A Letter from Ladakh

13th August 2011


Dear Chintan,


Some days ago, I was at Pangong Tso. Pangong is a lake, a large saltwater lake. I heard some days ago that the lake is not very deep. The waters were blue, green and clear at different spots, reminding me of my first visit to Robben Islands in Cape Town in 1999 where I was awed at the different colours that the sea assumed in the course of its course. There is no fish in Pangong lake, as I was also told some days later. We only saw a mother duck swimming with her babies and a few insect-like fish. Also, there is no boating permitted on the lake. This is because Pangong Tso is a border area where India border with China and for security reasons, no activity is permitted on the lake.


Before we went to Pangong, I had briefly heard stories of how the lake is so beautiful and how it borders with China (which means bordering with Tibet occupied by China). On the evening when we reached Pangong, Kiran was told that he could walk only six kilometers around the lake after which the borders started and he would not be allowed to go any further. Kiran later explained that perhaps the international border actually must be starting 20 kilometers after the six kilometer boundary that the locals were speaking about …


The next day morning, we motorcycled around the lake and perhaps went only so far as three odd kilometers. A jeep ahead of us went much further, to the point which is now famously known as the spot where the last scene of the movie Three Idiots was shot. I asked Kiran to wait till the jeep came to a stop. I wanted to see how far the jeep could go and what, if anything, could stop it. Kiran asked me whether I wanted to go further and see. Given the mud track through which he would have to ride, he contended that perhaps what lay ahead was only this vast expanse of the lake and nothing else. I said I did not want to go further, though there was a very strong longing in me to go further and hit the border and see how the border was made and what lay across the border (as far as my eyes and mind could reach). We stood for some more time till the jeep halted. Then Kiran reminded me that a long journey back to Leh lay ahead of us and that we needed to start soon. I sat on the bike with a lump in my throat. I felt like crying, wanting to reach the border and yet wanting to let this longing to remain so that it would haunt me to come back, some day, perhaps soon. There was also an emotion of intrigue and curiosity in that lump in my throat. Longing-desire-curiosity-intrigue – perhaps a combination of these and some other raw emotions is what makes me yearn to travel borders, borders that are etched on landed territory and borders that are mapped on our minds and persons.


At that moment, I could not help but think of my first visit to Bangladesh which I was to undertake by crossing the border at Bonga, via Kolkatta. I reached Kolkatta a couple of days in advance, back in 2003. Bhaskar, my host, introduced me to his friends and family as the girl who is going to Bangladesh. And with each introduction came the exclamation from each of his friends – “we live so close to the border and yet we have never been ‘there’ (i.e. Bangladesh) and you come from Bombay to go ‘there’.” They would then applaud my courage to travel this far. I, on the other hand, would be left with perceiving the strong borders that were etched and living in their minds, consciousness, persons and identity – the landed borders which we internalize over time and carve it in our identities which make nearby places seem so farther away …


I also remembered, when the lump appeared in my throat, the times when I had come close to Pakistani borders in my travels to Rajasthan and I had felt similar emotions and other primordial ones that I have no labels for. This time around too, I came close to Pakistani borders when rafting in the Zanskar and reaching the lower Indus. The Swiss-Israeli-Russian-Polish gentleman in our rafting team said in jest to everyone: “If your boat crosses lower Indus river, you shall be in Pakistan.” At that moment, I felt like snatching his passport and putting my photograph on it and sailing into Pakistan via the Lower Indus – somehow, the joke did not go down well with me because I perhaps know what a struggle it may be for me to get a visa to Pakistan to travel there unlike what it would be for this Swiss-Israeli-Russian-Polish gentleman with his Swedish passport …


Borders – they always intrigue me Chintan. And they intrigue me more and more as I come across people who have inherited and internalized lines of tradition, religion and culture – lines which they are afraid to cross because they fear what lies ahead. Landed borders such as the one we share with Pakistan have been internalized and are being reproduced through a complex equation with these simultaneous borders of tradition, nationality, religion, culture and other worldviews and paradigms. We make sense of our world through these labels and notions and create the boundaries and borders around ourselves. These boundaries and borders then become our comfort zones which we are hesitant to step out of because of the fear that perhaps stepping across the line may bring discomfort, may shake the foundations of our worlds and comforts, and lead us to ask uncomforting and disturbing questions …


With borders – geographical, drawn along lines of identity, community and practices – comes the practice of marking. Anything that does not conform to the norm and the normal practices is marked as ‘deviant’. For instance, the border between what different cultures consider clean and unclean and if you do something that is not in conformity with the ideals and notions of cleanliness, you are marked as ‘unclean’. Sometimes communities and groups are marked as ‘unclean’, like squatters and street vendors. Their seemingly ‘unclean’ habits are repeatedly marked as deviant to the extent where law is invoked to either ‘sanitize’ them or to ‘sanitize’ the surroundings which they are ‘polluting’ through their practices. With borders comes marking and with marking and borders enter the notion and practices of ‘law’, ‘legality’ and ‘illegality’. This insight occurred to me as we moved away from Pangong lake and started towards Leh. There is much to be said about this dynamic, but I will leave it at only this, here …


