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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 36, Dated September 12, 2009
CULTURE & SOCIETY  

Singing In The Dark Times

PREETI GILL
Senior Editor, Zubaan

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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 Member’s Memoirs.)

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.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 36, Dated September 12, 2009
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Singing In The Dark Times
PREETI GILL
Senior Editor, Zubaan

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