Kishalay Bhattacharjee’s Che in Paona Bazaar carries the mythic connotations of Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. The same sense of embarking on an adventure to a place little-known and less-travelled. Where the author is your eyes and ears, and your trusty guide. The similarity, however, ends there.
For many, Manipur, a state in north-east India, is a terrifying conjuror of irrepressible and irrefutable administrative and governmental failures. A place so indelibly marked by internal conflict and violence that all hope is frail and shrunken—like the image of Irom Sharmila, starving herself in protest of the inhuman and barbaric Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFPSA), imposed, off and on, on her home state for decades. Yet, as Bhattacharjee’s book reminds me, I am falling prey to cliche. For Manipur is all that and so much more.
Bhattacharjee writes from a special vantage point. As former resident editor of NDTV (Northeast), and years of living and working in the region, he gained special access to people, landscape and stories. Having grown up in Shillong, and studied at St Edmund’s School for boys, Bhattacharjee shares an intimate connection with certain pockets of the Northeast. What comes through in his writing is genuine concern and involvement, the ability to ‘fit in’ with locals, to enjoy their food and hospitality and share their jokes and laughter. Che is Bhattacharjee’s homage to a land he might not ‘belong’ to in the strict sense of bloodline and race, but one which he undeniably loves.
This ‘memoir’ of his time in Manipur, Assam, Meghalaya and a short stint to Burma comprises a collection of anecdotes, stories that go unreported. And so we are treated to the delights to a Meitei thali, discuss the implications of load-shedding, meet a Manipuri rock band, visit Paona market with its mountains of ‘Made in China’ Che t-shirts, key-chains and mugs, sip local sekmai and take a drive to the magnificent Singha Dam.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the wealth of the subject matter, Che dissolves into a confusing and inconsistent read. Bhattacharjee introduces a fictional character, ‘Ehsei’, who is meant to “embody the various experiences of growing up [against] the backdrop of conflict”. Yet, balancing this alongside a first-person narrative is a difficult task, and Bhattacharjee cannot pull it off. The book is haphazard in structure—for example, it would have helped (especially for people unfamiliar with the region) to include an introduction, a brief historical outline, a note about the different tribes, and a division of the book into coherent sections. Else, it runs the risk of sounding like a friendly, yet long and unwieldy ramble. At one point in the narrative, Bhattacharjee brings up the issue of rape by security forces in Imphal. In the next paragraph, he’s lyrically describing the joys of drinking sekmai.
The book then collapses into a series of short, seemingly disconnected chapters—touching upon Lou Majaw and Soulmate, Shillong’s standard musical exports, Khasi women’s apparently universal penchant for betel nut, and notes from Bhattacharjee’s former classmates on the contents of their school lunch boxes. While it’s true that many stories from the Northeast go unreported, there are some that should remain so. The trick is in telling the difference.