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Ceasefire state of mind

Love and violence, friends and foes coexist within the uneasy world of these stories from the North-East

Parismita Singh’s book ‘Peace Has Come’ is set in the uneasy time of ceasefire. Photo: AP
Parismita Singh’s book ‘Peace Has Come’ is set in the uneasy time of ceasefire. Photo: AP

The title of Parismita Singh’s collection of stories, Peace Has Come, is a tragicomic irony. The three words appear in a letter to an Indian Army soldier posted in that part of Assam where the stories are set—the extreme northern bank of the Brahmaputra, below Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh, what could be territorially Bodoland. Two friends, Dwipen and Prabin, are riding into an ornately described dusk—“The dust road ahead became a pale white river against the dark of the rice fields and the sky ahead, a deep deep red of sleep"—when the soldier summons Prabin to read what’s in the letter. Neither soldier nor civilian can read the language. During their journey on a rickety bike, Dwipen reads the words: “Peace has come". The two men laugh uproariously, and simultaneously feel the weight of a great sadness.

Are they the only ones who know about this “peace"? Isn’t violence the only way of life under this sky?

Singh’s book is set in the uneasy time of “ceasefire". The joke is on Dwipen and Prabin, and their kin and rivals. Everybody in this beautifully heartbreaking world Singh creates has a friend who has turned hostile or a stranger who has altered the course of their lives. After several years of violence, in which neighbours, lovers and friends go against one another while fighting obscurity and apathy from the national establishment, is peace possible? In his book about the staggeringly tragic ethnic cleansing in Rwanda, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, Philip Gourevitch quotes a man who survived the brutal killings: “I do not know what else to say about the bodies because I have already seen too much. I cannot imagine it because my powers of visualisation cannot possibly encompass the magnitude of the terror." In a different context, and in very different ways, Singh’s characters make violence look similarly and frighteningly banal.

In late 2017, the demand for a separate state for the Bodos, a tribe constituting around 5% of Assam’s population, resurfaced. Young men staged rail roko demonstrations, saying the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government wasn’t listening to them. Refreshingly, without any scholarship about the region’s strife, politics, culture and societal structure, by focusing on lives that the insurgency has burnt in irrevocable ways, Singh’s book resonates with these times. But its shining quality is the universality of its characters, enmeshed in an identity matrix. They are Bodo, Assamese, Rabha, Santhal, Muslim, Nepali, Rajbongshi—and they love, loathe and coexist with one another. Fear and suspicion constantly surround them; there is no resolution to their ethnic conflicts. The land belongs to everybody and nobody. Idealism and love are severely tested.

The “ceasefire" state of mind is difficult to capture. Singh’s characters are in various stages of purgation: An ageing man recalling a romance from his college days in which one of the lovers was coerced into marrying a militant, a journalist in search of a scoop amid skin-singeing rain and a gruesome accident, a terrorizing yet martyr-like gun-flute man, a Muslim woman’s unlikely friendship with a man from another community, families fractured by mysterious strangers who land up outside their gates.

Not all of Singh’s characters are convincing. Some of the stories are overpopulated and hyper-descriptive. But taken together, Peace Has Come has the distinctive stamp of an emerging literary talent. Unlike other recent fiction set in the insurgency in the North-East, like Dhruba Hazarika’s Sons Of Brahma (2014), there is no attempt at tedious factual delineation. Perhaps because the North-East is not familiar to many, authors and editors tend to spell out the backdrop and context of stories set in the region. Singh and her publisher, Context, the new imprint of Westland helmed by Karthika V.K., focus on the literary architecture of the stories—and that helps articulate her voice unambiguously.

Singh has written graphic novels before, including The Hotel At The End Of The World (2009), about a motley group stranded in a remote hotel somewhere in the North-East, and Mara And The Clay Cows (2015), with the familiar theme of an orphan endowed with superpowers (inspired by a Naga folk tale), for young adults. This book proves she is a better storyteller than graphic artist. Her sense of milieu and human condition are more acute in words. Each chapter begins with a black and white illustration reminiscent of The Hotel At The End Of The World, where she took inspiration from Buddhist and Hindu mandalas and miniatures. Her prose, in the tradition of the Indian English novel that began with Arundhati Roy’s The God Of Small Things, evocative of a region’s smells, colours, oddities and minutiae, far surpasses the breadth of meanings she covers in her graphic work.

Unlike Temsula Ao, Easterine Kire, Mamang Dai and others who have narrated the politics and soul of the North-East through their fiction entirely from within—writers who have lived all their lives in one or more of the seven states in the region—Singh is partly an outsider. She was born in Assam but lived outside the state to complete her school and college education. Like Anjum Hasan and Janice Pariat, she is an “Indian English North-East author"—a term that could be as limiting as it is illuminating. Singh’s stories underline the remoteness of the North-East, more specifically the less-known parts of Assam, with sympathy and tenderness, yet they also articulate a more obviously global voice. Alongside more translations of works from the North-East, the literary world needs talents like Singh who write in English about a diverse and largely misunderstood part of India.

Peace Has Come: By Parismita Singh, Westland, 284 pages, Rs499.
Peace Has Come: By Parismita Singh, Westland, 284 pages, Rs499.

Peace Has Come will be available in retail and online stores from 20 February.

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