Rakhee Kalita Moral
Dr Rakhee Kalita Moral is currently Head, Centre for Women’s Studies and Associate Professor of English at Cotton University. Her research interests lie at the intersections of gender, conflict, northeast India and literary/ cultural theory. She is a former fellow with Nehru Memorial Museum and Library( 2013-2015).
This paper brings attention to a body of literature from the northeast region of India, specifically women’s writings that grow out of their organic relationship with the geography, its physical environment and, often, its entrenched histories thereof. Avowedly feminist, but with an ecological slant, I argue that the implicit and deep environmental concerns of the writers discussed inform these works with an ecological understanding of the space, dismantling earlier dualisms of nature/ culture or binaries of male/female representations of it. The paper is enabled by a theoretical framework built on existing and contemporary ecocritical and feminist discourse as it reads various writers whose separate genealogies intersect on the common ground of landscapes and women’s lives. Corporeal and even complicit, such a stance for these women writers is also a form of resistance against environmental damage and a plea for liveable homes charting the human interactions with the landscape out of which their poetry and fiction emerge. The literary canvas that is produced, is consequently, a network and web of humans and non-humans, the material and the physical, the mythic and the cosmic creating entangled spaces of imagination and new emotive engagements between known and unknown worlds.
Keywords: environment, landscapes, emotional geographies, material feminism, nature, imagination
…writing is all about enchantment. It is a form of magic, of something from beyond the ordinary mind of the writer. Beyond the singular human form
In her 1962 book, Silent Spring, Rachael Carson for the first time offered, nearly six decades ago, a somewhat dark but timely warning to fellow Americans for the need to look around at the physical, corporeal world and recognise assaults upon its environment and the contamination of its air, earth, river, and seas. What easily begins like a fairy tale in the tradition of the pastoral,
There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings…Then a strange blight crept over the land and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community…(and) everywhere was a shadow of death (Carson 1)
turns towards a dark catastrophe. And in what is now commonly considered as the founding text of eco-criticism in the western world, an urgent cautionary note of alarm was sounded to Carson’s generation about the heavy toll that an anthropocentric universe had inflicted upon nature, resulting in a crisis and a call to feminist concern for the preservation of the land and for more sustainable ways of life with her ‘Fable for Tomorrow’. While assuming that women or the female gender has been normatively associated with “nature,” the “emotional,” the material and even the particular, ecofeminists have rendered the connection more deep, nuanced and even validated it psychologically and philosophically.[i] Developments in ecofeminist and gyn/ecological thinking over the past few decades argue for a complex web of living/loving relationships between women and their own community and kind, and between women and the cosmos ( Kolodny 1975; Daly 1978; Tong 2019). They reinforce the role feminist criticism has played in bringing to environmental philosophy some of the ways in which feminist theory challenges centrist thought and expands the canvas to increasingly include the non-human, and the sub specie aeternitatis view (Plumwood 1993), a step several times removed from the old gendered dualism of mind/ body in which the male/ female dichotomy is played out in the universe around culture/nature.[ii]
As an academic and a woman writing from India’s northeast, I pitch this discussion from spaces where women writers, poets and those who write fiction dwell and experience the self by discovering themselves in and with their habitat, environment and community, and significantly the ecosystems they embody and of which they are an inextricable part. The aspects of the politics of land and women addressed here are primarily via emergent voices in feminist spaces from a specific geography in India’s northeast and are arguably enriched by the cultural critiques and ecofeminist representations in western literatures. The framework provides a useful model to understand how feminist poets and writers, and their writings exist as a new terrain that give voice to “dislocation, disembodiment and localisation that constitute contemporary social orders” (Bordo 545).[iii] So while the cultural articulations speak through the feminised bodies of women and how they signify the land they inhabit, the representations are also responses to other simultaneous forces and threats in the social, political and intellectual worlds they belong in. To speak directly of how culture can correlate with these disjunctions by bringing writers and artists on board to find symbols, images, and narratives that adequately represent such changes seems a meaningful exercise, and gives ecocriticism both its purpose and its promise.
