‘Centerpiece’ brings a wealth of stories from India’s Northeast

ARZUMAN ARA

The traditional domain of women’s work is limited to the household where kitchen is the only space for exercising her skills and knowledge. To be a wife, a mother and a daughter are the only compulsive available choices that a woman can have. What does “work” mean for a woman? It is often assumed that man is the bread-earner in the house therefore it is only a man who works. We are often see “Man at Work” posters and placards that symbolizes that the work and the contribution of women workers are insignificant and marginal(-ized).

To undo such a monolithic idea of work, arrives the book titled centerpiece. The publisher’s note asserts that — “It’s rich with stories and images, it’s experimental, it’s varied, it is of the earth and the sky, of the drudgery of work and of women’s resilience and their enjoyment of it too, it’s funny, and it’s serious” (p.2).   By focusing on a 3-D alliance of “women-work-art,” this book unveils what women’s work means from different angles and viewpoints apart from the traditional images of women associated with the women of Northeast India. 

Working from a place outside the “home” and its memory becomes a mode of self-introspection in Foning’s “mayel lyang” where memories create a tapestry of existence by aligning the feeling of “missing home” with the myth, memory, nature and one’s identity. “josie paris” becomes the real character that Foning sketches in her paintings. Josie Paris’ career in the competitive world of Bollywood reveals how her identity of being a Northeastern Indian gives confidence to her clients about her professionalism – she is never dissociated from her birthplace in the northeast India.  The last picture of the narrative displays a wall with a picture of a fish in the background and fish becomes a dominant trope in the entire book as many sketches and paintings use the image of the fish in displaying the condition of women in an apparently gendered world. On the other hand, Aheli Moitra’s compelling narrative “naga naki?”  displays how an “outsider” becomes an insider to the local Nagas of Dimapur in her attempts to explore the “contradiction” in an orthodox Naga society. Moitra blends her professional sensitivity with human curiosity to analyse her subjects that also highlights her professional limitations as a journalist. She finds a “vision of the self” through the “Naga lens” thereby melting the boundaries of local and non-local.

Women’s body becomes a site of contestation in the book. Soibam Haripriya’s poem “curfew” shows the transformation of women’s body as she goes through the process of biological development that subjects women’s body to a site and sight of violence and violations as/when – “Biology is your arch enemy.” Her “terminal” evokes the concepts of purity and pollution associated with blood and the body and death where existence becomes “we, bodies, imprinted with either of their fingerprints” (p.99).   Another of her poems, “transit work” also displays how a woman worker’s body becomes a subject of male-gaze in the airport which the women-workers have to tolerate for the sake of their “professionalism.” Nitoo Das in “how to cut a fish” aligns the body of a fish with that of a woman- both being subjected to violence.

“#hashtagpoetry” builds a relationship between a woman and her creative works like writing poetry that can make a woman a “word-prostitute” and poetic expression also becomes a mode of self-expression. A very powerful assertion is made in saying-

I make my rhythm

From the pounding of paddy,

The winnowing of rice,

And the cries of my baby.

You come,

Listen to my lullabies,

And compose your PhD. (p.106)

Similarly, the relationship between art and women is also explored in “objects of everyday work: a photo essay.” Women’s aesthetic sense and sensibility are reflected in their choice of the materials and ingredients and traditional art and craft works by women can be seen as indigenous performances. Even food becomes a reflection of women’s application of aesthetic sense in Mona Zote’s “maria and vixen” revealing the intricacies associated with the different thoughts.    The poem shows how holding a gun by a woman is like a scary anti-thesis to a woman who cooks.   Similarly, “daksare sketches” display how the looms and fabrics in designing dresses become a mode of creative expression of women in the Garo society representing her life and work. Mamang Dai’s “the story of tanik – the mythmaker” uses weaving as a means and mode of empowerment. Weaving appears to be a reflection of the struggling mother’s life and living experiences spinning life, colour, texture along with her dreams and desires. Kundo Yumnam’s portrait perfectly arrests the theme of Mamang Dai’s narrative. Another example of tribal aesthetics can be seen in the folk-tales which also is a traditional women’s domain. In re-telling the Mizo-folktales, Jacqueline Zote explores how even the supernatural entities of the folk-tales conform to the gendered domains of activities. Although, “It’s possible that these creatures don’t have a specific gender identity (p.147), still the gendered characters play the humanized roles of a gendered world and perform gendered works.  

Gertrude Lamare questions and critiques the very notion of “development” and “progress”, the two major tropes in the political rhetoric, that hardly have any significance for the women street hawkers of Shillong.  The dichotomy associated with the profession that the street for them becomes a space of freedom that gives them a chance for their economic autonomy also becomes a place that subjects them to abuses by the state authorities. Sanatombi Ningombam, too, points out how a woman penetrates into a male-domain of selling cinema tickets in the black market being neglected by her husband. Life appears to be a battle all the time for those struggling women. Rini Barman’s “hands that brew” is a stunning discovery of how the brewing the local rice-beer makes a gendered space where men enjoy at the cost of the women’s work and “When the male family members get addicted, larger quantities of rice need to be used for making alcohol, leaving less and less for consuming food. This becomes a vicious cycle” (p.80). Interestingly, Barman points out that any changes in the climatic condition affects this enterprise badly and women have to tolerate the consequences. This narrative explores the intricate relationships between culture, tradition, economy and the overall dominating patriarchy which prohibit giving any prominence to “mod, maati aru maiki” (alcohol, land and women).  

Dolly Kikon critiques “tribal feminism” with reference to the issues of reservation for women legislators in Nagaland’s electoral political bodies which was vehemently opposed by many agencies. The issue of electoral reservation is used as a trope to reflect on the deep-rooted patriarchal structure of the Naga society. Referring to her mother’s frustrated indifference to such issues, Kikon asserts that, “Institutions—be it religious assemblies or cultural bodies—that humiliate the poor, widows, divorcees, and the dispossessed—are best avoided, her actions seemed to indicate” (p.124).  Nabina Das’ “chitro of the dung bucket” humorously and wittily explores the dualities of our society and belief. Chitro the subdued woman resists her husband’s abusive advances by using the bucket she used for collecting cow-dung from the neighbourhood- in a style of the “ice-bucket challenge.”   

Centerpiece presents myriad colors of women’s life in the Northeast India. Despite the difference of their identities and many of other structures, these women are bound by one common existential thread – living in a gendered world. However, some additions could have been on the issues of the migrant women labourers and the Muslims women.  From state politics to culture, art and tale, professionalism and private life, like and dislikes, dreams and desires – all associated with the women of Northeast India find an expression in the book. True, “It is easy to fall in love with this book.” The type of endeavours Zubaan makes, we hope that Zubaan would focus on some more issues of Northeast women in future.

Centrepiece

Ed. Parismita Singh

Zubaan

Price- 1200 INR, USD-35.

ISBN- 9789385932410

Arzuman Ara teaches English in the English and Foreign Languages University, Shillong campus.