CHE Guevara may be the most popular T-shirt graffiti, but in Manipurs iconic Paona Bazaar, his face is imprinted on virtually everything belts, trousers, guitars and even seen on masala sachets and at HIV drop-in centres.
In Che in Paona Bazaar, television journalist Kishalay Bhattacharjee takes us on a journey of Imphals most popular street, named by Paonam Nawol Singh who played an important role in the Anglo-Manipuri war of 1891 after which the British crown took over the sovereignty of Manipur and ruled till 1947.
The book, published by Pan Macmillan India, is limited only to certain areas in the northeast Manipur, Guwahati and Shillong. Manipur’s music, dance, food and the stories of its people dominate the book.
The events and descriptions are true, the characters are a combination of the people the author has met and interacted with.
He interviewed 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’.
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 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.’
A fictional character named Eshei is the storyteller in the book. Eshei is there through all the travails and tribulations of a generation caught between the apathy as well as the evolution of a society at crossroads.
‘She embodies the various experiences of growing up, navigating through youth, love and loss in the backdrop of conflict but is also faced with the universal trials of everyday reality.
‘To represent the people as they are, their cuisine, their music, their history or even their biases, I have used the interplay of text and personal correspondence, a mixture of genres which do not follow a linear style,’ the author says.
For him, the book is an attempt to make the readers interact with real people and not ‘imagined communities’.
There are issues and subjects which would otherwise be avoided for obvious reasons, he says.
‘For example, polygamy in urban Manipur or the genocide by terror groups fighting in the name of identity or even the lighter side of a very emotive students’ agitation in Assam.’