East side story

Written by Sukalp Sharma | Sukalp Sharma | Updated: Mar 24 2013, 09:13am hrs
I struggled to tell their stories. I really struggled to represent the voice of the people there because it would be one story in weeks. It was inadequate. So how do I design a book around it I told myself that the book has to be in the voices of those people, not mine, says Kishalay Bhattacharjee, author of Che in Paona Bazaar. As the former resident editor of NDTV in the North-East, Manipur and all its multitudes have been a part of Bhattacharjees professional and personal journeys. But as he laments, he struggled to broadcast the stories of these multitudes. Its a complex state, a complex society and one book wont really suffice. Nevertheless, it was important. There has to be a start somewhere to appraise our people about their forgotten fellow citizens tucked away in Indias eastern limit, Kishalay Bhattacharjee says. In a conversation with Sukalp Sharma, he decodes his book, the multi-layered problems of Manipur and its people, and other unimportant stories that never made it to our newspapers and television screens. Excerpts:

Youve employed a non-linear fragmented narrative structure, and you chose to tell the story through a young female protagonist, Eshei. What made you adopt such a style

There are hundreds of issues in Manipur. It is so multi-layered. So stylistically, I thought that if I use the language of randomness, it gives me a sense of disposition that exists there. It gives me a sense of exile because the sense of self-exile is very strong among Manipuris. But that sense of tradition is there, that sense of self-pride is there. What is the language of that self-exile I thought it comes from light-hearted conversations sometimes. This girl, Eshei, is part-fictional, part-real. Shes not one girl, but a few of them woven into one. But all the characters here are real and all the conversations are real.

The title of the book has two elements: Che Guevara and Paona Bazaar. Whats the significance of the title

This name was stuck in my mind. Not particularly as a book, but it was there in my head since a long time. Paona Bazaar was the area where I used to do my addas every evening. So it was the first locality that was familiar to me. I knew all the shops and shopkeepers. Thats the place where you would get the stuff coming in from Burma (Myanmar) and China. Because of a fashion statement, and not anything else, every shirt, belt and cap had Che Guevaras face. And this was about 13 years ago, much before Che Guevara became a fashion statement in cities like Delhi and Mumbai.

Now, Che is not there because of some revolution in Manipur or some militant group hailing him. Hes there because the Chinese decided to emboss the T-shirts they make with his face. So it really intrigued me, given the socio-political dynamics of Manipur, and the name stuck in my head. Also, Pauna was a great Manipuri general.

Theres obviously a problem in the relationship between the people of Manipur and the forces...

The situation is terribly bad. I have a picture which I have described in the book too. It has an army truckand mind you, its not a curfewthat has a cloth banner hanging in the front on which its written in four languages: Do not come close or you will be shot. Is this some kind of a joke The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) is the most draconian one. There is absolutely no debate possible about it. I find it bizarre when people debate on the AFSPA. Theres no other paper of law in this country that is as ruthless and draconian. As a matter of fact, sometimes people get killed because the army needs a headcount at the end of the month. Its not something I can prove but its true.

I witnessed a situation in Assam where an army officer comes to a police officer and says, I am running really low on balance and can you lend me some I did not understand the context. The policeman said, Okay, tomorrow morning near the river. You know what it meant It meant that the army officer had sent a report to his superiors saying he had killed five people when he had actually killed four. The whole conversation was about the police officer providing one man to be shot.

But the people there have come to live with it, havent they For them, its a part of life now.

Yes. Thats why in the book Eishei asks her mother if it is some kind of entertainment for her to go to the neighbourhood and see dead bodies of those killed in encounters. It has become a part of life, even entertainment Id say. Entertainment until it doesnt come to your own home. Its extremely chilling. Not that all this has happened to those people or is still happening, but the fact that they have either given up or have learnt to accept it. It makes you want to ask them, How can you accept all this From violence to corruption to even HIV AIDS.

As a reporter, did you have to fight hard to get stories from the North-East some editorial space

Oh yes. That will be true with any reporter working out of there with any organisation. I probably got away with a lot more than others and that is, in a way, a credit to NDTV. But how a typical editorial department working out of Delhi behaves is this: They would be sympathetic to the stories, and they know it would be improper to say they wont take it. But I also know the practical realities of the business that when there is a Raja Bhaiya story and there is a story of the ghost roads of Churachandpur, Raja Bhaiya will get preference.

I think now Im exhausted and I guess thats why I have left reporting because I had to fight for stories every day. But its also a fact that people are not really interested in knowing whats happening there. Its like saying we cover cricket more than we cover hockey or, say, chess. Forget about the North-East. How many stories do we see on a daily basis from the Maoist areas And thats not even far-flung; thats mainland which is not really marginalised or remote.

But that must be frustrating for a news person.

Ive done television for 20 years and there is a lot of anger inside. I would want all of you to see what white phosphorous can do to a child. Or how it feels to watch a mother pick up her dead child who has been severed into pieces. That anger cant be conveyed in my news stories because as a journalist my first job is to be objective, not emotional. Where do I channelise that anger Perhaps in my writing, perhaps in my book. And not as an angry book, but to be able to show that these are the problems. The book is also a product of that anger. I mean how many bodies do I show you If I talk about my biodata, my resume as a journalist, its actually nothing but counting bodybags.

In the book, you say you didnt have much to say to Irom Sharmila when you interacted with her. Why

Ive entered Sharmilas jail ward twice without permission. I made a film on Sharmilas fast when she completed 10 years of fasting. In that film, I really didnt have much to say. I didnt know what to ask Sharmila. In fact, she was the one asking me, Is my protest not good enough What else do I need to say And when you think about what that woman has been standing up for and her struggle, you are, frankly, left without words because what is there to disagree with her on Absolutely nothing.