Life Under an Insurgency: An Interview with Aruni Kashyap – Michigan Quarterly Review

Life Under an Insurgency: An Interview with Aruni Kashyap

Aruni Kashyap is a poet, essayist, book critic and translator. He is the author of His Father’s Disease (Context/ Westland Books India, 2019; Flipped Eye Books, UK) and the novel The House With a Thousand Stories (Viking/ Penguin Random House, 2013). He has also translated from Assamese and introduced celebrated Indian writer Indira Goswami’s last work of fiction, The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar (Zubaan Books, 2013). He won the 2009 Charles Wallace India Trust Scholarship for Creative Writing to the University of Edinburgh, and his poetry collection, There is No Good Time for Bad News (Future Cycle Press, 2021) was a finalist for the 2018 Marsh Hawk Press Poetry Prize and 2018 Four Way Books Levis Award in Poetry.

His short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in Catapult, Bitch Media, The Boston Review, Electric Literature, The Oxford Anthology of Writings from Northeast, The Kenyon Review, The New York Times, The Guardian UK, and others. He is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Georgia, Athens. He also writes in Assamese, and his first Assamese novel is Noikhon Etia Duroit (Panchajanya Books, 2019).

Naheed Phiroze Patel (NP): Your poetry collection (There Is No Good Time for Bad News, 2021) describes in beautiful, heartbreaking detail what it means to live under an insurgency, under the duress of prolonged state violence. Can you describe, for a Western reader, the extent of the military presence in the daily lives of the Assamese people?

Aruni Kashyap (AK): There is a poem in the collection called “Fake Boots,” and it is based on a true incident. I think it is a great example of the presence of the military and the presence of fear of Indian security forces in the minds of people because of merciless counter-insurgency measures. I was perhaps less than ten years old when this incident happened.

My father took me and my younger brother to the village one evening and due to some delays in the bus schedule, we had reached very late. It was winter, so the sun set quite early. Seven p.m. was also very late as per village standards during the mid-nineties. During those days, the electricity supply was erratic in our village, and since kerosene oil was expensive, people tended to sleep early to save it. Kerosene oil lamps were only for those who wanted to study after dinner. Dinner was served early, about an hour after sunset. My aunt’s family couldn’t even afford power and relied on kerosene lamps. They wrapped up the day as early as possible.

When we reached, they were already asleep and my aunt, who heard the sound of leather shoes on the road next to the house approaching her house, started to cry, calling for help from the neighbors. Later, when I moved to Delhi, I was shocked how my friends, both young men and women, would talk comfortably to members of the security forces, asking for directions, or other random questions. I could never bring myself to do that. During the 80s and the 90s, the first two decades of my life, the army was present almost everywhere. It was common for them to stop us, check our identity cards, ask questions. Going on a trip across cities meant we would meet many such check-posts. There was a strange, normalized sense of fear that pervaded the air. I wanted to capture that in my poems and also have always tried to capture this constant insecurity, relentless anxiety in my fiction and poetry. 

NP: In the past, in India and across the subcontinent, there has been rampant invisibilization of artists who speak from the margins by those belonging to the hegemonized ranks of upper-caste, non-indigenous, cis-het, English-speaking creators. The recent controversy regarding Rolling Stone’s erasure of the rapper Arivu highlights this again. In your opinion, how have Northeast Indian artists experienced invisbilization at the hands of the literary culture of the Mainland? 

AK: I didn’t realize this until I moved to Delhi University to study literature. It was 2004, and by then Assamese writer Indira Goswami – one of the most famous literary figures from Northeast India – had already won India’s highest literary award. She was also a professor at the Department of Modern Indian Languages and Literary Studies. But you will be surprised to know, and I was also shocked to find out that her works were not included in the syllabus of the Twentieth Century Indian Writing course – a compulsory course for anyone who enrolled in the B.A. honors in the English Literature program. 

For people who are not familiar with the Indian public university system, it is important to explain what I mean by this. The syllabi for a certain course, such as B.A. honors in English Literature, in most Indian public universities are designed by a specific committee. Every few years, sometimes even ten years later, they update that syllabus. The instructors are bound to teach this syllabus, unlike Western universities where instructors design their own syllabus. So, if you went to study at Delhi University, as an undergrad, you would be part of one of the eighty-odd colleges where undergrad instruction is provided. These colleges will teach the same reading materials, as prescribed and fixed by a central body in the university’s main office. This course that I had to study, had Amitav Ghosh’s novel The Shadow Lines; India’s only literature Nobel winner Rabindranath Tagore’s novel The Home and the World (translated from Bengali); and a selection of stories and poems from languages such as Urdu, Hindi, Telegu, Tamil. But not a single writer from North East India was part of this syllabus. 

