In Conversation withRinki Roy(daughter of legendary director Bimal Roy) about The Oldest Love Story, an anthology on motherhood, edited and curated byjournalist and authors, Rinki Roy and Maithili Rao. Click here to read.
Achingliu Kamei in conversation with Veio Pou, author of Waiting for the Dust to Settle, a novel based on the ongoing conflicts in North-east India. Clickhereto read.
The Funeral, a satirical skit by Tagore, translated by Somdatta Mandal. Click here to read.
Pie in the Sky is a poem written and translated from Korean by Ihlwha Choi. Click here to read.
Taal Gaachh or The Palmyra Tree, a lilting light poem by Tagore, has been translated from Bengali by Mitali Chakravarty. Click here to read.
This narrative is written by a youngster from the Nithari village who transcended childhood trauma and deprivation. Dhaani has been written in Hindi and translated to English by Kiran Mishra. Click here to read.
Yes! It is vacation time, and we are all able to travel at last. Though the pandemic which had closed borders for us seems to be evolving as an endemic, another huge human crisis, a war which cannot be justified in any way, stares us in the face. Loss of lives, homes, towns, cities and threats of global recession follow in the footsteps of refugees wandering into our lives. Lesya Bakun, the Ukrainian refugee whose story we have been following, told me four of her relatives’ homes in Mariupol have been erased out of existence and her extended family has scattered where they found safety as her cousin continues a prisoner of war, captured while defending the iron and steel factory at Azovstal. While majority of the world expresses solidarity with the Ukrainians, another set of refugees remain in shadows. They have completely lost their country in which they had lived from ancient times. I am referring to the Rohingya of Arakan. CNN world states:
“The Rohingya are a stateless Muslim minority in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, thought to number about 1 million people.
“Myanmar does not recognize them as citizens or one of the 135 recognized ethnic groups in the country.”
We are privileged to host a powerful poignant translation by Arifa Ghani Rahman of Shaheen Akhtar’s short story about such a voiceless Rohingya child in a refugee camp. Though this is a fiction inspired by Akhtar’s visits to such shelters, we hope at some point these children will be able to build new lives to create a world free of violence, intolerance, hatred and greed.
One of the questions that springs to one’s mind, watching such atrocities destroy innocent lives is that should one accept bullies and give in to their pressure tactics? Bullies can be found among world leaders as well as perpetrators of decadent societal norms which are often critiqued by satires. Somdatta Mandal has translated one such satirical playlet where social conventions are targeted in a lighter vein by Tagore. In the same spirit, the maestro’s iconic poem about a palmyra tree called Taal Gaachh has been transcreated to bring the joy of innocent wanderings back into the narrative, creating an island of healing thoughts. We continue with our translations of Jibananada Das by Professor Fakrul Alam, a Korean poem by Ihlwha Choi and a magical Balochi folktale by Fazal Baloch. Let us read such translations to connect with varied cultures so that compassion and acceptance of diverse perspectives end horrors like wars, starvation and hunger.
Inspiration can also be drawn from Rinki Roy Bhattacharya’s and Maithili Rao’sThe Oldest Love Story, featuring a medley of men and women writing on the theme of motherhood along with some narratives about their mothers or on the experience of being one. The medley includes well-known names from films and literature like Shabana Azmi, Saeed Mirza, Shashi Deshpande, Nabanita Dev Sen and more. We interviewed Roy Bhattacharya to find out more about this impactful book. Achingliu Kamei, an academic and writer, has conversed with Naga writer, Veio Pou, whose award-winning book, Waiting for the Dust to Settle, was reviewed earlier — a book that gives a glimpse of conflicts in the Northeast of India.
Taking on the theme of conflicts at a personal level, Atreyo Chowdhury’s and Banerjee’s stories create a sense of disquiet as Paul Mirabile’s explores crime, madness and its impact on humans. G Thomas takes a relook at heroism and bravery as a concept. His story set in Kerala shakes our complacency, upending traditional concepts of heroism and bravery just as Candice Louisa Daquin has upended the cult of positivity in her essay. Notes of discord and accord seem to ring through this edition and the undertones of greys spread out towards an exploration of life and death. We have multiple ghost stories this time, even from the Nithari column written by Kiran Mishra, a youngster who got over the trauma of violence in the community and discovered her place as a bilingual writer and educator.
