Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 36, Dated September 12, 2009
Singing In The Dark Times
Senior Editor, Zubaan
|Illustration: ANAND NAOREM
THE TERM ‘Northeast’ is a form of geographical,
linguistic and ethnic stereotyping that
clubs together eight disparate, often misunderstood
states that happen to lie in the
Northeastern periphery of the Indian union.
In no local language does such a term exist.
To say that the Northeastern states are different from the
rest of India in almost every way is to state the obvious, but
it is important to recognise that these ‘differences’ have created
rifts, giving rise to insurgencies, demands for secession
from the Indian state and years of internal conflict and discontent.
To the people of the Northeast their world is central to themselves; to ‘mainland India’ it is a borderland.
Locating a region by placing oneself at a point one sees as
the ‘centre’ is both arrogant and potentially dangerous.
Almost all the eight states have been long besieged by insecurity
and violence, death, kidnappings, rape and torture
on a daily basis, governmental apathy, corruption, poverty
and unemployment. People are caught in the crossfire of insurgents,
militants, non-state actors and the government’s
counter-insurgency operations. The work of the older generation
of writers reflects this strain of violence and death.
Indira Goswami’s The Journey, Arupa Patangia Kalita’s powerful
novel Felanee and short stories like ‘Someday, Sometime
Numoli’, Sebastian Zumvu’s story ‘Son of the Soil’
(about a young boy caught by the army for pretending to be
an insurgent in order to extort money), Temsula Ao’s These
Hills Called Home: Stories From a War Zone (a vivid depiction
of what happened in Nagaland in the 1960s and 1970s),
Bimabati Thiyam Ongbi’s story ‘He’s Still Alive’, Dhrubajyoti
Bora’s trilogy on the insurgency, Rita Chaudhury’s novel Ei Samay Sei Samay on the Assam agitation, to name but a
few, have dealt with these themes in terrifying detail.
|Northeastern writing is in an exciting
place. Backed by a strong literary
tradition, it surges with fresh ideas
Many younger writers continue to grapple with these
issues. Having grown up in the shadow of the gun, their
desire to analyse the common people’s reaction to insurgency is as strong as ever. A case in point is young author
Aruni Kashyap whose soon-to-be-published first novel, The House with a Thousand Novels seeks to understand
why so many educated thinking young men took to the
gun. (Interestingly, a number of these are now writing
novels and memoirs, like Samudra Gogoi’s A Former ULFA
MITRA PHUKAN, the well-known Assamese
writer, talks of a Northeastern diaspora –
young people living in Bangalore and Delhi –
writing of a “remembered Assam”. But Aruni,
for example, thinks questioning remembered history is crucial
to understanding and has set his novel in Assam’s ‘secret
killings’ phase of the 1990s. There is a ‘looking back’ to
find answers to today’s troubling questions. Younger writers
are exploring little-known histories of their own people: the
Bodos, the Tiwas. Those who grew up in the Northeast but
do not ‘belong’ there like their ethnic peers are especially
concerned with identity – the “outsider” looking in (Anjum
Hasan’s first novel Lunatic in my Head does this brilliantly).
Of course, life in the Northeast (as elsewhere) is not all
bleak, tragic or violent. There is love and hope in the
human spirit. There is the serenity of the region’s mountain
streams and the immense silence of its forests. Writers
like Esther Syiem, Temsula Ao, Kynpham Nongkynrih
and Mamang Dai are moored in their traditions, giving
their writings a certain depth. But Ao feels that younger
voices from Meghalaya and Nagaland — more urban, cosmopolitan,
“westernised” than an earlier generation — have
lost touch with their roots. Manipur has a strong tradition
of theatre and dramatic writing spanning cities and villages.
Many members of an energetic rural Womens’
Writers Group, led by writer Binodini Devi, have published
books. In Mizoram, where writers earlier wrote on
insurgency, they now write of the Church. There is also a
definite desire to go back to a time before Christianity, to
discover their roots. First apparent in Mizo music, this is
now beginning to be felt in writing as well.
This window into contemporary writing from the
Northeast shows what an exciting place it is to be in:
backed by a strong, vibrant literary tradition, and surging
with fresh ideas. Readership in both English and local
languages is growing, regional publishing is strong and
awareness of what comprises ‘good’ writing is not in
doubt. More good things are to come.