East of the Sun | Siddhartha Sarma
If the title of Siddhartha Sarma’s North-Eastern travelogue, East of the Sun, hints at its generally whimsical attitude, then its subtitle, A Nearly-Stoned Walk Down the Road in a Different Land, should indicate the degree of whimsy involved. The book is not a stoner memoir, thankfully. It is an easygoing collection of essays, addressed directly to “peoples” (as in the book’s first words, “Hey, peoples”), about travelling through the Seven Sisters (Sikkim “was not and never will be a part of what the North-east is all about,” we are unequivocally told. So no stopovers in Gangtok, peoples).
Sarma wanders through each of the seven states, stopping at odd moments to dwell on memories, fiercely held opinions, amusing anecdotes about food, and local jokes, among other things. Almost half of the book lingers in Assam—Sarma’s birthplace, also the largest state of the seven—as Sarma provides a beginner’s guide to the history and cultural diversity of the region.
His tone is breezy; perhaps too breezy, trapping readers in odd gaps of perception. Are rest-of-India readers to know who, for example, the historic military general and ruler Lachit was? If yes, is Sarma justified in providing us a retrospective of his glorious career anyway? If not, how are we to react to Sarma’s bald declaration that Lachit is “a personal hero”?
Readers sensitive to perspective on matters of military and political history may find several such moments to give them pause in Sarma’s narrative. His quick recounting of the Battle of Kohima (which repelled an invading Japanese army on India’s eastern front in 1944) includes several casual references to “Japs”, a puzzling choice of inappropriate language from a writer who, elsewhere, is clearly able to articulate why the Indian use of “chink” to describe people with East Asian features is offensive. Sarma’s conversational tone often swaps subtlety for narrative ease; sometimes, like the moments when he lapses into third person and calls himself “the Cid”, it can be exasperating.
East of the Sun: Tranquebar, 249 pages, Rs295.
But “the Cid” is also the book’s one great advantage. Lapses and all, Sarma can be a charming writer, and India’s North-East is both home and a source of endless, fascinating discovery to him. Perhaps this sets East of the Sun apart from any travelogue yet written on North-East India. It is written with a sense of love and ownership that allows us to fully enter into his emotional engagement with the region.
Sarma makes no bones about his preconceptions; he is not out to learn something about himself; there is no sense of false familiarity or false distance. Instead of setting out to create meaning, Sarma becomes part of his own book’s meaning. This, if nothing else, makes you long for more travel writers who would spend time discovering their own homelands.
It also makes you long for what might have been. A little less of the friendly email tone and a little more rigour might have made East of the Sun a great book, instead of an eccentrically readable one.