Poet and author Aruni Kashyap on why he dislikes being called “writer from the North East” and how his home state Assam influences his writing.
Aruni Kashyap, apart from being a poet and author, is also assistant editor of the academic research journal Yaatrâ: the Journal of Assamese Literature and Culture. His poems, fiction and non-fiction have been published across a variety of magazines and journals. He was awarded the Charles Wallace India Trust Scholarship (2009) for creative writing. In Chennai for the third edition of “Poetry with Prakriti”, he spoke about his work and his feelings about the “North-East” tag. Excerpts:
Would it be right to call you an angry young man of poetry … of Assamese poetry … or North-East poetry?
No. Actually I was speaking about this a while back. Why do you want to call me (laughs) the angry young man ... of North-East poetry?
Your themes. May be because of blurring of lines … of calling everything that side as North-Eastern poetry.
A year back, an editor requested me to write a “proper North Eastern story”. I really didn't know what it “a proper north eastern story” is meant to be because the North-East is a vast landscape. Assam itself has 65 tribes each with its own language, oral literature, myths of origin… so there cannot be one story there to define the North-East. But I was given the brief that such a story would probably have a lot of violence. I was disturbed because I thought it was actually perpetuating the idea of a North-East that is extremely violent.
It is true that a lot of my writing is a result of very strong rage because when I came to Delhi to study literature in 2004, I didn't know that something called “a North Eastern” existed. It challenged received identities. I grew up as an Assamese. And I grew up as an Indian.
After coming to Delhi I understood that there is this something because it was nearly imposed upon me. In many ways I do identify myself as a North Eastern now. But I never used to identify myself so because that concept did not exist when I was growing up. I think about the North-East very often and I also write about it. What I want to project in my writing is that people are also living there … life goes on. It would not be right merely to call me only the angry young man of the North-East.
Your poetry is almost equivalent to a robust narration; “Journeys”, “Where the Sun rises” and “Fake Boots”. Your thoughts on literature from the North-East.
That's because I actually identify myself at first as a story-teller. I was writing fiction. Poetry was only after I came to Delhi. I was trying to explain Assam to a lot of people. When I came to In Delhi I found absolute ignorance about the North-East. Gradually I found that it was because stories from here were not available … to people in so-called mainland India. I also found that no writers from the North-East were included in the Indian literature course at the Delhi University, a compulsory course under the English literature programme (B.A. Honours). So how do you combat this stereotyping?
In Delhi, the North-East is often not spoken about in the media. Literature from here is approached with terms like “literature from the conflict zone” or “a new heart of darkness is getting discovered”. I feel it is It very difficult to define such literature. The whole idea of literature from the North-East is again erroneous especially when you look at Assam. Second, it also comes with some prejudice ... It angers me that the whole idea of the North-East is a constructive identity. And it comes because of historical reasons and deep-seated prejudices. Currently there is a lot of interest among publishers to represent more writers from the North-East, which is a very good trend.
Are there stereotypes? An emphasis on folk forms for one?
There is a great amount of emphasis on folk forms by academics and critics, which actually refuses to accept that there is a print tradition and a written tradition. The approach is wrong if you are only focussing on the folk form. And that leads to stereotyping: the North-East is a land of beautiful hills and rivers, lovely tribes and beautiful dance forms, and that affects the poetry and literature of the region.
At I was attending a conference at Indraprastha College, where a scholar said that the North-East exists in two forms in the Indian mindset. When India is happy they hold melas and festivals, which leads to the “museum-isation” of the North-East. In the Indian subconscious, A deep-seated nightmare is that, because of secessionist groups, the North-East will secede and will threaten what is Indian ... But a lot of us identify ourselves as North-Easterns now. So may be we can take this ahead… and by looking back more into history and understanding why we are in a certain position at the present time now.
But it is also a window that shows what an exciting place it is to be in, backed by a strong, vibrant literary tradition, and surging with fresh ideas
Yes of course. I agree. I have grown up reading both Assamese and English literature and I have seen that. Assamese literature is extremely polyphonic. There are Bodos writing in Assamese and for a very long time obviously. There is a lot happening in Assamese literature but English writers are published more often. But one can be a little more adventurous because I think these writers are really projecting ground realities.
What about the North-East being a sort of haven for Indian poets writing in English?
The North-East poets are different from the rest of the Indian English poets. They provide a very distinct experience of being there. The sense of place, history and society comes across through their poems beautifully and in very evocative language. So this gives them an edge. Maybe that's why people think that it's the haven of Indian English poetry.
Insurgency has had an impact on Assamese literature.
Insurgency in Assam actually started in 1979 ... and that changed the landscape of Assam but it took a long time for this experience to form aesthetic products. Around 1991, a lot of writers started writing about insurgency. I am working on a novel; a true story about a woman, who for the last 20 years, goes to the nearest police station to try and identify the bodies that have arrived there because her son is an insurgent and she doesn't know if he is dead or alive. I do write a lot about insurgency. I am reading about it and I want to know what went wrong for a whole new generation of people who took up arms. They were thinking young men who have come back to the mainstream
You have also tackled themes that look at the Assamese experience in metropolitan cities... you have said that people like you generally get called “supporters of terrorism”.
It is very important to understand why the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) was formed. It is easy to say ‘go and crush them', but it doesn't take into account that, during the counter-insurgency operations, a lot of innocent people are going to die and suffer. And we faced that in the early 1990s. Very brutal insurgency operations. So when people say ‘oh my god you are supporting terrorists', they are killing people, how can you condone them'; I say ‘we are not condoning but you should understand why they took up arms, they were educated people, they were thinking young men'. People just don't want to talk about history ... don't take into account that I am trying to have a holistic viewpoint about a certain problem.
Finally, your poetry collection “Grandma-lullabies”.
It is a forthcoming collection from the Sahitya Akademi. I wrote these poems a year back. It talks about various issues of Assam. It does talk about violence and also about life. People are not only dying. I don't know when it is coming out.