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MARCH 2014 ISSUE


The Road Less Travelled

Barring a few hitches, the book brings alive the Northeast in this travelogue

By Ghazala Wahab
 

Across the Chicken Neck: Travels in Northeast India

One of my favourite forms of non-fiction is travel-writing as a tool to record contemporary history and the consequent evolution of social, economic and cultural systems. It is by no means easy writing, but it certainly lends itself to easy reading, unless the writer botches up seriously and deals the project a heavy hand. Of course, the importance of the book and its depth depends upon the writer and the subject she chooses.

On the first two counts, Nandita Haksar’s new book, Across the Chicken Neck: Travels in Northeast India, scores well. In terms of depth, it appears to be a bit too simplistic in the beginning, with the author merely skimming the surface of various Northeastern regions of India. However, as her travel progresses and one gets drawn to the novelty of the region she seems to know so well, you realise that her strength lies in the simplicity of her narrative. The linearity and straightforwardness of the story allows her the liberty to ask questions, make pithy observations and lets the reader share her knowledge, acquired through past readings, travels and oral history. Haksar’s first exposure to the Northeast happened in 1974, when she visited Arunachal Pradesh as a journalist. Since then, the association has developed into a relationship of concern, love and care. That she married, Sebastian, a Naga, only deepened her love for the region.

It is stating the obvious that the Northeast is not only geographically removed from mainland India, but is also psychologically and culturally isolated. Connected to the mainland by a sliver of land — the Siliguri Corridor —, flanked on two sides by other countries (Nepal and Bangladesh, ambivalent, if not entirely hostile), which is referred to as Chicken’s Neck primarily to emphasise its military vulnerability, the Northeast has traditionally suffered from a lack of confidence about Indian nationhood; something which was reinforced during the 1962 war against China. As the Chinese troops triumphantly marched down the plains of Brahmaputra in Assam, the Indian nation fled, turning its back on its own civilians, leaving them to the mercy of the invading forces.

It was quite possible that over time these memories could have faded, or the intensity of that sting could have lessened, if only there was greater assimilation of the region with the mainland. Unfortunately, even more than 50 years after that ignominious retreat, mainland India continues to be on a retreat as far as the Northeast is concerned. Racial profiling of Northeasterners in various parts of India is commonplace; and occasionally takes a horrible turn like the murder of a young Arunachali boy in New Delhi recently.

Sure the State’s role in social and cultural assimilation is limited. But what it could have done was build infrastructure to facilitate greater connectivity. Right in the beginning of the book, Haksar makes a passing reference to this, when she and Sebastian, plan to drive to Siliguri through Nepal instead of taking the Bihar and West Bengal route.

“The first 1,200-odd kilometres of our journey will be a quick drive across Nepal — a route we’ve chosen to avoid uncertain road conditions in Bihar and North Bengal,” she writes.

Of course, the roads, like other infrastructure in Nepal (mostly built by the Chinese), are better than in several parts of India. And this becomes clear once Haksar re-enters India through the Siliguri corridor, via national highway 31, which, “feels like a bumpy rural road in the Siliguri subdivision of West Bengal.”

Abjectness and often absence of infrastructure is a recurring theme in Haksar’s book; not because she wants to make this point, but because, it impedes her travel. She is unable to visit places like Tawang or Pangsau Pass because of poor roads, and in other places her vehicle suffers such wear and tear that it had to be sent to the workshop for a couple of days, a few times during her travel, thereby upsetting her timelines.

Despite this, infrastructure remains a side show in this book; Haksar’s focus is the region and its people. Apart from the fact that there are multiple insurgencies in all these states, some dormant and some still active, development has been coming here as an alien imposition, isolating people, instead of making them stake-holders. Hence, studying the impact of development on the local customs and economy is another issue Haksar focuses on. A proud and self-asserted human rights activist, Haksar belongs to the school of thought which believes that all government-sponsored developmental schemes are bad because they fulfil the requirements of the State and not the people; unless proven otherwise. She also fears, and perhaps correctly to some extent, that the idea of Indian nationhood sometimes demands conformity of its people, instead of celebrating their diversity. Hence, all identities are sought to be subsumed into a collective whole.

