On Independence Day Mint Lounge published a list of 50 Indian books written in English post 1947. Although the piece included an editorial note explaining what kind of books were not included, and encouraged readers to write in with additions, the list sparked criticism from writers, readers, and literary critics from North-East India on social media, who argued that the complete absence of books from the region was inexcusable.
As a researcher of Assamese modern writing, my interest was piqued immediately. I realised that while the list was an innocent initiative, a lack of representation, however, points to a systemic erasure of the North-East from the national imagination, which in extreme form is institutionalised through legal mechanisms like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.
So, what does it mean to read or write North-East Indian literature? The primary obstacle to this question lies in the category of the “North-East” itself. Before one gets to the literary issues, though, what does the term North-East mean? And what does it mean to claim that identity?
Historically, the North-East emerged as a geopolitical entity through a series of attempts by British administrators and anthropologists to classify and control an area of the subcontinent, especially through the institution of the Inner Line Permit in 1873, that had hitherto been difficult to conquer and had not been ruled by the native imperial powers with whom they had relations. The history of the North-East is therefore deeply linked to colonisation, and this tense relationship with the central administration has continued in the postcolonial era where neglect by successive central governments has been a recurrent complaint for decades. India’s 73-plus years of history of being an independent nation cannot ignore the resistances against the hegemony of such a project.
Always missing from the canon
But what do books have to do with this? Here, some of the arguments made by postcolonial scholars apply when thinking about the North-East too. Theoretical and archival work by post-colonialists have shown us that literature often functioned as a way to advance the colonial project, formulate and perpetuate racialised notions of the human body, and sustain imperialism and the White Man’s Burden by framing people from colonised spaces as the Other.
The boom in the publication of books such as Midnight’s Children, The God of Small Things, and A Suitable Boy that found popularity in the West, too, was heralded in significant part as a way for Indian writers to find a legitimate place in the literary canon and an original take on English, as the term Indian Writing in English increasingly came into vogue and contributed to the core of Commonwealth and Anglophone literatures. As the notion of postcolonial India was being written by these influential writers with access to multinational publishers, the position of the North-east as peripheral to the nation became solidified.
It is easy to skip the literature from the region because it is often missing from the usual sites of literary canonisation, such as syllabi of Indian writing, and is rarely promoted by booksellers. When I was a student of English Literature in Delhi’s St Stephen’s College, my classmates and I did not read a single author from North-East India, even though Indira Goswami had taught in the university’s department of Modern Indian Languages and Literary Studies for many years just across the road.
Once, Nitoo Das, a Delhi University teacher and a poet, came to the college to read her poetry and talk about poetry from Assam, and I was captivated by her perspectives om contemporary poetry from the region. I had grown up listening to the soulful melodies of Bhupen Hazarika and the beautifully crafted lyrics of Nirmal Prabha Bordoloi, but I couldn’t imagine them on the university syllabus.
The canon, after all, was made somewhere called the world, and the only books that were worth reading were the ones that people who seemed to know a lot about books and lived in metropolitan capitals wrote about. They did not exist in any prominent way in the bookstores of Delhi. What care would this world have for the haunting poetry of Chandradhar Barua, Ganesh Gogoi, and Debakanta Baruah, that we grudgingly rote-learned in middle school Assamese class and pretended to forget soon afterwards.
Would my grandmother, who always had her nose buried in a book or a periodical bought at the local newsstand, be it in Assamese, Bangla, or English, be considered to be widely read if she did not read the books that sought to capture the essence or idea of India? Maybe she was reading in ways that defied a mainland idea of India.
A contested political category
I do not blame the compilers of the list, or the countless others preceding it, for neglecting to include titles from Northeast India. For am I not a product of the same system that creates and continues this cycle of absence? I had an English-medium education that followed a national syllabus. The school calendar was a bit of a sham because any day of the week could be declared a bandh or a curfew depending on whether the insurgents or the Indian Army decided that the civilians need to be controlled more powerfully.
I do not remember a single Republic Day or Independence Day being one of celebration instead of being holed up at home, afraid of being blown to bits by a bomb explosion, shot to death, or poisoned by rebels fighting for freedom from India. To matter meant to get out, to go where the country was, to speak in Hindi and English, and forget.
After two higher education degrees, possessing a great love of reading, and with the cultural power and resources that come with pursuing a PhD at an American university, I still have to make a case for why books from Northeast India are worth reading and discussing. As Aruni Kashyap has written so poignantly in his introduction to How to Tell the Story of an Insurgency: Fifteen Tales From Assam, should stories from a violent land only have violence in them? To move towards a dedicated reckoning of literature from North-East India, we have to consider that violence is not always physically tangible but is a necessary condition for creating and sustaining spaces and people as minor and this manifests as a lack of cultural representation.
Of course, Benedict Anderson reminds us that the medium of print has been instrumental in creating the affective community we know to be a nation. But books are also key in capturing the disruptions to a hegemonic nationalism. Writers like Arupa Patangia Kalita, Temsula Ao, Easterine Kire, and Mamang Dai effectively portray the continuing violence of the Indian state and how it shapes ordinary life in the area. Similarly, the Miya poetry from the chars of Assam and the verse of Sameer Tanti connect to experiences of Dalit and Adivasi writing that reveal how the Indian nationalist project is often one of systemic exclusion.
There cannot simply be an invocation to read North-Eastern writers, for that would be nothing but hollow tokenism. A serious engagement with the writing from the region has to grapple with the fact that it is a contested political category. It will have to reckon with complex concerns, such as the colonial history of print in the region that standardised certain languages and made others political minorities, as well as the position of power that interlocutors occupy in potentially flattening the complexity of such a categorisation while consecrating certain texts.
There is also a need to interrogate notions of belonging, identity, and migration, through ways of reading where literary texts bring out the tension between geopolitical marginality and literary worth and borderlands yield perspectives on the national core and enable transnational connections.
The absence of North-Eastern voices is not one of individual choice, but one of systemic exclusion, but it is worthwhile to attempt a meaningful beginning. This may require alternative literary methods and value systems – for example, a commitment to poetry and short stories instead of the obsession of multinational English publishers with the novel, and also supporting translators and literary critics from the region.
So, read the books because they are an archive of pain and suffering at the hands of the state machinery that cannot be articulated otherwise. Read the books also because they are good books, they are witty and well-crafted, they are universal and opaque at the same time, and nothing can be more representative of “Indian writing”.
Sneha Khaund is a doctoral student in the Comparative Literature programme at Rutgers University.