This was just one example. If you pick up anthologies of modern Indian literature, you will either see one or two tokenized writers from Northeast India or none at all. This is a result of many factors, but mainly, a strong bias against our literary production. Another reason could be that many writers from the Northeast don’t forcibly accommodate the desires and demands of the Western reader into their text, which many Indian English writers do by default. This alienates the editors in New York and London, and hence, they find it strange. Our work, which is political, often subversive, or based on oral cultures, is also different; it defies the expectations of what Indian literature is generally expected to be. Finally, the erasure also benefits Mainland Indians. 

As I respond to your question, I am reading the disturbing news that several important texts about state violence on indigenous and Dalit people have been banned by the syllabus design committee in Delhi University’s English Literature department. Apparently, these short stories put our army in a bad light. Writers from Manipur and Nagaland, Assam and Tripura, who have been brutalized by the Indian military, are going to speak about army atrocities, right? One of the short stories they have removed is by Mahasweta Debi’s short story in Gayatri Spivak’s translation. Debi, who wrote in Bengali, is one of the greatest writers in India and was a close friend of Indira Goswami. If that’s the plight of such great writers in the hands of people who would decide what will be read, what about others who have just started writing? I think this is where the role of the diaspora and the diasporic academic, global publishing profession becomes important: to publish, support, amplify, the voices erased in India because Hindutva is no longer only India’s problem. Its tentacles are in the United States already. 

NP: While the collection as a whole takes on the heavy-lifting of the poetry of witness, there are some lovely light, humorous and playful moments as well. The speaker of your poems refers frequently to his grandmother, she is someone who “lives in an antique land of streams, brooks, parrots, honking geese, and ducklings (some of them are ugly)”—can you talk a bit about the role family plays in your poems?

AK: I am so glad you asked that. It is mainly because my family is very large. My grandmother was married at the age of eight. She raised eight sons and three daughters and except my father, everyone else used to live in the same village near each other. Most of their wives, children, relatives, used to live in the same ancestral house. During festivals and mourning periods, my immediate family and extended family would gather. We are still large enough to fill a sports stadium. On a regular day, we are at least a big enough sports team. So, much of my childhood was about spending time with family. This is just my father’s siblings. Next to our ancestral house, my grandfather’s brother built a house. He married three women and had twenty-one children, and around fifty grandchildren. But I also depict family because I am a lover of family sagas. I gulp down long, big, fat, multigenerational novels in one sitting. I love watching long-running family soap operas. The family is the microcosm of the bigger world. It is a fecund source of stories for the literary artist. This ancestral house, in Teteliguri Village, is my Macondo. 

NP: From your poems, it feels like the Northeastern identity has had to withstand many waves of forced assimilation. Can you speak a little about the impact that the citizenship tests and Foreigners’ Tribunals set up under the National Register of Citizens (NRC) have had on the Assamese people?

AK: The history of citizenship laws in India, especially with respect to Assam, is incredibly extensive and complex. So, I don’t want talk about it hurriedly. However, I would like to bring to attention here that the recent changes to the citizenship laws that have gained worldwide attention would affect one community the most: the Bengal origin migrant Muslim community, who have survived all kinds of discrimination at the hands of the state, the ethnic nationalists, and the religious right. In the citizenship debates, this is the community that is often attacked—to say the least. Migration due to historical forces and economic inequality is the most common human behavior globally and it is true that Northeast India has experienced many waves of migration from neighboring states in the last hundred or so years. These migrants, especially the Bengal origin migrant Muslims have contributed immensely to society after embracing a new homeland and the challenges that came with it. Some of the best writers in the Assamese language belong to the Bengal origin Muslim community, such as Ismail Hussain, Abdus Samad and Hafiz Ahmed.

Ismail Hussain is astonishingly prolific with ninety books to his credit. I remember one of his love poems “Bigyapan”, which means “advertisement”, by heart. In this poem, he describes an imaginary lover in great detail. You will be surprised to know that once the poem gained popularity, one day the poet receives a letter from a reader who claims she matches the description of the woman he describes in the poem. The reader and poet meet, fall in love, and have been married ever since. Despite this community’s immense contribution to the state, this community remains one of the most vulnerable and marginalized. And the recent citizenship laws that you have asked me about, which favor Hindus, have made the marginalized communities in Assam – lower castes, migrant Muslims, indigenous people – go through enormous pain. Along with ethnic majoritarianism, I blame state policies for this.

