Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Searching for an ‘eco-inclusive’ literary culture

On the 16th of February, I visited the annual World Book Fair at Pragati Maidan in New Delhi. I have been attending it religiously for the past few years, not because I run out of books to read (there are several tucked away in my bookshelf that I have yet to finish for want of time), but because every year I learn something new at the fair. Sometimes it is a book discovery, other times it is a conversation, still other times it is a glimpse of a new culture through the books from other countries. This time, I had just finished browsing in the guest country Singapore’s book exhibition (bought 3 wonderful illustrated children’s book from Singapore), and walked into a forum discussion in an adjacent hall where a panel of intellectuals were discussing ‘Writers and Writing History of North East India’. There were shelves on the sides lined with relevant book though ‘for display only’. There were paintings on the walls displaying works of artists from the northeast. On the other side were posters containing snippets of information on the cultural icons of the northeast – Sacred Forests, Bamboo, Tea, Hornbill Festival, Folk Dance, Textiles, etc. A group of eager listeners were crowded around the stage perched on woven cane morahs. I found a cane chair at the back and sat down to listen in.

One of the panellists was saying – that literature is important for defining state identities, “an assertion of who we are”, and also a means “for engagement with the world”. It is important that literature reflects history, urban culture and morality. While another speaker pointed out that among the northeastern states, Assam has the richest literary culture, as compared to Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh where tribal culture is more predominant, and folklores are the means of telling stories.

This talk made me consider the publishing scene in my own state of Himachal Pradesh. I am not a ‘literary’ type of person; I have a background of ecological sciences. Also, I come from a region in Shimla District of Himachal Pradesh that does not have a written script for its spoken language (there is a technical term for it), although its literacy rate is among the highest in the country. [So, most of the story-telling here is also through folklores, though Hindu religious myths are also used for story-telling during religious gatherings]. As far as the local literary scene (in English) in urban Shimla is concerned, we have wonderfully researched academic books coming out of universities and institutions, about the culture, history, architecture, flora, fauna, folklore, fairs, etc. of the state, but we have not yet incorporated these elements in popular fiction. A few local authors have published books on history of the region, there is a reprinted book on birds of Shimla and one on the heritage walks of the city, there is also at least one anthology. Local children’s literature is virtually non-existent. Ghost stories and tales of man-eating leopards pass off as popular children’s fare.

So, I am really looking forward to read an urban ‘eco-inclusive’ novel (or a collection of short stories) from the state that incorporates elements such as the devdars, the rhododendrons, the orchids, the pheasants, the cicadas, the streams, the local fairs, the weaves, the blue magpies and the ravens, among other things. ‘Eco-inclusive’ is a term I have coined here to express my disappointment about the total absence of ecological elements in the commentary in much of the outputs from urban/sub-urban areas in India, there is an absence of nature as an element of urban identity. Perhaps it reflects the alienation of the city dwellers from nature. Perhaps it reflects a lack of awareness about nature or the significance of it.  It seems that the ecological environment is not as big a part of literature studies as is philosophy, culture, psychology and history. This is something we need to change, and hopefully we will see a positive shift in the trend in the coming years. It was nice to talk to one of the panellists after the discussion.

Some of books exhibited in the hall that I found interesting -
-The Brahmaputra by Arup Kumar Dutta, published by National Book Trust, New Delhi.
-Emerging Literatures from North East india, Edited by Margaret Ch. Zama, published by Sage.
-The Oxford Anthology of Writings from the North East India, Edited by Tilottoma Misra, and
-Cultural Contours of North East India by Birendranath Datta, both published by Oxford University Press.

From the HarperCollins book stall- 'Tales from the Hills' by Manohar Singh Gill (2014). Folktales from the district of Lahaul-Spiti of Himachal.
Also by M S Gill, 'Himalayan Wonderland- Travels in Lahaul-Spiti', published by Penguin Books India in 2010.

Related books-


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