An Afternoon with Two Poets

(NOTE: I interviewed my friends Robin S Ngangom and Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih on July 15, 2006 as part of some work that I was contemplating. I have since published two essays on them and their poetry, one in EPW and the other in JSL, the JNU journal.But I wrote a personal piece first as a way of preserving some of the things I had heard, thought and felt one afternoon in Shillong. That’s also the reason why, after all this time, I have dredged it up from the bottom of my hard disk to post it here.) 

Teaching a course on Indian English writing made me want to take a closer look at the some of the work that is being done in the Northeast. So when I went to Shillong for the summer holidays I decided to interview Robin S Ngangom and Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih. I called up Kynpham and suggested we meet. ‘I’d like to talk to you and Robin about your poetry,’ I said. ‘We can meet in my office on Saturday’, he replied. ‘I’ll call Robin and get back to you.’

On Saturday I took a taxi to Don Bosco Square. I was early for the meeting which was at twelve o’clock. But I wanted to walk around a bit looking at places that were once so familiar. I walked past the Don Bosco bus stop. It was from here I took the bus every day after school got over at three. There was a Chinese shoemaker’s shop near the bus stop. No sign of it now. Laithumkrah was a mixture of the old and the new. In some ways it was the same as it was in the late seventies and early eighties. But to imagine one was back in the past would have meant ignoring the shops selling mobile phones and the college kids in their new T-shirts and jeans. I walked past a restaurant called Kalsang wondering if it is the Kaizang in Dhurba Hazarika’s A Bowstring Winter. Dhruba’s descriptions are spot on. I think he has captured the atmosphere of those little Laimo restaurants, where we boys went to for our momos, very well. But if I entered Kalsang now I would have done it with some of the deference due to a hallowed place. Sometimes writing seems to change things.

To me Laithumkrah is inseparable from another poet-friend, Ananya Guha.  You were almost always sure of meeting him at his house, ‘Mitali’, opposite the drycleaners. If he wasn’t at home all you had to do was walk a few steps to Jalpan restaurant, his favourite haunt. Ananya is now at the IGNOU headquarters in New Delhi. Even the most casual of his poems at times has a resonance for me which has much to do with the fact that we were classmates and have shared some common experiences.

Kypham’s office is in NEHU’s Bijni Complex in Laithumkrah. The campus is next door to the house Sumanyu Satpathy used to live in. He moved to Delhi University in 1997. Another change.

Kynpham was busy sending copies of a press release to various newspapers and TV channels. The NEHU foundation day was round the corner and he had ensure the celebrations planned received due publicity since, in addition to being Deputy Director of NEHU Publications, he was the university’s PRO in charge. ‘I want to give up the PRO job,’ he said. ‘Too much work.’ Kynpham looked much the same as he did when I saw him last. That was ten years ago when Robin, Kynpham and I were doing a Refresher Course in Gauhati University. Kynpham later told me that for a moment he hadn’t recognized me. ‘You were a handsome young man,’ he remarked. ‘Now you look like ______!’ (He named a common friend.) Poor______. And, of course, poor me.

As Kynpham signed letters and gave instructions to his subordinates, I sat and looked out of the window. Polo Grounds was visible in the distance. But it was not nearly as far away as I thought it was. I could see buses parked near the stadium and cars climbing up the road to Golf Links. I suppose my perspective of my hometown is a bit wrong. At any rate, it is coloured by the fact that to go to Laithumkhrah from my house in Oakland (near Polo Grounds) I would take the most used route: a taxi or bus to Don Bosco or Laithumkhrah. A shorter way of going to Laithumkhrah from Polo Grounds would be take the road that goes past Bajoria School. But for some reason nobody seems to use that road and years of travel, especially during my school days, had conditioned me to follow the longer route – and to have a picture of Shillong that varies from the map.

Robin came in just as Kynpham had finished his official work. Kynpham invited us to the sofa set and we settled down to our chat. I was struck by Robin’s jet black hair. Robin has a somewhat craggy face. He is calm and gentle and soft-spoken. Mention poetry and he at once becomes animated.

