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What the swirling clouds said: A unique blend of myth and memory gives literature from the Northeast its distinct flavour

It would seem that many shamans are beginning to sing the Northeast into existence for the rest of us who are seeking its myriad identities

Once I imagined a dusty library and a woman sitting alone, caught in a beam of light, thinking: ‘Among all these books on these shelves there is not one that mentions this place where I come every day to unlock the cupboards and look at the big atlas of the world.’ Of course I was thinking of the old library in my hometown, near the airfield, and the woman was another me, scrutinising oceans and coastlines and fiddling with notebooks.

The image became a secret map for ‘A Diary of the World’, which is a poem, a chapter title of The Legends of Pensam, the recurring theme of a novella. Now that small building is overshadowed by a new stadium and the woman has vanished. Or maybe she is around but in another guise — who can tell? Ask an author about their writing and most likely the question will curve and swerve in their mind with myriad answers. It is like diving into a deep pond, trying to catch the ripples expanding from shore to shore. How did we even begin to write?

The hidden place

Today there is talk about ‘mappings’. Nothing like the contours of a world I once imagined. This is about cultural mappings, with conferences on margins and borders and emerging literatures. A publishing boom in the last decade has brought into focus literatures from the Northeast. This has happened along with the growth of media, literary forums and festivals to strengthen public understanding of the region’s art, culture and the social transformations taking place there. Post-publication territory is like a minefield. What voice, genre, gender, to find a place in literary canon. How and why does one write, and what do we write about?

One is stumped for answers.

In the small library of my imagination there was no thought of ‘meaning’ or motivation to convey specificity like a territory — ‘the Northeast,’ — the Adi tribe, although all the time the land was the other character stealthily exerting its presence to set the context of time, place, remembrance, and the type of stories. The land is a definite physical presence, but above and beyond this I believe every writer creates their own space that is quite simply the hidden place, conjured up by some strange magic where thought and feeling can roam freely in the indescribable freedom of writing.

The story leads us and we follow, sometimes happy, sometimes resisting, struggling, blank, and wondering. Who would ever know how a story slips out of our hands. We are never in complete control. Like a piece of music, all our remembrances, the chance encounters, that things that happened to us and the way we responded, or did not, float in and out of memory like breath and life to make up a kaleidoscope of you, me, them, us, the way we were, or the way we hope to become. Words only try to catch a tune. Perhaps this is all that writing is about — transformation. Our lives altered by our desire.

Nurturing stories

Imagine a shaman singing an epic poem for five days and five nights. This is a performance art of the oral tradition where a man can sing a world into existence. It is the world of myth and legend, but I heard someone say something that changed my ideas or at least posed a new question about my understanding of myths and legends. It was at a wake and we said the other rituals would be done in the morning since we couldn’t cut wood at night. Everyone agreed. ‘Of all the trees and plants the only one that offers itself for use at any time, day or night, is the bamboo,’ they said.

I was wonderstruck. In the indescribable atmosphere of mourning all my relatives were carrying on with the business of performing obligations, and the source of these obligations was our stories. Here was consolation. The stories nurture us: suddenly I was moving through the land again, aware of new textures and vibrations.

Perhaps we can say that since time began, the first travellers were words — spoken, written, and communicated in totems and hieroglyphs. Perhaps a great ancestor stood watching the movement of clouds. His thoughts travelled through time and words were released to the sky, to the mountains, along desert dunes and sea waves to convey such feelings of wonder, love and awe and longing in song, then inscribed on rocks, painted symbols slowly falling on a stone tablet or on a page with the invented tools of ink and paper.

Often literature from the Northeastern states is taken as one indiscrete whole. But the place is heaving with cultural diversity. Historically, it was quite a ‘globalised’ part of the world, carrying on lively cross-border trade with Tibet, China, Burma, Tai-Ahom, the Shan state, and the greater Mekong region. The same is true of the literary scene, which is wide and as varied as the number of ethnic and linguistic communities. Apart from the literature of the script languages of Assam, Manipur and Tripura, a large chunk of the customs of different communities comes to us via the oral tradition.

Myth and memory

This has promoted a literature that mingles recorded history and the oral tradition for an interpretation of the unwritten past in a peculiar blend of myth and memory, and aesthetics unique to the region. Each State has its distinct voice with acclaimed writers writing in different languages and there are as many symbols and images as there are voices. There is blood, fire, water, despair and hope and all that links human fate.

More recently, writings have appeared about the region from across the mountains. I am thinking of Stuart Blackburn’s novel, Into the Hidden Valley, that is a view from the ‘other’ side, of British relations with northeast India. I think this is important. Since we delve into old records left by early explorers, a contemporary book is like a new bridge creating a place of confluence.

And so it will go on. Perhaps everything will change all over again. New voices will call and reshape everything, and why not. There is digital media, e-books, audio books, new storytelling and new publishing to record oral traditions.

Tradition is not set in stone. The past is an amorphous place that we can abandon and revisit. Someone will break in and breathe new life into what is concealed. The journey of words will begin anew, sprout wings, delineate its own features and reach out in elation or silent discourse to enhance our perception and tell us that words have power. Words can stop the clock. Words can foresee the future.

The writer is a poet and novelist from Pasighat, Arunachal Pradesh.

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Printable version | Mar 31, 2020 10:50:10 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/what-the-swirling-clouds-said-a-unique-blend-of-myth-and-memory-gives-literature-from-the-northeast-its-distinct-flavour/article30878722.ece

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