by Taimoor Shahid
This is a meditation on borders, international borders, the ways in which they structure our lives—our pasts, presents, and futures, and the ways in which we navigate them. It is a dialogue between what was and what is. It is a reverie, a plea, against the imagined lines that cut across our bodies, that separate us from our pasts, that divide our homes into halves, and that are always too real to pass.
It is based on selections from Padma Surkh Hai or The Bloodied Padma, the war diary of Shaakh, a student from Lahore studying at Dhaka University in 1971. War struck. And he moved with a Bengali friend’s family. Then they had to flee for life. First they fled from Dhaka to a small town, then to Rajshahi. Then to the Indian refugee camp across the river Padma. And then back from the refugee camp itself. All this while, Shaakh maintained a diary, in Urdu, his mother tongue, but also the tongue of the aggressors. He recorded killing, looting, arson, but also bare life during war, and the ways in which borders were created, navigated, and transcended.
Shaakh is my father. Here I read a few episodes from his diary and meditate on them through my own experiences: of borders, separations, migrations, and an inheritance of his past. I present this piece then as a tentative reflection on Borders of all kinds, seen through this episode of human history, an episode unfortunately not unique. Here the partition of 1947, of 1971, and the continuing partitions of the present come together. Here Dhaka and Lahore, and Calcutta and Chicago exist on the same plane in a complicated relationship built through text and sound: through disembodied connections that borders cannot sever.
It is to one of these connections that I owe this piece. It emerged from my collaboration with The Travelling Archive, a field recordings and field notes project based in Calcutta and run by singer and writer Moushumi Bhowmik and sound recordist and designer Sukanta Majumdar since 2003. I became friends with Moushumi di when I found myself across the India-Pakistan border that carves us into different flesh. Moushumi di had heard about my father’s diary, and she and Sukanta da had already been working on Borders for some time. We talked, and she came up with this idea: that we must do something. We must archive these voices for us to remember, and perhaps to transcend the Borders, through a collapsing of geographies, of time, of sounds. I thus recorded this piece for them in Chicago, which was then woven with Jarigan recordings—songs of lament sung for the martyrs of Karbala—from Faridpur, Bangladesh archived by The Travelling Archive in 2008. It was presented as an art installation at the annual I.G. Khan Memorial lecture event in Aligarh in Feb 2016. I am publishing here, however, only my contribution, in which I interact and interpret Borders as seen through my father’s eyes of 1971. It is not a finished project, and I invite you to comment, respond, and take this forward in whatever way you think necessary and useful to dismantle Borders of any kind.