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Book review | Why borders resemble bad fiction

Suchitra Vijayan's new book 'Midnight’s Borders' is the result of seven years of travels through border areas, including the borders between India and China, India and Pakistan and India and Myanmar.

April 10, 2021 / 07:27 PM IST
Throughout the book, Vijayan places at centrestage the experiences of the people who live in borderlands.

Throughout the book, Vijayan places at centrestage the experiences of the people who live in borderlands.


In the foreword of this timely, haunting book, author Suchitra Vijayan writes: “For the maps of this world to make sense, many fictions have been put in place, and we have been taught to treat these fictions as fact. We imagine nations out of non-existent lines – sometimes amputating communities and whole cultures to make way for a country – and reinforce the lines with violence lest they cease to exist altogether.” These words are lit up, fleshed out by every paragraph and chapter that follows.

Midnight’s Borders, published by Westland, is the result of seven years of the author’s travels through India’s borderlands adjoining Pakistan, China, and Myanmar; but also the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, which once defined an edge of British India. Moreover, as the book’s name suggests, it places at centrestage the everyday experiences of the people who live in borderlands, and in so doing, the book questions official propaganda as well as rote-learned notions of patriotism and nationalism.

The author writes, “I travelled to the frayed edges of the republic to meet the people who inhabit the margins of the state to study the human toll of decades of aggressive, territorial nationalism.” The author adds that in her seven years of travel, she “amassed endless notebooks, over a thousand images, and more than 300 hours of recorded conversations”.

The inhuman, brutal nature of borders and the absurdity of the modern nation-state are truths that have been well-developed over the centuries. This book could not have existed without significant writings that have preceded it – not only works of nonfiction about war and nationalism, apartheid and genocide, citizenship and subject-hood, but also poetic and fictional works that deal with the human spirit’s struggles with borders, such as the works of, among others, Salman Rushdie.

Thinkers opine and recommend; poets and novelists describe and sometimes prescribe. It is the non-fiction writer alone, who, through ground-level reportage, explores how the metaphor seeps out of partitioned soil. This author does so wonderfully in this book, which seems to be the distillate of a lifetime of significant reading, and, of course, it is fertilized by impeccable, immersive reportage and filtered through writing talent.

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Among other things, the author explores the notions of states as defined by boundaries and homelands as defined by the human hearts of the residents – and reminds us that these notions are not neatly superimposed on each other. We always had this knowledge, even if it was only an inkling, but we lost it under force of propaganda and our mental compromises in favour of a socially approved national identity. At the touch of this book, the forbidden knowledge within our hearts is revived. The author writes, “Each country (India and Pakistan) has a state, a nuclear army and strong ideologies of patriotism. But are they nations? Do the people within these boundaries indeed belong within their borders or even respect them?” It’s a timely question.

From people living in borderlands, the author has heard what it is like living in a place that is fractured literally, culturally, metaphorically. The author writes: “These stories challenge us to think, to consider whether it is possible to reject the idea that freedom, dignity and self-determination require territorial sovereignty”. In other words, to rethink foundational ideas that define large swathes of our identities and lives. The author’s goal is lofty, and she pursues it with righteous anger, shocked sadness, and moving compassion, by showing us the harrowing experiences of human beings like us, who are caught in a hellish predicament just so we can draw over our limbs the notional blanket of a manufactured belonging.

The chapters about the Afghanistan-Pakistan border map out the psychological fissures created by that particular act of border-making, Suchitra Vijayan Midnight's Bordersfissures which exist and are enacted to this day through subsequent conflicts. Like most British-made borders in the subcontinent, the Durand Line was drawn through the hearts of communities (in this case, the Pashtuns), leaving them subjects of either Afghanistan or Pakistan. Afghans do not accept the Durand Line; imagine their state of mind at having to send their youths to fight for this notional, deadly line on a map. The author, here, tells us that borders “humiliate”, they “hurt”; she also shows us that they kill. The author brings out vividly and viscerally the complex web of emotions ranging from disorientation to outrage, a loss of home, a feeling of insecurity, of danger, of being at the mercy of divisive forces.

