Eastern promise


Eastern promise

Defying labels, Northeastern writers are reaching far beyond their borders

By Cheryl-Ann Couto  June 6th, 2014

A tetchy East European travelling through Sikkim is enraged to find that the ‘sad, sweet mysterious’ folk song that has beset him for weeks is actually a lot of twaddle in translation. He discovers this during a shared-taxi ride with locals he implicitly doesn’t trust or like, and who he’s careful to give no cause to start a conversation. He’s also on his way to undertake an ill-advised trek because again, presumably, he doesn’t trust local wisdom.

As the first of the two novellas in Chetan Raj Shrestha’s astonishing debut The King’s Harvest (Aleph Book Company) unfolds, you realise the ‘white rooster’ Straun, who all but disappears after that opening scene, is there to set up the single outsider perspective in this deeply interior work. You’re also sheepish to find that the foreigner’s cursory impression of the region matches your own.

The Sikkimese architect and heritage conservationist’s book is a triumph by any measure – both novellas bring to life with economy, honesty and humour, two defining features of his home state: its engendered violence and its mythic topography. I am loath to admit, however, that my initial astonishment had more to do with his provenance. “An incredible new voice from the Northeast!” I exclaimed to my Editor, when I read the book last year, as though the author’s ability and geography were somehow inextricable.

I remember feeling similarly – if less so – about Boats on Land (Random House India), London-and-Delhi-based Khasi author Janice Pariat’s 2012 debut which won the Sahitya Academy Yuva Puraskar last year. The lyrical collection of short stories conjures a kind of dream state by using folklore and fantasy while commenting on the social and political realities of Shillong, Assam and Cherrapunji. Around quite the same time, another book of short stories, The Gurkha’s Daughter, was setting the Western literary world abuzz. The Guardian called the stories of Nepalese diaspora by Prajwal Parajuly “crisp, inventive and insightful.” At 26, while still a creative writing student at Oxford University, a Nepali-Indian Parajuly was apparently the youngest Indian to sign a mega multi-country book deal with Quercus.

To what might we attribute this sudden surge of excellent English writing from the region? I took a quick poll of my friends, who I like to think are not particularly ignorant of good Indian literature, and most of them hadn’t read more than a couple of Northeastern writers – Anjum Hasan, Siddhartha Deb, Dhruba Hazarika – and as some appended, a single great Northeastern writer. Have there always been bestsellers incubating in the Seven Sister states (and Sikkim), and we’re just now acknowledging them? A bit of both, as it turns out.

Shrestha calls it more of a “steady dribble” rather than a surge, and says, “it might perhaps be because we are a louder lot, and have begun our careers in a time when the world is more connected, and dissemination is easier.” Parajuly agrees and adds that Indian publishers have finally woken up to the fact that there are excellent writers in the region as well as a decent market owing to the now large English speaking population there.

Increased exposure via the internet and Western education, greater English proficiency and increasing market savvy could be the explanations for why all Indian English writing gained ground in the last decade – so why has writing from the Northeast hobbled behind? Dhruba Hazarika, founder of the North East Writers’ Forum (which supports the region’s literary practitioners), and an Assamese English author “of yore”, agrees that exposure is the key change – “the new English writing is confident, assertive and shows a greater subtlety and range than ours ever had” – but suggests that maybe the mainland too is meeting literature from the fringes halfway now. “There used to be the sense that the Centre took writing from the ‘dark continent’ (to which you need all kinds of entry permits) with a pinch of salt,” he says. “The media portrayed us as the removed Mongoloid belt of the country; an author’s obviously Northeastern name meant the book immediately was taken less seriously.”

This abiding sense of hurt and separateness from the Indian state permeates The House with a Thousand Stories (Penguin India) by Aruni Kashyap, another much-lauded debut from last year. The Assamese author, who now teaches English at Minnesota State University, addresses the gruesome government-devised secret killings of ULFA sympathisers in Assam in the late ’90s, in the guise of a family drama. That feeling of being outsiders to the mainland, he says, comes from the strong psychological division of the two regions, a division that is “perpetuated by the brutalities of the Indian state”.

