The anti-narcotics team had arrived. We were about to go through another rigorous round of security check. Sheru, one of the sniffer dogs, was sun-bathing when he heard his name being called, after which, he jumped excitedly and proceeded towards us. If you’re a fully functional human being with a heart, the sight of a dog in uniform will melt you. We took out our cell phones but were soon rebuked for doing so. This was serious business and Sheru had work to do. Walking in and around our luggage, which were quite a few, Sheru moved on to other passengers. At this point, we were getting late. We had to cross the Wagah Border by afternoon and we hadn’t even boarded the bus that would take us there. To add to our woes, it had started raining. Having grown up in India, watching parades being held on Independence Day at the Wagah Border, always seemed mystical—something out of a movie. Except this was real life, and this wasn’t a drill or an extended joke. My siblings and I had imagined a lot of things we’d be able to witness at the border. It was our first time, it was going be a historic moment for us all. Naturally, we were thrilled. The whole idea of crossing the border by foot is, in my opinion, a little hilarious and maybe unreal. How can a single man-made line divide entire countries? How can the fate of so many people be decided, depending on which side of the line you were in? I guess, my questions were about to be answered.
At one point of time, we were in the no-man’s land— that little space before you step into another country, not belonging to either India or Pakistan. A single step forward would put an official tag of which country I was standing in. It didn’t mean anything, it didn’t deter where I was from, it didn’t take away my roots. Standing there under the biting Amritsar rain, waiting to cross the border, it didn’t feel too magical or heroic. Instead, I was trying to absorb, to understand the seriousness of the situation. I was blown away by the high-rise walls, the beautiful golden dome that you see, with ‘India’s Line of Defense’ written in bold right at the center. In between dragging our luggage and getting anxious about just everything in general, we forgot that our crossing the border coincided with the lowering of the flags’ ceremony, a daily military practice, at the Attari-Wagah border, carried by both India and Pakistan’s security forces ever since 1959. There were people from both sides of the line, who had come with their friends & family, to witness the parade. There were the national flags of both the countries, dancing in the rain, looking at its people, and what had become of it. Despite the terrible weather, the stands were filling up fast. You could see colorful umbrellas forming a canopy at opposite ends, a kind of shield, a form of defiance. Humans have unwavering resilience when they put their mind to something. It was time for us to finally walk our way into another country, passports ready. My grandmother was given a wheelchair, chaperoned by one of the coolies who helped her cross the border at lightning fast speed.
It’s a joke in the family now; of us parading in the middle as we dragged our luggage to the other end while the crowd sat at both sides watching us march helplessly.
I couldn’t stop noticing a woman in her late 50s, who was alone, carrying a dozen bags filled with fresh produce, a few belongings that she would be needing and sheer determination on her face. Maybe she was a vendor, making a living selling fruits & vegetables. She painstakingly tried lifting her heavy bags onto the trolleys right after crossing the border. To avoid a crowd, the security was tightened. The woman was struggling to assemble her belongings and she asked my brother for help. We were busy collecting our luggage to be put in trolleys so that we could proceed towards immigration. We looked back to see the woman give her blessings to my brother for his help, smiling, her eyes moist—forming wrinkles that made her look older. She waved at us and went her way. Did she belong to India or Pakistan? It didn’t matter, not at that moment. There were so many like us, wanting to see their relatives, with longing in their eyes & joy at seeing their loved ones after an unsparing journey.
This wasn’t going to be the first and last time I was to experience human empathy in all its glory. Belonging to a family who suffered the aftermath of Partition, I know well enough, the limitless ways in which people have extended their support throughout. It’s times like these when humans surpass themselves, with only kindness and empathy as their deus ex machina.
We may be divided, we may have forgotten true nationalism, but the kindness of our hearts cannot be bought, it cannot be traded or diminished. We may lose everything one day but empathy? It’s embedded in stone and it’s here to stay.