Keith Lyons has got the bug of tongue-in-cheek too as he gives us a piece on his travels in Varanasi that well captures the dichotomies we find in India. Dwelling on social dichotomies also is Ratnottama Sengupta’s powerful tribute to Swatilekha Sengupta, a film and theatre doyenne who brought to life Tagore’s novel, Ghare Baire (Home and the World, 1985). An essay by Mozid Mahmud exploring both the syncretic elements in Tagore’s and Kabir’s works, the medieval poet’s impact on the Nobel laureate and a dispute over Rabindranath’s own translation blends with the tone of greys in this edition.
We have a fair deal from across the globe in the June issue. But, as usual, some of the treats in the content have not been mentioned though they are wonderful pieces of writing too. We look forward to your continued support as you delve into our treasure trove of gems from across the oceans. A huge thanks to our fabulous team, to the contributors and readers. I especially want to thank Sohana Manzoor for sharing her lovely artwork and wish you all a wonderful read!
First of all, let me congratulate you on winning The Gordon Graham Prize for Naga Literature 2021 for your debut novel Waiting for the Dust to Settle. How do you feel about winning this award?
Thank you! I’m very excited, of course! This is such a great morale booster considering that I almost gave up the novel midway! But more importantly, I really appreciate the Kohima Educational Trust/Kohima Educational Society for instituting the Prize to encourage writings by Nagas.
Can you share a bit about writing the story and the choice of the title?
Yes, it certainly was worth the wait. It took many years for the book to see the light of day. It’s been quite a journey. When I first wrote the first draft, I didn’t gauge it would be such a long road to publishing. Part of this was because many publishing houses rarely take the risk to publish a debutant. But I’m thankful that Speaking Tiger Books decided to take me on board!
As for the title, it’s very much drawn from the protracted Indo-Naga political problem and the wait for an amicable solution that never seems to happen. Unfortunately, in the process of waiting many other issues have cropped up along the way for the Nagas that peace is such an illusion at the moment. The title is also partly inspired by Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. For quite some years, in my family circle, we’ve funnily referred to the novel as Godot because it was never coming. Fortunately, in our case, the Godot showed up. But bigger issues that the novel deals with are still evading, the wait is getting longer.
What provoked your interest to write the story of your protagonist, Rokovei? At what point did you have the inkling that you might have stumbled on a character or a story you’re going to commit to?
Well, many have also asked me if Rokovei is me! I always say it’s both “yes” and “no”. “Yes”, because many of my experiences of growing up in a small town are imprinted in the protagonist. I suppose every piece of literary work tends to have some components of autobiography to it. But “no” also because I’ve also drawn the experiences of many people I know into the person. For instance, I relived playing around the highway with friends but I never dreamt of becoming an army officer while few of my friends did. For me, the character too developed with the story.
I appreciated the way that your novel undertakes an examination of how people cope with the trauma during the difficult decades of the last century because of the Indo-Naga movement. Can you shed more light on this, especially contextualising against recent events?
The Indo-Naga political imbroglio is considered one of the longest unresolved conflicts in South Asia. Needless to say, for generations, the Nagas have waited for peace to dawn in their land. Growing up in one of the most militarised regions of the world, I’ve seen how intimidating the armed forces can be, especially when you hear so much of atrocities committed by them on civilians. The recent killing at Oting in Mon district of Nagaland is just one of the many high-handed atrocities. Thankfully, we have more alert media to cover the event and our people are more informed now. But as long as AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958) stays, the Indian armed forces will continue their reign of terror. The Act has only caused more injury than building trust among the public and the custodians of security.
Was there anything, in particular, you were reading or thinking about regarding the events when you wrote the novel?
I was reading though not quite about what I was contemplating to write about. But there were many fragmented stories in my head that I wanted to piece together. And so, one summer break, I wrote down a skeletal framework for the novel. I’ve always felt the necessity of writing our stories because we are going through lots of changes and many things are swiftly lost as the past recedes. For instance, the Senapati town of the 1980s is only faintly visible now. The transformation of its landscape and the people is quite astounding. I think documenting the past helps us remember the place with affection.
