Ethnographic Time and the Border: An Interview with Malini Sur

Photo by Malini Sur.

This post builds on the research article “Time at Its Margins: Cattle Smuggling across the India-Bangladesh Border” by Malini Sur, which was published in the November 2020 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

In this conversation, Scott Schnur sits down with Malini Sur to discuss the importance of engaging time from an ethnographic perspective during fieldwork. Discussing the myriad ways that temporal considerations shaped the lives of her interlocuters, Sur argues that centering time allows scholars to more richly understand the present and can open critical cross-disciplinary conversations with fields such as philosophy and history.

Scott Schnur: Your work is re-centers the anthropological study of time to the border, moving it away from “the comparative scholarship of internally coherent religious and national bodies to the very margins of religions, nations, and capital” (548). What attracted you to the border? How do borders help anthropologists think about time in new ways, and what does thinking from the margins add to larger disciplinary conversations about time?

Malini Sur: Your question takes me to back to the summer of 2007 when I started fieldwork along the Northeast India–Bangladesh border. I intended to follow the lives and journeys of undocumented Bangladeshi migrants as they traveled from the border to various Indian cities. However, my fieldwork took on a life of its own when India started constructing a new fence along its border with Bangladesh. The India-Bangladesh border is 2,545 miles long—more than the combined length of the Israel-Palestine and U.S.-Mexico borders. While this border is not a warring one on a geopolitical level like the Israel-Palestine or India-Pakistan borders, it continues to be a site of land and identity conflicts and gross human rights violations. As I explored the shifting forms of the new infrastructure, I realized that border fences and walls recast established notions of mobility and citizenship, and time and histories. The border’s constantly shifting forms ensured that I could not leave it at all, and I continued conducting ethnographic fieldwork in the area until 2015.

During fieldwork, I realized that the time experienced by border dwellers was not linear. For undocumented border-crossers who depended upon the border to make a living, time calculations were fundamental for shaping the margins of life and death. The border structured reciprocity and kinship and the enforcement of state violence and illegality—themes that have been central to the study of anthropology and border ethnographies. Time came to determine who could earn a living and who would meet a torturous death at the hands of border troops. By closely attending to the erratic shifts in time, anthropologists of borderlands can engage in a productive conversation with history. It is important for anthropologists to illustrate the diversity and precariousness of border times, especially in this era when borders are being imperceptibility closed off. Anthropologists can explore how people experience the present and forge connections between the past and the future in ways that transcend the boundaries of the nation state. I attempt to do this in greater detail in my forthcoming book Jungle Passports:Fences, Mobility, and Citizenship at the Northeast India-Bangladesh Border (2021), which contextualizes the narrow strip of cemented land where India’s new border fence with Bangladesh now stands. The book explores the struggles that coalesce the border in relationship to two hundred years of contentious land and identity politics.

SS: While your work takes place at the margins and borders of the state, in many ways these borders are also centers: as you demonstrate, nationalist histories, myths, and identities are enacted in particularly violent and material ways at these interfaces. The border bears the weight of the nation, and national identities are performed through the manipulation and reconfiguration of time that take place along it. While you begin exploring this through your conversations with Chand, how else did you see your interlocutors engaging with these nationally oriented temporal narratives?

MS: The origin and existence of nations and states are intrinsically tied to borders and border-making. Borders, as Donnan Hastings and Thomas Wilson (1999) remind us, play a critical role in influencing citizenship, sovereignty, and national identity. Some scholars argue that border regions are unique because they are marked by their distance from national centers and proximity to other states (Martinez 1994). Border zones also function as overlapping sites of power and authority for regional elites, states, and border residents, attention to whose actions and struggles enriches studies of space, politics, and globalization (Baud and Van Schendel 1997). As I suggest in my article, sovereignty, power struggles, and gendered identities impinge upon people’s experience of time at the nation’s margin. Unlike Chand and Alibaba, Bangladeshi and Indian Muslim men who engage in cattle smuggling across Assam’s chars and whose experiences I write about in “Time at Its Margins,” the Garo Bangladeshi women’s experience of border times follows the temporality of the haats—cyclical rural markets that meet in different locations throughout the week. Until India started building its fence with Bangladesh, Indian and Bangladeshi troops did not consider the journeys of Garo women traders to be illegal.

The India-Bangladesh border is a legacy of arbitrary colonial map-making. In 1947, the British colonial state, unmindful of geographies, ethnicities, and trade routes, hastily imposed a new international boundary that divided the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan. The stretches of this line that cut between Northeast India and the northern districts of Bangladesh, including the border zone I studied, are particularly fascinating because they accommodate more than two nation-states, religions, and ethnicities.

Scholars conventionally consider the years 1947 and 1971 to be important temporal markers in the lives of India and Bangladesh as independent nations. For border societies, these years were also when their sovereignties and claims came to be both brutally subjugated and compromised. Sanjib Baruah’s (2020) recent book In the Name of the Nation highlights how people residing in states of Northeast India, a region that I also write about, experience national histories. His book reminds us about Northeast India’s troubled existence within India as well as its complicated borders with Bangladesh.

Willem van Schendel’s (2005) Bengal Borderland and Ellen Bal’s (2007) They Ask If We Eat Frogs, make it clear that the emergence of Pakistan and Bangladesh as independent nations subsumed the identities of ethnic communities such as the Chakmas, whose lands were included in East Pakistan, and the Garo Christians, whose border lives I also explore in Bangladesh. In Jungle Passports I show how Bangladesh’s emergence as a Bengali nation, with its attendant codes of honor and shame for Bengali women, and Bangladesh’s growth as an export-oriented nation have reordered the lives of Garo Christian Bangladeshi women trans-border traders. They continue to cross the border to trade in India, and yet remain politically marginal.

