Book Review | Northeast a happening place... a bureaucrat explains why
Deccan Chronicle.| Monideepa Banerjie
Cover photo of 'A Resurgent Northeast: Narratives of Change' by Ashish Kundra. (Photo by arrangement)
First hand is everything for Ashish Kundra. The current transport commissioner for Delhi last march took a ride in a Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) bus. A photo of that ride caught Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s eye. "A rare sight," he tweeted, "to see the transport commissioner of a state travelling by a state bus to take a first-hand view from travellers on problems being faced by them."
It is this very same first-hand experience in India’s northeastern states that makes Ashish Kundra’s book, A Resurgent Northeast: Narratives of Change, an exceptional read.
Posted to Mizoram first 20 years ago, Kundra returned to Arunachal Pradesh and again Mizoram in 2018. The two-decade gap between the stints gave him a perspective that richly colours his book; a perspective on the tectonic shifts in the region in the last few years that are determining what the future holds for the Northeast.
Kundra left Mizoram for New Delhi only in January 2021.
I have been to the Northeast many times in the last 30 years. Yet Kundra’s book made me feel I was reading about a place I had never been to before. That probably has a lot to do with why I used to go there: always as a journalist to report on an insurgent attack or a natural disaster or an election.
I suddenly realised I have never been to the Northeast for a holiday. Now I will.
No, Kundra’s book is not a Lonely Planet with a bureaucratic twist. But it does make you take off the dark tinted glasses you may have donned whenever you looked at the Northeast and instead thrust upon you rose-tinted ones as the author weaves the region’s history, geography, politics and tales of contemporary changemakers and challenges into a fine mekhla of a book.
The mekhla is the traditional wraparound skirt women wear in Assam.
The titles of 13 chapters of the 166-page book tell the story of the Northeast in brief: Nehru’s Misplaced Utopia, The Lost Decades, Connectivity: The Silver Bullet, A Bridge to the Far East, Rivers that Light, In Search of Shangri La. The history, you may know, but not the rarely-told stories of today of people making the most of improved roads, rail and digital connectivity and making things happen.
Things like entrepreneurs selling locally grown coffee and jackfruit flavoured chocolate across India, or designer clothes with tribal motifs and organic vodka in Copenhagen or launching a chain of places for tourists to stay, an AirBnB for the Northeast.
Things like slow tourism that invites you to go remote locations to watch birds, butterflies and moths or head off for a trek inside a forest or adopt a hornbill nest; eco-tourism upgraded and a growing trend. "Monument chasers, shopaholics and party animals would be disappointed," writes Kundra.
The book is, however, not a gush-job. Kundra demonstrates a deep understanding of the dark underbelly the Northeast is still grappling with. Less acknowledged, the debilitating cancer burden of the Northeast. One of every 10 deaths in the region is from cancer — the worst ratio in the country.
The state of women, not happy either. In a chapter titled The Better Half of the Northeast, Kundra takes down myths like Meghalaya’s famed matrilineal system supposedly empowering women and the Meira Paibi women of Manipur supposedly calling the shots. In many places, women can’t inherit, can be instantly divorced, labelled witches and forced to accept polygamy.
No wonder the victory of two women MLAs in the recent Nagaland elections was so widely celebrated by women in the northeast as ‘finally breaking the bamboo ceiling’.
On governance challenges, Kundra turns a harsh spotlight on his own ilk, the bureaucrats. ‘Suitcase Officers’, he calls them without rancour, one leg in Delhi and lobbying for a central deputation asap. He is backing the revival of the Indian Frontier Administrative Service (IFAS), created in 1954 for the North East Frontier Province, later extended across Northeast but, in 1968, merged with the IAS. Some Northeast chief ministers want it back.
Problems of lingering insurgency, related extortion, corruption are perennials. Also, China’s periodic claims on Arunachal. But Kundra notes that CAA is a new complexity in the existing identity politics of the region. The Miya debate — Muslim infiltration from Bangladesh — and Myanmar’s military coupare additional ingredients in the potent Northeast cocktail.
From a bright, sunny start, the book does end on a sombre note but makes you want to book that holiday to the Seven Sisters to find out first-hand what makes Delhi’s transport commissioner confess somewhere in the middle of the book, "My love affair with the Northeast continues undimmed."
PS: One design flaw HarperCollins may want to address. You print the author’s name on top of each left-hand page and the book’s name on every right-page. Urge you to replace either with the relevant chapter title instead. It could make the book a smoother read.
A Resurgent Northeast: Narratives of Change
By Ashish Kundra
pp. 210; Rs 399