Free Press Journal

Is That Even a Country, Sir: Journeys in Northeast India by Train, Bus and Tractor by Anil Yadav- Review


Title: Is that even a country sir!
Author: Anil Yadav
Translated by: Anurag Basnet
Publisher: Speaking Tiger

Pages: 245
Price: 350

Translated version of a literary work is often like a second cousin twice removed. It is often said a translation can never capture the essence of the original. From what we have in hand, we can’t surmise what the original Hindi creation by journalist Anil Yadav would be like but the English rendition ‘Is that even a country, sir!’ is a brilliant work of literature and Anurag Basnet, also the managing editor of Speaking Tiger, the publishers of the book, has given us no scope to decide what we have lost in translation. What we have gained instead is a delightful experience journeying through the enmeshed and volatile socio-political landscape of the north east.

The captivating narrative, peppered with wit and humour as it is, objectively deals with various historical, economic and ethnical paradoxes and permutations that have shaped the cultural and political atmosphere of the north east as it is today. The wandering journalist Anil Yadav and his friend hop from place to place with an undecided itinerary and sparse money without knowing where food will come from the next morning. This adventure-cum-unofficial fact finding trip takes them to places as far as the dense jungles of Arunachal Pradesh bordering China to right inside Burmese gomphas, from the rubber plantations of Tripura to the freezing cold of Mizoram.

In the process they make friends- queer, funny, dangerous,  debate with ideologues and poets, spend time with farmers, traders, drivers, priests, scribes- each having his own little history and uniqueness of viewpoint, meet political leaders and underground factions, sleep in shacks, eat grass and nuts, travel by bus, train, tractor and boat, witness murders and protests, learn the complex love-hate relationship the people share with Delhi and Indian army, dig out history’s wrongs and rights juxtaposing it with the needs and revelations of today’s generation of the north easterners, their aspirations and losses, and leave us not only thinking but also aligning and affiliating us with the people of this lesser world. Living amid these valorous people, common men and women in the remote villages and small towns of the hilly terrains and forests, who brave everyday battles to survive, we learn to empathise with them. We know the north east closely, especially the antecedents and reasons for the present situation people are in. We learn about the traditional bravery of the Nagas, we meet the emaciated drug abusers of Manipur, we know how the interests of various groups are intertwined and why terrorism and violence will never leave the north east, we also come to know how the political leaders and army misdeeds abet dissentions and antagonism and promote illegal trade and migration.

One distinctive character of the narrative that lends so much charm to the book is the masterly use of analogies and imageries that places the paperback in the league of classics. Every little incident has been so graphically drawn that we never feel jaded after any dose of politics or violence. We don’t know if it was exactly the same in the Hindi original but in English they take a whole new meaning and give such a flourish to the tone and structure of the story that it makes for a gripping tale. The politics and violence is so well mixed and connected with the little everyday tales of people that the goriness or the scariness that the complexity of the political landscape throws up, runs only as an undercurrent while it is the stories within the story that light up the passages. Arun Yadav’s observations are original and impeccable and his study vast but credit must also be given to Anurag Basnet to be able to remain so true to the original and pack so much in the 240-pages he had.

It is not easy to write about such a vast and diverse region touching upon all the pertinent and topical points with such creditable reportage. It needs lot of mental investment and editorial experience to know what to leave out from all that inundating material that seems necessary to use. Perhaps Yadav’s stint with BBC taught him best in this. The only grime perhaps is a bunch of grammatical and typo errors in the lines that could be annoying to a discerning reader. They can certainly be ignored but such lapses bring bad reputation to the publisher.

Having said that, we must not shy from patting Arun and Anurag on the back for holding before us the societal kaleidoscope of a comparatively neglected part of our country, which many of us in the mainland don’t know much about. With all its beauty and the bounty of natural treasures it holds, the north east is a very intricate, volatile, fragile and vulnerable ecosystem whose future is still uncertain as the democratic setup that the country is governed by is unintelligible to a vast majority of tribes and ethnic groups who fiercely protect their independence and are not only reluctant to owe allegiance to the ‘sarkar’, but even continue internecine fights all round the year so trapped they are in certain doctrines and traditions that guide their modern day value systems.  This simmering discontent turns into sporadic war cries which keep the region on perennial boil. The book has captured this core essence beautifully.