‘Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India’ review: A ‘museum’ of forgotten stories from the borderlands

Travelling 9000 miles over seven years, Suchitra Vijayan tries to understand India through her boundaries with Bangladesh, China, Myanmar and Pakistan

Updated - March 07, 2021 08:05 am IST

Published - March 06, 2021 04:50 pm IST

“Panitar’s division is as cruel as it is arbitrary: here, the houses on either side of one dusty lane occupy two neighbouring countries. Where India ends and Bangladesh begins is a question confused by history, family and the border pillars themselves.” Panitar has a one-foot-high concrete block on the side of the mighty Ichamati river marked ‘Border Pillar No.1’. In her new book Midnight’s Borders , Suchitra Vijayan includes a photo of the pillar, which becomes a cricket stump for boys on either side of the border most days.

As she travelled 9000 miles over seven years across India’s borders, some drawn so hastily that they cut across fields, homes and courtyards, she met men, women and children, finishing with “endless notebooks, over a thousand images and more than 300 hours of recorded conversations.” Her quest took her to the farthest ends of the India-Bangladesh/ China/ Myanmar/ Pakistan borders. Through these real histories of the people, she gives readers another perspective on old wounds like Partition and new divisionary tactics like the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.

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Lines that divide

It was not going to be easy as she quickly found out. Travel to States like Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland in the Northeast which share borders with China and Myanmar required Inner Line Permits, BSF soldiers followed her everywhere on the West Bengal/ Bangladesh border, and in Kashmir she was summoned to meet the local inspector at Uri.

Vijayan began her journey in Kolkata. Even as 70% of the border with Bangladesh has been fenced, “smugglers, drug couriers, human traffickers and cattle rustlers continue to cross to ply their trades.” All along the border, the common refrain is, “It feels like Partition is still alive.”

A story from near Jalpaiguri in north Bengal, that of a man named Ali, is heartbreaking. When Vijayan meets him, he is inside his home with all the windows closed and sealed to snuff out light. “The border runs through him,” his friend Jamshed had told Vijayan, “He is almost gone, but I don’t want his story to be gone too.”

Ali lived right on the edge of the India-Bangladesh border. When fencing began, he became trapped in a no-man’s land, his marriage to a girl from Bangladesh ended with each being stranded on either side and he never got out of the cycle of debt and struggle, finally losing the ability to dream. “They took my land, they stole my life, they stole my future, they took my nightmares and they stole my dreams too.” Ali went missing in 2018.

In Assam, Vijayan met people devastated by the National Register of Citizens process, with names of long-time residents missing from the final list, and in Kashmir she spent time with a family mourning the loss of their son in an ‘encounter’. At Fazilka near the Pakistan border, she ran into Sari Begum, who had a bunker on her land but had a darker story of pain and violence from the days of Partition.

No outsiders

The complexities of the Naga peace process were apparent on a visit to remote villages of Tuensang district where many of the women remained silent with others admitting they had never encountered an outsider, except Indian soldiers. In Nellie (Assam) too, where over 3,000 Muslims were killed in 1983, people stared at Vijayan in confusion, ‘no one comes here anymore’, she was told. Bhawan Singh, who photographed the Nellie massacre, said he had never seen anything like it. Fearful of the future he asked quietly, “Where did all this hate come from, where is it going to take us?” echoing what many residents had told her.

By looking beyond maps to create a “museum of forgotten stories,” Vijayan has given voice to those who live on the fringes like Ali or Sari. The black and white pictures accompanying the chapters add a thousand words more.

Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India ; Suchitra Vijayan, Context/ Westland Books, ₹699.


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