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Travelling through 10 towns on India’s frontiers, ‘Borderlands’ explores the ambiguity, alienation and hope of border identities
Flag ceremony at Hussainiwala, Punjab

Think borders and you’d probably think of maps and militaries. But, as journalist-turned-author Pradeep Damodaran shows in Borderlands: Travels Across India’s Boundaries, there are also lives and communities built along and across them. A travelogue based on Damodaran’s visit to 10 border towns across India, Borderlands explores the difficult question of identity in ambiguous and fluid spaces.

Here are excerpts from an interview with the author:

There is a latent political message underlying the stories. Can you elaborate on it?

Several of these border towns are deeply embroiled in international politics and so I picked up on the political climate. The most poignant issue that I came across was one of identity. Due to the ambiguity surrounding their identity, people in border towns experience a sense of alienation. This manifests itself in political instability and lack of development.

Tawang Monastery in Arunachal Pradesh

What is the role of government in this lack of development? Is it a question of logistics? Why do governments overlook the needs of people in border towns?

It takes time for any government scheme to reach distant parts of the country. The politics of the region also plays a part in border towns, especially in the North-East, where people still haven’t embraced the idea of India and resist reforms. Successive governments have also ignored border areas. There is the issue of security and illegal migration as well in some towns.

What is the common thread running through these places?

By and large, I would say it is a sense of lawlessness and alienation. People resort to activities that are illegal and they do not have a choice. Besides, they don’t believe in abiding by the laws.

Why do you think there is a resort to illegal activities?

I did not go to the officials to check for their version of the story. I stuck to the people’s voice and tried to see illegality or legality from their point of view. For instance, in the Nepal border with Raxaul, people belong to the same community, live on either sides of the border and marry each other. Now, what’s wrong in taking a few kilograms of sugar from Raxaul to Birganj to give your daughter as it’s cheaper where you live. But, technically it’s smuggling and banned.

There is a sense of danger lurking around places such as Dhanushkodi and Campbell Bay. Why do people choose to live there despite the odds stacked against them?

Living on an international border has its disadvantages. Any change in international relations will affect the locals. While people are aware of this uncertainty, I don’t think they live in fear. For them, these towns have been home for generations.

Minicoy Island in Lakshadweep

How is the attitude of people living in these areas?

In many places, I met people who are content with their lives and have no longing to get out. I was surprised to find that youngsters in Minicoy and Campbell Bay were happy where they were. I did find disgruntled people too. It’s due to a lack of infrastructure, education and quality healthcare, but these issues can be solved.

What do you make of the BSF guards and Army men you met? How are their relations with locals?

Their presence is obviously not welcome, as nobody wants strangers walking your roads and living amidst you all through the year. From the point of view of the guards, they are living far away from their families and in uncomfortable conditions. The cause for hostility is the illegal activity that goes on in border towns. If the centre can curb that and provide employment to youth, the hostilities could be brought down.

The twin issues of quality education and healthcare seems to be close to your heart. Will these people see good schools and hospitals?

As the country prospers, attention will eventually fall on border areas. While I can’t say when it will happen, if the economy goes the way it does, that day should not be far off. One problem I find is that most of these places have a huge tourism potential that hasn’t been exploited. Once that happens, perceptions will change.

Gangtok in Sikkim

When you describe bars especially on MG Road in Sikkim, I am reminded of ones in metros. How is the scene different?

Well, I can’t compare the bars in Sikkim with any other in mainland. The closest I can get to are the ones in Phuentsholing, Bhutan. The difference between Gangtok bars and others, at least the ones I’ve visited, was that there is a certain naiveté in the whole experience. People are nice and trust you instantly. I’ve not felt that anywhere else.

In many places, there is story of hope too. How does this contrast with the tales of woe?

Wherever it was possible, the next generation had already escaped to greener pastures. People who live here are outcastes in many ways; they live in these fragile areas as they have often been shunted out or could not cope with the mainland. Most people I’ve met have tried living in larger cities and returned home. I think that says a lot about borderlands.