Robin’s maiden book of poems was published by Writer’s Workshop but his second collection, Time’s Crossroads, was brought out by Orient Longman. Jayanta Mahapatra was an early champion of his poetry. Makarand Paranjpe included Robin (and Desmond Kharmawplang) in An Anthology of New Indian English Poetry. Recently Robin and Knypham’s poems were chosen by Jerry Pinto and Arundhati Subramaniam for their collection, Confronting Love. I remembered a review in which one of Kynpham’s poems was singled out for complete quotation along with poems by Vikram Seth and Eunice de Souza. Established poets like Keki Daruwalla have praised the quality of Robin and Kynpham’s work. They are sought-after poets, often invited to give readings, and their poems have been translated into a number of languages.  Each of them has won several poetry awards. There is also some flattering material on the two on the Net.

Robin began the conversation by remarking that some people don’t consider Kynpham and him to be poets. Robin was thinking in particular of Jeet Thayil. Thayil has recently edited an anthology of Indian English poets for Fulcrum, a poetry journal from Boston. The anthology includes the work of fifty six poets who write in English. Thayil included Mamang Dai and Anjum Hassan from the Northeast, but ignored Robin and Kynpham (as well as Ananya and Desmond).  Penguin India will soon publish the anthology (with four additional poets) as Sixty Indian Poets. Earlier Ranjit Hoskote left out Robin and Kynpham from Reasons for Belonging, his collection of the work of fourteen poets.  For poets inclusion in anthologies is important. The Penguin India book will claim to be the most comprehensive and important anthology of Indian English poetry superseding existing anthologies by Oxford University Press and others.

Robin spoke of how the emotional, politically engaged poetry he and Kynpham write contrasts with the intellectual, differently crafted poetry of the Bombay poets. ‘We don’t use playful language,’ he said.  ‘Of course we can use playful language if we want to!’ Kynpham cut in. Robin and Kynpham believe their kind of poetry flows from the situation in the Northeast. In the Editors’ Note to their Anthology of Contemporary Poetry from the Northeast, they have argued that the expressive concerns of the writer from the Northeast cannot be the same as that of a writer from elsewhere in India: ‘The writer from the Northeast differs from his counterpart in the mainland in a significant way. While it may not make him a better writer, living with the menace of the gun he cannot merely indulge in verbal wizardry and woolly aesthetics but perforce master the art of witness’.

Robin has written poems lamenting the human and social costs of terrorism and violence in Manipur, as in ‘The Strange Affair of Robin S Ngangnom’:

Maybe the land is tired

of being suckled on blood

maybe there is no peace

between the farmer and his fields,

maybe all men are tired of being men,

maybe we have acknowledged death.

But wasn’t the situation different in Meghalaya? Surely terrorism wasn’t as much of a problem here as in Manipur? ‘The difference is one of degree,’ replied Robin. Kynpham agreed. He thinks there is a lot of anger at politicians and corruption in the poetry of the region and that this anger often finds expression in satire, as in his poem, ‘When the Prime Minister Visits Shillong the Bamboos Watch in Silence’. Kynpham, incidentally, believes there is more humour in his poems than in Robin’s.

I found it striking that the English poets mean almost nothing to Robin and Kynpham though Robin teaches English literature at NEHU and Kynpham too worked for several years as a lecturer in English at Shankardev College. Robin gently but firmly dismisses the work of English and American poets. He says he finds their work ‘insipid’ and ‘impersonal’. He and Kynpham prefer the work of Pablo Neruda, Czeslaw Milosz, Adam Zagajewski, Mahmoud Darwish, Yehuda Amichai and some contemporary Chinese and Vietnamese poets. This list, which has several poets who are (or were) displaced, suggests that the poets Robin and Kynpham like are those who have an intimate connection with their land and people. It also suggests that they believe poets should sing in the dark and not reflect in private. Neruda seems to be a particular favourite because of his versatility and because he wrote of political oppression. Robin mentioned how in Manipur truth is distorted a lot by terrorists as well as the security forces and the government. That is why he insists it is the poet’s duty to ‘witness’ and speak the truth about public realities. Robin and Kynpham stress the point that Neruda’s poetry is rooted. (They disapprove of Siddharth Deb for choosing to live in New York though he has written of Shillong and the Northeast in his two novels, The Point of Return and Surface.) That their own poetry belongs to a specific location hardly requires demonstration, even if it needed a Jayanta Mahapatra to see this rather than a Nissim Ezekiel (with his curiously reference-less Bombay poems). Indeed, all the Shillong poets give you a sense of being rooted. One of Desmond’s poems, a rather disturbing one for an ‘outsider’ like me, even begins with the ringing statement: ‘I never get tired talking about my / hometown.’ (Of the Shillong poets, it is only Anjum Hassan who seems to want to be elsewhere.) While Robin and Kynpham appreciate Neruda for being rooted, they also think of him as a well-informed poet who was concerned about events elsewhere.

