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Literary Gems from the Northeast India

Updated: Jan 9, 2022

An in-depth conversation with Niladri Chakraborty and the significance of his latest release, Cycle of Cliches

By Asmita De

Despite talking about acceptance and embracing different genres in literature, mainstream India does not truly follow that when it comes to acknowledging the literary works from northeast India to its fullest. However the region is full of hidden literary gems whose works give the readers a glimpse of their rich culture, beautiful landscapes and age-old traditions.

  • One more feather to the Crown

Enriching the literary corpus of the region even further is Niladri Chakraborty’s Cycle of Cliches. The novel revolves around Neelim’s life and takes the readers back to the magical 90s. A riveting piece of work with picturesque description. The cultural insights, the glimpses of Assam through words almost made me feel as if one had been there.

The timeline is well-presented and the author has been considerate enough to have translated every Bollywood song and Assamese song in English, which he has used as a reference. There’s no well-defined plot structure or to put in the author's words, “It’s a narrative that comes out of the narrator’s mind” and despite that it keeps the reader hooked to the story.

The author himself belongs to Guwahati and has written several short stories and also written articles for Assam Tribune. Through this novel, he gives the readers a glimpse of Assam, of life there.

In an author’s interview with Ukiyoto publishing, when asked about the motivation behind the character and the plot, Chakraborty replies, “ of the things that remained, what I feel, is the yearnings of the youth growing up at that time.” Aptly he depicts the urban youth, their yearnings and aspirations. Through his characters, he shows how some people left to find their dreams elsewhere while others remained. The story shows how time has an impact on us, how we change within a decade.

To bridge the cultural gap, the author has painted a beautiful picture of the region through his words. He has acquainted us with the culture and cuisine and even shown us how certain words are pronounced in some of the northeastern languages.

  • When Bongo-Asomiya became Assamese

North-east India amalgamates the traditions of Indic Asia and Mongoloid Asia. It comprises eight states, namely, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Manipur, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Tripura, Assam and Sikkim. The unique culture and traditions make these states stand apart from the rest. However, acknowledgement of the literature from this region has been an ongoing uphill challenge.

North Bengal used to be a part of Assam before the 15th century. Assamese and Bengali languages have originated from Magadhi Prakrit, and Assamese was initially Bongo-Asomiya but in later times both languages drifted apart. However while the Assamese language was taking its first steps, Bengali had already become a widely spoken language in Bengal that was yet to be partitioned.

  • Homogeneity and Isolation

Despite the authors now receiving well-deserved recognition, this was not the case before. The journey from being overshadowed to being appreciated hasn’t been an easy one and even now, there’s a long way to go. Despite consisting of an enriched culture, linguistically diverse and cocooned by various foreign belts, its literature took time to become known to the others.

North-East India’s literature is not only less explored but the eight states have usually been homogenised wherein Assam seems to be their unofficial representative. The Assamese language has served as the lingua franca in various oral forms among people in the neighbouring states and has also been used as a medium of creative writing. For instance, the Manipuri dance which had been incorporated in the Rabindranitra Kala by Tagore has often been overlooked, or how Chitrangada is a mythical character from the dance-drama of the same name by Tagore belongs from Manipur and yet many might not even know about it.

  • Hindrances in the Literary Progress

Its raging rivers, picturesque nature and foreboding mountains sometimes contributed as an obstacle in disguise. These factors hindered the progression of this region and therefore modernity stepped in late in these states. Mitra Phukan had aptly said:

“For the isolation of many of these areas, and the fact that such instruments of modern “progress” such as the television which serve to homogenize civilizations, arrived comparatively late to this region, have ensured that their inter intra region uniqueness of the places here have remained inviolate for a long time.”

As Niladri Chakraborty has stated in an author interview that people rarely wish to assimilate any other language into their own, apprehending the extinction of an age-old language. Migration and divisions also contributed towards hindering the literary works from this region from getting exposure. Even Tilottama Misra in her essay, The Oxford Anthology of Writings from North-East India talks about the xenophobia in the region and how they tended to “retreat into the cocoon of isolation” whenever they felt threatened by cultural change.

  • The Graceful Arrival of English Literature

English literature in North-Eastern India is a new literature. Authors penned stories in English in the late 20th century while the rest of the country had already produced several works in the language and garnering attention. It emerged with extreme modesty and before anyone knew, it had become a part of the ‘mainstream’ Indian literature. The Kaziranga Trail (1979) by Arup Dutta is one such example.

