Global Ethics Review: Midnight's Borders, with Suchitra Vijayan

October 13, 2021

Detail from book cover.

ALEX WOODSON: Welcome to Global Ethics Review. I'm Alex Woodson from Carnegie Council, the world's catalyst for ethical action.

In this podcast series, we'll be connecting Carnegie Council's work and current events with our senior fellows, senior staff, and friends of our organization. You'll hear from leading experts on artificial intelligence and technology, migration, public health, and U.S. foreign policy and global engagement. 

In this episode, I’m speaking with Suchitra Vijayan, author of Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India. As Vijayan says, the book is “part-travelogue, part-history, but also in-depth reporting” focusing on India’s 9,000 miles of borders with Pakistan, China, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and other nations. The book is mostly about the people living in the communities along these borders and their fascinating and at-times heartbreaking stories. Vijayan and I discussed some of these stories, plus the meaning of citizenship, the lasting effects of the 1947 partition that created Pakistan and India out of the South Asian subcontinent, and some parallels with the United States.

For more on Vijayan, you can go to CarnegieCouncil.org for additional podcasts and talks, including a 2014 event when she was just getting started on the project. She is also the founder and executive director of The Polis Project, a research and journalism organization focusing on many of the issues that we discuss in this podcast.

For now, here’s my talk with Suchitra Vijayan.

Suchitra Vijayan, thank you so much for speaking with us today. It's great to see this book, Midnight's Borders: A People's History of Modern India. We had an event with you back in 2014 at Carnegie Council, when you were just starting the process of writing and traveling the borders, so it is really nice to be able to see this book in print. I read it; it's fantastic. I encourage everyone listening to read it as well.

Again, thank you for coming on today. I look forward to it.

SUCHITRA VIJAYAN: Thank you so much, Alex. I really appreciate it. Thanks for hosting an event around the book even before the book became a book and over the years always championing the work I do, and, of course, for the great conversations. I really appreciate it. Thank you.

ALEX WOODSON: Of course. Thank you.

We will just start with the book and how it came about. This is something that, as you said, I have been following since back in 2014, when you were a Carnegie New Leader. I remember looking at your website and thinking, This sounds like a really interesting project. Then you came and did an event with the Carnegie New Leaders.

For someone who is not familiar with it, what is the book about? How did it come about it? We'll start there.

SUCHITRA VIJAYAN: For someone who has never heard of me or the book, the book is part-travelogue, part-history, but also in-depth ground reporting I did over eight years along South Asia's 9,000-mile-long border. It starts with the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and then I traveled through all of India's 9,000-mile land border, in some ways to make sense of the questions that I have had about citizenship and nationality: What does it mean for us to think about these border regions beyond the questions of international security? How do we center the voices of these communities, who somehow seem to be always removed from the grander narratives and histories? But more importantly, I think I have just been curious about this idea of, What does it mean for us to think about citizenship?, not only in these contentious places but all of us, given what has happened in the past few years, and that is how this book began.

The book starts with a question: What function does the nation-state have if it can't provide the most basic of freedoms and dignities to the people? The book very much is a book about India and South Asia, and I think that question has a global resonance, and I think it is a question that all of us are asking, but also, what does it mean for us to think about citizenship in the age that we live in?

ALEX WOODSON: We will get to all of those issues a little later on in the talk, but first I want to start off with the partition. That is really what makes India's borders today. Obviously, there has been a lot that has happened since 1947, but it all started with the partition, and I was struck with a lot of what people said in the book, but I remember one of your interviewees says: "No one could believe this happened to us, the partition. The disbelief turned to silence."

So I am just wondering, what is it like for Indians—obviously you can't speak for all Indians, but some of these people that you spoke with for whom partition has had this huge effect on them. I believe the woman was in her 90s who said that, so she had lived with partition and seen how it happened. What is your sense of what living with partition has been like for these people and this feeling that, Oh, this can't happen, but it did happen. It happened 70 years ago, and you're still living with this. What does that do to people?

SUCHITRA VIJAYAN: You are right. I think the partition affected so many of these communities in so many ways. Even when I started this book I always felt that I was someone who was born and raised in the South of India, which didn't really see the kind of violence of the partition that the regions of Bengal, Punjab, and the Northern part of India saw. At the end of it, even I was proven wrong. We don't even have the right figures as to how many people were affected. Finally now, a Harvard paper from a few years ago, which I quote in the book, says about 17.8 million people moved homes. Many of them perished along the way.