They like the fact that he wrote love poetry too. Robin and Kynpham have their own take on the poetry of the Northeast but they are quick to concede that there are other possible ways of looking at it (there is the work of the women poets, for example). They themselves have written on a variety of subjects. One of Robin’s earliest poems was a poem on his mother. Adil Jussawala published it in Debonair many years ago, and it was the poem that convinced me that Robin had the makings of a poet. The poem still haunts me with its tenderness.

Teaching my course on Indian English writing had left me with a fresh sense of its cultural complexity. Ironically enough, it was in Indian English writing that one was increasingly hearing the marginal voices of Muslims, Parsis, Indian Jewish people, and others. Also, my reading of The Travels of Dean Mahomet, published in 1794, had made me newly aware of a cosmopolitan strand. I was therefore pleased when my poet-friends agreed that Indian English writing has a composite quality and that it is arguably more complex than the writing in the Indian languages. As poets, editors, and commentators on the situation in the Northeast, they realize that our world is a world in which the contextual determinants are many. They have written of ‘the uneasy coexistence of paradoxical worlds’ in the Northeast, of the parallel existence of ‘the folk and the westernized, virgin forests and car-choked streets.’ In a time of such social and cultural confusion myth can be a powerful attraction. Kynpham talked of the use of myth in the poetry of the Northeast. ‘But not in an escapist way’, he was careful to add.

I was curious to know what the two thought of Mamang Dai’s poems. Daruwalla had called her one of the best poets of the Northeast. He had described her outlook as ‘half-animist, half-pantheistic’. Though at first I had found some of her poems quite striking I was now beginning to feel her poems merely strengthened stereotypical images of Arunachal Pradesh and the Northeast.  I tried to get Robin and Kynpham to confirm my feelings but did not succeed in drawing them out. I have never known Robin to disparage the work of a fellow poet and Kynpham no longer seems to make the impetuous comments he sometimes did when he was younger. Of course, it is quite possible that they like Mamang Dai’s poetry. After all, they have published her in their anthology.

Robin, Kynpham, Ananya, and Desmond have supported each other and other poets in Shillong (and the Northeast). From the first these Shillong poets realized the need to create a climate conducive to the writing and reception of poetry. They have organized poetry readings, brought out poetry magazines and anthologies, and interacted with other poets whenever it was possible. In 1992 the Welsh poet, Nigel Jenkins, visited Meghalaya to research a book based on the life of Thomas Jones, the first missionary to work among the Khasis. Robin, Desmond, Ananya, and Kynpham facilitated Jenkins’s visit (Jenkins’s book, Through the Green Door, has interesting portraits of the four poets) and the results were mutually beneficially. Robin, Desmond, and Ananya published the work of five important Welsh poets in Lyric, the journal of the Shillong Poetry Society. And Jenkins was able to arrange a grant that made it possible for Robin, Desmond, and Kynpham to visit Wales and present their poetry to a new audience.

There is none of the tension that exists between Indian English writers and Indian language writers in Robin and Kynpham’s circle of poet-friends. When making a point they naturally and appreciatively refer to the poetry of the Shillong-based poets Tarun Bhartiya and Pijush Dhar, who write in Hindi and Bengali respectively. Robin has said that he would like his poems to read like translations and Kynpham even calls himself a Khasi poet. Some of Kynpham’s poems have appeared as Indian English poems and also as Khasi poems. He claims to write in Khasi and simultaneously translate into English (‘to go singing through the world’, he says quoting Neruda).  When he told me this, my silent reaction was: ‘Oh no, this is going to be tricky!’ But what may be a problem for the literary scholar (and the librarian!) need not be so for the creative artist – who of course must have his freedom to write.

I felt I had taken up too much of my friends’ time. A young man had come in and was sitting patiently. I thought he had come to see Kynpham on some official matter. I therefore brought the conversation to an end. However, Robin and Kynpham protested saying they could have carried on longer since they love to talk about poetry. ‘Even our wives don’t care about our poetry’, said Kynpham. ‘We can write anything we want!’ he laughed.

