Book Review: Unmasking of North-East India

Sometimes, reading an outsider helps. One can be assured of seeing the picture as it is

Photo by Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar

In July-August 2013, I made a solo trip to Shillong and Guwahati. It was my first visit to North-East India. Since Pakur, my place of posting, is a major stop on the Howrah-Guwahati rail route, I decided to travel by train. I purchased two-way tickets on the Kanchenjungha Express. Going to Guwahati and Shillong was easy. While returning, I was stuck.

The Central government had just announced that it would create a new state of Telangana, and this had re-energised the communities — the Bodos, the Karbis, the Dimasas, and the Koch-Rajbongshis — to demand separate states for themselves. I was hearing news of trains being either delayed or cancelled. Though the situation in Guwahati seemed normal, bad news was pouring in from other parts of Assam—especially the districts of Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon, Dhubri, and Goalpara, the parts through which my train passed. Finally, afraid that my return train ticket might turn out to be useless, I booked a flight ticket.

It was an eye-opening journey for me. Yes, the holiday in the green, rain-washed expanses of Sohra and mist-covered, vertigo-inducing path to Mawlynnong and Dawki was exciting and I was struck by the beauty of Meghalaya. But what I learnt of politics and community dynamics was far more striking and, in my opinion, important.

Being from Jharkhand — I had almost no idea of the Bihar-Jharkhand politics, and the desire in me for a separate Jharkhand rose more out of emotions than from some political consciousness — I, in spirit, support movements for separate states, be it Telangana or Bodoland.

How can I, with a desire for a separate Jharkhand state, not support the desire other ethnic or linguistic communities, to have separate states for themselves? So, in my opinion, if a people need a separate state, let them have it.

However, in the matter of Bihar and Jharkhand — or even Andhra Pradesh and Telangana — there are just two states involved. In the case of Assam, there was a demand for Bodoland, then a demand for Karbi Anglong. It was stunning.

For all my life in Jharkhand, the only news about a separate state in Assam that filtered to me was about Bodoland. But, during those uncertain days in mid-2013 when I was biting my nails in a Shillong hotel, I learnt otherwise. In the case of Jharkhand, all the Adivasi communities got together and demanded one separate Jharkhand. In Assam, every ethnic group seemed to demand a separate state for itself.

Also, in Meghalaya, I learnt of the friction between the insiders and the outsiders. While driving through the picturesque North- Eastern Hill University campus in Shillong, I asked my cabbie, a very helpful Khasi boy, to stop several times so that I could take photos of the beautiful, rain-soaked campus. He obliged. However, at some places, he told me to not take photos. I was informed that those areas had a Khasi majority and they did not like the Dkhars (outsiders) very much.

Book Review: Unmasking of North-East India
Photo of the book cover

These memories of my journey to the North-East returned to me as I read Anil Yadav’s book, Is That Even A Country, Sir!: Journeys In Northeast India By Train, Bus And Tractor. A work of non-fiction, this book recounts the journey of two “out-of-work” journalists.

Yadav confesses to his having no knowledge of the North-East in the first chapter itself. “From the pictures in the Social Science and Geography textbooks of my childhood, I knew there are tea gardens in the North-East where women pluck leaves from bushes. Once upon a time the women there used to turn outsiders into sheep through magic and kept them as pets.”

This passage reminded me of the moment I saw the Kamakhya Hill at dawn —through the window of the Kanchenjungha Express. In Santhali, my mother tongue, Assam is called Kaaoonr Disom, a land of magic and the occult. Hence, that first sighting of the Kamakhya Hill, in the faint pre-sunrise glow, was an awe-inspiring moment.

Yadav’s observations about North-East culture, polity and society makes for interesting read. He tells of society where: “More than 100% of the wholesale trade is in the hands of the Marwaris…” of the politics and insurgency where: “One man surrenders four times for government loans. If you don’t believe, I take you to tailor from whom Army officers get ULFA uniforms stitched for surrendering militants.”

The passages quoted here are just a fraction of what the book contains. The best thing about it is the fact that its author is an outsider. Yes, books about a place and a community benefit hugely from an author or a narrator who belongs to that place — an insider. But, in the case of an insider, there might be the question of what or how much is to be told and what or how much is to be concealed. (I say this from experience.) With an outsider– especially if that outsider is curious and writes with a certain candour – one can be assured of seeing the picture as it is.

TITLE: Is That Even A Country, Sir!: Journeys In Northeast India by Train, Bus and Tractor

AUTHOR: Anil Yadav, translated from Hindi by Anurag Basnet

PUBLISHER: Speaking Tiger, 2017;

PAGES: 256. PRICE: `350

(The writer is a suspended medical officer of Jharkhand government and a winner of the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar)

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Published: 05 Nov 2017, 8:43 AM