With borders, there is marking, recording and archiving – funny beasts that I can sometimes laugh at and sometimes rue! To travel to Pangong Tso, as well as to Nubra Valley and a couple of other destinations in Ladakh, you have to obtain and produce what is known as the ‘Internal Line of Permit’. I want you ponder over these words (and this legal boundary) – ‘internal’ ‘line’ ‘of’ ‘permit’ – and tell me what you think of it, at some point later. The ‘Internal Line of Permit’ is a government document which can be obtained within a day or two by producing a ‘valid photo identity’ such as a PAN card or a Driving License, or some other such identity card issued, authorized and recognized by the Government of India. Once issued, the travel agent makes several photocopies of the “Internal Line of Permit” because you have to produce and submit these at different check points during your journey. We submitted the original document at Karu which is where one of the internal boundary lines within Ladakh begins. The Kashmiri police officer at Karu, sitting with his legs stretched on the window (from where he watches and whistles out to vehicles and their drivers to stop) asked us to note down our vehicle number on the permit document.

Earlier, we had hired the motorcycle from a shop in Leh where the surety that we left behind was the original copy of Kiran’s PAN Card (in addition to the hire charges which we paid in advance). The shop owner asked us to fill out a form which he dutifully kept along with several older, previously filled out, forms. Many people, not just the government, appear to be maintaining records in today’s times – records of identity, identification and activities!

At Thangsay, the last checkpoint before you proceed to Pangong Tso, you have to submit another photocopy of your ‘permit’. Here, the officer makes an entry into a register and issues a serial number against your name. You have to remember this serial number because you have to say it out to the officer on your return and then sign in the column against the number indicating that you have ‘returned’ back from Pangong Tso. When we did this on our return, I wondered how many such mundane registers the officials and the respective administrative/security institution must be hoarding/holding and from how many years. Will there ever be a museum of these registers, in some nearby or distant future/s? Will these registers ever turn into some kind of archives if and when the ‘future’ and ‘fate’ of J&K were ever to be decided? And if so, what kind of archive would this be? Even if there were no ‘formal’ ‘institutional’ archive of these registers, what kinds of trails would these registers have or would produce for different groups of people and identities? I cannot help but obsessively think about these registers, these paper documents like “Internal Line of Permit”, and such other official documents and practices and wonder what becomes of identities, of borders, and subsequently of the institution of the ‘state’ ‘the law’ and ‘legality’ as time passes, as regimes change, and as generations die down and emerge …


As we started leaving Pangong Tso, Kiran explained to me that the Chinese are building roads in the border areas to claim more and more territory. He said that the Chinese are at an advantage because they are doing the road building activity in the winters. The Indian government, it developmental agencies and the armed forces are unable to match up with this Chinese winter advantage. Kiran also explained that the Chinese are nearing completion of the railway line to Tibet which is why the Indian government is rushing with its railway project in J&K region. All of these ‘developmental’ ‘activities’, on each side of the border, raises the perception of threat of the other mainly because each side perceives the other as an ‘aggressor’ who is committing insurgency in the other’s national borders and taking away land and territory. At the beginning of this journey, Chintan, I had started reading about Jordan’s history and had found that Israeli government was constantly encouraging agricultural activity, building of settlements and cultivation in the territories that it had occupied from Jordan in the war in ’67. Such ‘settlement’ activities establish the Israeli de facto claim over ‘property’ and ‘land’, thereby weakening Jordan’s plea for return to the ‘original’ boundary lines of ’67.

As I think over what I have read of Jordan and now this conflicting and contentious relation between India and China, I also think that borders are chameleon-like and that if we were to widen the horizons of our thoughts, borders also force us to think of the notions of ‘the original’, ‘fakes’ and ‘history’. Chintan, are borders, in this respect, ‘generative’? I can’t help but admit that borders are highly double-edged. They separate your history from mine, they change the courses of past, present and futures within the same generation and across successive generations. There is no doubt that even if we were hopeful that borders teach us that identities are imposters and malleable, borders also simultaneously freeze certain notions of identities and give rise to violent responses and reactions. I think of Palestine and Kashmir here and wonder what the border conflicts which have now turned into identity conflicts have done to the myriads and generations of youth … What hope can we then nurse, Chintan, given this double-edged nature of borders?


It has been a really long letter thus far Chintan, but I hope you will pursue in reading it for some more because there is much to tell of borders. We are living in the household of a Ladakhi family. In the first couple of days of our stay, one of the ladies in the house had some trouble figuring out the relationship between Kiran and me. So one day, when I stepped out into their garden to uproot/pluck some vegetables for making dinner, she finally asked Kiran: “Is Zainab your girlfriend?” Kiran said, “No, she is my wife.” She then asked, “How? Are you Muslim?” Kiran said “no!” She then asked, “how come you are married?” She took a while to understand our interreligious marriage. Over the days, she queried about each of our religious beliefs and perhaps tried to settle the equation which was not conforming to the cultural and geographical borders in her mind and her everyday living. Such are borders Chintan, very funny creatures. I have no doubt in my head that even as I condemn the violence that borders can wreath upon us, they are also generative. And I hope that we remain ever mindful of their generative capacity, even as we decry them and ask for un-policing and de-regulating borders …