The paper draws from women poets and short story writers, novelists and from oral literatures of northeast India to unveil the experiences of womanhood and its more strident voices uniting the personal and the political, enabling a rich intertwined representation of space, politics and gender in locations where women find their natural homes, at once emotional and material. Most of the writing taken up for analysis, written by women, have a collective consciousness of the relationship they strike with nature, something that primarily re-enacts a writing with and through the body, materially and intrinsically linking themselves to the environment, the earth, the waters, the forests and the wilds, creating a cosmos in which women experience the self. Arising out of the struggles of women to sustain themselves, their families and their communities is a plea for environmental protection as well as protection of women, preservation of indigenous cultures, traditional values, sustainable development and other issues surrounding the land that can bring about social change. The assumption that cultural texts construct particular notions of ‘nature,’ suggest therefore, that literary, visual and other representations of nature are reflections of certain temporal views about the treatment of nature. I also refer to the human-material entanglements that emphasise the linkages between human life and the non-human world and dismantle some of the nature/culture dichotomies earlier considered as givens in an enlightenment world. Reading with Bruno Latour, in this context, may help to expand the ambit of what is social to associations and “assemblages” in which the relational aspect of humans, non humans and things create a network of actors determining each other, more famously now referred to as the actor network theory( ANT).[iv] Earlier Annette Kolodny’s The Lay of the Land with its manifest symbolism of land-as-woman has provided a useful psycho-linguistic approach to contemporary debates around identities, belonging, home and justice among other concerns. Pushing the argument further towards other irreducible relationships, beyond mere symbolisms to larger networks in which subject positions and identities emerge because of the relations forged is what Donna Haraway ‘s A Cyborg Manifesto strives for as entanglements and reconfigurations of women and the non-human worlds are claimed over transcendent bodies of women or their epistemic purity.[v]
While I do not suggest that writing by women that comes out of the region is a homogenous literature, most of the pieces featuring here are selected from a range of writings which shares the ease of a common language and can alternately be read as literature born of the historical exigencies of a postcolonial state struggling to keep the nation and its attendant experiences and expressions together. And while this carries the risk of flattening the individual experience of the women who write in a link language (in this case, English) willingly immersed in the Northeast India’s Anglophone cultural production of knowledge of their own land and native lives, the larger objective of such an exercise is to also bring to the table a conversation that emanates from the intertexts of women’s voices across spaces, regional and metropolitan, or for that matter Asian and Western. I argue that this enables a dialogue about and by women, on the environment, or as Adrienne Rich remarks, compels “the need to imagine a world in which every woman is the presiding genius of her own body…” such that writing through the body articulates “the first step towards an eco-sensitive understanding of the female form” (292).
The poetics of self-writing evokes the complex and fraught existence of living in these ‘margins’ that the country’s northeast has figuratively been viewed as, where women’s bodies and the environment, at once fragile and hardy, take on the daily practices of the body as sites of multiple world-experiences imbued in the quotidian, and in the particular struggles of living. Such forms of representation and feminist expressions combine and conflate experience in these spaces with the twin prisms of body and world, without collapsing them into an essentialist subject-object binary making place and location integral to specific territorial identity, its imagined and real landscapes and their allegorical meanings in lives lived in those spaces.
In engaging with some feminist /woman poets and writers from India’s northeast, I read their inclination to relate to their environment as also a tool or a bridge between the personal (or the poetic-self) and the social, and more significantly as a framework to understand their corporeality and complicity in the intimate act of survival and resistance. The title chosen for this essay is from a poem by a writer in Northeast India I discuss here for her innate and seamless relationship with the mountains that are her home, and the near oracular figuration they mark onto lives in “small towns,” where to “walk with the gods” is both a revalidation of the space and the land that nurture them and more significantly, acknowledgment of the superior world of the nonhuman or more-than-humans around them. It sets the tone for the tropes that these writings adopt as imaginative expansions of the idea of place, cultural geographies, as it were, triggering off “human interactions” with a landscape or environment (Blair 1998).[vi] Some of the works I shall illustrate from embody that powerful and expressive geography, a terrain that gives voice to dislocated, disembodied and dispossessed human realities which are implicated in natural history.
To invoke once again Silent Spring, Carson’s use of apocalyptic imagery and literary allusions in it established the relationship between physical environment, geographies so to speak, and a literature leading to what has since developed into ecofeminism with feminists too seeking to relate the environment to more social/personal concerns. Ecofeminists or contemporary nature writers often articulate a modern pastoral by imaging nature not merely as voices they appropriate the subject with but also as a desiring object . Karen Warren in her philosophical study of women, culture and nature, posits the idea of nature as a non-fixed embodied subject that humans can begin to know and understand in multiple ways and through intricate and intimate relationships between its constructs and the constructions of knowledge, desire, power, language, race, gender and sexuality (2014: 234). The ethical or environmental turn in feminism then seems historically only inevitable as early feminist models naturally evolved to more inclusive feminisms, foregrounding gender, race and sexuality to include colonisations of ecologies and the opposition of forms of hierarchy and their domination in its ambit. Establishing deeper and more rooted connections between ecological/feminist literary practices and environmental ethics, particularly those of women and nature, can be potentially liberating for both women and non-human nature in the ecofeminist project and explain the presence of a large field of writers and activists who share a common cause, if through their own locations and perspectives towards a larger unified direction within differences of spatial awareness and /or of more nested space (Blair 548).
