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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Poet of the Fallen

The first look at her and you can feel her warm smile. This is what I felt when I first met Ms Uddipana Goswami. The first look at this smiling lady in her 30s gave me the impression that she must be a poetic sort of a person. Poet she definitely is. But she is of the kind that we don’t find commonly nowadays. And this I gradually realized as our talks progressed.

Uddipana is one of the most prominent voices from Assam in Delhi. Writer, poet, researcher, journalist, and sociologist- she has many feathers under her cap. She has been one of the most prominent researchers on conflict issues in Assam and the Northeast. She has also been an exponent of Assamese literature on a global plane. Today when we talk of new-age voices from Assam, the name of Uddipana is taken with utmost respect. Very few writers have dared to have taken a stand that is quite different from the staple diet of Assamese pride that we have been fed on. A stand that has gone ahead to expose the loops and holes in the overall fabric of the Assamese pride that has actually resulted in the present chaotic situation in the state. The disintegration of the trust that was once shared among the various communities of the Brahmaputra Valley has been a subject that has highly interested Uddipana. And her writings and research have gone a long way in understanding the causes of that distrust. But what struck me the most was her poetry which deals on an emotional level with the being and its violent surroundings. Today she is pursuing her research at the School of Social Sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, where she is settled with her husband Suman Chakravarty who is a senior correspondent with CNN IBN news channel.

Uddipana, who hails from Bamunimaidan in Guwahati, comes from a family of academicians. Now writing is something which came to Uddipana quite naturally as her parents are from academic backgrounds and her family had been associated with many literary luminaries of Assam. So it was no surprise when she mentioned that writers like Prafulla Dutta and Benudhar Sarma used to frequent their house in Guwahati and have guided her writing style. “Our family associations with such people benefitted me greatly as they would always guide us in matters of writing style and reading books.” said Uddipana, “This had a great influence on me and my siblings and we religiously got into works of writing and translations.” During school, most of her writings and poems got published in Assamese magazines like Sofura and Mousak. Translating is something Uddipana immensely enjoys and she has done English translations of poems by Hiren Bhatta and Lakshminath Bezbaruah. Apart from these, her academic writings, short stories, poetry and occasional translations have been printed in print as well as online from the USA, the UK, Australia, South Africa and Bangladesh and also in various publications across India.

Uddipana did her schooling from St Mary’s School and then her Higher Secondary from Cotton College. She then went to Delhi University for her graduation in English (Hons.) from Indraprastha College for Women. After that she did her PG Diploma in English Journalism from the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC) after which she pursued a career in journalism in Delhi for a few years during which she got to work with media houses like Tehelka, India Today and National Geographic before turning to research. And with the starting of her research came the most important phase of her career where she got deeply into issues of sociological relevance and ethnic conflicts in the Northeastern region.

She first joined the Centre for Northeast India, South & Southeast Asia Studies (CENISEAS) in Guwahati which was started under the aegis of Sanjeeb Baruah in 2004. Making this new start was not easy for Uddipana as many thought that she was committing a professional suicide. “What they were paying me here was not even half of what I used to get back in National Geographic. People thought that I had gone mad to have taken this step and come back to Assam.” said Uddipana. But she was firm in her decision and got down to her work with all diligence. Her work was on the “Migration and Assimilation” patterns in Assam. After this she joined the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences in Kolkata where she got the opportunity to work under the likes of intellectuals like Partha Chatterjee. But this was unfortunately cut short by her marriage in 2006 and her eventual relocation to Delhi.

During the course of her research Uddipana got to extensively tour the areas that were hit by violence over the period. These included the troubled Bodoland areas which saw ethnic clashes between the Bodos-Assamese and the Bodos-Adivasis. “My travels during those times exposed me to the horrible realities of ethnic clashes. I got to experience the pain and sufferings that these situations subject innocent people to.” recalls Uddipana. Meeting with various people whether they were victims or were the perpetrators of violence and also meeting up with most leaders of the Bodo insurgency faction, Uddipana gained a more detailed insight into the pattern of ethnic violence that plagues our state even today. She specially recalls the inhuman conditions in which people live in the relief camps. “Relief camps are just only in name. Their conditions are nothing short of a concentration camp.” said Uddipana, “So many people live under a small hut with no basic facilities at all, and it is practically impossible for people sitting comfortably in Guwahati or Delhi to even realize as to the sort of hellish conditions these people are subjected to.”

Uddipana has also worked during the Karbi-Dimasa clashes and the more recent Bodo-Muslim clashes. “What appalls me is the lack of trust and growing alienation among the various communities in the region.” said Uddipana. Over the course of her research and travellings, Uddipana realized that the older generation had more sense than the newer one. “People back then had the sense to sit back and reflect on the problems then just resort to mindless violence in answer.” she said. Uddipana is also critical of the Assamese community in this respect. “As the dominating community of the state, the Assamese people should have given some respect to the hopes and aspirations of the other communities and their cultural affinities,” said Uddipana, “But the result was only negative and events like the Assam Movement and the Nellie massacre further widened the gap between the ethnic communities of the state. Before these incidents, the Assamese were a very outward looking people who were ready to entertain anybody with their hospitality. But these incidents only resulted in the Assamese people becoming more and more intolerant towards others.” One worthy point she makes here is that the Assamese people don’t like the commercial dominance of the Marwaris in the state and foul-mouth them. But they forget that Rupkonwar Jyoti Prasad Aggarwala was himself of Marwari origin. For her the false Assamese pride has been the cause of our undoing over and over again.

