13 August 2023

Sapan and voices that erase borders

Apoorva Mudgal and Ria Modak

South Asia is a region. It is a region made of countries and therefore a territory parcelled by lines. Borders. It wasn’t always like that and maybe in time to come it won’t be like how it is today. Maps are made. They are amended. The work of cartographers never ends.

Not too long ago, there wasn’t a country called Bangladesh. There may have been notions of belonging to a territory but the boundaries were not inked. Nor were they associated with passports and visas. Not too long ago, we didn’t have a Pakistan. We didn’t have an India either. Not even a ‘Sri Lanka.’  Of course being an island, territoriality was fixed, and yet within this island there were regions and regional lords who had different kinds of relationships with a supreme ruler most times but not always.

There are countries now. There are claims of friendship, there’s talk of mechanisms that make for cross-border cooperation. And there are tensions which challenge such initiatives. We don’t need to spell them out, do we?

Nations have borders. Territorial integrity is an important part of a nation’s definition. Boundary lines therefore acquire significance. They are held sacrosanct. Sure, they can and will change (just consider how the map of Europe has changed over the last 100 years and how the USA expanded since Independence). For now they seem fixed.

Borders are lines on a piece of paper but they are imagined as walls. They are not really marked on the earth end-to-end except in the case of islands where the sea does the job, but then again how do you draw maritime boundaries in water, one may ask.  

Over time, people get emotional over borders. An inch taken or given or the threat of conceding or the will to obtain raises ire, creates the spectre of conflict-escalation to the point of war. Wars end. People die. Resources are wasted. People are impoverished. Sometimes lines are redrawn and sometimes they remain.

For all the rhetoric about nation, territorial integrity, honour and dignity which demand the defence of lines with lives, borders are also porous. A couple of weeks ago, during a webinar organised by the Southasia Peace Action Network (Sapan) on the trafficking of women and children it was made clear that national boundaries can be retired for certain kinds of activities. It cannot happen if there’s no complicity at some level among officials and even agreement among them, regardless of their nationalities.

There’s so much to gain from cooperation and so much that meaningless antipathies take away. For example, Sigma Huda, the first UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, pointed out that although a Convention was signed by SAARC countries in 2002 (the SAARC Convention on Preventing and Combating Trafficking in Women and Children for Prostitution of), implementation has been extremely disappointing. The reasons are external to the issue, the perceived walls are simply foreboding and formidable.

Sapan’s programs, such as the above mentioned webinar, address these issues. The call is not for a borderless larger South Asian Union, but an invitation to consider the fact that this side of that ‘ideal’ which perhaps some dream of, there’s much to be won for all peoples in the region.

There’s commonality and that’s not only about history. Large sections of the populations in these countries suffer from similarly pernicious structures of domination and exploitation. Climate change is border-insensitive. Identity-politics is not the preserve of a single nation in South Asia, it is a plague at times which holds and pushes back in various forms.

There are ample reasons for despair.  And there are ample reasons to hope.

A few days ago, some members of Sapan as well as others who identify with the group’s objectives met in New York City informally to talk about unities and commonalities. Almost all of them are not only concerned about sabre-rattling and the shrill whipping of anxieties over matters that are largely peripheral to the vast majority of peoples in the region, they actually do something about it. In their own way. When they can. Where they can.

Sapan does good work. That’s enough for now. What was most empowering and illuminating even was what two young South Asians, one about to start her doctoral studies, Ria Modak, and another who works as an architect, Apoorva Mudgal, gifted that small but lively and soft group of people. Apoorva sang. Ria accompanied her on the guitar. It was a song composed to a poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, ‘Nahin nigaah mein manzil to justajoo hi sahi…(If the end is not in sight).’
‘If the end is not in sight, then perhaps the quest is enough,’ so the poem goes, ‘if our union is not to be perhaps its desire is enough,’ it continues. We don’t know how long the road is, what roadblocks with delay us, what landmines have been buried along the paths, what snipers hide behind what trees, but again, as Faiz once said, it is alright that the feet bleed because some flowers may still bloom as those who undertake journeys water the desert with their blood.

There are times when an unexpected incident makes countries or rather their leaders insist ‘we will not talk,’ as Been Sarwar, the indefatigable force that expands Sapan’s territory of hope mentioned at a similar gathering a couple of days later near Princeton, New Jersey. They turn lines into barricades and walls. It doesn’t stop the music.  

Faiz wrote in Urdu. I don’t understand a word. I am not a connoisseur of music. Apoorva and Ria made my multiple ignorances irrelevant. Faiz was born in ‘British’ India in 1911. He died in Lahore, Pakistan in 1984. He still lives all over the world. He even visited New York just a few days ago. His words, work, hopes and celebrations floated across time and continent, settled in the hearts of two exceptionally gifted musicians who shared that love with everyone.  

Walls collapsed. Borders disappeared. This too happens in ‘South Asia.’ Thanks to Faiz, to poets and poetry, the work of groups like Sapan, and beautiful young people like Apoorva and Ria.


['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is 193rd article in the new series. Links to previous articles are given below] 

Other articles in this series: 

Problem elephants and problem humans

Songs from the vaekanda

The 'inhuman' elephant in a human zoo

Ivan Art: Ivanthi Fernando's efforts to align meaning

Arwa Turra, heart-stitcher

Let's help Jagana Krishnakumar rebuild our ancestral home

True national anthems

Do you have a friend in Pennsylvania (or anywhere?)

