The “North East” is a mere geographical direction. But going by the way many Indian publishers and literary voices go about using the term as a sign post for the writing that emerges from one of India’s most wrongly named and grossly misunderstood region, you would think the map of India beyond its “chicken neck” – the Siliguri corridor, a 60-km long, 22-km wide stretch connecting the seven states of North East India to the rest of the country – is stamped with that one word, and everyone there is living in merry abandon and having a jolly good time, with a few of them churning out “North Eastern literature” for the benefit of the rest of the country, whose inhabitants blithely conflate identity with political aspirations, cultural roots and histories.
One size doesn’t fit all
You don’t have “Southern literature” or ‘Northern literature” in India, for the focus is on the literary merits of the book, the author, the theme, the language – and the translation and translator, where relevant – but if you pick up a book by an author from any one of the North Eastern states, chances are that the focal attention will be on just the term “North East”.
For those who miss the irony here: Good literature presupposes precise use of language, so how is it that this falls off the map when a book from the said region is pegged as representing an entire monolithic identity, one that does not even exist? A book set in Bombay speaks about a particular ethos and a specific time, while another set in the context of Mumbai signals a different mood. But neither is a book set in Maharashtra, is it?
But bring in a book set in a specific town in a specific state in the North Eastern India, and all the descriptions and analyses and bouquets and brickbats are for this work from the “North East”.
Look at literary festival line-ups. While the majority of events will be author interviews and panel discussions on literary themes, there will be that one slot on the “North East”, referencing the “margins” and the “periphery”. After all, it is the exotica of the “North East” that triumphs over everything else. If you look up the panelists, you will also see that they are, most often, three or four people from Assam. What about the other six states?
A pre-set identity
The entire drama of contextualising literature from North East India as exotica with no serious attempt at understanding, much less knowing, the region, but still needing to put out a “look we are bringing the North East to you” spin is best addressed in Aruni Kashyap’s “Skylark Girl” in his collection of short stories, His Father’s Disease. The title of the story refers to a popular folk tale – retold by Sanjib, an Assamese writer – about a girl whose is killed by her stepmother, only to come back in another form.
Sanjib is invited to speak at a literary conference in Delhi, where the moderator is, of course, a suave editor in a publishing house who hasn’t read his story but describes himself as “a crusader for stories from the North East.” On the panel along with Sanjib are other authors whose works are clearly the worst of writing tropes where the region is exploited as exotica and then normalised with elements from the mainstream. “Why aren’t you writing about conflict?” says the editor to a writer who has had to struggle to get his Assamese writing translated into English.
Kashyap’s story is a clever and timely examination of the biases and realities within North East India too, as well as those held by people outside. Everything in this story holds a mirror to how literature in India is where it is today: Centrist, populist and happy to peddle exotica, while real gems lie scattered or are boxed into designated spaces.
Unfortunately, the undercurrents of this story exist for real in the literary world. Any book from any part of the region talking about insurgency even in passing is supposed to be a flag bearer for “growing up amidst insurgency in the North East”. No amount of fiction is going to give any real sense of the many insurgencies in North East India. For that, it is necessary to read non-fiction – Sanjoy Hazarika, Pradip Phanjoubam, Rajeev Bhattacharjee, Bertil Lintner, Niketu Iralu, Nandita Haksar, Hokishe Sema, Mamang Dai, and Willem Schendel, to begin with – and follow current political narratives, for the insurgency movements in the various states are not only different from one another, but are even in conflict with one another.
And how do the actual inhabitants of the seven states feel about the amorphous description of being from the “North East”? The region is brimming with ethnocentric and political identity fault lines, with choices split between secession, autonomy, and reluctant status quo, and there is no way that everyone here is willing to embrace the same, single identity.
Meanwhile, even as guilt publishing – publishers, bookshop shelves, media, literary prizes – makes sure to make room for books “set in the North East”, you won’t see these books featured on the must-read literary lists, or talked about by ordinary readers. After all, the “North East” is a mere exotic flavour brought out with a grand flourish to prove the diversity credentials of the literary establishment. It’s time to do better. Much better.
Chitra Ahanthem is former editor of Imphal Free Press, a newspaper published in Manipur. She is also a Manipuri-to-English translator.