Uddipana is also associated with Muse India, a literary e-journal which acts as a portal to the regional literatures of India. Here she is the Assamese literature editor. With Muse India, she has taken out two important issues- one was about the “Literatures of Assam” and the other was “Insurgency and Assamese Literature.” Uddipana said that taking out both these issues were a challenge for her. The first one, “Literature of Assam” was a concise effort to bring out the vast literature of Assam which included apart from Assamese, literature from other communities like Bodos, Karbis, Misings, Adivasis, etc. Here the main problem she faced was the non-enthusiastic response from many of the people she approached. People were simply not upbeat about the whole venture. She laughs that it might be because of the laid-back attitude of the people of the state. But I could sense that behind the laughter there was a strong resentment to this attitude. “I had approached some of the prominent writers from all the communities but most of them were simply not interested in the venture,” said Uddipana, “I got a rather good response from the Bodo and Adivasi writers who saw it as a good opportunity to showcase their literary strength. Eventually when it got published some people said that I had not represented certain communities of the state. But what am I to do if the people I approach don’t show any response?”

The next issue which was on “Insurgency and Assamese Literature” faced a different problem altogether. The problem here was the absence of such literature. Uddipana attributed this to the fact that not many people are bold enough to come up with such writings in the state. “There is a huge dearth of literature that caters to the insurgency situation in Assam,” said Uddipana, “Not many books have been written on this topic. And the ones which have been done have not been highlighted properly for various reasons.” She said that a fear psychosis prevails among the writers residing in the state partly due to the presence of the militants and also from the state machinery which is highly corrupt and fears exposure of any kind. And maybe because of this the writers who reside outside Assam are more vocal about these issues then the ones residing in the state.

In 2009, Uddipana came out with a book on poetry titled “We called the River Red: Poetry from a Violent Homeland” which was published by Authors Press, Delhi. This book has a total of 25 poems and each poem reflects the gradual realization of the self in terms of maturity and understanding of the surroundings around it. The first poem is on love. The second poem is on the self. The third is on the surroundings and the world we live in. And like this with each poem the level of maturity and its relevance with the society and the surroundings grows. So we have a poem on Goddess Kamakhya which relates on the self’s connection with the divine and there is also a poem on Kalaguru Bishnu Prasad Rabha who has had a huge influence on Uddipana’s writing style. The last few poems deal with violence and possess the most matured and bold overtones in them. Thus we have a poem on Nilikesh Gogoi who was an entrepreneur killed by the CISF on the Assam-Nagaland border. There are also poems referring to the ethnic clashes that plague our state even today.

From being a journalist, writer, poet and a researcher; Uddipana Goswami has come a long way. Today as she carries on her research in ethnic reconciliation, she still hopes that the various communities in Assam will leave all their ill feelings and work together for the betterment of the state. And her poems and writings are only a reflection of that hope which still shimmers on like the lonesome star in the night sky. Let’s hope Uddipana’s wishes come true and Assam shines like we all dream of. Here’s wishing her all the best for her future initiatives.

The 'Different' Storyteller

When I was asked to do an interview of Parismita Singh, I had just a fair recollection that a friend of mine had earlier told me that she had recently released a graphic novel. A graphic novel by an Assamese writer sounded quite fancy to me. But it almost immediately slipped out of my mind then. When her name was mentioned to me the second time, I had heard that her graphic novel “The Hotel at the End of the World” (2009) was getting very good reviews among the literary circles. And when I finally met her for the interview, I came to know that it was nominated for the Shakti Bhakt First Book Prize.

Parismita, 30, who is now settled in Delhi and works in the education sector, initially came across as the reserved type in contrast to the boisterous image of writers that I had in mind. But as the talks progressed, I realized that I was talking to someone who was more conscious of her work speaking rather than her herself doing all the talks. As a first-timer novelist, Parismita has really taken a step into the sphere that is less-trodden, not just among the North-eastern, but among the Indian circles as well. Graphic novels as a genre of story-telling are quite a less-explored zone in this country. For Parismita, graphic novels are only a way of expressing a message or a story through words and pictures and not really some out-of-the-world sort of thing as some people may think. “It is just a genre orientation to work with,” said Parismita, “Art is something which I have always liked and I decided to explore it through a graphic novel for my first book.”