You may now be wondering what kind of a city Leh is and what kind of a region Ladakh is. It is desert and mountains, largely mountainous. This terrain brings in the ‘insularity’ that tends to be associated with the peoples of the mountains. Insularity because it is not easy to travel across the mountains to the plains (given the treacherous climatic and road conditions) and so, peoples of the plains and the mountains can only imagine what it may be on each side … In the midst of these mountains and deserts are the rivers Indus and Zanskar. It is mainly the Indus which is the life giving body in this region. Wherever it flows and wherever people are able to arrest the flows of water, there you find greenery, cultivation and settlement of a certain kind (there are also settlements in the desert, though very stray from what I have seen so far). Each time I think of the Indus river, of settlement and of rivers in general, my mind goes back again to the notion and practices of borders because as much as borders are etched in land, they are also created by turning/blocking the courses of water bodies. Alice Albinia, in her brilliant book “The Empires of The Indus” has spoken so eloquently, beautifully and politically of how the life of the River Indus is linked so closely to the history and the present of the conflicts between India and Pakistan, and to the overall history of the region which comprises Pakistan, Tibet, perhaps Afghanistan and China. When you think of the watercourses and flows and then you start to explore how courses and flows have been deliberately tweaked and turned to enforce the boundaries of nationhood, you start to think how violent borders are. But yet so, in the course of turning courses and flows, histories are being created and multiplied. And as much as histories are being created and multiplied, so also our interpretation of them and the transmissions of these interpretations open up new avenues of identity forging, foregoing, creating and making … I continue to remain hopeful here, Chintan, despite whatever criticisms may come my way …


I have, in this journey so far, been subjected to my own self-created and self-imposed borders and have been compelled to cross them. The Ladakhi family we stay with have two dry toilets which have to be used by ‘tourists’ and family members alike. This is because there is a water problem in Ladakh and flushing toilets involves enormous wastage of water. Further, the dry toilets are very generative, when built according to local conditions, because the shit is converted into manure through processes and treatments with soil, cow dung, hay and other forms of waste and manure. It is not easy, or so I believe, to get used to a dry toilet in the first instance because our cultures (however diverse they may be) predominantly perpetuate very strong notions and opinions about shit, hygiene, genitalia and cleanliness. In some cultures, it is too personal to even publicly discuss about the use of toilet paper versus washing your own anus after having shat/shit. It was similarly so disdainful and painful for me to visit the dry toilet the first morning to relieve myself. There is a particular kind of smell in the dry toilet, not the toxic kind that you may find in public toilets in cities, but a certain kind that takes some getting used to. Then again, just shitting down a square hole seems somewhat out-of-place, in the beginning. But what perhaps got me to cross this border of disdain and flush toilet paradigm was the act of using the shovel to pour dust and the mix of cow dung and hay over your poop. Somehow, this act seemed to evoke the sublime in me, the sublime that I tend to feel during each run that I mile, every time. The very act of putting dust over your own poop seemed generative enough for me to get over the borders that I had internalized in my mind and person. I am not sure how I feel about them when I return back to the city and to the flush toilets, but I remain here, so …


There are two more vignettes which you must know of. The Bihari barber who chopped off my hair in Leh crossed a border when he worked his scissors and blade on a woman’s head. Later, Kiran reminded him of how, two years ago, he had run only the blade over a woman’s head (party in Kiran’s travel team to Ladakh in 2009) and shaved off her head. The barber remembered clearly and perhaps then, the border crossing may have seemed so much easier.

Then, yesterday, Anu, one of the daughters in our Ladakhi host family, asked me when Kiran and I were leaving. I explained in a few days’ time. She then said, “that is why we do not attach ourselves too much with the guests who come and stay with us. It is very difficult when they leave.” I was quite touched when she said this, because she was preserving a border in her personhood and in her everyday living so as to make life easier and simpler for her. I only smiled when she said this, not knowing what response I could have given to her …


I must end here Chintan. Today there is mild rain in Leh. I am told that rains started in Leh and Ladakh only 15 years ago and people here are not accustomed to the idea of rains because it does not seem ‘natural’. Each time it rains or thunders now, the people remember the flash floods of last year and start dreading. Rains have created such memories and borders in their minds, in their histories and in their geography and culture.

The days are most interesting here, even if they sound mundane. Abaale – meaning father and the head of our host family – plays Radio Kashmir and Doordarshan news every morning and night. I am transported into a different time zone as I hear the newsreader read the news with such sense of mundane duty. Abaale also plays the old 1970’s and 1980’s songs on the radio and here again, I am transported back into the childhood days I spent with my grandparents, uncles and aunts in Dongri in Bombay. Places and spaces have such power, Chintan! They have the ability to transport you back and forth in time, in memory, in feelings of belonging and other raw emotions, without you needing any passport for such travel. The pain and the mirth that emerge out of such travel are purely the doing of your own self-created and self-imposed borders and your histories …


With truckloads of love and longing to cross these geographical and landed borders,



About writerruns

I am lost in life. I now run to lose myself and to lose the handles I have been holding on to.
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