A review of Kishalay Bhattacharjee, Che in Paona Bazaar, Macmillan, 2013, Rs 399, pp. 241
Paona Bazaar lies in the heart of Imphal, Manipur. One can describe this place by its proximity to Bir Tikendrajit Road which had seen the infamous fake encounter case in July 2009. In fact many of the landmarks of the town would tell a story of it being part of a constellation of political violence. Che, I would presume, needs no introduction here. The attempt here is to understand this curious juxtaposition of ‘Che’ and ‘Paona Bazaar’ as seen through the lens of a media practitioner. The book ‘Che in Paona Bazaar’ largely discusses (but not exclusively) two states –Manipur and Nagaland - of what is unproblematically called the North-east. These two states are not only connected by a common border but also by it falling in the category of ‘disturbed area’. The infamous Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958 has been in place in these states, it is often argued that the enactment of this act is partly related to the peculiar and coerced manner in which these states become a part of the Indian Union. One would therefore expect some amount of nuanced understanding which captures the complexities from a book that claims to deal with the region.
This work of non-fiction with a fictional protagonist whom the writer claims as ‘not representative of any community or culture’ is named Eshei (Meiteilon word for Song) which is a dead giveaway. She is a typical native informant in the book that reminds the reader of dated anthropological writings. The book is to a large extent a narrative mediated through Eshei. The writer does not shy away from beginning the book with racial stereotypes that abounds in the mainstream Indian imagination of the so-called Northeast. The oldest armed group in Manipur – UNLF – mentioned in the initial pages of the book is referred to as ‘working towards a unification of Mongoloid armed groups’, is just one of many such unabashed stereotypes. Comparing cultures on the basis of exotic curiosities –for example, comparing Manipuri and Korean culture based on the practice of putting family name before given name; comparing Sanamahism to Shamanism. Perhaps meant to be amusing, but rather than being funny it ends up carelessly taking down a language especially as in one sentence the protagonist’s fetish for Moreh bras is strangely morphed into its seeming importance among a whole community. Unbelievable as it might sound; the author states that bra (brassiere) is an important word among the Meiteis due to the interrogative pronoun ‘bra’ suffixed at the end of a query.
Moreh, the border town, described as a Manipuri Malgudi in the book of course is a terribly wrong metaphor. Using the metaphor of Moreh being a Manipuri Malgudi, the writer was not even romanticising the town but describing the dirt, grit, ‘prostitution’ and smuggling of drugs which is typical of many border towns in conflict zones across the globe. The writer takes himself too seriously, if the name of the book ‘Che in Paona Bazaar’ itself is not enough indication of that, sample these sentences – ‘my ‘motorcycle diaries’ brought me to Paona Bazaar’; ‘I was the Pirate of Paona Bazaar’! In the start of the book itself the writer expresses his disdain for one of his native informant as he had to do his own research, he seem to want everything on a platter and does not shy away from expressing this. This is one of the kinder expressions he uses; he describes people scathingly leaving enough hints to identify the people populating his book. Even a superficial analysis of the choice of qualifiers used in the book reveals much. For instance, Manorama Devi (though her name is not given it is impossible to miss out on the clues) is described as an explosives expert but she was allegedly raped. Allegedly raped? What about her real murder? The protests that ensued after the rape and murder of Manorama Devi have been offhandedly described as creating ‘another stereotype of naked protests’. One is at a loss as to what the statement is supposed to mean. Did it lead to a chain of naked protests throughout the country? No. Does the country recognise rape of men and women in peripheral states by the armed forces? No. Or did he mean that yet another stereotype has been added to those currently proliferating on the northeast? A second or a third reading does not make this clear either.
What is worst than this racial stereotype interspersed in the writing is the lack of any nuanced political understanding of the region from someone who was at the helm of news from the ‘North-east’ as a Resident Editor for a national news channel. In a rather bizarre juxtaposition he narrates two incidents together – the protest by women who stripped themselves outside the headquarters of Assam Rifles; and another incident six months later where a ‘Meitei girl’ ‘made love to a young army officer’ inside the headquarters of the Assam Rifles. The former was a protest by women, now known as ‘nude protest’, against the rape and murder of Manorama Devi by the Assam Rifles: a protest which also demanded the repeal of AFSPA (though mentioned nowhere in the book). It is unsettling to see the two incidents being described in the same paragraph –protest against a rape where the woman was killed and had gun-shot wounds in her vagina and a woman making love to an army officer.
The lack of respect for his subject is clear from statements like –‘Meitei homes have a confusing front and back yard’ or referring to avoidance of eye-contact as a gesture ‘typical of people in Manipur’ or proffering his idea that a dinner shared with two Tangkhul cousins in Ukhrul which consisted of hot pickle is somehow the cause of ‘their violent streak’. Sample this statement ‘In fact, there is a possibility that every detail in this account will be challenged. That is also quintessentially Meitei.’ What this statement attempts to do is refute any possibility of disagreement. Prior to the disagreement being made he already stereotypes it as a trait of a community. The style of writing is reminiscent of dated writings on the lost innocence of the native, the only difference being that according to the writer the natives are to be blamed for the current state of affairs. It is rather strange that a work of non-fiction that discusses so much on the conflict attributes the loss of personal liberty only on civil society and ‘armed nationalist’ and does not extend the same to the police or the army presence.
What one would have wanted was honesty with the times the book dealt with. The book covered a series of politically charged events and people involved. But the intention of the narrative produced about these events seems to be ridicule rather than looking at the everyday travails of the people. For instance, while trying to take a critical stand on the Assam Agitation, the writer could not come up with anything better than dismissing the leadership as an ‘uninspired bunch’ and describing the years spanning this movement as being a time for young couples to have sex in closed-down schools. The gaze of the writer is definitely voyeuristic. Without explaining much, he also gets away with statements like ‘Insurgency is complex, at the same time boring to elaborate’; calls the NSCN-IM as armed Naga guerrillas and later qualifies his statement and calls them organised dacoits which is a notch lower that the colonial misrepresentation of ‘Naga hostiles’. The writer describes human rights organisations as frontal organisations of armed groups who pick ‘up cases of army and police excesses and drumming up public outcry against the state’. This is quite a painful erasure of the fact that police and army excesses still continue with an alarming regularity.
The problem with the book is not just that he sees the community as a collective without individual thought, trait or agency: a narrative which builds upon easily into the many stereotypes he offers on people as a whole, but also the seamless traversing from one state to the other almost playing with the idea of the ‘Northeast’ as a chunk of landmass conjoined like Siamese twins. It is clear whose side he is on especially as he mentions all the players in the field of conflict and yet conveniently refrains from referring to the State as one of the main beneficiaries of the conflict. The reproduction of existing clichés is however not as damaging as the superficial narration of various events that have had far reaching consequences in the politics of the region in the guise of some sort of social narrative.