The Khasis from Meghalaya have a legend about how they lost their script. It was swept away in “the great flood”—an undated reference that has currency in several ancient cultures. The tribesmen eventually lost all memory of it and their descendants were left without alphabet.
Postcard: The scenic landscapes of the North-East feature in the work of writers from this region.
With the coming of the Christian missionaries in the 18th century, the Khasis got back the written word. Over the next century, tribes in Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram took to writing as well, stimulating a giant transcription of these oral cultures into written texts.
Today, there is a profusion of literature from the seven states of the North-East. Intense political conflict and complex issues of identity provide much fodder for storylines. And the subsoil of myth and folklore, coupled with scenic landscapes, make it a fertile ground for literary ferment.
Over the next three months, Penguin India will have five books by writers from the region on bookstands. The publishing house is working on organizing a gala in Guwahati in December to celebrate the joint launch of books by Dhruba Hazarika and D.N. Bezbaruah from Assam, Mamang Dai from Arunachal Pradesh, Temsula Ao from Nagaland, and a pan-North-East poetry anthology edited by K.S. Nongkynrih and Robin Singh Ngangom, both members of the faculty at Meghalaya’s North-Eastern Hill University (Nehu). Zubaan, a relatively smaller publisher, is also set to launch Shadowmen by Khasi writer Bijoya Sawian and a book of poems by the Manipuri activist, Irom Sharmila.
Ravi Singh, editor-in-chief, Penguin India, was introduced to this batch of writers through the annual publication of the North East Writers Forum, NEWFrontiers, around five years ago. Singh believes that writers from the North-East are the “single most organized group of writers” in the country today and their self-created literary platforms have given impetus to large-scale publishers such as Penguin. Niche publishers, such as Katha, had recognized the literary merit of this region in the mid-1990s. “I haven’t been able to find any other comparable group of writers in the country that meet regularly, work together and self-publish with such drive,” says Singh.
Singh himself has been a great crusader for drawing mainstream attention to this region. Book circuit rumour has it that he has flown down to attend small book launches in Guwahati and Itanagar. He says some of the most interesting Indian writing in English today is coming from this region. The reason: They have something more than just middle-class angst to address.
This literature is germinating more specifically in Meghalaya, Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh—places that have been taking to the written word over the last century, explains Dai, who is from Arunachal Pradesh’s Adi tribe. But to celebrate only the newly written orality of the North-East is to ignore the existence of Assamese and Manipuri written literature that dates back to the 10th and 16th centuries, respectively. Writing in Assamese is, and will be, the forerunner in this region. Many writers, including Dai herself, have had their primary education in Assamese.
Founded in 1996, the North East Writers Forum was the brainchild of Dhruba Hazarika, Mitra Phukan and a few other writers from Assam. They sought the help of two young Khasi poets and academicians, Nongkynrih and Ngangom, to organize chapters in each state. Today, the forum is an efficient body. It held its annual general meeting in Shillong just two weeks ago.
Over the phone, Nongkynrih shares, somewhat modestly, that a poetry anthology that Ngangom and he brought out in 2003 as a university publication from Nehu did much to attract mainstream publishers to local talent. The anthology is truly sublime, and features works by Penguin writers such as Dai and Ao as well as young poets such as Mizoram’s Mona Zote. In poignant verse, in her poem titled Rez (2006), Zote writes: A boy and his gun: that’s an image will do/to sum up our times…/if they say they want to hear about stilt houses...and the preservation of tribal ways/give them a slaughter.
Several writers resonate Zote’s sentiments, expressing mild rage at being labelled as “North-East writers”. At the literary consultancy Siyahi’s Voices from the North East festival (13-14 October) in New Delhi, writers complained of the “conflict zone” and “new heart of darkness” tags. Ao, a Padma Shri awardee for literature in 2007, articulated her resentment. “My peers and I belong to the broader category of Indian writing in English. To shelf our literature with a disparate label is to be non-inclusive.” Dai doesn’t have a problem with the label as such, but stresses that fetishizing her ethnicity shouldn’t be a point of focus for publishers.
The region is such an assorted conglomeration of people with varied cultures that the “North-East” as a collective term is misleading. Preeti Gill, an editor with Zubaan, has travelled around the region and says the collective noun doesn’t even exist in any of the local languages. That said, she dismisses it as a term of convenience, one that doesn’t warrant offence.
The new grammarians
The work of the older generation of writers reflects a particular strain of violence. Arupa Patangia Kalita’s powerful novel Felani, for instance, vividly captures the terror of this region.
While politics and folklore still dominate much of the region’s literature, writers are moving beyond. A lot of it has to do with exposure and elite education. The present coterie consists largely of academics, journalists and civil servants. Sawian even agrees that her privileged education at Shillong’s Loreto Convent might have “over polished” her prose. Western influences are apparent: The core idea for her forthcoming book on youth getting exploited by political sharks came from a Bob Dylan song: He was a clean cut kid but they made a killer out of him.
At the Siyahi festival, where she was a panellist, Sawian was dressed in the traditional Khasi jainsem and spoke of the beauty of her indigenous faith, Niam Trai. At 60, she represents a generation of writers who are perched precariously on a fence between the old and the new.
The case of writers who do not share the ethnic heritage of their peers is even more interesting. Writers such as Anjum Hasan, Siddhartha Deb and Samrat Choudhury hail from Shillong but do not belong to the indigenous tribes of the North-East. But the region, and the issue of identity, has featured prominently in their early works. They have been quick to move on to writing about more mainstream India. Large chunks of action in Hasan’s second novel, Neti, Neti, take place in Bangalore. And while Deb’s first two books were set in Shillong, his third, to be published by Viking Penguin in 2011, takes on India as a whole. However, though it was planned as a work that would have nothing to do with the North-East, the region is nevertheless making an appearance in the book. “You can take me out of the North-East but you can’t take the North-East out of my work, it seems,” says Deb, who is Sylheti, an ethnographic group spread around the larger area of the North-East, Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Some writers from this bunch, all settled in urban centres and even abroad (Deb lives and works in New York), are planning a Shillong Literary Festival in mid-2010. Lalsawmliani “Teteii” Tochhawng, a cultural practitioner based in New Delhi, says they have had preliminary negotiations with the government of Meghalaya and the state’s chief secretary, who are committed in principle to supporting the festival.
In proportion to the output, not much literature from this region has attracted a global readership yet, possibly because the international reader is not yet familiar with its complex politics. But there is hope.
Hasan’s Neti, Neti has recently been sold to a Swedish publisher, Ordfront. Assamese writer Aruni Kashyap’s work has drawn interest as well. And several international publishers were interested in Dai’s Stupid Cupid when it was shopped around at the Frankfurt book fair last month.
The view from the hills, for now, is fabulous.