Yet another lifeless, aimless narrative (Book Review of Harish Chandola’s The Naga Story)

[A Book Review of Harish Chandola‘s The Naga Story: First Armed Struggle in India (trs.) Raji Narasimhan and Harish Chandola (New Delhi & New York: Chicken Neck, 2013). 428 pp. Rs. 850 (Hp). ISBN 9788192072265.]

Nearly eleven years ago I met Harish Chandola for the first time, by an accident that is sheer coincidence: in the lift of a suburban Bangkok hotel he was putting up at. “Oh! Are you an Indian!” —I said, with only a Thai liftboy in tow—and, instinctually, his reply, soft and gentle, was: “Are you a Naga?”

As perfect strangers, we could have excused each other without bothering to even bat an eyelid! Chandola had made a stopover at Bangkok. He was enroute to meet the then Singaporean President, Mr. Sellapan R. Nathan, and running late with his appointment. Ten minutes later, we were sitting together in his hotel lobby; busy with a message he wanted me to e-mail Nathan, requesting for a rescheduling of the personal appointment. Two hours later, the President’s personal assistant Cheng Cheong wrote me back with regrets for the tight schedule and impossibility to reschedule the appointment. By then—Mr. Chandola, too, was no longer around, to receive any message!

First thing first—the warmness of the person should not be confused with the book. Harish Chandola’s The Naga Story is rather too late by appointment. It makes too many unnecessary stopovers to enthrall any serious audience! It conveys no consequential message of events or significance, except the sogginess of journalistic anecdotes wanting to be a charitable narrative! Clearly it is a book hurriedly written, much beyond its stipulated luxuries. It is purely a work of individuated experience and indispensability, and apologetics for failures, which would have been best for further debates, had it seen the light earlier.

Most gross in The Naga Story is the massacre of semantics and proper nouns—not only an assault but also a treacherous ambush of familiarity and proximity. It appears like a phonetic book of syllables, clearly valued on its dictated version, converting all historicized Naga places into Swiftian yahoo-land. With almost every page dirtily littered with wrongful spellings of names and places, the average Naga reader will find this irritatingly distressful, although an apology was also served as a warning.
How does one like to open a book that attempts to convince an indulgent caesarean for a neat normal: Chedema = Chidema, Kiphire = Kifrey, Phesama = Faisama, Chazouba = Cajuba, Khuzhama = Khujama, Wokha = Okha, Chumukedima = Chemokedima; or, Sashimeren Aier = Aiyer, Gen. Thinoselie = Thinusilei/Thinuselie, Vamuzo = Vanmuzo, Khriesaneisa = Krisanisa, Zashei Huire = Jassei Hurrey, etc. and many more. Interestingly, Sema names were significantly spared! Surgically, such impoliteness to proper nouns are no longer errors but straightway mistakes—especially for the ones one had visited spatially or personally met with—but, sadly, minted as phonetic memories, perhaps, in the loneliness of a much needed edit-companion, the first and only proof-reading rule for any writing before any publication.

Harish Chandola is no stranger to the Nagas—starting with his career as Times of India’s northeast correspondent (1957-62) and, later on, as “an” (not “the”) unofficial mediator between Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Nagas, in the 1970s ceasefire and peace talks. For an originally high class Brahmin, there are every ethos of an already embedded tribal simplicity and bluntness, perhaps topographically groomed from the slopes of Uttarakhand where he now grows “apples and apples.” The Chandola’s migratory root is said to have originated from the Punjab and Gujarat.

Content wise, personal and old hurts are reasonably flashed, without giving a ‘why’ perspective in many cases. Clearly, The Naga Story cultivates serious disdain for and focuses on Jamir, a former-Chief Minister of Nagaland, and an intrinsic moral disgust for the Naga middle and ruling classes, who are seen as undeservingly becoming rich through corruption. In expressing it so, it appropriately traces the origin of a compulsive egoism within Naga society, beginning from an earlier generation, which runs the risk of foreboding a predicative history to the elites in Kevichusa’s clan; a cautious publicity, easily linking his name to the in-laws. If today’s news is truly tomorrow’s history—journalism’s old habits of such emboldened task—definitely is seeking presence for the legitimacy of history writing, with the everyday politics of gossips and anecdotes, of yesteryears.

