It is not unusual for an army officer who has had a tour of duty in the North East to go back to the Indian heartland and write a treatise about his time in the enchanted frontiers. Indeed, a plethora of books and articles have come to the fore about the unfortunate 1962 border war with China and sundry other officers have sought to pen scholarly works about the region. However, the latest oeuvre Of Bamboo Shoots and Orchids: The Naga Diary by Indian army veteran, Brig Gurinder Singh is a pleasant exception.
The difference is one of style and approach. He has fictionalised the history of the land and people among whom he lived and worked for a goodly part of his life in the Indian army. He does it with a flourish that would endear the reader to turn the pages with eagerness. But the characters of his novel are real people who he encountered during his sojourn in the North East. Indeed, it might not be very difficult for the readers to discern some of the characters from real life. Brig. Gurinder Singh writes,
Jayanta Barua and Mandeep had been classmates at school in Chandigarh. His father served as a Judge at the Punjab and Haryana High Court. Short and stocky, Jayanta spoke Hindi with a heavy Assamese accent. But he was brilliant at academics and passionate about football. He played fullback while Mandeep was a midfielder in the school team. Both Mandeep and Jayanta had long aspired to join the army. They had both qualified in the written test and had been selected though the process of interview. But Jayanta could not clear his medical examination and so his dream of joining the army came to naught…A few days before Mandeep departed for his training, the two friends went to their favourite hideout on the banks of Sukhna Lake. As the boys sat under the banyan tree on the banks of the lake, looking at the serene blue waters, Mandeep asked, “What are your plans ahead, Jai?”
The beauty of the book lies in the manner in which it intertwines history with a narration that has a fictional overtone. It is, therefore, at once gripping and educative. Steeped in times gone by, Brig Gurinder Singh’s book divides itself elegantly into 24 mesmerizing chapters beginning with “Your journey has just begun” and “British occupation of the Naga Hills” and “The Battle of Khonoma” where he introduces the fictional characters, Col. Mandeep, Jayanta Barua and Neithono Chisi. It is through their eyes and other such real life characters that the history of the Naga Hills unfolds. A close reading into the background of the important protagonists of the book would put to view the intimacy of the characters to people who continue to live and work in the region. It is Brig Gurinder Singh’s tribute to the land which he wants to be better understood by the rest of India. Indeed, Nagaland and Manipur and the regions beyond in Myanmar are today caught in a spiral of uncertainty and dissonance and it is this aspect that the book tries to stress upon. The novel also delves deep into the internecine conflict that periodically visits Nagaland. In the chapter titled “Sema killing Sema” he writes:
A month ago, a large group of armed Sema cadres belonging to Zoneboto had defected from NSCN (IM) to Khaplang led NSCN (K). As a consequence, retaliatory action by the IM group was imminent in some Sema villages near Zoneboto town. Usually, the State Police dealt with such law and order situations and the civil administration requisitioned the Army for the protection of civilians only as a stand-by force where necessary…Mandeep was ordered to go to Zoneboto to reconnoitre the troubled areas in anticipation of any future need
Such ringside comprehension about the manner in which Nagaland has been passing through is both heartening and replete with edification. It is this reviewer’s understanding that the Indian army deployed for counter insurgency duties in the North East have a far greater comprehension of the region than the average administrator ordaining about the North East in New Delhi’s Raisina Hill. To that end, it is not comprehended as to why old hands such as Brig Gurinder Singh and others are not consulted by New Delhi for the better management of the frontiers. As the reviewer has been lamenting in his myriad writings, the reason can only because of the “intellectual arrogance” that has gripped the policy makers in New Delhi.
There are many from the region who are in the Indian army. Indeed, this reviewer, too, had made up his mind as a seven year old to join the Indian armed forces and had consequently joined the Rashtriya Indian Military College, Dehra Dun as an eleven year old. But as luck would have it he was found to be medically unfit for entry into the National Defence Academy, Khadakwasla even after having successfully passed the written examination and the Services Selection Board interview. But the failed cadet in him has continued to be, in some ways, a fauzi and has sought to hold the Indian army’s hand in times of distress and strain as was the case during the Mon incident in Nagaland when personnel of the Indian army opened fire and killed innocent Konyak villagers in Oting, or many years ago when there was an incident of rape in Assam’s Nalbari district. While it was one of this reviewer’s unofficial brief to inform the rest of India that a noble force should not be judged by an aberration (as was the case in the Oting incident), he counselled the then General Officer Commanding of the 21 Mountain Division in Rangia to go along with his wife and apologise to the unfortunate lady whose modesty had been outraged by two soldiers of the force. It would interest readers to note that Lt Gen B.K. Bopanna (then Major General) took the advice of this reviewer and he and his wife visited the lady, held her hand and sought her apology. Human beings, especially of the North East variety, are forgiving by nature. The simple but most magnanimous and humane of act by Gen Bopanna made headlines the next day and the press hailed him as the “People’s General”. It is not immediately known as to whether such an act had any education for other General officers of the region and elsewhere. For the reviewer has not only noticed pomposity and arrogance in the leadership of the Assam Rifles in the aftermath of the Oting incident—indeed, the same leadership of the paramilitary force who did not shy away from dialling this reviewer’s phone number a hundred times on 4 December 2021 pleading with this reviewer to hold the force’s hand in the time of crises, which indeed this reviewer persevered to do without fear or favour. But the fact that has, of late, dawned upon this reviewer is that Gen Bopannas of this world are far and few between. Colossuses don’t stride everywhere. It is sad truth that sometimes brings ignominy to a noble force such as the Assam Rifles. But lest it is mistaken, this reviewer is clearly making a distinction between the leader and the led. The riflemen in the Assam Rifles is a gracious person and having interacted, patrolled, lived and eaten with riflemen from the Assam Rifles, this reviewer can hold his hand to his heart and say that they are the most righteous of human beings.
The reviewer has been critical of the Indian army as well when it came to a section of its personnel—primarily from the senior echelons of its officer cadre—supporting the “secret killings” that had characterised Assam during the disturbing days of late 1990s. But he was quite clear that acts such as the one that took place in Oting in Nagaland was an anomaly and an entire force—which is noble in their collective intent—could not be held responsible for such acts. Indeed, the AF (SP) A act was reviewed and it was removed from many areas following a review after the Mon incident. Indeed, it is the reviewer’s considered opinion that the baton of counter insurgency should be handed over to the State Police and other paramilitary agencies and the Indian army should return to their primary duties in the border.
Brig Gurinder Singh’s novel with a realistic twist succeeds where most other recent works by other non-north-easterner fails. He has been able to conjure up a set of real characters into an encapsulated wholesome of tales and have thereby narrated the history of the hills with consummate ease. Quite clearly Of Bamboo Shoots and Orchids has the makings of a bestseller and is a must read for both an outsider who seeks a quick peep into the North East as well as to the insider who wants to unravel the mind of an Indian army officer who served the region with dash and composure, and in the end fell in love with it.
Petal Publishers, Ludhiana
First Edition: October 2022
Available in Amazon
Price: Rs. 350/$ 20
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