How we imagine ‘far’ and ‘near’

Garga Chatterjee


There is this amazing guy called Ollie Bye who lives in the United Kingdom. He has been making history based animations for a few years. They are on Youtube as videos, watched by lakhs of people. There I came across an animation video on the history of what is now vaguely called South Asia. It starts roughly with the Harappan era and ends with the 21st century. In that period, it shows the changing political landscape by showing political boundaries of all autonomous and semi-autonomous entities (for example, entities loosely associated with a strong power is shown in light blue while the stronger power itself is coloured deep blue). Thus, it tries to give a very fine grained idea about political entities – spanning small, medium and large sized kingdoms, empires, semi-independent governorates (like Bengal for quite some time before the British arrived), colonial empires, princely states and contemporary entities like Indian Union, Pakistan, etc including erstwhile semi-independent countries like Sikkim. It does all of this in about 10 minutes. In those 10 minutes, orders change, countries vanish and appear, far away things join up and so on. It is dynamic. That is how the past is. Dynamic. So is the present. So will be the future. Change is the only constant of the human condition.


Screen shot from Ollie Bye's 'History of South Asia Every Year'. (Courtesy: Youtube)
Screen shot from Ollie Bye’s ‘History of South Asia Every Year’. (Courtesy: Youtube)


Now what struck me in seeing this, and I have had this thought before, is that our imagination of what is our homeland, what is far, what is near, is so much shaped in a top-down manner by present political ideologies which we, as citizens, are expected to accept as our own identities. Thus, the Indian Union constructs the “Indian” with an increasingly not-so-subtle Hindu overtone where a West Bengali is expected to feel more at one with a Tamil or a Haryanvi than an East Bengali. Pakistan started as “Muslim India” of sorts and still carries on a schizophrenic existence torn between that idea and an idea that uses the Indus river as the civilizational binding axis. In the former imaginary, as a “Pakistani”, a Pathan was supposed to feel closer to an East Bengali Muslim and less close to a Pathan across the Durand line.


Even the idea of South Asia presents such a problem – is Pakistan western South Asia or eastern Middle-East? And these questions are not merely geographical but also ideological. One needs to look deep into questions like why are these binaries presented, how did we acquire them, why did earlier identities change, how is even this sense of “earlier” constructed, what kind of anxieties of both the citizen and the state animate such anxieties of identity, whose purpose does each imaginary serve, what is the relationship of each of those many imaginaries with the person and most importantly, the mother of all questions – how did we come to be the way we are.


Screen shot from Ollie Bye's 'History of Southeast Asia'. (Courtesy: Youtube)
Screen shot from Ollie Bye’s ‘History of Southeast Asia’. (Courtesy: Youtube)


Such imaginations also change distances – distances in the real world, distances of the mind. Thus, in a certain kind of imaginary that Delhi inherits from London and also wants to push as part of its geopolitics, Isfahan is farther from Lucknow than London and Nanjing is farther from Chennai than New York or even more ridiculously, Dhaka is farther from Kolkata than Delhi.


Such distances serve power. Such distances destroy parts of our culturally inherited multi-faceted selfhoods. They also create new facets in line with power. Thus, in these times, when one starts measuring distances differently from what your state authorities want you to do, it is deemed bizarre at best, seditious at worst. For Islamabad wants you to think that Pakistan has natural and ideological coherence and concocts it daily. So does Delhi. The whole imaginary of a Himalayan barrier and the seas around the peninsula with what lies within being a “natural” unit is a concept that is in the service of integrity. Anxieties about this integrity makes power drive in such concepts of coherence every moment into the heads of its citizenry – media, schools, universities, text books, official narratives, allowed histories, foundational myths, monuments, plaques, remembrances, creation of figures who are beyond critique and so on. But still, memories persist, other imaginaries persist and even the state cannot control every aspect of every dynamic that shapes human beings. And in that space that power cannot control, in that crack, lies hope.


In the 15th century with contemporary transport technologies, the so-called “natural” barrier of the Himalayas did not stop 12 diplomatic missions from the independent country of Bengal to the court of the Ming Emperor of China in Nanjing. After Bengal’s Hindu king Ganesh installed his son Jadu (who later converted to Islam and became Jalaluddin as a truce between the Muslim Pathan nobility, Muslim clergy and the Hindu king Ganesh), a section of the clergy was not happy with the sham “Ïslamic” arrangement where Ganesh remained the power behind the throne.


Surely, many non-spiritual interests of this section of the Muslim clergy were also affected. They banded together to invite the Sultan of Jaunpur (now largely part of the Bhojpuri speaking homeland that is divided between Uttar Pradesh and Bihar states of the Indian Union) to invade Bengal. Who did Bengal call to avert this crisis? Well, the Ming Emperor of China. The Emperor sent a senior government functionary as well as forces under a senior admiral by sea. The invasion did not happen as China mediated negotiations. Delhi was not part of this picture at all.


Where then was India or even South Asia for that matter? How did Bengal then imagine its neighbourhood? Did it have Jaunpur, Bengal, China and what is now Burma? Whatever it was, it was not Bharatmata for sure. Areas, closeness and alliance were very differently imagined not too long ago before the British acquired Bengal and went on to add things to this “Bengal” so much so that at one point of time it was the whole Gangetic plain and even Punjab. That even west Punjab was nominally under the administrative unit called Bengal as late as 1858 was reversed in 1971 when East Bengal fought to be free from West Punjab rule.


The British grabbed lands, joined them together and the result was called India. Our contemporary imagination of East Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, South-East Asia and our ideas of them as distinct politico-cultural spheres are the result of European colonialism in Asia. Distances were different earlier. Bengal sent the same gift to China twice in the first half of the 15th century and it reflected Bengal’s international trade links then – it’s then imaginary of near and far. The gifts were imported to Bengal and then exported to China. It was not muslin. They were giraffes from Africa.