Is That Even a Country, Sir!: Journeys in Northeast India by Train, Bus and Tractor by Anil Yadav (Speaking Tiger)
Translated from the Hindi by Anurag Basnet,
The author started out on his journey to investigate the killing of Hindi speaking labourers in Assam before an election in 2000. Well that wasn’t the reason why the journey began but Anil Yadav was out of a job and needed something to do. He and his travel companion had run out of job leads and the Assam massacres made a suitably impressive entry point to the North East. Add to that the fact that to the rest of India, the North East existed and still exists as one of those ‘Here be dragons’ kind of places on the atlas.
No one in the Indian mainland is really interested in what happens in those tribal places – the Nagas are headhunters, in Mizoram they eat dogs, in Tripura stinky fish etc etc. Add to that the fact that Manipur is known for its insurgency and until recently, Irom Sharmila’s fasting to call off the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. In a sense something like the situation in Kashmir except that the Kashmiris did not have slanting eyes and could not be mistaken for Chinese. North Eastern students are frequently harassed in Delhi and occasionally in Banglore, if the media information is to be believed.
Yadav was aware of all these stories but had no actual knowledge of the North East barring textbooks. So he decided the time was right to break through the myths. With him he took his friend Anhes Shashwat and the two of them rolled through the States looking into stories that they had heard or read, hoping to find a bestselling book at the end of it that would free them from having to depend on salary cheques and pandering to editorial whims. They were both of them jobless and fancy free. Anhes gave up the journey in the middle of the month’s journey because of ill health but Yadav continued on his own.
What Yadav discovered at the end of it was intense empathy for the people of the North East. He put down his experiences in a free flowing narrative, some of it anecdotes inspired by swigs of rum, a lot of philosophical musings on the state of the nation and descriptions of what he saw as he journeyed up and down the Seven Sisters. Basnet’s translation comes seventeen years after the original book was published in Hindi. His language flows with Yadav’s tale telling.
The title is a kind of catchphrase that recurs throughout the book. The head official of the mutth at Majuli, Mahant Narayan Chandra Dev Goswami mouths it as he tells the two wanderers that they are not to drink or eat meat as long as they are there. People indulged in other places he believed but were those even countries to be considered? The phrase recurs on a bus jammed with BSF personnel, in the middle of a meditation on Mahisasur, in fact anywhere one can think of. The point is the title also sums up what most mainland Indians think of the North East. Is that any kind of country? Do civilised – meaning Aryan – people really live there?
To his credit Yadav does not try to simplify life in the North East or look for solutions to the problems – he describes it as it is. The people he finds are neither simple nor savage. They are the most powerless – strength less he writes – the most left behind. And yet, sometimes they have moments of being in control. They inhabit a Middle Earth in which militants swim like fish in water and the fact that there is a problem is very evident. Everyone there is certain that he or she belongs to a marginalized community. Everyone is part of the minority and all the clashes are a result of this.
Yadav does not spend the same amount of time in all the places that he visits and that affects the value of what he has to record. Meghalaya for example sees more of him – he lingers in a Kendriya Hindi Sansthan Guesthouse in Shillong and documents reasons for the internal hostility towards outsiders. Coincidentally because Meghalaya, along with Assam, is now the more stable of the States. Mizoram on the other hand is reduced to that old canard of the flowering bamboo and the start of the Laldenga spearheaded rebellion.
The format he uses has no chapters and sometimes this is awkward though the high spirits of Yadav’s narrative and his occasional sarcasm at the treatment being meted out to the North East comes through. What Yadav had to document was a tale that still rings true – Manipuri issues, Bengali domination in Tripura and the rootlessness from the state of the Indian union. The more it changes, the more it remains the same – but yes, Yadav is no longer jobless and he has that notable book under his belt.