SS: Anthropologists writing on time have taken various approaches to describing the “forms” of time that people encounter or create in the world. From privileging more linear approaches to time (e.g., Alfred Gell’s [1992] “B-series” time) to arguing for attention to temporal simultaneity (Hodges 2008; Bergson 2012) or the ways time emerges through social practice and power relations (Munn 1992; Greenhouse 1996; Bear 2016a), one could argue that there is no uniform anthropological approach to theorizing time or people’s experiences of it. How did you conceive of time before you began your research, and how did your field experiences change (or reinforce) your original thinking on topic? What experiences originally made time and temporally oriented social action a visible and salient category for analysis?

MS: Anthropologists have attended to time’s manifestations through rituals, values, nature, and capital. Time regulates economic activities and political and cosmological governance (Leach 1961; Geertz 1966; Evans-Pritchard 1969; Burman 1981; Munn 1992), it shapes nation-building and national histories (Chatterjee 1993; Hoskins 1997), and structures capitalist value and governmentality (Bear 2016; Yeh 2017). Anthropological insights on time-reckoning foreground how notions of biographical time embedded in the value of objects and animals, heritage and national history, are distinct forces (Hoskins 1997). At one temporal scale, the borderland that I studied consisted of remote rural locations, which functioned according to routine agrarian and pastoral times: villagers woke up early, worked in fields, tended to animals, worked in state offices and schools, traded in rotational markets, and left for nearby towns—all following routines of village life and clockwork. Yet without warning, these locations could also turn into sites of extraordinary violence. The Indian and Bangladeshi troops housed in military outposts followed the dictates of national times and perpetrated violence; they also facilitated smuggling. They respected time with regard to trans-border ceremonies by sending official trans-border gifts to camps on the other side of the border on independence and victory days. That nations produce asymmetric times—with past, present, and future neither in linear relation to one another nor neatly linking to a shared sense of identity, nationhood, or progress—is evident in Partha Chatterjee’s (1993) rendering of the exclusions generated by nationalism. At borders, these exclusions are especially visible, as are the temporal asymmetries.

I did not initially intend to study the role of time or even frontier histories, but time, time calculations, and borderland histories became central to my work. When I arrived to conduct fieldwork, it became apparent that the people’s experience of time and my sensing of that time would fundamentally shape my work as well as determine my safety and well-being as an anthropologist. In fact, in many ways, and especially due to the post-traumatic stress that I experienced and the specific nature of anthropological labor that demanded iterative re-dwelling, the past continually emerges, flows, and resurface across different stages of ethnographic labor. Writing anthropology requires the repeated re-living of time and its hauntings along with the struggles and the traumas of those we study as well as those who posed dangers to our lives.

SS: Why should anthropologists care about time, and what do you hope to see come out of today’s “temporal turn” (Bear 2016b)?

MS: In discussing a “temporal turn” in anthropology, Laura Bear locates the increasing attention to time, including a growing interest in futurities and critical readings of modernity and post-modernity (Bear 2016b). What I find especially productive about her work is how she challenges earlier formulations of capitalist modernity to analyze contemporary capitalist circulations and disruptions. She shows how these impinge upon people’s experience of modern times, filling it with doubts, conflicts and dilemmas. Departing from capitalist modernity that posit modern social time as situated in the routines of clockwork, Bear argues that changing labor dynamics in contemporary modernity lay bare and work to resolve disparate social rhythms and representations of time (Bear 2014). This, she argues, also includes nonhuman times, which relates to your previous question.

Anthropology grounded in ethnographic fieldwork offers an important method of studying the present. I do not think there is a substitute for the ethnographic method: the production of anthropological knowledge relies foundationally on an immersive experience in time. Today the discipline is undergoing radical transformations due to collective action against racism and colonialism. Given the scale of state violence and deprivation that defines the present, I see hope that anthropology will contribute to this “temporal turn” by generating new understandings of the present.

SS: Time and temporality are hard to approach ethnographically. As Nancy Munn (1992, 116) sums it up, it is a supremely difficult task to develop an analytical approach for something “so ordinary and apparently transparent in everyday life . . . time, with its pervasiveness, inescapability, and chameleonic character, is the epitome of that problem.” I’d like to think about this problem from the perspective of a researcher and a teacher: how do you think researchers should approach time ethnographically, and what methods were most successful for you? And how, as instructors, can we teach our students to pay closer attention to time’s multi-rhythmic and all-encompassing presence in the world? This is a big question, but an important one!

MS: You are absolutely correct in asking this question and reminding us of Nancy Munn’s important words. For me, thinking about time and analyzing time emerged from my fieldwork with trans-border traders, refugees, exiles, politicians and priests whom I lived and traveled with. A good ethnographer immersed in participant observation must be situated in time and location with the people whose lifeworlds they seek to understand. This is what I continue to convey and emphasize to my students. The exchanges, calculations, hopes, and fears that emerge from ethnographic situatedness shape knowledge production in anthropology, rather than holding on to the concepts that have defined our academic time prior to fieldwork or after. In this regard, time is fundamental to thinking about many aspects of social life and political formations. The study of time in anthropology also easily lends itself to cross-disciplinary conversations, including with history and philosophy. Despite its elusive nature and inherent slipperiness, anthropologists must explore time at many scales and beyond the margins of nations, cultures, and capital.


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———. 2016a. “For a New Materialist Analytics of Time.” Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 34, no. 1: 125–29.

———. 2016b. “Time as Technique.” Annual Review of Anthropology 45: 487–502.

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