With its longue durée of colonial domination, its cultural diversities and the more recent concerns of resistance towards the state and need for autonomous lives in pristine spaces that the country’s northeast evokes, the feminist practices of writers and oral cultures available in these geographies evince interest about people, place and nature. The environment thus, is no longer something out there, an entity outside of oneself or an inert and empty space, but as Stacy Alaimo contends, a material/ spiritual presence, an “epistemological space” in which several actors comes together – a web or network of humans, non-humans, material, chemical, even the mythic and the cosmic - such that humans and their environment cease to be separate (238). Temsula Ao, Naga poet and writer and someone who has in the past three decades been regarded as a seminal voice from the northeast, observes how women of her tribe appropriate the power of the world, typically invested in males, through supernatural agency in imaginative tales and fiction from her native land (On being a Naga 2014). This she explains by alluding to Naga oral literature and the story of Yajangla, for instance, in which the eponymous female protagonist destroys her oppressive husband by transforming herself to a beast, and which by virtue of being a form other than human allows her to “reenter the realm of nature from that of nurture” where she is typecast only as submissive wife and mother thus realising for her, in that moment of combat, the ultimate enactment of power (81) . And though in the conclusion to the story she reverses her form from animal back to human, Yajangla semiotically participates in a universe larger than the immediate cosmos of human beings revealing the interconnections between human corporeality and the mystical, or the more-than-human.
I emphasise the moral/ ethical dimension in which women radically reshape relations in and among various creatures, human and non-human and the underlying values of both the social and emotional worlds they inhabit. Clearly, Ao argues for inclusion and a reinterpretation of the past, enabling an imaginative and intuitive dialogue with the traditional way of life and collective pasts to create a literature relevant to both the native folk as well as to a universal audience about these inherent linkages. Also pertinent is the closeness of the poet to the mysteries of the land and earth that is sometimes her terra incognita in which new networks and habitats are necessarily forged. In her early verses, she recalls her violent encounter with the degradation of her forest home personifying its rocks, trees and foliage:
I stand at the village gate
In mockery of my former state
Once I stood in a deep forest, proud and content
My beloved of the laughing dimple
Standing by my side…
Then they dislodged me from my moorings
They tore me from her side
They chipped and chiselled
And gave me altered dimensions
( From ‘Prayer of a Monolith,’ Songs from Here and There )
Ao’s early leanings towards a liberal ecofeminist stance reaffirmed that women have the potential to conserve natural resources and maintain a balanced life with their environment. In the prisitine spaces of the Naga hills, and also in Meghalaya, both part of the eastern Himalayan foothills in India’s northeastern landmass, where Ao spent most of her working life, the tearing down of once-virgin hills for the sake of development re-enacts for the feminist her devaluation with nature being recast as the feminist space. However, nature has for a long time been associated with women, almost synonymously sharing those corporeal attributes which the feminist project in the west has, necessarily, in the late twentieth century attempted to reconfigure and disentangle “woman” from “nature”. It is possible therefore to read in these articulations the “movement across human corporeality and nonhuman nature necessitating rich, complex modes of analysis that travel through the entangled territories of material and discursive, natural and cultural, biological and textual”. (Material Feminisms 253)
In more recent times such a trend is also witnessed in the writings from the region, in poetry and fiction that celebrate a certain dualism in which nature-culture, subject-object, mind-body have been reconfigured to no longer remain essentialist. I shall invoke two young writers to demonstrate this: Nitoo Das and Mona Zote, two different but equally feisty “Northeast poets,” one writing from the heart of the metropolis with an idiom inseparable from the elements surrounding her home by the river and against the hills, and the other homegrown in the deep of the old Lushai hills, now Mizoram, one of the more hidden and less-known frontiers of the country.[vii] Topography and terrain naturally animate the poetics of these writers and their writing assume the somewhat ambivalent sense of a ‘wilderness,’ a departure from the traditionally held secure belief in the domesticated and tamed ‘pastoral’ of the past. That archetypal space of the pastoral which had notionally offered itself as a retreat or an escape, an almost sacrosanct space of refuge was different in nature from that of the unknown trials and dangers that stalk the forest and the wilds of the writers in the present discussion (Harrison 1992: 121). Developing his idea of the strange wilderness, and contesting the older form of signification tied to the wilds and natural spaces, RP Harrison in his classic reading of forests proposes that it is possible to see “enchanting epiphanies” or “oracular disclosures” or even strange and monstrous symbolisms in them. Women writers from the region find resonance in their environment and seem to encounter the wilderness in a similar way that suggests a strange and seamless recognition, explaining both the claims upon their body and the land they embrace as their own to protect and preserve. Ecofeminist critic, Vera Norwood has argued that women write wilderness differently, “experiencing immersion rather than confrontation” while responding to their landscapes (334). Something of that nature is borne out by Mona Zote in her poem “What Poetry Means to Ernestina in Peril” on the troubled and restive land of her home in Northeast India:
What should poetry mean to
a woman in the hills
as she sits one long sloping summer evening
in Patria, Aizawl, her head crammed with contrary winds,
pistolling the clever stars that seem to say:
Ignoring the problem will not make it go away.
