Centrepiece – New Writing And Art From Northeast India brings you a wealth of stories, in words and images, from a part of India known as the Northeast, a term that is widely contested for the ways in which it homogenizes a region of great diversity. It is also a term that has come to be a marker of identity and solidarity by many who are of the region.
Here, 21 writers and artists look at the idea of ‘work’ — from street hawking to beer brewing, from mothering to dung collection — and describe their lives or those of others with humour and compassion. Parismita Singh’s wonderful compilation of the works of women asks: what are the different ways of telling a story? What if we were to attempt these tellings through poetry and portraits and essays, older traditions like textile art and applique and new genres like hashtag poetry tapped into a smartphone? Where would it take us, what would the world look like?
travelling with a caravan on a journey of common hope
By Aheli Moitra
I arrived in Dimapur on 30 July, 2011. A Maruti Omni van with ‘The Morung Express’ painted on its door waited at the station. R Sharma, who had come to pick me up, just smiled when I complained of the dust and grime that defined Dimapur’s summer. We were on our way to Duncan Bosti where The Morung Express, a newspaper produced in Nagaland, is headquartered. I was to begin a two month long collaboration with them.
It was my first time in Nagaland. As Dimapur whirled by, my mind reeled. Why was I here? It had been a year since a project on ‘Understanding Impunity: Failures and Possibilities of Rights to Truth, Justice and Reparation’ in the Indian Union had come to an abrupt end for some of us. The project had attempted to document how impunity operates, how reparation models could be framed, and how people who undergo human rights abuse could work in solidarity for justice. It took a different route with the death of its ambitious director, Ram Narayan Kumar, a prolific figure in India’s research and advocacy battle for human rights. The project could not be completed in its entirety without his commitment, mind, drive and energy to conjoin difficult concepts at play, or indeed his ability to bring together people to share and discuss ideas.
The last research trip Kumar had planned, right before his death, had been to the ‘Northeast’ (of Bengal, first classified as such by the British)—a whole landmass, and its peoples, that had escaped my probashi (nonresident Bangali) upbringing. Apart from Assam’s cha bagan, a romantic idea of heaven on earth for my family, the ‘Northeast’ was a blur. An introduction to Xonzoi Barbora (now Dean at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences) at a human rights research capacity building workshop in Guwahati (2009) began to change much of that. I was introduced to the world of peoples’ rights organizations of the ‘Northeast’—political collectives that work on the fulcrum of the right to self-determination.
This framework was unclear to me at the time. It took a whole lot more to propel me to begin a study. Following the workshop, I decided to travel. It was Rongali Bihu and Guwahati station was chaotic. The train to Jorhat had been cancelled. A first time lone traveller here, fear crept in as the word ‘bombing’ was whispered around. As I began to panic, a familiar face surfaced in the crowd. Xonzoi Barbora. Nudging my way through the crowd, I tapped on his shoulder.
Barbora and his friend, a professor of geology, were headed to upper Assam for Bihu; since the train was cancelled they would drive there instead. I could come along! The car journey from Guwahati to Jorhat gave me fresh insight. As we drove along, the duo introduced me to Manu Chao and bits of Basque nationalism; the khat system that had enabled revenue and relations between the Nagas and Axoms; the history and paddy fields of upper Assam. Their stories had me entranced. I travelled thereon, a couple of days later, to Sibsagar (also with them) and later to Imphal, meeting more storytellers; by then, I was a ‘Northeast’ convert.
Excerpted with permission from Centrepiece – New Writing And Art From Northeast India edited by Parismita Singh, Zubaan. You can buy the book here.