Nepalganj: In this border town, huddled along a road and an invisible line through lush green paddy fields and stands of sal and flame of the forest trees, I feel more at home than in many other parts of the subcontinent. This is a feeling that has nothing to do with aesthetics, good restaurants or nightlife. But it has everything to do with the presence of the border. Now before ultra nationalists leap to conclusions (a-ha, told you he was soft on India), let me say it is the border itself that intrigues and pleases me, the terrain around it, and the people who make their livings along the frontier.
Nepalganj may not be pretty, but it's full of life and dynamism. Fortunes can be made here, and lost. Ever more opulent mosques are popping up, and the Muslim property dealer or merchant who builds them has a palatial sprawling home, well within range of the azaan. Aficionados of Newari architecture, and I am one, will find little to please them in the style of construction. It is largely of a type known in Delhi as Punjabi Baroque, balconies and bedrooms galore, crenelated walls and terraces, suburban sprawl at its finest. But what I admire is the border-driven energy that generated the wealth behind the construction.
I've been drawn to frontier areas for as long as I can remember. A still distinct impression from childhood is the delicious trepidation of crossing from Canada to the United States and making much of the differences from one side to the next. Canada has parlayed its proximity with the world's greatest economy into a pretty successful project. Call it, if you like, border management. A big, sometimes implacably uncaring or unfathomable neighbour, but keep the goods, services and tourists flowing and everything is all right.
So in wanderings ever since, I've gone to the borderlands, even if I didn't have to, to marvel and wonder. Some favourites spring to mind. At Nong Khai, Thailand, on the Mekong River, you boarded a rickety wooden boat, and balancing luggage on your knees as the long-tailed engine churned across to Laos. Behind you, a classic frontier town slipped into the mist. Nong Khai was the haven of dreams for Laotians and their ethnic cousins on the Thai side. It thronged with beer bars, brothels, dodgy businesses based on smuggling and people selling ever more ambitious dreams in Bangkok. The town was an island of relative prosperity in the poorest part of Thailand and the unfathomable poverty of Laos. At night, you could hear the splashes of illegal boats and swimmers, braving the currents and the cops for a taste of prosperity.
Between Singapore and the old pirate capital of Tanjung Pinang in Indonesia, an ultra modern hydrofoil takes from the consumerist paradise of the Lion City to genteel and picturesque decline. Buccaneering isn't what it used to be, but smuggling hopeful workers to Singapore isn't a bad substitute. It is a rough business and only the strong survive. Indonesians travel thousands of kilometres and spend their life savings to get to Tanjung Pinang. Usually they fail to realise even a sliver of their dreams. But the first glimpse of the frontier, on land or water, fills them with unrealistic hope so they carry one.
Anyone who travels, by necessity or for fun, will tell you that borders are a state of mind, not lines drawn by colonial pens or bureaucrats at negotiating tables. Nepal's border region with India is such a place. It isn't true to say, as the Western guidebooks do, that places like Nepalganj are "more Indian" or "less Nepali." What they are is the frontier where hearts and minds are different from those in the hinterlands in either direction, where people are tougher, less law-abiding, often friendlier and usually wealthier. Those who advocate, in Delhi and Kathmandu, re-imposing tight restrictions on the border should bear all this mind. Open frontiers bother officialdom but generate wealth; closed borders enrich smugglers. Ask the Indians and the Pakistanis how successful they have been on keeping their frontier shut to terrorism, spying, contraband and divided families. Only the latter lose out.