Title: Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India
Author: Suchitra Vijayan
Publisher: Melville House
Year of Publication: 2021
Over the span of seven years, Suchitra Vijayan interviewed scores of individuals, jotted countless notes, snapped hundreds of photographs, and altogether made herself witness to the manifold absurdities (and atrocities) of who gets to say where one nation ends and another begins. Altogether Vijayan traveled some 9,000 miles of the Republic of India’s land borders. She sought out the most contested spaces and made conversation with the people living in them. It is their voices Vijayan captures in Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India.
The book opens with a soundbite from an Afghan police officer in Paktika Province, on the border with Pakistan: ‘It is the colonizer’s map, and they had no respect for our land. Why should we respect their borders?’
India and Afghanistan no longer share much of an official land border anymore, but in the heydays of the British Raj, pre-1947, the full length of the Durand Line (what today is the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan) defined the western rim of British imperial authority. The border was considered a perilous frontier, to the Brits, one that sent the infidels packing on more than one occasion. In Vijayan’s chronicling, the Durand Line is exposed for what it is: a bureaucrat’s border, scribbled in haste with little to no consideration for the ethnic or lingual divisions of the people living on the ground. Though, as false as the Af-Pak border is, it continues to carry an all-too-real and violent legacy.
The same can unfortunately be said for much of modern India’s land borders, according to Vijayan.
In the following chapter the reader is whisked across the subcontinent to Panitar, outside Kolkata, on the border with Bangladesh. Here, gargantuan rivers like the Brahmaputra make and remake the border. Vijayan, ever the careful observer, shares a snippet of children repurposing a border marker into a wicket with which to play cricket. The picture reveals both the comical pointlessness of the border and its omnipresence.
In Arunachal Pradesh, on the India-China border where the 1962 Sino-Indian War took place, Vijayan writes, ‘Shrines for fallen soldiers are scattered throughout the region, and new ones emerge all the time. The names of the soldiers commemorated in these shrines differ, but the stories follow a similar arc.’ Namely, of a brave Indian soldier singlehandedly fending off hordes of invading Chinese. In Vijayan’s illuminating prose, borders become myth furnaces for national identities.
Borders, too, become places of buried memory. As in Nellie, a small village in Assam, where, in 1983, some 3,000 Muslims were methodically hunted down and butchered in their homes. Vijayan calls what happened in Nellie a “forgotten” massacre. Survivors, like 58-year-old Nobin, show her photos, taken in the aftermath, as if to declare, to prove—‘Look, here is where it happened. Here, under this tree, is where we buried the children, sometimes right where we found them.’
It’s true many border places remain forgotten by the wider world, or by the richer, more powerful cultural and capital regions of a nation-state. But Vijayan works with a purpose to bring the marginal spaces to light. Readers will learn of the Garrison Hill War Cemetery in Nagaland, a state in eastern Indian sharing a long, lush border with Myanmar. ‘The cemetery contains 1,420 epitaphs of soldiers who perished in the Battle of Kohima in 1944.’ Soldiers born in Calcutta, Peshawar, Tangai—in modern-day Pakistan—are honored as “soldier[s] of the Indian Army” alongside Americans, Canadians, Australians, Brits, Nepalese and Japanese. Vijayan then deftly pivots the lens to Ms. Vijunuo, an 85-year-old Kohima-native. Ms. Vijunuo recounts the atrocities of the WWII battle and of the decades of Indian military occupation, which continue to this day as a “forgotten war” fought by a “forgotten army.”
But it’s Vijayan’s broader unearthing of Nagaland, often described as a “tribal land” rife with endless violence and insurgency, which delivers a thunderbolt onto the reader.
There are border places, buffer zones, buffer nations, just like Afghanistan and Nagaland, all over the world; carved out between “greater” nations; meddled in and occupied by one power or the next, decade after decade, and so, forbidden to form their own destinies. Indeed, to make a nation, in more ways than one, is often to deny someone else their own nation, their own identity.
In bouncing from one contested border-zone (i.e. warzone) to the next, the reader begins to piece together a photomosaic of the many peoples settled across India’s climes. And of the eerie parallels which occur when diverse peoples are forced to live under one banner along one border.
Vijayan is not only an observer of these border places she is also a commentator. It’s in reference to Nagaland that Vijayan is told by her friend, poet Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, ‘Don’t orientalise the beauty of this region.’ Vijayan continues: ‘Beauty and violence coexist, but never as a binary.’ This is one of many reflections and assertions Vijayan is keen to make.
Midnight’s Borders continues on to Kashmir, to a detective plot trying to uncover what precisely occurred the night a young, pious Muslim man was shot and killed; whether Hilal truly was signing up for jihad, or if the Indian-occupational army staged a murder. And onwards to the India-Pakistan border, which is so militarized it’s visible from space like a floodlit thread winding its way down the dark patchwork of a continent. Where bunkers sprout out of farmer’s fields. Where the circus-absurdity of India’s border-industrial complex is on full display. And where, in the book, Vijayan makes a few assertions that could, perhaps, use a little more mortar and pestle.
‘Our borders had become a spectacle,’ she states while further extrapolating how ‘throughout human history walls and fences had never worked. The walls of ancient Athens, the walls of Constantinople, and the Great Wall of China didn’t work.’ However, the reader is then given little to no explanation as to why ancient walls did not work or why, in the modern era, we continue to build walls at an ever-increasing rate around the world if they “never” work.
On the other hand, it’s Vijayan’s penetrating prose, and empathy with the people she meets along her way, which carry the narrative; give it a framework cast in salt-of-the-earth authenticity. It’s the voices of the very people living on the fringes which jab the reader awake, and which, I imagine, must be what provoked Vijayan to endeavor on such an epic chronicling in the first place. The people’s words, now relayed to the wider world in print and quotation marks, and in English, paint the starkest picture of what these midnight’s borders truly are: living nightmares for so many. And it’s to Vijayan’s credit that despite the paradoxes and political whirlwinds inundating so many of our border regions, she manages to convey a steady, clear argument from the first printed page to the last.
Even the skeptical reader won’t be able to close this book without wondering aloud whether our borders haven’t become our respective Coliseums, where most of us watch the drama from afar and yet demand the blood on the sands be real.