When the North East Writers Forum became a registered body in 1997, there were many questions asked about the “need” ‘or a separate writers’ forum, that too for writers in English, working across all the eight states of the region. This inclusion of all eight states was perceived to be a kind of going against the centrifugal forces that existed, and still exist in the region. Besides, there were, (and still are) many vibrant literary bodies in most of the States. Assam and Manipur, especially, have had a long and distinguished history of written literature, while oral literature has been enriching the culture of the hill states of the region for eons. It is inevitable that writers should get together to discuss, critique and laud each others’ works.
Besides, writing in English was seen, in several of the States, including Assam, as an “elitist” activity, with writers who use this language to communicate viewed as being divorced from the “real” life of this region. Of course English has had a different Status in most of the hill States of the region, where a substantial portion of the transition from the oral to the written literatures is being made through the medium of this language. Even then, writing in English in a place like Assam was not, at that time, viewed as “serious” writing.
It is to the credit of the Forum that it has quietly but definitely lived down these perceptions. Writing in English from this region is now avidly read around the country. Indeed, at international literary events, the works of several of the Forums’ members have been read, enjoyed, discussed. Members have been invited to Book Fairs around the country, their works have been displayed at events around the globe. At the Delhi Book Fair this year, the focus was on writing from the North East, and the works of several members of the Forum, writing in English, were showcased there. The Frankfurt Book Fair, one of the largest in the world, routinely sees a member or two from the Forum taking part in discussions there as an invited guest.
Besides original writing in English, the Forum has always placed a huge emphasis on translation. The important translation project that got underway some years ago, has brought to light several volumes of translations of the efforts of writers working in the vernaculars of the region. Besides, oral literature and folk tales have also been presented as “written” literature through this project. Through these translation projects, writers who work mainly in English “pay their dues” to their mother tongues, as it were, and use their expertise to bring out works of literary translations of great sensitivity, and the highest quality.
The members bond with each other through the language in which they write, a language that was once the tongue of colonial masters, but which has now been “nativised” and made our own to such an extent that there Clearly exists, today, a distinct Style of writing English in India. Much of the writings that are now read across the world, have been read out, diffidently, to Supportive audiences during the Forum’s vibrant reading sessions in the past. The encouragement, and the critiquing that forms an important part of these reading sessions have undoubtedly contributed greatly to the making of many of these works.
Today, the Forum has a large and vibrant membership across all the eight States of the region. We are extremely proud of all the achievements, small and large, that our members have individually totted up. Each triumph, big or small, is a milestone for the member, and also for the Forum. But there are some achievements that need especial mention Among them are the Padma Shri awards to Dr Temsula Ao and Dr James Dokhuma. We all remember the latter’s charming interactions with fellow- members at past meetings. This recognition is well deserved, certainly. Besides, another valued member, Shri Ratan Thiyam, is now the Vice Chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, a highly prestigious assignment indeed.
Today, writings from the North East are creating a stir in literary circles nationwide. Much of these writings are of course in the vernaculars, available to readers through translations. But there is a realization that a great deal of writing in English emerging from this region is intriguing and interesting and yes, very well written, too. The writers speak of different things, things that have not been placed before readers of the world in this particular way, in this particular style, before. The “conflict literature” that has formed such an important part of the writings, through poetry as well as fiction in this region, has winged its way into the hearts of readers, worldwide.
The fantastic thing is that even as the “first generation” of writers in English continues to produce beautifully written and insightful works, there is now a “second generation” that is proving that writings in English from this region are no flash in the pan. It is extremely heartening to see young writers, in their twenties, thirties and early forties, taking writings in English forward. Whether it is poetry or fiction, these young people have already published with important publishers, while several have been taken on by major literary agents from abroad. This augurs extremely well for writing in English in the North East. There is a diversity in their writings, and a unique point of view that shows that this is a vibrant scene. And yet, their writings are very firmly rooted in this land, from which they garner inspiration. Significant parts of the writings of this second generation are what can be termed as diaspora writing. Many of these poets and fiction writers are basing their works on a remembered North East, even as they work or study outside the region. Of course there is nothing wrong with this, as long as the logic of the work stands true to itself. There is always room for questioning and putting forward fresh ideas about the past, for only then can a society, a region, move forward, however haltingly, to a better future. Conflict is, inevitably, an important topic in these writings, but it is not the only one, for there is abundant variety, too, in the thematic content of these works.
While much of the success of the Forum has come through the successes of its members, there is one event that has to be mentioned as an important event in the life of the Forum itself. The NEWF at last has a room of its own. It is of course true that just as every woman (or indeed, why not, every man) needs a room of her own, a society of this kind also needs a place which it can call its own. Due largely to the indefatigable efforts of the Forum’s Secretary, Dhruba Hazarika, the North East Writers Forum now has a large and airy place located bang in the centre of Guwahati. True, the earlier meetings which took place in various venues around the region, and in members’ homes in Guwahati, had their own charm. But as befits a dozen-years-old organization, we can proudly hold literary events now in this well furnished place. Already, book launches and Meet the Author Sessions have happened here, as well as normal, regular meetings. No doubt, as the Forum enters its teenage years, this venue will be the scene of much literary activity.
Guwahati, October 2009