Teteliguri, Guwahati, New York, Minnesota — Aruni Kashyap’s new collection of stories, His Father’s Disease (Context, Rs 400), is about Assamese people everywhere. The characters flit between far-flung places, as they do between cultures, much like the author himself: Kashyap, an English literature and Creative Writing professor at the University of Georgia, hails from Assam, who spent much of his life between Guwahati and his village Teteliguri, before moving to Delhi and then more recently, America. He speaks about his new book on Assamese identity and assimilation, the mainland and the Northeast, and the stereotypes that need to be explored. Excerpts:
In your book, the two themes that hold most characters together are migration and insurgency. What made you choose them?
I don’t think I chose those themes. As a writer, we set out to tell stories about people and these are two historical processes that have shaped my life. I believe that any writer of fiction writes about people, and then their problems. In my case, it is the insurgency and displacement.
One of your protagonists is peeved at the expectations the ‘mainland’ has from a writer from the ‘Northeast’. Did you ever feel the same pressure?
People in Assam have asked me to write about the ‘good things’ in Assam because everyone just knows about ULFA and the ‘immigration problem’. One person was chasing me to write a novel about the ‘flood problem’. Another section in Assam is happy that I have written about the insurgency ‘for the world’ and presented Assamese suffering, but they think I should have talked more about human rights violations. These are the pressures in Assam because I write in English, as well. Outside, the mainstream literary establishment is mostly interested in the beautiful “museumised” Northeast. I used to be annoyed by these pressures, but reading writers such as Amitav Ghosh has given me the confidence to proudly say that I am an Assamese writer; every other label is incidental, a product of my location, and sometimes identity.
Your previous book House With The Thousand Stories is set against the backdrop of insurgency. Your forthcoming book is an edited anthology: How to Tell A Story About an Insurgency. Do you ever fear falling into the mainland trope of how writing from the Northeast should be of a certain kind?
Absolutely not, because I have also written a magic realist novella set in Teteliguri called Horokanto Bejor Montro Puthibur, a year-long series of essays about life in Delhi as a migrant student for Amar Asom (an Assamese daily). I have written a novella called Somironor Pasot. It is set in Guwahati about the rickety relationship between a mourning mother and her dead son’s much older girlfriend, and I have written a novel set in Minnesota in Assamese that was released this month. Anyone who thinks I write only about the insurgency is poorly read. If the Indian literary establishment has unimaginative and different standards for me, they may, but those are not the challenges and artistic concerns I set out for myself.
In some of the stories, there are oblique references to the ‘illegal infiltration’ in Assam. Yet, in the same breath, your character, Himjyoti, develops friendship with a Bangladeshi boy in America. Is this your way of making a larger point?
I am friends with a number of people who are descendants of immigrant Muslims. We are all born in Assam and we have equal stake in the state. No one I know makes these distinctions in our everyday life — it is only a very small, vocal, toxic minority which is polarising the climate and social media magnifies it. In my world, we all love Assam and care about its health. So no, Himjyoti would have ample chance to be friends with immigrant Muslims if he didn’t grow up protected like upper-class and upper-middle-class people in Assam. I am not sure if I was trying to make a larger point, but I soaked those small things up like a sponge because the spectre of the Bangladeshi immigrant is a constant presence in the Assamese imagination.
The divide on NRC in Assam has polarised opinions. As an Assamese living outside Assam, do you feel that the Assamese side of the story is not being told enough?
I absolutely feel that multiple sides of the story haven’t been told, and there is a lot of misrepresentation and misreading. The NRC has been implemented in a horrific, dehumanising way. Rightly so, the focus of the reportage around the world has been on the suffering of the people. But there is little conversation about why the NRC was required in the first place. I do get questions about it, but it is not my intellectual labour to explain. I do that in my fiction. I don’t know what the solution is, but the only way to go forward is peaceful co-existence and construction of a tolerant society.
In July, an FIR was lodged against a group of Miya poets. As a writer from Assam do you feel that fault lines of identity and language have become sharper?
It was unfortunate and in many ways reflective of the crisis of free speech in India. I was horrified and worried about the poets because I know some of them personally. I think it shows the power of literature and storytelling to heal, to represent, to make a political point, to be subversive. Also, Assam’s intellectuals were actually divided. I was looking at the positive side: that something called Miya poetry had emerged that would enrich literature from Assam.
You’ve said that you are a ‘political writer’. Is this by choice or because of the context you have grown up in?
It is because that is the kind of fiction that makes sense to me, and incidentally, those are the kind of writers — who try to make a point through their fiction — who shaped my apprentice years. So, yes, I want to be read politically. Being a political writer from a traditionally underrepresented literary space is to be consistently misinterpreted and rejected by the ones in power. The readers who dismiss our cultural productions perpetuate a long tradition of rejection and fetishisation of representations from the region we now call Northeast.