Assamese writer-translator and art historian Moushumi Kandali on the literary canvas of her State, a spread no less impressive than a colourful fruit salad

A wet monsoon afternoon and I carry a song on my lips while jumping over puddles, like a frog in action! The more practical things, like carrying an umbrella, would have been a better idea though. Because, by the time I step inside the air conditioned confines of Café Uno at Shangri-La’s Eros Hotel, a few droplets of rain drip down my face, raising a crop of goose bumps on me. My interviewee, young Assamese writer-translator and art historian Moushumi Kandali, joyfully brandishes her umbrella at me, saying, “You see, that is the advantage of being a teacher. Water bottle, umbrella, a pen, you will find all these things typically in my bag just by habit.”

Moushumi, an alumna of M.S. University, Baroda, teaches visual art at the School of Culture and Creative Expressions in the Ambedkar University. “We are the only university to have M.A. programmes on literary art, performance studies, film studies and visual art with an emphasis on critical thinking. The idea is also to help create critics in these fields,” she says about Delhi’s youngest university with a tinge of pride soon after we settle down. A winner of Yuva Purashkar of Bharatiya Bhasa Parishad (2005), Moushumi is also an important young voice in Assamese literature today. A fiction writer, art historian and translator, she has nine books under her name till now.

She also writes in English, translates her own works in English. With a smile she says though, “But I would like to be known as an Assamese writer first. I can write in English but I always dream in Assamese. I just love my language.”

Arrives at our table Prashant Kumar Das, the sous chef of the hotel. The conversation swerves to rain and he relates experiences from growing up in Bihar, eating so many fries typical of the season and Moushumi, coming from Assam which gets two rainy seasons a year, adds her bit to the conversation. Chef Das suggests she try out the restaurant’s high tea which has been introduced keeping the season in mind.

He leaves us soon and Moushumi gets back to talking about her work. Rather her short stories. She has three collections of them – “After the Dance of Lambada”, “Tale of Thirdness”, and “Mockdrill”. In them, she has injected diverse thematic concerns – from modernity to traditions – its conflicts, marginality to identity dynamics, gender, intra-personal relations and importantly, the complexities of life in the backdrop of the socio-cultural ethos of various tribes of her State.

“I grew up in the tribal Karbi Anglong region of Assam as my father was posted there.”

That opened the tribal world to her, which she would not otherwise be able to have a taste of considering her background as a Brahmin. At the just-concluded seminar on Modern Indian Languages at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies in Shimla, she says, she delved into her inner struggles of growing up in a region she ‘doesn’t belong to’ among other things. Her early exposure to the tribal life and culture helped her develop love and respect for the people, she states.

This has become one of the dominant themes of her writings. This fondness is also seen in her translation of the poetry of the Mising tribe of Assam to English sometime ago (‘Listen My Flower Bud’ published by Sahitya Akademi.)

Even as the conversation returns to short stories, its tradition in Assam, the high tea arrives. It is an impressive spread. In a three tiered tray comes a range of fries, cocktail samosas, paneer wraps, khandvi and the like. In another three tiered tray comes an assortment of cakes, scones and tarts. Moushumi rolls her eyes, impressed.

She tries out some of the cakes and samosas before picking up the thread of conversation. “We have a long legacy of short story in Assam. It has a 130 year old history. Writers like Lakhminath Bezbaruah are not known much outside of Assam but his contribution to short stories is immense. This is his 150 birth anniversary year. Hope some efforts are made to highlight his role in strengthening Assamese literature,” she says.

The conversation also touches upon the food habits of the region and Moushumi, being a lover of greens, says, “I just love the variety we have.” She also loves the names the greens have. “Just the other day, I joked with a friend from North India that you people just saw the colour of the leaves and named it laal saag but we saw it changing its shades in the sun and called it jhilmil, the one that changes colour while dancing in the sun,” she says laughing. Calling herself a huge lover of momos, she says among Delhi food, she just can’t resist chicken tikka.

The banter continues, goes back and forth on food and literature, about her friends here calling what she cooks “Assa-nintal — a combination of Assamese and continental”, about her upcoming translation of her own book on Assamese art and crafts, about a book she is compiling on North-eastern crafts for Lalit Kala Akademi. After a while, when we step out, it begins to rain again.

She opens her umbrella, walks on, soon gets lost in the teeming lot hurrying home. I walk on too, with raindrops falling on my head, yet again leaving a song on my lips.