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East of the Sun: Notes from the Northeast


Anindita Mitra, Daily News & Analysis, January 27, 2011
"Don't throw a bomb inside the petrol pump." A public notice that Siddhartha Sarma came across as he travelled across the seven states in the Northeast.

Well, considering the kind of coverage the Northeast gets in the mainstream media in India, you'd think this is regulation stuff. Wrong.

East of the Sun is Sarma's attempt to point out that beyond the whole haze of violence that the media presents, lies a beautiful land and people who live ordinary lives and take succour from the mundanities that come with everyday living.

Sarma, 29, is a journalist by profession and lives in Delhi. He grew up in Guwahati in Assam and even worked there for a year, somewhere in the beginning of his journalistic career. An economics major, Sarma pursued a postgraduate degree in mass communications and journalism in Bombay and has been a journalist since 2003.

Primarily a business journalist, Sarma put in a lot of time on investigative reporting, which, in retrospect, he says "helped me deal with the research that was necessary for my book The Grasshopper's Run."

A novel meant for young adults, The Grasshopper's Run is set in the backdrop of World War II, with a young Assamese protagonist who seeks to avenge the death of his Naga friend, whose village is massacred upon orders of a Japanese officer. The book went on to win the Vodafone Crossword Award 2009.

And in the course of the research for this book, Sarma travelled extensively in the Northeast. "I spoke to some people and also researched secondary data from the archives and the war museums. I went through primary documents as well. And in the course of my travels I wrote a series of emails to friends about the Northeast," he says. These mails were widely circulated and ended up coming in notice of the publisher (Tranquebar Press) and the idea of a travelogue kind of a book, based on these mails, took shape.

"I always wanted to write about the Northeast because I am from there," says Sarma. "People get to read either about happy tribals dancing and singing or about the extreme violence from these states. The life isn't described in the mainstream media. There is an academic, pedantic way of dealing with the region. I wanted to look at the human interest angle. I wanted to describe the life as it goes on there. And I used humour as a vehicle for telling my story," explains Sarma.

Sarma cautions his readers to be travellers and not tourists in the outset as he takes them along a road trip that starts along east Assam, Nagaland, Manipur and eventually into western Myanmar.

If you begin to get under the skin of the city as he describes Panbazar in Guwahati, you ponder on the southern Silk Route as you think about the Plain of Jars in Laos and the occurrence of identical jars in Myanmar and down the road in South Assam's Cachar Hills.

He makes light of getting hit with the non-business end of a carbine by a group of men on the road to Manipur and describes in detail the 'Great Imphal ATM Trick' and what an exciting urban sport it is to get money out of the two ATMs in Imphal.

The Bnei Menashe in Aizawl, who claim descent from the Lost Tribes of Israel, provide an intriguing look at the town, what with stores like Moses Tailors and Israel Confectioners. And you're eventually led to Moreh, on the Myanmar border, where people trade across the border and hurry back into their respective countries before three in the afternoon, when the border closes, "unless they make suitable arrangements for the night".

Sarma does not attempt to make much of a socio-political commentary on the region. It is an account of his own travels where history, facts, descriptions and anecdotes mingle in the narrative making it an interesting read.

Though the veracity of these you may have to decide for yourself, this book certainly gives you a different reading of the region, one that would come handy if you were planning a trip.

Sarma had already written a book for children on the great travellers of the world. His next work of fiction is going to be a different ball game altogether, being a historical fiction set in Europe, Israel and Sri Lanka.