There’s life on the borders, yet

SANDHYA RAO | Updated on March 09, 2018 Published on April 02, 2017

Title: Borderlands: Travels Across India’s Boundaries <br>Author: Pradeep Damodaran <br>Publisher: Hachette India<br>Price: ₹650

Pradeep Damodaran’s engaging travel book takes us to places we would never visit

Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh lives in the shadow of the possibility of war with China. At the same time, in large parts of the rest of India, residents of the North-East are collectively, and derogatorily, referred to or addressed as ‘chinks’. The general perception is that ‘they themselves’ don’t think they’re Indian. In Campbell Bay, Great Nicobar, an employee of the forest department speaks about different communities living in harmony: “We don’t quarrel among ourselves here like they do on the mainland” — not that there are no problems.

Reading Pradeep Damodaran’s Borderlands: Travels Across India’s Boundaries is an eye-opener, if you are willing to listen to the varied voices. “When I first arrived in these parts, “ writes Damodaran, of Tawang, “I had expected to find nothing but Chinese food... I was, therefore, taken aback by the discovery that most local restaurants served parathas, rice and dal, which even the indigenous population seemed to prefer.”

Our others

When he expresses his surprise over the ‘Indianness’ in the locals, to Tenzin Dorjee, the latter retorts: “ If there is ever a war between the two countries, every man in our community will stay and fight to defend India…”

In Moreh, Manipur, on the border with Myanmar, anybody from any other part of India is referred to as ‘Mayang’ and is not an object of affection. West of Moreh is Gangtok, where a local resident tells Damodaran that Indian nationals (as opposed to indigenous Sikkimese) “continue to be treated like second class citizens… If I question this state of affairs, I am branded an anti-national... we were much more contented under the king. He ensured that all his sujects were treated equally. Even after governing this State for 40 years, India has failed to guarantee the same degree of equality for all”.

Far south, in Dhanushkodi, Tamil Nadu, a blind septuagenarian recounts the horrors faced by Indian fishermen straying into Sri Lankan waters: “My private parts have been mutilated and I have been forced to do things that nobody should ever be made to do. You people don’t know about it, but every fisherman here has been exposed to sights they can never forget in their lifetime.” Complaining to the Indian coast guard has exacerbated the situation, they get beaten by the coast guard too. Only the LTTE helped.

Somehow, when we think border, the images of people rarely pop up. But exist they do, as Damodaran shows us, sometimes movingly, sometimes impressionistically, and sometimes in a liquor-deprived haze. Reminding us that India shares territorial or maritime borders with at least ten countries, he offers small glimpses into ten places: Dhanushkodi (maritime, Tamil Nadu-Sri Lanka), Minicoy (maritime, Lakshadweep-Maldives), Hussainiwala (land, Punjab-Pakistan), Raxaul (land, Bihar-Nepal), Gangtok (land, Sikkim-China), Jaigaon (land, West Bengal-Bhutan), Tawang (land, Arunachal Pradesh-China), Moreh (land, Manipur-Myanmar), the Indo-Bangladesh Border Trail, and Campbell Bay (maritime, Andaman and Nicobar-Thailand and Indonesia).

He escaped the claustrophobic environs of a regular newspaper job in Chennai to go on a quest of ‘Indian identity’ in the border regions, and these are some of the discoveries he made. Damodaran travelled alone, and sought the assistance of locals and long-time residents to explore the places and people’s mindsets. The first train journey took him to the India-Bangladesh border.

Connecting lands

However, the first chapter in this book takes us to the once bustling fishing town of Dhanushkodi which was decimated in a cyclone in 1964. Even those of us who were children then will remember the eerie photographs that appeared in the papers, particularly of train number 653, the Pamban-Dhanushkodi passenger, which was washed off Pamban Bridge that December night by a massive tidal wave, just minutes from the railway station. Everybody on the train died, and the bridge was washed away.

Damodaran writes that first chapter with sensitivity and elegance. This is followed by a compelling description of Minicoy, remote and unreachable in a different way from Dhanushkodi. As he takes us through other border towns and trades people ply and things that keep them ticking or drive them to falling apart, a whole other world emerges, unfamiliar to mainland folk.

In some instances, as in the case of, say, Moreh or Raxaul, the issues are so many and so complicated that it would probably take a whole book each to lay them out. But Damodaran does an eminently readable job of acquainting us with them.

Although the tone of the writing is personal, it’s only occasionally that it becomes subjective — as for instance in Damodaran’s opinion regarding the retreat ceremony at checkpost Zero Point on the border with Pakistan in Gulam Husainiwala village, Punjab. It’s like the Wagah event, on a much smaller scale, a “travesty of an official ceremony that seemed to go on forever”.

In a sense, it could be said that the disconnect between the border areas and the mainland and the government’s lethargy in terms of response and initiative are the underlying threads tying up the book.

Many common themes suggest themselves, and several that are unique to the place and/or the circumstances. Education, or the lack of facilities for a half-decent education, is a contentious issue from Dhanushkodi to Moreh. Incidentally, in Moreh, there was once an active Tamil Sangam, and a mixed-ethnic population that blended with the locals. No longer.

What we take for granted...

Most Indian border towns seem like dumps compared to their sibling towns across the border. If we thought our experience of demonetisation was a nightmare, read what happens on the Bhutan-India border with the ngultrum and the rupee.

Service providers can make all the tall claims they dream of, but the fact is there’s no connectivity in far too many places. Every single time a person wants to go to the other side, for whatever reason, he/she has to get a permit.

From the lack of medical facilities in Dhanushkodi to the lack of power supply in Kavaratti (Lakshadweep) to the illogically high pricing of common consumer goods in Moreh, the list is varied and endless.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. There’s plenty new to pick up, and some things to exclaim about in surprise; not to speak of all those settled Indians who call some of these places home.

Ministers, administrators, and entrepreneurs would find many useful clues about what to and what not to — if they bothered to read and learn, that is. Crucially, the book makes you ask questions about the identity you take so much for granted. As much for granted as the idli which is as popular in Manipur as it is in Chennai, and isn’t even an Indian invention.


Pradeep Damodaran pursued a successful career in the software industry for nine years before quitting IT to take up journalism. He is the author of The Mullaperiyar Water War and was Deccan Chronicle’s bureau chief.

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Published on April 02, 2017
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