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A panel discussion at Samanvay saw young research scholars present different narratives from the Northeast

Hrishita Rajbangshi, a postgraduate in ancient history from Jawaharlal Nehru University, writes about witch-hunting in Assam and stresses on the impact of the practice on survivors and their families.

Updated: November 12, 2019 8:15:22 am
Samanvay, Samanvay festival, Indian Language Festival Delhi, Delhi Indian Language Festival, Indian Express (From left) Urvashi Butalia with Leki Thungon, Ditilekha Sharma and Hrishita Rajbangshi

(Written by Sonal Gupta)

Leki Thungon is a student of sociology and anthropology, but when she was working on a research paper to present new narratives from the Northeast, she thought of doing it a little differently — by dabbling with fiction writing. “It allows you to deal with the messiness of everyday that becomes a little difficult with academic writing,” she said.

Along with illustrator Ayangbe Mannen, she has written four short stories based on recollections of grandmothers that are being shared by their granddaughters. “One of them was a Naga woman who lived during World War II. She was delighted when she first saw Japanese soldiers, as they looked just like Naga men. When they came to ‘invade’ her house, she directed them to her kitchen and offered rice and akhuni — made with fermented soya. The boys had tears as it was similar to the Japanese dish natto. For her, the soldiers were not a threat to the nation but men who shared her culture,” said Thungon.

She is one of the research grantees of the ‘Fragrance of Peace’ initiative by Zubaan Books in collaboration with Sasakawa Peace Foundation. The project allows young writers from the Northeast to explore themes like migration, memory and history, and children’s literature through the lens of gender in the region.

Thungon was in Delhi for the discussion titled “New Voices from the North East”, at the ninth edition of Samanvay, the Indian Languages Festival, held at Indian Habitat Centre. Moderated by Urvashi Butalia, author and director at Zubaan, the panel also included Ditilekha Sharma and Hrishita Rajbangshi. It delved into the research essays and works of fiction submitted by the three scholars who have looked at the Northeast beyond the stereotypes of conflict and cultural symbols.

“I have come to realise this, over so many years, that I will not belong anywhere,” said Sharma, who was a research scholar at Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Her paper, “Nations, Communities, Conflict and Queer Lives”, explores the question of gender identity in Manipur. The state wrought with border tensions has a long history of transgender visibility through shumang leela — traditional theatre in the region in which men play the female characters — and HIV/AIDs intervention programmes of the ’90s. Her paper discusses the limitations of identifying the self as LGBT, which excludes those who don’t fit into these labels. She also uses the route of fiction to tell stories, as it is “otherwise difficult to criticise the state and the military”.

Hrishita Rajbangshi, a postgraduate in ancient history from Jawaharlal Nehru University, writes about witch-hunting in Assam and stresses on the impact of the practice on survivors and their families. “The idea was very personal, as I saw a neighbour setting herself on fire after being accused of being a witch,” she said. “Since broadcast media has come to Assam, we only see news flashes of people accused of witch-hunting and those who died, but we never get to know what happened to the ones who survived or to the families of those who passed away,” she added. Travelling through three districts in Assam, she has met families of eight victims, including the Basumatary family, who were displaced from their home in Udalgiri district. They share the despair of leaving home overnight.

“In the times of NRC, it is important to note that you may not always have proper documentation to prove your identity and ancestry,” she said.

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