In many instances, the author masterfully shows us that the borders resemble bad fiction. Of the India-Bangladesh border, she writes, “The lines on the new maps decided by Radcliffe and the Bengal Boundary Commission had no resemblance to realities on the ground. Some rivers, identified in the boundary commission report did not exist, or if they did, it was hard to fix a boundary based on rivers that changed their path, making and remaking the border every day”. That does not make the borders less deadly; the author reminds us that the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 left 3 million people dead in Bangladesh, with almost a crore refugees entering it afterwards.

The author’s visits to the Sunderbans yield further examples of shifting borders; she writes, in a memorable turn of phrase of the “absurdity of the modern nation-state”, by pointing to the Sunderbans as “a forest that transforms with every rain, every high tide and monsoon”. In a well-chosen anecdote, we are told of an island claimed by both India and Bangladesh that was swallowed up by the sea as a consequence of climate change, an island that was “born of violence, an object of contention throughout its existence, its disappearance heralded by the wrath of nature”.

Utterly haunting is the story of Ali and his wife, K., who lived on the India-Bangladesh border. Ali, we are told, hates the light and prefers living in a dark house – a poignant detail that elucidates his mental state. I will offer no spoilers, leaving you to commune with this story by yourself.

Such heartfelt, moving writing appears throughout the book. All in all, the book is part meditation, part travelogue, part call to action. The writing itself traverses varied registers, from poetic to journalistic, and it all coheres beautifully. Moreover – and this is a hard feat – the writing is lightsome, pacey, easily absorbable. The book is an assemblage of stories, short and long, which provide ample space for the reader to pause and ruminate, and add to the readability of the book. The author has the ability to transmit in well-chosen words the fact of borders as a truth felt within the body, the way it interacts with a sense of self. The author is in form while writing this piece of lucid beauty: “Everyone abides by an informal treaty between unequal partners who nonetheless contaminate each other’s existence”.

The book contains several pieces of valuable overview, too, particularly as regards the India-China border. Here, the author quotes, among others, the scholar Karunakar Gupta, whose research produced the insight that the India-China border dispute arose from “suppression of facts, distortion of history, possible alterations of facts and withholding of official documents relating to the frontline”. The falsification was the handiwork of the British Indian government of the time. The Indians and Chinese are squared up, the author says, over part fictions.

The author also visits Nellie in Assam, one of the sites of a communal massacre. The massacre stemmed from hatred for ‘them’ as opposed to ‘us’; resulting in the branding of Indian citizens who are Muslim as ‘non-citizens’. In another part of the book, the author reminds us that the decades-old and recently revived National Register of Citizens has, between 1985 and 2019, “deemed 117,164 persons as foreigners”, most of them without a hearing, and most of them Muslim. In total, 1.9 million people have been declared non-citizens. Detention camps for them are being built. The author brings all this to light thoroughly. The author deserves accolades for meeting and interviewing people declared non-citizens, thus counteracting our tendency to treat them as numbers or statistics.

The author writes movingly of the Rohingya refugees in India, how they suffer inhuman conditions in jail. Here the author delves into the apparatus of cruelty built by the Indian state, with a description of the prison system. We are given a brief tour of Rohingya history so we understand how Myanmar systematically denied them citizenship by calling them Bengalis, thus denying their centuries-old existence in the country.

In her treatment of the India-Myanmar border, the author is at her most journalistic. The Indian army’s record of atrocities against local residents is brought out with dignity and quiet outrage. The author brings out in living detail examples of fake encounters by the Indian army, its torching of entire villages into surrender.

The author’s travels along the India-Pakistan border yield vivid accounts of atrocities committed by the Indian armed forces against Kashmiris, including fake encounters. The author investigates one such fake encounter by speaking to “many of the people involved in the case”, the army, and the family of the deceased, whose name was Hilal Ahmed Dar, of Aloosa in northern Kashmir. Her investigation plumbs the murk surrounding the truth, raising questions about the official account of events. A memorable passage ensues: “In Kashmir, state violence is openly exercised and flaunted as governance; it is integral to the way in which Indian sovereignty is practised”.

The book will – and should – shake you up and leave you with lots of questions. One can only hope it is read by those who seek to spread their politics of hatred and divisiveness in India. It is a timely book, questioning aggressive nationalism.
Suhit Kelkar is a freelance Journalist. He is the author of the poetry chapbook named The Centaur Chronicles.

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