In 1980, Rupa Chinai, along with a senior colleague, went to Guwahati for the first time to report on the incipient Assam movement against “illegal immigrants”. They stayed in the region for a month touring Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Meghalaya. The visit yielded a special supplement in Himmat weekly magazine entitled “Northeast in Turmoil.” The visit also led to Chinai’s life-long bonding with the troubled, if beautiful, northeast region and its people. Her aQinsights gleaned from more than three decades of being associated with the region form the body of her book, Understanding India’s Northeast: A Reporter’s Journal (2018).
Unlike books which set out to analyse a pre-given question, this work looks for issues and engages with them extemporaneously. The issues discussed differ widely from state to state and each state, except for Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh, has a chapter devoted to it. The long period covered means that some facts and observations may no longer be relevant and it is occasionally difficult to link the incidents narrated with the time and location. More careful referencing of the works cited or used, including the author’s own, would have made the book easier to navigate.
Despite these quibbles, I have to add that the book is an eye-opener and I loved it. The people of the northeast people often gripe about reporters who parachute in, meet with predictable sources, and pass illconsidered judgments. Rupa Chinai is not one of those reporters. She does not focus on breaking news or making headlines. Instead, she digs deep and finds common ground. Her modus operandi is to embed within tribal communities for weeks, examine the reasons for conflict and alienation, and attempt to give pointers to a sustainable future for them. For once, insurgencies and political conflict do not dominate the narrative.
There are many warm, if sad, human stories. The reader meets Abdul Karim, a char islander in the Brahmaputra who braves the flood waters each year to eke out a precarious living for himself, his three wives and 12 children. It is impossible not to note the number of Karim’s wives and children, which fits a certain stereotype perfectly. But Karim does not come across as a dangerous “illegal Muslim immigrant”. He is, like many around him, just trying to stay afloat. His day begins at 3am when he goes fishing -- something which will earn him Rs150 in the market. The money barely covers his family’s food expense for the day. The flood has destroyed 70 percent of his crops, and his children romp around the river bank, unaware of the bleak future that awaits them. One of them, Saher Ali, a class two student at a school comprising a thatched hut with three wooden benches, declares that “the prime minister of India is Mahatma Gandhi.” “When I grow up,” he adds, “I will go to Guwahati and Tezpur. After a lot of days, after I have grown up, I will go to Bombay and visit you.”
Chinai walks us through the daily struggles of the tea labourers who are confined to their isolated enclaves, oblivious of the outside world. Here, the literary rate is 25 percent against Assam’s average rate of 73, and children start plucking tea leaves at 11 and marry by 15. She uncovers the ghastly reality behind the exclamation, “I would rather die than be a tribal born in Tripura!” She takes us to the deep interiors of Mon and Tuensang districts of Nagaland, where people still trek for miles for basic dispensary facilities. The author also elaborates on the damages wrought by the Bodo traditional
■ Rupa Chinai