So, if anything, this was an event of great historic shift. This is the greatest—in terms of the days and numbers of people—transfer of human population across time, history, and territory. I think some people even today haven't come to terms with it. The woman that I spoke to, who is now in her 90s, lives in Canada. Again, her life is one of multiple migrations. The partition not only robbed her of one home, it robs her of many homes.

Some people chose to speak about it. Most people didn't. For many people, silence and forgetting was a way for them to move on. Today there is so much work that is done on the Holocaust in terms of other memorials, but India really didn't even have a partition museum. Now there are museums and archives being curated almost 70 or 80 years after, but even in terms of remembering I think it has been a huge gap. Again, it is very telling in terms of who got to tell their stories of partition, and for the longest of times it happened to be those with access to class, caste, and other privilege, people who had the capacity to write. Even the vernacular language literature is kind of lost to many of us because I don't think we have paid enough attention.

So I think there is silence, there is erasure. I think now there is a keen sense of trying to make up for lost time. I think we have to understand that there are people who cannot go back to their ancestral homes. My friend Natasha, who is in the book, her family is from Kashmir and then lived in Amritsar, and who live in Lahore but cannot go back. There are others, and those stories are I think very much there.

Another aspect of this is also the violence. Either the violence has been forcefully forgotten, or other times the violence itself has been used for other political means without centering the people, and I think we see all of these narratives, both the people that I spoke to, and in the book.

ALEX WOODSON: Another thing that you write in the book is that "partition is still happening." What do you mean by that exactly, and how does that play out in the book?

SUCHITRA VIJAYAN: This interview happened early on in the journey, around 2013–2014, when this young man Gazi tells me, "The partition is incomplete and ongoing." And this "incomplete and ongoing" nature is not that the violence happened and the partition happened, but the people who lost their homes lived through, and continue to live through, multiple acts of violence. It's not that their homes were robbed once. Their homes, their dignity, and their freedoms were robbed over and over again. It is not that the moment the violence ended they could go and start a new life.

In some ways, those events that happened 70 years ago still have a massive effect on them. People are still trying to prove where they belong. People are still trying to prove: Are they citizens of this country? Do they belong to this country, especially in the Bengal borderlands, where we also see the new laws in India that are being promulgated, especially the Citizenship Law, and creating a National Register of Citizens (NRC), which would literally enumerate who the country's citizens are, and those are deeply violent acts which again are demanding that people prove their citizenship?

But again, how does one prove one's citizenship when one has been deprived of home multiple times? That story kind of resonates over and over and over again. In Punjab, with the Sikh communities what you really see is not only the act of partition, you see ongoing state violence that has been inflicted on these communities for over 50–60 years.

Now there is a farmers' protest that is happening in India. Again, you cannot look at these protests, these acts of resistance, independently. What you really have to see is that the partition also became a moment when the nation was born. People are supposed to be now free and equal, but they really don't get the political promises of what freedom is supposed to give them.

So that is what I would think about, and this happens in various communities in various ways. It is not just one of these communities. That's how you see the partition still having a huge effect even today when we talk to the people.

ALEX WOODSON: You mentioned a few of the different borders in that answer, and I was struck by how different these borders are in different parts of India. You talk about the India-Pakistan border. You can see it from space. I believe it is the India-Bangladesh border where there are just posts in people's backyards, and kids use them to play cricket. How did that come about exactly? I know sometimes that authoritarian governments or any type of government can really inject some chaos or something like that just to increase control of the population. Sometimes it's just incompetence, though. So I am just wondering, how does it come about that one border is the most heavily militarized place in the world maybe, and on the other side kids are playing cricket around the border? How does that come about, and what does that really do to people living in those situations?

SUCHITRA VIJAYAN: I think one thing is that these borders are very different. But one thing that we really have to acknowledge, whether it is the militarized border of Pakistan, the ongoing violence of Kashmir, or what the border populations in the Bengal borderlands are going through, even though the kids can play in their backyards you also see that there is a constant police presence. You can see the constant presence of the border guards. They do have fences. It's just that these are very different kinds of fences. The violence is everywhere. The kinds of violence is also everywhere.

There is also the story of Felani Khatun in the book, a young girl trying to cross, and she gets shot in front of her father. No matter how these fences look, how they take their shape, I think we have to acknowledge that the violence is ubiquitous in all of these borders. I think the border-making process is always about "borders make unequal people," and it's a legacy of the empire and colonialism, and borders create a world of hierarchy, and I think that is something that is fundamental to all border-making projects.

