‘An Uncritical Nostalgia Doesn’t Help In Writing’

Assamese poet, Nitoo Das, 37, creates effects of newness that stem from an inherent knowledge of flowers, colours and places

A bad college writing workshop halted Nitoo Das’ childhood habit of writing poetry. In 2003, an academic interest in poetry as hypertext (especially its participatory nature of readers editing in online groups) rekindled her writing, and she started a poetry blog. Her collection Boki  was launched in 2008. She doesn’t think as an Assamese writer, though her images often refer to a childhood there. “An uncritical nostalgia doesn’t help in writing,” she’s fond of saying. Poetry is a way to break through the nostalgia for a “pristine moment” she often sees in regional writing.

Das is a poet of images, and her effects of shock and newness have something to do with an inherent Northeastern knowledge of names of flowers, colours, places. She often focuses on small things and strange objects – a paintbrush, headphones, earrings, insects – and has a preference for the hidden comic tone, such as when writing about an umbrella: “A steel skeleton/ gives me wings./ Look for me/ when you need a veil.”

She often thinks about the politics of her homeland, but hasn’t yet found words for it. Instead, she’s excited by urban spaces and their crises. Recently, she’s also explored questions of Hindu identity, such as in her poem on goddess Lakshmi’s darker, uglier sister ‘Alakshmi’: “Her father chose his ass/ for her birth/ his face for her sister’s glamour./ Who’s she, this/ Un-lakshmi?” But history does keep impinging. In ‘Margherita’, she visits her mother’s hometown: “The starving Dihing/ in her backyard devoured her/ home, making it smaller/ with each flood year./ The tea kept/ her awake.”

Naga novelist and poet Easterine Iralu, 50, needed exile far from home for sheer survival and for her writing

Dylan Thomas’ influence as a performer had to show somewhere. In July, Easterine Iralu finished recording an album with European jazz musicians, writing poems to their compositions and reading with them. Some of these poems have been selected for The European Constitution in verse. Growing up, there were also stories of old English houses, of people spirited away, of the forests, Shillong’s college scene and Pritish Nandy’s poetry. Naga literature was mainly oral then. Iralu can’t write in her mother tongue of Tenyidie, but has translated 200 oral poems into English. She published her first poetry book at 22 – Kelhoukevira was the first volume published by a Naga in English, mourning Naga warriors of the 1950s Indo-Naga conflict. In 2003, she wrote the first novel in English by a Naga, about the last battle between the British and Khonoma warriors. She’s also cut a CD of poem-songs and co-written a book about an Australian wombat.

The region’s conflict has never been far away. A bullet aimed at her father hit her cousin instead; her family’s house was stalked by armed men for years due to her husband’s writings; her son was kidnapped for three days. Escaping the curfews and the tapped phones, Iralu sought refuge in Norway. She’s now working on a series on Naga folk tales, more children’s stories and a book in Norwegian. Zubaan has her political novel Bitter Wormwood, and HarperCollins her book on WWII’s Burma Campaign. Selfexile, she says, has brought objectivity about home. “Politics is killing the stories in the Northeast. There’s more to life than violence,” she says. Through it all, the memories of her homeland’s skyscape, landscape and beauty have remained central.

Manipuri poet  Yumlembam Ibomcha, 60, is wary of sudden claims of influence for the region’s literature

With large gaps of silence, Yumlembam Ibomcha is one of those writers who hold more purview than publication notches. A first collection of Meitei poetry in 1973 (Manipur Sahitya Kala Akademi Award) and a 1991 short story collection (Sahitya Akademi Award), followed by a second book of poems in 1992; this year, he was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Translation Award for his translation of UR Ananthamurthy’s novel Samskara.

“How could we live as whelps/ among these dogs, foxes and monkeys?/ I will turn into a strong and big tiger.” The people’s suffering at the hands of the State and the insurgency politicised his generation to an urgent pitch: “Is being shot by a gun as silky as the caress/ Of a young woman’s hand!/ How happy I am being shot/ This bullet shooting into my mouth/ Is also a mellow grape.” Older now, he pays more attention to feelings than the outer social world. “Earlier, great writers like Valmiki guided the minds of people. But the small writers today, I and my fellow writers of this age, can’t change anything.”

He’s realistic about the levels of excitement in in the region’s literature. While some writers have been picked up by mainstream publishers, there is still not much that’s translated into English. “The big problem is knowing each other even though we’re neighbours,” he says. “What’s this!/ What’s happening?/ From my throat only emitted/ a ‘miaow, miaow’ like a cat.”

Novelist Jahnavi Barua,  41, is grateful for the context of Northeastern writing in English but embraces the world

The literary world in the Northeast has hung on to its silent fault line of ‘authenticity’ for a long time. Opposing groups of language and generations jockey for centrality, each eager to politely neuter the other. Jahnavi Barua skates serenely over it all – a young writer encouraged by the older generation, and a writer in English embraced by the vernacular press.

A doctor by training, Barua’s short story collection, Next Door, longlisted for the Vodafone Crossword Award and the Frank O’Connor award, is based mainly in small town and rural Assam, but she says her stories of family conflict could have been set anywhere. Universality is a big deal for the newer generation, and Barua emphasises that the insurgency is only incidental to her work. “The younger writers have a pan-Indian, global sensibility but they’re also concerned with returning to their roots. Mamang [Dai]’s and Temsula [Ao]’s books are revelations! There’s now a stronger sense of self. Anjum Hasan’s novel is set in Shillong, but it’s also universal like the band East India Company!”

Winning a British Council fiction contest sent her to the UK for a creative writing fellowship. She acknowledges her debt to having a ready context of Northeastern writing in English by the time she was ready with her collection. The North East Writers Forum has been critical here – apart from Jahnavi, its members have included some of the brightest lights in the firmament of writing in English: Mamang Dai, Temsula Ao, Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, Easterine Iralu.

Shunning italics for Asomiya words, Barua parleys her affection for rivers and flowers with easy prerogative. Her themes are casually familiar, be they sexuality, or the sheltering of an insurgent, or ageing parents. “Life in this moment is what’s exciting,” she says.

(Part of a package on writers from the Northeast published here)