After leaving Bijni Complex, I hesitated a little. I was tempted to walk back home by the road leading past Bajoria School to Polo Grounds. But I had promised to take my son to Police Bazaar and did not have time for a leisurely stroll. There was a sense of quietness in Laithumkhrah, as though everyone had gone to Police Bazaar. It was a Saturday afternoon feeling, familiar from my school days.

But Robin and Kynpham stayed back to make a few phone calls: they are editing their next anthology of poetry from the Northeast, this time for Penguin India. In the last ten years I had become absorbed in my own little world and had called or emailed them only occasionally. While some of my other friends had busied themselves offering tuition, so that they could buy cars and flats, Robin and Kynpham had believed in poetry and had stuck to it. I promised myself I would make more of an effort to keep in touch with the two.

Xtreme Literature

I have always tended to think of Russian literature as Xtreme literature. It’s a view influenced by my impression of the Russian writers (their lives and writing, often in that order, I admit) and also by D H Lawrence’s remark (in his In Studies in Classic American Literature) that   ‘two bodies of modern literature seem to have come to a real verge: the Russian and the American’.  I can see the point Lawrence makes about the extreme consciousness reached by Poe, Melville, Hawthorne and Whitman. But I feel it better applies to the great Russians (Dostoevsky, Gogol, even Tolstoy). Interestingly, Lawrence’s sense of the greatness of Russian writers seems to have rested on the translations of Constance Garnett which today are regarded as unreliable. Apparently, Garnett left out awkward passages and made serious mistakes. But in her day Garnett’s name was synonymous with the Russian masters she translated. ‘Turgenev for me is Constance Garnett and Constance Garnett is Turgenev,’ wrote Conrad. Like Shakespeare (as reported by his players), she seems to have never blotted out line (Ben Jonson’s riposte: ‘would he had blotted a thousand’).

I re-read Crime and Punishment recently. As often is the case with my reading, it was dictated by my classroom needs. While teaching The French Lieutenant’s Wife, I often found myself making dismissive comments about the Victorian omniscient narrator. But a feeling of falseness nagged me. Re-reading Crime and Punishment reminded me how wise the omniscient narrator can be (though the story is mostly told from Raskolnikov’s fevered perspective, it is a third person narrative). Dostoevsky’s understanding of human nature is exceptional. It’s better to sit at the feet of the master. One can only learn from him.  Your democratic, postmodern relationship between reader and author doesn’t apply this case. One can’t help wondering how Dostoevsky wrote his novels. Addicted to gambling, frequently penniless, often struck by epileptic fits, Dostoevsky certainly didn’t enjoy the peace and quiet we sometimes believe is necessary to the creative artist. He led a life that was troubled and tortured (he was rescued from being shot by a firing squad at the very last minute).

Without doubt, Crime and Punishment is one of the most impressive novels I’ve read. A psychological study, yes, but embedded in the social context of the time: poverty, social reform, the rise of rationalism, nihilism etc. More specifically: in the 1860s Russian radicals thought a revolution was round the corner and were engaged in re-thinking the notion of conventional morality. In contemporary Russian radical thinking ‘rational egoism’ was preferable to the Christian idea of conscience. But his own experiences had taught Dostoevsky to have little faith in the prevailing radical idea of the power of rationality to control and dominate the human mind. Raskolnikov is rational, proud and paranoid. He conceives of the crime in rational and theoretical terms: exceptional people like Napoleon override moral concerns in the pursuit of some higher purpose. Having killed the old woman, Raskolnikov loses his nerve. This torments him because it shows that he is no Napoleon but a ‘louse’ like most ordinary people. However, it is the extension of society in Raskolnikov that makes him crave for confession, though he despises himself for it. Dostoevsky’s distrust of reason is evident throughout Crime and Punishment. There is a dystopian vision of a world infected (literally) by reason in the final pages. Raskolnikov’s conversion, which happens very late (in the final pages), stresses the need for love, acceptance of others, and the power of irrationality.  Dostoevsky certainly knew that man is an irrational being – the story of the drunkard Marmeladov is particularly illustrative. Incidentally, I find Raskolnikov’s conversion quite convincing; his compassion and kindness towards the poor and broken (Marmeladov, Sonya and his dead fiancé, for example) prepares one for it. Also, he has an irrational side from the very beginning.

