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No place for bookshops

Janice Pariat | Updated on February 22, 2019 Published on February 22, 2019

Heard this? For the pre-colonised Mizo, ‘literature’ existed in the form of folktales containing their origin myths, ideas on the afterlife and natural phenomena   -  RITU RAJ KONWAR

Why literature cannot mean only the written, and consequently, the read, word

We are driving up from Lengpui airport to Aizawl. It’s my first time in Mizoram, and I’m full of questions for EP, an assistant professor in literature at ICFAI University, who has picked me up. Does his syllabus include local writers? I’m happy to hear it does. Who are his favourite Mizo authors? Mafaa Hauhnar, he says emphatically. Are his works available in translation? Fortunately, yes. I ask where I may find his books.

“The thing is,” he says, “Aizawl doesn’t have a bookshop.”

“Oh,” I exclaim, “that’s so sad.”

EP says there’s a proliferation of stalls where one can purchase textbooks for schools and college, but just one such place which sometimes stocks fiction. There’s hope, though, he adds. Professor Mami, his head of department — on whose invitation I’m visiting — has wanted to open one for the longest time.

We move on to talk about the Mizo language, and I ask if, like Khasi in Meghalaya, Mizo too was originally an oral language sans script. Yes, he confirms. In the late-1800s, they were “given” an alphabetical script by the Christian missionaries — whose legacy, I find, as we drive through Aizawl, lives powerfully on. Like many states in the North-East, Mizoram has a Christian majority population (almost 90 per cent); this is evident in the proliferation of churches and committee centres around town. Turns out, also like Khasi, Mizo has a Roman script, tweaked significantly to accommodate the language’s phonetic nuances.

After this discussion I fall quiet.

I think back to the questions I put to EP. To my reaction on being told there are no bookshops in Aizawl. I know most of us would probably react similarly. A town without a bookshop is a town bereft, we’d say. What does it tell us about its people? That they take no pleasure in reading? Surely to take no pleasure in reading is to show less proclivity for a rich inner life. Don’t we believe that reading expands the mind? Haven’t we come across articles on how reading (fiction, especially) makes one more empathetic? There are many quick judgements at play here, and I realise soon enough that they stem from the authority — imposed largely by colonialism — that we’ve come to ascribe to the written and, consequently, the read.

To place these judgement on communities which have historically been dependent, and thrive on, orality is dangerous and unfair. A quick Google search informs me that Mizoram enjoys higher literacy rates than average for India (91 per cent in 2017), and is second only to Kerala. It isn’t that people don’t know how to read — but that doesn’t always translate into “reading culture” for a region within which oral traditions once flourished. As Lallianzuali Chhangte explains in Mizo Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Content and Meaning, for the pre-colonised Mizo, “literature” existed in the form of folk tales containing their origin myths, their ideas on the afterlife and natural phenomena, interwoven with their close relationships to the natural environment. Surely the more pertinent question then is not “Why doesn’t Aizawl have a bookshop?” but “Is there a place here where I can listen to folk stories?” In Shillong too, I’m often told, sadly, that “no one reads”. Yet it’s home to my earliest “literary” inspirations — my grandparents, my father, sundry family friends and acquaintances who are marvellous storytellers. We must remember that in communities where orality flourished, instead of writers we had storytellers, minstrels, shamans. To suspect that a place lacks “reading culture”, to brand a town as one where “no one reads”, is to wilfully ignore its rich oral history. It means to disacknowledge that reading (and writing) is a tradition that was imposed — sometimes most violently — upon oral communities. Also, we can only be impoverished by disregarding the existence of these less tangible cultural traditions and their power to “expand the mind”.

This is exceptionally problematic when it comes to literature.

Because the places (usually urban centres) that produce the writing, or rather produce the more recognisable forms of literature — whether in regional languages or English — become the hubs which generate a country’s literary culture. It’s as though “literature” doesn’t happen elsewhere. That stories aren’t being created and consumed in the periphery, the margins — a cycle of viciousness that ensures that that’s exactly where they remain.

I would call for drastic measures. Literary festivals should accommodate oral storytelling traditions — from Mizoram, Meghalaya, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Sikkim, among many others. This can only be enriching for all.

Or to hold, as Manipuri filmmaker Somi Roy is keen to, a “festival of oral culture” — where sessions focus on narratives that are spoken and listened to rather than written and read. Perhaps initiatives such as these might help abolish the hierarchy of the textual over the spoken, although I’m also torn at the thought of seeking to legitimise oral culture — which, at its heart, is free-flowing, shared, improvised — through its inclusion within these formal institutions.

What might bring them both onto the same plane of validity? On my part, I shall begin by being less judgemental of places with no bookshops.

Janice Pariat   -  BLink

 

Janice Pariat is the author of The Nine-Chambered Heart

Twitter: @janicepariat

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Published on February 22, 2019
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