Once a colonial construct, the north-eastern part of India has had a complicated and often saddening relationship with the mainland Indian imagination. History, literature, and popular imagination both frame and get framed by the various perceived realities. To the literature, language, and history of the northeast, this has meant perpetual obscurity and sometimes, disregard at the hands of mainland India. Obscurity leads to stereotyping. It leads to ignorance and blindness to the stories of people. For what do we do when we don’t know the real stories of real people? We rely on news and news doesn’t tell stories. This is exactly why we turn to literature, even fiction. To look beyond what is quoted as reality.
Shillong-born Sahitya Akademi winner Janice Pariat says, “to read is to begin to understand, to understand is to humanise, to humanise is to care.” She also lists down books from and on the Northeast for all of us to read and understand the region, the people, and perhaps ourselves a little more.
The following are Pariat’s recommendations for Homegrown’s readers.
I. How To Tell The Story Of An Insurgency by Aruni Kashyap
A former militant is unable to reconcile his tranquil domesticity with his brutal past. A mother walks an emotional tightrope as her two sons, one a police officer and the other, an underground rebel fight on opposite sides of the Assam insurgency. A deaf and mute child who sells locally brewed alcohol ventures into the dangerous territory through his interaction with members of the local militant outfit. How to Tell the Story of an Insurgency is an unflinching account of a war India has been fighting in the margins. Written originally in Assamese, Bodo and English, the fifteen stories in this book attempt to humanize the longstanding, bloody conflict in the north-east that the rest of India knows of only through facts and figures or reports in newspapers and on television channels.
II. A Century of Protests: Peasant Politics In Assam Since 1990 by Arupjyoti Saikia
Addressing an important gap in the historiography of modern Assam, this book traces the relatively unexplored but profound transformations in the agrarian landscape of late- and post-colonial Assam that were instrumental in the making of modern Assamese peasantry and rural politics. It discusses the changing relations between various sections of peasantry, state, landed gentry, and politics of different ideological hues ― nationalist, communist and socialist ― and shows how a primarily agrarian question concerning peasantry came to occupy the centre stage in the nationalist politics of the state. It will especially interest scholars of history, agrarian and peasant studies, sociology, and contemporary politics, as also those concerned with Northeast India.
III. Struggling In A Time Warp by Hiren Gohain
Hiren Gohain is a well-known literary critic in Assamese literature and commentator on society and politics. He has been an observer and commentator on affairs in Assam and the North-east for several decades.The book is a collection of essays collated together from his writings in various journals, including the Economic and Political Weekly. It also features some of the lectures that he has delivered at institutions such as Jawaharlal Nehru University and the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi. The essays cover nearly half a century of North-east India’s history, society and politics.
IV. Being Mizo by Joy L.K. Pachuau
The ethnic and religious diversity of India is often portrayed as the hallmark of the Indian nation-state. However, this diversity has very often not encompassed the Northeast. Being Mizo is a work that essentially examines the making of the Mizos, an ethnic/’tribal’ community in Northeast India. It nonetheless begins by examining the ways in which ‘mainland’ India views the Northeast while engaging with notions of how ‘difference’ plays an important role in the creation of identity.
This book portrays how the Mizos have subverted the very differentiating practices created by the significant other - the Indian State - and turned them into agencies of identity creation. Focusing on Mizo vengs (localities), Being Mizo uses history as well as detailed ethnography to show how ‘territorialization’ becomes an important feature of identity-making in the twentieth century. The book further explores how the Mizo identity, inextricably linked to a vernacular Christianity that engages with the Mizo past and rituals concerning death have become instruments of agency to defy the views of the ‘other’ and organize their ‘ethnic self’.
V. Planter Raj To Swaraj by Amalendu Guha
The author recounts the history of Assam from 1826, the year of the British annexation, to its post-independence conditions in 1950. The peculiar features of the region’s plantation economy; the imperialism of opium cultivation; the problems of a steady influx of immigrants and the backlash of a local linguistic chauvinism; peasants’ and workers’ struggles; the evolution of the ryot sabhas, the Congress, trade unions and later of the Communist Party are the themes that have been explored in this book, alongside an analysis of legislative and administrative processes. The narrative is structured chronologically within an integrated Marxist framework of historical perspective and is based on a wide range of primary sources.
