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North-East Pastiche

made a shambles of the education system, North-East Pastiche Where the Sun Rises, When Shadows Fall: The North-East edited by Geeti Sen; Oxford University Press, 2006;

numbers, ironically, because conflict has made a shambles of the education system,

North-East Pastiche

Where the Sun Rises, When Shadows Fall: The North-East

edited by Geeti Sen; Oxford University Press, 2006; pp 324, $ 39.95.


here the Sun Rises, When Shadows Fall: The North-East is the somewhat self-consciously evocative title of this volume of myths, legends, poems, essays and travelogues. The eclecticism of the subject matter may be a surprise at first, but perhaps it reflects the publisher’s intention to encompass a range of thoughts and studies about this region.

On the whole, the various parts of the book explore the two main reactions that the north-eastern region of India is prone to generate. One is the “unspoilt beauty” of the region, the “state of innocence” and the “joyful primitive state” of the people who live here. Juxtaposed with this is the other subject, of, inevitably, that of “conflict”. Of course it cannot be denied that both these themes are valid ones, and indeed one has to admit that much more study is needed to get a better understanding of them. But that is just the point. While appreciative writings of the beauty of the region and its wonderful people abound, besides the anthropological studies of pioneers such as Verrier Elwin and observations of Britishers such as the venerable Edward Gait, not too many serious contemporary studies are available to the general public. As for conflict, the pages of newspapers and sound bytes of electronic media are full of breathless descriptions of the latest dastardly bomb blast, and the latest count of the dead and the dying. But no holistic analysis of the reasons for this kind of endemic violence, an analysis that takes into account the history, contemporary social reality, mindset of the different kinds of people who populate the region, topography, religious and most important, the economic reality of the region, has yet been put forward in a convincing manner.

In any case, dumping all the eight states into the convenient catchphrase the “north-east” is itself a misnomer. It is not as though these states present a kind of united face to the rest of the world, or even to the rest of the country. Far from it. The intra-region reality is fraught with suspicion and mayhem. Perhaps the root of the dissatisfaction evident wherever one goes in this region is reflected in this phrase. Not, as Patricia Mukhim says somewhat irrelevantly in her essay, because the people here think north-east is a strange name for what is for them the central point of geography. One acknowledges that a name such as the north-east, based on the geographical location of the region with reference to the rest of the country, is inevitable, perhaps. But beyond this, there should be acknowledgement of the fact that each of the entities that make up the region are very different from each other, and indeed, have hardly ever had harmonious relationships with each other. This, in spite of the fact that much of the area, and several of the places that are now entities on their own, were once part of a much larger state, called Assam. This reality does not seem to have been studied and analysed in any of the essays and articles in the volume. And yet this is a very important fact, which should be acknowledged as such in any historical description. The breaking up of the state created by the British, which continued in post-independent India into the 1970s of the last century, reflects a psyche that needs to be explored, in order to understand much of what is going on today.

Some attempts to understand the root of the discontent have definitely been made. But surely there is more to this feeling of alienation than the reactions that the facial contours of the people of this place evoke in the rest of the country? Both Sanjib Baruah and Patricia Mukhim give too much stress to this. While the former relies too much on individual reactions, the latter generalises too sweepingly, when she says that north-easterners feel like aliens in big Indian cities. There should, at this point, have been an attempt to study also the admitted insularity of many of the people of this region. It is only now that they are going “out” in large and they have to go out to the big cities of the country in order to get a decent education, and also, later, to get some kind of job. And this business of the “other” works both ways: the “outsider”, and that includes the non-tribal Assamese, is made to feel like an alien in any hill state of the north-east.

The limitation of a book of this kind is that there is no space to explore the complex weaves that make up the varicoloured and multi-textured fabrics of the region. Else why would Hare Krishna Deka, in his ‘The Assamese Mind: Contours of a Landscape’, talk of Assamese sub-nationalism, while ignoring the undeniable fact of sub subnationalism, as is evinced in the Boro conflict, for instance? The point is that there is no monolithic entity in any sphere of life that makes up this region of eight very different states.

