For someone growing up in Assam and having family all over the ubiquitous North-East, a patched-up geographical nomenclature, literature and conflict seem to have been entwined rather strongly. For us, those that grew up especially in Assam during All Assam Students Union's (AASU) seven-year-long "son of the soil" movement, even our poetry and prose reflected the breathlessness of the time.
Breathlessness because of a new rush in the veins, a new awe, as also fear and abandonment. If a whole lot of us were singing songs, learning patriotic poems by rote, there was a significant chunk that were raising voices in protest and harking to lines that embraced humanism and internationalism. Either way, it was a heady time to chant "O mur apunar dex (O my dear homeland)" or "Hum mehnatkash is duniya mein jab apna hissa mangenge (we the toiling masses of this world will demand our share)".
The Guwahati chapter of the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) had more reasons to convince the public to shun uber-nationalism, while AASU's cultural outfits all over the towns and cities of Assam took recourse to local poets and songwriters to justify an Assamese homeland.
Ethnic unrest and a drive for asserting one's "identity" was a feature noted all over the Northeast. From the time I was able to decipher some of the pages of The Assam Tribune and The Statesman, I remember 60-point bold headlines on the latest fallout of “insurgency” in Mizoram or Nagaland vying with those that screamed about Beirut or Golan Heights. As a child my understanding was limited. But it didn't remain so as we started reading poetry voraciously to unravel complexities of our human life no news or prose would perhaps aptly capture.
It's a method that unfurls slowly. Hence, it is only now when I come across Mizo poet and novelist Malsawmi Jacob's writing that I get a more intimate view of the troubled times:
Our homes are drowned
in flood of blood
They come from jungles
Then come bigger guns
Those on higher grounds
watch it all
in a mirror
They cluck or chuckle— 'Drowned'
while our homes are drowned
in flood of blood
The simple images are purveyors of great terror and sorrow, often termed as “insurgency”. It’s nothing but lament that one grows up with to entrap within the staccato written word.
In his book Blood On My Hand, Kishalay Bhattacharjee sums up accurately his account of confessions by anti-insurgency powers at that time:
What we read about the late 1970s seems quite like regular boys and girls going to college. And then one day, they started violently protesting against the Indian government’s attitude towards Assam. Yes, there was discrimination – but most of India is the same…Most agitations are impulsive, so I suppose in Assam too it was an emotional outburst.— 'Confessions: Irregular Militia'
Everything was patriotic
As a Cotton College alumna, I have memories of the longwinding school- and college-student driven agitation spearheaded by AASU, with support from nearly all quarters, including, most importantly, the elite Sahitya Sabha (Literary Council) members. Poems by Lakshminath Bezbaruah, Ambikagiri Roy Choudhury, Jyotiprasad Agarwala and other stalwarts made a comeback in a new light. Everything was deemed patriotic and underlined as a call to resolve the conflict on “indigenous” rights. Discriminations were decreed against in lines such as "Ami Axomiya nohou dukhiya (We the Assamese are not doomed people)" and "Chiro senehi bhaxa jononi (Our mother tongue is the dearest forever)".
Roy Choudhury, also known as "Assam Kesari" (The Lion of Assam) because of his firebrand nationalist character, was the president of Assam Sahitya Sabha in 1950. Winner of the 1965 Sahitya Akademi Award, he infused young minds with the spirit of his verse harking back to the Tandava image of Shiva, another deity evoked in “conflict resolution”:
I'm a revolutionary, I'm fierce
I'm the vanquisher of Death,
I'm the destroyer of Time;
Where do I bring on revolution today?
Where do I dance the Tandava fierce?
Children of the late 1970s generation recall classes being cancelled for over six months at a stretch. No exams or homework might be causes for rejoicing, but not at the cost of losing out on the strength of education in life. While several households treated this as a part of the new wave justified in "indigenous (tholua)" sentiment, many others packed off the kids to other metro cities. The ones that stayed have stories of early morning lessons in exercises, body-building, cycling, etc., organised by enthusiastic AASU volunteers.
Several of my Cotton College compatriots clearly exhibited great excitement in being a part of this movement. Western outfits or even saris were shunned. The mekhela-sador became overtly popular among college girls who normally were happy to try fashions such as the salwar kameez or jeans and T-shirts. The latter were seen as "foreign". Nationalistic sentiments embracing all things Assamese was regarded as the greatest of virtues. Romanticism flowered through songs, art and protests. The new state party Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) was at the forefront of this upheaval. Then came the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA).
Bhattacharjee records in his book:
Then came the monster: The United Liberation Front of Assam or ULFA as they had baptised themselves. They had massive public support, but all they did with that hope was kill everyone who came in their path. The army was brought in…Look at the irony: the agitation was all anti-Bangladeshi and anti-outsider, but ULFA started operating out of Bangladesh! They later moved to Bhutan and Myanmar and started gun-running and doing other…When Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) came to power, that was the fruit of the labour of the agitation; and a rotten fruit at that.
As a Guwahati girl, my own “memories” of ULFA are encapsulated in the news of arson and killings that terrorised Assamese smaller towns and the countryside. There were reports of a strong presence of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) – a much hated entity in Assam for almost all reasons – alongside the regular police.
