The Border Runs Through Us

At the India-Bangladesh border in Tripura, the irrevocable and bloody cleavage of the land, carried out 70 years ago, is a disorienting reality.

Written by Preeti Mudliar | Gorakhpur | Updated: August 13, 2017 2:05 pm
Shared memories: Comilla Kalibari in Kamlasagar, Tripura (Express Photo by Preeti Mudliar)

Even with all the reading that I had done on various travel websites, there was very little that prepared me for my visit to Comilla Kalibari in Kamlasagar, Tripura. The reviews informed me that it was around 27 km and an hour away from the capital city, Agartala. They recorded that the goddess Kali in this temple, in a uniquely non-combative avatar, was really Durga. Most agreed that the temple perched on a small hillock overlooking the Kamalasagar lake was significant because it was on the Indo-Bangladesh border. Some described it as a “picnic spot” with the legitimate attraction of watching trains go by in Bangladesh.

But no review described the place leaving them unsettled and bewildered. Not one had mentioned the possibility of being moved to tears. There were no description of women walking along the international border, trying to bring back their goats who blithely frisk through barbed wire fences and render all man-made divisions useless. All in all, there was little to forewarn that this just might be the place where the entire import of 1947 would slam hard into you and leave you grappling with a deep sense of disquiet and loss. I scrolled back to the message that Pratim R Bose, a journalist who was helping me navigate Tripura for my fieldwork, had sent about places to visit in Agartala. “Comilla Kalibari, for an idea of how irrationally a country was divided,” he had written.

Reading his message in Agartala, I had felt quite prepared to see anything. The cinematic and literary genre addressing India’s Partition was something that I thought I knew reasonably well. I am a self-proclaimed fan of Saadat Hasan Manto. His life and short stories amply illustrate his refusal to mark Independence as anything more than a period of bloodshed and carnage. I have curiously browsed through the “1947 Partition Archive”, a seminal exercise in crowdsourcing oral histories of survivors. I had only recently finished reading the biography of former prime minister Manmohan Singh. Written by his daughter Daman Singh, it detailed how the violence of Partition had affected his childhood. Last year, I binge watched over two nights the Pakistani serial Dastaan and then blogged my way to catharsis after a night of visceral crying.

And, it was just a fortnight ago that I had visited the Akhuara border checkpost in Agartala to watch the flag ceremony. Having read about the histrionics at Wagah on the Punjab border, I was fully prepared for jingoism and shows of military might. The drill at Akhuara, though, was very cordial, perhaps owing to its smaller scale and the more peaceable Indo-Bangla equation. The Border Security Force soldiers sternly informed us that no anti-Bangladesh sloganeering of any kind would be tolerated. We heard the Bangladeshi forces on the other side similarly instructing their flock. When the ceremony ended, we stood looking at one another and taking pictures. The soldiers on both sides laughed and chatted. The visible markers of a border transit point and the theatre of a military ritual had neatly buffered any sense of disorientation that could arise from the sight of a perfectly good stretch of road barricaded with a board announcing, “Please visit again. Indian territory ends. Bangladesh 0 km.”

At Kamalasagar, though, there are no ceremonial drills to distract you. Tracing the journey on Google Maps shows that the 18 km-long “border road” leading to Comilla Kalibari runs meters away from the international border, but the thickly wooded foliage reveals nothing of what lies to your right as you make your way to the temple. When a clearing suddenly emerges, you find yourself staring slackjawed with disbelief at the abrupt eruption of a barbed wire fence rising up in front of you. The land that you thought of as a singular entity until seconds ago, startles with its irrevocable division into us and them. No amount of reading or cinema could plausibly prepare you for what you see — to the left, India. To the right, Bangladesh.

In the rain, a bunch of high school boys on the other side of the fence and I looked at one another with undisguised interest, fascinated that we were barely metres away, but still in different countries. I fished out my phone to take a picture, when a BSF soldier appeared out of nowhere and pointed to the “photography prohibited” sign. The boys responded with whistles and catcalls.

“How is it to live with the constant reminder of this fence?” I asked my driver Bijay. He had relatives and ancestral land on the other side of the fence, lost when Cyril Radcliffe drew his lines to arbitrate the birth of two nations. He shrugged, “What can be done? I get to meet my relatives every week at the bazaar when the gates are opened for the border haat. Sometimes, we exchange food and they request medicines from here.”

The Indo-Bangladesh border in Tripura (Express Photo by Preeti Mudliar)

After we caught glimpses of a train passing by, Bijay asked if I wanted to take the internal roads along the border instead of the highway back to Agartala. I nodded and he drove me along paddy fields with barbed wire fences running through at some places. The border was fuzzier here and, often, there was no fence to signal which country we were in. Whenever Bijay spotted Bangladeshi patrol teams in the distance, he stopped to point them out. He said that people moved freely and legitimately across the border every day to earn their livelihood. What else could one do when a fence cuts right across your field? He repeated oft-heard stories of the border making its way through kitchens and homes. Listening to him with the fence stretching out in plain sight it was all too real. Nay, surreal.

My reaction to Comilla Kalibari was the way it was, largely because it was the first time I came face-to-face with tangible proof of a country’s division. Neither my family nor the parts of India I had roots in were affected by Partition. The geographic and cultural distance between me and the events of 1947 meant that any experience of it was through popular culture. Moreover, most mainstream discourse leaned towards the Punjab experience, both due to cultural hegemony and the omniscient spectre of Pakistan as the “enemy”. Even the 1947 Partition Archive has only recently begun including narratives from Bengal.

When I returned home, I reached for the only book on the Bengali experience of 1947 I had in my collection. It was an anthology of translated stories edited by Debjani Sengupta, with a foreword by sociologist Ashish Nandy, where he dwells at length on the immense psychological energy deployed to cultivate a culture of silence around Partition. Nandy reasons that it is this refusal to fully acknowledge the violence leading to 1947 that lead to frequent eruptions of communal riots today. It repeatedly returns to exorcise inherited and unhealed wounds, but only leaves behind newer lacerations for generations to come.

Confronting what Partition actually meant would mean having to gather those disowned parts of one’s own self; and few display the willingness to do so. The travel reviews of Comilla Kalibari began making sense. Perhaps, a need to ignore is why people choose to describe it as a picnic spot. The conjuring of a happy place where families gather to watch the trains in Bangladesh go by. An illusion of moving on, when really, everyone continues
to linger.

The writer is an assistant professor at IIIT- Bangalore.

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  1. R
    Ritika Popli
    Aug 13, 2017 at 6:46 pm
    The 1947 Par ion Archive has been recording stories from East India and Bangladesh since the beginning. As a matter of fact, underrepresented minorities like the Biharis in Bangladesh have found there life narratives included in The 1947 Par ion Archive. Just a glimpse at the Facebook page and you will recognise the fact. As a matter of fact, many 'padas' have been completely recorded by The Archive and now the story collectors are facing trouble finding new witnesses.
    Reply