For weeks now, I’ve been reading novels set in the Northeast. Call me an ignoramus, but they’re my first peek into lands I have never been. The experience has been magical.
Which makes me wonder: Why aren’t these books better known?
Why hasn’t anyone heard of Mamang Dai’s lyrical The Black Hill (Aleph, 2015) – a doomed love story of a girl from the Abor tribe and a man from the Mishmee tribe – set against the vivid backdrop of 19th century Arunachal Pradesh and Assam?
Why is no one reading Prajwal Parajuly’s Land Where I Flee (Penguin, 2014), about a very relatable family get-together in which four Nepali Indian siblings return to Gangtok to celebrate their grandmother’s 84th birthday?
Why haven’t you read Janice Pariat’s Boats On Land (Random House, 2013), 15 sublime short stories set in Shillong from the 1800s to now? They’re a heady infusion of Khasi folklore with realities of life in the hills and the landscape.
Mamang Dai from Arunachal Pradesh was awarded the Padma Shri for Literature in 2011. Prajwal Parajuly, a Nepali-Indian who grew up in Gangtok, became the youngest Indian to secure an international book deal. Janice Pariat won the Sahitya Academy Yuva Puraskar, the first writer from Meghalaya to do so.
But have you even heard of them, let alone read them? Or do you avoid them because you think they write in stereotypes?
Well, there are no stereotypes here. You can call these writers Northeasterners because the Northeast is where they come from. But their works are just as different from each other’s as their individual cultures are. Northeastern literature is not homogenous. Not all books are even set in the Northeast. Kaushik Barua’s upcoming novel No Direction Rome (HarperCollins, 2015) is about a young Indian man living – and getting stoned – in Rome.
"Our problems are different, our mythology is different and most important, our languages are different, which means our world views are different," says Naga writer Easterine Kire. "Of course we share many similarities. But each state is distinctly different from the other."
Kire is Nagaland’s first published novelist in English. Mari (HarperCollins, 2010), her best-known novel, is about a 17-year-old girl who, along with her sisters, is evacuated from their house and separated from the rest of the family as Japanese forces invade their village during the Second World War.
But it’s hard for non-Northeasterners to grasp that the eight Northeastern states are distinct from each other. Indeed, mainland India tends to see the region as "lush, beautiful, green", politically turbulent – and not much else.
Poet Desmond Kharmawphlang describes those books as "terror lore" – stories that emerge from regions besieged by collective fear and insecurity.
"Until recently, publishing houses were not interested if we did not feature politics," says Easterine Kire. "They could not see beyond the political definitions of the Northeast, even while we writers were telling them there is more to it than just politics."
Some years ago, Assamese writer Aruni Kashyap talked about being commissioned to write "a proper Northeast story". Since the region is so diverse, he had to ask what that meant. The answer: His novel must feature a lot of violence.
As it happened, Kashyap’s best-known novel, The House With A Thousand Stories (Penguin, 2013) is set against the backdrop of – but is not about – terror. And not because his publisher demanded it.
"Storytelling is the most powerful mode of bringing something that has been denied justice, or overlooked, to a public trial," he says. "As a writer from the Northeast, a region that has been either underrepresented or misrepresented or denied representation, I did feel compelled to write about something that would try to address urgent realities of the times I grew up in."
But why so less known?
My question still hasn’t been answered. Despite the glowing reviews and prestigious awards that many novels and novelists from the Northeast get, not many seem to have heard of them.
I asked 20 voracious readers if they’d read these books: 15 could not even name an author. Four had heard of Anjum Hasan but not read any of her books. And one, who is from Guwahati and loves Indian literary fiction, had only read a chick-lit called Chocolate Guitar Momos.
Many of the Northeast states lack indigenous scripts, though they have a wealth of oral stories. Which means we haven’t had access to those stories before. But Assam, for instance, has a rich literary heritage, however very little Assamese literature is available in translation – and many are very poor translations. Besides, only writers in English grab attention.
“People still congratulate me for The House With A Thousand Stories but I have written two novels in Assamese since,” says Kashyap. “Writing in English is privilege that we enjoy at immense cost.”
That said, Mamang Dai is optimistic. “The positive thing,” she says, “Is that the Northeast is writing, and being written about.”
Now read these books.
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From HT Brunch, May 17
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