It’s a young literature – this body of English writings from the eight states of India’s Northeast. Often evaluated in comparison with the rich tradition of Assamese literature (from the largest state in the region and going back several centuries) and overshadowed by the growing dominance of a ‘mainstream India-centred’ Indian writing in English, it began to emerge into the literary-critical scene at the turn of the 20th century, without a splash and with extreme modesty. A few texts here and there – like Arup Dutta’s children’s classic The Kaziranga Trail (1979) – seemed almost accidental, until we suddenly realised its presence in our midst. From one or two books on the shelf of The Modern Book Depot in Guwahati, to a row, to a wall, and now to a whole new extension – Easterine Kire, Temsula Ao, Mitra Phukan, Dhruva Hazarika, Mamang Dai, and the poets Robin Ngangom, Desmond Kharmawphlang, Kynpham Singh Nongkynrih, Esther Syiem, and Mona Zote are now not just popular reading, but have become subject of serious research. And Siddharth Deb, Anjum Hasan, Janice Pariat, and Kaushik Barua, a new generation with quicksilver imagination, supple language, rooted and contemporary, have made sure that this is a literature that is here to stay.
But how perfectly logical that it should have emerged! The recipe was there, the conditions were right, but then, of course, the region was invisible, except through the lens of the stereotype. The exotic, the mysterious, the simple, the lazy, richly endowed with natural resources, animistic, beautiful, untouched and unknown (the first modern historian of the region, Edward Gait, declared that little was known in the rest of India about it), – the catalogue is colonial but the stereotypes continue in other guises in the present. At the same time, it was a region of intense missionary activity, especially in education, and this resulted in the English proficiency that began to be noticed way before the English writings came on the scene.
However, it still needed that catalyst – or a catalytic time – that would jumpstart literary work. And this came in the shape of a time, a discourse, and a set of events. The time was roughly the 1980s when a number of identity movements began in the region around issues of territory (though the Naga secessionist movement dates back to the 1950s). The discourse was one of difference built around some of those stereotypes and directed externally to the Indian state and internally among the larger and smaller linguistic communities. The set of events included prominent ones like the students’ movement against illegal immigrants and outsiders and student and government action aligned to it (spawning similar movements all over the region) and long-running suspicion and mistreatment of students from the Northeast in Delhi and other metropolises often resulting in cruel beatings and deaths. A writer’s universe – richly historical, tragic, primeval and deeply rooted and ultra-modern!
Easterine Kire has evoked this complex universe in poetry, children’s fiction and novels that map changes in Naga society as it has moved from the 19th century into the 21st. From A Terrible Matriarchy, published in 2007, on the lives of three generations of women during a crucial period in Naga history, to the recent A Respectable Woman, 2018, set in the wake of Japanese retreat from the area after the Second World War, or the early A Naga Village Remembered (1982) on resistance to British invasion in 1879 and the lyrical When the River Sleeps (2014) on a spiritual quest this is a body of work that is both rooted and cosmopolitan. Temsula Ao’s sensitive little tale, ‘A Pot Maker’ represents the sensuous, tactile experience of moulding wet clay as a craft handed down from practitioner to inheritor, mother to daughter in a cameo of Indian craft traditions.
In fact, Shillong has been the catalytic place in many ways, a charming, childhood milieu for many of these writers, whose poetry and fiction is a continuing effort to understand its present against its idyllic past.
Political violence and recovery in a turn to nature and traditional culture, myths and land, local performance traditions and a long tradition of Western popular music – many of these are captured by writers here. And the special place of Shillong in this heady mix has been crucial. Writers who grew up in its special atmosphere have evoked it in fine novels of nostalgia and longing. In fact, Shillong has been the catalytic place in many ways, a charming, childhood milieu for many of these writers, whose poetry and fiction is a continuing effort to understand its present against its idyllic past. In the process, the writing has matured and moved – from small hill station to the metropolises of the world – at home equally in Bangalore or Rome. From her first, very local Shillong novel, Lunatic in my Head (2007) to The Cosmopolitans (2015), Anjum Hasan represents this journey, though she is only the most well-known of a very fine bunch of new writers.
And then, of course, there is Kaushik Barua. He announced his arrival on the literary scene with Windhorse (2013), shaking off local NE origins to tell, with delicate empathy, the story of people fighting in the Tibetan resistance. And as his second novel No Direction Rome (2018) proves, he is unwilling to get slotted, telling a crazy, dark and funny tale that is completely different in style and sensibility from the first but with the same human sympathy.
So – NE English writing coming into its own.
Featured image credit: Books by Tom Hermans. Public domain via Unsplash.