Negotiating change with memory

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Mamang Dai, poet and novelist from the north-east, chats with Subash N. Jeyan about her writing and attempt to record the disappearing traditions of her land.

As a writer, Mamang Dai wears many hats: historian, poet, novelist, journalist. Her first book, Arunachal Pradesh: The Hidden Land documented the customs and the culture of a land that is still hidden by a veil of mystery for most Indians. It was her first book of poems ( The River Poems, 2004) though, which marked her out as a major emerging voice from the northeast. She has branched out as a writer since then, writing two novels ( The Legends of Pensam, 2006 and Stupid Cupid 2009) and a couple of stories for children with Katha ( The Sky Queen (2005) and Once upon a Moontime (2005). Her poems were also featured in Penguin's anthology of poetry from the northeast, Dancing Earth (2009) edited by Robin Singh Ngangom. In Chennai to participate in the Poetry with Prakriti festival, she takes time off from a busy reading schedule to talk about her career and journey in letters. Excerpts...

You are a part of the Northeast Writers' Forum. Can you tell us what it's about and what it's trying to do...

The forum started in Guwahati in 1997 I think and the aim is to bring together the writers writing in English because the northeast has become a promising pocket of writing. We have annual meetings, which we try to rotate between the different states. Penguin recently organised a literary festival of northeast writers and is launching soon seven titles of northeast writers writing in English. All this has been done in collaboration with the forum...

Though I only became a member recently, I like the forum and I feel we should keep it alive because it brings us together when these States are so politicised and there is a lot of divisive issues over boundary...

Even though the so-called seven sisters are lumped together, the northeast is not a homogeneous entity, is it? Are there common issues that bring you together on a common platform like this?

True, there are differences... but we also have the land... the whole geographical continuity is there you know, the forests, the mountains, it's all the Eastern Himalayas belt. Ok, Assam doesn't have the big snow mountains but it's the foothills. The big rivers link us; all our rivers drain into Assam and with the landscape comes a common shared culture and a relationship to the land...

Elsewhere you refer to Pensam as the in-between land...Is it an attempt to record a disappearing tradition in the face of modernity?

In a way, yes. Ours is an oral tradition you know, I was trying to meet people and collect and record these oral narratives. You know, the small histories which were getting lost and when you talk to people even small things can trigger these memories off. I had no idea how the book would turn out because it was very difficult to project these stories in English. To negotiate that (difficulty of cultural translation) I conceived of Pensam as a kind of secret garden where there are no rules and where one can do whatever one wants...

I was a little nervous about how the novel would be received back home. But I must say the people were very responsive. When they heard the book had been released in Delhi, in my hometown, which is Pasighat, they were shouting, “we want the book, we are the people of Pensam”. They were happy that the Adi word had received wider recognition....

What exactly is your own relationship to these narratives and oral traditions? Do you feel at home with them or is there a distance?

I think I still belong there. Ok, back home people say she is modern and educated, she has gone out etc but I still speak my mother tongue and I think by temperament also I respond to our old oral stories. Not everyone likes mythology and folk tales you know. But I find it a very fascinating area and I can find a lot of things there for myself also... I like being able to go and get these stories directly from old people in the villages.

Is there a danger of these becoming exotic fare?

It is true that now a lot of publishers are focussing on the northeast. For some reason it has been drawing a lot of attention recently. And the new thing coming out is the oral tradition being written in English or fiction using that kind of backdrop. It is new and fresh and exotic but it doesn't necessarily mean that the writer is insincere because a lot also depends on the writers own response to his or her own culture. In many ways, it is interesting to us also. I think that's what makes the writing more authentic.

Are you attached to the land? To what extent is your writing inspired by the landscape?

Yes, more and more now. I did live abroad for many years but when I came back I realised how beautiful it really is. Because it opened so late to the outside world a lot of it is still pretty intact, the culture, the people's beliefs, the way of life so that is very nice and I think more importantly it's my own response to it more than being able to use it as material for my writing. Different temperaments will respond differently you know...

Stupid Cupid is very different as a novel isn't it?

Yes, it's very different, the landscape has changed totally. A very good friend of mine, the President of the Northeast Writers' forum, said, “What a frivolous title you have chosen. I don't like it.” They think of me as a very serious writer you know, very, sort of deep. But one can be deep in different ways also I suppose. It's another way, a different piece of writing.



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