Kishalay Bhattacharjee is a senior journalist who has been with broadcast television for twenty years. Seventeen of those were spent at New Delhi Television (NDTV) where he was a Resident Editor covering conflict in India’s north-east as well as in the Maoist corridor.
Kishalay is the recipient of the Ramnath Goenka Award (2006-2007) for his coverage of internally displaced people. He is a Panos Fellow for HIV/AIDS (2007) and an Edward Murrow Fellow in Journalism (2006). His film Santi, Lucy and Thoibi was screened at international festivals in Goa and Barcelona. Kishalay was selected Chair, Internal Security and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (2011). Kishalay is a regular columnist and speaker on conflict and post-conflict situations in India.
Q. Out of all professions, why writing?
By profession I am a journalist. I write for the love of writing, though this book has stories which I felt was necessary to tell in words.
Q. Why “Che in Paona Bazaar”? Why this particular title?
Che as in Che Guevera is someone I discovered in this market Paona Bazaar in Imphal and the name just stuck to me. This market filled with Chinese made goods coming from Myanmar had almost every article imprinted with the stubble face and beret Che and that is where the title comes from. Markets have been an important element in chronicling the people and places in this book.
Q. Tell us something about Che in Paona Bazaar. When did the idea for such an expression first strike you?
I think it was in the year 2000 when I had to spend many months there covering the state-wide agitation against the government considering a Naga underground group’s demand for integration of Naga inhabited places. The agitation was so intense that it forced the government to roll back its decision. In the curfewed city I would spend almost every evening in Paona Bazaar. It struck me one day what Paona meant and I found that he was a famous general with a fascinating story which I have narrated in the book. During the day when the market full of Chinese goods would be buzzing I would see Che’s face peeping out of caps, belts, tshirts and even shoes and that is how this expression took shape.
But the book goes beyond Che and Paona. While reporting from that region I would struggle to provide the context to the stories and increasingly it would disturb me how we stereotype a place and people and entrap them in images. I wanted a narrative style that would help the people tell their own stories which in a sense challenges the notion of a stereotype.
Q. Che in Paona Bazaar carries the subtitle “Tales of exile and belonging from India’s North-east”. Does the author Kishalay Bhattacharjee have any such tales of his own?
Manipur has been the single most compelling story for the inspiration behind Che in Paona Bazaar. The inspiration came from meeting several people who were ready to fight the odds defying every norm by which we measure success or failure. The tales of exile and belonging are real tales of friends I have, people I have met who have been constantly trying to negotiate the distance between their hometown and their self imposed exile.
Yes, I too, have been on a self imposed exile though my tale is different because while I grew up in Shillong and I technically belong there, but I would be considered as an ‘outsider’ and I had to leave my home in the late eighties to come to the big cities. I hadn’t confronted the so called ‘north-east’ then. Much later when I returned to report is when I met a new past.
Q. Were you passionate about writing in your younger days?
Yes, I would write poems regularly and was part of a poetry writing group. I have reviewed books and films for newspapers and journals during my college day. I did the same later as well when I started working. But I think it was the atmosphere as home which made writing like a natural form of expression. We had a family journal and a library at home. My mother has three books of north eastern folktales in Bengali. My father was a professor of history and has a few books to his credit. My uncles are writers and film makers so it was the environment at home which helped a lot.
Q. Who are your heroes (non-fiction, preferably)?
I am a student of English literature and I started my professional life as a lecturer so I have many I admire and read again and again. But a few names that immediately come to my mind as I speak to you are Miroslav Holub’s non-fiction (his poems too) and Edward Said.
Q. What was the experience like when you were moving through conflict zones? How did it feel to work under the threat of death looming large?
It is a very telling experience but difficult to tell at the same time. It is a split second decision often that can cost your life and yet one makes that leap of faith. What is a serious lapse on our part is that Indian journalists are not provided with hostile environment training and the mandatory precautions are not adhered so that puts us at greater risk.
Working in conflict also makes one angry, very angry. To see a child killed, to witness a mother picking up a dead child. To stand in the middle of an explosion and dismembered bodies. It makes one very sad and I suppose my years of sustained reporting from conflict zones or writing this book is a way to channelize that anger.
Q. Tell us more about Eshei, the fictional character you have used to portray the central theme.
Eshei is a combination of a few characters and has been fictionalised to portray the sense of exile as well as a deep rooted longing for the home, its food, its rituals. She represents the undecided youth floundering for a direction and far from home holds on to issues which will give her an anchor however much she may disagree with them. She is like any other young person with desire and ambition but homelessness stalks her always. Homelessness is a recurrent theme even in the writings of people who I mention in the book like Robin Ngangom.
Q. Eshei has so many shades – a rebel, a patriot, a messed-up woman, a bold yet torn lover – what was the thought and what were the reasons behind giving such diverse facets to a character?
