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Dr. Madan Sarma
Date of Publish: 2015-10-18


            Reflections on the English Literature of the Northeast

                                                Dr. Madan Sarma


Though the expression “Northeast” harks back to colonial times and in a way foregrounds the geographical and even political isolation/marginalization of a region encompassing seven states (now eight, for administrative reasons), the Northeast is not simply a geographical location or an administrative unit; it .has come to be accepted as indicative of certain common characteristics and qualities shared by the people of the region. The expression, however, tends to ignore the immense diversity of cultures, languages, life styles and belief systems that marks the region. At the same time, it is also true that one tends to be aware of being a “Northeasterner” the moment one finds oneself stranded in the heartland of the “Aryavarta”. Interestingly, it is often forgotten that the Aryan settlement in the western part of this region might have begun a few centuries before the beginning of the Christian era, even before the composition of Panini’s Astadhyayi . It has also been established that the earliest inhabitants of Assam, known during the early centuries of the Christian era as “Pragjyotishpur” or “Paralauhitya” (Kautilya Arthasastra ), were the people belonging to various non-Aryans races. Naturally, the languages they spoke belonged to non-Aryan or extra-Aryan families of languages. The original inhabitants of this land were the speakers of some language belonging to the Austric or Mon-Khemr family (see  Nagen Saikia, “Asamiya Manuhar Itihas”, 2013: 60 ff).

The seven states have numerous indigenous peoples and languages with diverse cultures and life styles. Clubbing all the states together may result in losing sight of the heterogeneity which is quite essential. The question arises:  Does these diversity and heterogeneity find adequate and convincing representation in the literature in English?

There has always been a tendency to stereotype the Northeast as a troubled and violent zone. Two broad approaches to this stereotyping are noticed: one,  romantic, foregrounding its pristine nature, its landscape and its cultural richness,  and the other, political, focusing on its turmoil, violence and social and political instability. Such perceptions of the Northeast are engendered by its geographical isolation, its complex ethnicity related problems and the  problems arising out of state-sponsored  and anti-state, often anti-people violence.

On the positive side, the Northeast is known for its verdant nature largely undisturbed by urbanization and industrialization, its cultural diversity, its women enjoying comparatively more freedom than some other parts of the country, perhaps because of continuing influence of tribal, community attachment and women’s involvement in productive activities outside home.

Do these factors give rise to separate and distinctive literature which is more socially conscious, more political?  Is the literature produced in the NE radically different from literatures produced in other parts of the country? If so, why and how? Contexts of production and reception of literature may be different but the issues and concerns of creative writers across cultures may well be the same or similar. Then why talk of literature of the NE?

If certain unique features stand out, are they found only in the literature produced in English, or also in other languages? The so called peculiar state of mind which supposedly prevails in the region because of the divide between the Centre and the marginalized, the periphery hardly ever finds expression in Assamese poetry, though social concern is very much there. The poets writing in Assamese, for example, engage with serious problems of life and the world and various facets of life in general. Does it mean that the writers from states like Manipur, Nagaland and Meghalaya feel more alienated? Are the divide and its implications more important for them? One needs to ask why.

Perhaps highly individualistic life style and urban-metropolitan culture are yet to affect the creative writers from this region and that is why  social and political issues gain prominence in their work -whether in English or in other languages like Assamese.

In certain areas of the region poets appear to bear witness to political upheaval and  violence affecting everyday life.  The fact that behind all these are crucial historical, political and economic issues and the reality of uneven development or underdevelopment is often overlooked. Writers from this region are, however, aware of these and this awareness tends to make especially its poetry in English politically engaged at a deeper level. One is reminded of the works of poets like Ngangom, Iralu, Nongkynrih and Kharmawphlang in this connection. Ngangon  writes:

I hear a wicked war is now waged

on our soil, and gory bodies

dragged unceremoniously

through our rice-fields.

Wicked war obviously refers to the fight between the state forces and the rebels, inter-ethnic group clashes and the conflict between the  indigenous people and the foreign settlers. Violence in Manipur affects the poets from other states too. Meghalaya poet Kharmawphlang  sees Imphal as a place where the “blood of the young/runs easily, and the old, too tired /to cry for slain sons “

Peace eludes all..