So what if Ernestina is not a name at all,
not even a corruption, less than a monument. She will sit
pulling on one thin cigarillo after another, will lift her teacup
in friendly greeting to the hills and loquacious stars
and the music will comb on through her hair,
telling her: Poetry must be raw like a side of beef,
should drip blood, remind you of sweat
and dusty slaughter and the epidermal crunch
and the sudden bullet to the head.
In this now celebrated poem by Mona Zote, one that has been read innumerable times for its obvious context of the violence of a militant Northeast region, I am tempted to see Ernestina not as a victim, but one who wills to speak, from the hills, like a kinsperson, sending the cosmic pattern into silence “…the old goat bleats/ We are killing ourselves/ I like an incestuous land…Stars , be silent/ Let Ernestina speak… Waiter bring me something cold and hard to drink.”
For Mona Zote, arguably, a poet who has collective memories of violence and the Mizo insurgency that fought the nation in the sixties, the feminist space is inscribed with agency even as the church is mired in contempt and the poetic persona doesn’t belong in what she labels “the committee of good women.” The idiom is deliberate and unsentimental here, steeped in blood , and as Zote observes elsewhere in the backdrop of a “ black hill disgorged of its warm minerals”(“Anti-love Poem”) and not wreathed in roses, recalling what Alaimo Stacy observes about nonhuman nature or the human body which can “talk back,” resist, or otherwise affect its own cultural construction.(242) Instead of remaining grooved in the essentialist repository of “nature” that has reinscribed for women the disadvantaged half of the binary in which she must forever belong, Zote performs the interventionist role of the material feminist whose prerogative it is to silence without sentiment the cosmic elements, and to force a drink to its hard end. Women have played significant roles, Buell observes, in their “engagements with institutions of state, capital, indigenous structures and multiple forms of state politics” (2005:20), something that Mona Zote’s poem is foregrounded on while also alluding to the unspoken consecration that Ernestina shares with the elements of the hills of Patria in Aizawl. Her poetry or the cultural expressions from the space she inhabits provide a sense to the reader unfamiliar with its natural landscapes of the awareness of the deep connections between nature and the woman writing, and the overarching presence of the primeval and the timeless that continue to participate in human lives unsettled by temporal events.
In her Boki poems, written more than a decade back, Nitoo Das explores a similar agency in the poetic personae, whether from her pubescent preteen self, as the irreverent lover, or the unapologetic middle-aged and brazen Doiboki baring her breasts, or even the non-human, wise-eyed “wet crow” that speaks. The most daunting aspect of such a project is to radically rethink materiality, the “mere stuff” of bodies and natures that constitute feminist desires and the directions they take in animating what appear sterile, separate worlds.[viii]
Both Mona and Nitoo perform their womanhood transcending biology and the culture: Mona with defiance grown in the madness of militancy, and Nitoo a rebel of patriarchy as much as of an oppressive nature in which she and her gender are placed. The latter’s poem, titled “Margherita,” is a performance of the ecofeminist who must necessarily respond to the threat of ecological damage in the face of the material realities of her environment and her lived relationships with nature and the community.
