Utpal Borpujari

February 13, 2011

Reading the North-East

By Utpal Borpujari

Is there a distinct literary stream that flows from North-East India as compared to literary trends in the rest of India? As literature from North-East India, a region still far removed from the national consciousness unless it has to do with negativities such as insurgencies, corruption and natural calamities, is slowly but surely getting more and more visible, this is the question that is raising its head.

A region with rich literary traditions – whether in written form or in the oral traditions of numerous tribes – the written word from the North-East is suddenly attracting the attention of big publishing houses and even legendary agents like David Godwin like never before. Authors like Mamang Dai from Arunachal Pradesh, who resigned from the Indian Administrative Service to become an author, or Temsula Ao from Nagaland, have been published more than once by publishers like Penguin and Zubaan and got noticed for their strongly rooted writings.

And while writings like them who write in English, a language that traditionally has been a strong point with North-East Indians, are getting their place under the sun, the rich literature in the local languages and dialects, and even those carried from generation to generation as part of the oral storytelling traditions among the numerous tribes, has started attracting the attention of the outside world through increasing translations. While authors like Dai has recreated stories from oral traditions in English, the powerful writings of prominent authors such as Bhabendranath Saikia, a physicist-turned-author-playwright-filmmaker who is considered among the greatest of Assamese creative brains ever, and Jnanpith Awardee Mamoni Raisom (Indira) Goswami are getting appreciated by readers across India in their translated versions.

These and particularly a recent publication by Oxford University Press (OUP), the two-volume “The Oxford Anthology of Writings from North-East India” comprising fiction, essays and poetry by both prominent past and present writers as well as young authors and poets, has been in a way a pointer to a distinct literary strain in the region – distinct from the rest of India. The OUP publication, for the first time, has brought within one single cover writings of some of the most brilliant authors from the region, such as Navakanta Barua, Hiren Bhattacharya, the first Jnanpith Awardee from the region Birendra Kumar Bhattacharyya, Saurabh Kumar Chaliha, Dai, Ao, Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih et al. While much of the content in the publication have been reproduced here from various publications, what this has done is to enable the reader to have a first-hand journey into the literary minds of the North-East in one single place.

While original English writing has come out into the mainstream only recently, literature in Assamese and Manipuri has histories going back to centuries. But thanks to increasing translations, even North-Easterners, leave alone book lovers from rest of India and the world, are discovering literature from within the region. And with that the distinctiveness of the literary trends of the region. As Tilottoma Misra, the editor of the OUP volumes, puts it, “An intense sense of awareness of the cultural loss and recovery that came with the negotiation with ‘other’ cultures is a recurrent feature of the literatures of the seven north-eastern states. Each small community or linguistic group has responded through its oral or written communication to the encounters with the majoritarian cultures from either mainland India or from outside the borders of the country, in its own distinctive manner.” This is exactly what perhaps makes literature from the region different, as the writings not only tell a story but also reflect the unique histories, cultures and heritages of each of the multiple communities there.

Aruni Kashyap, who is the first author from the North-East to be represented by Godwin, and whose debut novel “The House With a Thousand Novels” will soon be published by Penguin, agrees with Misra’s view. “Due to the troubled relationship with the narrative of the Indian state which north-east shares with India, the writers have something very different to say than the other Indian-English authors. Apart from having a different sensibility, it’s the political nature of these writings which make them different. The fraught relationship most of the North-Eastern states have with the Centre often gets reflected in the literature, be it in  English, Assamese or Bodo. The fact that literary circles have been discussing ‘literature from NE’ as a different body of work, attests that it is developing in opposition to Indian-English writing, which probably mirrors the fraught relationship NE has with Delhi,” says Kashyap, two of whose poems feature in the OUP publication.

