July 15, 2015 at 3:27 pm

On not fitting into boxes: An exploration of borders and border-crossers

On not fitting into boxes: An exploration of borders and border-crossers

By Sukhmani Khorana


Born in Jammu, the winter capital of the northernmost state of India, I felt rather like the character of Lenny in Deepa Mehta’s film, Earth. For those who may not be familiar with the text, Lenny is a Parsi girl living in Pakistan at the time of partition whose life is thrown asunder as she plays neutral witness to the growing feuds among her erstwhile neighbourly Hindu, Muslim and Sikh friends and carers.

This is not to suggest that I, or my family and friends were as severely affected by South Asian communal politics as those who lived through the partition of the Indian sub-continent immediately after the end of British rule in 1947. However, being brought up in a Sikh family, living on a street called ‘Idgah Road’ (where incidentally the end of Ramadan prayers take place), and going to a Catholic school in the city renowned for its Hindu temples didn’t make for the most straightforward manifestation of primordial identity. Add to that the experience of growing militancy in the Kashmir region of the state since the late 1980s, and you’ve got quite the recipe for a complex understanding of secular modernity.


Once, when we were in Year 5 and eager to perform our aerobics drill at the local stadium on the occasion of India’s Republic Day, we had more than a brush with this complexity. As the Chief Minister of the state declared that his government had succeeded in ‘breaking the backbone of militancy’, an explosion close by rocked his podium in not-so-subtle irony. My peers and I were confused at first, wondering if the firecrackers had gone off early. However, our worst fears came true when we witnessed two more explosions within the confines of the stadium, and more chaos and fear than any of us are likely to ever see again in our lifetimes.


I am not sure what my classmates and teachers thought of the horrific episode then, or how they have processed it over the years. Apart from parents not allowing their progeny to participate in any subsequent nationalist celebrations at the said stadium, I do not recall any explicit change in our day-to-day lives. I wonder now if it would have made any difference to have had trained counselors available to all of us to make sense of the tragedy. But then, how could psychology have addressed the multi-faceted politics of the issue. For my part, this and related events in the state of my birth triggered both an intense dislike of institutionalized religion, and an equally strong urge to always seek common ground with those from different ethnic, linguistic and religious backgrounds.


In Australia, when I am queried about where I come from in India, I choose my answer according to my perception of the audience. An uncomplicated Punjabi-ness is far from the truth, and nor am I a Kashmiri in an originary sense. I sometimes mumble ‘Near Delhi’, and at other times answer with, ‘Dad’s from Jammu, and Mum’s from Punjab’. If I am feeling particularly trustworthy towards my interrogator, I offer that most of Mum’s family migrated to Amritsar in the wake of partition, and that Dad’s family have been Sikhs in Jammu for a couple of generations.


What the above grants is not just a heightened consciousness of existential liminality borne of inhabiting multiple in-between spaces, but also an awareness of how much harder it would be for those with cultural and genealogical histories of living on the margins. In South Asia, for instance, partition narratives of Pakistan and Bangladesh receive their due attention. However, we seldom hear of the borders that we (tenuously) share with China and Tibet, and the people who inhabit them.


During a recent visit to Ladakh, the northernmost part of my northernmost home state of Jammu and Kashmir, I was a little embarrassed at my own lack of knowledge of the border region’s landscape, culture and history. Then I recalled the scant attention given to it in our school textbooks and mainstream media, and absolved myself of some guilt. In recent years, iconic Hindi film scenes shot in Ladakh, as well as a greater appetite for adventure tourism amongst the nation’s middle classes has brought it into greater political focus than has been the case since the beginning of turmoil in neighboring Kashmir.


In a comprehensive scholarly guide to the region titled, Ladakh: Crossroads of High Asia, Janet Rizvi observes, ‘One terrible concomitant of Partition was avoided in Ladakh: there were no riots or massacres on the basis of religion…the tradition of goodwill between the Buddhist majority and their Muslim neighbours stood the strain’. This was subsequently tested during the birfurcation of the region into Buddhist-majority Leh and Muslim-majority Kargil that led to violence and boycotts, but peace has been restored through the creation of an autonomous local council.


It is quite likely that contemporary Ladakhis are torn between the politics of belonging to the constitutionally secular Indian nation-state that provides them with economic opportunities in a post-global era, and a poetics of longing for regional affiliations that are culturally more similar to Baltistan in the north or Tibet in the east. However, perhaps using ‘torn’ to describe this relationship is erroneous. Maybe it can be a productive tension, a liminality that makes them unusually hospitable towards the multitudes of Indian tourists and overseas backpackers who visit every summer.


Image: Shanti Stupa in Leh, built in 1991 to promote prosperity and commemorate 2,500 years of Buddhism (by Sukhmani Khorana)

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