Sudeep Chakravarti, Highway 39: Journeys Through a Fractured Land, Fourth Estate, 2012, Rs 450, pp. 388
Highway 39 snakes its way through three states –Assam, Nagaland and Manipur, its winding path could be a metaphor for a river though it is literally a slush in the monsoons especially the part of the highway that fall within the territory of Manipur. The title of the book, Highway 39, gives the picture of a road trip. However, the book is refreshingly nuanced unlike other recent books on the still persistent idea of the ‘northeast’, many of which for various political reasons juxtapose the two states –Nagaland and Manipur as two antagonistic entities. It was another book reviewed in the same paper ‘Che in Paona Bazaar’ that led me to look at the books published in the past few years on what one might provisionally call ‘the same terrain’.
Highway 39 is not disappointing, and unlike the former it is non voyeuristic in its gaze. One may find the writer’s views critical but he gives convincing arguments and anecdotes in support of his criticism. Rather than brush aside the responsibility of the state and its complicity in what ails the region and many other regions in periphery/ies, Chakravarti is clear on the role of the government and the mechanism of governance. In the introduction of the book he says ‘Governance plummets if the place is both far enough from New Delhi and lacks the heft of population to contribute sufficient numbers to the equation of government formation in New Delhi’ (ix). The idea of refusing to engage with some of the most pressing problems that the region faces, most important among which is governance; and insurgency being propped up as an easy answer to all that ills the region is part of many writings both academic and other non-fiction accounts. To link both –governance and insurgency, the former leading to the latter and the latter as both encouraged and fragmented by a certain investment in it as part of governance strategy is alluded to by him. What marks the two books as starkly different is that ‘Che in Paona Bazaar’ is a book that seems to make a passing casual remark at issues that should be dealt with more seriously, for instance insurgency is callously referred to by Bhattacharjee as ‘Insurgency is complex, at the same time boring to elaborate’.
I am afraid that there is no escaping the comparison of the two books published just a year apart as they more or less describe the same region but in ways which are starkly different, not to mention that some of the informants are common to both the writers. The latter fact perhaps points to larger issues of using the same laid out routes and there being a set pattern in understanding an issue. However, this also points to the fact that the same event may not necessarily convey the same to different people; the ‘ways of seeing’ is definitely different. Chakravarti does not use any protagonist, fictional or otherwise, running through the book, it is him and the people he encounters and yet he offers more than an insight at each experience of meeting people or being there where truth collides with lies and conspiracies – ‘Travel here means confronting the truths, lies and bloodshed that have shaped modern India. It means confronting the reality that people whom I was instructed to revere since my childhood, names we as Indians read as streets, stadia and institutes of learning, faces we saw in history books and on increasingly rare postage stamps, treated other citizens –with brutality that rivalled any other in these modern times’ (p.4).
The book also raises pertinent questions of the reconciliation and peace processes; the inter-linking of faith (in one particular religion) and enmeshing it with identity especially on the Nagaland-Nagalim questions that perhaps those involved need to ask of themselves. This and the intrigues played out by the state had been largely ignored by Bhattacharjee. Chakravarti says this and most people would endorse that ‘It is indeed no secret that India’s intelligence services and the home ministry play the game every which way with each faction, and try to tap into separate points of leverage within each faction by using those with political ambition’ (p. 61). Many other such facts that characterise what is called ‘the economy of conflict’, politics of doling out ‘package’ has been discussed at length.
The book is in parts a juxtaposition of different events that lend an unmistakable air of irony – a billboard of a Manipuri film –Bomb Blast in Imphal; Mohandas Gandhi on a truck that reads ‘Sanitation is more important than independence’ brings to mind a statement by the C.M. of Manipur who once in an interview with Tehelka magazine said 'Education is more important than right to life' or the most poignant irony of the pomp of building a martyrs’ memorial on the one hand and Luingamla’s grave ( a young girl killed for resisting attempts to rape in 1986, a story which the writer followed to and fro –from official gazettes to different villages) unkempt and without a marker just as the official gazettes hovered between life imprisonment and acquittal and finally the gazette itself abruptly ended without a closure.