Nineteenth century Russian literature certainly has immediacy for Indian readers. Crime and Punishment contains some of the starkest descriptions of poverty I have read. It shows the utterly crushing effect of poverty (on Raskolnikov himself, but also his sister and mother, and the Marmeladov family, including Sonya). St Petersburg is no grand imperial city but like an Indian city (Kolkata perhaps): the mean taverns, the dirtiness, the cramped living spaces (Raskolnikov’s room is more closet than room), the underprivileged citizens (prostitutes, including child prostitutes, drunks, beggars etc). Of course, the city is a mental landscape since the novel’s perspective is coloured by Raskolnikov’s psychological condition but Dostoevsky’s familiarity with low life is evident. There is a highly charged quality to Crime & Punishment. Since we are quite often inside Raskolnikov’s fevered mind there is a distortion in perspective. For one, the time frame of the novel seems much more extended than that of a fortnight (between the murder and the confession). The novel’s heightened subjectivity of course is an important step in the European novel’s journey towards the depiction of psychological states (Proust, Joyce, and Woolf).

I am been struck by how central poverty is in the writings of the classic Russian writers. It is also a very bureaucratic and hierarchical world (again rather Indian); many of the characters in Gogol (Dead SoulGovernment Inspector, ‘Overcoat’ etc) and Dostoevsky (Crime and Punishment) are conscious of importance of title, rank, social status, and power. In interpreting ‘The Overcoat’, said to be the most famous story in Russian literature, it is important to not lose sight of the obvious fact that it is a story of poverty – about a poor clerk who cannot afford an overcoat to keep him warm. To quote the madman in ‘The Diary of a Madman’: ‘It’s always noblemen or generals. All the good things in this world go to gentlemen of court or generals’. Gogol writes a lot about poor clerks, corrupt civil servants (usually minor), men obsessed with rank and power etc. which has an immediate relevance to our situation. Crime and Punishment too is a story of crushing poverty.

Tolstoy’s writing is epical but then so was his life. His spiritual and philosophic beliefs led Tolstoy to abandon his family and property when he was 82. Great men have this ability to put their beliefs into practice, to make departures in their lives no matter how extreme. Gandhi is another example but he was of course influenced by Tolstoy (remember Gandhi’s Tolstoy Farm in South Africa?).

My favourite Tolstoy passage is this one from War and Peace. It is about a minor character, whom we never meet again. Tolstoy writes about him without condescension and without sentimentality but with complete humanity. The setting is a formal dinner at Count Rostov’s:

The German tutor tried to memorize all the kinds of dishes, desserts, and wines, in order to describe everything in detail in his letter to his family in Germany, and was quite offended that the butler with the napkin-wrapped bottle bypassed him. The German frowned, trying to show by his look that he did not even wish to have this wine, but was offended because no one wanted to understand that the wine was necessary for him, not in order to quench his thirst, nor out of greed, but out of a conscientious love of knowledge.

Osip Mandelstam epitomizes my idea of the Xtreme Russian writer. (I have just realized that I haven’t said anything in this post about Alexander Solzhenitsyn, arguably the most famous of the suffering twentieth century Russian writers.) A brilliant poet Mandelstam couldn’t remain indifferent to the sufferings of the kulaks under Stalin. He wrote a satiric poem on Stalin which he read out to a group of 11 and was betrayed by one (or more) of them.  Ordered by Stalin to be banished (‘isolate but preserve’), he was to die in a transit camp near Vladivostok. But his is also a great love story because his wife Nadezhda (meaning ‘hope’) who accompanied him on his exile also learned his poetry by heart in order to preserve it for posterity (after all, memory cannot be censored, confiscated or  destroyed). Her memoir, Hope Against Hope, is one of the books I have most eagerly devoured.

However, there is a salutary but necessary corrective to my idea of Xtreme literature. It comes from another great Russian poet (and exile) Joseph Brodsky.  ‘It is an abominable fallacy,’ Brodsky wrote in his obituary on Nadezhda Mandelstam, ‘that suffering makes for greater art. Suffering blinds, deafens, ruins, and often kills. Osip Mandelstam was a great poet before the Revolution. So was Anna Akhmatova, so was Marina Tsvetaeva. They would have become what they became even if none of the historical events that befell Russia in this century had taken place: because they were gifted. Basically, talent doesn’t need history’.