Indeed, much of the original English or regional language literature, that has emerged from the region at least in the last two decades or so, either have strong political backdrops or recreates stories from the history of the North-East that ‘mainstream’ historians – be it those writing school or college history books or those who have been known as prominent historians – have always bypassed while telling the ancient, Medieval or modern history of India. If Birendra Kumar Bhattacharyya’s 1979 Jnanpith Award winning novel “Mrityunjaya” fictionalised the large-scale participation of North-Easterners in the Freedom Struggle of India, something that has never been given its due space by ‘mainstream’ historians, Easterine Kire’s recent “Mari” (Harper Collins) or Siddhartha Sarma’s award-winning “The Grasshoppers Run” (Scholastic) have brought to the mainstream stories of times when the region had become a major theatre of the Second World War. The OUP publication itself has “Samiran Barua is on his way”, a translation of a story by young author Manoj Goswami that has already achieved a cult status in Assamese literature for its strong political content. But apart from this strong tilt, stories from the region are also getting the attention for being able to reflect the societies of North-East that are unknown to the rest of the world, for example those by Arunachal Pradesh’s Lummer Dai and Yeshe Dorjee Thongchi, Assam’s Rong Bong Terang, Manipur’s Yengkhom Indira or Mizoram’s Margaret Ch Zama.

Urvashi Butalia of publishing house Zubaan, which has published several women authors from the region, explains the scenario thus: “When publishing writers from the North-East it is difficult not to look at the political nature of that writing – virtually everyone writing from there is somehow or the other rooted and involved in the politics of the region. It is difficult to find writers from the North-East who, importantly, are not scared – as often writers of fiction are – of saying they are political. I’d say that is a key difference, and personally I find that much writing from the region has a strong sense of place. I expect that over the years, North-Eastern writers will begin to transcend borders and write about things that may not necessarily be rooted in the North-East, but for the time being it is this that makes the writing so distinct and unique.”

Siddhartha Sarma, whose travelogue on the region, “East of the Sun” (Tranquebar Press) has just hit the stands, believes that while every part of the world has a fascinating collection of story mines – and so does North-East India – but says there are some distinct markers about literature from the region. “The ethnic/tribal/linguistic interplays, tensions and interactions are possibly a little more pronounced, even edgy, in the region, than elsewhere. The more complicated the scene on the ground, the more fertile the ground is for harvesting stories. Viewed in that light, the North-East contains within it the kernels of some of the richest stories that can be told. I also like to believe that in many ways, the region contains some distinct attitudes to life and living. There is a degree of innocence and simplicity which runs through our lives. Part of it has to do with the fact that the region has stayed away from the mercantile approach to living that appears to have permeated the rest of the country so definitively. One still meets artists and craftsmen in far greater number from the region who practise their craft out of love for it, not so much for profit or publicity.”

Norway-based Kire, who taught at Nagaland University for some 18 years and did her PhD in English literature from Pune University, has an interesting viewpoint to offer. “The North-East has always been under-represented because all literary output from it has been hitherto overshadowed by the political conflicts that plague the region. We have had to make our own mark in the Indian literary world by forming The North East Writers Forum and showing the rest of India that there was much more to the North-East than political literature.” She also strongly believes that literature from the region has its own uniqueness, “The entire cultural base of the North-East is different from the rest of India. We may have some shared folk stories with some of the other states of India but otherwise, what the region has to offer is a wholly new literary experience. Its myths and legends are tied to the land, the hills and the rivers. Both the natural world as well as the spiritual world are always alive and real to the North-Easterner. What the North-East has to offer is this spiritual apprehension which is unlike anything that the other states have in their cultures.”

But Atreyee Gohain, who is currently pursuing her PhD in English literature at the Ohio University in the US, and whose translations of various authors have been published in the OUP anthology as well as by Penguin and Sahitya Akademi, has a slightly different viewpoint to offer. “I am not sure. I don’t know if there is a NE literature, same as I am not sure if all the diversity of literature in India can be categorized under Indian literature,” she says. But like all others, she too is happy that literature from the region is starting to get its due at last. “The ignorance of the rest of the country regarding writers and writing in North-East is not just limited to literature. It is heartening now to see our writers getting their dues.We have good translators, and publishers are just about beginning to explore the richness of writing in the North-East,” she says. The rays of the North-Eastern literary sun is for sure lighting up new horizons.

(An edited version of this article was published in The Times of India Crest Edition, 05-02-2011, http://www.timescrest.com, 05-02-2011)


June 14, 2010

Divakaruni and the art of storytelling

By Utpal Borpujari

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s day job describes her as the Betty and Gene McDavid Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Houston. But the world knows her for is not what she teaches, but what she herself practices in that field. And why not? She has 15 books to her credit, and quite a few of them – short story collection Arranged Marriage and novels like The Mistress of Spices and The Palace of Illusions – have earned many awards and much accolade. Her stories have delved the deepest recesses of the human mind, sometimes using the path of realism, and sometimes that of mysticism.

