FRONTISPIECE - Growing feminine gaze: women writers of Northeast : Mitra Phukan

While the many women writers in English from the region are bound by some common background, Mitra Phukan finds that their works reflect the uniqueness of their respective cultures

There is the view that there is no such category as “women’s writing”. True, goes this argument, writers can be male or female, but writing can only be good or bad. A work stands on its own merit, not on the gender of its writer.
But the fact remains: gender colours perspective. Just as the full flavour of a work can only be had with some knowledge of the social context in which a writer is placed, so too, is knowledge of a writer’s gender required to get an idea of where s/he is coming from. The life experiences of a man at the top of the caste  pyramid, for instance, and a woman at the bottom are so different that they can be inhabiting different continents, different centuries,  even if they live in the same village at the same point of time. Gender shapes the mind, just as milieu does. And awareness of the environment of the writer and his/her gender certainly makes for a more enriching experience for the serious reader.
There is also the point of view that the term “Northeast” as applied to the seven states is too sweeping a term, which homogenises an essentially very diverse region. Of course nobody disputes the heterogeneity of this region where people living even in adjacent valleys do not understand each others’ tongue.
Despite this, the undoubted truth is writers from this region, who mainly use English as their chief mode of literary expression, are bound together by certain economic and social factors that gives their work a shared commonality.
There are certain linkages that make the term “writers in English from the Northeast” a valid one. These writers have gone to English medium schools, and have often pursued their higher education outside the region. Those who go to these schools “think” in a certain way, are trained to write in a certain way, have read similar books in their formative years in schools and colleges. They often belong to the better-off strata of their societies. This economic reality makes their “point of view” a middle class one. They “know” life outside the region, as well as within.
Several of these women are first-generation writers in English from their respective states. This creates a bond that reaches across political boundaries of the region. Of course the underpinnings of literature itself in all the states are very different from one another. Arunachal Pradesh has had a rich history of oral literature. For the most part, written literature there over the last century was in Axomiya or Hindi. Mamang Dai’s The Legends of Pensam (2006) therefore, in spite of vast differences in theme, tone, style and tenor, has a common thread with The Collector’s Wife (2005) from Assam and These Hills Called Home (2006) by Temsula Ao from Nagaland. All three works by women were written originally in English and published outside the region. And yet the books have an extremely strong rootedness in their own states.
Though these women writers are well-travelled and have sometimes lived away from this area, they write overwhelmingly of their own region. Mona Zote grew up outside Mizoram. And now, back in her home state, she writes poetry about her people and her land with a sensibility inescapably coloured by this fact. While writers such as Mamoni Raisom Goswami wrote of places outside the region, those working in English seem loath to do so. This may be from a feeling that there is so much to be mined from this region in English, yet. In Stupid Cupid, Mamang Dai, writing ostensibly about a paying guest accommodation in Delhi, keeps oscillating between Arunachal and the capital of the country. Villages and small towns rather than big cities are often a feature of the writings of these women, with all the baggage that this brings to the psychological makeup of their characters.
The “feminine gaze” is apparent in all the recent works by prominent women writers in English here. Of the three books mentioned above, there is an underlying sense of helpless compassion that seems to be a feminine sentiment. Not that compassion is a prerogative of women writers only. But a particular kind of compassion, which is more static in a way than the manner in which the world is seen by male writers. That is, historically speaking, while men have gone out and shaped the world through external means like wars and inventions, women have shaped it at a domestic and, therefore, internal level. Women have awaited the outcome of wars, for the bodies to come home and were also burdened with the knowledge of expecting this sorrow to visit them. There is therefore a kind of uniqueness of vision that several of these women authors have. This is exemplified to an extent in Mamang Dai’s poem ‘The Sorrow of Women’:

They are talking about
They are saying there is an unquenchable fire
burning in our
My love, what shall I do?
I am thinking how I may lose you
To war, and big issues
More important than me. …
And they are talking about escape,
About liberty, men and guns,
Ah! The urgency for survival.
But what will they do
Not knowing the sorrow of women.

Kinships and friendships are important components of these works. Easterine Kire Iralu’s A Naga Village Remembered, for example, as well as Bijoya Sawian’s Shadow Men are full of references to kin, to the ancient tribal ties that bind strongly even in today’s world.
Conflict forms the basis of these fictional worlds. This is perhaps inevitable in this region today. But the texture of the conflict is different with each author. Bijoya Sawian talks of the endemic violence in Meghalaya, though she links it to the practice of a corrupt kind of matriliny among the Khasis. Temsula Ao’s people are ordinary folks trying to live through the decades-long turmoil in Nagaland. Rukmini, the protagonist in The Collector’s Wife is caught between the state and students as she witnesses the Student’s Agitation in Assam. Rashmi Narzary brings to the reader the wrenching results of the constant conflict in the Bodo areas of Assam. Poet Uddipana Goswami (‘We Called the River Red’) maps her body as a conflict zone, relating the outer world to her innermost feelings through the delicate, easily-violated barriers of the body.
Such writing is uniquely flavoured by the local traditions of literature, both oral and written. Assam, with its long practice of the written word, is giving birth to writers who write in English, who are influenced by this history. If Srimanta Sankardev’s luminous bhakti outpourings, the works of people such as Birendra Kumar Bhattacharjee and Homen Borgohain influence the cadences of the English that they write in and even the subject matter of their work, then the writings of Mamang Dai are inevitably influenced by the accents of the legends of her land. The Englishes that are evident in their works, therefore, are as heterogeneous as the characters that people them, and are as different as the thoughts that go into their making.
Women writers who work in English in this region are finding their voice, and their feet in the publishing world. It is heartening to find that “second generation” writers in English from this region are making their presence felt in the literary world. Often theirs is a diasporic view of the land they have left behind, and an immigrant’s view of the land in which they have settled. This gives their work an added edge. One such example is Jahnavi Barua’s Rebirth, where the location alternates between Bangalore and Guwahati.

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