Kaushik Barua’s debut Windhorse (HarperCollins India) which came out to all-round nods early this year, goes one further with this otherness. He is the outsider himself as he revisits theTibetan armed resistance of the ’50s through the lives of two young men,and with great empathy and skill, deconstructs a peaceful, culturally rich region that has been rent by violence and loss. Barua, a rural development economist with the United Nations inRome, undertook painstaking research– meeting ex-resistance fighters,collecting oral narratives and stories,ploughing through political analyses and historical accounts, and relying on video records of the time – to eke out an accurate picture of a technically, yet not essentially, foreign experience. The themes, of insecurity, insurgency, being fringe-dwellers wherever in India the characters move, are similar to home.“I grew up in Assam through the 1980s and 1990s, which was a period of huge political turbulence. So I was always fascinated by how people lived through such uncertainty, and continued to build rich, interesting lives,” he says. “I was aware of my position as an outsider. To make the work truly honest, I had to delve into my own emotional history.”

To read across these new novels, different as they are in form, style and plot, is to be tempted to see two common threads surface: violence (looming, if not systemic) and the deep entrenchment of landscape and lore, like silent, forbidding protagonists. Hallmarks of what one might lazily term ‘conflict zone literature’.

Shrestha admits that the terrain and dramatic folk culture are useful to writers as a “sort of trust fund from the ancients”, but rejects any other attempts to paint him into a single regional narrative. Pariat agrees: “What informs a person’s writing is their phenomenological make-up – no two Khasi or Assamese or Manipuri writers are the same,” she says. “I think everyone lives at the crossroads of overlapping traditions.”

Besides, the chasm between the region’s own rural and tribal population and the increasingly well-integrated middle class has further splintered the narrative. Kashyap’s teenage protagonist, Pablo, is from cosmopolitan Guwahati, listens to AR Rahman and is as at a loss in his ancestral village of Mayong as any outsider. Parajuly’s characters are either battling interstate inequities or are taken out of their native context and planted on unfamiliar turf; their concerns are different: a cleft-lipped maid dreams Bollywood dreams, Nepali immigrants meet in Manhattan and nervously navigate the new order, a Nepali victim of Bhutan’s ethnic cleansing looks to the West for reprieve. They’re seeking and exploring and redefining the idea of home. The same line of inquiry follows in his new novel Land Where I Flee (Penguin India), which sees siblings spread out across the world – each harbouring their dirty secret – return to Gangtok for their formidable grandmother’s 84th birthday.

Gone largely unnoticed by the rest of the country, English writing in the Northeast is gaining depth and width. Since the North East Writers’ Forum was founded in 1997, it has almost 300 active members, with democratic chapters in each of the states, as well as serious literary journals. Hazarika says he’s also observed a proliferation of romance novels, good quality young adult and children’s lit, as well as inventive science fiction.

If the narrative is multifarious, and the writers’ place of birth in the Northeast merely a coincidence, then the catch-all label ‘Northeastern writer’ could become restraining. Incidentally, it was the Google search term and email subject line in my research that led me to some of these incredible writers.

Pariat is none too happy about the label. “I am uneasy with literature being considered by virtue of it being ‘from’ somewhere,” she says. “It adds to narratives of national or regional identity that can become exclusionary and entrapping. While place and context are important, they shouldn’t be the weight under which everything else is subsumed.” Her first novel Seahorse (Random House India), which comes out this November, is a complete departure from the first. It is a contemporary retelling of a lesser known Greek myth about Poseidon, the god of the sea, and his relationship with a young male lover, Pelops. Set mostly between North Delhi in the 1990s and contemporary London, it is a novel that “explores queerness, and the intricate interplay of time, memory and art”. In short, quite un-‘Northeast’. 

Similarly, Barua’s next novel, a coming-of-age black comedy about “a millennial Holden Caulfield in a post-Facebook world”, set to release in 2015, is an antithesis of the historically herculean Windhorse and once again, has next to nothing to do with his native place. “I haven’t addressed the region in my books but I definitely intend to, then I will probably formally graduate into this amorphous category of the Northeastern writer,” he quips.

Kashyap, on the other hand, believes the distinction is to be celebrated. Currently he’s editing a collection of short stories on the Assam conflict. “I think we should accept differences and celebrate them. The emergence of literature from the Northeast is an opportunity to celebrate the polyphonic nature of Indian literature,” he says.

None of these authors can promise to write about their homeland in a way that sits comfortably within the realm of rolling tea estates and smoky mountains, insurgence and bloodshed, and the machinations of the spirit world – or at all. If they should so choose, it will be their prerogative as storytellers alone. Their provenance defines them in as much as the places where we’re born, find our words and learn to feel, inform the stories we go on to create and live. What they can promise to do is transport us with sensitivity, skill and an imagination hewed by a beautiful and damned origin. 

