“Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India” by Suchitra Vijayan

Detail from US edition cover Detail from US edition cover

Living along a border can be literally living on the edge, for borders are places of uncertainty where death, humiliation and misery can be all too common. As Suchitra Vijayan points out in her book Midnight’s Borders, this is where entire communities can become stigmatized as foreigners, illegals, smugglers and traitors.

The northern half of India shares borders with Pakistan, China, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. Vijayan travelled 9,000 miles of this extensive border over 7 years to, she writes,

 

make sense of the ongoing violence at its borders, the debates over nationalism, citizenship and the unanswered questions about belonging.

 

And in Midnight’s Borders, she probes questions of citizenship and belonging for these show a different side of India, a side that isn’t usually a part of conversations about India as a “global power” or as a great democracy.

 

Midnight's Borders: A People’s History of Modern India, Suchitra Vijayan (Context, February 2021; Melville House, May 2021)
Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India, Suchitra Vijayan (Context, February 2021; Melville House, May 2021)

The book is a “scrapbook” and a “museum”—a record of stories about people missing, maimed, imprisoned, or dead:

 

The book traces my travel along India’s borders through a series of stories, encounters and vignettes over a period of seven years. The travels follow a route not easily mapped—just like the meandering, shifting and difficult-to-trace borders of the subcontinent.

 

The stories, images, official documents, and poetry she came across in her journey add to the existing understanding of South Asia’s existential conflicts. Her travels in erstwhile British India (for Vijayan visits the Pakistan-Afghanistan border too) reveal that India is no longer a secular democracy, that its borders are relics of the British rule that the decolonized nations refuse to abide by, and that the consequences of the conflicts around these absurd lines called borders are disastrous. The coherence of the nation-state as a territorial, political, and cultural unit of organization breaks down at its borders.

The stories Vijayan records can be difficult to bear.

Readers, regardless of how well-informed by domestic or international newspaper and media reports, might notice two things in Vijayan’s articulation of the condition at the borders on the Indian side: the discussion of the geography of the border—a geography that does not lend itself easily to the practices of partitioning—and the process of  storytelling and narrating memories.

Vijayan’s travels around the India-Bangladesh border provide a perfect example to discuss the geography of the borders. It is here that one comes to terms with the indivisibility of landscape:

 

The tides in the Sundarbans are dramatic and whimsical, swallowing and spitting out over a third of the area’s land each day. How could the Sundarbans, a forest that transforms with every rain, every high tide and monsoon, be partitioned? Today, there are BSF and coast guard units that patrol this silted delta in their dinky, rusted boats with tattered Indian flags affixed. There are three floating observation posts on the water there. The absurdity of the modern nation state is found even there, in the middle of an ocean that has midwifed civilisations for millennia.

 

Dotted along the countryside around the borders everywhere are monuments: some are ruins (on the India-Bangladesh border) and are shrines to the soldiers (on the India-China border at Tawang):

 

Most of these shrines have no historical basis, and many fall outside the theatre of the 1962 war. And, of course, no single unit or individual ever engaged the Chinese troops for three days. But a heady mix of folklore, Indian mythology and romance create a potent nationalistic fantasy. In these tales, the soldier represents India, and the local girl, Sela, embodies the region. The father’s betrayal captures some of India’s mistrust of a region with ties to China.

 

And there are graves that say “India killed my son”, as one tombstone in Nagaland (India’s border state with China) reads.

 

The stories Vijayan records can be difficult to bear. Ali, who is now missing but used to live right on the edge of the India-Bangladesh border, recounts the traumatizing effects of the huge floodlights around his home:

 

Then came the hallucinations and nightmares. Ali wasn’t sure if what he saw and experienced was real … ‘I can’t dream anymore. I haven’t for almost a year. They took my land, they stole my life, they stole my future, they took my nightmares and they stole my dreams too.’ It was getting dark, and Ali looked tired and anxious. ‘I never thought I would miss my nightmares.’

 

While these stories can be painful, one realizes that they must have been a source of surprise to others listening to the story along with the author. Vijayan notes that she would often find the family members of an interviewee surprised: they would remark, “I have never heard this story before,” or “[He or she] has never told us this.” These narratives constitute an alternative history of India: for instance, those at the India-China border recall being deserted by India when the region was occupied by the Chinese.

Apart from the conflicting people’s stories and the military officers’ stories, the book has vignettes about soldiering too. One bored soldier tells the author how he missed getting a picture of a porcupine wearing a helmet—a feat that he had accomplished after trying hard for thirty minutes!

 

Midnight’s Borders is at its most focused and most valuable in the first half in which Vijayan writes about what it means to live at the borders. While the India-Bhutan border is missing from the author’s accounts of her travels, her objective of critiquing the premise of territorial sovereignty as central to freedom and dignity with the help of writing a people’s history stands fulfilled through her discussions of the other borders, especially the Durand line, the Radcliffe line, and the McMahon line.

One can only imagine the gruesome stories from the other side of these borders. Indeed, although Vijayan’s focus is India, she presents glimpses of South Asia’s inability to be at peace—perhaps this inability is what unites all the diverse nation states that inhabit the geography here. Nor of course, is South Asia’s situation unique: the book ought to be seen as a contribution to the discussion of wider geopolitical tensions that are unraveling globally because of  borders.


Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.