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)


November 14, 2009

Of Grasshoppers and Hilly Tales

By Utpal Borpujari

North-Eastern India was one of the most important theatres where crucial battles of the Second World War were fought, and it was the battles in Manipur and Nagaland which stopped the advancing Japanese in their tracks. That is the larger picture. But there are many untold, unknown stories of how the local people suffered during the War with which they had nothing to do. They are stories that have remained unknown because they are about ordinary people from a region which the rest of India still knows very little about.

In the last few years, a bunch of young writers, from various parts of the North-East and who write in English, have been trying to unravel many such stories. Though these stories are in the realm of fiction, the finer details of the backdrops of these stories are providing the outside world with a picture of the societies of the various ethnic groups that people the region. The process is still a trickle, but of late, it has become a steady trickle.

It is in this backdrop that Siddhartha Sarma, a young journalist from Guwahati now working with a business magazine published from Delhi, has come out with a racy, dramatic novel set around certain incidents in the Naga hills and aimed at young readers. With a poetic title that goes The Grasshopper’s Run, the book published by Scholastic would be able to connect with not only the intended target audience but also beyond, with its adventurous tale of the young Assamese protagonist who is seeking to trace out the villainous Japanese officer who ordered the massacre of a whole village of Nagas in the hills, among the victims being his closest friend.

Sarma has researched the archives, dug out information from museums and recalled stories his grandfather had told him about his great-grandfather to cook up a story that combines history, society, drama and geography deliciously with the fiction. The young journalist, whose educational journey took him via Don Bosco School and Cotton College in Guwahati, M S University in Vadodara and St Xaviers in Mumbai, is quite satisfied with his maiden attempt at writing a novel, that too aimed at a difficult segment of young adults. More so, since it has given him a chance to do something he always wanted to do – write fiction with the North-East as the backdrop. But deliberately, he chose to place his story in the past.

He explains why. “I wanted to write a story about North-East, but I did not want to write about today’s North-East, because if I write about it, I will have to talk about some issues which at this moment I don’t to talk about – such as the fact that the North-East has been getting a lot of bad press, and people don’t want to go there because they have been told that it’s not welcoming, that they don’t look at North-East as a segmented place, that Guwahati is safe, Meghalaya, Arunachal, Mizoram are wonderful places to visit, Nagaland is now peaceful, though Manipur has some problems. For them, the definition of the North-East is ‘chinkies, dangerous’. I wanted to talk about a period when the entire world’s focus was on the region, and I wanted to write about war because I wanted my first novel to be a war novel. There were just occasions like that – the Second World War and the 1962 China war, but the latter I thought it was not appropriate for a children’s novel because it was fought in high altitudes, and thus did not have much involvement of the common man. But in the Second World War, there were a lot of atrocities on the Nagas.”

Sarma also wanted to write about the culture of the Nagas, and also the age-old ties between the Nagas and the Assamese. “Those traditions were at their strongest when the British was still ruling India. After that there have been many changes,” he says. The book also brings alive the culture of Upper Assam, the guns used in those times, and how the Nagas had armed themselves in those times. “There was a time when they didn’t have weapons, but then they started an armed campaign suddenly after 1947. Where did the weapons come from – they came from assignments dropped by the British in the hills, which were never found,” he says.

Sarma has earlier written two short stories, which have been published in separate anthologies brought out by Scholastic, as well as a book called “103 Journeys” which is about some of the greatest travellers of the world. Now developing another novel and a travelogue, for Sarma it was a tough choice to make when he shifted from reporting to a desk job in journalism. Says he, “I shifted from reporting because I wanted to write. Of course, there was a constant conflict in mind about it since once you work in the field, it is quite tough to adjust. But so long as I have stories to tell, I won’t miss reporting. If I want to take a break, I would go back to reporting. I have told a lot of stories about real people, now I want to write about fictional people.”

As a young writer, Sarma seems to understand the mindset of his target readership, which is also young. That is why when he chose a subject backgrounded on war, he knew how to tackle the subject to suit young tastes. “It was not easy, but I also believe that children today are exposed to a lot more things today than when we were children. So, their level of understanding is more even if their knowledge may be different. I had to tone down the violence a little bit because I could not make it too graphic or realistic, and I have tried to simplify the political issues without compromising on the facts,” he explains, pointing out that the “delicate” Naga-Assamese relationship, which has relatively soured over the years, worked in his mind constantly, which is why he has depicted the close relationship between a Naga and an Assamese boy in his book. “There was a time when the Assamese and the Nagas were very close, with shared history, shared culture, and even shared language,” he says.

(Published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 25-10-2009)


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