A Very Brief Foreword on the Shillong Writing Scene

This article was first published in the blog “Cultural Cartographies of Media” on 3rd October 2013.

We are now at a stage when we should earnestly talk about a Shillong canon. Enough time and creativity has passed through (and from) this hill-station. From the outset though, precautions must be raised because our goal should not be to make this canon “exclusivist” or to establish one standard for writing from this place. One problem with many canons – Western or otherwise – is that they tend towards discrimination between high and low, between popular and elite art forms. A canon can be used to formalise personal bias, thereby making it seem authoritative and definitive. The goal of this foreword is merely to muse upon those writers belonging to, coming from Shillong (or Meghalaya, more correctly); those writings either about our cultures or experiences (whether reflecting or fracturing them). In this instance, I seek to analyse, not to rate.

There is a change in the atmosphere of Shillong. There is no denying the social aims of this new batch of young potentials. What characterizes this generation are the numbers. Never before, have we witnessed such large numbers of Shillong youth venturing outwards to carve niches for themselves. In so many ways, they are a brave set because they refuse to let a not-so-small matter of ‘where you’re from’ stand in the way. One feels they would be as comfortable in Shillong as in Delhi or London. This, perhaps, is their strength in this age – their ability to take indigenous sensibility and couple it with the westernised worldview that they grew into. A worldview taught and strengthened first in the non-vernacular schools (which now are the rule), and later engendered and personalised by American films and culture.

In the world of our parents, knowing how to read and speak English was a symbol of prestige; it denoted your education and afforded mobility up the social stairway. Nor can I claim otherwise, even today. Outside the middle and upper class, English is still a much sought-after hope. English, after all, means power. Once it was the language of the British bureaucrats and was then handed over to the Indian babus. Amidst the chaos of Partition, accession, insurrections, English has been constant. Within the Shillong upper-middle class, it has become customary, mandatory even, to use English with proficiency and wit for a range of situations, it has become second-nature for many tribal people residing in urban places.

For our parents, self wholly constituted of global parts was a remote idea. The internet and cable TV have helped speed up the globalising process. And after all, our own relations were from the older ways of being, i.e. from and of the village, so the posturing in European garb and mien were not entirely convincing. Change was slow and resistance quick to keep pace with it. A delicate reconciliation with tradition, with old people was necessary. Now, the old folks are dead or dying and the posturing-programming is imposed upon the children completely, who often take it in uncritically.

Above all else, the younger people are thoroughly professional. They know what they must do to attain what they want. They desire. And, perhaps, it is not unhealthy, not at the moment anyway, not at this start. With increasing interest, I have noticed a small Renaissance flower here in these hills. In the last two years, we have had a bevy of films, have had considerable musical success as our bands and choirs spread out, we have also had a resurgent visual arts culture and emerging autuers committed to writing. And it is to this that we now turn.

Many people, I am sure, would not make too much of an issue if I point to the breakthrough success of Lunatic in my Head by Anjum Hassan as a major touchstone in the recognition of a Shillong canon. Let us not forget though, that there have always been people writing in this culture since the introduction of the Roman script here (some 200 odd hundred years ago). Perhaps, it is better put in this way, that Anjum Hassan was the first writer in English, to breakthrough to mainstream success, hailing from Shillong. She has managed to capture the imagination of both the reading and writing public. She is important because she ignited the imaginations of the current generation about the possibility of self-expression. For all our English loving ways, we had to wait for a fairly long time for a writer of this criterion to be heard. Considering our ‘privileged’ status as Scotland of the East, we’ve had to wait for a while for someone to show the difference between syntax and story. To enter into “polite” society, correct syntax is somewhat of a prerequisite for admission. Often the English might make no sense at all, it might be mundane, boring but if the tenses are observed and grammar proper, all the rest can be forgiven. The repetition of the rules rather than originality of thought have a strong hold on expression. It is like we have an invisible ‘White’ schoolmaster, looking over our shoulders, whose approval we long for.