Ian McEwan at Harvard

Ian McEwan delivering his lecture on April 17, 2012 in Paine Hall, Harvard. (Photo: Grace L. Chen)

I knew there would be a rush for the Ian McEwan talk ‘The Lever: Where Novelists Stand to Move the World’ on April 17 and so got my (free) ticket a week earlier  – on the first day – from the Harvard Box Office. The talk, organized by the Mahindra Humanities Center (MCH) and the Rita Hauser Forum, was at 3.30 pm in Paine Hall, next to the Science Center.

The ushers were telling people to sit anywhere except the front row. The MCH is very active and organises very many events (yesterday I went to another MCH event, a talk by the MIT economist Esther Duflo, where one of respondents was an elderly but still charming Amartya Sen). Homi Bhabha is the director of the MCH, a position that requires him to play master of ceremonies and thus gives him a good deal of visibility on the campus. Bhabha (in a dark grey linen suit minus tie) was talking to someone in one of the front seats. Then he came over to talk to the critic (and Professor of the Practice of Criticism) James Wood, who was in the row before me. They went out to escort McEwan.

The talk began five minutes late. Homi Bhabha introduced himself (‘I’m Homi Bhabha, Director of the Mahindra Humanities Center, you have heard that often enough’), regretted the absence of Rita Hauser who was committed to a family function (‘Rita is all about presence. Absence does not suit her’), then gave us his take (in English, not Bhabahaese) on Ian McEwan’s novels.

McEwan thanked Bhabha (‘Thanks, Homi, that was thrilling. I can’t deny the narcissistic pleasure of hearing oneself quoted’) and launched into what must have been one of the most urbane and entertaining talks heard at Harvard.  Referring to Archimedes’ famous line ‘give me a place to stand and I will move the universe’, McEwan remarked it was both factual and a leap of the imagination (because you can’t actually have a place outside the universe). McEwan’s lecture seemed to be a series of very entertaining anecdotes about the mistakes – small ones really, he didn’t mention any serious ones – he had made in his novels; in retrospect, I realise he engaged with the announced topic with a deceptive lightness.

McEwan described himself a realist – unlike Garcia Marquez, Angela Carter or Salman Rushdie, he doesn’t give his characters wings. The realist tradition and the modernist tradition, he said, were gifts to writers – you can use them to make new things, a commonsensical approach I like. For a realist writer facts are especially important – McEwan  likened it to pointillist painting which depends on tiny points to make the whole picture (he quoted Henry James’s ‘solidity of specificity’). He noted that despite the modernist claim that a text is an independent world, Joyce was obsessed with getting details about Dublin right and kept writing to his friends from (self-imposed) exile for tidal charts and train schedules.

In McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers (1981), a character gazes at the constellation Orion from a location in Venice. An amateur astronomer wrote to McEwan pointing out his error: ‘If you want to see Orion in the summer you must go to New Zealand.’ (‘I never knew I was turning the heavens round’). In Saturday (2005) he described a Mercedes Benz S500 with a manual gear. This prompted an email from a motoring journalist who informed him that the Mercedes S500 had only automatic transmission. After an exchange of emails with the journalist McEwan bought a new car ‘fully on his recommendation’ to replace his seventeen year old one. McEwan has this nice, droll way of telling his stories.

An anecdote worth remembering concerns Lord of the Flies (1954). Piggy is short-sighted and his glasses therefore cannot be used to start a fire (being short-sighted Piggy would be wearing divergent lenses; only a converging lens will focus light from the sun to start a fire). The mistake Golding made about Piggy’s glasses became ‘the burden of his life’. Every year letters would arrive at Faber from ernest school boys pointing out this error. Charles Monteith (Golding’s editor) always answered very politely to these letters. Eventually Golding was rescued by a literary critic who discovered that Piggy was both long-sighted and short-sighted. (The condition is known as anisometropia, I believe). Golding asked Monteith if the essay could be sent to all schools in Britain.

Though McEwan seemed to be making fun of the readers whose emails and letters he quoted he concluded by saying they were readers who wanted to give completeness to the novel/projects he had started. They were helping ‘me move the world by means of the high artifice of realism.’