Why do you think it is important to know a place through its stories?
I think, as human beings, we all have a sense of belonging, not necessarily to one place alone but it could be many places. And situating a story in a place, helps us find the connection with the people and their culture. Sometimes, it can be quite fascinating to learn about new things and ideas through the stories that help us discover the place, people, and culture.
There are so many realities woven into the novel, making it an interesting read. Would you like to take us through your journey as a writer while sharing the research that went into creating this book? You had mentioned that you relied on the book The Judgement that Never Came: Army Rule in North East India by Nandita Haksar and Sebastian M Hongray for the factual events.
You’re right in pointing out the realities that are woven into the novel. In fact, that was one of my intentions. I didn’t want to write about only one character who would dominate the whole narrative. I wanted multiple stories to emerge. In that sense, I am interested in “writing community memory”. I’ve been to different places talking about this idea. Simply put, “writing” is the way of telling where “community” is the subject and “memory” is the resource. This is nothing new for a communitarian society like the Nagas. This is what makes our oral culture too. So, when I talk about my interest in the community memory, I wanted to see how a community memorialises certain events that impacted them in general. This is where I focused on the impact of the three month-long Operation Bluebird of 1987, the counter-insurgency operation launched by the Assam Rifles following the Oinam incident. The large-scale human rights violation of killings, rape, molestations, and torture continue to mar the memories of the people of about thirty villages affected by it. Even today, 9th July is still marked by the people as a black day. Many of the pains and sufferings remain undocumented even today. The book The Judgment that Never Came was helpful in some historical details. But though the Oinam incident forms a focal point of the novel, it’s not entirely about it. I decided to remove the narrative from where the thick of action was occurring because I wanted other issues to emerge too. For instance, the late 80s and early 90s saw many unfortunate turns of events. There was the break-up of NSCN into Isak-Muivah and Khaplang factions which brought so much bloodshed to the Nagas themselves. Then came the ethnic conflict between Nagas and Kukis, the wounds of which are yet to be healed completely! Most of the stories in the novel are a construct of stories I’ve heard at different points in time and there are not much of interviews involved.
Can you reflect more on the importance, perils, and/or rewards of writing contemporary work that takes up political issues? In writing political fiction, is there a risk of having your characters seem like mere mouthpieces for ideas? How important is the personal story or family history in your writings?
Well, I tend to be a bit sceptical of categorisation because it limits the book from being read otherwise. But, of course, the readers have the freedom to view it from different angles. At the same time, there are indeed a lot of political issues in my novel. It can be risky because it is often difficult to walk the fine line of being politically correct all the time. For me, however, I wanted to write a story like this because there are a lot of things that you can’t speak directly but the form of fiction gives me the liberty to talk of issues implicitly. Sometimes, some truths are better told as fiction. Perhaps, that’s why parables or allegories speak powerfully even today! I think personal or family histories are wonderful story plots because our lives are stories. And who can relate your own saga or the one about your family better than you yourself?
You have written a book on English literature that comes from the Northeast region. Tell us about your research experiences in writing that book.
I suppose you meant Literary Cultures of India’s Northeast: Naga Writings in English (2015). That book was partly a result of my PhD thesis submitted at Jawaharlal Nehru University. When first got interested in exploring writings from the region, particularly Naga writings, it was hard to find stuff. I remember visiting Kohima, hunting for literary works by Nagas, and up ending frustrated because bookstores don’t have them! But it’s astounding how things change in the last 10-15 years! Now we have a vibrant body of works by writers from the region on various subjects, and many academic works to supplement with. The region has certainly become a hotspot of academic discourses of late!
As you said, writings in English from Northeast India are beginning to draw attention from the rest of the country and from around the world. As one of the writers from the region, how do you assess the future of this trend?
I cannot predict what the future will be. All I can say is that this new interest of reading the region through literary productions is certainly a good exercise because for too long there have been multiple misunderstandings about the people of the region and their cultures. Unfortunately, India is too big a country with too many diverse cultures that stereotypes become easy. And for a region that’s so little read, the people from the Northeast tend to fall prey to prejudices so often. Hopefully, this new attention will help re-imagine the region.
