Consider this...

"There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats." - Albert Schweitzer

Morning at 06:00, standing on a hotel balcony overlooking the Ganga at Assi Ghat in southern Varanasi.

In the darkness, a distant sound of chanting — a man’s voice, of course. Later, another, similar one joins it in unrehearsed counterpoint. Then, softly, drums, their rhythm possessing no regularity detectable to most western ears.

The sky is faintly bright now (06:10), with a dirty orange arc glowing over the lower eastern sky on the other bank of the Ganga, a surprisingly deserted sand bank just across from this populous city. Then, dull voices start a mono-tonal chanting which winds around the louder chant coming from a loudspeaker. (Does any religion use amplification as much as Hinduism?) The orange arc brightens as a more rapid tabla rhythm enters the unscored concert.

Shortly afterwards, somewhat above the horizon, a small, soft orange half-circle becomes visible — the lower part obscured by the mist or pollution in the air. One wonders whether the suddenness of its appearance is real or simply due to the eye’s having just adjusted so as to discern the nuance of color. At first, the half-circle rises at an almost visible rate, growing and darkening as it becomes a full circle. The chanting intensifies as more rapid tabla playing enters the fray.

Now there is an orange bridge across the Ganga. Or is it an exclamation point standing on its head, perhaps showing surprise that another day has arrived?

A bell starts clanging, going on for a minute or so. (Why are the bells used in Hindu temples so clanky?) When it ceases, the chanting is over, replaced now by singing birds, a mooing cow, the clattering of plates from the kitchen of the ashram across the way and the explosive putt-putt-putt from tractors pulling trailers filled with piles of what looks like — and very likely is — shit. An acquaintance remarked yesterday at the village of Bachhaon, as he and John were both taking photos of cow pies, “N’est-ce pas incroyable qu’on peut faire une oeuvre d’art avec de la merde?” (“Isn’t it unbelievable how you can make a work of art out of shit?”)

Momentarily, all other sounds are drowned out by a scratchy noise from a defective loudspeaker on a temple at Assi Ghat. Below, a general hubbub of voices is heard. One is never alone in Varanasi. There is a sound of splashing as someone waters the ground in an optimistic effort to keep down the dust. In the street below, people are circulating, already going about their affairs.

Another day has begun.


About eleven hours later, on the western border of India, the sun is about to set…

It is like a really wild and spectacular half-time show at an American football game. Each side has bleachers, music (mostly canned), a cheerleader, marchers and a standardized set of rallying cries, exchanged between the amplified cheerleaders and the mass of fans. Each side’s (enormous) loudspeakers pump its “music” and cheers to the other side.

For warm-ups, individual young men or children or even, in one case, a young mother carrying her infant child run back and forth carrying aloft “our” side’s flag to cheers from the fans. Soldiers in brown uniforms choose the next performer, give her the flag and send her off for her round trip.

And what soldiers! They must be the tallest in the army; they would be great basketball players. Their height is emphasized by the foot-high coxcombs on their heads — red with gold bands for “our” side, black with white for the “opponents”.

But this is no football game. It is the Attari-Waggah border crossing, almost exactly in the middle of the 70 km separating Amritsar, in India, from Lahore, in Pakistan. By the accident of our being where we are, “our” team is the Indian, the “other”, the Pakistani.

Parked all along several kilometers of highway approaching the border are hundreds of Indian trucks, waiting to take Indian produce across to Pakistan, Punjab being one of the breadbaskets of India. The drivers show that essential Indian quality of patience, some chatting in groups, some smoking in the cabs of their gaudily decorated vehicles.

Meanwhile, back at the border, following the initial warm-up events, young women dance in a group to super-amplified Indian pop music, but it is impossible to see whether similar young women are dancing so on the other side…

Then the sun seems to approach the tops of the trees in this vast, flat land and the main event starts. From the VIP (foreigner/bigwig) bleachers, one watches as ten or so tall Indian soldiers, including two women, take turns joining the action. This act consists in chanting one long, held-out note into a microphone held by the cheerleader doubling as MC. It seems like a contest to see who can hold the note the longest. (Was the “other” side trying to outdo “ours”?) Then, by pairs, they prance out and strut at incredible speed up to the doubly-gated border. In the following half hour, more strutting, hopping and high-kicking are seen here than at any football game. One or two soldiers are really dancers, kicking one straight leg out so high it looks like it touches their forehead and is in danger of kicking off their headdress — or like the ubiquitous temple sculptures of Vishnu pacing off the earth and the heavens. The “other” side’s black-clad soldiers perform similar gymnastic feats but are difficult to see from “our” stands. Each time that “our” side “scores”, a huge cheer goes up from the 2000 or so spectators. Similar feats of terpsichorean bravura are taking place on the “other” side, as cheers and whistles coming from their loudspeakers attest.

But let us not forget that

  • these two teams represent whole countries, one of 1.2 billion people, the other of just under 200 million;
  • they were one united colony before 1947;
  • the bungled partition into two countries brought about the displacement of over 12 million people and up to one million deaths;
  • both countries have “the bomb” and both receive substantial amounts of aid from the USA;
  • and yet they are perpetually at loggerheads over the beautiful state of Kashmir (with China coveting northern areas of both countries as well as of Bhutan), one of the most heavily occupied regions in the world — and this in spite of the fact that Kashmiris would almost certainly prefer to be owned by neither!

In one sense, it is probably good that they can let off some steam in such a harmless, albeit silly, way. In another sense, it would be preferable if there were no steam to be let off. But so it goes…

Finally, two trumpets, one on each side, start playing a series of quick fanfare-like notes, eventually giving way to longer, more drawn-out tones. The two countries’ flags start descending diagonal lines which make an “M” with the flagpoles. Halfway down, they pass one over the other, each one visible from “its” side, before being caught by a man from each one’s respective “team” — as the two trumpets hold out one long last dying tone in unison…

As all this is transpiring, a new set of bleachers is being built nearby. Laborers in pyjamas and sandals carry stones and cement in flat pans on their heads, but the sounds of the stones falling to the ground are noticed by but few of the spectators. Incredible India (and probably Pakistan too) — 19th-century labor.