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Random variables in the Northeast

Former NDTV journalist Kishalay Bhattacharjee produces an ultimately disappointing account of India's little-known frontier

Devjyot Ghoshal  |  New Delhi 

Che in Paona Bazaar could have been better written. In fact, it should have been. Former NDTV journalist Kishalay Bhattacharjee's book tells little-known stories of a region often forgotten and usually overlooked by the mainstream (or, if I may, the mainland's) media, but these are important tales from an equally important region.

"Tales of Exile and Belonging from India's North-East" is how the book is described, though the paragraphs on the back page are perhaps more accurate in labelling it an exercise in exploring Manipur's underbelly. Like with much else in the Northeast, with this, too, there is an inherent sense of confusion - and, unfortunately, it is this singular lack of focus that eventually asphyxiates what could have been a smart book on India's eastern frontier.

"...this is a book made of images, stories of individuals and anecdotes that are part of an ongoing journey in my life," Mr Bhattacharjee writes in the prologue, and the book opens with the fascinating story of the "phanek", the Manipuri woman's wrap-around skirt of choice that later became an enforced costume.

It is the first of the many anecdotal histories of things, people and events - complete with wise observations that reveal more than storied text on these matters - that should have formed the bedrock of Che in Paona Bazaar, but as the eponymous opening chapter closes, the abruptness of the unusual narrative begins establishing itself.

Yet, it is not as though the author hasn't explored enough. To the contrary, his awareness of the region, particularly Manipur, is evident. His knowledge of Moreh's sought-after satin lingerie, for instance, stands witness to over a decade of exposure to the region. What is lacking, however, is a storyteller's poise; the curious introduction - and the subsequent sudden exit - of Eshei, a fictional character that Mr Bhattacharjee employs, simply reinforces that inadequacy.

However, in the initial furlongs, it remains an engrossing journey. The powerful yet ephemeral world of "Virtual Hoten", an internet forum that even the most casual observer of Manipur is likely to never discover, is among them. The past, the present and the many layers of lore in between are powerfully combined by Mr Bhattacharjee, yet he never explores anything deep enough.

There are, of course, bursts of insightful writing. "The bottom line is that every tribe, sub-tribe, ethnic group, community or even separatist armed militias harp on 'identity'," he asserts. "Till the 1980s, 'identity' was a word that meant nothing beyond an identification card," he adds. But without even a cursory academic exploration of events, Mr Bhattacharjee is unable to build on this. Instead, he chooses to stitch together a wide panorama of experiences - the HIV epidemic, the mourning of Republic Day in the plains surrounding Imphal, the cash-dominated pre-election rituals - which inform, without explanation or adequate history.

The truly unusual cast of characters that Mr Bhattacharjee must have painstakingly gathered, too, suffers from this treatment. Cha's musical pedigree or Shanta's drug abuse is not explored enough, which is dismaying; their stories could have brought depth to the narrative. There are also small, avoidable, but grating, errors. Take Eshei's fetishes, for instance: first, we are told, it is only lingerie; 30 pages later, it is also colourful socks. Mr Bhattacharjee must decide.

Chapters now hurtle past without really saying much. There are conversations with Irom Sharmila; a much-delayed mention of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN); a smattering of stories of uniformed men, much derided in these parts, and their good deeds; short oral histories and local folklore; and even a predictable chapter on the Bnei Menashes, the lost tribe of Jews in a far eastern corner of India. Yet, everything is dealt with superficially.

The latter chapters lack detail. In "Journey", which describes the author's travel to Somdel, NSCN-IM chief Thuingaleng Muivah's village, there is nothing that reveals that this is an experienced scribe's chronicle of a remote and important settlement. Mr Bhattacharjee doesn't fail to mention that he led the first-ever TV crew into the Muivah household, and all else is seemingly ignored. There are no real descriptions or indication of the population. There's nothing on the local economy, either.

By this point the book is nearly falling apart. Eshei's comings and goings in the narrative are impulsive, and her own story sometimes incomprehensible. Manipur itself is suddenly forgotten, while Mr Bhattacharjee begins to describe Assam's slide into insurgency. Never mind that Manipur's conflict is never really chronicled in detail, it's spectacular rise not deconstructed.

Ultimately, the book is disappointing because it promises much and delivers little. The narrative is tangled up, caught in the author's images of many years spent reporting the Northeast and, possibly, an overwhelming desire to tell far too much in 241 pages.

In Che in Paona Bazaar, Mr Bhattacharjee tries very hard, gets close, but eventually fails. The shortcomings in his prose may have much to do with it, even if one discounts the jarring perceptivity on sexuality that he decides to impart intermittently.

"...Eshei would stay awake. Masturbation would not yield any pleasure," he writes. The book isn't much different.

Tales of Exile and Belonging From India's North-East
Kishalay Bhattacharjee
Macmillan; Rs 300; 248 pages

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First Published: Thu, March 07 2013. 21:20 IST