Are there other writers whose work feels important to you, both in terms of literary lineage and inspiration in writing?
Well, there are so many actually. But since our discussion is more on writings from the Northeast, I would like to limit my answer to that. As for literary lineage, I’m much indebted to my own culture of storytelling. Being from an oral culture, I understand that stories are embedded with history and cultural anecdotes that they become indispensable to understanding the people. As far as writings in English is concerned, I’m certainly indebted to forerunners like Easterine Kire, Temsula Ao, Mamang Dai, Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, and a host of others who showed new possibilities with our literary heritage.
Were you always a reader? What kind of books did you read, growing up? Tell us a little more about your growing-up years, education, and family, and how they have shaped your life and writing?
I was not actually. Books were scarce. But the advantage of growing up in an oral society is that we get to hear stories and that keeps our imagination alive. My early formative years were spent mostly in the small but growing town of Senapati. Then I went to Shillong for pre-university years, after which I moved to Delhi for graduation and I’ve been in the capital city ever since. I must say, my real initiation to reading more rigorously started during my college years, having being exposed to cheap used books easily available by the roadsides. But my enduring love for reading and writing springs largely from the literature classrooms as a student and now I teach the same. I’m drawn particularly to the genre of realism from the nineteenth century and the power that literature has to shape the intellectual life of society.
What encouragement would you offer to writers, especially young people who wish to write? Could you take us through some of the processes you went through in your writing?
I’m more of a moderate reader and writer. In the sense, my job and other responsibilities keep me occupied most of the time, and I like it that. As I see it, writing also comes with its responsibility and so, I don’t want to just write for the sake of writing. I also write occasionally in newspapers and other public forums on different issues. Now, of course, writing a non-fictional piece can be quite another challenge. Unlike many writers, I didn’t have an A-Z plan of the novel when I first started. Yes, I did have a rough plot and why I wanted to write the story. But many sub-plots popped up along the way. So, the story grew as I wrote. Like I mentioned above, “memory” was chiefly my resource bank. I did cross-check on some factual stuff. And like all writings, there were lots of personal editing – deletion, addition, etc. But few tips that I can offer young aspiring writers are:
First, be willing to learn. Being teachable is one of the humblest virtues to imbibe. Sometimes, your attitudes can come in the way of bettering yourself. And I think this is becoming an impediment for young people today, perhaps it has to do with our educational system too. The truth is, however, we don’t know everything.
Secondly, seek help. This can be sought in two ways. One way is to reach out to friends and family who can offer feedback on your manuscript. I’ve improved a good deal in this aspect, even adding some sub-plots to my novel. And the other way is to seek professional editorial help. No matter how good you are at the language, you’ll realise that editors always have different eyes and offer good suggestions. Also, when it comes to one’s own writing, we always overlook some mistakes. Perhaps, that’s because sometimes we read with our mind and not with our eyes!
Thirdly, be patient. To be patient is to persevere, not just in writing but also in looking forward to the final product. Anything done in a rush seldom produces quality. For me too, writing this novel also tested my patience to a certain limit. As I mentioned above, I almost gave up midway. But it’s certainly worth the wait. And more patience may be required in an initial project because people are yet to see your work.
Thank you so much for indulging my questions, which I think will benefit, especially young Nagas wanting to foray into the world of writing. What is your perception of the role of a writer from the North-eastern region or a writer of the world?
You’re welcome! I must thank you for allowing me to share my thoughts! I only hope what I shared will be of some help to a few. I think writers, wherever you may be from, leave a legacy behind that is not easily forgotten. The fact that we continue to read many ancient pieces of literatures attest to this truth.
Lastly, but not the least, could you please let your fans know what you are writing at present if you are, and when can they expect to see another story from you?
That’s the question I have been trying to duck at the moment but I guess it can’t be averted. Honestly, I’m not writing anything at the moment. Partly because I’m not under pressure to write one and I don’t depend on that for a living. But I’ve some ideas and plots in my head. I hope to pen them down at the appropriate time. I like to let the idea first find a certain formation in my mind before letting it out. That’s what I did with my novel too. For now, I can just say that I hope to find an opportunity to write one soon.
