Books have a way of piling up. I have so many books on my TBR list, I might have to live to be over a hundred to read them all. But sometimes, miraculously, life allows a small window where you can steal a few hours away from the daily grind and pick up a book – or two – and read, and feel, and think through them. The miracle seems endless if you can wrap up one book and pick up the next, all within the frame of that same window.

Sitting on the ledge of one such metaphorical window, I was (very belatedly) wrapping up reading 2022 Booker Prize winner Shehan Karunatilaka’s novel The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida which is set in war-torn Sri Lanka. Then, My Invented Land, Robin S Ngangom’s book of poetry arrived in the mail, and to check another book off my TBR list, I started reading that as well. Ngangom’s poetry, which has won several literary awards since its publication, emerges from Northeast India, which is another, lesser known, but similarly fragmented South Asian zone of protracted conflict.

As I was reading these texts, of course, my own work – which involves the pressures of publishing to avoid perishing – never ceased. I would jump off the reading ledge every now and then to return to my struggle of organising and sending to my publisher my second manuscript of short stories. This work-in-progress is splattered with the same blood-soaked soil of Northeast India that Ngangom’s poetry reeks of. Mid-jump between reading and writing, one time, I realised that without conscious design, I was engaging simultaneously with three texts that, in their own distinctive settings and genres, bore witness to the ugliness that human beings are capable of. Suddenly, with this realisation, all three texts merged together in my mind.

Political violence endemic

The ugliness in these texts reflects the everyday reality of some people oppressing and silencing other, smaller people and the smaller, less powerful people pushing back with violence that becomes their last resort and resistance. The necessity of this violence, however, is far outweighed by its tragic futility because it turns victims into perpetrators, dehumanising and brutalising both victims and perpetrators, and habituating war-torn societies to conflict. Everybody loses. This is what happened in Sri Lanka in the course of its 25-year-long civil war, and this is what I also grew up witnessing in Northeast India, my homeland where political violence and conflict-habituated patterns of behavior have been endemic for as long as seven of the eight states of this peripheral region have been a part of postcolonial India (that’s over 75 years now).

As a young student in the 1990s, when I moved to Delhi in mainland India from my home state of Assam in the Northeast, I was still scribbling furiously in my writing journal, still composing erotic love poems like a typical hormone-charged horny teenager. My writing career was launched when some of these won me awards in intercollege literary competitions. But soon, the sense of longing in my writing was transforming into a desire to live and love among my own people because the people I found myself with on an alienated and alienating mainland considered me an outsider, a violent one at that.

Violent suppression of the ethnic aspirations and utter disregard of the human dignity of the many small, indigenous and autochthonous peoples of the North-East by the Indian State had led to armed independentist movements and civil uprisings. The flies challenged the lion’s tyranny, the lion swatted the fly with disproportionate force. Frightened but still discontented, fly turned against fly instead and the people in the land of the lion now said: “You are querulous.” They called us savages, uncivilised, tribal brutes. Naturally, even my love poetry turned political.

As I stayed on in the mainland studying English literature, then building a career as a journalist, then coming back to academia as a social researcher, I continued writing while failing spectacularly to publish. This was the first decade of the current century. At the time, all Anglophone writers from the conflict zone felt similarly gatekept. “We don’t do politics; give us culture, not conflict,” the publishers said, little knowing conflict was the culture, and the politics came from the intensely personal.

To be honest, I did not know it myself at the time. I only wrote what came to me from inside of me. In my academic research, I was consciously analysing and mapping the political conflicts, making sense of them critically, clinically. I realise now that in my creative writing, on the other hand, I was processing having lived through these conflicts while coming to terms with the incessant images of sandals strewn on the street after a bomb blast, bullet-riddled bodies on the highway, and the blood-spattered petals of flowers. It was my mechanism to cope with the trauma.

Licence to kill

In the introduction to My Invented Land, Robin Ngangom calls it the “poetry of survival” written “when heartrending events are happening all around a poet, when all he hears are chilling accounts of what man has done to man” (p.16). In a conflict zone like Ngangom’s home state of Manipur, this poetry of survival is written with “guns pressed to both temples: the gun of revolution and the gun of the state” (p.16). These guns are real and pose a clear, palpable threat to the writer with every word they write. Why, though, do they continue writing? Ngangom says he writes because

I want to describe myself again and again
to people who do not know me

Because someone said
the spoken word flies
but the written word stays. (p.12)

And that, perhaps, is why any writer writes: from this intense need to be understood and accepted the way they are. The way they are, of course, is determined by their social and cultural context. If this context is a violent one, and the writer’s inner self is scarred by the barbarism that they witness, then they will write from a place of trauma. This individual trauma often reflects the collective trauma of the society the writer is ensconced in. Consequently, their words become witnesses, the writer becomes the chronicler.