Oscar Mallitte’s Photographs of Assam

‘Gowhatty from the River’ (Source: British Library’s online gallery)

I came across the photographs of Oscar Jean-Baptiste Mallitte (c. 1829-1905) when I was doing some internet research on a new found interest – colonial photography. Mallitte was a pioneering photographer who visited Assam in the 1860s (I have not been able to discover the exact date of his visit). Today his photographs are significant because they embody the colonial British view of Assam.

Mallitte was a surgeon who had arrived in Calcutta from France in the summer of 1857; here he gave up his original profession and, within a short time, established himself as a photographer. In December 1857 he became the first, or nearly the first, person to photograph the Andaman Islands when he accompanied a British expeditionary party led by his friend Frederic John Mouat, also a surgeon and keen photographer. (Mouat’s contributions include the founding of the famous Bethune Society.) Mallitte was the official photographer when Lord Canning, Governor-General from 1856-58, toured the North-West Frontier.

Mallitte’s photographs of colonial Assam, which clearly were officially commissioned, can be accessed from the British Library’s online gallery. There are twelve of them: (1) ‘Gowhatty from the River’; (2) ‘American Mission Grounds at Gowhatty’; (3) ‘Christ’s Church, Gauhati’; (4) ‘The Strand Road at Gowhatty from the West’ (5) ‘Native village at entrance to Shillong’ (6); ‘Monolith stones, Shillong’; (7) ‘The Bishops Fall, Shillong’; (8) ‘The Landing ghat at Tezpore’; (9) ‘Tea Gardens,  Cachar’; (10) ‘Eastern frontier police force’; (11) ‘The Noa Nuddee’; and (12) ‘Jack tree’. (The medium is not identified by the British Library but could be albumen silver print.) Judging from the state of the Brahmaputra in ‘Gowhatty from the River’ and ‘The Landing ghat at Tezpore’, Mallitte must have undertaken the trip in the dry season; from his itinerary, one assumes it took him at least a couple of months to complete his task.

‘The Landing ghat at Tezpore’ (Source: British Library’s online gallery)

Mallitte’s images are important because they are a visual approximation of the way the British saw Assam. But this does not mean that their meanings are fixed; we can and should interpret them in our own way. For example, Mallitte’s seemingly innocuous photograph of the jackfruit tree ought to remind us of the close connection between plants and colonialism (the Opium Wars in China, sugarcane in the Caribbean, tea in Assam). ‘Tea Gardens, Cachar’, which shows forested land turned into an orderly and productive garden under the benign supervision of tea planters, can be related to the photographs Mallitte later took of indigo manufacturing. British indigo planters had acquired notoriety for forcing ryots into indigo cultivation; the Indigo Commission of 1860 noted the brutality of the planters towards the peasantry in Bengal. Mallitte’s photographs, taken in 1877, are believed part of a propaganda campaign launched by the Planters’ Association to counter such negative views. As Christopher Pinney (The Coming of Photography in India) has written, instead of showing the cultivated fields, the literal site of violence, most of the twenty photographs Mallitte took show the indigo factory with its apparent discipline and order.

Photography in the Victorian age was not quite the mass activity that the modern digital camera and cell phone in particular have made it in the twenty-first century. But it was possible for enthusiasts to take up it up as a hobby. At Oxford a shy mathematician called Charles Dodgson (1832-98), better known as Lewis Carroll, had in 1856 bought a Thomas Ottewill Registered Double Folding camera and was indulging his passion for photographing prepubescent girls. (There is a famous picture of the original Alice in in a state of dishabille).Photography, invented in 1839, travelled to India with something of the swiftness of the technological innovations of our time. Already in 1840 you could order a daguerreotype camera from Calcutta’s Thacker, Spink & Co. The Photographic Society of Bombay was formed in 1854; by 1856 there were photographic societies in Calcutta and Madras. (Mallitte’s friend Mouat was the first president of the Photographic Society of Bengal).