Margherita It was a word lisped for years until my mother taught me to blow air it to precision. Ma-rrr-gh-er-ita. Mar-gher-i-ta. Margherita. My mother’s home. This is where she was born. As deviant as the Lily of her name in the mines of Oxom. The starving Dihing in her backyard devoured her home making it smaller with each flood year. Tea kept her awake; coal embered inside her. Is there an escape alien queen? Ma-kum, Ma-kum (Cyborg Proverbs)
Nitoo Das’s seamless figuration of the coal-rich town of Margherita established during the colonization of the eastern province’s Upper Assam valley to which she traces her genealogy superimposed upon the heavily inundated tributaries of the Brahmaputra, flowing by her maternal home’s backyard, and the tea-factories in the vicinity coalesce in her poetry into a powerful knowledge about nature that is distinct from that of men of her class. It is at once her cultural leverage and her natural destiny that bring into her writing the ethical and the social consciousness of the cyborg (deliberately adopted as reigning metaphor of her poetry) that blurs boundaries between humans and technology and other founding dualisms that concern much feminist thought around images, ideas and narratives.
In her recent collection Crowbite (2020) she uses some of the old Khasi oral traditions and myths as tropes to erect the edifice of an ancient if lost people , and poems like “Mawphlang” about a sacred and timeless grove that defies trespassers who pluck or take forest fruit and ageless trees that stand as silent witnesses to the rush of human speed and invasion into their secrecy. Her stance here is strongly reminiscent of native American writing and naturalist writer Linda Hogan’s love for the “red country” of her Chickasaw tribe or her wisdom laid out in her prefatorial comments in Dwellings (1995) :
These writings have grown out of those questions, out of wondering what makes us human, out of a lifelong love for the living world and all its inhabitants. They have grown, too, out of my native understanding that there is a terrestrial intelligence that lies beyond our human knowing and grasping. (Introduction)
Nitoo exhibits a similar wonder and reverence for the universe, its smells, sights and sounds. Her book of birds and beasts, poems about flesh, fish and fowl mark her space in sites of the non-human, a cyborg’s journey that gives one of her more recent poetry collections, its name, Cyborg Proverbs (2017). In the evolving feminist discourse, Nitoo is inalienable from Nature which is for her as Donna Haraway remarks:
...also a trópos, a trope. It is figure, construction, artifact, movement, displacement. Nature cannot preexist its construction, its articulation in heterogeneous social encounters, where all of the actors are not human and all of the humans are not “us,” however defined. Worlds are built from such articulations. (Material Feminisms 2008)
In her poetry , Nitoo Das speaks of trees as company, a kindred world she inhabits, names that she rattles off like a list of familiar friends participating in their world, in their body and the semantics of their anatomy:
Everyone says she should sit
on other trees. The usual trees.
She, however, loved the Maulsari,
the Bokul, the Kirakuli with its white flowers
that she stuck to her breasts with spit. Sometimes,
she hid within its hollows… Sometimes, she grew into
petals: so auspicious, so fierce.
The tree knew her like it knew me: the quiet
of home, remorse of a river, clap
of birds’ wings over a scarce island.
And she reassembles herself
outside the trunk __
clavicle, calves, coccyx—
until she becomes
a pinprick of moondark.
(from “The Tree that Knew Her,” Cyborg Proverbs)
Among many of Nitoo’s wilderness poems, of trees, rivers, forests and hills the Cyborg poems also share the motif of return and escape , though unlike that of a simple retreat here one discovers the easy metamorphosis like the corporeal ‘jokhini’ (or simply, Assamese for witch) which blurs into trees, water, forests and becomes nature. In Nitoo’s feminist imaginary, the forest or its foliage are not merely “a consecrated place of oracular disclosures …as a place of strange or monstrous epiphanies …or as a sanctuary where wild animals may dwell in security far from the havoc of humanity …” (Harrison 1992: 121) In synergy with the body that writes, the forest instead, is invested with the feline energies of a tree –nymph or a river spirit that seamlessly unite` the human with the non human, woman and witch, a mutualness which is the source of agency, of poet and woman.
She once told me
she never combed her hair.
Knotted, knee-length, lice-ridden
hair that could decode all stories.
Her hair is thrice song
and twice surrender.
The split ends are tributaries: Dibang,
Kameng, Dhonsiri, Subansiri,
the dandruff: stardust,
the grey: filaments of the day.
