India: Eye Gouging and Free Naan!

I woke up at 5am and crept out of the apartment, bidding farewell to Ricky, who sleepily reminded me I owed him 750 rupees. Arse. I found a few taxis in the street but the drivers were all sleeping, and so I was forced to bang on the window and wake somebody up to take me down the mountain to Dharamsala. I spent an hour or so waiting for the bus, and made the five hour journey to Amritsar, which for India is blissfully short. It was to be my final destination, and I was excited.I got put in a tuk tuk with a German girl who was headed the same way, and we made friends soon enough. I was planning to spend a couple of nights sleeping in the Golden Temple, the epicentre of Sikhism, but unfortunately I was unsure of who to speak to or where to go and so, reluctant to wander a hectic foreign city in 42 degree heat with my bags, I asked the German girl where she was staying and decided to rock up and book there instead.

The hostel was called Jugaadus or something. It was pretty basic and felt well-loved, and the staff were friendly. I sat cross legged on a cushion while one of the staff, an older guy called Vicky, took my details for check in. As I was writing my passport number and all the other annoying information you must provide every time you check in anywhere, an argument broke out between two Indian guys sitting a few metres away in the common area. I didn’t pay it much attention, until one of them stood up and belted the other hard in the mouth.

I watched with quiet interest as the first guy shoved the other backwards into the reception area, and proceeded to throttle him over the desk that I was busy writing on. It was so odd that nobody reacted for a few seconds; I simply sat, mildly annoyed that my check in was being delayed because I really needed a shower, watching two men attempting to gouge each other’s eyes out as cushions and paperwork were booted everywhere. Eventually Vicky stood up to pull them apart, and I supposed I should help out too.

I grabbed the more punch-happy out of the two, prised his hands from around the other guy’s neck, and held him back. Strangely, I felt completely calm; probably too calm, actually, because the things I was saying didn’t fit the stress of the situation at all. I was holding this guy and gently murmuring things like ‘it’s okay, it’s okay friend, it’s okay,’ which seems like something you’d say to your dog at the vets rather than in the midst of a furious brawl.

My guy seemed to have calmed somewhat, and I tentatively released him. Unfortunately Vicky hadn’t released his dude yet, which meant that my guy got a healthy headbutt on his restrained opponent that bust his nose. Whoops. I grabbed him again and pulled them apart. A bulky French guy walked out of his dorm at this point, and it must have been quite a strange sight to emerge from slumber to find half the hostel engaged in a spectacularly violent but very low-volume brawl (mustn’t disturb the other guests). The French guy helped us wrangle the pair to opposite ends of the room where they stood glaring at one another hatefully, hurling abuse and anything nearby that wasn’t nailed down. One of them finally headed off to his dorm to cool off, and I sat back down to continue my check in.

Vicky told me that the argument had been simmering for a while. The guy with the bust nose worked at the hostel as a tuk tuk driver and was often cocky and rude, and the guy that chinned him to kingdom come was a long term guest, so I think the right guy won the fight. I chucked my bags in my room and took my much needed shower.

For lunch I decided to hit up the Golden Temple with a few friends I’d made in the common area. The Sikhs are so bloody lovely; they give all travellers food and board at no cost. The large French guy was called Esteban, and together we crossed town, hid our hair with bright orange turbans, and entered the Golden Temple under the scowl of the midday sun.

I was amazed at how clean it was. After the relative serenity and cool of the mountains, Amritsar seemed unbearably hot and boisterous. Leading up to the temple, however, the roads were broad and swept, and shops were uniform and organised; a world away from the mad jumble a hundred metres down the road. The temple itself is vast and brilliant white, and such a lack of colour in the building itself means that every sari and turban bursts with colour all the more. I found myself gasping in awe at every turn.

We took our shoes off and walked through a shallow pool to cleanse our feet and emerged into the heart of the great white complex, where the Golden Temple itself sits gleaming in the centre of a pristine lagoon filled with huge koi fish. We skirted the water, and I wanted to gaze as long as I could at the temple – the temple I’d gazed longingly at in photos for years – but it was so bright that I couldn’t look for long.