At the very ground level, of course you have incompetence, men invested, men with immense power in these spaces who are petty sovereigns, are given immense power to rule over the lives of the people. For instance, even at the U.S. border you saw how the Haitian asylum seekers and refugees were treated, with immense violence, the border guards on horseback, so what you really see is that you have deputized people in these spaces who are incompetent, yes, and deeply invested in violence against these communities, and I think that is something that you really have to understand.

But also the different kinds of borderlands are a function of the ways in which these various populations still don't feel that they are a part of what the Indian republic sees itself as. It's also part of their resistance, it is a part of their way to hold onto a memory of a landscape that is their homeland. I think those are the ways I which we really have to see the differences.

In some places they have been very successful. The India-Pakistan border was very willfully cleared of people, and also it was a desert, so it was easy to do it. The India-Bangladesh border has over 200 million people who live across both of these landmasses. How do you clear 200 million people? That's another reason why, when you go back to the archive and you look at it, even those who wanted these countries partitioned never really imagined—they thought that they would be these entities, but this kind of strict movement that is being surveilled, the militarization, the violence, I don't think is what even those who imagined a partitioned subcontinent ever thought would come to be.

ALEX WOODSON: Another thing that I was struck by in the book was just—and this is something that I have thought about for a long time too—how immense India is and how many different groups of people there are. You talk about people who live in India who don't consider themselves Indian. I think at one point you said, "All we have in common is a passport."

I was hoping you could expand on that a little bit. I also wonder, is there a shared culture in India that everyone takes part in, or is it really just regional differences and in some cases differences in language and things like that?

SUCHITRA VIJAYAN: I think I would go with Jinnah's description of what India is. It's a "subcontinent of nationalities, and the world here changes every hundred feet." Why a project like this, to really understand this, took so long was because I had to build relationships with these communities initially while I traveled. A lot of these places I returned to over and over again. The only reason I could write this book was because I had to build relationships with these communities over a really long period of time and make them collaborators in this book.

In that sense, what endeared people to me and the other way around was trying to build those relationships because we were so different, and I write about this in the book as well. For me, growing up in a very comfortable existence in the South of India in the city of Madras, I was not used to curfews, violence, or the kind of indignities that those of my own age who grew up with in Kashmir, Punjab, Nagaland, Manipur, or any of these border states experienced. So even to write about something like this, I had to educate myself. I had to understand what it meant to live through that.

Imagine growing up, and there is a military bunker just outside your house or that your uncle, your father, or your grandfather, the people in your life had been disappeared. So even to tell those stories I think one really had to educate. So, for me, yes, it was not just the culture or the language. Even the very basic histories were so different. While I was trained as a lawyer to always work with communities that have gone through immense violence, this felt far more intimate. So I think there was very little that bound all of us together.

Yet, what really allowed people and allowed me the capacity to have those conversations was questions of resistance, the questions of, what was it to resist this ongoing violence and indignity? I don't know if there is one thing that connects. The idea of India was also born not only administratively as a result of colonization. It was also an act of resisting an imperial power, and I think now what connects these various communities is also their act of resistance, demanding dignity, the rights, and the freedom that they have been consistently deprived of for so many years. I think that definitely is, and all of these people are fighting for that, and that's why I felt so comfortable in these communities.

They also tend to be far more open and egalitarian about other communities that are fighting, and you see that with, for example, the Black Lives Matter movement or the Black activists in the United States, who always turn up for everybody else, because for them, they understand that acts of oppression and resistance are connected, and I think those are the things that really perhaps connect all of these communities, the idea of resistance more than anything else.

ALEX WOODSON: It's interesting. That leads into a question that I wanted to ask you about, your process of writing and interviewing. You say in a couple of instances that you learned a lot as you went through the book. There is one instance where you take some pictures, and someone tells you you shouldn't take pictures of that, and you take that to heart. So you really feel a sense of responsibility to the people that you are talking with.

How did you balance that out when you were writing? How much did you think about that as you were putting this down, and how does it feel now that it is out in the world and these stories are being shared with the world?

SUCHITRA VIJAYAN: When I started this book, I think I had a very different idea of what this book would be. I learned a lot along the way. I learned the limitations of storytelling as a unit. Storytelling can do so much, but also stories have a limitation. Stories have a limitation if those stories don't translate into something else.