A gateway to illumination in West Virginia

Through strange fissures into magical orchards

There's sea glass love few will see 

Re-residencing Lakdasa Wikkramasinha

Poisoning poets and shredding books of verse

The responsible will not be broken

Home worlds

Ownership and tenuriality of the Wissahickon

Did you notice the 'tiny, tiny wayside flowers'?

Gifts, gifting and their rubbishing

History is new(s)

Journalism inadvertently learned

Reflections on the young poetic heart

Wordaholic, trynasty and other portmanteaus

The 'Loku Aiya' of all 'Paththara Mallis'

Subverting the indecency of the mind

Character theft and the perennial question 'who am I?'


A degree in people

Faces dripping with time

Saji Coomaraswamy and rewards that matter

Revolutionary unburdening

Seeing, unseeing and seeing again

Alex Carey and the (small) matter of legacy

The Edelweiss of Mirissa 

The insomnial dreams of Kapila Kumara Kalinga 

The clothes we wear and the clothes that wear us (down) 

Every mountain, every rock, is sacred 

Manufacturing passivity and obedience 

Precept and practice 

Sanjeew Lonliyes: rawness unplugged, unlimited 

In praise of courage, determination and insanity 

The relative values of life and death 

Feet that walk 

Sarinda's eyes 

Poetry and poets will not be buried 

Sunny Dayananda 

Reunion Peradeniya (1980-1990) 

What makes Oxygen breathable?  

Sorrowing and delighting the world 

The greatest fallacy  

Encounters with Liyanage Amarakeerthi 

Beyond praise and blame 

Letters that cut and heal the heart 

Vanished and vanishing trails 


A forgotten dawn song from Embilipitiya 

The soft rain of neighbourliness  

The Gold Medals of being 

Jaya Sri Ratna Sri 

All those we've loved before 

Reflections on waves and markings 

A chorus of National Anthems 

Saying what and how 

'Say when' 

Respond to insults in line with the Akkosa Sutra 

The loves of our lives 

The right time, the right person 

The silent equivalent of a thousand words 

Crazy cousins are besties for life 

Unities, free and endearing 

Free verse and the return key

"Sorry, Earth!" 

The lost lyrics of Premakeerthi de Alwis 

The revolution is the song 

Consolation prizes in competitions no one ever wins 

The day I won a Pulitzer 


Ella Deloria's silences 

Blackness, whiteness and black-whiteness 

Inscriptions: stubborn and erasable  


Deveni: a priceless one-word koan 

Enlightening geometries 

Let's meet at 'The Commons' 

It all begins with a dot 

Recovering run-on lines and lost punctuation 

'Wetness' is not the preserve of the Dry Zone 

On sweeping close to one's feet 

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

To be an island like the Roberts... 

Debts that can never be repaid in full

An island which no flood can overwhelm 

Who really wrote 'Mother'? 

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing 

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed 

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember 

On loving, always 

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal 

When you turn 80... 

It is good to be conscious of nudities  

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday  

There's a one in a million and a one in ten 

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling 

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California 

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature 

Pathways missed 

Architectures of the demolished 

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts 

Who the heck do you think I am? 

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha' 

The Mangala Sabhava 

So how are things in Sri Lanka? 

The most beautiful father 

Palmam qui meruit ferat 

The sweetest three-letter poem 

Buddhangala Kamatahan 

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello 

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership 

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked 

Pure-Rathna, a class act 

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna 

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other 

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles 

Matters of honor and dignity 

Yet another Mother's Day 

A cockroach named 'Don't' 

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth 

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara 

Sweeping the clutter away 

Some play music, others listen 

Completing unfinished texts 

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn 

I am at Jaga Food, where are you? 

On separating the missing from the disappeared 

Moments without tenses 

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have) 

The world is made of waves 


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller 

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya' 

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist 

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses 

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced 

Some stories are written on the covers themselves 

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature 

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time  

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie 

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists? 

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords 

The books of disquiet 

A song of terraced paddy fields 

Of ants, bridges and possibilities 

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva  

World's End 

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse 

Street corner stories 

Who did not listen, who's not listening still? 

The book of layering 

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain 

The world is made for re-colouring 

The gift and yoke of bastardy 

The 'English Smile' 

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5 

Visual cartographers and cartography 

Ithaca from a long ago and right now 

Lessons written in invisible ink 

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness' 

A tea-maker story seldom told 

On academic activism 

The interchangeability of light and darkness 

Back to TRADITIONAL rice 

Sisterhood: moments, just moments 

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging 

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha 

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows 

Sirith, like pirith, persist 

Fragrances that will not be bottled  

Colours and textures of living heritage 

Countries of the past, present and future 

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched 

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains 

The ways of the lotus 

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace 

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville 

Live and tell the tale as you will 

Between struggle and cooperation 

Of love and other intangibles 

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions 

The universe of smallness 

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers 

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills 

Serendipitous amber rules the world 

Continents of the heart
The allegory of the slow road