It is true we mourned for young men and women who suddenly give up their normal life of laughter and friends and movies and falling in love and instead picked up guns. They were labelled extremists, even killers. Alongside, we heard of sensitive people who were someone's brother, sister, niece or even children or neighbours. Those were sad times. Conflict had acquired another proportion in "Xunor Axom (Golden Assam)."
The long years of terror and mistrust continued. Bomb blasts and abductions, not to mention systemic extortions, became news one glossed over unless close friends and family were directly affected. My father and his friends still sang IPTA songs in Urdu, and discussed Bishnu Rabha's Assamese poems of revolution and social upheaval. I recall him and the other male members of the community in our neighborhood going on patrol every night, to sleep only at dawn.
An Assamese neighbour of mine who had a large plot of land behind our house with a cow shed and a vegetable garden nestling against our fence, found a torch thrown at the hay covering of the shed one night. The cows would have died a sorry death were it not for the night patrol. Politics was no longer heady. Nationalism was not a sweet pill any more, but a bitter fruit one found hard to swallow.
Meanwhile, some of us had graduated from universities and left for jobs on different shores.
Years passed and secret killings and military and police crackdowns became a norm. When finally the top leaders of ULFA were captured, one was reminded of what lives were earlier and how they changed. Dreamers having to pick up guns – although perhaps a clichéd logical conclusion – even made Assam's best known writers turn sentimental and surprised.
The waves never know the depth of
The banks never know the length of
The blood never knows where lives
With spring hailed into its embrace,
Winter lives on with a tiredness— 'Void'
These lines are from the poem titled Void by Megan Kachari (from the translated collection ''Melodies and Guns'') alias Mithinga Daimary, a “dreaded” ULFA member. Indira Goswami, the famous novelist and poet, while mediating peace talks between ULFA leaders and the Assam government came to know Daimary, born in 1967, and was impressed by the young man's shy, quiet nature and a pen that reflected nostalgia and dreams. Daimary's family was gunned down in secret killings that many ascribe to the administration's revenge on the militant group. That he wrote sad and beautiful lines was no longer a surprise.
Is poetry also an insurgent art then? I borrow this expression from Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who said:
I am signalling you through the flames.— 'Poetry as Insurgent Art (I am signalling you through the flames)'
The North Pole is not where it used to be.
Manifest Destiny is no longer manifest.
Nemesis is knocking at the door.
What are poets for, in such an age?
What is the use of poetry?
One of Daimary's translators was my English professor in Cotton college, Pradip Acharya, who is also credited with translating lyrical progressive collections such as Ancient Gong by poet Hiren Bhattacharya. The lines where Bhattacharya says, "Death is also an art/greedless sculpture carved on the hard rock of life," again take our memories and experiences of insurgencies and conflicts to the brink.
Mizo poet Mona Zote's strong poetry speaks of the body, of women entrapped, of bloodshed and the desire to re-imagine the conflict her state has faced long:
The sudden bullet in the head. Thus she sits, calmly gathered.— ' What Poetry Means To Ernestina In Peril'
The lizard in her blinks and thinks. She will answer:
The dog was mad that bit me. Later, they cut out my third eye
and left it in a jar on a hospital shelf. That was when the drums began.
Since then I have met the patron saint of sots and cirrhosis who used to stand
in every corner until the police chased her down. She jumped into a taxi.
Now I have turned into the girl with the black guitar
and it was the dog who died. Such is blood.
Today when Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma openly exhorts the public to choose its enemy, whether the Hindu migrant or the Muslim migrant from Bangladesh, one knows that times are troubled. Nothing more brazen could ail the North-East today. The challenges to this is also in verse:
Please don't forget '83, '94, '12, '14.— 'Don't Insult Me As A Miyah', Abdur Rahim
Please don't call my burns
The scratch marks of barbed wires
Please don't squeeze out my blood
And ink ballads on nationalism
“It was in the summer of 2003, if I am not mistaken. Thirteen years after ULFA mass graves were recovered in Upper Assam’s Lakhipathar area, the terror group had made a return…The army launched one of the biggest operations in the forests that are deep and never-ending.”— 'Confessions: The Headcount'
It is a winter morning in 2004, after the harvest festival in the month of January. It is the time for feasting and festivities. The sun is elusive and the air mostly wet and dull.— 'Blood on My Hand'
It has been an extraordinary season. The Royal Bhutan Army – aided by the Indian Army, in one of the biggest covert operations ever in the North-East – has dealt Assam’s twenty-five-year-old terrorist group, the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), a devastating blow.
Again, it’s summed up by Daimary's lines from A Dream, translated from the Assamese by Manjit Baruah: "A wildfire...and the forest’s at stake/Tired birds will flap, in pain, into the air/And be vagabonds, once again...And the evil fire / Will devour the creepers / Nothing left green anymore. / All’s over..." The ULFA member was captured and jailed. A failed dream.
The season of political romances – alliances and loyalties – was the biggest fraught sentiment of this "growing up in conflict" for us, where poetry and literature were both the weapon and the balm.