Highway 39 by Sudeep Chakravarti
A journalist takes Highway 39 that runs from Assam to Manipur via Nagaland. A region that is like a black hole to most of us mainland Indians. He stops and listens to stories of the people of the land. People who are working here, people who are supposed to lead the people. He goes and meets the people he read about in some obscure corners of the newspapers. He tells you the stories of these people in a way that highlights some aspect of suffering that the common citizens are going through in the North Eastern region of the country. And he also talks to the security personnel who are in charge of keeping the situation in control. And have special privileges that allow them more authority. That should ideally mean more responsibility.
He talks to the leaders of various sections of local groups. Most of who do not live in the region and most of the times live outside India. And tries to understand their perspective. In-between all this, he sometimes takes you through the hills and valleys of the regions. Tells you some nuances of the tribes here and makes you crave for the food he ate there.
Starting from Dimapur/Kohima he takes you through various patches of the highway that joins all the stories in the book. While each story has something very strong to tell you, the stories that stand out most in my mind are the women’s movement. To keep the memory of a young girl alive by weaving their anger in the form of a shawl. And giving it the girl’s name: Luingamla. The red color of the shawl with strong patterns is an emblem of women’s fight for justice, for a right to lead a peaceful life. The story of Rubina a young pregnant woman being killed in Manipur while she was out on the road for a usual day to day shopping, leaving behind an infant son is as sad as it can get.
The story of a young girl, who was picked up from the school, so that her parents can be arrested is horrifying. Especially when you listen to the impact it had on the young child. And how she became an introvert and lives in perpetual trauma. The story of another girl in a small village who died. Whose grave lies neglected somewhere seems like one of the many stories that could never be told. Of course, Irom Sharmila is a better-known case. And probably someone who is more in charge of what she wants to do. All these stories made me think how women have become tools for the men to prove their supremacy on each other.
There are stories of army camps, both the Indian Army and those of local groups who are living in a perpetual ceasefire environment. These stories bring out how the local groups are divided amongst themselves. And how their leaders are fighting to lead a bigger pie. And this works to the advantage of the Indian government. The government gives them privileges like they need not pay any taxes. But hardly does anything to provide them employment opportunities. While the people also fall for the short-term benefit without looking for a long-term solution to their problems.
For a common citizen what is important is a decent peaceful life. It really does not matter who the ruler is. It is the potential rulers who want to make the emotional appeals in the name of various identities. There are so many small tribes in NE that you really do not know if they can exist absolutely independently. And sustain themselves given the fact that they are now exposed to modern amenities. And are not really tribal in the true sense of the word.
Highway 39 by Sudeep Chakravarti is an eye-opening book in many ways. It acquaints you with the region through its landscape, people and bit of culture. It tells you about the kind of life they are leading given the special status of the states that requires rest of the Indians to take an Inner Line Permit. But gives army special powers over the natives. Since my own visit to the North East, I have always felt that we need to have a dialogue between the NE and rest of India, a tourism exchange to know each other better.
I remember after my visit, my first question to my friends from NE was, why did you never tell me about your place. And they all said ‘We never thought people in India are interested in us’. Well, we are. How does one get interested in something that you know nothing about, whose existence you are oblivious to? I hope this book serves that purpose and exposes a part of NE to the rest of India.
Read Highway 39.