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War and peace

Siddhartha Sarma’s young adult book is set in the Assam of World War II. But the battles in the novel are far, far more personal says Kushalrani Gulab.

books Updated: Dec 11, 2009 21:26 IST
Kushalrani Gulab

Siddhartha Sarma’s young adult book is set in the Assam of World War II. But the battles in the novel are far, far more personal.

About the book
Fifteen-year-old Gojen Rajkhowa is on a mission. It’s 1944 and the Imperial Japanese Army is poised to invade India from Burma. They must be stopped, but Gojen has a very personal reason for getting to them – vengeance.

Two weeks before the invasion, a Japanese officer had ordered the massacre of everyone in a village belonging to the Ao Naga tribe. Among those killed was Uti – Gojen’s closest friend. One way or the other, Gojen must get to the Battle of Kohima.

It says a lot for Siddhartha Sarma’s attention to detail when you learn that not only did he test-fire the Lee-Enfield Mark III model rifle that is so integral to his book, but he actually went to Burma to do so – just so the environment in which that rifle would feature in the book would be absolutely correct. But you didn’t really need that snippet to know that for Sarma, author of the young adult novel, The Grasshopper’s Run, detail makes the story. All you have to do is read the book, published by Scholastic India (and now under negotiation with a major international publisher) whether you’re a young adult or not.

Because The Grasshopper’s Run is an unusual book. It’s a historical novel – set in the Assam of 1944, when the Japanese Army is poised to invade India. In a sense, it’s a geographical novel – being set in a part of the country that’s usually only on the margins of our national consciousness unless China makes noises. It’s a cultural novel – opening up some part of the North East to us. But most of all, it’s a young man’s novel. There is no way that Gojen Rajkhowa, the book’s 15-year-old hero, can be called a child. Given what he does to become the person that he is, and given what the person that he is does because that is what he must do, Gojen is very much a young adult.

About a boy
“Gojen is a hard boy used to making fairly hard decisions,” says Siddhartha Sarma, a Delhi-based journalist, of his debut novel and its hero. “When he sets out to do something, it doesn’t take him long to decide what he should do.”

That’s because of Gojen’s background – his family owns tea plantations in Assam where people must be self-reliant from a youthful age. Plus, his grandfather is friends with the chieftain of an Ao Naga tribe. Gojen’s closest friend is Uti, the chieftain’s grandson, and he has lived with the tribe – has been part of the ‘morung’, the ‘dormitory’ for boys about to go through their rites of passage.

Not much of Gojen’s background was new to Sarma. The 28-year-old journalist was brought up in Guwahati, where tea plantations are ubiquitous, he worked in the North East as a reporter, and his family has long associations with members of the Naga tribes.

“That’s one aspect of Gojen – his training under the Nagas,” says Sarma. “We used to visit the morung, which is great education. You get to handle things and learn to master yourself. Despite the fact that you’re forbidden to lie, you’re still taught to be cunning. You learn that you don’t need to be deceitful to survive.”
north by northeast

Not many people are aware of this, but India was very much at risk from the Japanese during World War II. They had conquered most of the Asian mainland and were approaching India. They were defeated at Kohima in 1944, but before that, the war was very close to India.

Sarma wanted to set his book in the North East because it hasn’t been written about a lot. But he was interested in this period for several reasons. “This was when the world was interested in events in the North East,” says Sarma. “The only other time the world was interested was 1962 because of the Chinese invasion, but that was mostly Arunachal. World War II was also a period when there were actually good guys and bad guys.”

More, that era was just a few years pre-Independence, and Sarma is impressed by what he calls ‘the glory generation’ – people like his grandfather who were in their teens at the time. “They had a British education, were well-mannered, but also very tough,” says Sarma. “They were used to deprivation since most things weren’t easy to come by. That went into Gojen as well.”

Typically, Sarma put a lot of research into the details of the Battle of Kohima. He spent time at the Imperial War Museum in London, and at the museum in Guwahati, which displays uniforms of captured Japanese soldiers. He also referred to books by JP Mills, a British administrator, who wrote on the area’s tribes, and as for the places Gojen had to pass through, Sarma referred to a British-era ordnance map. “I needed to make sure the terrain was right,” he says.

TheGrasshopper’s Run doesn’t have a happy ending, nor is it a tragedy. Gojen does what he has to do and that’s all. But that’s how Sarma wanted it. “When I tell a story, I don’t want to bullshit readers. Particularly not young readers,” he says. “They have a radar for bullshit. I wanted to tell a story that could be believable and this is the way this story had to end.”