I’m often asked how or why I write across genres/styles/formats. Poetry, fiction, non-fiction, academics — I’ve done it all with equal measures of unspectacular, uninhibited diffidence. Now, two poetry collections, one of short fiction and an academic monograph later, I’m no closer to understanding why I cannot stick to any one field or format. I don’t talk or think much about the writing process; I just write, and sometimes publish, and then wait for my readers to tell me what they thought I revealed. Being a Fulbright scholar in the US, though, and expected to talk about my own work at forums and with people who are unfamiliar with where I come from and what I bring to the table, I am forced to pause and reflect. And questions about home, belongingness, place and space occupy most of these reflections.
One of the answers that I have now stumbled upon — THE answer still eludes me — is that I, the writer, and my writing processes, have been entirely appropriated by Assam, the place I call home. The flux and flow, the conflicts and camaraderie, the richness, the poverty, the diversity and multiplicity, all of which characterise Assam, its people, politics, culture, history and society, have seeped into my persona and my writing.
My research on Assam’s many conflicts took me to several places there, and a lot of them insinuated themselves into my writing. I’d been to some of these places as a child. When I revisited them as a sociologist, childhood observations and memories returned to aid my understanding of the current conflict dynamics. One such place was the mofussil town of Kopati, where my maternal grandparents lived. I would visit Kopati at least once a year as a child. These visits were mostly about the many cousins, uncles and aunts getting together when school was out.
For the adults, it was a safe place to let go of the children, something they couldn’t do in the city. The children, in their turn, went wild, jumping on haystacks, riding on bullock carts or on grandfather’s elephants, and sneaking off to the tea garden.
The end of childhood meant moving to distant Delhi. My visits to Kopati stopped. But this place would not stop visiting me. I fictionalised it in my creative works, theorised about it in my academic writings, revisited it as an ethnographer, tried to get it out of my system and on paper, but it always remained inside me. It started with my first published short story, ‘Virginia mahi’, and kept dragging me back to where I found most of my material for writing on ethnicity, violence and women.
That this first piece of fiction took the name it did — mahi is maternal aunt in Axomiya — was perhaps because Kopati was full of uncles and aunts and grandfathers and grandmothers outside the bloodline. There was Sarif koka (grandfather) who fed us kids boiled eggs and buffalo milk at his house and was an East Bengali Muslim; Sobi mahi , my mother’s best friend, who was an East Bengali Hindu; Sasi ( chachi , aunt) next door who was a Marwari; Sangal mama (maternal uncle) who was a Bodo. There were also kokas and aitas (grandmothers), mamas and mahis who were Nepalis, Garos, Biharis, Adivasis, and what have you. Such fictive kinship networks exist everywhere in India, but the one in Kopati had a special significance because all these people from the extended family of my childhood belonged to as many communities, ethnicities and religions as are to be found all over Assam. Kopati, truly, was unimaginably diverse and amazingly cosmopolitan for a town so small. It was a microcosm of poly-ethnic, multicultural Assam.
So when I was stigmatised on the Indian mainland for being from Assam, I remembered and reassessed the relationships in Kopati. Why were some people allowed into my grandmother’s house and others confined to the verandah? My grandfather being the patriarch of the town, didn’t we sit separately at community gatherings? Then why did I carry this illusion of egalitarianism? When deadly ethnic riots finally broke out between some communities there, how could I feel we were not at fault?
These and other questions, field observations, and childhood memories from Kopati and other places in Assam often crowd my mind, flowing out in bursts of poetry. When the mind is calmer, they come to me as short narratives. Then, after the emotions are wrung out, the social scientist begins her work. Now I am writing in a different place that is, provisionally, home. It has also seeped into my writing. If recent recognitions are anything to go by, it has perhaps even made my work more accessible to a ‘universal’ audience (whatever that implies). But Kopati’s mud, in which I played as a child, and the blood I saw flowing there as an adult will always stick to my writing, no matter how hard I scrub.
(In this monthly column, authors chronicle the places they call home)
Uddipana Goswami is the author of the short story collection No Ghosts in the City