Her hair grew over branches, leaves…
The long knotted hair of the witch, signals towards an organicity that spills out of the grotesque body to grow into the land’s waterways and forests dissolving every venal and stock association of the witch. The feminist voice rings with disdain rejecting the older myth of the ideal wilderness, and invests it with the cynicism of the eco critic, or promotes on the other hand , a poetics of responsibility. This echoes Carolyn Merchant’s view that the nature that was "a replica of the cosmos....set in her crown as jewels were the signs of the zodiac and the planets; decorating her robe, mantle, tunic, and undergarments were birds, water creatures, earth animals, herbs and trees; on her shoes were flowers" is now dead. Instead that ‘natura’ has been violated, “her undergarments torn exposing her to the view of the vulgar”, as Nitoo’s poetry consciously writes through the body, locking the feminist impulse with her confessional mode, ready to give and partake of nature, in search of more livable worlds. (Merchant 1980; 1992).
And that strain of poetry connects the landscapes and feminist spaces of the region to an older poet and fiction writer, Mamang Dai who is firmly grooved in Northeast India’s literary canon. This reading of feminist poets and writers would hardly be adequate without taking a look at the intersectionalities that frame and fix their writings: Mamang, a tribal highlander for instance from Arunachal Pradesh rewrites the history of her race and the lives of Adi women that she embodies in her literary discourses, fiction, poetry and ethnography. A former bureaucrat familiar with the policies of state and governance, and self-willed writer by choice, Mamang Dai easily translates the body/land trope of her being into her poetry and her prose. In “River Poems”, and poems like “An Obscure Place” she announces her everyday practice with her mountain home which is also the subject of her Legends of Pensam (2006) that presents its endangered environment to the outside world, a realm that she fiercely protects from the invading world of capital, cunning and development. “There are mountains /Oh! There are mountains/ We climbed every slope/ We slept by the river,” (“An Obscure Place”).
Dai is driven by the instinct for self-preservation of the race and the stoic passive role of women at once performing the role of a creative writer who is also cultural historian of her community and her native peoples.
The river has a soul.
It knows, stretching past the town…
When the soul rises
it will walk into the golden east,
into the house of the sun.
In the cool bamboo,
restored in sunlight,
life matters, like this.
In small towns by the river
we all want to walk with the gods (River Poems 2004)
In many ways Mamang’s writings (also Legends of Pensam) are a response to the exploitation, domination and devaluation of women as well as nature by patriarchal society. Technological development, which is considered by Cultural Ecofeminism to be essentially masculine, is responsible for degrading and ruthlessly exploiting the ‘feminine’ nature. As an ecofeminist she celebrates nature as a female entity, revisiting the ancient rituals of worshipping various goddesses and the female , a world in which gods and spirits coexist with mortals, and humans walk with non-humans.
A fresh and more recent exponent of such an arresting feminist geography is writer Janice Pariat, drawing from her native Meghalaya, whose fictions dwell in the shadowy zones between the mystical and nostalgia, between spirits and serendipity, a world that is gently hewn out of the very mists that envelope her people of the hills.
We were standing on a field at the head of a valley flanked by rows of jagged mountains that seemed to multiply themselves , growing higher and more distant, layering each other in shades of blue and green … we walked to the edge of the field which dropped sharply into the valley. A wind swirled up, tugging at us with invisible hands
We sat in silence, listening to the wind, watching the way the mist changed shape of the trees , It looked like faces, the ones you pass in the street everyday …At times the mist fragmented like light on the water, opening trails and doors and windows, settling into the bulky shapes of houses. It swirled like our feathered dancers holding swords and lamenting about an ancient tribal war; it tiptoed like women on the fringes, moving in slow , graceful lines…The mist was our history. ( Boats on Land 136)
The protagonist of the above story, excerpted here, by Janice Pariat (‘Laitlum’) is nature, a topos, a place, in the sense of a rhetorician’s place or topic for consideration of common themes; and we turn to this topic to order our discourse, to compose our memory. As a topic in this sense, nature also reminds us that in seventeenth-century English the “topick gods” were the local gods, the gods specific to places and peoples. These spirits are present rhetorically if we can’t have them any other way. We need them, as Donna Haraway observes, in order to reinhabit, precisely, common places—locations that are widely shared, inescapably local, worldly, and enspirited. In this sense, nature is the place in which Janice rebuilds the public culture, outside of the reification, the appropriation or the nostalgia that it typically evokes (Material Feminisms 157).
