Book: Che in Paona Bazaar
AUTHOR: Kishalay Bhattacharjee
PUBLISHER: Pan Macmillan
The book also discusses Irom Sharmila’s decade-old struggle and fast against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and the steadfast support she enjoys among the people
Souzeina Mushtaq Delhi
The North-east is not only a story about State repression, alienation, curfews, rapes and bomb blasts; it has the other side, where people experience countless emotions of love, hatred, pain and happiness. In his book Che in Paona Bazaar, Kishalay Bhattacharjee, who was the Resident Editor (North-east) of NDTV, takes us on a journey that unveils this ‘other’ side of the story. For him, “North-east is not an imagined community separated from the politics and policies that govern the rest of the country. It is as real as the violence that has torn the land apart.”
In his career of 20 years, as a part of his journalistic tours and travels in the region, Bhattacharjee discovered that the media has reduced the region to the ‘nationalist’ stereotype of a bloody conflict. The region is a victim of either insensitive indifference, or a compulsive cliché. His deep desire to tell the stories of universal appeal made him write the book.
The book is the odyssey of a reporter in the valley of Imphal where he meets Eshei, a partly real and partly fictional character, who is also the protagonist of the book. Eshei, meaning songs in Manipuri, is a college girl who narrates the other, subliminal stories of Manipur to the writer. She represents the eclectic face of the youth of the North-east, torn by the relentless conflict in the region, the daily ordeals, and also everyday academic trails.
As he walks on the streets, looking for stories, Bhattacharjee discovers a bustling market at the corner of Imphal’s most popular street: Paona Bazaar. The bazaar was named after Paonam Nawol Singh who was a subedar in the Manipur army and later became a major general in the British army. His refusal to bow before the British army turned him into a hero in local folklore.
The striking feature of the market, apart from the lucrative bargains for those interested in buying cheap Chinese-made goods, is the uncanny resemblance with the ‘idea of revolutionary Cuba’. The market is full of items with a kaleidoscope of black and red pictures of Che Guevera, the Cuban revolutionary. His popularity can be traced to commercial Chinese manufacturers who have imprinted his face on almost everything—from calendars, belts and caps, to garam masala sachets and at HIV drop-in centres.
The book also discusses Irom Sharmila’s decade-old struggle and fast against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and the steadfast support she enjoys among the people. In tandem, the writer tells us that the people are forced to wage war, “the war of independence and self-determination from colonial India” while, as common people, they also want to have a say in Indian democracy. “…The common people want good roads, a salary without different percentage cuts, drinkable tap water, electricity, good schools and security,” Kishalay writes as Eshei narrates her story.
Towards the end, the writer talks about his schooling in Shillong, hidden in the lap of clouds. Though famous as the town with the finest of schools, especially missionary schools, the writer found it difficult to identify with the scholars in Shillong. Was it “the inability of the locals to assimilate the outsiders into the system, or the haughty stubbornness of the plainsmen to adopt any of the local attributes into their own lifestyles?” The answer remains an unfolding enigma.
Indeed, as people try to cope with everyday difficulties, “a group of young men and women started writing poems of love and longing. The poems had nothing of the bloodshed and the pain and loss. Love was the overarching theme.”
The book, with its beautiful, visual language, opens up new ways of seeing the North-east. Yet, the author has his own hidden and expressed biases, which are often transparent. For instance, if people want development, it means they don’t want self dignity and freedom, or that they don’t want to fight for self-determination. This is a stereotype which the book is unable to reconcile.