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Review: Borderlands by Pradeep Damodaran

Borderlands explores questions of identity, privilege and nationalism through essays on 10 places on the edge of Indian territory

books Updated: Nov 03, 2017 19:21 IST
Aishwarya Gupta
On the shores of the Icchamati river. Bangladesh is on the other side.
On the shores of the Icchamati river. Bangladesh is on the other side. (Pradeep Damodaran)

Pradeep Damodaran’s Borderlands makes for an unusual re ad because it is not merely a travelogue. The 10 places the author has chosen to visit and write about evoke some unsettling questions about identity, privileges and nationalism. Located on the peripheries of the Indian Territory, some of these places are known to most, others have been heard of, and at least two, this reviewer can safely assume, are unheard of even by the most avid travelers. The social structure, absolute absence of a need to engage with the mainstream, and the almost unimaginable lives in places like Dhanushkodi, Minicoy, Raxaul, Moreh and Hussainiwala are a revelation. Dhanushkodi, for instance, is the postcard image of a sleepy town stuck in the last century, untouched by ‘electricity, healthcare, potable drinking water, let alone shops, hotels and bars.’ Located at the southern-most tip of the country, it used to be as big a town as Rameswaram until it was hit by a cyclone in 1964, which swept away most of its population, every building, structure and even the railway lines. The government declared it unfit for permanent habitation and Kodi residents were allocated houses elsewhere. But a fisherman can go only so far away from the sea. Some 250 odd families returned and began to resettle on the smooth shores and narrow strips of land that emerged and were submerged with every rain like ‘some tropical island forgotten by time.’ The hardships of Kodi’s fisherfolk, their torturous encounters with the Sri Lankan navy, and the Indian navy’s reluctance to acknowledge and help them makes for a chilling read.

While most have heard about the Lakshadweep archipelago,few are familiar with the southern-most island in this cluster that is just 70 nautical miles away from the Maldives. The nearest Indian island is 114 nautical miles away! Unsurprisingly, Minicoy has more in common with Maldives than any island of the archipelago. Bizarre facts about this place include restricted entry through government approval and ferries being available from Kochi only twice in a fortnight. The population comprises 10,000 people, who speak Mahl, which has a script written from right to left like Arabic. Minicoy is known for producing world-class sailors and not a single resident has been convicted of a crime since independence. The structure of Minicoy’s predominantly Muslim society sets it apart. “When a man here gets married, he inherits his wife’s home as well. He has to take care of two homes; he spends the night at his wife’s ancestral home and returns to his parent’s place for his afternoon meal. Unlike other parts of the country, a man has to take care of all marriage expenses and only those who can afford to get married, do so.”

The book is loaded with many other such bits of information including about the temporary nature of living at Hussainiwala or the integrated culture of Moreh with Punjabis, Nepalis and Tamils living with the local tribal population in a fringe town on the Indo-Myanmar border. Each of these places has its personal struggles but the lack of access to education and other amenities and the apathy of the mainland is a common complaint. However, the aspirations of the youth in these parts are no different to those of young people living in other parts of the country. Some of these accounts inspire trepidation, to say the least.

Read more: Living on the edge: Excerpt from Borderlands by Pradeep Damodaran

Borderlands brings out how identity changes as we move farther away from our cities and towns and leaves you wondering about the idea of identity itself. While it is difficult to finish this book in a single sitting, the author successfully plants in the reader a desire to follow his trail across the country.