After a period of relative obscurity, English writing from the states in the North-East has gained a certain degree of visibility on the national stage during the last couple of decades. Anglophone fiction from the region can even be said to have claimed a disproportionately large share of attention, gaining readership both within and outside the region.

However, books written in the local languages of North-East India have been languishing owing to the lack of quality translations. The Black Magic Woman, a collection of short stories originally written in Assamese by Moushumi Kandali and translated into English by Parbina Rashid, is one among a growing number of efforts to correct this imbalance. Rashid’s translation preserves the cultural alterity of the text without compromising on the readability of the stories. The cultural process of translation is crucial for providing visibility to the non-Anglophone literature of the region.

A conflation of the mythic and the mundane

The Black Magic Woman comprises ten short stories dealing with diverse existential travails of the people in various parts of north-eastern people, especially from Assam in their habitus of conflicted modernity. The writer has brought in strands of ethnic diversities that are part of the Assamese ethos thereby highlighting the inherent diversity of Assam.

Kandali, an author, academic and critique, superbly experiments with the genre of short story, raises issues of gender and representation, appealing to both the local and the universal in her stories. These stories are a scathing critique of the patriarchal social structures in Assam as well as in the nation’s capital, New Delhi. Her stories are derived from lived experiences in different parts of Assam and the National Capital Region (NCR) surrounding New Delhi.

Occasionally, she conflates the mythic with the mundane in her stories thereby creating a continuum of mutilated gendered subjectivities since time immemorial in her stories. Women’s sovereignty over their bodies remains a recurrent thematic concern in this collection of stories. Kandali explores myriad forms of physical as well structural violence that women are subjected to in their daily life. Her oeuvre is reminiscent of Anjana Appachana’s collection of short story, Incantations and Other Stories (1991) and Shashi Despande’s evocative short story collection, Intrusion and Other Stories (1993) which deal with gendered violence in diverse Indian contexts.

Kandali is one of the foremost exponents of feminist short story writing in contemporary Assamese literature. Stories like “The Hyenas and Coach Number One” and “Kalindi, Your Black Waters” deals with the subject of consent and are informed by contemporary gender discourses in India. The mythic seer Gidhraj in “Kalindi, Your Black Waters…” anticipates the Nirbhaya movement which brought about significant changes about the perception of rape in Indian public sphere as well as in the legal arena.

From the perspective of the north-eastern ‘other’

One of the major thematic concerns of Kandali remains ‘otherisation’ of north-east India and its inhabitants. India’s north-east and its people are not considered mainstream despite sharing common national identity for seventy five years primarily on account of their racial features and distinct cultural ethos. Writers from the north-east have always been concerned about issues of representation and perception of mainstream India towards the north-east. Kandali explores the theme through the prism of intersectionality thereby dissecting the operation of gender, ethnicity, class and location in the construction of the north-eastern other.

She critiques the dominant regimes of representation which facilitated the creation of “otherised/exoticised” north-eastern bodies in her stories. ‘Otherisation’ as a process is universal and almost always exists due to asymmetrical distribution of power in a given social formation. It adversely affects the socially underprivileged. Kandali is primarily focused on its operation along the axis of gender.

The stories of this collection not only expose the ‘otherisation’ of north-eastern women in mainland India but also women in general within a majorly patriarchal social milieu. The stories explore diverse types of ‘otherisation’ – of hill people by plain dwellers, of rural folks by urban gentry, of political dissidents by politically co-opted mainstream folks, of the insane by the supposedly sane ones etc. Kandali’s superb use of animal imagery to delineate/comment upon human experience and emotion adds to the affective quotient of the stories.

In the eponymous short story of “The Black Magic Women”, Kandali critiques the dominant regimes of representation which takes recourse to orientalisation as well as otherisation of Assam and its women. In The Black Magic Woman, she juxtaposes the process of “orientalisation” of Assamese women during the colonial era with the exoticisation/sexualisation of the same in post-colonial India thereby highlighting the continuum in the process.

The author critiques the codification, enumeration and subsequent dissemination of “oriental” myths about Assamese women undertaken by the coloniser John McCosh in his report “Topography of Assam”. There is negligible difference between John McCosh’s exoticisation and the otherisation of the author-persona by her male friends from northern India characterised by male gaze. In fact, the latter may be an offshoot of the former due to the larger possibility of circulation on account of being recorded as an anthropological document.

In “Andhika Parv” Kandali executes a superb job in re-telling Mahabharata from the perspective of a domestic slave in the palace at Hastinapur. She recreates a primeval world which documents Aryan invasion and the enslavement of indigenous population by the victorious Aryan troops. The story categorically dispels the notion of any idea of a “golden past” since the era is characterised by violence, forced labour, and slavery. This story is replete with possibilities and deserves to be made into a novel. Stories such as “Kalindi, Your Black Waters…”, “Khanjar-e-ishq: A Filmy Kahani”, and “The Primitive Prayer” have unrealised possibilities.

The stories dealing with the Assam movement expertly captures the passionate indoctrination of Assamese youth and their subsequent disillusionment in the wake of failure. Kandali beautifully recreates the political limbo that failed revolutionaries experience in “The Final Leap of the Salmon”. Author’s political proclivities are not explicit in these stories dealing with the Assam movement. Evidently, her focus is on the human condition in the context of an armed insurgency.

In “Shark, Shark, a Huge Shark” Kandali equates the mass frenzy of the Assam movement with insanity and focuses on its debilitating impact on children. This collection of stories ostensibly focusing on north-eastern reality turns the gaze towards mainstream India thereby exposing its prejudices, opening up possibilities of oppression, marginalisation, and subsequent erasure of differences.

The Black Magic Woman

The Black Magic Woman, Moushumi Kandali, translated from the xxx by Parbina Rashid, Penguin Random House.