Strangers No More
Though clubbed together, each of the Northeastern states has its own unique story of struggle, strife, insurrection and reconciliation with New Delhi
In preparation for my visit to Arunachal at the invitation of Chief Minister Pema Khandu, I picked up four books: Strangers No More by Sanjoy Hazarika, (which was also nominated for the REC VoW Book Awards), second of the three-part North East Trilogy (NET), The Eastern Himalayas by Dipti Bhalla and Shiv Kunal Verma, a coffee table book Enchanting Tawang by Abhishek Dev and Tsewang Norbu as well as The Legends of Pensam, a fine collection of short stories by Mamang Dai. While in Itanagar, I chanced upon a paperback by Bhupen Hazarika as I knew him through well-known filmmaker Kalpana Lajmi.
While on the flight, I read through the eminently readable collection of 19 short stories by Mamag Dai, set under four meaningful heads: A diary of the world, Songs of the rhapsodist, Daughters of the village and A matter of time. Each of these reflects the world and the world view of the protagonists, and this is not just a world of hills, clouds and physical spaces – but the hidden spaces of the heart where a secret garden grows. In this world, anything can happen and everything can be lived; where the narrowboat we call life sails through both calm and stormy weather, and where the life of man can be measured in the span of a song.
It was through Lajmi's book that I learned about the invite to Bhupen Hazarika to compose and sing the state song: Arun kiran sheesh bhushan kanth heem ki dhara, prabhat suraj chumbit desh Arunachal hamara; (The light of dawn, the crowning glory, the neck adorned with snow, a land kissed by the morning sun, my dear Arunachal) when Arunachal got its statehood in 1972.
These lines actually capture the scintillating beauty of the Eastern Himalayas – and the visuals accompanying the second part of the NET – from the snow-capped Upper Dibang to the Siyom Siang confluence at Pangin and the waterfalls of Lower Dibang, the forests of alpine oak and fir in a riot of colour, a haven for birds of so many different hues, the sunrise in Subansiri, the ripples of Kamla river and the snow-capped Brahmaputra bend – are an eloquent testimony. An extremely informative, well documented and richly illustrated book, it aims at 'demystifying and understanding one of the most inaccessible and challenging areas in the country'. We get an idea of the indigenous belief system, Donyi Polo, which is widely practised in Upper Siang. Donyi (the sun) and Polo (the moon) are the God and the Goddess who keep an eternal watch over the sentient beings. The festival calendar is rich and varied and all festivals are sanctioned and blessed by Sikimng Kine Nane – the goddess of wealth and food grain!
Strangers No More: the title says it all. Thanks to investments in infrastructure, connectivity, migration and the increasing presence of the younger generation in university towns across the country – from Jalandhar, Chandigarh, New Delhi, Indore, Pune, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Chennai, Kolkata – and their felicity in English which has opened up jobs in aviation, hospitality and retail sectors, the 'margins' are becoming part of the mainland, if not 'the' mainland. Nearly one-tenth of the student population in JNU is now from the North East, and this opens up their chances of joining civil services, academia and the corporate world. As Hazarika says "the impact of sweeping technological, socio-economic and political change is visible in urban areas across the North East, spurring rural to urban migration, creating both success stories and inequalities. The rising aspirations fan a desperate determination to move quickly out of the past".
This is a 'must read' for everyone wanting to know about each of the eight states that make up the North-Eastern region of India – for while we often club them together, each has its unique history and story about struggle, strife, insurrection and reconciliation with New Delhi. And even your columnist who has visited each state many times was unaware of many significant stories, and the so many unsung heroes – starting with the feisty and forthright Major Bob Khatling who, as a young officer of the Assam Rifles brought Tawang to India's fold, later became Nagaland's Chief Secretary and our ambassador to Burma (Now Myanmar). Hazarika takes a look at each of the eight states and their major faultlines and milestones. It looks at the issue of Naga identity and politics, as well as its impact on Manipur and Nagaland, including the continuation of the AFSPA, the Mizo story of rage, resistance, retribution and reconciliation with Laldenga, Lalthanhawla and Brig T Sailo as the dramatis personae, the issues of migration, discrimination and the ubiquitous Bangladeshis – both in Nagaland and Assam which threatens the fragile demographic balance. It goes on to discuss at length the border issues in Arunachal, especially with China, the 'merger' of Sikkim to India, the abuse of power and nature in Meghalaya, and last but not least, Tripura's tryst with good governance and development which has ensured that the troops are back in the barracks .
The last book on my shelf was Enchanting Tawang, a richly illustrated volume and a comprehensively informative guide to the fascinating and beautiful district of Tawang – the land of the Monpas and often referred to as the hidden paradise or the Last Shangri-La. Abhishek Dev, who was posted as the Deputy Commissioner there has carried on the tradition of scholar administrators who penned their thoughts on the districts they were posted to, and he received support in equal measure from Tsewang Norbu, a trained sociologist and researcher with the Arunachal government. While many district administrations publish books, this makes a mark for its lucid text, exquisite pictures as well as practical information on how to get immersed in and enchanted by Tawang!
(Dr. Sanjeev Chopra is Director, LBSNAA, Mussoorie, and Honorary Curator, Valley of Words: Literature and Arts Festival, Dehradun. The views expressed are strictly personal)