Through a traveller's eyes

Correspondingly tenuous has been the state’s hold on the region, and equally constricted the view of the northeast from the mainland — a hazy, homogeneous land it seems, much given to tribal dances and the incubation of waiters, beauticians and insurgents.

In this stark light, East of the Sun comes as a welcome book — an informative and accessible account of travel in a region its author calls a sub-sub-continent. Siddhartha Sarma happens to be in an excellent position to write this book — he grew up in Assam, and later worked there as a journalist, which required him to travel around the northeast. This sustained engagement allows him to place much of the strangeness of the northeast in context. It also helps that Sarma is a curious and spirited traveller (even if this means, he goes on for a bit about being a traveller and not a tourist).

East of the Sun is written around a trip Sarma made in 2008, starting from Guwahati, heading east through Assam, Nagaland and Manipur, and ending just across the border in Myanmar. The other four states — Sarma does not count Sikkim as part of the northeast — get a chapter each. Sarma takes a breezy and conversational tone — his first sentence is, “Hey, peoples” — and the book is really composed of its digressions. At the merest opportunity, Sarma darts off into trivia about the northeast, or irreverent re-tellings of myth and history, or anecdotes that may or may not be relevant to the subject at hand. Despite the casual air, Sarma manages to capture in broadly impressionistic strokes, something about the politics, history, culture, language, religion, geography and ecology of the region, and the reader comes away with a fairly good idea about why the northeast seems so much farther away than it really is.

Sarma makes no promises about rigour, and he allows himself to be off-handed and cursory when he feels like it. This, then is the current state of the ULFA: “Lately, its operational ability like totally wiped out, the ULFA has taken to blaming the people for its failures, which is totally unfair, but who’s to tell them. And, man, killing children, that’s the tops. That’s effing it.”

Sarma perhaps under-estimates the reader’s interest and attention span. This would account for the writing being almost defensively zany. He sometimes adopts the self-aggrandising tone of a rapper, calling himself  the Cid. He makes mock editorial interventions and employs qualifiers such as ‘like’ and ‘sort of’, chatroom acronyms such as lol, imho, rofl. Much of this feels forced and is needlessly distracting. It also makes for prose that is occasionally sloppy. What does it mean, for instance, to search a car, “sort of thoroughly”?

The last few chapters of the book are particularly gripping. Sarma, on his way into Manipur, treks around a landslide, has a rifle butt shoved into his ribs, and encounters a stone pelting mob. He then crosses into Myanmar, where he visits an arms market, describing along the way the workings of the international arms trade and the channels through which rebel groups get their weapons. This section is also where Sarma finds a balanced voice that one wishes were present throughout the book.

Beneath all the friskiness, East of the Sun is a fascinating book about a fascinating region. Sarma turns out to be a knowledgeable and engaging guide to the northeast. If only he could have reined in the Cid, a little.

East of the sun: A Nearly-stoned walk down the road in a
different land
Siddhartha Sarma
Tranquebar
2010, pp 270,
 Rs 295

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