Book Review Midnight's Borders

Illusion is the most tenacious weed in the collective consciousness’, Antonio Gramsci wrote in 1921. ‘History teaches but it has no pupils.’ The lines we draw, the fences we build and the borders we enforce are all illusions. They are not real, but they give birth to violent consequences and have become a part of collective consciousness. Humanity’s most significant failures of this century begin with these lines. At the border, even the most civilized among us begin to make excuses for repression, brutality and violence. At the border, we eschew all that we otherwise celebrate under the demands of freedom, progress, liberty and secular ideals. If we are to learn from history, we must begin by imagining the possibilities of freedom without nation states, without borders that kill.

Why I picked this book?

I liked the title of the book and was intrigued by it. The book cover says people’s history of modern India that kindled more interest, as I enjoy reding history. It was a chance to understand India from the perspective of the people living in border areas of India, their daily lives and the day-to-day challenges faced by them. So, to know more about it I picked Midnight’s Border to read.

The Book

Midnight’s Journey captures the stories of common people living in and around border areas. The author travelled extensively through the Indian border areas to tell us a brief history of the area and about the people of that area and how the borders have impacted their lives. How the borders came into being at Independence and what has changed over the years and its impact on the people. For me the author sums up the crux of the book in the below lines.

Today we live in a world where commodities, capital and drones have far greater freedom of movement than people fleeing dictators or genocide.

The book starts with beautiful prologue and a fine introduction which sets up the tone of the book. The author takes the readers on a journey to the India – Bangladesh, India – Myanmar, India – China and India – Pakistan border areas. She meets and interviews the people living in the border areas and in the process gives the readers a history of that area. Each story is so moving and heartbreaking that it makes you think about the futility of borders.

The story of Ali from Jalpaiguri, who lived right at the edge of India -Bangladesh border. His village is completely sealed off and floodlit by light on borderline. The tragic story of what the border has done to his home and his life will scare you. The stories from the villages near India – China border are eye opening. As opposed to the general perception about the region, or what we hear about it, the reality is altogether different.

Those who witnessed the 1962 war and suffered its aftermath have not forgotten the Indian Army’s humiliating defeat at the hands of the Chinese. By the time the Chinese marched into the Sangti valley, nine miles outside Dirang, on the Bomdilla – Tawang highway in the west of Kameng district, the Indian Army was long gone. A seventy-eight-year-old monk recalled seeing the decaying bodies of many Indian soldiers on the slopes of Dirang. In his words ‘You can raise Indian flags and call us Indian. But people do not forget that Indian Army deserted us. The Chinese occupied part of this land and [these] people. We lived under occupation.’ The occupation lasted for a month, and was somewhat benevolent, with the Chinese throwing lavish feasts and dancers and entertainers. But those survived have not stopped feeling abandoned by India.

As you move along the book, you will find many stories of people living on the borders and you would be surprised to know how things are entirely different from the mainstream narrative. The book not only tells the challenges and hardships faced by the people living in border areas, but also provides a new perspective to the citizens of the country. Like Nagaland which borders with Myanmar. The author says –

 It was here that I first heard people tell me with not a trace of doubt that they are not part of India, and that they are waging an everyday war to protect what is left of their identity, dignity and history.

Midnight’s Borders introduces the readers to an India which is not a part of the collective consciences of most Indians. It is India, which is forgotten, not cared for, and left on its own by the people responsible to take care of them. The authorities are concerned with the piece of land which falls in India as per the lines drawn on the map often forgetting the people who live there. The author then moves on to India – Pakistan border and the most contentious is the Kashmir border. We get to hear and read something different from the official Indian narrative. The author says –

The writing of history of Kashmir is controlled primarily by India. Nowhere else does the state expend so much energy in shaping the narrative in its own favour. This history which casts India as the oral heir to Kashmir, and Pakistan as the aggressor, is predicated on the silencing and erasure of the Kashmiri people in their struggle. What truths will we tell our children about Kashmir? What stories will we tell them about a republic called India and her unwilling and reluctant subjects?

Midnight’s Borders is an insightful and informative read that takes you through the lives of ordinary people living in the border areas of India. Told beautifully with lot of compassion along with some great accounts of historical events which are largely forgotten.

About the Author

Suchitra Vijayan was born and raised in Madras, India. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, GQ, The Boston Review, The Hindu and Foreign Policy. A barrister by training, she previously worked for the United Nations war crimes tribunals in Yugoslavia and Rwanda before co-founding the Resettlement Legal Aid Project in Cairo, which gives legal aid to Iraqi refugees.

She is an award-winning photographer, the founder and executive director of the Polis Project, a hybrid research and journalism organisation. She lives in New York.

Our Verdict

A must read for anyone who has interest in history and politics of India. A collection of never before told stories of forgotten people and the challenges, oppression and inhumanity faced by them at the hands of their own state.

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