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Storytellers from the east

Is there one Northeast, culturally speaking? Laughable. So some in the audience laughed as the discussion began on this note but three people sitting on the dais didn’t, they were patient, being too used to this question. They are writers from the Northeast and they believe that the similarities of their region lie in their dissimilarity from most other parts of the country.

The three writers, Jahnavi Barua, Chetan Raj Shrestha and Tayenjam Bijoykumar Singh, discussed and pondered a few other myths and notions about the literatures in English emerging from the Northeast. They were speaking at the Kolkata Literary Meet on Monday afternoon in a session with writer and entrepreneur Parthajeet Sarma.

Tayenjam, who is also an engineer by profession and a writer of short stories, poetry and non-fiction in Manipuri and English, felt there is something that separates him.

“When I am in Manipur I feel like any other Indian but when I come to, say Delhi, I feel the difference. I feel like an incongruous Indian,” he said.

This found continuation in Jahnavi Baruah, a young Assamese writer, whose book Next Door — a collection of short stories — received critical acclaim. “There is a common difficulty in writing from the margin as we often write about what we know very closely. In doing so, we struggle to explain everyday things which perhaps which would be simpler for a writer from a metro. A reader in Mumbai may not be acquainted with a mekhela sador or tenga, which are a part of the everyday life of a person in Jorhat.”

So what does a writer do?

“Sometimes we explain and sometimes we don’t. I do not explain what a mekhela is. I think it is a part of the reading experience to find out. But it remains a challenge as I write, to figure out how we write about incidents happening in vernacular, in English.”

Chetan Raj Shrestha, an architect and writer from Sikkim, is staunch about using the vernacular when needed, particularly idioms.

“A friend, who I doubt will remain my friend after my criticism of his writing, once wrote there was something black in the lentil,” he said.

The author of the much-appreciated The King’s Harvest said he is yet to find the right balance when he translates a local dialogue into English.

Tayenjam, though, makes it a point to explain the vernacular parts in English.

But the poor in this country do not speak in English. So have they been accused of being elitist?

Barua admits that they are considered elitist by certain sections. But the fact is that unlike for vernacular languages, there is very little support for Indians writing in English and that is why most of them, till they are established internationally, have to continue with another job.

But she added that when she started writing she got phenomenal support from Assam and writers in vernacular languges. “The newspapers gave glowing reviews and even vernacular writers, who were initially sceptical, congratulated me.”

She also added that a writer from every culture carries the aesthetics of her people in her English.

“An Assamese would rarely be exuberant with adjectives and a Punjabi rarely sedate.”

And do they think in English?

Barua does. “I think one has to accept that English is another Indian language now. I can honestly say that I do think in English,” she said. The sheer number of English writers from a single region is also a common thread of the people the Northeast, she felt.

It is also common for a person to think in two languages. It is almost a riot in one’s mind, Srestha added.

But these writers do not feel any compulsion to write only about home.

“There is an expectation that I write about home but I have never felt any pressure. I have written about home and some stories that have little to do with home. Basically, I write about whatever I know closely,” Tayenjam said.

Barua added that she has personally never felt any pressure from publishers to write about the Northeast. But it did come into her stories naturally and very often.