Jim Wungramyao Kasom’s Homecoming and Other Stories, published by Bibliophile South Asia and Promilla & Co., released in Delhi on the 12th of May 2018 is one more addition to the growing body of literary work coming from the northeast of India. Literature produced by the inhabitants of India’s northeast needs further segregation to draw attention to the diversities in history, culture and language in the region.
They can be broadly grouped as those who already had literary culture before the advent of the British, and those for whom the culture of formal reading and writing began with colonialism or after. Manipuri and Assamese belong to the former, and the heterogenous all others (with small exceptions) belong to the second group. I prefer to use the word “indigenous” for the second group to carry two important meanings.
Unlike the Manipuri and Assamese literatures, these works coming from the erstwhile oral societies had no established literary tradition of their own to fall back on, or draw from, when the new medium of imaginative expression entered their culture. It was a clean start for them in a script entirely foreign but which they had learned to gradually appropriate it.
The acquisition of literacy drove a wedge into the domain of cultural expression for these communities; and writing dislodged orality in eminence. Consequently, the structural implications of this emergent reality is incomparable and perforce requires a separate category to reflect that.
Secondly, the aesthetic quality of their fiction is not iterative or continuous with the mainstream Indo-islamic aesthetic found in major Indian literary cultures, including Assamese and Manipuri – a cursory reading of any work from these communities attests to this fact. This literary-historical distinctions ought to be emphasised in our approach to literatures from India’s “far east” (a more accurate description than “northeast” as New Delhi, and not colonial Calcutta, is the capital of independent India).
The choice to write in English is an even more interesting phenomenon. Vernacular literature had taken root shortly after the acquisition of the Roman alphabet by these communities. And it grew tall and wide. For instance, Mizo literary culture in the vernacular using the Roman alphabet goes as far back as the early twentieth century; and the same is true of the Khasi, Ao, Angami, Garo, etc. These communities have a relatively longer history of written literary culture in the vernacular.
But the beginnings of English as the first-choice language of writing fiction is recent and asymmetrically spread across the communities in this group. Case in point, the Mizos, one of the most linguistically advanced groups, had contained for decades their imaginative fiction in the vernacular until Malsawmi Jacob published Zorami: A Redemption Song in 2015. However, Angami had their first in 2003 in Easterine Kire’s A Naga Village Remembered, which also happens to be the first work of long fiction by a Naga in English.
A similar trajectory of literary history is found of the Tangkhul Naga as well. One of the earliest people groups to acquire literacy in Manipur, and also to have a translation of the Bible in their own language. There is a sizeable body of imaginative literature produced in Tangkhul over the course of a century and more. There are translations in English of Tangkhul folktales as well as poetry which are written in the English language.
However, Kasom’s Homecoming marks a departure. This is the first book of fiction (collection of short stories) written and published in the English language by a Tangkhul. It is for this history-changing event that Kasom’s book is doubly remarkable. It contains nineteen stories set across a vast timeline of a hundred years of changing historical milieus. However, the stories do not pretend to represent the whole Tangkhul experience across this continuum.
Instead, Kasom focuses on individuals and families and leaves the reader to infer from the background references, and also from closely following the individual actions, the shifting social values of the community. Perhaps, it is for this reason that the stories have a memoir-like feel even when the narrative voice is in the third person. The sincerity of the narration and the confidence of the author in telling stories inspired by real events, as the author revealed it during the release of the book, in an accessible prose compensates any literary shortcomings one may experience.
Thematically, the anthology touches a wide range of issues. The friction between tradition and modernity (“Trails on the Mountain), the effect of Naga nationalism on the “in-between” populace (“The Pastor Who Made Guns“, “Out of This Time” and “Tea on Sunday Evening” ), existential questions arising from traumatic experiences (“Swimming Lessons“, etc.), Japanese encounter during WW 2 (“Killing the Silence“), tributes to loyalty and duty (“Someone to Call Home“, “Homecoming“, etc.), Tangkhul Diaspora (“We Will Always Have Ukhrul to Talk About“, “A Perfect Gift“, etc.), nostalgia of boyhood experience (“A Time Traveller’s Tale“, etc.), a modern iteration of folk-knowledge (“The Search” and “The Perfect Gift“) and more. In one big sweep, the anthology provides a schematic presentation of a society in transition over the course of a tumultuous century. And one feels certain that there is more to be told about the experience of this community.
Another interesting feature of Homecoming is the sketches inserted in the pages of the book. They are poignant illustrations of a rustic life and convey a sense of inevitability about their subject matters: that they are on the way out of contemporary Tangkhul life; that these moments had to be frozen in time before they ceased to be part of the everyday. These sketches complement the temperament of the stories very well. They serenely evoke an indescribable feeling of familiarity quite forgotten in the daily squabble for a more “progressive” pursuit in life.
But the difficulty, and greatness of these visuals, is that one is quite unable to recall the moment(s) entirely. It is like peeling a layer of the unconscious as you get drawn into the visual narrative framed by the stories. Homecoming is a brave attempt at finding the beautiful in the tragic and the extraordinary in the everyday. Kasom succeeds in reiterating the truth that no individual or experience is uninteresting. If given a patient and interested hearing (reading), everyone has a beautiful story to tell that can contribute in enhancing our respect for the individual and love for humanity. The stories also reaffirm the felt truth that life is mysterious and no one experience or person has it all.
Overall, Homecoming is a timely intervention in raising the case for a serious engagement with the indigenous poetics of the “far east” of India. The minimally depicted cultural landscape is not unlike the more luxuriant ones one frequently encounters in Easterine Kire, Temsula Ao or Mamang Dai. But the imaginative flavour is markedly characteristic of the Tangkhul experience — even with the “odd” lone Khasi story in the anthology.
The book also represents the first work of serious fiction in the English language by a tribesman hailing from the hills of Manipur. The filling of the lacuna is started. One hopes this smoothens the path for others to join. Untold stories from the large heterogenous groups of people in the region need interested reading and platform to understand the consciousness and subjective aspirations of the people.
The general ethos conditioning the choices and actions of these peoples is a very solid place to begin any serious conversation for collective progress. One may not find the elusive panacea to the region’s multi-faceted challenges in these stories. But the soul of the land and its people, which is the intangible beyond the reach of empirical science, are amply illuminated. And nothing but the soul endures.
The writer is Assistant Professor, Comparative Literature & Translation Studies , School of Letters , Ambedkar University Delhi
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This review first appeared on E-pao.net