Despite being comparatively new, the authors have managed to mix sense and sentiment and produce beautiful stories, poems and essays in English. The North-Eastern literature comprises beautiful tales that vividly portray their socio-economic and political state. It portrays the regional unrest and the trauma of transition, not to mention the myths and legends. The writers have talked about the violence in their homeland, and the suffering of people.

  • Stark Depiction of Culture and Corruption

Ngongkynrih and Ngangom in their work Memory say: “The writer from the Northeast differs from his counterpart in the mainland in a significant way. While it may not make him a better writer, living with the menace of the gun he cannot merely indulge in verbal wizardry and woolly aesthetics but must perforce master the art of witness. As a natural aftermath to the above, our society has been reduced to a mute witness to the banality of corruption and the banality of terror…We think the task that literature of the Northeast must address is what Albert Camus called ‘the double challenge of truth and liberty”. (Nongkynrih & Ngangom 2003: ix-x).

Works like Travelling with Dreams by Srutimala Duara depicts the terrorism prevalent in the state. PEN/Open book awardee Siddhartha Deb’s novel Surface(2005), brings forth the socio-political crisis that is prevalent in the country. The story showcases real-life scenarios in Manipur, Nagaland and New Delhi. It portrays promiscuity, violence and corruption that makes a common man’s life difficult.

The plays by playwrights like Ratan Thiyam, and Arambram Somendra have been translated in English to reach a wider audience and exposes canonical ethos.

Slowly, the literature from that region has seeped into ‘mainstream’ Indian literature. On the one hand, it reflects the chronicles of trials and tribulations and, on the other, it portrays the distinct history, culture and heritage of various communities. Thus it would not be wrong to say that the North-East region of India which has till a few decades ago remained underrepresented due to the lack of literary output, has now started emerging out of the shadows drawing the attention of the intelligentsia. As Atreyee Gohain has emphatically expressed:

“The ignorance of the rest of the country regarding writers and writings in the North-East is not just limited to Literature, it is heartening now to see our writers getting their dues. We have good translators and publishers are just about beginning to explore the richness of writing in the North East.”

  • Ignorance and Recognition

The progression is nonetheless slow. For instance, on Independence day, last year, Mint Lounge had released a list of books titled The lounge guide to India in 50 books which did not include any book from North-east India. This had incensed and disappointed many authors and many readers. There were several tweets regarding the blatant omission of the books and the guidelines that were present in the article did not justify that ignorance.

However, BuzzFeed released a list of Books from the North-Eastern India in November 2020 where they recommended 19 books written by North-East Indian authors and briefly talked about literary inclusivity.

Indian syllabi have started including works from North-eastern authors. Universities like Delhi University, IGNOU, and NEHU have included literature from that region now.

  • The Millennials’ Contribution

The millennial generation of writers, artists, musicians and designers have turned many cities in the North East into an extremely interesting niche of creativity. In some crucial instances, the catalyst has been a dauntless entrepreneur like 30-year-old Martin Thockchom, whose tiny, lively Ukiyo Bookshop has hugely boosted the reading culture of Imphal, and in the year 2019, they hosted a literature festival which was a first in Manipur.

Another such example is 40-year old Raman Shreshta, who converted his family-owned Raman Books into a cultural hub. Its presence is a big reason that Gangtok – Sikkim has been constantly churning out writing talent of the highest standard, including Parajuly and Chetan Raj Shreshta. Bookman or what Raman Shreshta likes to call himself on Twitter — states how they put books of newbie writers whose fame is abuzz on Instagram on the list over more popular ones and that is something commendable.

  • Getting More Exposure for Northeastern Works

In the same interview, a viewer had posed a question about how more works from the northeast can get exposure. Chakraborty briefly talks about the lack of translation in regional works which hinders a beautiful piece of writing from reaching global readers. English serves as a medium of creative expression, “bridging the cultural gap” as the author says.

In recent times, writers from the region use English because it’s not only a widely spoken language in our country but using this as the medium of creative writing would also help them get a wider exposure through international readership.

Translating a regional work in English is good because even though North-East India comprises only eight states, it is linguistically very diverse. Other than new works, if someone translates the numerous folk tales, or retell and re-create them, then that would reach a wider reader base and more people will come to know about the culture. For instance, there are several videos or short stories on Japanese folklore that many know about.

The journey of Northeast Indian literature has been a difficult but nevertheless fruitful one. The works that came to existence are rich in culture and definitely worth reading.

[Watch the interview with Ukiyoto publishing here: LIVE with Niladri Chakraborty ]

Get a Copy of Cycle of Cliches by Niladri Chakraborty



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