A story of Manipur when it started to simmer (Book Review)

Title: On A Clear Day You Can See India; Author: C. Balagopal, Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers India; Pages: 203; Prices: Rs.299

It was at age 60 that C. Balagopal decided to unwrap memories and rely on old notes and diaries to put together this fascinating book on what he saw - and did - as a young IAS officer during his first posting in Manipur. The year was 1978. What began as a collection of anecdotes, from a region that "still appeared to be an impossibly beautiful place", eventually became an enthralling read, witty and piercing at the same time. It is a book you can devour at one go.

In 200 pages, Balagopal - he has a great flair for writing, unlike many officials (he is now a businessman) who reproduce the dry language of the official files - takes you into the heart of Manipur. He realises that it is far removed from the Indian Standard Time -- because the sun rose at 5 and jeeps put on headlights at 4 in the evening!

Life is full of surprises. One day his "counterpart" from the Manipur government calls on him! Another day he accompanies a senior official who discovers that a pineapple plantation on whose account huge sums of money were being drawn did not exist at all! This was one thing that tied Manipur to India: corruption. Manipur was no wonder called "Money-pur"!

Balagopal has no sympathy for "Indians" who live in the northeast without empathy for the region. There is a Christian priest from his own state, Kerala, who tries to fleece the poor, in the name of the Lord; the author sees high-handedness by security forces during curfew hours but denies the widely held notion that Indian soldiers run amok. "Resorting to gratuitous violence was the exception, not the rule." But he exposes an army officer who had an entire village punished simply because the brother of a young woman he was wooing stood up to him.

Each chapter is an anecdotal story, each with its own moral. Balagopal introduces us to a fascinating police officer who laid in Manipur what came to be seen as one of the finest police communications networks in India, a cunningly designed system of passive repeater sets, placed atop trees in vantage points all over the state, their location known only to a select few.

Balagopal bemoans the manipulative approach adopted by New Delhi and the lack of sensitivity to local tribal differences. He says that young officers had long ago warned about the dangers of infiltration of Bangladeshis into the region. These files were ignored. North Block, he says, continues to take an imperial view of northeastern affairs.

This is a lively book.

(M.R. Narayan Swamy is Executive Editor in IANS. He can be reached on narayan.swamy@ians.in)