Tuesday, 21 November 2017

#41 A travelogue

Borderlands – Pradeep Damodaran

Even for a seasoned traveler this book will come as a surprise,  since the author and former journalist Pradeep Damodaran visits border towns and villages which lie scattered across India’s boundary lines. Most of these places are hard to get to and some are even harder to get back from.

He begins his year long journey at Dhanushkodi which is the southern-most tip of Tamil Nadu – an eerie ghost town.  This cyclone ravaged region has significance in both mythology and in its geographical location.  Dhanushkodi or ‘tip of the bow’ was where , according to the Hindu legend Lord Rama had demolished the bridge build by his army to bring back his wife Sita from the clutches of Ravana.  Rameswaram , the nearest town is a bumpy twenty-minute ride away , but no outsider is supposed to linger at Dhanushkodi after dark. Or must do so at their own peril.

Dhanushkodi was ravaged by a cyclone in 1964, leaving behind utter devastation. It lead to the government declaring it unfit for human habitation and asked the residents to relocate. However, few remain there still. It is only 12 km from the tip of Dhanuskodi to the nearby island country of Sri Lanka and a lot of problems prevail on that front too. The writer interviews and talks to residents – both old and young and gives us an enlightening background to the true reality of living in such border towns.

By far the most fascinating trip would be to Minicoy, a tiny island located on Lakshwadeep, India’s south western tip. More closely connected with Maldives than with mainland India, the description of his travel to this island was surreal. The beauty and isolation of the tiny island is mesmerizing and one may wish to be whisked away for a vacation there. But, underneath all the beauty there lurks questions of identity and belonging among those who live there. For instance, every time a native needs to leave Minicoy they have to specify their visit to other places and a waiting period follows. Clearly, a very different treatment is being meted out to them from those who live in the mainland. Their communities are peaceful and are mostly crime free. Definitely a quiet little paradise.

However, with each place he visits, be it Hussainiwala in Punjab, where farmers have land in both India and Pakistan , Raxaul in Bihar with easy (and illegal trade) access to Nepal, Jaigaon  a lovely halt and entry point to Bhutan or Moreh , an India-Myanmar border in Manipur – there are plenty of undercurrents that the writer is able to capture. The politics, crisis of identity that haunt certain residents of border areas, the remoteness and isolation they face from the rest of the country are all brought into sharp focus.

It was indeed an eye-opener and worth a read. Each chapter has a lot of information that has been gathered from first-hand experience from talking to a wide variety of natives and locals of the places he visits and will help one understand that what most of us take for granted by living in well-marked territories. For these people in desolate villages, and border dividing their farms or homes, it remains a question of proving that they are Indian everyday. It is worth a read.

I was also able to locate a similar independent study being undertaken by a researcher has an interesting and highly educative blog here(by Suchitra Vijayan) which includes what she has seen and witnessed in her years of studying lives lived in border areas. 

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