The northeast in what is unfortunately a little known facet of Indian history formed an important theatre of operations during the Second World War. But this is relatively absent from our history, despite the existence of war memorials dotting the northeast. The northeast by itself is another place—if it makes an appearance in fiction, it does in anthologies of folk tales which feature the usual stereotypes of tribal head-hunters and anthropomorphic gods. Which is why Siddhartha Sarma’s debut novel is all the more remarkable; and his debut novel, The Grasshopper’s Run is remarkable in more ways than one. It falls in a category of readership that so far, at least in the Indian setting, has seen a dearth of writing devoted exclusively to it. There are no Terry Pratchets or even the likes of Stephanie Mayer.
Ranjit Lal and Paro Anand have between them struggled to provide books that would be entertaining, be readable not talk down and yet not be adult. A difficult order to live up to.
Besides, there is this relative ignorance about the northeast in general. There have been few books on fiction devoted to this region. True, Amitav Ghosh passed by it in his The Glass Palace and there have been the two novels each by Siddhartha Deb and Anjum Hasan set in this region. And so Sarma’s novel adds to this genre, besides filling up a vital, much neglected part of our country’s history.
The story begins at a time in mid 1944, a time when Germany’s fortunes had seen a dramatic retreat in Europe, the Japanese were still a formidable force. Having created a successful ring of their influence around the Pacific, Japanese forces had brutally annihilated entire populations in the southeast. It was in the northeast of then British India that one of the most decisive battles of the World War was to be fought, centred around Kohima.
Sharma’s story picks on a relatively minor incident in this war to illustrate the tensions, the majestic even cataclysmic changes of the time. A village that was seen to act as a convenient buffer between the Japanese forces and the British is brutally attacked by the former; it is all part of a strategy drawn by the master Japanese war technician, Shunroku Mori. And in this assault, little Uti is brutally killed. How Uti’s childhood friend, Gojen Rajkhowa is told the news of his death, how he seeks British help in deciphering a map that is found, how Gojen tracks his way to the Japanese camp and encounters Mori in a last fateful encounter make up the stuff of this story. It is a relatively straightforward story of the call and duty of friendship beyond death, obligations of filial loyalty and clan brotherhood. But the fascination lies in the way Sharma tells his story.
There is a wealth of painstaking detail in which Sharma has gone about in laying his story out. So in a style reminiscent of how Amitav Ghosh described the agony of an elephant driven mad by anthrax in The Glass Palace, Sarma describes in loving detail how a learner learns the art of aiming and shooting with a rifle, the trek through the forest, the skill involved in deer hunting, the details and the different markers that set off one Naga tribe from another, the Ao from the Angami and the Konyaks and others. It is in some ways also the very inspiring story of how different Naga tribes united to fight against an enemy that was brutal and murderous in its approach. In this sense and since this is also a war novel, you know the bad guys from the good guys, which includes the secret intelligence officers of the British army who help Gojen as he begins to piece together the identity behind his friend’s killers. It is also a coming of age story, how Gojen an awkward bumbling schoolboy discovers a cunning street (or jungle) smartness and an unerring accuracy with the rifle.
The story offers stunning visual imagery and actually one can just as easily envisage it as a film. The moves, the plans, even the jungle scenes where you can actually hear the night insects, especially the grasshoppers are suggestive of this and beautifully evocative. You can call this novel a young adult novel perhaps in part because its main protagonist is young Gojen Rajkhowa. But it is a book that would appeal to a wider readership. As for Sarma, one is certain that he will be writing more interesting, more action packed novels, as fascinatingly full of history as this one.
Anuradha Kumar is a writer.