Dr. Achingliu Kamei is a short story writer, poet, and an ultra-runner, She teaches Literature at Delhi University. She is currently residing in Delhi with her family and Haru, the cat. She has authored Songs of Raengdailu, a poetry book (2021).
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
In his debut novel, Veio Pou weaves fiction to chronicle the forgotten history of Naga people, a past whose dust, even after three long decades, is yet to settle. Waiting for the Dustto Settle is set against the backdrop of Indo-Naga conflict in Northeastern India.
The story of this novel follows the life of a ten-year-old Rokovei from Senapati district in Manipur from late 1980s onward. He lives a peaceful life with his parents. Fascinated by the convoy of army trucks passing daily in front of his home, he secretly wishes to become an army officer. Once, while visiting his native village of Phyamaichi, he witnesses atrocities committed by the soldiers on the villagers. His disenchantment with the army comes to the fore when he becomes aware of his people’s sufferings as a consequence of confrontation between Naga undergrounds and the Indian Army. At the center of this novel is the Operation Bluebird, carried out in the state in 1987.
In September 1958, the Government of India enacted Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in the North-Eastern states to quell Naga resistance. In July 1987, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) attacked an Assam Rifles post at Oinam village, in Manipur’s Senapati district. The Naga undergrounds of NSCN looted large arms and ammunition from the post. The Assam Rifles launched a counter-insurgency operation code-named “Operation Bluebird” to recover the looted arms and ammunition. This intense search operation, which was carried for three months in nearly thirty villages, was a torturous period for the residents of those villages. The Rifles committed large-scale human rights violation, including forcing two pregnant women to give birth to their babies in full view of the soldiers.
By spinning the narrative around the operation, the author attempts to give voice to the otherwise erased account of a people’s history from the consciousness of a country. The final erasure came when in 2019 the Manipur High Court disposed case against the Assam Rifles, filed by Naga Peoples Movement for Human Rights (NPMHR), after twenty eight years citing dislocation of entire record of the case. Nandita Haksar, who was the lawyer who filed the case on behalf of NPMHR, wrote in an essay that the entire record consisted of twelve volumes of evidence and ran into thousands of pages.
Through account of Rokovei and his family’s life after Operation Bluebird, Veio Pou brings to notice the physical as well as mental sufferings endured by the victims of army brutality. Disillusionment of natives with respect to Naga undergrounds and their cause, the splitting of NSCN and rivalry between Naga factions, increased awareness among natives for better education, the issue of racism that people from North East face in Mainland India, are the themes dealt prominently within this novel.
Rokovei, while studying in Imphal, witnesses the hostility between Kuki and Naga factions after their conflict in the 1990s. When he moves to University of Delhi few years later, he comes in contact with Lalboi – a Kuki, but does make friends with him because he is the only other boy from the state in his class. After coming to Delhi, he realises the difference of living in a place where no ASFPA is enacted, an experience which should have come as a breather but is marred by racism which he confronts and leaves him astounded. The prejudice that he faces makes him wonder about his identity. Rokovei wishes to find answers. His conversations with his cousin Joyson, with whom he lives in Delhi, gives him a clearer perspective on the history, issues and realities of his people and state.
Finally, keeping in mind better prospects for the future, he settles down in Delhi. It is the year 2008, five years after the leaders of NSCN visited Delhi to meet PM Vajpayee and yet a solution to the political question his people face is nowhere near. Rokovei ponders over the relevance of Naga resistance which had once started with the dream of a sovereign state but was subsequently made weaker by the split in the party. He reflects upon the corollaries of a struggle which had left the natives disappointed because at stake was a peaceful existence that has long been denied them. For him the dust hasn’t settled yet and his hopes are tinged with despair.
The history of a place is essentially the history of its people. To recapitulate it, especially when it is complex and painful to remember, must be an arduous task for the people who have witnessed harrowing times and have lived every subsequent day of their lives watching the repercussions unfold. To pen a fictional account of such history therefore requires conviction and also courage to endure the trauma all over again.
This book is not only an attempt at chronicling the events which led to the political question that kept haunting the lives of the Naga people but is also an effort to bring their predicament to the attention of people who have little idea about their sufferings and about the gravity of denial of justice to them.
Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ .
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.