Fence consciousness

“there were days when I chose to serve as border patrol
before actually crossing over”

I begin by quoting Joaquim Mondal and by asking about fences. About what a fence might mean. We know how it has been represented by European writers, artists and auteurs. For instance, eviction and exile form strong recurrent themes in Ceslaw Milos’s later work as he speaks about a real city somewhere else filled with real people, plants, voices, amity, and love. Similar trends are sometimes dormant and sometimes active in Hispanophone poetry of the second half of the twentieth century; for example, these ideas are especially apparent in the work of one of Chile’s leading poets of the past century, David Rosenmann-Taub, reminding of his emigration from Chile to the US. They also form a key stream running through the foliage of Argentine Juan Gelman’s work. Of particular interest here is how Gelman, while developing a characteristic oeuvre whose themes focused on eviction and political isolation, referred to ancient Bengali poet Ramprasad Sen[1], citing the poet’s move from provincial Bengal to urban Kolkata, describing this as a displacement. So many examples of the theme of exile in western literature.

The backdrop

The picture differs slightly for most Asian languages, and particularly for Bengali. Crisscrossed by the river Ganga (Ganges), its main tributary Padma, and her other sisters, the Bengal plains are one of the most densely populated areas of the world.[2] A 2004 United Nations report states that Bangladesh is one of the top ten most densely populated countries, with 1,063 people per square kilometer. Likewise, according to the 2001 Indian census, West Bengal recorded the highest population density in India, with 900 people per square kilometer. Consequently, an intense and unhealthy competition to access and claim land, water, energy, and other resources has begun in these areas. While it is a challenge in many countries to find experts in rare disciplines of micro-specialization, in this part of world a hundred applicants show up for a single job opening. For the average newcomer from the West, a task as simple as crossing the street in urban South Asia proves an uphill battle. In other common areas fierce competition ensues, frequently proving the law of diminishing returns, and sinking man’s pride in humanity to the bottom of the trough. Quite often, morality drowns and an ethical imbalance becomes omnipresent. Competition intensifies power politics and leads to corruption. A rich, fertile land that provided easy availability of resources and nurtured the growth of human society, now, due to population explosion, has begun to erode. 

However, it is no wonder that the homo sapiens sapiens adapts to such social conditions — and adapts well. A living proof of the Darwinian struggle for existence in modern human society is no more elegantly expressed than here. We grew up reading about the importance of a clean, green environment for a complete organic growth of the human mind and body. However, as we stepped into adulthood, that need was forced out by other, more basic ones. The environment’s turning acidic did not, however, slow down population growth: the three P’s (population, poverty and pollution) remain closely and strongly connected. A countless number of children are stillborn every day on South Asian streets, in cities that resemble fairly modern and technologically advanced urban societies (albeit ones plagued by faulty resource distribution). In villages, this element of contradiction is alien. The arrival of a newborn in most Indian villages is often greeted with indifference. Thus social status in South Asia stands sharply contrasted with that of either the more developed (or should we say better resource-distributed) Western blocs or the relatively underdeveloped African or other sub-Saharan areas.

This daily struggle serves as the catalyst for uprooting young people like Joaquim Mondal. They turn the vestiges of local success into global opportunities, changing their geographical maps. A large Bengali population (in the millions), comprised of meritocrats, opportunists and desperate laborers, lives outside South Asia. A thick section of this migrant workforce, mostly laborers and contract dealers, use secret illegal contacts with immigration agents and middlemen to get out, especially to the Middle East. We, the middle class, know them, but not as closely as we might think. As relations improved in the early 90s between the two major world powers, as Glasnost and Perestroika attempted to liberate the former USSR, as free market economy began to spread in the BRIC countries, the situation changed quite dramatically in Bengal territory. Like ants and rodents drawn to an upturned wok full of decomposing food, people flocked to volatile funds that depended on India’s economic, political and diplomatic ties with the former Soviet Union. As the USSR collapsed, however, these funds camphorized. Simultaneously, aggravated by the pressing need to globalize business markets, and with the search for cheap labor, emigration rates catapulted — tripling in Bengal over the past fifteen to twenty years. An illegal trap has developed alongside this new trend — the machinery of immigration consultation.