Since Anjum Hassan, we have witnessed a slew of promising energetic writers come out. Apart from the many poets, some of the prose writers that come to mind as I write this are Mimlu Sen, Janice Pariat, Ankush Saikia. Each one of these writers is nuanced, writing in markedly different styles. They are all united, however, in that they write of the urban Shillong and that they all write in English. These two features are indicative of their class perspective. The danger of recollecting memories into writings is if we tend to think they are devoid of class considerations. Places, tales, happenings are seen through such lenses. The medium too denotes a certain privilege. These new writers point to a healthy creativity in our society but it is a problematic creativity. It runs the risk of becoming irrelevant to anyone but a certain group of people. In relating tales of a Shillong to an outside audience, longing to glimpse ways of being from here, writers run the risk of being exploitative even – perpetuating a pseudo-tribalism, exaggerating false anxieties, expressing a Romantic “noble savage” existence which might not even exist in the lives of people. Writing about the North East along the lines of the “girl, gun, guitar” stereotype is to belittle its multiple complexity and complex multiplicities.

One cannot really blame these writers for writing in this manner because they grew up with it, they were taught it from infancy. The callousness of various governmental and social organizations has led to this privileging of English over the vernaculars in the state. Some might argue that many of the writers in Shillong are non-tribals, or from other places, but a quick look at the history of Khasi writing shows us that non-tribals (eg. BK Sarma, Amjad Ali) were at the forefront of many literary and literacy projects initiated in the past. Perhaps along with fiction, more socially relevant genres like journalism should also be pursued with equal enthusiasm. Outside of the various Churches, most of whose works are non-secular, hardly anyone translates into vernacular. A person who translates well (or transliterates) is as good a creator, at times, as a novelist or poet. Many vernacular writers are instead keen to have their works translated into English in order to share their work with the world. This can, however, create a dependency on the outside audience which might be to the disadvantage of the vernacular at home.

I lament the quiescence of the indigenous art scene. The wonderful artisans have been sidelined for the most part, because they are too “local”, too specific, difficult to market outside. The government is quick to foot Shillong Chamber Choir’s bills and to promote them but what about Garo, Pnar, War, Bhoi, Tiwa, Maram art forms? These for the most part have been left to their own devices, left to become “modern” through the efforts of individuals only. Even in our overwhelmingly (callow) Romantic writing scene, Bevan Swer attempted a Khasi poetry with a Modern sensibility, years before anyone else. I remember when, back in 2001, being a young boy of 13 or so, I was “forced” to attend my grandfather’s (I M Simon) book release ceremony. I was sceptical, even back then, about any events involving large hall spaces, because they seemed to have a nasty ability of attracting the most long-winded and lob-sided speeches within a 10 kilometre radius. My grandfather’s book was a collection of short stories in Khasi and he had been working on it for a while. When it was finally completed, he was delighted, the publisher was delighted, the Khasi authors were delighted. These along with few family members and few friends made up the audience at the book launch. It was small because the readership was small.

I understood the problem then as I do now. Tribal authors usually find themselves in a tight spot because, on the one hand, English-writing is en vogue and readily sought after by publishing houses (major or minor); and secondly, their popularity is dealt a reeling blow by the fact that most Khasi authors usually find themselves consigned to educational institutions. We are taught to learn them by rote but not how to appreciate them. They are not experienced, enjoyed in real life and that is the real tragedy. They are no longer in the public eye but have been relegated to the too oft-hidden places of study. Couple this with poor distribution and you have, in effect, another instance of exclusivity. Works become available only to those who can afford to pay or are lucky enough to get a chance to study. In this age of globalisation, to consecrate a literature, to frame it, is to kill it. Many tribal languages are moribund because they cannot breathe, because we do not experiment with them, because we don’t enjoy them. Khasi has the other disadvantage of having custodians who fascistically dictate diction, survey syntax.

The new Shillong canon is not in want nor afraid of limelight. Unlike their predecessors who wrote and were relegated, this new breed is trying desperately not to follow suit, but to trail blaze. These authors know how to pursue and spear their targets. Aesthetic judgement aside, they are dedicated to their cause because this is now considered legitimate, albeit still thankless, work. In that way, they are quite professional. This is a source of strength as well as a source of worry. On the positive side, these writers are now determined to write, which is no mean accomplishment. When one decides to be a full-fledged writer one forsakes many things crucial for, well, being a ‘’normal’’ person. Writing is a cruel taskmaster, who lords over its unfortunate vassal and whips them occasionally to inspire them; but when it refuses to talk to us, we beg for the whip. This is true both for the old school and the new. But the new, does gets paid better and is more likely to be appreciated, if not in the local place, outside. The negative side of the new Shillong canon is that the writers might very well be too professional. In the bid for outside recognition – that glorious term that brings to mind many English students fluttering their eyelids, grimacing and making swinging gestures with their arms – they run the risk of being irrelevant to the people of the very place that created them.