But Divakaruni this time has come up with a novel that is not just a story but a tribute to the art of storytelling itself. Yes, in her One Amazing Thing, published by Penguin under its Hamish Hamilton imprint, Divakaruni’s characters, trapped in a hopeless situation brought upon them by a natural calamity, try to give one another solace by telling stories from their own lives. In a way, through those characters, Divakaruni professes her belief in the “incredible” power as well as the art of storytelling. And the author wholeheartedly agrees to this conclusion. “The stories the characters tell when trapped in a life-threatening disaster transforms their emotions and their relationships with each other, and that is truly amazing. I am a great believer in the power of stories,” she says.

Perhaps it was in her subconscious all these years to pay this tribute to the art of storytelling, as both her grandfather and mother were excellent storytellers. She remembers how particularly her grandfather used to follow the “wonderful ritual” of telling the children stories every evening whenever the occasion arose. “He exposed me to the folktales and fairytales of Bengal and our epics and Puranas as well, which left an incredible mark on me and has deeply influenced my writing,” says Divakaruni. And she has tried to continue the same tradition with her own children with regular bedtime storytelling. “I think if we are not careful, we may lose this wonderful tradition in the hustle of modern life,” is her worry.

One Amazing Thing has a setting that is one moment mundane but turns surreal the next. In it, the reader goes into the lives of nine people trapped in the visa office at an Indian Consulate after a massive earthquake in an American city. The nine are an eclectic mix – two visa officers on the verge of an adulterous affair; a Chinese–Indian woman in her last years; her gifted teenage granddaughter; an ex-soldier haunted by guilt;, an Indian–American girl bewildered by her parents’ decision to return to Kolkata after 20 years; a young Muslim man angry with the new America; and an enraged and bitter elderly white couple. In a way, the setting and the characters reflect the the chaos of the modern, multi-ethnic globalised society. At the same time, it also reflects the growing visibility of India in the global arena. Divakaruni says it was a challenge to tackle all these multiple angles. “I had to let the story flow, keeping some of these themes in the back of my mind. I had to let the characters and their motives pull these issues into the novel so that they fit organically. Otherwise the novel would have become idea-driven and wooden,” says the author, who herself admits to have been left often surprised by the direction the plot took.

Divakaruni, whose work has been translated into 18 languages, and two of whose novels have been made into films, says that writing her latest novel has been quite a different experience for herself. “One major difference is that unlike my other novels which have one or at most two protagonists, in this one all the characters are equally important, all their stories equally crucial to the creation of community. It is also more multi-cultural than my other books, which have mostly Indian main characters. It has a larger number of important male characters than my earlier books,” she points out. Also, unlike Mistress of Spices or Palace of Illusions, which largely dealt with the imaginary world, in this one Divakaruni deals with both the real and the imaginary in equal measure. “It was a challenge, because the ‘magic’ or ‘miracle’ in this novel exists on a different, psychological level, in the power of stories to transform our lives, both as speaker and listener. The power of the imagination is central in this novel,” she explains, even as she points out how it also explores how human beings behave while under pressure, something she learnt to analyse in her own case too as she wrote the book.

As a writer, Divakaruni believes it is important for creative people to explore pain, something her characters in this novel undergo in great measure. “I feel as an artist it is important for me to explore pain. Pain can help a character to grow — or it can destroy a person. It is in painful moments that the essence of who we really are is often revealed. Without some analysis or depiction of pain, most books would remain superficial,” she says. Divakaruni might have drawn some inspiration about developing her characters from the wide spectrum of people she interacts through social networking and blogging. “I took on social media as a challenge from my sons who are now teenagers and think I am completely technology-deficient. I started an author page on Facebook sometime back and am surprised by how much I enjoy it. It puts me in touch with readers from many countries of the world. It gives me a sense of what in my writing touches people. I try to respond to everyone who writes in,” she says. In a sense, she is practising the art of storytelling on this platform too. That is Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni for you, the storyteller per excellence.

(Published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 13-06-2010)


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