by Yoshita Srivastava
Northeast India, a cultural crossroad between South, Southeast and East Asia, constitutes 8 distinct states: Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim. Overshadowed by mainland Indian narratives, stories from the northeast have been historically left out. But around the turn of the 20th century, a literary trend began to emerge. Writers like Easterine Kire, Temsula Ao, Mitra Phukan, Dhruva Hazarika, Mamang Dai, and the poets Robin Ngangom, Desmond Kharmawphlang, Kynpham Singh Nongkynrih, Esther Syiem, and Mona Zote are now not just popular reading, but have become subject of serious research.
Although most of these popular contemporary voices write in english, this list is an attempt to emphasis the role of translations in spreading the reach of cultural landscape. The list is in no way exhaustive, and the title of the article can be seen as an injustice — homogenising the cultural & literary contexts of 8 states into one region. Please see this list as a beginning, a mere nudge. We hope you read many more diverse voices from the region, and broaden the scope of literature in your journey.
1. The Bronze Sword of Tengphakhri Tehsildar
Writer: Indira Goswami
Translator: Aruni Kashyap
Set in late 19th century Assam, The Bronze Sword of Tengphakhri Tehsildar is the heroic tale of a Bodo freedom fighter who was, arguably, the first woman revenue collector in British India. It was Indira Goswami’s last work of fiction and this is the first-ever English edition, powerfully and sensitively translated from Assamese by Aruni Kashyap.
2. Blossoms in the Graveyard
Writer: Dr Birendra Kumar Bhattacharyya
Translator: Mitra Phukan
Blossoms in the Graveyard is the story of Mehr, a young girl from a village in what is at that time, East Pakistan. It is the story of her journey from dependence to self-reliance, both emotionally and physically. Parallel to her story is the narrative of a land that is struggling to assert its identity, and moving towards a hard-won Independence in a crucible of blood and tears. Mehr is the symbol of the land. Her suffering, her distress, her tortured anguish, is an emblem of its agony, in particular of the women of the country, as it is being birthed.
Writer: Tilottama Misra
Translator: Udayon Misra
Set in mid-nineteenth century Assam when the forces of tradition were being challenged by new concepts of modernity, Swarnalata is the story of three women from very different social backgrounds, each caught in the whirlpool of change, each trying to chart her own course in life, heroically, silently. As the intertwined lives of Swarnalata, Tora and Lakhi unfold, the reader is taken on a fascinating journey into the social milieu of the times where issues like women’s education and widow remarriage held centre stage.
4. The Princess and the Political Agent (Bor Saheb Ongbi Sanatombi)
Writer: Binodini Devi
Translator: Somi Roy
The Manipuri writer Binodini’s Sahitya Akademi Award-winning historical novel The Princess and the Political Agent tells the love story of her aunt Princess Sanatombi and Lt. Col. Henry P. Maxwell, the British representative in the subjugated Tibeto-Burman kingdom of Manipur. A poignant story of love and fealty, treachery and valour, it is set in the midst of the imperialist intrigues of the British Raj, the glory of kings, warring princes, clever queens and loyal retainers.
Note: There has been mixed response about the quality of the translation/transliteration. Some of our community members have reported that The Princess and the Political Agent has some cultural discrepancies in its translation and we recommend that this book is read with critical thought.
5. On a Wing and a Prayer
Writer: Arun Sarma
Translator: Maitreyee Siddhanta Chakravarty
Mansoor Ali finds vast stretches of ownerless land in Kuroiguri Sapori, near the tiny Assamese village Sonaruchuk that is predominantly Hindu, and decides to relocate there. This marks the beginnings of a Bengali Muslim settlement to which the poor and the landless from the far-eastern regions of Bengal flock.
Set in Assam against the backdrop of India’s freedom struggle, On a Wing and a Prayer touches upon many urgent issues: migration, communal tension and the rights of women. But above all, it explores, with wit and empathy, what it means to be free in a country where most boundaries, literal and metaphorical are difficult to erase.
6. The Loneliness of Hira Barua
Writer: Arupa Patangia Kalita
Translator: Ranjita Biswas
Hira Barua, an ageing widow living in a conflict-ridden region of Assam with her beloved Tibetan spaniel fears she is beginning to resemble a lonely Englishwoman from her past. A vicious sexual assault by the invading military drives a group of women into a shelter home. On a fateful night, a group of prostitutes make an extraordinary sacrifice for the safety of their companions. Originally published as Mariam Austin othoba Hira Barua, this remarkable collection by one of Assam’s finest living writers won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2014.
7. The Maharaja’s Household: A Daughter’s Memories of her Father
Translator: L. Somi Roy
Part memoir, part oral testimony, part eyewitness account, Binodini’s The Maharaja’s Household provides a unique and engrossingly intimate view of life in the erstwhile royal household of Manipur in northeast India. It brings to life stories of kingdoms long vanished, and is an important addition to the untold histories of the British Raj.
8. Seducing the Rain God: A Collection of Short Stories from the North-East
Writer: Smriti Kumar Sinha
Translator: Ramlal Sinha
Seducing the Rain God is a collection of fourteen translated short stories, originally written in Bishnupriya Manipuri. The speakers of this language, estimated to be half a million, mainly reside in some of the north-eastern states of India (Assam, Tripura and Manipur) Bangladesh and Myanmar. Having migrated to Assam, Tripura and Bangladesh in different phases due to Burmese invasions and political unrest, the community had to struggle for ethnic identity for more than eight decades. The language was almost on the verge of extinction in the 19th century. However, with the revitalisation initiatives, it has emerged as a strong voice from northeastern India.
Writer: Yeshe Dorje Thongchi
Translator: Mridula Baroaah
Set among the Brokpas, a polyandric indigenous community, Thongchi’s novel Sonam revolves around the life of the central character. Sonam chooses to have two men in her life. Like most love triangles, this leads to conflict, tragedy, and reconciliation. Yeshe Dorjee Thongchi is a prominent name in Assamese literature and he has received national recognition, winning the Sahitya Academi award in 2005.
10. Fragrance of Peace
Writer: Irom Sharmila
For more than ten years now Irom Sharmila, a young woman from Manipur, has been on hunger strike, demanding the removal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, a draconian law that allows the army unfettered powers in areas that are considered politically sensitive or disturbed. As she fulfils her chosen role in this movement, Sharmila sometimes longs for all those things that young women treasure: love, freedom, even simple things like being able to drink water, to brush her teeth. This small compilation of twelve of her poems in her native language Meiteilon and in English translation, provides a moving account of the underbelly of one woman’s lone struggle for peace.