VI. Unruly Hills by Bengt G. Karlsson
The questions that inspired this book are central to contemporary research within environmental anthropology, political ecology, and environmental history. How does the introduction of a modern, capitalist, resource regime affect the livelihood of indigenous peoples? Can sustainable resource management be achieved in a situation of radical commodification of land and other aspects of nature? Focusing on conflicts relating to forest management, mining, and land rights, the author offers an insightful account of present-day challenges for indigenous people to accommodate aspirations for ethnic sovereignty and development.
VII. Dancing Earth: An Anthology Of Poetry From North-East India –- Author??
The poets of North-East India, though belonging to diverse spaces, cultures, languages and religions, share a common bond. It is a sensibility defined by a deep connection with the land; the overarching presence of nature in their lives; the predominance of myths and tribal folklore; and the search for an identity. All this informs their poetry and gives it a unique flavour. Much of the distinctiveness of their work is also the consequence of contemporary events, often marked by violence. Dancing Earth is an anthology of poems from the north-east.
Like its title poem The Dancing Earth, the anthology too, is a celebration of this life, in all its unpredictable variety, richness and contradictions. While Thangjam Ibopishak writes I Want to be Killed By an Indian Bullet and Chandrakanta Murasingh speaks of a minister with neither inside nor outside, there are also Temsula Ao’s poems about her stone-people ancestors; Mamang Dai’s portraits of swift rivers and primaeval forests; and the Shillong poets with their mist-shrouded pine slopes, red cherries and gridlocked streets.
VIII. Wari: A Collection of Manipuri Short Stories by Linthoi Chanu
From an old lady who refused death, to a young girl venturing into the land of the unknown, this collection of short stories takes its readers into the most unpredictable ride through the superstitious and culturally unique realm of Manipur. Linthoi Chanu’s Wari is a collection of eight short stories told in the most amusing manner and yet with a depth that resonates with you long after you have kept it back on the book shelf.
IX. The Legends of Pensam by Mamang Dai
A mysterious boy who fell from the sky is accepted as a son of the village and grows up to become a respected elder. A young woman wounded in love is healed by a marriage of which she expected little. A mother battles fate and the law for a son she has not seen since she lost him as an infant. A remote hamlet gets a road, but the new world that comes with it threatens upheaval. And as villages become small towns and towns approximate cities, the brave and patient few guard the old ways, negotiating change with memory and remembrance. An intricate web of stories, images and the history of a tribe, The Legends of Pensam is a lyrical and moving tribute to the human spirit. With a poetic sensibility and penchant, Mamang Dai paints a memorable portrait of a land that is at once particular and universal.
X. Zorami: A Redemption Song by Malsawmi Jacob
Zorami is the first novel ever written by a Mizo writer in English (The Mizos are a tribal community in North East India). The novel brings together different strands like the transformation of Mizo identity and culture through ‘Christianisation’ and the clash between Mizo culture and that sought to be imposed by a domineering subcontinent. Such strands are woven together with the inner ‘rites of passage’ of the protagonist, Zorami, a Mizo woman subjected to rape and displacement during a time of violent political upheaval and her journey towards personal healing and discovery of a new identity via a spiritual encounter. The author, Malsawmi Jacob, takes the reader through Zorami’s traversal of her zones of darkness and shades of grey to a final explosion of the ‘colours of acceptance and love’.
Other Books on the North-East You Might Enjoy:
I. India’s North East: Identity, Movements, State and Civil Society by Udayon Misra
II. The Northeast Question: Conflicts and Frontiers by Pradip Phanjoubam
III. Durable Disorder: Understanding the Politics of Northeast India by Sanjib Baruah
IV. Empire’s Garden: Assam and the Making of India by Jayeeta Sharma
V. India Against Itself by Sanjib Baruah
VI. Manik: A Play in Five Acts by Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih
VII. Becoming a Borderland: The Politics of Space and Identity in Colonial Northeastern India by Sanghamitra Misra
VIII. Unquiet River by Arupjyoti Saikia
IX. The Yearning of Seeds by Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih
X. In the Shadows of Naga Insurgency by Jelle J.P. Wouters
XI. These Hills Called Home: Stories from a War Zone by Temsula Ao
XII. Bitter Wormwood by Easterine Kire
XIII. The Desire of Roots by Robin S. Ngangom
XIV. The Camera as Witness: A Social History of Mizoram, Northeast India by Joy L.K. Pachuau and Willem van Schendel
XV. Gwalia in Khasia by Nigel Jenkins
XVI. Beyond Counter-Insurgency: Breaking the Impasse in Northeast India (Edited by Sanjib Baruah)
With special thanks to Tarun Bhartiya for his help in putting this list together.
If you enjoyed reading this article, we suggest you also read: