Josna Rege

410. B is for Border

In blogs and blogging, Books, Inter/Transnational, Politics, postcolonial, Stories, Words & phrases on April 3, 2019 at 1:08 am

Tijuana Border Fence (National Geographic)

In Salman Rushdie’s novel, Midnight’s Children, the protagonist Saleem Sinai, born on the stroke of midnight at the very moment that India attained its Independence from British colonial rule, is endowed with magical powers that make him a kind of “All-India Radio,” enabling him to hear and transmit the voices and languages of all the children of India who were born within an hour of midnight.

But why, Dear Reader, am I telling you this when my business today is with the letter B? Because the moment the young Saleem crosses the national and newly-drawn border to Pakistan, the voices in his head fall silent. Their radio signals weaken and neither his antennae nor his large and preternaturally sensitive nose seem to be able to receive or transmit any longer.

I take Rushdie’s point here to be that, like Saleem’s powers, our sympathies with our fellow human beings often weaken, even wither away entirely, when those people live in another country, across a border from our own. However passionately we may care about what happens within our national borders, we are often blind to and deaf to what is happening beyond them. We don’t notice because they’re not happening here. Our sympathies shut down at our borders. Never mind that we may never meet our compatriots in person, never mind that we may have next-to-nothing in common, we live within the same borders and therefore are accorded a magical kinship with them. But the kinship and fellow-feeling evaporates in a puff of smoke the instant we cross that border into a foreign land.

B is for border. A border is a physical or political line that separates geographical areas. There are natural borders, like rivers and mountain ranges. Then there are the man-made borders, which come in hard and soft. The soft variety include open borders—historically the most common—and regulated ones, while hard borders are fortified, either with fences or—and these are the hardest—walls. Amitav Ghosh is the writer who, like nature, most abhors a border. In his novel, The Hungry Tide, the Sundarbans are a watery world that cannot be demarcated with borders of any kind. In The Shadow Lines, the political borders between India and Bangladesh are entirely imaginary but no less deadly to cross.

I remember a short period of time in the 1980s and 1990s when borders seemed to be falling out of fashion, and border-crossing, breaching, blurring, and bilingualizing were the order of the day. Think about Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera or Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (both the novel and the film), in which neither people nor languages nor loyalties could be contained by nations for all their armies and borders were just lines in the sand. Andrew and I lived in New Mexico in the late 1970s and looking back now, it seemed so free. The line between Mexico and New Mexico, between Mexicans and Chicano/as didn’t matter much. Visiting a community center in Roswell, New Mexico I read my first newspaper in Spanglish.

But borders hardened again after September 11th, 2001. Now all the talk is of firepower and fortifications. Those who had drawn nearer and begun to mingle were again placed beyond the pale. Just today the U.S. President vowed to shut down the southern border, shutting out thousands of refugees from Central America. Europe is closing its once-open borders to refugees from Syria and other zones of war and climate crisis. There is an urgent need to extend the reach of our radio signals across borders to  fellow-human beings for whom formerly we felt no sympathy. Doctors Without Borders are busier than ever in these times; they need our support.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

  1. It’s not just borders between countries either. I’m doing a lot of reading on the U.S. Civil war and the atrocities committed against and by citizens of the same country is horrifying. And the words and actions against citizens within the U.S. right now, the borders up against each other, does not bode well for the future.

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    • Absolutely right, Kristin. At this polarized time, borders and boundaries are being draw more sharply everywhere, within borders or all kinds. I wanted to make a note of that when I get to M for Migrant/Migration, because internal migrants (as in the Great Migration) are migrants too, in just about every way.

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  2. Another timely piece, Josna, one that applies in so many parts of the world.

    Britain is currently shaking itself to pieces over Brexit, largely over freedom of movement and immigration, and though most of our borders are constrained by water the one border issue that threatens the integrity of the union most is between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

    I fear extremists, who have already made a pig’s ear out of this totally unnecessary process, will bring everything down around our ears in the false claim that it is ‘the will of the people’. ‘Sic transit’ any residual ‘gloria Britanniae’…

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  3. I’ve walked across borders from the United States to Canada and back and from the United States to Mexico and back, just because they were there. It’s so strange that something can be so monumental and yet so arbitrary. There’s literally nothing there and nothing changes when one crosses a border except in peoples’ minds.

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    • Well said, Liam–“so monumental and yet so arbitrary”! Just by those acts of crossing you have asserted your freedom of movement on this earth and in so doing, blurred those borders a little more,

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  4. I think you’re right. There was a moment in the 1990s and especially the 1980s when borders seemed to lose their imporntance. I’m a European and I was a teenager in the 1980s, maybe this is why I’m the person that I am (we can never cut ourselves out from the history we lived). I saw the Berlin Wall come down on TV and I thought (like many my same age, I bet) that we were done with walls. That history had done its course and a different future was in front of us.
    I can’t believe how wrong we were.
    But I still hope that future may come true one day.

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    • Yes of course, the Berlin wall came down then, and the end of the Cold War. But the Cold War was soon followed by the “Hot Peace” of the “War on Terror” and refortification began with a vengeance. Thanks very much for your thoughtful comment.

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