Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Notes on Sudeep Chakravarti and Highway 39

A few days ago I moderated the launch of Sudeep Chakravarti’s Highway 39: Journeys Through a Fractured Land, a narrative about the troubled histories of Nagaland and Manipur. It’s a fine book, part travelogue, part social and political commentary, written as a series of vignettes and encounters that should make it very accessible to the lay-reader (including the person who thinks of “the northeast” as an amorphous blob, not realising what a tangled skein of relationships there is between the states, and within each state). Chakravarti travelled at length, collected a lot of information, and then put most of it together as a personal narrative. Throughout, he wears his emotions on his sleeve: when he meets Vidyarani, an 11-year-old Manipuri girl who was detained by police because they wanted her parents to come out of hiding, he mentions being overcome by emotion because she is the same age as his own daughter (who is leading a happy, secure life back home) – this gives him a more immediate entry point into her story. There are other such epiphanies in the narrative.

One of the things I found interesting about the book was that it accommodates two very different tones: there is the cool, dispassionate voice of a journalist wanting to find the truth and tell it as bluntly as possible, and there is the warm, troubled gaze of someone who cares deeply about his country and who is therefore all the more concerned about the things being done to preserve the “idea of India” at all cost. Reading Highway 39, I kept thinking about a popular meme, often circulated by those who are inclined to be unquestioningly patriotic – the gist of it is: “Throughout its history, India has never invaded another country.” This is, to say the least, a rosy and simplified view of things. In his Introduction, Chakravarti matter-of-factly likens Nehru’s treatment of the Naga territories in the 1950s to American intervention in Vietnam, and goes on to present a picture of a country that is hung up on maintaining an image of unity and benevolence.
Majaw’s guest launches into a harangue about the greatness of India. I can’t help thinking: there must be somewhere fundamentally wrong – or perhaps, fundamentally still raw – with the construct of India, if more than sixty years after independence from Great Britain we still need to try so hard, so institutionally, at patriotism.
(On a lighter note, Chakravarti uses the catchy phrase “the paternalistic embrace of IST” to comment on the bizarreness of there being a single Indian Standard Time despite the vast breadth of the country – perhaps another expression of the need to preserve an Idea, even in the face of common sense.)

Not doing a proper review here, but an observation or two about Chakravarti (henceforth Sudeep), who is one of the sharpest people I know. He was my first boss in journalism more than a decade ago (this was at The, India Today’s 24-hour news website) and anyone who worked under him at the time will confirm that he was a terrifying figure – the epitome of the steely-eyed editor with insanely high standards, refusing to clear pages even if production deadlines were racing by. The large glass windows of our plush Videocon Tower office would rattle whenever he lost his temper, which was often.

At the time, Sudeep had already been a senior editor at India Today for many years (it doesn’t get more mainstream than that in Indian journalism – for good and for bad) and it seemed likely that he would continue to work in the pressure-cooker environment of daily deadlines for another two decades at least. But then something unusual happened: still only in his early 40s, he stepped away from this life, moved to Goa and decided to concentrate on long-form writing. When I met him around 2004 (by which time all residue of the master-servant relationship had thankfully vanished), he told me he had many ideas for books he wanted to write, and that it was high time he got started. This is the sort of thing journalists/writers say all the time (before heading off for a spree of cocktail launches that are expressly designed to keep them from getting work done), but Sudeep put his typing fingers where his mouth was; Highway 39 is the fifth book he has published since 2005, and the range and quality of his work has been impressive. There have been three novels, starting with the very entertaining Tin Fish, and two works of narrative non-fiction (the other one was Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country).

This career trajectory should be inspiring to anyone who believes (and it’s surprising how many people in India do) that if you want to write books you have to start at a very young age. It’s also a reminder that good narrative journalism is not the exclusive province of energetic youngsters who haven’t yet started families of their own and who find it easy to lead itinerant, unsettled lives. I suspect that the research process for Red Sun and Highway 39 enabled Sudeep to return to his journalistic roots – to push himself out of a comfort zone and get back into the “field”. And these are larger canvases than he ever had as a full-time journalist. At the launch, he expressed gladness that Indian publishers today are more open to doing such books than they were 25 – or even 10 – years ago. And in his Intro, he suggests that he will do more books on the region, especially on Assam. That’s something to look forward to.


  1. True, we have never invaded any other country since goodness knows when.

    But then, we were seldom a superpower strong enough to do that. We were always more keen on fighting each other.

  2. The breadth of our country is almost exactly 15 degrees of latitude (=1 hour), so it doesn't make sense to have more than one time zone. Every time zone has the eastern border 1 hour ahead of the western border by definition.

  3. Being from Assam myself, I know one thing for certain, that the genesis of all the problems of the northeast is ethnic chauvinism -- irrespective of how the region has been treated by the Indian state. Terrorism -- an offshoot of this ethnic chauvinsim -- is also a very big money spinning business. Simply travelling through the region will not do -- one will have to take a job or try to execute a project here (I mean indulge in some sort of economic activity)... it will not take long to get the real taste of how things work here.

  4. @ Abhishek - "We have not invaded another country". This is an incorrect assessment of history. To start with, India never existed in its present form in history. As for many princely states which formed present day India, they were invading, butchering their neibhouring states quite frequently. Moreover, we can say traces of Indian civilisation in south east Asia. I cant believe they can exist without an ruler of a state from India taking an initiative to expand his kingdom beyond seas

  5. you have to live in the region to understand matter how good the book is and how much these writings are required, it will remain a journalistic recounting

  6. A great book to read the untold stories of the North-east states and hear the unheard voices, talks of unimaginable lives and circumstances. I am from Manipur and this book reminds me of the facts and reality, because it delves deeper into real lives stained by conflicts and bloodshed.

    It is obvious for anybody interested in the Northeast Political issue or insurgencies to see that the cause had been robbed of its real roots along the way even with the multiplication of groups and factions.

    Amazing read!