And the two lives snuffed

Out in this storm of blood

Lay unmourned by alien skies.

Poets are alive to the reality of the strife-torn land. Iralu finds that the Nagaland of blue hills and mighty warriors has now turned into battle-scarred lands. Poets like Ngangom carry in their consciousness the image of a violent, strife-torn land in Nagaland, Manipur or any other state:

Everywhere I go

I carry my homeland with me

I look for it in the protest marches on the streets of the capital

In dark maned girl of beauty contests

Forced to waiting now behind windows (The Desire of Roots)

Some poets move out of  their particular locations to a much wider space, the world.

Monalisa Changkija does that in a poem like “Cain’s Shoes”

Talk to George Bush Junior

Or Osama Bin Laden;

They’ll tell you,

They find themselves

In Cain’s shoes today.

But she as well as some other poets like Mamang Dai also believes in human resilience and determination to  fight death and go on living:

Call us foolish, call us anything,

Because no words can describe

Our zest for life

Or our contempt of death.

Those who face death everyday and go on living with renewed vigour have contempt for death.

Poets of the region have also ventured beyond strife and violence to address other issues and other  aspects of life and the world. The same poet also talks of wooing wind:

If you have seen the waters of a mountain lake

Dance to the songs of the wooing wind,

You have lived well…

Easterine Iralu’s “The good morning poem’ is a beautifully crafted and sensitive poem on mother-daughter attachment

Hello flower-face



…your roots travel down

Into me

Seeking sustenance

In total trust

I want to live for you my child

Ngangom has talked of his inadequacy in a poem like “A Poem for Mother”:

Forgive me, for all your dreams

of peace and rest during your remnant days

I only turned out to be a small man,

with small dreams and leading a small life.     

The loss of harmony between man and nature troubles poets like Mamang Dai though what caused and has been causing this loss is rarely spelt out. Dai appears to be optimistic about the future:

Tomorrow the leaves and the town will shine again,

All the people of the town will look

Strange and wonderful   (Dai : River Poems)

The kind of religious concern, specifically the influence of Christianity noticed in some poets from Nagaland would surely surprise many modern Assamese poets. One needs to investigate the influence of religious faith on some poets from the region. Has it constrained their poetic expression and even the craft?

Another pertinent question is : how do we view the literature produced in English in this region vis-avis the literatures written in the so called “regional” languages? How can one writing in English in Assam overlook the wealth of literature produced in the language over the last one thousand years? How can one ignore the influence of such a strong literary tradition? When we read and assess the quality of literature in English produced in the hill states, should we not keep in mind the implications of the lack of such literary traditions and also the extent of the influence of the traditional oral literature /folklore on the writings in English?

While writing about the English literature produced over the years in the Northeast, one cannot ignore the fact that for socio-historical reasons  the concerns of the  indigenous people are  hardly ever voiced in their “own” languages. Assamese is an exception since it has a rich store of literature written for around a thousand years. It would surely be interesting to compare some of the works produced in English in this region with the writings in Assamese or other languages when they engage with the same/similar issues and themes. One feels that some of the reasonably “good “ creations of even much younger Assamese poets are much more nuanced than some  of the “better” English poems from the region. As an example, I would like to quote , in my  translation, from a young Assamese poet. This may happen because of the firm grip of the Assamese writer over his language, its idiom and their cultural nuances 

Your voice will one day

 Go out in search of you

 Through the windows of my broken house

 Over  the fallen leaves on a forest road

  If the sharp throbbing of bamboo leaves

  Does not cut the voice into pieces

  And if it does not

            Drop down along with a bamboo leaf

            If it does not wither in dews

            On the fallen leaves

       Your voice will become

       Golden  rice in the field….

( Mridul Haloi, translated by the author)

In other words, we need more incisive and dispassionate assessment of the body of literature in English produced over the years in the Northeast.

( Dr. Madan Sarma is Professor, Dept of English and Foreign Languages, Tezpur University. Tezpur. He can be reached at -    madansarmajan@gmail.com)






























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