Right in the beginning of the book, she puts her cards on the table, when she writes: “I have represented in courts insurgents, revolutionaries and those who have brought arms into India from China and Pakistan; even those accused of hijacking planes and those seriously committed to destroying the only place on Earth that I passionately love, India. I have often been accused of being anti-national, but how can the defence of the country’s Constitution and international standards of human rights be termed a betrayal of one’s country? Besides, the India I love is a place where cultural diversity is to be celebrated, not killed. For me, cultural diversity is a resource to be nurtured and not an obstacle to be ruthlessly over come (sic).”

Hence, in ‘Across the Chicken Neck’ Haksar’s agenda is very clear. She wanted to see first-hand how much the idea of India has obliterated local identities, cultures, religions and most importantly oral histories. While, she clearly had planned this journey meticulously so that she meets a cross-section of people along the way to get a broad overview as well as see afresh some of the places that she had visited long ago, she has been flexible enough to incorporate last minute changes in her journey. This added an element of surprise and the unexpected to not only her journey, but her narration as well.

Haksar’s experience, mostly in various parts of Assam, but also in states like Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Meghalaya, Tripura and Sikkim is not a happy one. So much so that she often laments in the book, “Is there any hope?” Basically, what appals her is systematic erosion of local customs and religions. She writes that either the tribal religions have been ‘Hinduised’ by the Hindu right-wing, or evangelical Protestant missionaries have been busy converting the people. Intolerance, both community as well as religious, is on the rise and history is being constantly reimagined for the benefit of the younger generation.

On this journey of discovery, while on the one hand, she met young people completely oblivious of their history, sometimes bloody and sometimes of peace and co-existence; on other hand she met rebels having made their compromises with circumstances leading a resigned life, their spirit completely crushed. While it will be an exaggeration to say that Chicken Neck is soaked in pessimism, the truth is Haksar’s narrative is full of caution, anxiousness and often disdain.

To a large extent, her tenor is justified. Assimilation of the Northeastern states into the Union of India has not been smooth. In fact, even today, the relationship is tenuous for many people who are still struggling for a better bargain with the mainland. The precariousness of the relationship can be gauged by the fact that the most common face of India that is visible there is the military and the Paramilitary, something which the travelling duo frequently encounter. Even after more than 50 years, Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act continues to be in force in most parts of the region, including those areas which have seen relative peace in the last one decade. And even though incidents of human rights violations by the State may have come down over time, the fear and hostility remains. Add to this the new challenge of Left-Wing Extremism (LWE). The LWE movement of central India has found a new breeding ground in the Northeast, especially Arunachal Pradesh.

Haksar’s familiarity comes in handy when she explores all these fissures. But her almost didactic and sometimes censorious tone becomes a bit repetitive, especially when she seeks to discuss ‘pressing problems’ even during a get-together organised by one of her hosts in Assam. Sometimes in the book, despite her claims that, “…on this trip, I have instructed myself to just listen and see, not engage…,” it appears that she had already made up her mind about what she will see. But fortunately, such moments are only infrequent, as she allows the readers to discover the people she meets during her travel by recording conversations with a bit of background.

The biggest drawback of the book is the absence of a map. I feel, a roadmap, delineating the journey is very important in a book of this genre, so that readers are able to place the author in the correct context. The absence of the map is mere laziness on part of the editor, who should have asked Haksar to provide one. My other peeve is that, while Haksar knows the region like the back of her hand, many of her readers don’t know it or its history so well. In her writing, she assumes a degree of understanding from her readers, which is a bit unfair. Also, she eschews describing the landscape she travels through, so one does not get a sense of when she is in the plains and when in the mountains. A touch of topography would have added flavour to the book.

Finally, a word about editing. Across Chicken Neck is not a quickie. So, there is no reason for slopping editing. I could be wrong, but I feel there should have been an apostrophe in the title. Moreover, the book is punctuated by mistakes caused by hurried typing. Considering it is a Rupa publication, this is a real pity. But the cover is glorious; an absolute ‘pick-me-up.’ I hope more people pick it up. We all need to understand afresh what nationalism really means, especially in these times when the idea is becoming increasingly narrow and intolerant. It is neither ‘my way’, nor ‘the highway’; it is our way.
Across the Chicken Neck: Travels in Northeast India
Nandita Haksar
RAINLIGHT by Rupa Publications
Rs 495, Pg 260


 
 


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