But in the age of empire photography had other uses as well. Colonial administrators turned to it to record their political and military achievements. It was also seen as an instrument of surveillance and as a reliable scientific way of documenting knowledge about the native. The People of India was an ambitious exercise of this kind; an eight volume photographic survey (1868-75), it began life as a private collection of Lord Canning but, after 1857, became an official project of the India Office. In addition, there was a market for photographic images of India in Britain. The revolt of 1857 increased this demand; photographs not only added to the veracity of journalistic reports but also satisfied the voyeuristic curiosity of the public. It was to supply this need that the pioneering Italian photojournalist Felice Beato (1832-1909) came to India in 1858. Beato’s late arrival (he was recording the Crimea War when the revolt occurred) meant that he had to reconstruct the events for photographic purposes. To create his famous picture of the badly damaged Sikandar Bagh, where a reported 2,000 sepoys were killed, Beato seems to have had skeletal remains of the sepoys disinterred or rearranged.The photograph would not have been possible without the permission and approval of the colonial authorities.

Photography was admired by the Victorians for its supposed objectivity but its conventions were of course mediated by cultural ways of seeing. Landscape photography, for example, was influenced by the traditions of Western perspectival painting. When Mallitte visited Assam in the 1860s the age of European exploration and discovery was over. Though Mallitte had come to photograph a frontier, there was, in a sense, nothing really new to see, know or discover. In fact, even in the late 1840s, the botanist Joseph Hooker (1817-1911) was advised to visit northeast Himalaya and Darjeeling rather than Assam since Assam had already been botanically annexed by explorer-botanists like Victor Jacquemont (1801-32) and William Griffith (1810-45). Mallitte came at a time when colonial governmentality was establishing itself in Assam.

A nineteenth-century travelling photographer’s equipment was anything but light. When the well-known photographer Samuel Bourne (1834-1912) set off on a nine-month expedition to Kashmir in 1866 his photographic equipment made up twenty loads while his retinue consisted of over fifty people. As an official photographer, Mallitte would have had government-arranged logistical support in the form of transport (rail, elephants, boats, and porters), accommodation (dak-houses), and provisions. This dependence of the travelling nineteenth century photographer (even a commercial travelling photographer like Bourne often had turn to the administration for help) meant that he had to follow definite official instructions as to where, when, and how to take his photographs. In 1858 the photographer John Murray was requested by Lord Canning to take some photographs of military sites in north India. Christopher Pinney has documented the details of the grant and logistical support received by Murray along with the Lord Canning’s detailed instructions about the particular views and results to be obtained.

‘Eastern frontier police force’ (Source: British Library’s online gallery)

Mallitte’s dozen photographs reflect and reinforce the discursive construction of Assam as a remote frontier that needed to be ‘improved’ and incorporated into the colonial and imperial system.  They narrate some of the changes brought about by the British annexation of Assam: the introduction of law and order (‘Eastern frontier police force’), the establishment of the tea industry (‘Tea Gardens, Cachar’), the invitation to the American Baptist missionaries ‘to elevate the character of the people’ (‘American Mission Grounds at Gowhatty’), and the coming of steamers (‘The Landing ghat at Tezpore’). The photographs are carefully posed ones; human beings are allowed to enter the frame only for the sake of providing scale and ambience. (Perhaps this is why some of Mallitte’s photographs have a touch of desolation.) The photographs also use the ‘monarch of all I survey’ (or all-seeing panoptic eye) technique familiar to readers of travel writing.

‘Tea Gardens, Cachar’ (Source: British Library’s online gallery)

Mallitte’s photographs of the Andaman Islands were thought to have been lost but were recently discovered. In the nineteenth century lithographic engravings circulated widely unlike photographs which had limited viewership. Some of Mallitte’s Andaman Island images became quite well-known when his photographs were copied and published as lithographic engravings. But I have no idea how his photographs of Assam were received.

Mallitte is remembered now for his Andaman Island photographs which picture a landscape and people just coming to colonial attention. But when he came to Assam, Mallitte was travelling to an area that had already been subjected to the disciplining gaze of colonial governmentality. I think it is interesting to compare Mallitte’s photographs with those of his contemporary Benjamin Simpson; the latter’s photographs of Mishmi and other tribes are ethnographic.  Though he recorded the alien (‘Monolith stones, Shillong’) and the picturesque (‘The Bishops Fall, Shillong’), Mallitte’s choice of subjects (and itinerary) was obviously determined by the official nature of his task.

‘The Strand Road at Gowhatty from West’ (Source: British Library’s online gallery)