Literature is rooted in culture and tradition. The North East is a fertile ground for various traditions that have made their way to this zone along with tribes that brought such way of life along with them when they came here from various parts of Asia. Over 200 tribes and sub-sects inhabit the region. One would normally expect literature to go back several centuries but one must keep in mind that until as late as the 20th century, most of the traditions and stories were handed down by way of word of mouth. It is only in the past century that works of literature emerged from this region. Exceptions are regions like Assam that encompassed Mizoram, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh, where royal kingdoms flourished 1000 years ago and gave birth to legends like Kamarupa around the 10th century and Ramai Pundit in the 12th century. Boru Chandidas, Durllava Mullik and Bhavani Das left their footprints during the later periods. Clubbing the region as North East is a British leftover and indicates a bias whereas people here are highly individualistic and identify themselves with the region and with the tribe. However, the North East has spawned writers like Dr Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya, a Jnanpith Award Winner and also a winner of the Sahitya Academy award, Dr Indira Goswami and others like Bhabananda Deka and others. There are hundreds of works of literature but a few are worthy of mention.
Deo Langkhui by Rita Chowdhury
Unlike recent works that deal with society and the unrest or inequalities of modern times, Deo Langkhui by Rita Chowdhury recounts the history of Tiwa Society from a fresh perspective, weaving into the fabric of a story brought alive by its chief characters, Chandraprabha, the queen of Pratapchandra. The story is full of conflict, betrayal, romance and loyalty of epic proportion. Deo Langkhui or “The Divine Sword” won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2008 and gives readers an insight into Assamese history from the social and cultural perspective while keeping them engrossed in the story.
Datal Hatir Unye Khuwa Howdah by Indira Goswami
Indira Goswami wrote Datal Hatir Unye Khuwa Howdah in the Kamrupi language. Also known as Mamoni Raison Goswami or Mamoni Baideo, she won the Jnanpith award for this book and the Sahitya Akademi award for another book Mamare Dhara Tarowal Aru Dukhan Upanyasa. The title of the book under discussion means The termite/moth eaten howdahof the tusker and recounts the story of Giribala but in the modern 20th century context. The story also weaves in liberalism and traditionalism of society in an interestingly engrossing way.
M K Binodini Devi’s Boro Saheb Ongbi Sanatombi
Boro Saheb Ongbi Sanatombi which, loosely translated, means The Princess and her Political Agent, is a 1979 Sahitya Akademi award winning book by M K Binodini Devi. The author belongs to the Manipur royal family and the story is set in British times recounting interaction of the king with the British. The accent is on giving readers a glimpse into history and presenting the human side to women of the royal household.
Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya’s Mrityunjaya
Mrityunjaya means conqueror of death and this work from Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya made him the first winner from Assam of the Jnanpith award in 1979. The story is based on a real life incident in Barapathar about the derailment of a train that happened in 1942. The fiction is woven around reality involving the plan of a team to derail a train of military officers against the backdrop of the scenic Brahmaputra River in the Panikhaiti valley. Human emotions and incidents are skillfully woven in this narration.
Shree Krishna Kirtana Kabya by Boru Chandidas
Bengalis claim Shree Krishna Kirtana Kabya belongs to them as do people of Assam. However, this literary work dates back to the 14th century when no such distinctions applied and it is as popular today as it was then. It is a Vaishnav drama based on Vishnupurana, Gita Govinda and Padma Purana. The poem-drama treats of the antics between Krishna and Radha and about the snake demon Kaliya, mainly highlighting the yearning of Radha for Krishna.
Burhi Aair Sadhu compiled by Lakshminath Bezbaruah
Translated as Grandma’s tales, Burhi Aair Sadhu is a collection of traditional folk tales compiled by Lakshminath Bezbaruah. First published in 1911, the book has gone through several editions and has also been translated into English. It is a landmark in North East literature comprising works by Lakshminath and contributions by others such as Rudrakanta Goswami, Sitanath Sharma, Chandra Sharma and others. The book is a compendium of 30 folktales rooted in tradition and culture of Assam and the North East.
Mitra Phukan’s The Collector’s Wife
Mitra Phukan wrote The Collector’s Wife in English in 2005 and the story treats of the agitation that rocked Assam during the 1970s. The story revolves around the insurgencies and the way it affected lives of people in a small town with focus on a girl married to the local district collector. The story gives a glimpse into the life and times of Assamese during the difficult period of the 70s and 80s.
Given that the present generation is better educated and more aware about their identity and roots, we can expect more budding writers to emerge on the scene and present some truly great literary works from North East India.