Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Centering the Periphery while falling off the Map

“Peripheral Centre: The Voices from India`s Northeast”
edited by Preeti Gill, published by Zubaan Books, 2010, New Delhi, Rs.595

One of the many ways of knowledge and information production has been the purposeful interaction between the observer and the observed. Whether the observer is an ‘insider or outsider’ has been largely decided by his/her geographical or ideological location. Related to this debate is the question: who produces authentic knowledge or information? Most answers have more or less been centered on the ‘credibility’ of the producer rather than where the producer is located – inside or outside. The book “Peripheral Centre: The Voices from India’s Northeast” skillfully edited by Preeti Gill takes cognizance of this debate which has been often been overlooked. This book is one amongst the growing corpus of information on the ‘Northeast’ – a bunch of serious thoughts, both by those called ‘insiders’ as well as the ‘outsiders’.

The collection of writings in this book suggest that knowledge and information production of and on the ‘Northeast’ have been necessitated by the imperatives of exploring possible resolutions to decades old issues. Going through the writings throws up layers of murky contractual interests of the ‘state’ vis-à-vis the collective interests and struggles of the people. The “Peripheral Centre: The Voices from India's Northeast” published by Zubaan books has on its cover (both front and back) an image of spray paint and stencil graffiti of Irom Sharmila, seen in some roads and streets of Delhi. This image is akin to the image of the skull and crossbones, only the skull here is replaced by the face of Irom Sharmila. The elements from the original image when superimposed with that of Sharmila points to an ominous warning. What was the intention of this image creator is debatable while accepting the fact the same image has a potent function for the book.

The first title of this collection, “Peripheral Centre” immediately suggests a landscape which is at once a periphery – an edge, an outskirt while simultaneously being the principle point. While projecting the irrelevance of the periphery to the “main”, the addition of the “centre” renders a new meaning that seem to be part of a strategy to undo locational specificities. This does not however reduce the distance felt from all sides and directions. It is of course not devoid of certain nuances, that the periphery is with reference to something. Despite the claim that the book is “the gaze of the outsider”, there is an amalgamation of writings both by “outsiders” and “insiders”.

‘From a Reporter’s Dairy' by Rupa Chinai contends that the phenomenon of widespread drug abuse, especially in Nagaland and Manipur, is not to be seen as one stirred by aimless and disillusioned youth but rather from a perspective that points out the Sanjoy Hazarika’s piece ‘In Times of Conflict the Real Victims are Women’ tries to tackle a whole lot of issues starting from Nellie massacre in Assam to the present day sufferings and struggles of the women in the Northeast. While talking of the killing of Manorama Devi and subsequent protests launched by the women of Manipur, Hazarika seems to have overlooked that fact that it was not just another killing. His account comes closer to the version of the Assam Rifles. He forgets to mention that it was also not ‘just’ the single act of killing (indeed many are killed everyday for killings have become an everyday act) but also the ‘way’ she was allegedly raped and killed (gun shot wounds in the genitals). A lot of water has flown under the bridge since the Manorama episode. Justice B.P. Jeevan Reddy Review Committee of which Hazarika was a member, proposed ‘a legal mechanism that will provide a framework for the armed forces to operate’ in conflict identified areas. But one is still wary of the old masquerading in the guise of new. Who will be deciding that it is indeed (in Hazarika’s own words) a case of emergency requiring intervention? What would be the forms of intervention? Or is he suggesting that everyday occurrences of rapes, molestation, intimidation are ‘mainly a record of the past’? It is also surprising that Hazarika is still trapped in the oft repeated rhetoric of women from the region enjoying high social, cultural and economic status. The women in this region may be slightly better than their counterparts in the rest of India but the essays from this collection and indeed voices from the women writers themselves point to the fact that all is not rosy within.

The editor is bang on target when she suggests that the region is a sort of a cusp, “old giving way to new”. One way to see this is to recognise the fact that it has indeed been difficult for the region, for that matters the whole of India, to cope up and come to terms with modern national institutional framework having skipped an organic shift. Part of the difficulties of these transitions are to some extent captured by Sanjeev Kakoty’s “Tree Sans Roots” as borders are incised and cartographic national frameworks are imposed upon the way of life. The multiplicity of authority – various forms and faces of the state, the non-state aspiring to be the state and building their system based on the military system of the state are discussed by Mamang Dai. In such a scenario the “Northeast” is not a periphery but a crucial centre that should remain a periphery to people’s imagination. Vijalakshmi Brara’s analysis of “Performance” as a gendered space would have been refreshing if she had gone beyond her novel idea of disempowerment. However, Brara is right in pointing out that more often than not women's performance gets relegated as ‘an end in itself’. No constructive or critical outcome is expected of the performance which can question the entire realm of the social. She withdraws after pointing to a new path which disempower her from further exploring for answers. Here, it is pertinent to note that what has often been termed as the “gaze” is definitely shifting towards participation, at least at the discursive level. The attempt to engage with the region is commendable. The variegated narratives in Peripheral Centre: The Voices
from India’s Northeast maps out a whole realm of complex issues that exist in a region clubbed together as the “Northeast”. However, one needs to accept the fact that this idea of mapping is still anchored to the nation building exercise of a democratic country. A poem by Mamang Dai used right in the beginning of the introduction, says Now, when we close our eyes, and cease to believe, god dies but the complexities in the Northeast may not.

This review was published in The Sangai Express on 25th of July 2010
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