A tetchy East European travelling through Sikkim is enraged to find that the ‘sad, sweet mysterious’ folk song that has beset him for weeks is actually a lot of twaddle in translation. He discovers this during a shared-taxi ride with locals he implicitly doesn’t trust or like, and who he’s careful to give no cause to start a conversation. He’s also on his way to undertake an ill-advised trek because again, presumably, he doesn’t trust local wisdom.

As the first of the two novellas in Chetan Raj Shrestha’s astonishing debut The King’s Harvest (Aleph Book Company) unfolds, you realise the ‘white rooster’ Straun, who all but disappears after that opening scene, is there to set up the single outsider perspective in this deeply interior work. You’re also sheepish to find that the foreigner’s cursory impression of the region matches your own.

The Sikkimese architect and heritage conservationist’s book is a triumph by any measure – both novellas bring to life with economy, honesty and humour, two defining features of his home state: its engendered violence and its mythic topography. I am loath to admit, however, that my initial astonishment had more to do with his provenance. “An incredible new voice from the Northeast!” I exclaimed to my Editor, when I read the book last year, as though the author’s ability and geography were somehow inextricable.

I remember feeling similarly – if less so – about Boats on Land (Random House India), London-and-Delhi-based Khasi author Janice Pariat’s 2012 debut which won the Sahitya Academy Yuva Puraskar last year. The lyrical collection of short stories conjures a kind of dream state by using folklore and fantasy while commenting on the social and political realities of Shillong, Assam and Cherrapunji. Around quite the same time, another book of short stories, The Gurkha’s Daughter, was setting the Western literary world abuzz. The Guardian called the stories of Nepalese diaspora by Prajwal Parajuly “crisp, inventive and insightful.” At 26, while still a creative writing student at Oxford University, a Nepali-Indian Parajuly was apparently the youngest Indian to sign a mega multi-country book deal with Quercus.

To what might we attribute this sudden surge of excellent English writing from the region? I took a quick poll of my friends, who I like to think are not particularly ignorant of good Indian literature, and most of them hadn’t read more than a couple of Northeastern writers – Anjum Hasan, Siddhartha Deb, Dhruba Hazarika – and as some appended, a single great Northeastern writer. Have there always been bestsellers incubating in the Seven Sister states (and Sikkim), and we’re just now acknowledging them? A bit of both, as it turns out.

Shrestha calls it more of a “steady dribble” rather than a surge, and says, “it might perhaps be because we are a louder lot, and have begun our careers in a time when the world is more connected, and dissemination is easier.” Parajuly agrees and adds that Indian publishers have finally woken up to the fact that there are excellent writers in the region as well as a decent market owing to the now large English speaking population there.

Increased exposure via the internet and Western education, greater English proficiency and increasing market savvy could be the explanations for why all Indian English writing gained ground in the last decade – so why has writing from the Northeast hobbled behind? Dhruba Hazarika, founder of the North East Writers’ Forum (which supports the region’s literary practitioners), and an Assamese English author “of yore”, agrees that exposure is the key change – “the new English writing is confident, assertive and shows a greater subtlety and range than ours ever had” – but suggests that maybe the mainland too is meeting literature from the fringes halfway now. “There used to be the sense that the Centre took writing from the ‘dark continent’ (to which you need all kinds of entry permits) with a pinch of salt,” he says. “The media portrayed us as the removed Mongoloid belt of the country; an author’s obviously Northeastern name meant the book immediately was taken less seriously.”

This abiding sense of hurt and separateness from the Indian state permeates The House with a Thousand Stories (Penguin India) by Aruni Kashyap, another much-lauded debut from last year. The Assamese author, who now teaches English at Minnesota State University, addresses the gruesome government-devised secret killings of ULFA sympathisers in Assam in the late ’90s, in the guise of a family drama. That feeling of being outsiders to the mainland, he says, comes from the strong psychological division of the two regions, a division that is “perpetuated by the brutalities of the Indian state”.

