About finding ‘Che’ in unlikely places

KISHALAY Bhattacherjee, a television journalist, brings out the many other sides of conflict stories in his book, Che in Paona Bazaar, which was launched on 9 March in New Delhi by Karan Thapar, renowned TV commentator and interviewer. It tells of the many heart-rending stories that were considered unimportant and would never make the headlines or feature on television screens.

The 241-page book, published by Pan Macmillan India, was christened in Paona Bazaar, in Imphal, Manipur’s capital, which is the hub of commercial activity, burning tyres, violent clashes between protestors and state agencies, dark alleys and which shuts down at the drop of a hat. Amidst all this, Bhattacharjee noticed the picture of “Che” (a revolutionary Communist-Marxist leader) imprinted on T-shirts, caps, belts. “It is a fashion statement,” he said, “which has nothing to do with everyday ‘normal’ life in this trouble-torn state.” He also found “Che” in unlikely places such as in HIV-Aids drop-in centres, on a guitar and on restaurant walls.

Born and brought up in Shillong, Bhattacharjee went back to the region in 2000 as a reporter for NDTV. During those times, Manipur and Assam were the two “hottest places”, without much media, particularly television. “I was there alone during the June 2001 uprising in Manipur over the integration issue,” he told this writer.

Eshei (literally meaning song), is a character that personifies the “untold” stories of Manipur; of the fusion of tradition and modernity in the way of life, attire, literature, arts and entertainment. It recounts the personal and political “dilemma” of her early years in Imphal and, later, in Delhi, of being brought up in a traditional family but educated and working outside the state. In her narration, Eshei also takes the reader into some of the essence of Meitei youth, of the beautiful Thabal chongba (moonlight dance, where boys and girls hold hands and openly flirt), of festival such as Yaoshang (Holi) and of love.

Eshei, like all her contemporaries, does not know much about people beyond Imphal, of the people in the hills, their lives and cultures; so, too, is her knowledge about “other North-east states” limited to the geography. Though she keeps denying and resisting in her own way against many norms, rules and dictates, defying tradition, culture, she does become political, as when her friend comments on a rally in Delhi where a group of protesters actually bring traffic to a halt. “Why can’t these people go back to their place and protest?” she says. And that is the end of their friendship.

Reiterating that the North-east is and has always been looked at from the prism of violence, insurgency, bloodshed, communal/eth- nic conflict, Bhattacharjee said a Manipuri mother waiting her child to come home would be exactly the same as any mother in any other place. “This is a universal story and there is nothing called ‘North-east’ as such and the book is essentially talking about that. The stories in the book are about love, marriage, about the way a Meitei is completely mad about Eromba.” 

Travelling down memory lane of his reporting days in Manipur’s remote areas, into the insurgent hideouts, literally walking through hidden landmines, he said, “I could have been blown up and if I get blown up, then the story is dead, right? I realised that I had been taking risks, dangerous ones.” Talking about reporting on conflict, he reasserted the “compulsory” precautionary measures a journalist should know of and undertake.

Besides covering breaking news, bloody conflicts in a state like Manipur, an “outsider” like Bhattacherjee recounted, “People are not really hostile with me but, yes, that is what the book is all about, stories of common people.”

But not all is about life, love or food. He didn’t miss out on accounts such as an untold almost forgotten story of “the village”, a bloody night in 1996 in Longdipabram, the lines from the diary of an Indian Army captain that read, “I looked at the girl, her blood let out by bullets. I try to give her chocolate, she doesn’t take it. I try smiling, she is confused. The chopper arrived to take me… I requested for the girl to be taken… the pilot refused. I spoke to my CO to consider this as my last wish. The girl left for Tamenglong. I couldn’t carry the burden of guilt of the death of an innocent child who didn’t know the name of the region, or the village that lay beyond her home, nor her religion… in whose name we were fighting in her courtyard.”

Said Bhattacharjee, “There are dots and I am trying to connect those dots.” Much as he finds Manipuri society complex, multi-layered, complicated, he also finds himself puzzled, bewildered. “As a journalist, I am looking for a story and a context, without the context then I will not be able to convey sense,” he elaborated. Taking a case story of the Hill-Valley divide in Manipur, he asked, “But what about the 18 tribes in the hills?”

While there was no difference between Kukis or Zomis, they had different stories to tell, he added. “There are more than 13 armed Kuki groups. If people asked why, how do you explain that in a short story? It is not possible,” said Bhattarcharjee.

On a more personal note, he candidly revealed his own dilemma, of being a Bengali living in Shillong. “When I went to Mumbai or Delhi, people would refer to me as ‘North-east’. I am not a local from Meghalaya, not even tribal/indigenous. I was wondering what is this thing called North-east?”

Bhattacharhee is currently editor, east, The New Generation Media, based in Delhi.

The writer is a New Delhi-based freelance contributor 
The Statesman North East Page , March 18, 2013

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