But the state has always failed Northeast India. The Northeast Indian population has always been otherrised and marginalized and racialised by the Indian imagination. This is a story that is before India was born, before modern South Asia. Even in the Indian religious epics, we are described as asuras, or demons. Indian mythological princes and kings came to our part of the country only when they had to go on long, colonial quests. This is a recurring theme in the literature of India from ancient times to the modern period. But the Northeastern region, which is a modern Indian construct, is one of the most heterogeneous regions I know in terms of ethnicity and languages. It would be wrong to say all the tribes lived peacefully from time immemorial. The modern Indian republic didn’t understand the Northeast, it only saw its strategic and commercial advantage in excavating oil, tea, and also as a space for a proxy war with other nations. All of this has contributed to the process of otherisation and are the reasons behind numerous anti-India, armed insurgencies that have changed the social fabric and the experience of generations of Indians living here. 

To make matters worse, the Indian government rules this region with a different set of laws, called AFSPA, which has been called anti-democratic and draconian by all international human rights groups. These laws have no regard for human rights and are at odds with constitutional rights. But still, they exist and are used against our people. Iron Sharmila, a Manipuri woman, a journalist, and an activist started a fast unto death against this law, demanding its repeal. But the Indian government charged her with suicide and force-fed her for about fourteen years. This is the kind of merciless brutality I am speaking about that has no parallel anywhere in the world. Irom Sharmila wrote a collection of poems, too, in Meitei. It is published as Fragrance of Peace, by the feminist press Zubaan. I think people around the world should read her poems. 

NP: In the last decade there has been a boom in translations and other scholarly work, with significant university presses such as the Oxford University Press, Penguin, HarperCollins publishing anthologies and even archived texts from oral cultures. Is the global conversation around Indian literature changing? 

AK: Yes, it is, but very slowly and not to the disadvantage of Indian writers, but to the disadvantage of the US publishing industry. There is a huge opportunity for Anglophone publishing to pay attention to the new political writing emerging from India written by writers from Muslim, Dalit, and Indigenous communities, new literary traditions such as Literature from Northeast India, and wonderful work in translation. But so little of all that is out in these markets. It is largely because of the limitations of publishing professionals who aren’t able to recognize their potential and because American publishing has such rigid ideas of what a good story is, what a good poem is. 

Imagine if Faulkner’s editor, who had Sound and Fury on their desk, had thought about that? Or the editor of Finnegans Wake? As an academic teaching in a research-intensive American university, I see how America’s corporate publishing, which has so much power, intellectually and aesthetically impoverishes itself by fixating on a shallow tokenistic understanding of diversity and in turn, makes all of us poorer. There are so many books that I want to teach my students here that are not readily available because there isn’t an American edition. I don’t know how we got here: how did American editors become so insular? And even after a month, we still don’t have the books of Abdulrazak Gurnah easily available in the US, despite winning the Nobel prize for literature! As if, for global Anglophone writers, even the Nobel isn’t of much help. 

There was a time when agents such as Georges Borchardt and publishers such as Barney Rosset took enormous risks and efforts to publish international writers, but that hunger is suddenly gone now. Anything that doesn’t address or center America is cast aside and international seems to mean Italian and French, or British. I find it sad and hilarious at the same time. But despite this I go back to my class, and start again every day and try to convince the student who finds Nadine Gordimer “too political, Mahasweta Debi “too subversive”, why Debi and Gordimer wrote the way they wrote. But “too political” and “too subversive” are grounds, I am told, for rejecting manuscripts in New York. Back in Delhi, I used to read about Barney Rosset and his struggles with censorship, his zeal for internationalism, his interest in new ways of storytelling, and admire the US publishing culture. Perhaps, that’s why I sound disappointed to find an industry I admire shrink into parochialism. 

So to answer your question: things are changing globally and this has largely taken place because of a strong homegrown English publishing industry in India that publishes works in translation and works from radical literary traditions in far bigger numbers than before. India also has its own literary awards system that helps us in bringing into focus important literary works. Literary awards have their own problems, but I do think it helps bringing attention to valuable works of art. I was one of the jury members of the JCB Literature Prize in 2020, and we awarded a brilliant novel called The Moustache by S Hareesh. This novel would never survive the feedback regime of American or British workshops. Editors abroad will have to approach this book with humility and try and understand the literary style, point of view of the author and not impose their standards of what is good storytelling if they really want to usher in a brilliant work of literary fiction to their space and enrich themselves. If they don’t do that, it is their loss, not a loss to Malayalam literature. 

Also, well-meaning people in the diaspora who teach, who organize, who try to amplify the relentless nosedive of India as a result of a Hindu fundamentalist government, are deeply concerned about what’s happening back home. Through their teaching, through their podcasts, through their journalism, advocacy, the concerned diaspora is engaged in supporting literary expression from these previously underrepresented traditions that question and complicate the idea of India with love and compassion. From my first novel, I have always written about India’s darkest aspects, but with hope, delight, love, kindness, because I really want to have a functioning and safe, and equal country to remain where I can go back occasionally to meet my friends and loved ones. 

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