give us far more room than we need.

Not that there’s anything wrong with having room to stretch your legs while watching TV. I’m certainly not going to ask our host families to move into smaller homes. But there’s something to be said for closeness. Ask exchange students in Central India what they miss most about their home country’s culture, and there’s a good chance they’ll tell you it’s physical contact. In India, a handshake is usually as close as it gets, even for long-time-no-sees. Even hugs are traditionally taboo.

Granted, you will often see young men holding hands as they walk the street. At least with their friends, such men are unabashed with physical contact, unafraid to link hands (or even legs). In contrast, you’ll see male/female couples holding hands about as often as you’ll see foreigners, and usually in the same kinds of places.

It’s not exactly Brazil.

We’ve spent a lot of time in cramped quarters lately – in trains, buses and jeeps with little leg- or shoulder-room to spare. But there’s something that’s bearable, even desirable about that discomfort when you’re pressed against the right people. Amidst ourselves, crowdedness isn’t just easy to find, it’s sought after – probably even more than in our home countries. Given the culture into which we’ve been dropped, it’s understandable. Likewise, I can understand when Indians find Western intimacy appalling. With everyday life in India, the humanity is inescapable. Crowds are easy to find.

But when you’re crowded against the right people, it’s a different kind of crowd.

🙂

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