Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Lines on land and water: Reading Pradeep Damodaran's Borderlands

I was browsing for travel books.  And I like theme-based travel chronicles, which means I was specifically looking for books where the writer travels to and stays at different places, and her/his objective, observations, and writing have a common thread that binds the book together … books like Chasing the Monsoon, Finding Fish, Chai, Chai, Hot Tea across India, Falling off the Map … I enjoyed reading these books … and so, here I was, reading blurbs and brief descriptions of travel books and I came across Pradeep Damodaran’s Borderlands: Travels across India’s Boundaries … I read what was written in and around the book … mmm … Pradeep Damodaran goes to the country’s border towns and some far flung islands forming the boundaries of the country … some bustling, some sleepy, some desolate, some neglected … these towns and villages … Pradeep Damodaran spends over a year and a half travelling to these places, ‘experiencing life in far-flung areas that rarely feature in mainstream conversations’ … very very interesting, I thought … just the kind of book I was looking for …

So, when the book arrived, I looked at the contents. I had heard the names of only three locations among the ten places that Pradeep Damodaran had visited.  I had heard of Minicoy as being part of the Lakshadweep islands, but knew nothing about it, and so I started with Minicoy.  It is obvious that Pradeep Damodaran found in Minicoy an island so captivating, its history so engrossing, and its people so charming, that the Minicoy chapter (after I’d read the whole book) appears closest to the author’s heart.  The wooded paths where Pradeep Damodaran cycles along from the resort to the village, the serenity that he experiences, the beaches, and most of all, the many people that he visits and talks to are all so beautifully described.  Minicoy, in a sense, is where India comes closest to Maldives, our Indian Ocean neighbor. One of the ironies that Pradeep Damodaran discovers is that Minicoy is closer to Maldives that to India, not only geographically.  Minicoy has more in common with Maldives – language, religion, history, food habits – and at one point of time, was a part of the Maldivian kingdom, and for a number of years after India’s independence Minicoyans used to regularly travel to Maldives and there was direct trade between Minicoy and Maldives.  Of course, it is been officially stopped now.  It is fascinating actually, this part where the inhabitants on this side of the border have more in common with the people across the border than with the vast and populous hinterland.  But borders are always shadow lines.  

This line across the waters is really something.  We go over to the other side of the ocean and bump into Campbell Bay.  Campbell Bay, part of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, despite its indigenous people, is a settlers’ island.  It was in the seventies that the Indian government decided to populate this southernmost Indian island by clearing out the jungles, and to secure the country’s borders.  Ex-servicemen were encouraged to migrate to this island and were given incentives like free land, money, free rations, etc.  Most of them gladly came over, cleared the land, tilled their farms, and settled here though there is still a lot of jungle out there.  It is like a mini India tucked away in the Indian Ocean.  The original inhabitants, people belonging to the Great Nicobarese and Car Nicobarese tribes, live in their original villages.  Some of them have become part of the ‘mainstream,’ but some like the Shompens lived in the jungles and carried on like their ancestors.  The tribespeople resemble Indonesians and Malays more than mainland Indians. And not surprisingly, Campbell Bay is closer to Indonesia than to India, and so forms a sort of border with Indonesia. 

These two places, similar in many ways, and also diametrically opposite in many other ways, intrigued me so much that I read these two chapters more than twice already.  Minicoy, I want to stay on; Campbell Bay, I want to visit. 

There are a number of things about borders that Pradeep Damodaran observes and describes, but I don’t want to get into all the details here. Suffice to say that there are a number of distasteful things happening at a number of places, some outright revolting.  At some places Pradeep Damodaran was able to cross the border and go across to the town on the other side of the border, that is, in the foreign country.  His walks in the mornings in Phuentsholing in Bhutan across Jaigaon are the most soothing to the mind; and I am sure, he found his boozing visits in the evenings also relaxing.  His visit to Tamu in Myanmar across Moreh brings out this wry remark … “As had been my experience with all the other border towns I had visited so far the other side seemed greener and more prosperous …”  Tells a lot about our border management, no?

And in case you visit Moreh in Manipur on the Myanmar border, don’t be surprised to see a large Tamil population there … or a great number of Punjabis in Campbell Bay, the southernmost island town of India … or thriving Rajasthanis in Jaigaon … ah, well, there are more stories and surprises in this book … about our peoples, their movements, our border towns, their border towns, our joint borders …

While reading this book, I felt that each town or island appears in a different ‘light.’   Minicoy appeared to me as this place full of trees where sunlight filters through the leaves creating dappled shades … Campbell Bay appeared to be bright and sunny and hot … Jaigaon on the Bhutan border appeared cool, rain-kissed and drizzly and just about bright … Moreh on the Myanmar border and Dhanushkodi on the southern peninsular tip closest to Sri Lanka were dark for me … Raxaul on the Nepal border appeared suffused with dirty polluted light (it is so dirty and dusty that Pradeep Damodaran says Raxaul was the most disheartening of all the border towns)  … The Bangladesh border was feebly lit and watery … and so on.  Is it Pradeep Damodaran’s light-changing prose or my fertile imagination?

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