Citizen Issue |

A Million Migrations Now

Sonal Khullar

In India: A Million Mutinies Now, V.S. Naipaul found a nation “on the move” such that “all over the vast country, men and women had moved out of the cramped ways and expectations of their parents and grandparents, and were expecting more. This was the ‘million mutinies’ of the title; it was not guerrilla wars all round.”1 He concluded: “the most important thing about India, the thing to be gone into and understood, and not seen from the outside, was the people.”2

I was reminded of Naipaul on viewing Shuchi Kapoor’s and Sahil Saxena’s photographs of India moving, to cite the title of Chinmay Tumbe’s study of “arguably the largest
and longest non-coerced migration stream for work in documented history.”3 While Saxena’s abandoned villages in Uttarakhand testify to precisely such mass migration (“male- dominated, semi-permanent, and remittance-yielding,” according to Tumbe), Kapoor’s black-and white portraits of Hindu migrants to India from Pakistan expose a different stream of migration: the ongoing effects of what historian Vazira Zamindar has called the “long partition.”4

Kapoor’s camera captures low-caste and tribal South Asians between states, identities, and places, whose liminal status has been compared to that of “Sita, the wife of the Hindu god Rama, who came under scrutiny for sleeping in another man’s kingdom.” Her subjects embody longing and loneliness in temporary shelters made over into homes with children’s bicycles, satellite dishes, embroidered textiles hanging out to dry, and artful arrangements of things on mud and brick surfaces. They learn English and Hindi, work as day labourers, and play dress-up. They seek beauty and pleasure amid uncertainty and instability.

Saxena focuses on places and persons left behind, on landscapes and livelihoods transformed by economic migration: shuttered shops, empty playgrounds, untended fields, ruined homes, a tea shop without customers, and medical equipment without users. They are blessed by calendar art images and haunted by photographs of past rituals, festivities, and gatherings. Signage in a bus shelter encourages good farming practices; graffiti in a building with a view attests to secret rendezvous and stolen kisses. The elderly women and men and few children who remain in Pauri Garhwal keep house and fetch water, watch and wait.

Kapoor and Saxena examine the porous boundary between refugee, migrant, alien, and citizen in South Asia and the world. In light of news about border walls and refugee crises in North America and Western Europe and images of bodies lost at sea or bound in detention centers, these photographers reveal another story altogether: that of transit that is continual and contingent, of lives that are ghostly and generative, of left luggage and unknown destinations.

Sonal Khullar is an Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Washington, Seattle.


1. V. S. Naipaul, “The Long Way Round,” The Guardian, March 10, 2007. Accessed September 1, 2018. See also V.S. Naipaul, India: a Million Mutinies Now (New York: Viking, 1991).

2. Naipaul, “The Long Way Round.”

3. Chinmay Tumbe, India Moving: A History of Migration (New delhi: Penguin, 2018), 73.

4. Tumbe, India Moving, 40. Vazira Zamindar, The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia: Refugees, Boundaries, Histories (New York: Columbia university Press, 2007).