Montages Of A Distinctive Land

A young man’s travels through his homeland and beyond and the eclectic histories he documents throughout the process

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose

East Of The Sun

East Of The Sun: A Nearly-Stoned Walk Down the Road in a Different Land
By Siddhartha Sarma
Tranquebar Press
Pages: 250
Price: Rs 295

East Of The Sun is an account by Siddhartha Sarma of his road trip across east Assam, Nagaland, Manipur and into western Myanmar in 2008. He says very clearly that “this is not a tourist guide” but it is an account of his travel. It is a series of anecdotes, observations and facts about the North-east. Some of the cities that he covers are Guwahati, Shillong, Dibrugarh, Jorhat, Digboi, Mon, Kohima, Imphal, Moreh and Tamu. En route he describes historical spots like the area around Sivasagar in Upper Assam that “within an arc of about a dozen kilometers, (has) the complete architectural history of Assam’s golden age.” Or gives a fabulous account of the establishment of Digboi with the discovery of oil by the engineer William Lake ,in about 1882. Some distance from Tinsukia, he noticed a thick sludge on some of the elephants might have been mud, but to him appeared unmudlike… He had a working knowledge about oil extraction but, more significantly, had tones of enthusiasm for it, so he analysed the sample and within half a dozen years set up a small rig and poked around. Or that Sarma chose to travel at a time, when parts of Manipur, especially Imphal had been blocked by the students. So, he was issued a “permit” by the groups as they did not recognise the official inner line permit.

Sarma’s trip begins in Delhi where he is working as a journalist. He is from Assam and is looking forward to returning home. “The reason that you love your home is it is a set of certain things, including houses, streets, traffic, people. You know: personality.” It is a love and passion for not only Guwahati and Assam, but for the entire North-east. So, when Sarma pauses his narrative to give a short pep talk about the people, it comes across as very passionate, but is sorely needed. …a quick word about something that bugs me no end. Don’t try to deny it, because I know it is true. You meet someone from the North-east and if she or he looks Asiatic you use that horrible c-word and let it go at that. You have to understand: apart from Caucasoids and Australoids, there are different kinds of Mongoloids. They are as varied as you are. A Khasi from Meghalaya looks different from his neighbour, a Garo, also from Meghalaya. An Ao Naga from northern Nagaland is of a different stock to an Angami Naga, from southern Nagaland. If you look closely, a Malaysian is miles different from a Chinese or a Filipino, isn’t he? Works the same way. To understand is to reach out, sayeth the master. These few lines encapsulate very well the hostile and dismissive manner in which the rest of India treat people from this region and the simmering rage and anger that exists. Special term for plain people. For instance, Khasis use “dakar”. Later, Sarma says in a gorgeous cheeky fashion, “You probably can’t pronounce their surnames, but who cares? They can’t pronounce yours either, lol.”

The conversational style that Siddharth Sarma adopts makes this travelogue fun to read. It is certainly not dull. For instance, his description of music in the region is lovely and so true. The entire region resounds with music. Music runs through the hills and valleys of the North-east in such deep and rich veins, it constantly throws up surprises. There is folk, for one: each ethnic group and people has its own music, its own special instruments. There is rock, for another. … There are bands, and good bands, at that, on virtually every street. You walk down a lane and a bunch of guys on a verandah are jamming, their very souls poured into their instruments, the music perhaps familiar, maybe that band you listen to occasionally, eh! Then you step onto the aforementioned verandah and strike up a conversation and maybe pick up the guitar and jam with them. He is even able to recount the complicated history of the Ahom kingdom neatly and succinctly.

Yet, this conversational style has its limitations as it has no tonal change. When Sarma mentions the Konyaks of Nagaland he dwells on the interesting “piece of information that they exist on both sides of the border.” But he omits their fascinating history as a head-hunting tribe who became Baptists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In fact, villages like Chenmoho and Chenwenyu that are only a few kilometers ahead of Mon, have a cemetery where some of the tombstones read something like this, “headhunted x no, but was a devout Baptist.” Or that the local pieces of jewellery that are available even in Mon that Sarma visited include tiny human heads cast in brass and strung on red beads to be used as a necklace. East Of The Sun may not purport to be a tourist guide, but these are tiny observations that create an interesting tale. A map, maybe on the end papers would have been of immense help to the reader, especially if this is meant to be an introduction to the North-east of India. Otherwise it can be a bewildering, albeit fascinating string of incidents that zip along, sometimes sans personality.

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is a publishing consultant