Eshei, like I said, is made up of a number of people and under the circumstances in which young people live there or leave that place they can be studied by their rebellion, their rootedness , adherence or indifference to sub-national assertion. At the same time they have their loves and dilemmas. Eshei embodies most of those emotions. She is confused and finds an easy way out or perhaps fails to find a way out. She is candid and records her thoughts and emotions in a fluid manner. She is at the same time like any girl of her age as well as like someone who lives the two worlds; one of conflict and periphery and another in the ‘mainland’.
Q. What was the rationale behind highlighting cuisine and music of the seven sisters?
Food is a great way of worming into a community and makes for interesting conversation pieces. Most people love their own food because they have grown up with that taste. Manipuris are fanatic about food and its engrossing to study the community through their recipes, taste and description of food or even the presentation.
Music is one of the stereotypes through which the north eastern states are seen. Yes there is music but the traditions and innovations are intriguing and I wanted to tell that as well. In Manipur I have met young people performing in Raas Leela and then getting on to the stage to play hard rock. I was interested in finding why and how so many hard rock group happened to Manipur? Why Shillong became such a destination for international rock groups even though much more music was being played and experimented in the other states? How one fine evening a young musician in Kohima decided to open a music cafe and take music to the streets and push the government to declare it as an industry?
Q. Any specific reason for choosing to highlight the issue of conflict in the North-east over so many other issues?
In fact the idea of the book and the content moves away from conflict but it is a fact that conflict is part of everyday life. Fear is an everyday emotion but that doesn’t mean everyday living stops. People fall in love, get married, elope, play music, have food festivals but we can’t forget the context and the backdrop.
Q. Being a mediaperson, how did it feel to finally break the shackles of responsibilities and express yourself freely through your writing?
It was cathartic. I was trying to find a way out to tell those stories which defy that idea of trapping the people and places in images they are projected or perceived.
Q. Why is it that the conflict of North-east did not gain as much mileage as other issues, probably of smaller magnitude?
It is of very high magnitude but one of the reasons perhaps of this poor coverage was the idea of ‘north-east’ as one, rather than seeing each state separately. The other reason is that in Delhi or Mumbai studios/newsroom these states virtually do not exist in the edit meetings. The way the government treats conflict there the media too follows suit. Covering ‘conflict’ in the north east is just not ‘sexy’ enough.
Q. Do you think writing is a solitary pursuit, or do you have early readers – with whom you brainstorm and discuss the way the book progresses?
It is a solitary pursuit till the first draft. The brainstorming or fact checking begins after that. The first draft of the first two chapters till it finds a direction is a lonely battle.
Q. What were your favourite books when you were growing up and how did they influence you?
I think when I was growing up we read a lot of Russian literature in translation and they were available at ridiculously low price and the two books that definitely influenced me are Resurrection and Anna Karenina. I loved Boris Pasternak’s letters and poems. Rilke’s work had a very strong influence. I would read a lot of Latin American literature and Neruda and Marquez.
Q. If there was one person you could claim had influenced your life the most, who would it be?
No, I don’t have one or two persons who have influenced me. I can think of ideas that influenced me or books , work of art and cinema.
Q. Are you working on something else right now?
I have not started but I am thinking of how to tell the story of the so called ‘Maoist corridor’ which is an area I was covering.
Q. What is the one thing that you cherish the most and the one thing that you regret the most?
I cherish my school days in Shillong before 1979 when the riots broke out. Two years later the same school invited me to be a chief guest for the annual sports and that came as a huge surprise and it was a moment I cherish when I stood on that ground hoisting the school flag which always eluded me when I was a student ! There are many regrets.
Q. Any message to struggling writers?
Writers write for the love of writing. It is important to have a story first, to let it develop and then give it a direction. Writing or for that matter any creative art requires high degree of discipline which is acquired mostly. It is the necessary tool to write well.
North-East India is not an Imagined community,’ separated from the politics and policies that govern the rest of the country. It is as real as the violence that has torn the land apart, leaving its people grappling for a semblance of normalcy, if nothing else. The north-east isn’t just a hotbed for insurgency and deadly casual encounters, a stopover on every international rock band’s schedule, or where used syringes lie waiting in dark alleys. There are other realities as well—of forbidden love, weddings, fascinating cuisines, childhood memories and other `unimportant stories’ that never made it to our newspapers and television screens.
In spite of gaining exclusive access to the region, former NDTV Resident Editor (north-east) Kishalay Bhattacharjee has struggled to broadcast stories of these multitudes. Years in the media have taught him that not all revolutions will be televised. Che in Paona Bazaar finds Bhattacharjee deep in the heart of Manipur, demystifying a state that was once just a source of ‘news’ for him. These tales are the result of a long and unflinching look into Manipur’s past and present, a land rich in tradition, culture and violence, and of a people who stage their own daily rebellion by living and thriving against all odds.