Imagine the land border between India and Bangladesh. What do you think it is like? A fence that runs for miles? A craggy, clearly demarcated line like the one seen on maps?
To most of us, crossing the border requires much ceremony. Plans need to be made in advance.
Communities living along the border will tell you otherwise. To many of them, the border is an invisible line anyone can step over without a visa.
At the Chapainawabganj-Malda border, one finds Bangladeshi nationals tilling Indian land, and vice-versa. They cross over each day to work on these lands -- but perhaps "cross over" is too presumptuous a term. They simply walk over to these lands, the border of no consequence.
At the border of Namochakpara, a bone-thin septuagenarian named Habibur Rahman swung his hoe into the earth, cracking the surface. He is an Indian. Beside him worked two sharecroppers, Mamun and his brother, who are both Bangladeshis. The soil they till, is Indian land, belonging to a village called Milik Sultanpur. The border here runs diagonally through a strip of fields, separating Bangladesh and India.
"India starts from here," said Habibur, pointing to a small pyramid-shaped boundary marker nestled beneath a grove of banana trees. To reach his field one has to walk past it, into Indian territory.
"My house is in Milik Sultanpur. This land is my ancestral property. I got two sharecroppers from Namochakpara because the land is closer to Bangladesh than to my village in India," he said. While Mamun and his brother had been working with Habibur for only two years, he has always chosen Bangladeshi workers because they were just geographically closer.
"Every day, I submit my Adhaar card to a BSF (Border Security Force) camp before coming to the land. I have to return to collect the card before the camp closes at four in the afternoon," describes Habibur. "They frisk me twice a day, on my way to my land and back."
Meanwhile, Mamun and his brother have no such restrictions, even though they are the ones crossing political borders. "We are the ones who actually take care of the land. We guard it at night so that the crops do not get stolen," said Mamun.
At Tarapur of Chapainawabganj, the river known to us as Padma, and to the Indians as the Ganges, acts as a border between the two countries. For a river that people should not be able to cross, it had far too many large sampans that were clearly not meant for carrying passengers -- Tarapur's residents are all flourishing cattle-rearers... and smugglers.
But a smuggler named Shaikat (name changed for protection) does not see this as smuggling. "They do not need cows, but we need cows. Our forefathers have always brought cows through this route. We have a lot of open land here under the mango orchards for the cows to graze in, so rearing cows here is cheaper. Everyone has always done this," he explains. For him, international laws of trade and taxation are a far removed concept -- in his perception, what he was doing is as simple as bringing cattle across a river so narrow, you can see the other side.
A man stood in front of the river to show his sister-in-law's house on the other side in India. "See that tower there? That is where she lives. They put up a fence 10 years ago. Before that, we used to cross the river to visit her routinely. Since the fences were erected we have to make a very long detour through the immigration office, so we barely see her anymore."
This is true -- my grandfather, a former Indian national, crossed the river the same way multiple times before fences were put up. He crossed the Padma at the Godagari-Lalgola border where the river is at its narrowest, to marry my grandmother, a young eligible woman hailing from Sirajganj.
As border control tightened, and passports, visas and land ports became mandatory, my bedridden, dying grandmother had lamented to me, "Seems like I won't be able to see my shoshurbari one last time before I die." She didn't.
Fast forward to the next generation, and my uncle did the same. He traversed the river to marry a girl from India, and on their way back to Bangladesh, while walking across the treeless char under the blazing summer sun, my newly-wed aunt fainted. A few years later, in 1990, my mother crossed the river to go there and back -- not to get married this time, but rather to shop for her wedding benarasi.
Just like a river could not keep my mother away from her coveted sari, immigration rules cannot keep the grooms and brides of Sonamasjid away from the wedding couture of Malda. If one can get someone to shop for their trousseau in Malda, there exists a group of people armed with visas and willing to make a day-trip to Malda to bring the goods back.
Outside the Sonamasjid land port, Bairul paced anxiously. "My nephew is getting married. We got our relatives in Malda to finish shopping for the bride and groom. Today, I sent a person to cross over and get the things from them. He should be back within the hour," he said.
Why did he choose Malda, instead of the divisional city of Rajshahi? "For the people of Chapai, Malda is closer and the goods are better. Especially the cosmetics, which are essential for brides."
At the Burimari-Changrabandha border, a bamboo enclosure exists at the zero point for people of Bangladesh and India to meet. The bamboo enclosure is unique -- two fences set a few feet apart run in parallel through the middle of the enclosure. People from either side of the border gather around the fences under the watchful eyes of the border patrols to yell pleasantries at each other. The idea is you can see but you can't touch.
Arif Hossain yelled at his uncle in Hindi, "And is everything else going good?" His uncle yelled back in the affirmative. The conversation died down and they gazed blankly at each other, both at a loss of words, both unable to share anything more than a longing look. I asked Arif whether his uncle visits them in Bangladesh.
"No. He left the country many years ago, but has not yet gotten a passport because of lack of documentation. Maybe he can get one soon," replied Arif. What was unsaid but implied is that his uncle is an undocumented migrant in India.
Beside Arif, Babul handed Tk 1,000 to a red-shirted porter and asked him to give it to a woman in a bright orange sari. The porters, who help people carry their bags over the border, are the only ones who can cross over and come back without a visa. "That is my cousin. I need her to send some medicines from India, and there is no other way to send money from Bangladesh," explained Babul, sheepish at having been caught in the illegal act.
Back at Chapainawabganj, near the Sonamasjid-Mahdipur border, the political boundary is as odd as it gets. The border skirts the Kashinathpur-Rajshahi highway for a good few hundred yards before one encounters the immigration office. They are so close, that say if a vehicle skidded off the highway, it would fall into a ditch on the Indian side.
A derelict, abandoned Border Guard Bangladesh checkpoint, which locals have resourcefully co-opted as a dustbin, attempts to let people know that they are now on Indian land -- in vain. Bangladeshi traders and passengers alike took advantage of the shade provided by the large mango-trees on Indian land.
It is at this spot where Bismillah bhaater hotel begins off in Bangladesh, and ends in India. The modest outfit offers an expansive buffet of the local cuisine for tired travelers, all of which is cooked in its kitchen on Indian land. "Our kitchen is in India," laughs Azizur, one of the cooks, as he kneaded dough for puri, adding cheekily "and so is our toilet!"
And it is here that we found a mentally disabled man, straddling the border. He spends his days sitting under the shade of Indian trees, and then crosses over to Bismillah hotel in Bangladesh for scraps of food. He neither tells anyone his name, nor whether he is Bangladeshi or Indian. All that anybody can say about him is that one day two years ago, he turned up here.
The resemblance to the protagonist of Sadaat Hossain Manto's famous short story Toba Tek Singh is uncanny. The story, set in the Partition-era, revolves around the exchange of inmates of India and Pakistan's insane asylums. The Hindu and Sikh inmates were being sent to India, and the Muslims to Pakistan. The story follows one Sikh inmate who cared only about whether his homeland, a village called Toba Tek Singh, was in India or in Pakistan. In defiance, he fell dead on no-man's-land, and the story ends thus: "There, behind barbed wire, was Hindustan. Here, behind the same kind of barbed wire, was Pakistan. In between, on that piece of ground that had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh."
And just like that, this man, with no name, no citizenship and possibly no cognisance of concepts like nation-states, lives right on the Bangladesh-India border. All he understands -- and needs to understand -- is that Bangladesh gives him food, and India gives him shelter. So, he survives.