So one of the things I learned early on is that all of these people that I am speaking to are eloquent and articulate interlocutors of their own destiny, their history, and their rights. They didn't need me to go tell their stories. Often when these kinds of books are written the person writing the book, rightly or otherwise, most often wrongly, also assumes the mantle of the storyteller, the person giving the voice, and I was very careful not to be that. I didn't need give these people a voice. I didn't need to bear witness.

Rather, what I was doing was through these conversations, through what they told me, I was going to do a critical ethnography of the powerful and the state and hold the powerful accountable, and I think that was most important. It's easy to turn the lens on those who are the most victimized. It's easy to turn your lens on those who have always faced oppression, and often it's also easy to stop there. I think it was very important for me to then turn the lens back at the powerful.

The powerful are named. The people who I felt were responsible for this violence, people who did not take responsibility, or the institutions—legal, political, and individual—and I think we also use the words "speaking truth to power" in a cavalier manner. So in this book my job was to very clearly critique the powerful.

Again, I wanted to make sure these people, everybody that I spoke to, were shown in the most dignified way possible. Initially this was supposed to be a photography book, and then the photographs disappeared because sometimes the photograph was not the best way to tell the story. There was this moment where I was at the site of a very gruesome act of violence, and once the community had spoken and told me their story I was seeing these kids play. In terms of imagery it was an image I wanted to take. I don't know why I felt the need to, but when I was about to take the picture the gentleman next to me says, and again he did not say "Don't take it." He said, "Maybe don't take this because why make these images a part of archives of violence because these kids already live with so much."

At that moment, when the community that I was speaking to didn't want those images taken. I think it was right that I didn't take this image because eventually it's not about the stories. It's about what we do with them, and all stories don't need to be told. They will have their time. Maybe some stories should not be told because the people whose stories we are telling do not want to be represented that way.

So, towards the end, as we were putting this book together, it became very unsafe for so many people; I sent the notes, the chapters, to all of the people that I interviewed, and some of them didn't want to be a part of this book, and that's why the Gujarat border, the other maritime border which also is a land border, doesn't appear in the book because the people who were part of the book did not want to be part of it.

So those were the choices that I made. I was also told that these are very stupid choices because as a writer my job was to report, and I disagreed. I think as my job my paramount responsibility was to the people who trusted me with their time and their stories.

So as I said, again, for everybody who writes, who thinks, I think it's important that we keep asking these ethical questions of ourselves over and over again.

ALEX WOODSON: Definitely. I want to connect some of this to some current events and things happening in the States, but first I just wanted to give you a chance if you wanted to highlight any of these stories in particular to give people a sense of the book. There are so many interesting and well-written stories there. I just wonder if one sticks out to you or there is one that you would like to highlight for us.

SUCHITRA VIJAYAN: I don't know. People ask this, and I always get so overwhelmed by this question because I don't know.

But I think there are two stories. One is the story of Ali. He was once a young man whose house then gets caught between the no man's land. The border fencing also has a light that comes in, and the lights start off at about 6:00 in the evening and are on for the next 12 hours. Trying to live with that nightmare of having light coming into your house—he loses his capacity to sleep—his story is a story that breaks one's heart. He loses his land, his wife who lives across the border, the regular, sexualized violence that is so common, and there is one moment where he says, "You know, it is not only that they have stolen my dreams. They have also stolen my nightmare," because Ali loses his capacity to sleep because of the light coming in. Initially he starts losing his sleep, he starts having nightmares, and finally as he copes with having to live with this, he says "You know, it is not only that they have stolen my dreams. They have also stolen my nightmares," and I thought that was such a powerful way to articulate everything because they steal everything from you, and I think that's the capacity of a very violent authoritarian state.

The other story is the story of Sari Begum, who is now much older, a child of rape during the partition, who again lives through immense violence of just being in this land but also what it means for militarization of these places. The Indian Army built a little bunker in her small farmland, and it is still there. Also, it is one of those moments where this woman is so full of life. She is funny. I think that is one of the lighter moments of the book when she says, "Why are you writing this?"

I say, "Oh, because I wanted to understand the world."

And she says, "You're such a stupid, silly girl. If you had come to me first, I would have told you that the world is horrible."

I thought that moment of her chutzpah was also a critique of how we think, that somehow all of us need to travel, document, or report. Sometimes the capacity to travel, document, or report does not immediately mean the capacity to analyze a given situation. Often people who live through these are more eloquent. They understand with immense political clarity what is happening to them.

So those two stories perhaps as a way to enter into—if you didn't know anything about the history of the subcontinent at the level of the story, I think these are two very remarkable people I would definitely want everyone to encounter.