The semiotics of these hill narratives, as Pariat lyrically exhibits, informs her writings with a fluidity that also points back to the reigning tropes of her early work, Boats on Land (2014) in which the water of deep and swift mountain streams hide the shape-shifting water spirits and nymphs that belong in another time and to another imagination that are what the author terms, “smoke –hazy, sun-tempered.” Pariat gestures in this story towards a same-sex, lesbian emotion that captures the slow but symbolic meanings of the story which also participate in the other-worldly, ethereal and unspoken stories of the past. While Pariat captures inimitably the haunting beauty and mist-laden magic of the northeastern topography, she is the outlier in a sense who combines the signifying tropes of her own magical spaces with the larger and more universal portent of human lives as she moves out of those surreal and almost airy environment into the bustling urban everyday realities and ordinary instincts. Nature is thus a place , also to be inhabited, or to come back to without disrupting its terrain and so eternally prevails in the local and in the intuitive as Pariat’s stories suggest, a sliding into that marks the lightness of her protagonists as creatures of an entangled world.
In conclusion, I offer a brief comment on another voice, from Nagaland, that of Easterine Kire (Iralu) whose journeys through her fictions, poetry and memoirs retrace the woman’s route via memory and myth. As a historian of Kohima both in her recent fiction, A Respectable Woman and through Mari, her memoir about wartimes during the 1940s via the diaries of her aunt Mari, Kire brings a new awareness of various stories of exploitation and how her people cope with the struggle of ordering their lives around modern and contemporary maladies. Mari, like other her recent works is nearly a study of "healing" within geography and can be associated with the field of therapeutic landscapes in which the myths and lores of her people and land shape and give signification to her themes ( When the River Sleeps 2014) . As a number of these studies touch on mental, emotional and even spiritual wellbeing, there has been a great deal of cross-fertilization with the literatures of emotional geography and how cultural and emotional expressions blend to ascribe meaning to place and people (Williams 2007; Milligan 2007)[ix]
Easterine Kire has introduced into Northeast literature the idea of an emotional geography, a field that has done a great deal to extend ideas of health and healing within the spaces of women’s writing—not least of which by including emotional wellbeing within its remit. Indigenous American writer Linda Hogan’s The Woman who Watches over the World: A Native Memoir (2001) is a self –restorative work in American literature that explains the kind of writing Kire achieves:
Self-telling is rare for a Native Woman, but when I work on reservations with young people they want to know how I survived my life. I wish I could offer up a map and say ,'This way.' But it is not so easy. There are no roads through, no paths known, no maps or directions… It's not that we have lost the old ways and intelligences, but that we are lost from them. They are always here, patient, waiting for our return to their beauty, their integrity, their reverence for life. Until we do so, we will have restless spirits. . . . (Introduction)
For Kire, her own native memoir, A Respectable Woman (2017) is a woman’s attempt to come to terms with the devastation of the Kohima war, the loss of home and property and the deaths and destruction of family and loved ones in a sort of self-telling. Memory blurs from this landscape into the present and such an encounter with the spiritual geography of her land allows for healing and renewal. The remembered landscape of Kohima and the Naga hills, is both traumatic and cathartic fired by the restless memory of a past and the community. Hers is an account of the devastation of land, of the destruction of lives and the onslaught of war, something that took forty-five years for her mother “to bring herself to talk about”(3). It is a world inhabited by memory, by spirits , “something beyond the singular human form”, as it were, and by encounters with ghosts and the remembered moments. Kire matter-of-factly refers to these as “spirit sightings”, something she claims Angamis ( the tribe she belongs to) are familiar with. People believe and claim, she says, “ that spirits have favourite haunts such as village ponds, the village gate, big boulders, great trees, abandoned houses and gullies , and graveyards” ( 176) . Kire’s Kohima mappings is also at one level an obituary of the old Naga villages that have given way to the urban reorganisation of Kohima in which several forest areas have made place for private residences, along with the disappearance of the commons and the old lots that were characteristic of the town. Her novel ends with a short statement on the Prohibition Act of 1989 which bans alcohol in the state, but she also observes that alcoholism is a problem and alcohol-related deaths continue unabated as the flow of adulterated alcohol, containing methanol and other toxins remains unchecked in Nagaland.
