Biswanath Ghosh’s Gazing at Neighbours is both a moving travelogue and a nuanced look at history along the Radcliffe line.
It has been said that the world’s most spectacular border ceremony takes place at Wagah, roughly half-way between Lahore and Amritsar. Amritsar is also where author Bishwanath Ghosh begins his engaging tale of travels along the line that partitioned India. With episodes from Hussainiwala in Punjab to Cooch Behar in West Bengal, Gazing At Neighbours is a new viewing of an old history through cities that only a few can successfully locate on a map.
A record of encounters and experiences, the book is a lesson in history as much as it is about travel. That is precisely what sets Ghosh apart from those who have written about Partition previously. Besides providing detailed insight about the human cost of a hastily drawn border, Ghosh draws the reader’s attention to how the discipline of History is approached. “[O]ur knowledge of history, no matter how old we get remains that of a fifteen-year-old,” he writes, because other harder subjects take precedence over it.
Most students learn history in the same way that they learn the composition of organic compounds – a process that reinforces the misplaced notion that the past is definitive. History is a reserve of memories. If memories can be plural, so can histories. The story of India’s partition, too, is not uniform. It is a collection of memories of loss, hope, longing and belonging. Ghosh’s lucid storytelling is supported by his journalistic judgement as he ties together some of these memories in luminous prose.
Writing history based on memories is risky because different people recall the same event differently. The resulting composition is a collection of chosen memories. This is also why it is necessary to look at the same event through various lenses before arriving at a meaningful conclusion. Ghosh’s writing is successful in dismissing the conventional understanding that history is binary, with a clear distinction between heroes and villains, victors and vanquished.
Gazing At Neighbours is also a comment on nationalism, and inevitably so. It doesn’t escape the author’s attention that there is almost no hostility towards the neighbouring country in the cities he visited. These people consider the other as people of the same trade, neighbours and some even friends. While exiting from the border ceremony at Wagah, Gosh overhears two women on either side of the fence discuss a family member’s health. There is only so much divide a line drawn on paper can create.
A travelogue for history-geeks, Gazing At Neighbours is a stimulating addition to the historiography of Partition.