The present scene

These rates of competition and emigration are not without precedent. From accounts of migrating villages to the saga of European colonization, many trends throughout history fit the bill. A reverse-colonizing syndrome seems to be the trend — people from this continental space are continuously trying to change their socioeconomic position by relocating to new geographical spaces. No matter what intellectual capsule we find for this geographical displacement, it’s hard to argue that its motivation is not an organic one. In a Darwinian light, this indeed is a struggle for existence. Just as the successful middle- or upper-class student goes abroad in search of a “better” academic and economic future, the struggling underprivileged worker from Uttar Pradesh lands up in a remote landfill in Doha. Wherever the immigrant might drift, he is able to find his own cultural content — a fusion of all the geographical spaces he has covered — and his cultural identity mutates.

Man carries his own geography with him. No wonder the Hungarian youth roaming New Delhi’s Jorhbag area seeks out Hungarian spices; no wonder an Indian tracks down samosas in a remote corner of Madrid. Someone born in the Caribbean in the 70s might be called Shiunarain Chander Paul, but he might as easily have been named Shibnarayan Chandra Pal if born far apart in Bengal instead. In this sense, Joaquim Mondal is no exception: he was named by a Goanese priest who had only Portuguese names in his book. We migrate with our own memory-filled geographies that progressively dilute through the generations that follow and get shattered into smithereens; identities haze out. Dad’s copy of the Upanishads amicably settles down beside his teenage daughter’s birth control pills, both in the same drawer. As migrations and displacements increase, known cultural landscapes are tessellated more and more.

We will focus not on the second or subsequent generations but on the freshly uprooted, on those who aren’t keen to simply pin their own maps to their newly acquired geographies, but who find a way to sow seeds taken out of the new land into their cultural memory. As such, our primary aim is not the self-conflicting world of new diasporic literature, but rather the internationalist being of the Gandhian globe-trotter Amiya Chakravarty,[4] the diary of a veritable paribrAjak.[3] In other words, a supersocial individual, someone who would travel without a mAdhukari, in a quest for the essential, the universal and the particular. Few would know that Chakravarty, who was professor of comparative oriental religions and literature at Boston University, traveled around the US during the Civil War years, lecturing on the Gandhian politics of ahimsa.

Our global circumcontent identifies — inside poetic space — with works that house the mixed streams of geographical sensitivity. It identifies with the soulfulness of a paribrAjak, who believes that confluence is about the sonorous overlapping of cultural waves.

Translated from Bengali by Aryanil Mukherjee.


1.“Com/posiciones” de Juan Gelman o como traducir los mil rostros de la realidad, Maria del Carmen Sillato, Hispamerica, Ano 24, No. 72 (Dec., 1995), pp. 3-14.

2. The term “Bengal” refers to the pre-colonial Indian province of Bengal, which today comprises the Indian states of West Bengal, Tripura, and Jharkhand, parts of Bihar, and the independent country of Bangladesh, areas still dominated by the Bengali language and its dialects.

3. Amiya Chakravarty (1901–1986) was a major Indian (Bengali) poet, essayist, international scholar, critic, and teacher of the post–Tagorian era. He was secretary to Rabindranath Tagore for some years (1924–1933), a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi, and a friend of Albert Einstein. He walked with Gandhi in the historic Salt March of 1930. Amiya Chakravarty lived the second half of his long and illustrious life in the US. A DPhil from Oxford University, Amiya taught at Selly Oak College, Birmingham, UK, Calcutta University, India, and in the US, first at Howard University, then at Yale and Princeton as a visiting fellow. Finally, he taught for many years at Boston University as professor of comparative Oriental religions and literature in the Department of Missions and World Religions. Amiya won many awards, most notably a UNESCO Prize and the Sahitya Academy (Government of India) Award (1963). His poetry is currently the object a renewed interest, as scholars are find renewed meaning in his attention to humanist values in the current moment of globalization. Please see Norman Finkelstein’s review of Another Shore.

4. A paribrAjak (in Bengali) or pariVrAjaka (in Sanskrit and Hindi) is a wanderer monk, both Hindu and Buddhist.