Kaushik Barua’s debut Windhorse (HarperCollins India) which came out to all-round nods early this year, goes one further with this otherness. He is the outsider himself as he revisits theTibetan armed resistance of the ’50s through the lives of two young men,and with great empathy and skill, deconstructs a peaceful, culturally rich region that has been rent by violence and loss. Barua, a rural development economist with the United Nations inRome, undertook painstaking research– meeting ex-resistance fighters,collecting oral narratives and stories,ploughing through political analyses and historical accounts, and relying on video records of the time – to eke out an accurate picture of a technically, yet not essentially, foreign experience. The themes, of insecurity, insurgency, being fringe-dwellers wherever in India the characters move, are similar to home.“I grew up in Assam through the 1980s and 1990s, which was a period of huge political turbulence. So I was always fascinated by how people lived through such uncertainty, and continued to build rich, interesting lives,” he says. “I was aware of my position as an outsider. To make the work truly honest, I had to delve into my own emotional history.”

To read across these new novels, different as they are in form, style and plot, is to be tempted to see two common threads surface: violence (looming, if not systemic) and the deep entrenchment of landscape and lore, like silent, forbidding protagonists. Hallmarks of what one might lazily term ‘conflict zone literature’.

Shrestha admits that the terrain and dramatic folk culture are useful to writers as a “sort of trust fund from the ancients”, but rejects any other attempts to paint him into a single regional narrative. Pariat agrees: “What informs a person’s writing is their phenomenological make-up – no two Khasi or Assamese or Manipuri writers are the same,” she says. “I think everyone lives at the crossroads of overlapping traditions.”

Besides, the chasm between the region’s own rural and tribal population and the increasingly well-integrated middle class has further splintered the narrative. Kashyap’s teenage protagonist, Pablo, is from cosmopolitan Guwahati, listens to AR Rahman and is as at a loss in his ancestral village of Mayong as any outsider. Parajuly’s characters are either battling interstate inequities or are taken out of their native context and planted on unfamiliar turf; their concerns are different: a cleft-lipped maid dreams Bollywood dreams, Nepali immigrants meet in Manhattan and nervously navigate the new order, a Nepali victim of Bhutan’s ethnic cleansing looks to the West for reprieve. They’re seeking and exploring and redefining the idea of home. The same line of inquiry follows in his new novel Land Where I Flee (Penguin India), which sees siblings spread out across the world – each harbouring their dirty secret – return to Gangtok for their formidable grandmother’s 84th birthday.

Gone largely unnoticed by the rest of the country, English writing in the Northeast is gaining depth and width. Since the North East Writers’ Forum was founded in 1997, it has almost 300 active members, with democratic chapters in each of the states, as well as serious literary journals. Hazarika says he’s also observed a proliferation of romance novels, good quality young adult and children’s lit, as well as inventive science fiction.

If the narrative is multifarious, and the writers’ place of birth in the Northeast merely a coincidence, then the catch-all label ‘Northeastern writer’ could become restraining. Incidentally, it was the Google search term and email subject line in my research that led me to some of these incredible writers.

Pariat is none too happy about the label. “I am uneasy with literature being considered by virtue of it being ‘from’ somewhere,” she says. “It adds to narratives of national or regional identity that can become exclusionary and entrapping. While place and context are important, they shouldn’t be the weight under which everything else is subsumed.” Her first novel Seahorse (Random House India), which comes out this November, is a complete departure from the first. It is a contemporary retelling of a lesser known Greek myth about Poseidon, the god of the sea, and his relationship with a young male lover, Pelops. Set mostly between North Delhi in the 1990s and contemporary London, it is a novel that “explores queerness, and the intricate interplay of time, memory and art”. In short, quite un-‘Northeast’. 

Similarly, Barua’s next novel, a coming-of-age black comedy about “a millennial Holden Caulfield in a post-Facebook world”, set to release in 2015, is an antithesis of the historically herculean Windhorse and once again, has next to nothing to do with his native place. “I haven’t addressed the region in my books but I definitely intend to, then I will probably formally graduate into this amorphous category of the Northeastern writer,” he quips.

Kashyap, on the other hand, believes the distinction is to be celebrated. Currently he’s editing a collection of short stories on the Assam conflict. “I think we should accept differences and celebrate them. The emergence of literature from the Northeast is an opportunity to celebrate the polyphonic nature of Indian literature,” he says.

None of these authors can promise to write about their homeland in a way that sits comfortably within the realm of rolling tea estates and smoky mountains, insurgence and bloodshed, and the machinations of the spirit world – or at all. If they should so choose, it will be their prerogative as storytellers alone. Their provenance defines them in as much as the places where we’re born, find our words and learn to feel, inform the stories we go on to create and live. What they can promise to do is transport us with sensitivity, skill and an imagination hewed by a beautiful and damned origin.