Updated: Nov 23, 2020
I am going to talk about the idea of North Eastern writing. I will be speaking as a practitioner, as someone whose work inadvertently comes under this label of ‘North Eastern writing’.
To begin with, we could briefly look at the term ‘North East’ with respect to experiences I have had with my writing, and in relation to mainstream Indian publishing and the political situation of the North East. And I would like to speak of my experiences to illustrate how these various factors influence the process of publishing, writing and reading of books.
Till a couple of years ago, and even now, when you asked someone from the ‘North East’ where they came from, no one really answered with ‘The North East’. They either mention a community or a state. The term was used initially very much as a construct by others to refer to this region, and it was not how people from this region chose to define themselves. If you look at this region geographically, on a map, it is not to the North east of anyone. And in relation to India, shouldn’t it be the east?
In the field of publishing and writing, I discovered over the last few years that the ‘North east’ is a term favoured by Delhi-based critics, journalists and publishing houses to categorize writing from a particular region. But without examining with much care or rigour what it is that holds this writing together (or keeps it apart) in terms of style, content and other literary markers. Surely when you use a category to describe a writing or a people, it cannot be simply a function of geography (and inaccurate geography, at that). And if it is so, then it is rather problematic. Because many of these communities are divided by borders, both domestic and international. How are you to be categorized if you belong to the Garo community linked by kinship with North East India but living in Bangladesh? Do you then become North East of Bangladesh?
There is a danger, then, of two things happening here (not mutually exclusive): either this becomes a marketing device, i.e. you position yourself and market your writing as North East writing. Or your work becomes part of the larger national-diversity and integration project, without a deeper engagement with the term. Then there is another scenario, of the term North East writing being used consciously by writers and poets and artists from the region to describe their work. This can have interesting consequences—the term is reclaimed by the very people it is used to define/categorise and in the process a new identity emerges through the art and writing of this imagined community. An art that, among other things, also recognizes and plays on the tension between work from this region and work from the larger body of India. Some of our poets have done this very successfully and created some lively debates around this.
I often use the term ‘writing’ to refer to my work though it has to do more with images than texts. Inversing the poet Ted Hughes’ formulation, who once said—and he wrote longhand—that ‘writing by hand is also a form of drawing that calls upon the memories of the hand’. I think this is a fairly good shorthand to describe the kind of work graphic novelists do! This is then the kind of text-image work I am going to be talking about.
So: my first encounter with the mainland publishing industry was when my graphic novel was published in 2009. I was based in Delhi then. The book enjoyed moderate success. Graphic novels, as I was to discover, are hard to sell but it was reviewed in several national newspapers and garnered some interest. Referencing Ted Hughes again: he speaks eloquently of the shock of being published and reviewed for the first time; he equates it to ‘walking into a wall of hostile fire and being in some fundamental ways changed by it and how it influences the future course of one’s work’.
I am sure this is an experience that many writers share—to see their work suddenly thrown out into the world and greeted by critics, and the estrangement that produces. One aspect that seemed to get a lot of attention was the ‘North Eastern-ness’ of my book’s content. Even though the book did draw on various traditions of folklore and speech patterns and art styles from various places that could be placed in the region, I was wary of having it marketed as a ‘North East’ book. There were many reasons for this, one of them being that this was fiction—the geography of this book was not fixed and I fretted that the crisscrossing routes of its hills, valleys, cities and small towns did not exist cartographically. Neither did I want to cater to the exotic, ‘incredible India’ marketing. But the reviews showed me that it would not be so simple to evade clichés and facile categorizations. There were some positive, well-meaning reviews too. For example: ‘With this book, Singh has not only tried to entertain us but also offered us a glimpse into the life, the aspirations and failings of the people in these largely unknown territories.’
Now, who are these territories unknown to?