ALEX WOODSON: All those stories are pretty amazing, but the story of Ali is one that I'm sure I will remember forever. It's just crazy.

SUCHITRA VIJAYAN: Yes.

ALEX WOODSON: I want to connect this to some of the current events, some of the things going on in the States. You brought up Black Lives Matter, you brought up the horrible situation with the Haitian migrants in Texas. It's very easy to see a lot of parallels between India's border policies and citizenship policies and those of the United States.

I remember we talked a couple of years ago during the Trump administration about some of these parallels, and you just said that India crushes dissent. In India this is just happening on a much bigger scale than it is in the United States and, of course, I have to agree with that.

What do you see in 2021 when you think about that question? Is it the same type of response, or do you think about that all differently now?

SUCHITRA VIJAYAN: I want to start by thanking all the Brown and Black women on the ground who flipped Georgia and who did the work to get Biden elected. Another four years of Trump, even for someone like me, who is immensely privileged, who lives in New York, and who has the privilege of education and resources, just the amount of racist attacks that went on during COVID-19—and that's true of so many of my friends who are Brown and Black and working women in the city who just felt how—

So, yes, I'm very grateful that Trump is no longer in power, but that does not mean that the job is done. I think there is still so much that is going on. COVID-19 has been a good example of how so much racism has been weaponized against many of our communities. I think it was in Texas where they said, "Oh, it's the immigrants who are bringing COVID-19 from across," even the silliest things. I think the crisis is still there increasingly with the abortion laws and the ways they are using to disenfranchise people from voting.

In India it seems the specter of authoritarianism is there, and it feels more visible, but we should not forget that the very same powers can also very easily work here, and it is happening here, the current laws, the ways in which trying to strip people of their rights, disenfranchisement of voting rights, gerrymandering, and the consistent assault on the female body.

Even now dissent is—again, you don't have to pick up journalists here. The recent Facebook revelations tell us that a single platform can singlehandedly get disinformation across, which is affecting our lives. I have lived in this country for ten years. While I write about South Asia, I have a very real stake in this country because this is where I am choosing to raise my daughter. I am glad that Trump is no longer in power, but I think that does not take away from some of the severe crises that are still looming and very much real, and I think we should consistently speak about that in a manner that we can all have a conversation.

I think the conversation is so polarizing right now. We are talking about people who refuse to take vaccines. But it is not just about racism. The point is that we are in a place where many communities, especially black communities, Filipino communities, and white working-class communities, refuse to trust the government. Their fundamental thing is, "We do not trust the state." It is not just white racism. It is not just the people who were part of the insurrection. There are vast parts of this country that do not trust the state anymore. I think those are the questions we should be asking and in a way that does not polarize the other side.

When I say the "other side" I feel like almost everybody is now the other side. I cannot have an opinion without 90 people telling me why it's wrong, and half of those people are people I believe to be progressive or left. I think that is also important, our capacity to just have a conversation with—forget the people on the other side who we think are evil and Republican. I am even talking about people who share the same beliefs. That is the larger crisis, our capacity to not have a conversation or listen with empathy as to why the other person might choose the position that they take. Not everything is racism. I think there is also our lack of capacity to empathize with the other person's view and have a conversation. I think those are the things that really worry me.

ALEX WOODSON: As you were writing the book, these crises just accelerated. In 2013–2014 I feel like the United States at least was in a very different place. How did that change your thinking as you were working on this book with the United States in crisis with the Trump administration as all this was happening? You took a bit of a break in the writing. You wrote I think in 2013 and 2014, and then you took a break until around 2018. Did you have a different perspective coming back in 2018 as all these crises in America were happening, or were you able to separate it?

SUCHITRA VIJAYAN: By this time I had two homes. I had my home in India, where my parents live and where I was increasingly doing more and more work, and my home in the United States, where I was living and working. In 2015 my dad got very sick and needed a transplant soon after I got pregnant. So 2015 and 2016 I couldn't do any work. In 2016 I gave birth to my daughter. At the end of 2016 I actually went back, so 2017, 2018, now that I think about it I do not know what got into me. I left my six-month-old daughter to go restart the work on the book.

One thing became very clear to me, and I think my personal life had a profound impact on the book itself. While I had always written about other people's violence either as a lawyer or as a researcher, while this was not about state violence, the idea of loss or losing your parent to a medical condition like that or the fact that he survived, that loss became very real. So when people talk about their families being disappeared it was no longer just—I don't know. That experience just profoundly changed me, and then having a child.