The Naga Story richly accounts naivety, reinforcing the stereotyping about Nagas’ sincerity and simplicity—especially in recounting the rounds of talks held with Indira Gandhi. It makes no pretension of a prejudiced Indian bureaucracy—particularly even the author’s own resentment for retired ambassador and then gubernatorial Braj Kumar Nehru—and their jealous interferences and myopic inferences into the Naga political process—a trend that is still continued, with the current Naga talks. Apart from that, what is new to what is not heard in the repetitive history of a boring Naga history?

Journalistic voyeurism or activist’s pamphlet-like fifteen pages, double-spaced, of Chapter 10, “Who are the Nagas?”—often falls into the thin line of assumptive generalizations, capsule and informative, rather than academic and problematizing, over a topic that is pursued to attract an interest for the media with the anthropological! The Naga Story is riddled with a historically incorrect digression, in appropriating the 1936 “Pangsha” as the “Last British Military Campaign”—(which is in sharp contrast to Naga nationalist discourse of constructing 1879 as the last Naga-British war)—because, well beyond British declaration of independent India, colonial military campaigns were still conducted. The 09 July-04 December, 1947 diaries (Journey to Nagaland) of Milfred Archer, wife of W.G. Archer, Additional Deputy Commissioner, Mokokchung, perhaps may be accounted as a description of what may be termed as the last British colonial intrusion into un-administered Naga areas. It is also imperative to note that in colonial times the notion of punitive or tour campaigns are both same—for it always involves the military.

On “head-hunting”—Chandola reaffirms the colonial-ethnographic gaze: “Nagas believe that within skulls lie psychic powers of women, men and children they belonged to. By cutting off heads these powers are preserved and can be utilized for the good of homes and fields, to increase yield and make villages prosperous” (p. 259-60). Couple of other statements compounds such pernicious stereotyping: “Kampani [former Joint Secretary, MHA] had been saying that Nagas were heavy drinkers” (p. 365), without any reference to rum politics in Naga history; or, again, a rudimentary but slapping attestation on changing sociolinguistic scenes: the “tradition of oral knowledge was lost. Today English-speaking Nagas make fun of it” (p. 174).
As a witness to some of the most tumultuous political moments in South-Asian history, one expects a brief non-partisan and non-condescending approach to highlight Indian military cruelties and abuse of human rights! Maybe even featuring some black and white collection of re-grouped Naga settlements and tortures too—by grace of being the only Indian held camera eye that was given access then! Another time, another book, perhaps!

Otherwise, The Naga Story lacks any serious overtones of political discourse—nor suggests, however willy-nilly, any direction to a protracted conflict. The priorities are somewhere else—like the reportage on his friend, who framed his historical “boots” that kicked the ass out of Nagaland’s first Chief Minister P. Shilu, for flirtatiously eying Assam’s Chief Secretary’s daughter during a state banquet or, undeservingly mentioned, about what became of Shilu’s tragic end.

Of the nineteen chapters—“Second World War” and “Azad Hind Fauj” merit no special attention as separate chapters; given the relevance the descriptive seems to have diverted. The concluding chapter: “With India: How and in What Form?” again, is a delineation to some lifeless narratives, without any suggestion, or arrest. By and large, The Naga Story is an over elaborated gratification of an aimless narrative—akin to news—merely to complement the central theme of the story: a personal litany of how Chandola, to paraphrase his own admittance, was made a “scapegoat” in past Naga political and historical process, despite his connectedness with the then most powerful person in India, Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi. Unfortunately, the central point of his story—the epistolary proof of Mrs. Gandhi’s five letters to the author (pp. 328, 331-34)—are shabbily scanned, copied in original form, almost unreadable, apparently ignorant of any available computer software’s touch-ups.

Overrated and generously over-priced, the outlandishly titled The Naga Story: First Armed Struggle is definitely not meant for a Naga readership; it was a translation from an earlier vernacular version. Perhaps, because of misplaced trust and expectations—because of such books and what they say or do—we still continue to frustratingly call the best or worst of Indian writers sometimes as bl**dy nitwits! It softly reminds us: if Harish Chandola cannot write a book deservingly, which Indian will? After all, it is his story and not the Naga story! Stringent, the review appears—but necessary, for the scholars of tomorrow may be charting a historiography, footnoting such fluid books, as the Naga history. Eastern Mirror Nagaland

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