On one of our vacations, my wife and I traveled to Amritsar, the holy city.
A road trip
We traveled to Amritsar by road with Avinash, my Punjabi friend from college days, and his family. It was a 9-hour drive by Innova. The driver, Sandeep Singh, was a young Punjabi.
We had been told that the whole stretch was a gourmet’s paradise. To top it all, we were in safe and caring hands – a Punjabi friend, a Punjabi driver, and in the Punjabi country.
We visited the Wagah Border before reaching Amritsar. We went through Security and as we reached the stands, we realized we were just in time. The crowd had swelled – people of all ages, shapes, and sizes had occupied every inch of available space. I had hoped to perch myself comfortably at a vantage point to click pictures but alas, that was not to be. My wife and I had separated…I mean only at the Viewing Gallery. I found myself balancing on one foot. It seemed quite apt – this Border did represent a delicate balance of power.
Patriotism on display
Patriotic film songs were playing loudly and as it happens in such situations, people were strutting their patriotic stuff. Some were shouting slogans while several old people were talking about Partition and what it had done to the two countries. Although we were quite a distance away, we saw a crowd on the other side of the gate, and songs were playing there as well. One startling difference was the size of the crowd – we had outnumbered them several times over.
The warm-up exercise began with an athletic BSF jawan rushing towards the crowds and inspiring us to cheer. He held a microphone and as he shouted slogans, the crowds would follow faithfully. To generate higher decibels, he would systematically, but suddenly, raise both his hands in the air, and immediately the cheering would reach a crescendo. He faced each of the Viewing Stands in quick succession providing equal opportunity to all. The noise was pleasantly deafening.
The ceremony began with the sound of bugles, as two women in uniform marched in long strides with a great deal of determination and purpose towards the gate. I had never seen women march in this style. As they marched forward, the crowd began shouting slogans, regularly inspired by the jawan. This was repeated several times and we could feel the charge of high voltage electricity in the air. My hairs stood on end.
The next part of the routine was the intense marching exercise by the jawans – as they marched, they raised their knees to chest-level and brought their feet down with a loud thud as if in a fit of rage. This was repeated several times and with variations. The crowd was now belligerent with several volunteers from the crowds creating their own islands of the faithful.
In the final part, gates on either side were swung open. The crowd realized that this was probably the final part and they went out of control, vocally. The electric charge being generated there at that time could feed a billion homes. Finally, in a solemn ritual, flags from both sides were lowered, gates were slammed shut, the Indian tricolor folded and brought back by a battery of jawans.
The crowds began dispersing leisurely but the mood had certainly changed. Something inside each one of us had moved…forever.
I couldn’t resist exclaiming, ‘Wah! Ga!’
We quickly realized that food was the main religion in these parts. People loved, rather lived to eat, there was no doubt about that. Although we were vegetarians – a disqualification in these parts – the dhabas offered incredible variety for vegetarians as well. Even as vegetarians, we were spoilt for choice.
The names of some of these dhabas did not leave much to the imagination, in terms of richness of the food served. For instance, try ordering zero-calorie food at Pahalwan Dhaba. Counting calories in these parts is a strict no-no. Every item was soaked in desi ghee so much so that we were finding it difficult to hold these hot and slippery tandoori rotis. As a standard protocol, even before we began the process of ordering food, tumblers of cold water, and a bowl of king-size butter cubes were placed on the table.
As we were checking into our Amritsar hotel, the hotel manager began listing joints in the city that were to be visited for a different kind of pilgrimage – for followers of food.
In the process, we went to Kulwant Dhaba, presided over by a hefty and fiercely proud Sikh who barked orders at his employees and guests alike. We savored the stuffed kulchas like obedient schoolchildren, afraid of incurring the owner’s wrath. He ensured that everybody – his employees, and the guests – behaved themselves.
The Golden Temple
We experienced the serenity of the Golden Temple at night. The golden structure’s reflection on the sarovar, the soft rendition of the hymns, the disciplined congregation of the faithful who waited patiently as rain fell steadily, the happy volunteers serving at the temple made it a heavenly experience.
The final part was the langar – the community kitchen. Amidst the deafening sound of steel plates eagerly meeting each other, we sat on the floor experiencing the generous hospitality, yet again. Here again, we were like school children but awestruck with what the convergence of religion, generosity, and community service could accomplish.
We had to visit more eateries in the night, primarily to satisfy the hotel manager who lay in wait for us at the entrance. We had gathered that he used his probing skills quite well to determine whether we had really been to those places or were giving him a convenient response. He would check whether the jalebis were of the thick or the thin variety. He was a lie-detector, personified.
We came back to New Delhi, just that we were several kilos heavier.
No wonder that the Innova took longer during the return journey.