All journalists carry many notebooks, either literally or in their heads. That is because what they manage to bring out through their channels, whether print or television, is just the tip of the iceberg of the story. The details, the body of the stories seldom get enough space to come out through these channels. Kishalay Bhattacharjee’s book on the North East Che at Paona Bazaar has this line on the back cover: Not all revolutions will be televised but some stories need to be told.
Through a detailed travelogue and reportage, Kishalay gives a nuanced politico-historical-anthropological account of Manipur and some other parts of the region. For most part, Kishalay uses a dual narrative structure. The twenty-one chapters, and Prologue and Postscript, are told from two dominant points of view.
His own, in which he also brings in many local part fictional voices that articulate their own aspirations, and through the eyes of a fictional character Eshai who brings in the native point of view and the trajectories which map the aspiration of the youth and the conditions they face. Eshai means song in Manipuri. While Kishalay retains a measured distance in his narrative voice, Eshai is the romantic one, the bringer of folk tales, the bisexual lover, a bit edgy, but overall too human and even lovable.
Reading the book forces us to ask ourselves: how do we look at a place about which we have heard a lot but most of what we have known has internal contradictions? Our assumptions are the reason Kishalay the journalist has turned an author. He selects the best possible location for us to try to understand the myriad realities of the North East. The pacifist that he is, the book is dedicated to his daughter ‘with a hope that she grows up to a world which will realize the futility of killing each other’, he plays out an irony in the title of the book Che in Paona Bazaar. We know Manipur to be in conflict but the people there do not revere the icon saint of revolutions Che Guevara. They do not even know him. Yet, as a global fashion statement, Che’s face is stamped on all the goods in this market: belts, caps, T-shirts, trousers, and so on. This Imphal market is itself named after an iconic figure in Manipur, its warrior from the 1891 Anglo-Manipuri war Paonam Nawol Singh or Paona Brajbashi. Thus, the title suggests an ironical but realistic juxtaposition of contradictions.
Kishalay says, ‘This is an attempt to make readers interact with real people and not imagined communities.’ Since the interaction is through a book, there are a couple of important themes: food, identity, violence, sports, drugs, ecology, and dreams. While the writer’s own love for food reveals through the writing, the book really serves as a ready guide to the eating habits of the Manipuri people. The book is a celebration of a place where ‘chakcha yuthak phajaba’ meaning good drinking and fine eating is the reflection of a well mannered cultured person and where ‘one half of Meitei lifestyle’ goes shopping for ingredients and preparation of food.
On the other hand, ‘Protest regularly adorns the cityscpae. A fourth of Manipur is always on the street …’ Identity is a large question but in a place where history has been dominated by who is giving the discourse, where multiple betrayals mark the stories, it is difficult to give one label to identity. Kishalay does not even try that. His text moves in giant sweeps like a camera: from dances like Thabal Chongba to internet conversations on an incidence of violence which becomes a reason to talk about food. This leads to how the State came under Hinduism when a queen of Maharaj Garibnawaj in the 18th century saved an ancient text from the ritual fire.
Typical Imphal evenings are pleasant, dark and curfewed. Police commandos stealthily move in pairs on motorcycles through narrow alleys to kill people in fake encounters.’ That gives a sense of how violence is shown as ordinary and not pumped up with some high decibel rhetoric of state and nationhood. At one level the book is full of violence for one can sense it in the pages, like in the air of Manipur, but the book does not dwell explicitly on violence. Kishalay tells the story of Polo or Sagol Kangjei or of many a homemaker who has been an Asian Games or national champion and shows us how an HIV positive Pradeep became Mr Manipur after training in weights. He tells us how sports people are given all concessions, even from violence and how Manipur is home to a unique sport—naked wrestling. Similarly, through his chapters he dwells upon poetry, brings alive the epistolary making the reader feel a different age and time of communication. He digs up the controversial practice of polygamy and shows us the functioning of the moral police, the Meira Paibi. He takes us through childhood games and family structures. Though it is a slim book of 240 pages, the topics covered and the reach of the book makes you feel as though an expert guide is taking you through the landscape and the stories of the people who dominate the book. It is a whirlwind tour and I would recommend slowing down, marking a deliberate distinction in the various voices employed to tell the stories. Given his experience, I look forward to a book on each North Eastern State from Kishalay. That is because, whether he is describing Holi, Yaoshang, or the advent of Bollywood cinema and its loss, or the trip to Moreh, or any of the hundreds of the conversation points he picks, you never feel that he is an outsider. He does not objectify Manipur and in fact brings us closer to understanding Manipur as a lived reality and not a televised one.
Amandeep Sandhu, author of Sepia Leaves and Roll of Honour (Rupa Publications).