Broadcast journalist Kishalay Bhattacharjee tells us that the desire to represent the people and places of the Northeast by staying away from the stereotypical images nudged him to write “Che in Paona Bazaar”
A leading journalist from Assam once told this correspondent, “Northeast makes news for the media in New Delhi in four circumstances: a bloody bomb blast, a gory train accident, ethnic violence with rising death toll, and severe floods that snap the land route with rest of India.”
Stalk Northeast news in mainstream media for a while and you would not find him too far from the truth. So quite regularly, many a good story die there to give way to one bad story, or the ‘right’ story, to continue to feed on the popular stereotypical images of North East in majority reading here.
Senior broadcast journalist Kishalaya Bhattacharjee seems to trace his maiden swing to writing largely to this widespread phenomenon. In a chat on turning writer with Che in Paona Bazaar (Pan Macmillan), Kishalaya — till recently Resident Editor, NDTV, covering conflict in the Northeast and the Maoist corridor — says, “The idea of the book grew out of my journalistic travels across the Northeast and the stories that we often do not report because they are not considered ‘important’.”
The stories that tie the 241 pager “are also distillations of years of anger in covering conflict in the region,” he underlines. Seeing violence around him, he admits feeling angry. But says, “To keep the objectivity and sanity, one must learn to channel the anger and strive continuously against the biggest odds to bring home the images and the stories that may one day have a positive impact.”
A strife-torn Manipur is the playing field of Kishalay’s book though it snakes through politics and people of equally volatile States like Nagaland, Meghalaya and Assam, besides also throwing the spotlight on Delhi at times. This serpentine pattern, he says, is essential to the narrative. “Manipur is stereotyped in the same manner as rest of the States in the geopolitical location of the collective entity — the Northeast. So these ‘other’ States including Delhi are integral to the story of Manipur.” It was important “to include the contemporary pulse of the region without bypassing significant developments which shaped up the region, like the chapter on students’ movement of Assam.”
Having grown up in Shillong, Kishalaya knows better. He also knows, in his long years of interaction with people in Manipur and elsewhere in the region, “they could neither speak the truth of their experience nor even make it heard through ‘us’.” So an irresistible desire grew in him “to write about and represent the people and the place there in a way which steps aside from the stereotypical images…their food, their music, their history or even their biases…” The book, he underlines, “is an attempt to make the readers interact with real people, not ‘imagined communities’.” Though he straddles fact and fiction, he highlights, “Fact checking is the mainstay of the book,” adding, “a lot of contested history in the areas covered in it will keep doors open for contesting even the established facts.”
For a major part, the writer speaks through a narrator, Eshei, a Manipuri girl returning from Delhi, holding in her heart the yearning to be home. “I was collecting multiple voices but that would be too chaotic and therefore, while I retained many voices, the one that is heard the most is that of Eshei’s. She embodies the angst, contradictions, and aspirations of many of her generation caught in similar situations today,” he says.
The book also paints pictures of the author’s growing-up days in Shillong. An important strand running through it is the tribal-non-tribal divide. “Strangely, when I grew up I had no colours to see these places with. When I look back, I find it queer and perhaps recognise that the tribal and non-tribal divide was sharper than we perceived then. The ‘anti-outsider’ movement shocked people but the feeling perhaps was always dormant,” he says.
Kishalaya, now New Delhi based, says he has a second book in mind. On Northeast? “I will let it grow within me before it starts talking,” he says.
(“Che in Paona Bazaar” will be launched at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, on March 9.)