Thirst for identity

Published : Sep 07, 2012 00:00 IST

The book introduces the reader not only to Assamese literature and political history but also to the Assamese mentality.

The geographical location of the north-eastern States has always deprived them of a central Indian identity. Even in the past, the cultural variety of this region had been a hindrance to its assimilation into the Indian identity. Sometimes such obstacles have arisen because of the pre-imposed ideas of the flag-bearers of the Aryan culture and sometimes as a result of the local inhabitants urge to find and establish a self-identity created by the influence of the Mongoloid culture.

Of course, this difference was political, created by the political formality of the creation of the Indian Union. But culturally, the relation or link between Assam and the rest of India can be found in innumerable examples such as the legendary marriage of Krishna with Rukmini, the daughter of Kamrup, and the Assamese version of the Ramayana composed by Madhab Kandali as far back as the 14th century. Even so, if the culture of the region is identified as frontier, then the question naturally arises as to whether the reason for this is geographical, political and economic, or lies in the local peoples mentality.

The same way as an Indian identity of the north-eastern region cannot be found in the national capitals background, it is almost impossible to search for an Assamese identity in the background of mainland Assam. The fact remains that in both cases, though a desire for colonial dominance still exists, deep down in the consciousness of the people there lies an urge and need to establish an identity. This urge is political, but at the same time the linguistic and cultural diversity of the north-eastern region has resulted in an emotional and literary expression of the urge to establish a self-identity. Academic discourses follow only theoretical aspects in the studies relating to self-identity.

It is a matter of great pleasure that Manjeet Baruah has included both historical and linguistic aspects as the subjects of his study and has taken literature as the source of social history in his book Frontier Cultures: A Social History of Assamese Literature. His major interest is to discuss the main reasons for the creation of a frontier culture and also to find out the source of frontier literature, which can be considered or assumed to be created by the people living on the countrys borders.

The book poses two questions: what is our involvement in and contribution towards the social history of written traditions and towards the social history of the regions formation using written tradition as empirical evidence. The book argues that both questions can be taken care of by looking at written traditions as forms and modes of mapping socio-spatial relations. On the question of region formation, the specific argument of the book is that crossroads should be distinguished from frontier. In most of the available research on borderlands, this distinction is generally not made. To make the distinction, the book proposes the principle of dialectic between the shared and the distinct (that is, what communities share and how they differ) in socio-spatial relations. It is through this dialectic that communities maintain and map their relations.

The Brahmaputra Valley, as a pre-colonial crossroads, was marked by this principle. But as a frontier since the 19th century, it came to be marked by the erosion of this dialectic, leaving behind only an awareness that the difference between the two was part of the making of the frontier. The shift from a crossroads to a frontier is the historical argument that the book presents in studying region formation. In this regard, it suggests that an awareness of identity is essential to social processes. What is historical is what is done with that awareness in the context of time. With regard to the Brahmaputra Valley, therefore, awareness or politics of identity needs to be situated in the existence or erosion of this dialectic of what communities share and how they differ from each other. The discussion of written traditions, whether of buranjis (chronicles), neo-Vaishnava performance literature or various modern writings, has been situated in this overall context of shift of a historical crossroads into a frontier.

The initial part of the book discusses the question of Assamese identity, centring it around the Assamese language, the root of which has been discussed through history and culture. But the question of an identity for Assam and the Assamese people in the national context continues to be a cause for contradiction. Instead of being an answer to the problem, it has always remained a question.

Manjeet Baruah must have relished this, and hence wonders at the beginning of the book: The question that rocked me was that if identity is so important and if its consciousness is a concrete reality, why could the region not come up with a common politics for almost eight decades now? There was a time when the diversity of the north-eastern region was never a cause for linguistic, cultural or social conflict. But with changing times, the region, instead of being a part of the Indian Union culturally, has become a part of it politically. So a relation of difference in reality has become a relation of contradiction.

In this context, Manjeet Baruah refers to the challenges Bishnuprasad Rabha, the well-known Assamese poet, dramatist and artist, faced in communicating his art to the grass roots. Rabha had said that Assamese literature could not become an identity maker of its people. It could only represent a relation among the diverse communities, and in order to achieve it, both language and narrative had to be code-mixed. The various strategies that he adopted, whether through literary devices or through performing arts, were aimed at creating an art that could re-establish the eroded dialectic without being reactionary. Rabha tried to re-establish a new dialectic. Manjeet Baruah proposes that culture instead of being an issue of conflict and contradiction could be one of the most powerful means of creating the politics of relation.

Frontier Cultures tries to illustrate how literature engages with such historical socio-spatial shifts. Socio-spatial relations ought to be marked by class rather than by ethnicity or ideas of nationalism or ideas of a romantic past. The book discusses authors and literary strategies, and about the nature and role of the Assamese language, which finds a place in their writings, and wonders whether, on the basis of recent trends in Assamese literature, it can transcend the problem of representation of its social base and conceptually graduate into the emerging domain of north-eastern Indian literature.

A reading of Manjeet Baruahs book introduces us not only to Assamese literature and political history but also to the Assamese mentality. The book also helps us realise the fact that the urge to search for self-identity or even politics lies close to the cultural heritage of a community. As has been mentioned earlier, the same way as Assam is frontier in comparison to other parts of India, many culturally prominent places are frontier in comparison to the Brahmaputra Valley. The thirst for identity created by this frontier mentality has always enriched the Assamese identity of the Brahmaputra Valley. This identity can definitely be a subject of a new study and discourse. Frontier Cultures bears a hopeful probability of such a prospect. This book will be of interest to those in the fields of sociology, history, post-colonial studies, literary studies and literature.

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