On the far side of the water we wound our way through the throng of brilliant colours to the langar, which is a Sikh community kitchen. A free meal is served here to each and every visitor, with no distinctions made for wealth, caste, gender, religion, or any of the other daft shit we divide ourselves up by. We queued outside the huge dining hall in a large crowd, waiting for the previous diners to finish. Then, after 10 minutes or so, I was swept into the hall on the tide of five hundred people, who sat on the floor on long, straight mats that ran the length of the hall. Picture the Great Hall from Hogwarts but without all the spells and frogs and trolls and floating candles, and without benches or tables or cutlery, and without Hagrid and Dumbledore and Filch and pointy hats and ghosts. Alright, just imagine a big room with people sitting in very long lines. There you go.

At the langar you sit quietly, cross legged, while everybody prays. Then, several dozen volunteers stroll down the aisles dishing out trays and dishes and cutlery. Once you’ve got everything you need, other Sikhs with curved knives on their belts make their way down the lines with huge glugging vats of dal and vegetable curry and kheer and roti, ladling them onto your plate in a slapdash manner. Curry slops down into your tray from the ladle a foot above, and the gravy leaps out of the tray and gets all over, but it doesn’t matter. Everybody tucks in together, and the food is impossibly delicious. Somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 people eat here every single day for free, consuming 200,000 rotis and 1.5 tonnes of dal.

I was offered seconds but declined, already fit to burst. As people finish their food they take their trays and exit, and slowly the hall empties, however nobody rushes you to finish at all. As the place quietens down after perhaps fifteen minutes after the food is served, new volunteers swoop in with mops and brushes and scrub the whole place back to gleaming; curry be gone. The whole process, from sitting down to leaving, takes around 20 minutes. Outside, hundreds of volunteers work in a giant kitchen to scrub the endless metal trays that are passed to them. The din of a thousand trays being washed at once sounds like war. It’s a hell of a sight to witness. Anybody is welcome to join in, but I baulked, picturing myself fumbling a tray and causing the entire operation to grind to a silent halt while I scrabble around on the floor trying to pick up a spoon, mumbling apologies.

We left the temple after and arrived back at the hostel already late for the next part of the evening: the Pakistani border ceremony. Now, I’d heard mixed reviews. Sammy said it was fucking dumb. Other people said it was amazing. Many said it was like nothing you’ve ever seen. Yes, all three are true. But mostly it’s really fucking dumb.

So at the Pakistani/Indian border, which is apparently one of the most heavily guarded borders in the world, there sits a very large double gate. On either side of this gate are two huge amphitheatres, which we were lead into and seated. The Indian side is about four times the size. I sat, in equal parts impressed and baffled, and the stadiums filled up. You’ve never seen so much colour; every shade of every colour that has ever been dreamed was present. Music began playing, and on the Indian side, the arena floor was filled with dancing kids, waving their arms and jumping around and laughing together. It was lovely to behold such unbridled joy. And then the Pakistani speakers fired up, blasting bass, and their combative offering to this joy and dancing was… a man… with only one leg… holding a flag… and spinning around in little fast hops.

I looked from India to Pakistan, India to Pakistan, kids dancing to man hopping, and decided that whatever this was, it was batshit mental. After the dancing and hopping ceased, a small troupe of ten or fifteen soldiers filed into the colosseum-like arena. These men and women appeared initially to be marching in perfect unison, however the closer they got, the more I noticed their lack of discipline. As the stood to attention, I saw soldiers scratch their noses, adjust their hats, shake out their legs; they looked like actors, not soldiers.  These ‘soldiers’, on each side of the gate, marched in time to strange music towards the gate, where they stopped and flexed their muscles in front of one another, high-kicking so hard that they almost booted themselves in the face, and twirling their guns and/or swords around.

Sammy was right. What the piss was going on. Muscle flexing and out-of-step marching is not military. I have no intention of joining the army and I hate anyone who tried to impose discipline on me, but come on. If you’re gunna do it, do it right. It was a strange atmosphere at the border; seemingly walking the tightrope between friendly rivalry and straight-up xenophobia. But there are some things that I won’t ever understand in India, and I’ve made peace with that fact. The soldiers here do the same routine for an hour every evening. They probably slouch because they know deep down how bloody daft it is to perform a strange nightly military cabaret for the cheers of tourists.

We got back to the hostel at 8pm, and I didn nothing with my evening because I was shattered after the long day of murder-preventing and gorging and watching chubby soldiers kick themselves in the forehead.

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