BOOK EXCERPT

What will you see if you visit the precise point where India ends and Sri Lanka begins?

A new book chronicles its writer's journeys to India's borders with different countries.

At 5.30 a.m, Mari and I set out for Arichal Munai, the extreme point of Indian soil closest to Sri Lanka and, thus, technically, the “borderland” between the two countries.

As is the case with most things in Dhanushkodi, Arichal Munai is unusual. Its location shifts every day, depending on the tide. At high tide, a large portion of land is submerged, bringing Arichal Munai much closer to Kodi; when the tide is low, one can walk at least a couple of kilometres closer to the Sri Lankan town of Talaimannar on Mannar Island, beyond which a chain of shoals, commonly known as Adam’s Bridge, separates the two countries.

While geological evidence suggests that a land border which actually existed between India and Sri Lanka in the past had, possibly, been submerged during the cyclone of 1480 or even earlier, it is still widely believed that there is a land border just 45 metres long on a land shoal along Adam’s Bridge. Given the unstable nature of these shoals and the pattern of sea tides, the governments of the two neighbouring countries had decided on an Imaginary Boundary Line located about 12 nautical miles from Rameswaram.

Though this would later be deemed the international boundary line, it does not fulfil international norms.

International Maritime Law decrees that for a boundary line to be feasible, the countries in question must be separated by a distance of at least 36 nautical miles. The distance between India and Sri Lanka, however, is just 18 nautical miles.

The sky was still grey, the sea dark, the huts and shrubs of karuvelan (prosoposis juliflora) eerie silhouettes against an endless horizon, when Mari and I set out from Pandi’s home. Except for the few fishermen gathered in Muniasamy’s tea shop and some stray dogs loitering nearby, no one was awake at that hour. Even the seagulls were nowhere to be seen.

Wrapping our kayilis tight around our waists, the two of us headed south towards Arichal Munai, armed with nothing but a bottle of water each. The wailing winds of the previous night had died, but a mild breeze still remained and there was a bite in the air.

When we reached a spot far enough to afford the privacy we needed to attend to our morning business out in the open, Mari pointed me to a nice little mound, while he himself headed, water bottle swinging from his hand, for a spot closer to the sea on our right. “Just sit there and get on with your job, sir,” he said, before walking away. “Nobody is around to watch you.”

Needless to say, for a man used to the convenience and privacy of a toilet for 40 years, the nippy air, the view of the sea flanking me on either side and the vast open spaces were major impediments in getting the job done quickly. Squatting there, I could not help but wonder how Samy or Pandi might feel if they were taken to Chennai and forced to get the job done within the confines of a four-by-four enclosure.

Arichal Munai. Image credit: via YouTube
Arichal Munai. Image credit: via YouTube

When Mari and I were done, we continued on our way. As we progressed towards the erosion point, the trek became an increasingly pleasant experience. With thick clouds overhead, stretching away into the distance as far as the eye could see, the prospect of enjoying the sunrise was dim, but the arrival of dawn was spectacular.

We could now see isolated country boats and catamarans closer to the coast, with lone fishermen busy casting their fishing nets and laying out other equipment. A little further on our way stood the giant communications tower, a sight that seemed totally out of place in that no man’s land.

“Usually, one doesn’t have to walk this far to reach the Munai,” Mari said. “During winter, this stretch of land is mostly under water.”

With the strip of land having narrowed in width to barely a few feet now, he cautioned me to keep to the centre for my own safety. Soon it would end in a curve, where sea currents moving in opposite directions converged.

“Here we are, at India’s very edge,” Mari announced somewhat dramatically.

I promptly looked at my watch. It was exactly 7.30 a.m.


“It took us two hours to get here,” I observed.


After soaking my feet and torso in the water at the confluence of two different seas, I returned to the shore and flopped down on the sand. From here, I speculated, any good swimmer could simply hop from one shoal to another and reach Sri Lanka in a matter of hours. Child swimming prodigy Kutraleeswaran had already covered the distance several years ago.

