BY SHIBANI PHUKAN
His Father’s Disease, Aruni Kashyap
Price: Rs 499
Writing from the northeast has been slowly inching its way towards recognition as an integral part of Indian writing. This is borne out by the increasing number of literary festivals which feature north-east as its central theme, and notably, these festivals are now a pan-India phenomenon, spanning from Arunachal to Goa to Kochi. It is of course important to recognise that when one talks about writing from the north-east, it is primarily writing in English, or writing which has been translated from the various regional languages to English, that one is referring to. The growth of English writing from the northeast and its rising prominence has been a symbiotic one, with one feeding the other. At the heart of writing from the north-east, lies the issue of identity politics that many narratives, discussions, analyses of this region is compulsively drawn into. It is an issue that is singeing parts of the northeast with the introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Bill.
Identity politics prioritises the concerns peculiarly relevant to those of a particular ethnic, religious, social, sexual identity, those usually in the minority, with the primary aim of raising consciousness about their concerns, especially the systemic oppression and exploitation they have been subjected to by virtue of their identity. But identity is never stable, permanent, it is constantly in a state of flux, responding to the political, historical, pressures; often changing, adapting to the forces it is subjected to. It is this complex and nuanced question of identity, that is at the heart of the very first story of Aruni Kashyap’s collection of short stories, His Father’s Disease.
“The Skylark Girl,” is a scathing critique of the world of so-called intellectuals, it’s a story that exposes the underbelly of the lit-fest culture where writing and writers from the northeast are the flavour of the season. Autobiographical in nature perhaps, the story meaningfully interweaves the story of Sanjib – a young writer who writes in Assamese but is compelled to read out an English translation of his own story in a lit-fest in the Capital city – a retelling of the well-known folk-tale of Tejimola. In a telling reversal, an attendee’s attempt at calling out Sanjib’s lack of authenticity as he chooses to write about a “magical world, instead of the insurgencies,” insightfully exposes the “specialist in north-east” intellectual mindset which ironically, oppressively pigeonholes the academic/writer from the north-east with their own stereotype of what the oppressed should feel about, talk about, write about. A similar kind of hypocrisy, accompanied by the smugness of a first-world intellectual is also critiqued in “The Love Lives of Those who Look Like Kal Penn.”
In a tongue-in-cheek manner, the story reveals the tendency of the academic world to fit writers, academicians into neat little cubbyholes wherein if you are a Nigerian, you obviously have to be an expert in Chinua Achebe. Stories like “Minnesota Nice” in fact unmasks the condescension, the ignorance, the indifference; that underlies the veneer of politeness, often forced, in a first-world person’s attempt at engaging with cultural difference. But under the guise of cultural difference, Kashyap exposes the carefully constructed art of polite exclusion through the practice of crafty and careful inclusion.
Kashyap’s stories are brave, fearless, taking on the very world that he inhabits, the world on whose acceptance perhaps his ability to thrive depends upon. The thematic trajectory of his stories subvert the expected tropes of a writer from the northeast, but there are ties that one cannot, perhaps should not go completely beyond. It is the omnipresence of violence, sometimes staring at your face, sometimes lurking in the corners, ready to catch you unawares; that ties not only most of the stories in the collection but also forge a connect with a predominant theme of most writings from the north-east. At times the violence is exercised by state actors, the army, who ransack villages, burn them down, rape women, and sometimes just shoot young boys in their head because an officer was offended by the confidence of a village boy who spoke English, was fluent in Hindi, and worst of all, “America-returned.” But at times, the violence is born of abuse that we see quite commonly practised in perfectly respectable middle-class homes.
As immortalised by Shakespeare’s Macbeth, these stories reflect how violence of any nature, is cyclical, unending, venomous, its serpentine coil squeezing the life out of people, relationships, and humanity at large. But underlying the seething anger and violence, there is a poignant yearning for love that runs through many stories. Love that is sometimes selfish, inconsiderate, even opportunistic; at times a prisoner of its own prejudices; but that which always holds the promise of a love that can be timeless, liberating, redeeming. Many of the stories are also diasporic in their nostalgic recreation of homelands, a world inhabited by “bidaas” (genies) and sorcerers. But there is also a gentle acknowledgment of that through characters who self-reflexively admit to forging friendships with people they would have no truck within their own homelands. While this collection of short stories raises issues and themes that are serious, there is a certain lightness of touch, a gentle humour that importantly does not dilute the gravity of the issue but throws their seriousness into relief.
Aruni Kashyap is a young writer, this is his second work in English. His debut novel, The House with a Thousand Stories, earned him much praise and accolades in India and abroad. One has a feeling, with praise raining-in from the likes of Amitav Ghosh for His Father’s Disease, Aruni Kashyap is a writer who is just beginning to discover his own potential and ready to dazzle us with much more.
Shibani Phukan is an Assistant Professor who teaches English in a Delhi University College. Her areas of interest include writing from the northeast, women’s writing and Indian Writing in English.