Urvashi Butalia lauds Northeastern women writers

Guwahati Litfest 2014 witnessed a line-up of invigorating sessions. One among them was a conversation on “Women’s Narratives: The personal is political”. Noted author and founder of Kali for Women, Urvashi Butalia was in conversation with Sahitya Akademi award winning writer Arupa Patangia Kalita and academic and author Nandana Dutta.


Butalia said that Northeast India has a fantastic line-up of women writers and a strong and unusual tradition of women writers. “They write about contemporary Assam and lot of history. There is a strong women writers group who continue to write and meet even today,” she said. She mentioned names of Indira Goswami, Mamang Dai, Sabita Goswami, Rita Chowdhury, Esterine Kire, Mitra Phukan, Uddipana Goswami, Teresa Rehman among others.


Kalita agreed that Assamese women writers are very strong. There are rich precedents in history like Padmavati, Srimanta Sankardeva’s neice who wrote the borgeet with beautiful lyrics. “As a women writer of Assam, social issues have attracted me. In Felanee, I wrote about a group of marginalized women. I picked up my characters from my devastating times. I picked up the title of the novel from the oral story in Tangla, my hometown. In my new novel, I have tried to decode the mindless violence. My canvas is very big. It is a canvas of unrest. The 450 pages novel encompasses a time span is more than 100 years, she said.


Nandana Dutta, who writes on Assam and identity issues says, “A strong critique of violence is coming more from women writers. We have not entirely resolved our ties with the past.”


Butalia then raised the question of memory, language and question of reception, how it is read, who reads it. “Look at the recent history of Assam, societies upturned by agitations, a lot of women writers talk about this work. These issues are wiped out of public memory, issues like Nellie are far from mainstream India. Women are not writing about their personal lives which is different in Assam.”


Kalita points out a Bengali book “Amader Kotha” where a lady wrote about her life, her kitchen, domestic world of women from the kitchen. “Women do not only deal with personal issues. In Assam, women writing take a multi-dimensional form. Some writers simply escape to history. We have to deal with history to interpret the contemporary reality. There is no effort to disentangle our contemporary reality.” She adds that some common things like “weaving materials” are also a source of her creative expression. She lauds the courageous new voices of young women writers who are able to create a rich literature.


Butalia then pondered. “The question of memory is like speculating. Will there be a time when writers from Assam will write about Bulgaria and Hungary?”


Dutta also felt that same things are being written about. “After a point, we might reach a saturation point. Writers also need to have a distance from the material. Maybe, its time to also write about other things like the Nellie massacre. Why is it such a less interesting topic? Why not think about Nellie in our own terms? Why have others not written about Nellie? We are guarding topics which are our topic? There is this failure to present ourselves in presenting this region. We will be continue to be represented like this.”


Kalita points out that she has also written about the agonies of the black women. “These are universal experiences,” she says.


Butalia then raises the issue of who gets to represent the reality? “Society has gone through multiple herds, huge surprise to the outsider. Takes a lot of trust-building for the outsider to come out and talk,” she adds. Her publishing house Kali for Women had a policy — no men. But equations have started to change.


Then the question arises on why translated books do not get the same kind of mileage. Kalita adds, “The problem is regarding the translation. It’s very difficult to translate. It’s very difficult to translate the oral literature. It is difficult to transcreate the beauty of folk literature which is embedded in Assam. There are publishers like Zubaan who have taken our literature to the outsiders.


Dutta adds, “There is a kind of disinterest about the northeast being a subject matter of universal interest. There is a lack of visibility within certain frames of reference.”