In a recent conversation Kire, however, makes clear that while she does not toe the “feminist” line nor fit any narrow political end she writes for the people , through a re-telling of the most traumatic events that shaped lives on those hills, in the form of “people-stories”.[x] The narratives abound in experience and story-telling, of corporeal truths, and the stories of the community and its environment. In that sense, her environment conflates the natural world with the built-up dimensions to become the transformed land. Arguably, the eco-sensitive nature of her work serves as a bridge between personal histories and between women and the environment , creating a brand of self-conscious and self-reflexive writing that involves what Lawrence Buell has called “acts of environmental imagination.”[xi] They connect readers to places with an empathy that make for a new kind of caring for the physical world , and possibly for alternative futures, and elicit in the attentive reader deep thoughts “about a cherished, abused or endangered place”(2001 :2). The readings, selective but sensitive, chosen in this discussion cannot perhaps overemphasise the need to attend to these voices that sound concern about our fragile and vanishing worlds, our attraction for the enduring green spaces and, above all, the sacred bonds that exist between humanity and the environment, ostensibly known worlds and the unknown wilderness.
[i] As opposed to the earlier feminist quarrel with the patriarchal view of women as soft and coterminous with nature rendering the gender weak, fragile and emotional , ecofeminists have adopted the same metaphors but as strength and have predicated the responsibility of women on this association and their ability to intervene in ecosystems that need repair, and within writing communities which culturally represent the hierarchies existing in their social and personal worlds
See, for example, Annette Kolodny, The Lay of the Land ( 1975) and Louise Westling, The Green Beast of the World ( 1996), both of which differently argue how the feminised landscape offers an escape from a physically brute environment and how women may remedy this condition but, perhaps, sometimes by falling back into the old cultural trap of the lost pastoral and its nostalgia.
[ii] The present essay while being a gendered and cultural account of ecofeminist writing from India’s northeast region and its complex and layered concerns about a space germane to contestations over land, its politics, and its multicultural peoples, is attended by the awareness of the tendency to read with an overtly theoretical critical practice of writing for an endangered world, and thus necessarily makes use of tropes as metaphor and rhetoric.
[iii] Susan Bordo’s work, uses a set of cultural markers to analyse the body and the reproduction of feminity, as she takes a critical gaze at persisting dualisms even in the postmodern contemporary culture and how the gendered nature of mind/body occurs and recurs in institutional and cultural expressions in which the construction of the self is manifestly located.
[iv] Latour ‘s ‘Actor Network Theory’ in Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor Network Theory (2005) established the idea of non-human agency with his principle of symmetry between human and non-human actors that occurs in the network. Also useful in this context is Ian Hodder, Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships between Human and Things (2012) that has a somewhat different reading from Latour’s.
[v] See , Eva Haifa Giraud, What Comes After Entanglement (2019) on how the interrelations between humans , species, communities and environments are nearly impossible to disentangle and elicit new complexities.
[vi] See for instance, Sara Blair,” Cultural Geography and the Place of the Literary “(1998) which points to the neat tying up of the temporal in human experience with the spatial, making way for a new cultural geography that gives voice to the many disruptions of the present. I am influenced by Blair’s proposition of the organizing principle of space as sites of meaning and expression for the writers from India’s northeast that I cite in the essay.
[vii] I use the term ‘Northeast poet’ here as a label that has gained currency for some time now in the country’s northeastern region to include writers writing from the space and do not attempt to problematize the nomenclature in the present essay. However, I am engaged in addressing the term critically elsewhere in a forthcoming volume on the nature of writings from this geography and why they merit a technically different category from the simple directional or ‘cultural’ one that is widely used for writings from the region.
See also, T Misra, Oxford Anthology to Writings from NE India.Vols 1&2 ( Introduction) , New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2011
[viii] See for instance, Bruno
Latour,.. Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene. New Literary History.
2014, 45(1). 1-18. Latour develops the notion of relational worlds , germane to this reading of women, land and the ecological imagination.
[ix] See for instance, Milligan, Christine, Amanda Bingley, and Anthony Gatrell. "'Healing and Feeling': The Place of Emotions in Later Life." In Emotional Geographies, edited by Joyce Davidson, Liz Bondi and Mick Smith, 49-62. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005
[x] Easterine Kire refuses to wear any one of the distinct labels that readers are keen to fix on her. She is clear about her purpose as a writer of her community without being grooved into stereotypes
See for instance, https://raiot.in/writing-nagaland-a-conversation-with-easterine-kire/
[xi] See also, Writing for an Endangered World (2001), Buell’s master narrative on the ways that literature, culture and the environment collaborate from older centuries to the present to debate the hazards of the physical world and direct attention to new alternatives for safer futures.
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