Sunday, August 13, 2017

Gazing At Neighbours: New Book, New Horizons

It's drizzling this morning as I lie down by the window of my Chennai home to write this post.

Some will call it a pleasant day; many others find such weather to be gloomy — it all depends on your state of mind. My mind, at the moment, is somewhere else.

Exactly two years ago, around the same time, I was at the Attari station, standing under a scorching sun, sweating profusely, waiting for the arrival of Samjhauta Express from Lahore. That journey marked the start of a new book, Gazing at Neighbours: Travels Along the Line That Partitioned India.

And sitting by my bed right now is a small carton that contains the 10 complimentary copies sent to me by my publishers. That makes this my 'fastest book' so far: everything — the travelling, the writing, the editing, the revisions, the printing — was done in under two years, even though I travelled far and wide for it, from Punjab in one extreme to Tripura and Assam and Meghalaya in the other.

As the title suggests, the book records my travels to places that sit on the two lines that Sir Cyril Radcliffe drew on the map of the subcontinent while partitioning India. Yes, he drew not one but two lines — one split Punjab and the other, a much longer line, carved out a province called East Bengal — even though when people talk about Partition, particularly these days, they confine themselves to the line Radcliffe drew across Punjab.

What makes Gazing at Neighbours particularly special for me is the trips I made along the boundary of the erstwhile East Bengal (now Bangladesh): they took me to places I had never been to before and probably would have never visited in my lifetime: what a loss — oh, what a loss! — that would have been.

And the most unforgettable moment from Punjab? Well, it wasn't exactly on the border but in Amritsar, at the Golden Temple, at four-thirty in the morning:

"Wearing a headscarf and my underwear, I stepped into the tank — the pool of nectar. The water was pleasantly warm and after bathing in it I felt my sensory system sufficiently refreshed to appreciate the magical hour of dawn. I suddenly saw better, heard better, felt better. I reflected upon life as I lingered in the water, listening to gurbani, the words of the gurus, being sung in the sanctum sanctorum. That’s when I realised why I felt so good."

The writing of the book was not just about visiting places I might have never set foot in otherwise, but also learning historical facts I had remained foolishly unaware of all my life. For example, independent India was born on the midnight of 14/15 August 1947 without knowing where exactly its boundaries with Pakistan lay: the maps were made public by Lord Mountbatten only on August 17. It's a fact, but I didn't know it — and many still don't.

The travels taught me something as well: that if you actually travel along the border, you will never really hate Pakistan or harbour ill feelings towards Bangladesh. You will find how everything is just the same: from the colour of the crops to the colour of the people. Which is why you will never hear anti-Pakistan cries on the border: you hear them either in the air-conditioned, insulated TV studios of Delhi or on the streets of Mumbai, which is a good 1,000 km away from Attari.

As Mark Twain noted more than a century ago: "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts." His words hold truer today.

So pack your bags. The next best thing would be to get hold of a copy of Gazing at Neighbours. It is equally fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, trust me.  
Behind me you can see the Samjhauta Express pulling into Attari station.

Right behind me is the Bangladeshi village of Tamabil, in Sylhet. I stand facing Dawki, a village in the state of Meghalaya.