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Storytelling as resistance in Assam

Ateendriya Gupta | Updated on December 13, 2019 Published on December 12, 2019

Yawning gap: The stories expose the hitherto often unnoticed gap between the voice of the subaltern and the voice for them ISTOCK.COM   -  Getty Images

His Father’s Disease, Aruni Kashyap’s collection of stories, deftly explores how marginalised identities are made to fit particular narratives

In Before the Bullet, the fourth story in Aruni Kashyap’s anthology of short stories His Father’s Disease, the narrator notes the reaction of cows to the sound of gunshot piercing the air: “From a distance, it was impossible to guess whether they were happy or frightened.” The 10 stories in the collection are an exercise in bridging this distance, pulling the viewer closer to the scene of the narrative so they can better discern the difference between happiness and fright.

The book — the second by the Assamese scholar, translator and writer opens with Skylark Girl, which sets the tone for the rest of the anthology. At a literary conference in Delhi, Assamese writer Sanjib reads his retelling of the Assamese folktale of Tejimola, the girl who refuses to die. Unfortunately — but unsurprisingly — the intellectual Anglophile audience does not appreciate it. In fact, the very nature of the story seems to offend their sensibilities: This hardy resilience does not fit their perception of the “victim” since it is not a story of exploitation, neither is it a story of a people in anguish. “The violence, the human rights abuse, those are real issues,” a fellow participant tells him. An audience member articulates similar concerns about Sanjib’s choice to write of such a “magical” world, instead of more pressing, more topical — more violent — issues.

His Father’s Disease: Stories; Aruni Kashyap; Fiction; Contxt; ₹499

 

This is not to say that Kashyap does not engage with the violent reality of Assam and its inhabitants. Kashyap, in his own words, is very much a “political writer”, and his fiction is “shaped by Assamese politics, aesthetics and literary traditions”. His first novel, The House with a Thousand Stories, is set squarely in the backdrop of the “secret killings” of the late ’90s, conducted by the Indian government against armed insurgency in Assam. In this anthology, too, the insurgency and the military’s brutal repression permeate people’s lives. But what Kashyap manages to do here is bring to the readers the horrors of this reality without reducing it to victimhood.

In His Father’s Disease, political tragedy underpins the lives of people but does not become them. This is brought out in the casual way such context creeps into dialogues and narratives. In For the Greater Common Good, red lentils are packed in a blood-soaked newspaper. Anil does not even notice it; his mother wonders if she should wash the lentils again to remove the blood, before finally throwing them away. For the average citizen, overarching violence can often boil down to something as simple, yet dire, as a foregone lunch.

In Bizi Colony, an intimate story of the struggle of a dysfunctional family, Kashyap imbues critical intent in a single, seemingly throwaway line. When Geeta-baido laments to the older son that he will one day read about the ruin of their family in Delhi newspapers, he chooses not to tell her that “Delhi papers rarely published news about Assam”.

Kashyap’s critique of society does not involve binary juxtapositions. The stories in the anthology bring to the fore a nuanced spectrum of the act of ‘other-ing’ — from Adit, the “American Born Confused Nationalist Desi” who disapproves of those making a “living out of dissing India” (The Love Life of People Who Look Like Kal Penn) to Mike, the tolerant American who loves “South Asian food” but is not convinced that people “really used smartphones in India” (Minnesota Nice).

He observes the pigeonholing of marginalised identities to fit a particular narrative. It is a mark of neither empathy nor animosity, but something much worse — apathy. For instance, Kashyap brings out the conflict between an outsider who “loves literature from the North-east” and a writer for whom the issues in the literature are lived experiences. The stories expose the often unnoticed gap between the voice of the subaltern and the voice for them.

In Minnesota Nice, Diana, an American, categorises the interruption by a fellow student (a Nepali) as a cultural difference, not rudeness. The protagonist, and Diana’s classmate, Himjyoti finds this to be a convenient measure to create “distance, disengagement and dismissal” to describe things people found “puzzling, confusing or incomprehensible”. The refusal to engage is ubiquitous across the political spectrum, on both the left and the right of the centre. This abject “tolerance”, as Kashyap’s characters often find, is not an answer to abject hate. Vehement acceptance without understanding is — much like sweeping rejection — simply another flavour of “other-ing”.

In their very existence, Kashyap’s stories are defiant, challenging the mainstream intelligentsia’s authority: Why must the voice of the subaltern fit the narratives constructed by those that are not? As the blurb asks, “What are the stories about a place that are told, which ones are worth telling...?” More importantly, who gets to decide?

In Skylark Girl, Sanjib is struck by the absurdity of the “burden of expectations” to tell a certain kind of story, laid on him by those with no stake in his reality. In reading Kashyap’s anthology, the reader must let go of this expectation, set aside assumptions and simply listen to the voices that are telling their own stories.

His Father’s Disease is a book we did not know we needed, and for precisely that reason, a book that must be read.

Ateendriya Gupta is a freelance writer and editor

Published on December 12, 2019
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