Sunday, April 16, 2006

Bordering On The Ridiculous

So there I was, once again crossing the Indo-Pak border at Wagah, and once again it almost all went horribly wrong. I arrived on the Indian side with an hour to spare, which I thought would be more than sufficient, and it did seem so as I breezed through immigration. Customs, it seems, apparently thought that they had already done enough for the day and kept telling me to sit down as I pointed at my watch and wondered why it needed 3 people to inspect somebody's poster. At five minutes to four they woke out of their reverie, noticed me and started shouting at me, saying that I needed to hurry up; until I told them that they still needed to stamp my customs form. It was then a 1km dash to the border gates and Pakistan. With 50m to go the guard thought he needed some entertainment for the day and closed the bloody gate in my face, indicating that it was just to let the cleaner sweep up and that he'd open it in a bit. After a couple of minutes it was obvious that this wasn't happening and I started having to plead with him, something he obviously enjoyed as he kept starting to open the gate before stopping, over and over again. In the end he let me through, but I could easily have done without the stress as I had already been stamped out of India and had barely any Indian money left on me.

Once the border formalities were finally over I stayed at the border for another couple of hours. It's not something I usually do, in fact I generally try and flee the border as quickly as possible, but the border closing ceremony here has become a tourist attraction in its own right. The ludicrously dressed guards from each side mirror each other as they perform a series of intricate marches and manoeuvres, with each guard trying to out-stomp and out-march his counterpart. It's like something straight out of Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks. Huge bandstands have been erected on both sides of the divide and daytrippers from Lahore and Amritsar come to cheer for their respective "teams" (which I find particularly bizarre because if you were to even take out your camera at this border whilst crossing it you could be in Big Trouble, and yet during the ceremony every other person is taking piccies). Before the match begins the crowds are worked up with patriotic songs and cheers of Pakistan zindabad! and Allahu akbar! ("long live Pakistan" and "God is great" respectively). I couldn't tell what was being shouted on the other side as the Pakistani punters would always try and drown out their cries. The Pakistanis even have a mascot: a grandpa dressed in green and waving a huge Pakistani flag ambles about (sometimes breaking into a jog, to the delight of his fans) urging the people on and posing for photos with children. When the show finally gets under way each little gesture sends the crowd wild, and if a guard happens to march a split-second faster than his opposite number then they go absolutely apoplectic. It's all rather ridiculous, but on another level it is actually quite scary. It shows how easily perfectly normal, rational people, when in crowds, can become unthinking slogan-spouters, foaming at the mouth and ready to go on the rampage.

Anyway, whilst I'm in the philosophising mood I think I'll digress onto another topic that might be hard to bring up again; and whilst it wasn't something that affected me much, it can be more than just annoying for those who experience it more regularly whilst travelling in India. On my penultimate night in Amritsar I went to the cinema to check out an Indian film that I heard was rather good. Luckily it was, but it is definitely the exception rather than the rule. During my time in India I had the opportunity to see several Bollywood movies, and I must say that I have come to the conclusion that they are part of the problem. From a purely cinematographic point of view the acting is shocking, the editing hopeless and pretty much all production values severely lacking. The only bits that are at all well done or (intentionally) entertaining are the song and dance routines that are often ridiculed in the West. But more worrying than just plain bad film-making, is the dubious moral quality of the films. The plots (if you can actually use the term) are not just pumped full of clich├ęs the way modern farm animals are pumped full of hormones, but are ludicrously convoluted and immoral to pander to the masala tastes of the populace i.e. violence, romance, comedy, titillation and drama, usually all in the same scene. The violence is especially gratuitous, with the heroes not even batting an eyelid at gleefully pounding villains' (and anybody who happens to stand in their way) faces to pulp, way past the point that is really necessary. But perhaps the most insidious aspect, at least for travellers, is the way Westerners, and Western women in particular, are portrayed. Every single one of them is an easy slut of loose moral values who deserves everything she gets. This is, of course, the only image Indian men have of Western women (Mother Teresa excepted) and they act accordingly. White girls travelling (especially alone) in India very often get groped as a matter of course by Indian men who, in their society, are denied almost any interaction with women at all. They then take out their sexual frustration out on Western girls in ways that they would never dare with Indian girls. Even in the grounds of the Golden Temple during Baisakhi (one of the holiest days in the Sikh calendar), as I was walking round with the Eastern Shores girls they would get touched up. Even I wasn't immune as I was anonymously pinched on the behind on more than one occasion. It seems to me to prove that moral policing and holier-than-thou attitudes of self-appointed moral guardians don't just not work, but are counterproductive. It seems to me that a little permissiveness would improve the lot and standing of women in India who, at the moment, seem to be excluded from a lot of activities.

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