Another critic wrote: ‘The characters Kona and Kuja sound Assamese but do not look Assamese.’ As if you can still apply the rules of nineteenth-century ethnography which say a nose has to be this long, the eyes a certain way. It reminded me of the time, a few years ago, when at a literary event in Delhi (one of my stories had been shortlisted for an award), the chief guest, a prominent poet I later found out had also served as an IPS officer, referred to me in public as ‘this young girl in a Kimono!’
This kind of comment, I suspect, would not have been applied to books, or authors, from other regions.
Then there is the question of authenticity. If this book is a North Eastern one, is it authentic enough? All this stems from the historical baggage—from a particular way of seeing the peripheries and the North East. There is a long history of representation, stretching from the colonial period, that I will not elaborate upon here. But the fact that the politics of representation continues to be played out even today is rather shocking. In some cases, the book was lauded as a profoundly Indian book—as if it was a kind of test.
Then I discovered that this tension with the larger body of Indian writing and critique is not new. There have been debates in the past. Poetry often seems to be in the front line of debates on aesthetics and politics. And so it was here, when a group of North Eastern poets published an anthology in which they formulated a manifesto (for lack of a better word) for North Eastern writing. A reclaiming that brought with it a new sense of possibilities and politics. The manifesto seemed to be in reaction to certain Indian poetry anthologies, so I took a closer look at some mainstream anthologies of Indian poetry. I am going to quote a couple of lines from Give the Sea Change and It Shall Change: 56 Indian Poets, edited by Jeet Thayil. There is a very intriguing line, by which he is trying to formulate an identity for Indian poetry:
‘Indian poetry wherever its writers are based, should be really seen as one body of work.’[i]
Another quote, which I thought, was interesting: ‘One convenient starting point to look at modern Indian poetry is Independence, when his majesty officially gave India back to the Indians.’[ii]
That is my fear with the idea of the great Indian novel, and great Indian poetry—it eventually comes down to the one body of work and the various parameters of the Indian nation-state. And that should be problematic, not just for the peripheries but also, as we are beginning to find out, for the nation-state itself.
I am going to speak briefly about this other book I did and didn’t do, because it further illustrates some of these points. I started to work on The Crab Chronicles after my first graphic novel, The Hotel at the End of the World, was published. It was a time when North Eastern writing was acquiring a certain recognition in mainland India and there was some interest in North Eastern folklore and writing and its history of conflicts. The book had an auspicious beginning: I received a generous fellowship from a non-profit education organization to do a book for young adults. The prospect of doing a book for young readers and being paid to do so is indeed a stroke of luck. I located the book in a forest village in Bodoland, Assam. Folk stories of different communities, ecological concerns, militarization and everyday life and its challenges would be an essential part of the story. I thought that a young adult novel or children’s book exploring the lives shaped by the turbulent events of the last few decades in Assam was a good idea.
Before long, I had another exciting offer for the book: I was approached by an editor of a major Tamil newspaper. They were redesigning their children’s newspaper and were interested in translating and publishing a serialized version of The Crab Chronicles—they would run 10 pages of my book in their weekend edition. The editor was delighted to have a story based on the conflict in the North East and I signed a contract. For a writer working primarily in English, to be translated and serialized in a newspaper is something akin to finding the holy grail as it opens up an entirely new readership.
I am going to show a couple of pages from The Crab Chronicles, for you to get a sense of the book, so there is a context for what happens next.
Image set 1: I look at two aspects in these chapters (in the extracts I am showing you): one, the ethnic-identity mobilization along lines of community, and how it starts to affect children who attend school together. The two girls in the story come from different communities, at a time of ethnic tensions, and their fight with the boys reflects how these tensions played out in school. The second part shows the girls reaching school only to see that it has been taken over by the army and barricaded with sand bags. This was a common phenomenon in the 1990s, when schools often got taken over by the army or by the administration to settle refugees. Many of these children have nothing to do when school is closed, and, as you can imagine, this is indeed a perfect setting for the beginning of a book. With no school to go to, they set off on all kinds of adventures.