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June 15th, 2005

Borders No More …


I am sitting in front of my PC, in my house, in Byculla, Mumbai, India. While I am attempting to write, my mind races back to my home guard friend Vijaya’s experiences of patrolling Victoria Terminus Railway Station in Mumbai. “Platform number one, very danger. They (the authorities) asked me to take on permanent duty there. But I refused. Very danger,” was Vijaya’s final opinion. Vijaya and her other colleagues believe that platform number one is a danger zone. It has many pickpockets and drug addicts. For some days after hearing from Vijaya and her colleagues, I was wary of being at platform number one. A friend responded to me on hearing this story. She said, “That is perhaps how boundaries get created. We define zones and spaces in our minds and practice them regularly. Soon, they acquire that character.”


I am attempting to write of my recent experience of visiting Bangladesh. Bangladesh – perhaps a far away place for a Mumbaiitte, a place that can be imagined and read about in the newspapers and seen on television. I fell in love with someone there and love drove me to Bangladesh. On my first visit, I started out from Mumbai to Kolkatta in a train. On the way, there were conversations between a co-passenger and me. “Where are you headed?” he had asked me. “Bangladesh,” I replied. After a while, he had said with a tone of disgust and anger, “All the bloody terrorist activities in Assam are sponsored by the Bangladeshi government.” I did not react. He stuck firm to his opinion. An old Bengali lady traveling with us in the same compartment happened to ask him where I was going. When she heard that I was going to Bangladesh, a look appeared on her face. I can’t describe that look in a word – there is no word for that look. It was mixture of memories, history, identity, past, nostalgia, pain, longing and desire. “Bangladesh” is all that she said to me with that look.


I reached Kolkatta. My host received me at Howrah Station. On our way to his home, we were speaking of how Muslims are usually perceived. He said, suddenly, “ Door se dekho to har cheez ajeeb nazar aati hai (When seen from a distance, everything appears strange).” These words have remained with me ever since then.


Bangladesh is a distant dream to a Mumbaiitte. I did not even know that there was no embassy in Mumbai. Maybe that many people don’t go to Bangladesh. From Kolkatta, the route to Bangladesh requires you to have a hundred rupees in your pocket. Board a local train to Bonga from Sealdah. The ticket costs Rs.17. on reaching Bonga, cross the railway tracks and take a share-an-auto to Haridaspur border. This ride costs you Rs.20. The border area is lush green. It looks like a transport hub. There are people who have houses and homes around the area. And there is regular trade, exchange and activity taking place there. When I first reached the border, I was too surprised. In my mind, I had imagined the border to be a deserted place. But here was something completely contrary to my desert imaginations. Later I was told that people living around the border regularly cross here and there. Some Bangladeshi laborers pay fifty rupees to the border officials in order to come over to Kolkatta just to catch a night show Hindi film in Kolkatta. They return back the next day. An Indian beggar was once helped to cross over into Bangladesh where he now begs and regales the local Bengalis with his Hindi and tales.


Haridaspur on the Indian side; Benapole on the Bangladesh side – these are the names of the borders that you need to write on your immigration form.


You start your journey at Haridaspur with exchanging money and getting immigration forms. There are several touts who make their living by asking you pay fifty rupees and with that amount, you shall cross over the immigration and the customs on the Indian side of the border with absolute ease. Actually, the fifty rupees is to save you from useless harassment – there is always a commission in the fifty rupees for the officer on the table. After you cross immigration and customs on the Indian, you land to the gate. This gate has emblems of the Indian flag. It is always closed. I don’t know how borders and boundaries get created in reality. I don’t know who decided that the gate should be put there itself. But the gate is there – in reality and a few kilometers away, at Bonga station and beyond, in West Bengal, the gate exists in the mind and, that gate in the mind is also closed.


I show my passport to the Border Security Force guard. He checks for the immigration stamp and clearance. He turns my passport up, down, checks the front page if the photo in the passport is the same as the person standing before him, looks at the last page, some address and then, he opens the gate. As I move beyond the boundaries of the gate, I land into the infamously famous ‘no-man’s-land’. No-Man’s-Land, I ask myself. At one level, I am filled with tears and at another level I wish to laugh out aloud, as if that laughter is only another darker manifestation of my tears. I stand on that space – the no-man’s-land. Apparently, I have no identity once I am on this patch of land. I belong nowhere. There are some labourers working on that patch of land. An old lady is snorkeling there, sifting among the bushes and shrubs, trying to find something. As I stand firmly on that piece of land, I ask myself for my own identity. And a sense of strength prevails all over me. I know my identity – I am Me. But the funniest part of nationhood is that I need proof of my identity – some papers, with some stamp, with some authorization, to prove who I am.


I move slowly from no-man’s-land and I am confronted with another gate which is open and has emblems of the Bangladeshi flag. I am now officially landing into Bangladesh. The transfer is not just physical. I need to wind my watch thirty minutes ahead. I hear the muezzin’s call to prayer. The landscape is still the same – lush green, but the language is completely Bengali. I pass through Customs and Immigration and with a few bribes, some amount of harassment, some amount of story telling, stamps are put on my passport and I am now in another country altogether.


I have been to Bangladesh thrice in my life thus far. When I came back to Kolkatta after my first visit, my host introduced me to his friend. His friend said to me, “Wow! You have some nerve. It really requires love to take you to Bangladesh. Otherwise we, sitting here in Kolkatta, never dream of going there and you, from Mumbai went there …” He had gone ahead to ask me about whether Hindus were being killed in Bangladesh. My host intervened and said, “Hush, hush. Why talk about all this now? Let’s eat dinner.”


Each time I come back from Bangladesh, I am struck with this one question: Bangladesh is so close to people in Kolkatta. Each one of them has an ancestral, a historical connection with Bangladesh. Yet, when I narrate my Bangladesh tales to my friends in Kolkatta, I see in their eyes that same look which is a mixture of memory, identity, history, past, pain, desire, longing and nostalgia. And that look makes it seem that Bangladesh is so far. It so far that it can only be evoked as a place of the past. It is so far that it is only a place which lies in memory, in the past. It is so far that it cannot be reached. The gates are closed … it appears forever …


  1. June 15th, 2005 at 16:05 | #1

    Yes…. that’s what East Germany was to older people before reunification…. I was born with a wall and I’ve never dreamt it could diappear