Why I refuse to call myself a Northeasterner

The term ‘Northeasterner’  is being increasingly used by the national media to refer to people born in Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Nagaland, and Arunachal Pradesh. It doesn’t seem to matter that the diversity of people and cultures in the region is remarkable even by Indian standards. The contingent fact of our being born in a city, town or village northeast of a certain, supposedly central location has become our essence.

I was born into an Assamese family in Shillong and grew up there in what now seems like blissful self-centredness. After school I was sent to Delhi for my college education. As a fresher I was subjected to the usual ragging but students from states like Manipur and Nagaland were not. They were ‘chinks’ – and there was an unwritten rule about not ragging foreigners.  Any envy I may have felt quickly  disappeared when I realized not looking ‘chinki’ meant immunity from the kind of experience a tribal friend of mine had late one night returning to his hostel from a movie. A drunk cop in Maurice Nagar stopped him and demanded to know who he was. When he mentioned his home state, the cop called him a ‘rebel’ and kicked him. This incident came to mind during the recent exodus of ‘northeasterners’ from Bangalore and other cities. How people see you can be dangerous, especially if their perceptions are ignorant and stupid. Think of Tenzin Dhargiyial, the poor Tibetan college student in Mysore who was stabbed by two persons in retaliation for the Kokrajhar riots. His attackers thought he was from the Northeast.

Like most Assamese students in Delhi University, I supported the Assam movement when it began (later some of us were to have serious misgivings about the direction it took). When the movement grew it made headlines but we felt it was being wrongly reported in the national press. So we decided to meet politicians and newspaper editors (there weren’t too many Assamese students in Delhi in the early eighties). But the lack of any real knowledge that policy and opinion makers in the national capital showed about Assam (and the Northeast) shocked, angered and finally dismayed us. Last year I was asked to receive a distinguished retired diplomat at Guwahati airport. He was the head of an influential think tank in Delhi and was travelling to Tezpur University, where I work, to deliver a lecture on the Indian Government’s ‘Look East’ policy – of which he was a strong advocate. It was his first trip to the Northeast, he told me. I wasn’t surprised for I had long ago met that strange creature called ‘the Northeast expert.’

In Delhi I acquired a sense of solidarity with the other students from the Northeast. But on January 21, 1972 Meghalaya had come into existence and I had become the citizen of a new state – a second-class citizen, as it would turn out – without going anywhere. (It was my introduction to the power of cartography.) The Assamese community in Shillong consisted mostly of Assam government employees and their families. When the capital of Assam shifted to Dispur, the Assamese left Shillong almost en masse. (It would be some years before I appreciated fully the courage my parents showed to stay on in a place most of their friends were leaving.) My boyish life had continued as though nothing really had happened. But while I was studying in Delhi, things were changing in Shillong.  When I came home during the holidays, there were localities it was no longer safe for a ‘dhkar’ (or an ‘outsider’) like me to go to.

In the US recently, I became ‘South Asian.’ (Had I looked ‘chinki’, I would have been ‘Southeast Asian’. ‘Southeast Asia’ came into existence during Second World War, when for administrative and military reasons the term was used to refer to an area stretching from the borders of Bengal to Singapore.)  It didn’t bother me much. But I baulk at the idea of calling myself a ‘Northeasterner.’ It is one thing when strangers among whom you were going to be only a short time don’t  understand you. It is quite another to facilitate other Indians’ misunderstanding about yourself. As the recent exodus showed, a large number of ‘Northeasterners’ now live in the metros. But it hasn’t led to a greater knowledge of the so-called Northeast. The ‘Seven Sisters’ continue to be thought of as one, thereby erasing all differences. The electronic media in particular perpetrates stock images of the region as a remote frontier inhabited by colourful but primitive tribes, a hotbed of insurgency, etc. The consistency with which this happens shows that a Foucauldian discourse is at work.  And like all such discourses, the discourse of the Northeast is self-confirming: ‘proof’ is provided each time a TV channel, for instance, reports a bomb blast in the region.

Of course if the term ‘Northeast’ didn’t exist, we would have to invent it. It serves as a kind of shorthand to call attention to certain commonalities: the political marginalization, the underdevelopment, and the social and cultural attitudes towards the region. But its sheer inadequacy becomes clear when we consider what a vast and varied area (linguistically, ethnically, culturally, and politically) it covers. Calling myself a ‘Northeasterner’  – an outsider’s term – would mean being untrue to myself and to my history. I know my experiences, some of which I have outlined above, are in no way definitive. But that precisely is my point.

Some years ago Delhi Police brought out a booklet, Security Tips for Northeast Students/Visitors in Delhi, to help students from the northeastern states cope with life in the capital. Its intended readers however were outraged because the booklet dispensed such advice as ‘Revealing dress to be avoided’ and ‘Bamboo shoot, Akhuni [fermented soya bean] and other smelly dishes should be prepared without creating ruckus in neighbourhood (sic).’ But when charges of racial and social profiling were hurled at the Delhi police, it was revealed that the IPS officer responsible for the booklet was from Arunachal Pradesh.

This is what happens when we look at the Northeast through an outsider’s eyes.

 

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 giving 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.