“Can we swim across the sea to Talaimannar?” I asked Mari.

It would be impossible for me to do so, he said confidently, but added, “But we can, if we need to. Fishermen who are familiar with the shoals can swim across on days when the sea is calm. But you never know.”

He was silent for a moment. “During the late eighties and early nineties, when the civil war in Sri Lanka was at its height, refugee boats would land here every day and men, women and children, destitute and starving, would trudge up to our villages. We always offered them food and water, before the police and Coast Guard took them away. But these days, no one comes to India along this route. Besides, the government has enough spies here to alert them.”

I asked him if the local fishermen had ever been hostile towards these strangers.

“No sir,” Mari replied, “they were just like us – poor people caught between two big governments. We helped them in every way we could, until the police warned us not to. Now we don’t.”

He suggested that we return to Palam in time to interview the schoolchildren.

We had barely covered 500 metres on our return journey when the clouds completely obscured the sun.

The wind had begun to rise and Mari feared that we might get caught in a shower, with nowhere to run for shelter. Removing his kayili, he packed his diary and both our mobile phones and wallets neatly within its folds and wrapped it tight around his waist.

“This way, they won’t get wet. But we don’t stand a chance of keeping ourselves dry,” he said.

I couldn’t think of an appropriate response as I watched the dark clouds and the turbulent sea and listened to the moaning wind. Any moment now, it seemed to me, the little strip of land on which we stood could be swallowed by giant waves.

Then it began to drizzle. We broke into a sprint, racing towards Dhanushkodi. Within minutes, the drizzle had turned into pelting rain. The wind had gathered velocity and was blasting our faces, the sand it carried so abrasive against our skin that I feared it would peel off.

Sooraoli! Sooraoli!” Mari yelled into the wind, clutching my hand tight.

I tried going as fast as I could, but the nearest shelter or any kind of cover, for that matter, was the giant cell-phone tower more than a kilometre away.

For a fleeting moment, I wondered if I had done a stupid thing by not informing the Coast Guard office before coming down here. Had I got in touch with them earlier and saved their contact numbers, I could, at least, have called them now and sought help. I looked back once at Arichal Munai and noticed funnel-like clouds shrouding the point where we had been sitting not minutes ago.

“Did I not warn you, sir, that this place could be dangerous and you shouldn’t have been visiting it?” Mari said. “By the way, do you know how to swim? The sea here can submerge this strip of land any time and we would have to swim to the nearest sand mound.”

Fortunately, the rain subsided noticeably over the next ten minutes. Drenched to the skin, we watched the sky clear and soon, it was bright and sunny again, as if this were springtime in California.

Pradeep Damodaran
Pradeep Damodaran

Those few minutes of rain and gale, however, had not only given me an idea of nature’s overwhelming force in this climatically fragile part of the world, but also an insight into what had likely happened on that fateful night in 1964.

On the night of 22 December, more than half a century ago, a cyclonic storm that had formed in the South Andaman Sea five days earlier intensified and crossed Vavuniya in Sri Lanka with a wind velocity of 280 kilometres per hour, taking a heavy toll on human lives and property. The storm subsequently moved into the Palk Strait and made landfall in Dhanushkodi, virtually swallowing the bustling township.

One thousand and eight hundred people were reported to have perished in the storm. Among the casualties were 110 passengers and five members of the railway staff of the Pamban– Dhanushkodi passenger train. At 11.55 p.m. night, the train arriving from Pamban railway station was just a few metres from Dhanushkodi, when the signal failed. The loco pilot then took a decision to blow a long whistle and move ahead towards the Dhanushkodi railway station.

At that moment, a giant tidal wave – well over five metres high, according to media reports – submerged all the coaches in deep water, washing away the six-bogey train. The devastation caused to Dhanushkodi was so extensive that the then government had made the decision to declare the township unsafe for habitation and permanently relocated its residents to other areas.

Excerpted with permission from Borderlands: Travels Across India’s Boundaries, Pradeep Damodaran, Hachette India.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

Play

This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.