Through Pages from the 'Northeast': The Feminine Lens
'A place geographically and emotionally far from the heartland'
NEW DELHI: The well-known Assamese writer who writes in English, Mitra Phukan, says that there are many ethnicities and cultural groups in northeastern India, each with their own unique literature, in both oral and written forms. For Phukan every literature is universal, but for it to be distinct from others it must have some “local” aspect.
If one confines oneself to written literature, whether in indigenous languages or in English, Bangla or Hindi, there seems to be a kind of commonality among much of the literary work from the northeast. “But one has to be careful from falling into the homogeneity trap as the area is very diverse in every aspect,” says Phukan.
In this context, nature assumes special significance in the region’s literature. For Phukan, nature is “a living, breathing entity, almost a character.” It is not confined to being just the backdrop or a filler, but has the capacity to shape the character and actively moves the plot forward.
Jahnavi Barua, an Assamese writer based in Bangalore and known for her critically acclaimed short story collection Next Door, says “nature’s wildness and majesty often forms the backdrop of novels and stories set in the northeast.”
But here nature’s grandeur comes mixed with long prevailing political unrest. Barua says, “Politically it has been a region where unrest has simmered for decades and that has opened up different dimensions in people’s lives. All these threads are woven into the stories that come from this place.”
Phukan agrees that both the political and economic aspects have had a huge impact on the history of this region, as reflected in its fiction and non-fiction.
“Also, migration whether from the distant past or in contemporary times has always remained an important theme. Partition and the sudden truncation of our traditional trade routes have played havoc with our economy as well as our psyches. These scars have not healed yet,” Phukan tells The Citizen.
And how is women’s writing different from men’s writing in the region, especially when speaking about about the lives of ordinary people?
One point of difference that Barua finds is that “Women’s writing from the region more often focuses on the universal issues that women everywhere else deal with, such as family complexities, relationships and their attendant difficulties, placing these stories in the larger political and emotional landscape of the region.
“Men perhaps do the reverse: they deal with the seemingly more urgent issues of politics and geography first and then focus on the stories within. Having said that, one really cannot generalise, for the reverse has also been done.”
But Phukan does not believe the gender of a good writer is important. “Both men and women, poets as well as essayists, dramatists and fiction writers have written about the concerns of ordinary people here. Both the domestic as well as public spheres have been written about competently by them.”
Tiamerenla Monalisa Chankija is the only woman journalist in northeastern India who is the editor and proprietor of a daily newspaper, the Nagaland Page. She says that irrespective of gender, all writers address issues with respect to socio-cultural, socio-political and socio-economic factors, and many other aspects of humankind.
According to Chankija, “Primarily, women writers address these issues from women’s perspectives, but also provide alternative perspectives that again need not necessarily be from women’s perspectives. After all, not every woman is sensitised on patriarchal issues.”
Given that the history of northeast India has borne witness to constant assimilation and diminution of the indigenous people’s identities, this historical ebb has been a major influence on the art of writing here, and many writers’ work is to associate history with fiction.
Phukan explains that writers and artists have primary freedom to experiment, explore and reject any theme, even though they might belong to a region that has a distinctive history and a present. “Having said that, creative people normally tend to get influenced by their happenings around them and they testify to these happenings through their creativity in their works.”
A fresh voice from Nagaland, Avinuo Kire, states that the association of history and literature helps to serve certain purposes otherwise failed. She says that in India, a land of multiple narratives and understanding, there is always a risk of a single grand narrative overshadowing the histories of marginalised peoples.
Historical fiction unlike history books can be a powerful tool to counter this. For Kire, “the beauty in stories is that it not only educates, but creates spaces for empathy and understanding. Proper and comprehensive documentation may be the first step towards bridging the gaps.”
And why is literature from the northeast not well known in other parts of the subcontinent, especially in women’s writing, even though the region is enriched with its own unique history and narratives?
Barua believes it is because “it is a place geographically and emotionally far from the heartland.”
Phukan emphasises that these states of northeast are actually much more relevant than states like Tamil Nadu or Himachal Pradesh. This part of the country is not at the edges because “this is our centre.”