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Difficult stories from Highway 39

Sudeep Chakravarti started his career in journalism in 1985 at the South Asia Bureau of Asian Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones and Co. In 1988, he moved to Sunday magazine, published by Anandabazar Patrika group, where he was business editor.

He was also part of India Today and Hindustan Times. In late 2004, Sudeep settled in Goa to pursue writing. Penguin published his critically acclaimed bestselling first novel, Tin Fish, in 2005. Penguin/Viking in January 2008 published Red Sun, a book of narrative non-fiction travelogue on India’s armed Maoists. His new book Highway 39 unravels the brutal and conflict-ridden history of the northeastern states. He was at the Jaipur Literature Festival (January 24 to January 28) where Rakhee Roy Talukdar spoke to him. Excerpts from the interview...

The Telegraph: What about your new book Highway 39. Has it added to your acclaimed Red Sun, Travels in Naxalite Country?

Sudeep Chakravarti: In my new book Highway 39, I have tried to tell the small stories of simple people. About how the state almost does not exist in these conflict areas. About how badly we treat our own people in the Northeast. About how we have brutalised, tortured, maimed, raped to make their areas inclusive into the Republic of India. I have tried to bring the conflict from the Outland to the hinterland of India.

I am telling the stories of the Northeast to India. I have taken Highway 39 as a sutra to bring the Northeast stories closer and am acting as the sutradhar. The Northeast is an extremely complex region with conflict and hurt running deep. But I found there is incredible hope, a desperate hope to resolve the conflict, too.

TT: What about your book on Goa Once Upon a Time Aparanta on present-day churning in the state?

SC: The book was published in 2008 by Penguin/Viking but I have withdrawn its rights from the publisher a few months back in 2012. I want to publish it as an e-book, which is not restricted by publishers and not restricted by trade. It would be a free-downloading book and should reach out to more. It would have a new title and should be out in 2013.

TT: What is it about Goa that made you write this?

SC: I have taken Goa as a metaphor. Goa is considered a paradise but now it is almost a paradise lost. I am very suspicious of a place when people call it paradise. There are seething underbellies, there are forces colliding — with the government and people aspirations’ differing and corruption. I have tried to bring that out.

TT: Why did you withdraw the rights?

SC: I think it was received less than enthusiastically. I want to treat the book as I want to. I should have the freedom to express it in my own way. It is controversial and has made many uncomfortable. But I want it to be out in my own way and I think an e-book would get it a wider audience. But having said that, I am not taking the battle to the publishers. My next two books are with Harper Collins.

TT: About Red Sun, what is it that you regret not having put in your book on the Maoist struggle?

SC: I only wish I had more time to do the book. That’s the only regret I have. But there is a time that the story must end. In that sense I don’t regret anything.

When in media, I have been censured by my own organisation because they thought what I had to say and write was uncomfortable. But now I have the freedom to tell a story the way I want to. If I am taking sides, I am taking many sides. In fact I have learnt from Red Sun. There has been not one word or expression that has been censured or my editors at Penguin said we should not write this or that as that would invite reactions from governments — central, Chhattisgarh or Jharkhand or reactions from Maoists.

TT: Any reactions from Maoists for the Red Sun?

SC: There was a very interesting review from a pro-Maoist journal, where they sort of praised the book. An interesting comment said, “Chakravarti does not have living links with the revolution.”

By that they meant I am not a member of any revolutionary party. So they were saying this was the downside to the effort. But I am happy with that comment. I want links with revolution-living or otherwise, but I also need links with everybody for party to a particular story in progress. The reactions were in a way predictable. But it was worthwhile for them to review the book. There has been no call from either the establishment or anti-establishment to ban the book, which is a productive thing to happen.

TT: Are you doing another story on Maoists or their rebellion?

SC: After I have written a book, it is not the end for me. I have continuously written in journals, magazines, participated in television debates, given lectures in colleges, think tanks, to the armed forces, on issues related to Maoist rebellion and kept myself updated with the Maoists’ rebellion. In my book Highway 39 I have simply added yet another ongoing engagement with the conflict situation. The book I am working on right now is about human rights. I am engaged with my subjects. I travel frequently into these areas.

TT: Is the Maoist influence decreasing?

SC: The Maoist network is astoundingly strong. It has been there for decades. Like the Naxals from the 60s. It is spreading. But in a certain way, it is also shrinking because of pressure of the police forces and militaries of many states. The weaponised battle zones are decreasing.

TT: What did you find in these Maoist areas?

SC: The miseries in Maoist land mirror India’s failing as a nation. I found Maoists battling for simple things in life like governance, health care, education, livelihoods, lack of delivery of justice and corruption.

TT: Is it important for a writer to write against the establishment or set norms to get a book noticed?

SC: No, it is very important for the writer to tell a story in a way that a writer wants to write. We all have our own stories to tell or may be the stories we think we want to tell. In that telling, if it is pro-state or anti-state, it is a choice the writer must make. But it has to be honest story telling.

I personally do not believe in garnering undue attention. I am writing a story hoping it would get due attention.

That it is the point of view or debate or discussion. Otherwise why would I write? I want the book to be read.

TT: What do you think of the Salman Rushdie controversy around the Jaipur Literature Festival?

SC: Mr Rushdie has taken a point of view. In India or other countries, where you have large groups of people who disagree with what you might say, reaction to Rushdie is natural.

I am quite all right if attention is drawn to his works for whatever reasons because it highlights writings, literature or the art of story telling and also brings out the debate that often surrounds freedom of speech and expression. So if Rushdie has become the highlight for a few days at the literary festival for the second year running, it is not a bad thing.


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