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Book Review: Che in Paona Bazaar


Thriving against odds
KS NARAYANAN | Issue Dated: April 21, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : Che in Paona Bazaar | Kishalay Bhattacharjee | Book reviews |

The North-East India has never been part of the mainstream narrative or development discourse in India. Ridden with armed conflicts over the years it has been treated like an imaginary flotsam. But senior journalist Kishlay Bhattacharjee tries to break this mindset through his new book. He asserts that North-East India is not an imagined community separated from the policies that govern the rest of the country. Che in Paona Bazaar: Tales of Exile and Belonging from India’s North East explores the landscape of distant corners of the region and dwells upon the life of ordinary men and women to capture their experiences. In his 17 years as a TV journalist, Bhattacharjee first gave voice to their stories. Now he has done this with words over 241 pages.

Why did he write this book? Bhattacharjee understands how media struggles to tell their stories. Bhattacharjee admits that he too struggled to represent the voice of the people there because it would be one story in weeks and he felt it was inadequate. So he decided the book has to be in the voices of those people and the author alone. “In my long years of interaction with the people of North East, I’ve felt  they could neither speak the truth of their experience nor even make it hear through the mainstream Indian media. This is an attempt to make readers interact with the real people and not imagined communities.”

However, the book is limited to certain areas in the region - Manipur, Guwahati and Shillong. But it is Manipur’s music, dance, food and the stories of its people that dominate the book.

Employing a fragmented narrative structure, Bhattacharjee chooses to tell the story through a young female protagonist, Eshei-part real and part fictional character. According to the author, she embodies the experiences of growing up, navigating through youth, love and loss amid conflict but is also faced with the universal trials of everyday reality.

Realising that conflicts make for interesting stories, Bhattacharjee weaves the story of Eshei growing up in an almost dysfunctional society and how she comes to terms with the baggage of violence and sessionism.

Employing the power of the interview to reveal, Bhattacharjee succeeds in tapping a cross-section of people and in each of them found “a courageous willingness to reopen wounds which they had hidden, sometimes even from themselves”. The book is full of these interactions.

As for the title, Che Guevara is the most popular face in Paona Bazaar, the author says. The market has almost everything in store for anyone – umbrellas for as low as Rs 50, Levi’s canvases for Rs 100, high-quality pirated Hollywood films and music videos for as cheap as Rs 35 and colourful blankets.“Ironically the red armies of Manipur haven’t quite adopted him, so thanks to a global fashion statement, Che became young Manipur’s icon years before his global demand.

“Chinese manufacturers have imprinted his face on virtually everything. I found a calendar with garam masala sachets hanging from the month of December in a rundown tea shop which had Che Guevara images. Badges with Che’s face are available in the most unlikely of places, such as an HIV drop-in centre,” Bhattacharjee writes.

“Even Fat James’ restaurant in Churachandpur has a Che face painted on the guitar standing in one corner for anyone to pick up and strum.”

Poana Bazaar in the title is traced to Poanam Nawal Singh, a  Major in the Manipur Army who refused surrender to the British forces.
Despite being an outsider, Bhattacharjee, a Bengali brought up in Shillong, is able to bring out the local cuisine, music, their history or even their biases in great detail. Also funny incidents involving bhoot jolokia also finds mention in the book.

Activist Irom Sharmila Chanu, who has been on fast for more than 12 years demanding repeal of the draconian’ Armed Forces Special Powers Act from Manipur is discussed in the book. Bhattacharjee who made film on Sharmila’s fast when she completed 10 years of fasting failed to elicit much from a person who has become a symbol of resistance unprecedented anywhere in the world.
“The hard won hour long interview was spent mostly in edgy silences”, he writes.

Taking the reader through Manipur’s past and present, Kishalay Bhattacharjee opens before us a land steeped in rich tradition, culture and violence and of a people who hold firm against their own daily rebellion by living and thriving against all odds.

Author: Kishalay Bhattacharjee
Publication: Pan Macmillan      
Edition:  Paperback
ISBN: 978-93-82616-04-7
Pages: 241 
Price: Rs 399

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017