By Vishakha Khetrapal
Boundaries can be perceived at several levels, and thus, there are several ways of crossing these boundaries. In this essay, I share two simple stories which shaped my understanding of borders.
My first experience of border crossing involves a family history of Partition of India in 1947 and it’s subsequent ‘uncrossing’ through technology. I come from a family of migrants who saw the place they once called home, overnight become a part of another country which they were no longer allowed to inhabit. My grandparents of both sides, maternal and paternal, were affected. They had to leave their homes, in what used to be West Punjab before independence. Their villages were now a part of Pakistan. The partition of India in the year 1947 on religious lines saw people from both sides of the newly etched geopolitical border, uprooted from their homes ushered into an an unknown territory, starting their lives from scratch. 14 million people crossed the border on bullock carts, horses or even barefoot. Tens of thousands ( on both sides) could not even make it across the border, succumbing to the immense bloodbath that followed the partition. My Grandparents were teenagers at the time , in the exciting phase of their school days. Everything happened so suddenly that they did not have any time to contemplate on how this move will change their lives or of their future generations. My grandfather being the oldest of seven siblings, gave up on his dream of getting a college education and dived neck-deep into workforce to make ends meet. Years later, I was born in a divided India, in a city which my grandfather made his new home and built a life from scratch. Often, he would narrate stories from his childhood, of the vast green fields his family tended, or of the love which the community shared. He would tell us how the neighbours would come together and cook joint meals. His stories made me curious about borders from a very early age and as I grew up, I began to constantly engage with all that bound me. Meanwhile, my grandfather who was well into his eighties now, yearned to see the places where he once spent his childhood.
Political tensions and a fear of the unknown had never allowed him to go back and now at this age the journey was nearly impossible to make. I wanted to be of help but I could not figure out how. Then one fine day while looking up images for a college project, I typed the name of my grandfather’s village and ended up finding few images of ‘Sargodha’, the district to which my grandfather’s village belonged before Independence. I rushed to him with my laptop and pointed on the screen. Born in the 1930’s, decades before the first ever computer came to India, it took my grandfather a while to believe that it was actually possible to see his birthplace, thousands of miles away, from the confines of his own room. He recognized a couple of landmarks and asked me to show pictures of a nearby locality where he attended his school. The sparkle in his dark green eyes reflected how much that moment meant to him. Crossing a physical border years ago was very painful and the ordeal is unimaginable. This time, this virtual crossing of boundary was painless. It only took a few clicks on the laptop. But it took him an entire lifetime of hard work to ensure that his grandchildren do not see the days he must have seen. In that small moment of nostalgic ‘uncrossing’, of revisiting the place he came from, my grandfather’s entire life looked like a series of borders crossed successfully in the end.
While my grandfather crossed a great barriers of displacement and rehabilitation, my story is that of crossing cultural and mental borders. Born to middle-class working parents in a small city in India, I had a modest but a comfortable upbringing. I worked hard in studies and managed to be on the top of my class. As a Pan-Indian phenomenon, Engineering and Medicine are considered to be the most prestigious professions and a student who scores well in high school is often expected to opt for nothing but either of these two career paths. Choices become limited and the pressure from social circles, relatives and one’s own peers can get excruciating for anyone who does not want to pursue these fields. In fact, a large number of schools including mine, back then did not offer courses in arts or humanities for students. The only options we knew worth pursuing were engineering or medicine. I studied hard and managed to crack the pre-engineering exam, landing into a coveted Engineering college. I continued to toil not quite knowing the purpose of it or where I was headed in life. Completing my graduation in Mechanical Engineering with gold medal and securing a well-paid job in one of the largest automobile companies in the world, I was ecstatic. I was one of the only two girls from my batch who managed to clear the interview for that company and the entire college celebrated us. My friends and family were all excited and so was I. But deep down in my heart it still did not feel quite right.
The coming years were a challenge as I could not relate to the 9-to-5 work hours. I was earning enough money but felt no inner happiness or contentment. It was during this time that I began volunteering for a local NGO called ‘Make a Difference’, working for children in shelter-homes. Parallelly, I got connected to an alumna of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, an educational institution that I had never heard of before. She soon became a friend and I learned about the innovative and path-breaking courses the institute offered, different from the mainstream courses that many of my generation had grown up being aware of.
In the following weeks, knowing more about TISS and its courses, I found my answer. I decided to opt for higher education in social-entrepreneurship, a total swerve from the territory I had charted so far in my professional life. It was hard with the hectic schedule of my manufacturing job and a health issue , but I kept trying. I used to solve sample questions for entrance exams during the one-hour long bus ride to my office. I would spend my weekends immersed in books and study-materials. I was determined to seek a higher education and one failed attempt later, I managed to pass the entrance examination and secure admission into the course of my choice. If this was hard, then what followed was an extreme. To leave the comforts of a well-paying job and entering into an unconventional field was a difficult decision. My relatives felt it was the right age for me to get married instead of pursuing higher education. My colleagues felt I was taking too great a risk and urged me to reconsider this choice. I was stuck in the boundaries of societal pressure and my own mindset .
After much consideration and several sleepless nights, I went ahead with my decision of leaving my job and joining TISS. The next two years of university brought immense knowledge and interesting experiences. I met diverse people from different nationalities and ethnic groups and started working on a social enterprise to bring about sustainable livelihood for local artisans in my state. In the process, I not only developed a deeper understanding of human society but ended up exploring a newer dimension of myself . All this only happened because I could muster up enough courage (although a bit late) to overcome my own mental barriers and discover my true calling. This way, I crossed boundaries of the education system, I crossed boundaries of the preferred and unpreferred, and I overcame the fear of stepping out of my comfort zone and embracing difference.
Our stories shape our lives and these two stories of crossing geopolitical, cultural, and mental barriers have greatly shaped my life.
About the Author:
Vishakha Khetrapal is a Research fellow at Sahapedia , an online repository for documenting Indian and South-Asian cultural practices, and is based in Pune, India. Her past experiences include a stint of over three years in Ford India as a Change Control Analyst. She enjoys teaching , having Volunteered for a non-profit Make a Difference (M.AD), where she imparted after-school support to young children from a shelter home in Ahmedabad, Gujarat . Her passion for working in the social sector brought her to Tata Institute of Social Sciences Mumbai where she completed her Masters in Social Entrepreneurship in 2018. She is currently working on her social-enterprise in Community Tourism and spends her free time blogging, meeting new people and exploring different cultures.