As a student and then a professional on the mainland, I was reading these unintended chronicles, the literature of witness, being written by Ngangom and other poets in the troubled periphery I called home. I returned to these lines by another Manipuri poet, Thangjam Ibopishak Singh, every time someone on mainland India betrayed their suspicions about the belongingness of the people from the Northeast:

…if you must shoot me please shoot me with a gun made in
India. I don’t want to die from a foreign bullet. You see, I love India very much.

— ‘I Want to Be Killed by an Indian Bullet’

Subsequently, I was reading about imagined communities and in my academic writing, dismantling the idea of social, ethnic, and national identities as essential and immutable. How was I to reconcile the seeming contradiction between the knowledge that every identity we ever assume is a construct and the poet then upping and choosing to identify with – nay, profess love for – a country whose agents of death are licensed to kill your kin and rape your mother, sister, daughter? This longing to belong, even in a gruesome and undeserved death, felt like a kind of obstinacy, a tenacity bordering on defiance. This defiance started defining the writer for me as an unmoored individual who may choose to be affiliated with but is not beholden to any community, country, or code of social morality. Whatever their personal morality, their art, their writing will compel them to chronicle the human, especially if it is inhumane.

Like the photographer Maali Almeida, Shehan Karunatilaka’s severely flawed protagonist in The Seven Moons, a writer does not follow society’s moral code. In a conflict-habituated society, this morality is anyway questionable. As Almeida cautions: “Don’t try to look for the good guys ‘cause there ain’t none. Everyone is proud and greedy and no one can resolve things without money changing hands or fists being raised” (p.23-24). Being embedded in this society, the writer has no higher moral authority to make normative claims or hold up proverbial mirrors to those around him. They are a part of society’s inhumanity; only their art sets them apart by inadvertently and inescapably manoeuvring them toward chronicling the horrors human beings mete out to other human beings. Often, incidentally, this chronicle begins with and from the self.

In the novel, Almeida continues taking incriminating photographs of the most inhuman among the inhumane but keeps them hidden in shoe boxes. Similarly, despite the lack of publishing opportunities outside of literary periodicals and little magazines, I too continued writing about the embittered land I called home while remaining completely innocent of my own culpability.

By 2010, when my first book We Called the River Red: Poetry from a Violent Homeland was finally published, independent and small presses on the mainland – like my publishers Authorspress and Zubaan – had carved out a space for the marginalised, traumatised voices from the periphery to be heard outside of it. A hungry lot, silenced for too long, Northeast Indian writers eventually started occupying spaces in every literary event and publishing forum. As we poured our trauma into our writing, publishers and readers clamoured for more. So much so that Northeast Indian writing now became synonymous with conflict literature: from being told not to write about the morbid and the political, we were now constrained to write only about that.

Women in violent situations

This too did change, and many writers from the region have moved on from writing exclusively about conflicts to other everyday concerns, particularly after active conflicts deescalated and most insurgency movements were disbanded since the second decade of the century. But I could not move away so easily; more trauma fed into my writing. Immersed in fieldwork in Northeast India for my doctoral research on conflict and reconciliation, I was confronting my own privileges as an urban educated individual from the dominant community among the many communities in conflict with each other and with the state.

Once, I almost lost my father to a bomb blast, once my young cousin was slapped by security personnel for walking on the pavements they barricaded, and forever, I keep my eyes lowered and try to be inconspicuous when passing men in uniform because they rape women. This secondhand trauma seemed insignificant when I lived and worked among the people who had experienced the horrors directly and survived the worst of militarisation and revolutions gone bad. I was haunted by the stories of the women who took me into their homes and shared with me slices of their lives under insurgency. The short story No Ghosts in This City emerged out of these truths about women in violent situations that I encountered in the conflict zone.