Parismita hails from Biswanath Chariali in Sonitpur District of Assam, from where she did her initial schooling. She later completed her schooling from Mayo College in Ajmer, Rajasthan. She then went to Delhi University where she did her graduation from the prestigious St. Stephen’s College. The intellectual environment provided by Stephen’s led Parismita to experience different genres, and also led her to explore her artistic capabilities. “Although I always enjoyed writing and art, I was never into the comic book sort. I was never into the Batman or Superman kind of stuff.” says Parismita. It was also during her graduation years that Parismita had her first brush with graphic novels. “Some of my friends were really into graphic novels,” said Parismita, “and their enthusiasm led me to explore this theme in depth.” She fondly remembers her most favorite graphic novel from those times- Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” which she describes as being “class-apart” from the rest. Another graphic novel which she strongly recommends is the series of graphic novels on the Buddha by Japanese graphic novelist Osamu Tezuka.

Her book “The Hotel at the End of the World” tells the story of a hotel in a nowhere land somewhere in the North-east. And the story is taken forward by a group of travelers who have their own stories to take the plot forward. The rather scratchy and angular images of the book which are in Black &White have such cultural connotations to the North-east that the reader keeps getting transformed into the rain-soaked hilly terrains of the North-eastern region that the book implies. But then again, there are no direct references as to where in the world exactly are the events in the book set.

So we have a host of characters who are from different ethnic backgrounds and in some cases, it is rather difficult to make out who they really are. For Parismita, keeping the cultural anonymity of the characters and the location in the book was a requirement. For her, it was integral to the strength of the story that the setting of the story be nameless that they may give away a feeling not just of any place in the north-east but of anywhere in the world. “Many people have been actually intrigued by the setting of the story,” says Parismita, “There have been so many questions asked about the location that my publishers gave me a hard time asking me to give in a locational setting of the story in the book. But thankfully I managed to keep the anonymity intact.”

The story and the treatment given to it give out the impression that the inspirations are myriad. There are numerous references to the North-east in the book. A road to China, a mythical floating island that holds everybody’s attention, cell phone networks getting jammed due to the incessant rains and last but not the least, Japanese soldiers who keep dreaming of the snows on Mt. Echigo are forced to fight a battle in the “land of rain and jungle” are strong references to the North-eastern region. Parismita does agree that the references point out in the right direction, but is yet again puzzled over the demand for authentication of the location. The influences have been many, she informs, and they have been taken rather randomly. This is seen by the strong presence of the Buddhist art that creeps into certain places in the storyline. “I agree that the storyline has many inspirations,” says Parismita, “But this is just another story that I had in mind and decided to give the shape of a graphic novel. I am not doing a reworked version of folktales from the region. So nobody can really point if a certain part of the story has been inspired from a so-and-so legend or folktale.”

“My basis of inspiration for the characterizations has been many. Some of which are from the old stories which our elders narrated to us when we were children.” said Parismita. This was evident as she has dedicated the book to her grandmother Durgamoni Saikia. She further said that the character of the Night Walker whom death sends to gather people’s souls is a familiar figure to the people of the region. Also, Kona and Kuja are Assamese folktale characters whom she modified to suit the storyline. “I once met a lady in Guwahati who told me that the original Kuja is a hunchback and not legless as I had depicted.” she said. “It is true that the names are the same. But that is where all the similarities actually end away.” She says that more inspirations for the characters came up when she saw a man carrying another on his shoulders at the AIIMS crossing in Delhi. That was when she started to conjure up the first images of Kona and Kuja as they appear now in the book.

Although having released her first book as a graphic novel, Parismita finds little difference between a graphic novel and a comic book in terms of graphical treatment. “I could have considered myself as a comic book writer,” said Parismita, “But then comic books are lighter fairs and graphic novels are more intense and serious in their nature and story treatment. Plus, in our country have a strong prejudice towards comic books as being things of amateurish or childish nature. And this also affects the way in which graphic novels are viewed as well.” She further informs us that earlier graphic novel writers had a really hard time selling their stories. “Part of this was the non-enthusiastic attitude of the publishers who saw no market in it. “Some years back, graphic novel writers were struggling to sell to find a publisher for their stories,” she said, “Also if a publisher was found, then the next big hurdle would be to convince book shops in to keeping them for sale. But thankfully now the situation is changing. Plus, I was really lucky to find a supportive publisher like Penguin.” She believes that the attitude towards graphic novels will change totally in a few years time and we will have more graphic novels from Indian authors in the near future. “I just hope the constant linking of a graphic novel to comic books end up.” said Parismita with a sense of desperation in her voice.

If there is one thing that Parismita finds puzzling as well as annoying, is to be slotted. “One review of my book described me as an ‘Assamese graphic novelist.’ I found it rather strange as I had written the book in English.” said Parismita. But here she also added that she would love it if her book is translated into Assamese. “It was my resentment at being slotted that I decided to keep the location of the story as nameless.” said Parismita, “I really didn’t want this book to appear as a story from one particular area of the region. My fun as an author comes when people read the book and make their guesses.” She also said that she will “always be an Assamese.” But still she wouldn’t want the book to be tagged to the Assamese slot because of her regional background. For Parismita, it is more important that people accept the book as any other book ignoring the regional connotations it may give away.

Here’s wishing Parismita Singh all the best with her book and also hoping that we will see more fascinating work from her in the near future.