September 11, 2006

Crests a-quiver

The crowd breaks repeatedly into good-hearted applause and cheers, led in those cheers by a moustached man with a cordless mike on the road below us. He has a sonorous way of bellowing slogans at us from time to time, which of course we all bellow in turn. He periodically points to someone in the audience and urges that someone to yell, but with this curious rider: every time he points, he also runs his hand quickly over his chin, indicating a beard.

Unmistakably, he's signing: "You over there with the beard! Bellow up!"

But why does he single out guys with beards? I mean, considering this is Punjab, there are indeed plenty of people with beards around me. In fact, I would say the great majority of people around me -- leave out the women -- are bearded. (Many of them have turbans too). So of what use is it to indicate a beard as a marker, while picking someone out of a crowd?

Or does this guy think Sikhs don't bellow enough? Muslims don't bellow enough? Bearded men in general don't bellow enough?


A few young women walk out onto the road. Someone -- perhaps the man with the mike, I miss that part -- hands them long poles with flags fluttering from them. Two at a time, the girls line up at a short white line in the middle of the road, then set off at a run, heading straight for the setting sun that bathes us all in a golden light.

This is not a race, however. The crowd's applause swells as they reach the gate, perhaps 30 metres away, where they turn around and run back. Panting but ecstatic, they leap about joyously while the next pair gets ready for their run.

The totally unfair and incongruous thought crosses my mind: watching them, it's clear that not one of these young ladies has ever run a metre in her life. Yet they do this up and down jog with a visible, infectious enthusiasm.


Later, several khaki uniformed men march up to the gate and back. I use that word "march" advisedly, for what they really do is a quick strut. Like wind up clockwork dolls, the crests atop their turbans shaking angrily, they zip in formation along the road, due west into the sunsetting haze, turn abruptly at the gate and zip back on the other side of the road.

As they turn, I notice that a similar posse, but in black and with marginally larger and angrier crests, is doing the same on the other side of the gate.

Two men, one from each side, throw the gates open with an almost contemptuous gesture. Two more men, one from each side, approach the gate simultaneously in the same triple-quick strut. They halt abruptly to do high kicks that would do a Moulin Rouge can can dancer proud, only more clothed. Then they continue towards each other, to end up nearly nose-to-nose.

I am reminded of nothing so much as the cockfights I spent a day watching in rural West Bengal; the quivering crests on these men underline that impression.

Who, I wonder, choreographed this elaborate, dramatized hostility? Who first thought it would be something worth doing?


Those "other" people are easily visible, just beyond the gate. Just too far to see faces clearly, but close enough that you know binoculars would let you identify them, close enough that you could shout out a conversation, were there substantially less hubbub here. Many around me, bearded or chanting or otherwise, look over every now and then, almost in longing wonder. Who are those guys, you can almost feel them thinking. Look like us, cheer like us, yet they're chanting different things, waving different flags.

So close, as the cliche goes, and yet so far. So much like us, and yet ... well, are they really like us? Are we like them? I can see them, but what do I really know about them? It's just a gate, yet there's a canyon there. Invisible, deep, but there.


Anonymous said...

you social-historian wagahbond, you! will you ever tire of traveling and making observations about the human condition?
But why here? there will be a hindu-muslim-martian discussion again in your comments. i dont see how it is worth it.


kuffir said...

'But why does he single out guys with beards?'

you think that happens at wagah?

In The Shadows said...

Hey, Dilip, you back..

The fun continues .. ROFL.... Nice to see you back with your entertaining posts. Keep up the good work

Dilip D'Souza said...

Z, here's the thing, I'm always on the lookout for them martians. They never disappoint me.

Kuffir, but this did happen at Wagah. Again, I'm baffled by your comment.

kuffir said...


i should have phrased that question : you saw that happen at wagah..?

some of the time, you set me thinking in a hundred directions..

zap said...

You dont have to look too far then Dilip. I am told, by some very unreliable sources that Men are from Mars.