388 pages; Rs 650
In recent years, there has been a welcome addition to the number of travelogues on India by Indians in the English language. The year 2015 saw the publication of 1,400 Bananas, 76 Towns & 1 Million People: A Journey Along the Indian Coast with Interludes of History, Food and Conversation
by Samir Nazareth. Then came The Heat and Dust Project: The Broke Couple’s Guide to Bharat
by Devapriya Roy and Saurav Jha, with two sequels planned — on travels in southern India and the Northeast. The latest addition, albeit in a slightly different vein, is Pradeep Damodaran’s Borderlands: Travels Across India’s Boundaries
. These writers were motivated by a sense of angst brought on the pressures of modern-day life and professional issues, as well as by a desire to engage with ordinary Indians across the country, who they would otherwise have never met.
Mr Nazareth’s seven-month journey takes him from Bhuj in Gujarat, down the west coast of India and up the east coast to Kolkata, and thence to Darjeeling and Nathula, on the border with Tibet. The idea was to visit the lesser-known towns of coastal India and explore the regional foods in all their variety, though, given his budgetary constraints, bananas become a dietary staple. Mr Jha and Ms Roy set out on a “transformational journey across India” (more specifically, northern and western India) on a tight budget of Rs 500 a day for bed and board, which forces them to hurtle through in a hundred days and yields an account that lacks depth and maturity.
Mr Damodaran, a middle-aged Chennai-based journalist, sets out to write about the sleepy towns and villages on the country’s periphery that, as the jacket explains, “rarely feature in mainstream conversations.” In his travels, stretching over a year, he meets the fishermen of Dhanushkodi, at the southern tip of Tamil Nadu, who live in fear of both the Indian Coast Guard and the Sri Lankan navy; the inhabitants of Minicoy in Lakshadweep (a few dozen nautical miles from the Maldives), bitter at having been forgotten by the Centre; farmers in Hussainiwala, a village on Punjab’s border with Pakistan, who live in perpetual fear that an outbreak of India-Pakistan hostilities could at any time destroy their homes; the Tamil traders of Moreh, a town straddling the Manipur-Myanmar border, who can conduct their businesses only by bribing a dozen militant organisations; and to Taki on the India-Bangladesh border, Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, Raxaul on the India-Nepal border, Jaigaon on the India-Bhutan border, Gangtok and Campbell Bay in the Nicobar Islands.
Mr Damodaran, who has chosen these ten locations with great care, and whose time frame and budget are more flexible than those of Mr Nazareth and the Roy-Jha couple, defines “borderlands” as “those ambiguous spaces whose inhabitants find themselves trapped between two distinct national identities.” He writes that concepts such as citizenship and national identity, which most Indians take for granted, are denied to the inhabitants of the borderlands. People living in the small towns that have sprung up along India’s borders with countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and in India’s island territories, he argues, have more in common with citizens of these neighbouring countries, with whom they share historical and cultural ties, than with their fellow Indians.
Mr Damodaran paints a sympathetic portrait of these communities, after having detailed conversations with a cross-section of the inhabitants in the towns he visits. The degree to which they have been marginalised is evident from the eagerness with which they share their stories when they learn that he is gathering material for a book. Their sense of alienation from the Indian mainstream is complete and they desperately want to be heard. Some who had migrated to these towns for business reasons want to return to their roots. In giving them a voice,
Mr Damodaran makes full use of his reporting instincts, tape recorder and notebook at the ready; they help him zero in on articulate citizens, who proceed to give him a low-down on the state of affairs in each location. A particular injustice that he highlights is the discrimination faced by inhabitants of India’s Northeast — who are routinely taunted because of their distinctive features — in other cities across the country.
Alas, Borderlands, like 1400 Bananas and The Heat and Dust Project,
has no maps (except for one on the jacket, showing the author’s ports of call) and photographs, though the book offers many social, cultural and political insights, as one can expect from an experienced journalist.
Indeed, Mr Damodaran is an intrepid reporter, travelling to the insurgent-infested Myanmar-Manipur border, and interviewing villagers in Hussainiwala who are hand in glove with Pakistani drug smugglers, Bangladeshis involved in smuggling humans and cattle across the border with India, and an octogenarian who describes the privations of Tawang’s inhabitants during the Chinese invasion of 1962. His tour diary, which is a mass of facts assembled into a pleasing analytical whole, is less spiced with humour and not as conversational in tone as the other two, yet makes for absorbing reading.