Retrieving an Asian Imaginary: Through the Prism of a Southasian Borderland

Talk by Kavita Panjabi (Former Professor of Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University, Kolkata)

Turtuk is now an Indian village on the India-Pakistan border in the Karakoram mountains, in the contested zone of Baltistan. People in Turtuk who went to sleep in their homes in Pakistan on the 13th of December 1971, woke up on the 14th morning to find themselves in India. Unlike the people of the neighbouring village of Chalungka, who had fled en-masse further into Pakistan when the Indian army had arrived there a few days ago, the people of Turtuk had decided to stay with India. The Balti people of Turtuk, and its neighbouring villages Thang, Pachathang, and Tyakshi, were not compelled into any forced removal; they were subject to “in-situ displacements” (Feldman) in the conflict between Pakistan and India – staying within their homes, they had been displaced from one nation to another. Transitional spaces such as these that form the borderlands between nation-states are spaces of liminality, and the conditions inducing liminality in this region were severe. For the people of these villages, space had shrunk, and time stood still. Once situated at the crossroads of international trade and ideas on the silk route, they had become effectively sealed off from the rest of the world when the borders came up in 1948. Captive in the borderlands of Pakistan till 1971 and then in India, Turtuk finally opened to the rest of this country in 2010. For more than 60 years, the people here had found themselves in a literal “time capsule”, practically isolated within the borderlands of Pakistan and India. In this talk, Panjabi maps, through oral narratives of the Balti people of Turtuk, and the prism of their liminality, the cartographies of affective life pulsating beneath the officialese of borders. She tries to understand how the long duree of their liminality inflected their efforts both to preserve Balti culture across the borders of two nation-states and to safeguard their historical memory of an Asian internationalism. Thus, Panjabi hopes also to retrieve some of the strands of the politically shrouded webs of significance that once characterized the connectivities between Asian cultures.

Kavita Panjabi is a former Professor of Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, where she taught for 33 years. Over three decades of activism in the Southasian women’s movement, a passion for oral history, and a lively interest in cross-border people’s perspectives inform her book Unclaimed Harvest: An Oral History of the Tebhaga Women’s Movement and her Pakistan diary, Old Maps and New: Legacies of the Partition. She has also edited anthologies on Sufism and Bhakti in South Asia, and on Feminist Culture and politics, as well as two volumes on borders with Debra Castillo namely, Cartographies of Affect: Across Borders in South Asia and the Americas, and Centering Borders in Latin American and South Asian Contexts: Aesthetics and Politics of Cultural Production.

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