I also realized how even with my father your privilege could protect you, that if he was a poor man with no documentation who didn't have the privilege of caste, class, and resources, he would have probably not made it out. It's easy for us to talk about systemic violence and institutional disparities, but I firsthand saw how privilege really translated into so many ways.

Having a child again profoundly changed my world because I think I became far more politically radical in the sense that I knew that the stakes were now much higher, that it was my job to make sure that I am not going to leave this world to my daughter—at least I was going to fight for something better. And someone who had no political power in either of these countries, the only thing I could do was write or speak, and I took the job of writing and speaking I feel even more seriously simply because it felt that everything just became more amplified. Some could ask, "Did you have to go through this in order to do it?" I don't know. Maybe that was important to me. It was just that the moment of taking that break gave me the time to just breathe and really think about the book. It also gave me time to write and rewrite the book in the middle of all of these crises.

Second, it felt like both my homes—one that I left when I was 17 and one that I had made for myself—were both under a constant assault. When Trump was elected, I was in Madras. Another thing was that my dad was very sick and I had just given birth. I didn't have childcare here, and my mom had to go back to India, so when my daughter was four months old I went back to India because living in the United States I couldn't have gotten childcare.

At that moment when Trump was elected I was there, and then the U.S. consulate in Madras I think were all gathered to watch the election news come in. The moment Trump was declared I could feel the collective weight and the sigh that went through the room of acting diplomats. It became very clear that even those who had jobs within the government felt that something was there.

The day I landed back in the United States after Trump's election I think on Eighth and Broadway there used to be a small news kiosk. There were swastikas drawn in the heart of New York City. My first response was, "There will be communities here, there will be families here, probably grandchildren, children, or great-grandchildren of Holocaust survivors." Imagine. This is the heart of New York, and just seeing the swastika there broke my heart. It felt real, and I don't think people understand what those four years meant to so many people. Not that that crisis is gone. It's not gone. I think that crisis is still real.

Yes, I think I was responding to the time that I was living in, and it was bad in both the United States and India. I don't think that things have gotten any better, and I want to be very clear about that. Things are going to get much worse in both of these countries, and I think it is our job to constantly write about it, speak about it, and have these conversations about it.

ALEX WOODSON: That leads right to my final question. I'm sure everyone is asking you, "Are you going to write a follow-up book? Are you going to visit different parts of India?" I will try to do a little bit of a variation on that. But as you said, you think things are getting worse and that we have to keep working. How do you plan to follow up on this? Obviously, you have the work of The Polis Project. How are you going to follow up as you say the crisis is still happening?

SUCHITRA VIJAYAN: Look. The thing is that for me I hold a very insignificant role in all of this. I don't have political office. What I do is to read, write, and think, and I think that's what I'm going to keep doing, and I want to do it in a way that reaches as many people, I want to do it in a way that can bring even those who might not agree with me to at least look into some of those arguments. That is the most important thing for me now.

I am increasingly more curious about what's happening within the United States. I really want to understand, and I want to have a more nuanced understanding of where things are. What does it mean for someone in this day and age? I recently became an American citizen, and I still very weird about it because for the first time in my life—

The other day a friend of mind said: "Hey, there's going to be this really great conference in Berlin next fall. Would you like to come?"

My first response was, "Yes, yes. I don't know if I could travel because of the visa." Then I realized that for the first time in my life I can say yes to things because I had an American passport, which meant that for the first time—I almost don't know what that means. Yes, it makes my capacity to travel infinitely easier. I don't have to go apply for a visa three months in advance to even decide if it could be.

But at the same time there are people within this American republic who have lived here for generations and do not have the privileges that I now have. I am trying to understand what that means. I understand while Indian history is very different, how does one tell the story of a nation built on so much violence?

So I don't know. I think for me writing is also a way of educating myself, so I think a lot of it is also going to be educating myself first. I write to learn. I am not a pundit. I never write from a place of knowledge. I write from a place where—before I wrote this book I knew very little about the borderlands of India. I knew some, but it was a process. I have learned. So hopefully that is what I will do. I will continue to read, learn, and write in the process of educating myself and, hopefully along the way, others so that we can all live in a better world and not one that increasingly feels like it is on fire on all ends.

ALEX WOODSON: Thank you so much, Suchitra. We will be following you here at Carnegie Council, and it's great to catch up with you.

SUCHITRA VIJAYAN: Thank you. Thank you so much for this conversation. I really appreciate it.

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