These stories, though, were hiding as much as they were revealing about me, their teller. Welcomed in the conflict zone as “a voice of reason in the midst of all the madness” (Eclectic Northeast) and celebrated among the 10 best literary fiction in India in 2014, they were speaking the partial truth about a writer scarred by political violence while being silent about how political and personal violences always intersect.

The writer can depict this intersectionality in their stories, like I did in mine, and thereby deflect their own pain onto their characters. But what about the real lived pain of the writer married on the mainland and trapped in a violent, abusive marriage? What if they didn’t know how much pain is too much, or how much one is supposed to endure before they realise that they are not too sensitive to violence (having grown up amidst conflict) but that the abuser needs to be held accountable for any and every form and act of violence? Apparently, they almost have to die for that realisation to propel them to leave the married life behind.

What followed my exit from a five-year-long abusive relationship was more harassment, more abuse across miles, character assassination, and endless never-ending litigation. Even my writing was put on trial: why did you write love poems to your partner if they were abusive? Plucking lines of erotic poetry from my writing journal, they asked in open court: are you a pornographic writer? As if writers of pornography do not make good mothers. So I continued to write, and poetry allowed me an outlet.

Green Tin Trunk chronicles this grief, the outrage, the sheer inability to stop writing even in the face of death: this death would have been personal, domestic, and dismissed. But as I continued to write now, I finally recognised my own culpability: while I was urging my battered domestic help to report her husband to the police, I was putting down my partner’s assaults to temper tantrums. Because we lived in a respectable neighbourhood because we were more educated and had more money than her. It took processing through my poetry – and subsequently my postdoctoral research on gender and violence – for me to realise I was part of the system that perpetuated intimate partner violence. How then could I feel comfortable with my poetry being called the kind that invites solidarity and action? All I had to offer the reader was the obstinacy that keeps me writing, that persistence that keeps every writer’s art defiant and defying, constantly.

This keeping at it is what makes us realise, in the end, that life is “not nothing”, as Karunatilaka asserts more than once in his novel. And if that’s “the kindest thing you can say about life” (p.355), it is the writer/chronicler who captures this faint glimmer of hope even as they show us the darkness it conjugates with. In capturing this glimmer, though, the writer is not necessarily fulfilling a sublime social responsibility; they are merely trying to heal from the same excruciating circumstances that those around them are also caught in.

For me, writing has become both the healing and the means to heal. With every step in my writing journey, I see more evidence that I am gradually emerging from my trauma, and taking control of my narrative. The emotional outbursts in the poetry of Green Tin Trunk made way for the quiet reflection in the short fiction I have written since where I become the women in the conflict zone who become me as I reconcile the political and the personal, the intimate and the public. Also embroiled in these intricate interconnections are cultures, structures, and traditions that permit these violences to be committed with impunity. To recognise these unjust systems and accept the possibility that our defiance may just end with a whimper rather than a bang, and to yet continue writing (perchance, hoping?) is all a writer can do. Sometimes in my writing now, I find the real giving way to the unreal. Often, the magical takes over, but the truth that violence leads to pain and pain has to be healed from within remains at the core.

Over the years, I have shared this belief in writing classes and published pieces. Especially in writing about our lives, we learn to name our pain and vulnerabilities. This is the first step in confronting our trauma as well as choosing our topics and themes as writers. Developing this theme helps us connect with the pain of others through understanding the larger human dimensions of our own. Then when we share this pain with a writing community or even a larger, more public audience, we are ready to own our stories, survive, and thrive. Maybe one day, I will take my own advice and give shape to my life’s narrative in a full-length memoir. Till then, though, one story at a time, one poem after another, I am trying to move out of the violent spaces and places homing inside me and refusing to leave me alone: like the banks of a river that flows red with blood and mud, or a brightly lit room with shattered glass on the floor where I crouch against a locked door. Even as I do, I remember how prolonged trauma works: you may train your active mind to forget, but the body still remembers; somatic memory is real. So if the writer forgets, will the writing not reveal the scars?

As I set aside Ngangom and Karunatilaka’s books now, and return to complete my latest story that I (hopefully not prophetically) title “Never Got Written”, I realise that despite their obstinacy and tenacity, a traumatized writer’s journey is always precarious. Caught in their own intimate web of violence, dread, and despair, their testimonials and tales of witness are ever in the very real danger of never getting written.

Uddipana Goswami is a writer and feminist peace researcher. She teaches at the School of Conflict Management, Peacebuilding and Development at Kennesaw State University.