The articles and poems themselves are individually very well written. Some of the best writers of the north-east (one cannot escape that hyphenated utterance, it seems!) have contributed to this volume, which also has sectional editors from within the region. The two sections on ‘Creation Myths and Oral Narratives’, and on contemporary poetry, are absolutely wonderful. Indeed, much of the finest poetry in the country today is being written in these hills and valleys. Evocative, rooted in the land, yet aware of the great changes taking place all around, the poems take into account the ancient myths of the land as well as the realities of everyday contemporary life. As noted Assamese poet Nilmani Phukan says,

Last night, a poet like you With a low voice, Passed away – One who had realised That there was nothing in his poetry Nothing more profound Than the chirping of the cricket. What we were talking about Just a moment ago, About water being cold, stone being hard, And about peacocks spreading their plumes.

And Mamang Dai, in ‘Sorrow of Women’:

They are talking about hunger, They are saying there is an unquenchable fire Turning in our hearts.

Economic and Political Weekly November 18, 2006

My love, what shall I do? I am thinking how I may lose you To war, and big issues more important than me.

There is Manipur’s Thangjam Ibopishak describing the ‘Land of the Half Humans’, where people move about for six months as a head without a body, and for the other six months as a body without a head. Or, in ‘The Smell of Man’, he describes how a woman sells the bodies of her little children in the market, with gunshot wounds fresh on their bodies.

Sprinkling water and rubbing the corpses She says, laughing carelessly, “Not anyone’s Not anyone’s children, mind you, These children are my own.

Or Chandrakanta Murasingh in ‘Of a Minister’:

The minister has so much to say, He never suffers from pent-up words.

In many of the areas of the region, myths and legends are still part of everyday discourse. They form belief systems that are still very much alive today. Unlike the myths and legends of civilisations that are now dead and gone, these myths are very much a part of the living traditions. This is what makes them so interesting, and adds so much to their beauty. And yet one must remember that the swift pace of change happening today, as well as political and social realities, are in danger of making them inevitably recede. Geographical features such as the hills of Sohra, as well as race memories of the Great Migrations, are all in evidence in these myths.

The analytical essays attempt to grasp the contemporary reality. Preeti Gill’s ‘Women in the Time of Conflict: The Case of Nagaland’ makes an impact because of the focused way in which she deals with one important aspect of the conflict in Nagaland. Supported by factual evidence, her studies show the long-term effects of this kind of unrest on a specific gender, and ultimately, on society. Mona Zote’s ‘Heaven in Hell: A Paradox’ is a cogently argued thesis on the effect of missionaries on the religious life and culture of the Mizos; its line of reasoning reinforced by flashes of humour. ‘Stitching Peace Together’ is a conversation between Indira Goswami, Sanjoy Hazarika, and Geeti Sen that is of enormous contemporary relevance. The Assamese novelist here describes her reasons for, attempting to bring militants and the government to the negotiating table.

There are also a couple of photo-essays. Geeti Sen’s ‘The Road to Tawang’ is supplemented by a written narrative, while Pablo Barholomew’s ‘Nagas: Down the Ages’ has captions explaining the pictures. Both pictorial essays are redolent of the cultures and times they seek to depict.

Indeed, it is not the range of subject matter that takes the reader somewhat aback, but the lack of tonal wholeness. The different sections that make up the book do not seem to “hang together” very well, leading to a kind of loss of focus. Or perhaps that again was the intention of the editors, to show the diversity and disparity between the past and the present? Perhaps. But if so, the subjects should have been studied in greater depth in order to succeed at this.

One important aspect that has been left out of this study of the north-east is the existence of a very strong “parallel economy” that underpins the whole monetary reality of the region. This should definitely have been studied in a book of this kind, since it is a truth that cannot be ignored or wished away. The genesis of this parallel economy, as well as its present day enormity, is linked strongly to many facets of life in the north-east, including a “sense of alienation from the rest of the country”, the rapid changes in material, as well as moral and ethical standards, consumerism, aspirations, development (or the lack of it), the rending of the social fabric, and of course, inescapably, violence. These economic realities are responsible, to a great extent, for much cultural and social change in the region today. As it is, the book unfortunately comes across as a kind of pastiche of fleeting thoughts, none of which are studied in any great depth.

On the whole, the aim of this book seems to have been to provide glimpses to the general reader “outside” the region of the “different-ness” of these places. Perhaps also, it was the aim to provide only glimpses, rather than thorough study. One does hope, however, that a book of this kind is a forerunner of more in-depth studies about the different aspects of the many areas of the region.





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