Photos of pristine natural wonders, quaint villages, living roots bridges, countless waterfalls and the enticement of trekking through remote areas of the NorthEast have captured my imagination for years. Anil Yadav, though, sheds the veil of exoticism and stereotype, in his book, Is That Even a Country, Sir!, giving a stark picture of the neglect the region suffers from, and why it is not unusual to hear the phrase “those Indians” not too infrequently in that part of the country.
The BBC Hindi journalist undertook the journey in 2000, soon after a spate of Hindi speakers from the northern part of the country were massacred ahead of the 2001 elections. In equal parts a darkly humorous travelogue of two out-of-work journalists in search of a story and a history of the region, Yadav liberally peppers the narrative with ruminations over the plight of the media, and that of the region he was exploring, mainly Assam. His companion is Anhes Shashwat, who returns halfway through, depressed by the state of affairs he encounters. Yadav, however, continues on his own through the Seven Sisters.
Yadav talks of the attitude towards the dhkars or ‘outsiders’, of the insurgent outfits funded by China and ISI, that are more a part of the social fabric than law authorities and the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Though the book’s been published a decade after the journey was made, and music festivals and tourists have made inroads into Shillong and Arunachal Pradesh, the ground reality has not changed much.
Yadav writes of how “any villager could tell from the torch lights bobbing about in the fields if militants were passing by or an Army patrol was making rounds”. There are also human interest stories such as that of Chalambi, a girl from an impoverished household, who spoke of the “reality of paradise” built on country liquor and drugs. “She said, ‘There’s so much bloodshed all around that children grow up eating raw potatoes and start flying as soon as they’re a little older.’ She told me that children ate raw potatoes before going to school so that the teacher wouldn’t smell the country liquor on their breath.”
The book, superbly translated from Hindi by Anurag Basnet, is both a confirmation of the stories we sometimes come across in national dailies and a plea to ‘mainland’ India to take cognizance of its forgotten citizens.