By Utpal Borpujari
North-Eastern India was one of the most important theatres where crucial battles of the Second World War were fought, and it was the battles in Manipur and Nagaland which stopped the advancing Japanese in their tracks. That is the larger picture. But there are many untold, unknown stories of how the local people suffered during the War with which they had nothing to do. They are stories that have remained unknown because they are about ordinary people from a region which the rest of India still knows very little about.
In the last few years, a bunch of young writers, from various parts of the North-East and who write in English, have been trying to unravel many such stories. Though these stories are in the realm of fiction, the finer details of the backdrops of these stories are providing the outside world with a picture of the societies of the various ethnic groups that people the region. The process is still a trickle, but of late, it has become a steady trickle.
It is in this backdrop that Siddhartha Sarma, a young journalist from Guwahati now working with a business magazine published from Delhi, has come out with a racy, dramatic novel set around certain incidents in the Naga hills and aimed at young readers. With a poetic title that goes The Grasshopper’s Run, the book published by Scholastic would be able to connect with not only the intended target audience but also beyond, with its adventurous tale of the young Assamese protagonist who is seeking to trace out the villainous Japanese officer who ordered the massacre of a whole village of Nagas in the hills, among the victims being his closest friend.
Sarma has researched the archives, dug out information from museums and recalled stories his grandfather had told him about his great-grandfather to cook up a story that combines history, society, drama and geography deliciously with the fiction. The young journalist, whose educational journey took him via Don Bosco School and Cotton College in Guwahati, M S University in Vadodara and St Xaviers in Mumbai, is quite satisfied with his maiden attempt at writing a novel, that too aimed at a difficult segment of young adults. More so, since it has given him a chance to do something he always wanted to do – write fiction with the North-East as the backdrop. But deliberately, he chose to place his story in the past.
He explains why. “I wanted to write a story about North-East, but I did not want to write about today’s North-East, because if I write about it, I will have to talk about some issues which at this moment I don’t to talk about – such as the fact that the North-East has been getting a lot of bad press, and people don’t want to go there because they have been told that it’s not welcoming, that they don’t look at North-East as a segmented place, that Guwahati is safe, Meghalaya, Arunachal, Mizoram are wonderful places to visit, Nagaland is now peaceful, though Manipur has some problems. For them, the definition of the North-East is ‘chinkies, dangerous’. I wanted to talk about a period when the entire world’s focus was on the region, and I wanted to write about war because I wanted my first novel to be a war novel. There were just occasions like that – the Second World War and the 1962 China war, but the latter I thought it was not appropriate for a children’s novel because it was fought in high altitudes, and thus did not have much involvement of the common man. But in the Second World War, there were a lot of atrocities on the Nagas.”
Sarma also wanted to write about the culture of the Nagas, and also the age-old ties between the Nagas and the Assamese. “Those traditions were at their strongest when the British was still ruling India. After that there have been many changes,” he says. The book also brings alive the culture of Upper Assam, the guns used in those times, and how the Nagas had armed themselves in those times. “There was a time when they didn’t have weapons, but then they started an armed campaign suddenly after 1947. Where did the weapons come from – they came from assignments dropped by the British in the hills, which were never found,” he says.
Sarma has earlier written two short stories, which have been published in separate anthologies brought out by Scholastic, as well as a book called “103 Journeys” which is about some of the greatest travellers of the world. Now developing another novel and a travelogue, for Sarma it was a tough choice to make when he shifted from reporting to a desk job in journalism. Says he, “I shifted from reporting because I wanted to write. Of course, there was a constant conflict in mind about it since once you work in the field, it is quite tough to adjust. But so long as I have stories to tell, I won’t miss reporting. If I want to take a break, I would go back to reporting. I have told a lot of stories about real people, now I want to write about fictional people.”
As a young writer, Sarma seems to understand the mindset of his target readership, which is also young. That is why when he chose a subject backgrounded on war, he knew how to tackle the subject to suit young tastes. “It was not easy, but I also believe that children today are exposed to a lot more things today than when we were children. So, their level of understanding is more even if their knowledge may be different. I had to tone down the violence a little bit because I could not make it too graphic or realistic, and I have tried to simplify the political issues without compromising on the facts,” he explains, pointing out that the “delicate” Naga-Assamese relationship, which has relatively soured over the years, worked in his mind constantly, which is why he has depicted the close relationship between a Naga and an Assamese boy in his book. “There was a time when the Assamese and the Nagas were very close, with shared history, shared culture, and even shared language,” he says.