‘The Black Magic Women’: Dr Moushumi Kandali on Northeastern women, myths and discrimination

Dr Moushumi Kandali's new book takes up the biases that people from India’s Northeast, particularly Assamese women, face in the rest of the country.

In her new book of short stories, The Black Magic Women (Penguin India, Rs 299), Dr Moushumi Kandali takes up the biases that people from India’s northeast, particularly Assamese women, face in the rest of the country.

Surrealistic and haunting, the 10 stories in the book capture the myths, superstitions and discrimination – from racist slurs to physical abuse – that follow Northeasterners as they move to other parts of Indian in pursuit of employment, love and happiness.

An award-winning bilingual writer, art historian, and translator who speaks four languages, Dr Moushumi’s stories have been published in several national and international literary magazines and anthologies. Her stories have been translated into several languages. Besides four collections of short stories, she has published three research books on visual culture and art, and two books of translation so far.

Her doctoral thesis had been a pioneering attempt at mapping and documenting the entire modernist discourse visual art of Northeast India. At present, she is assistant professor at the department of Cultural Studies in Tezpur Central University, Assam.

eShe asked her about the latest book and her inspirations behind it.

Dr Moushumi Kandali

Your book raises both historical and contemporary issues of racism and discrimination that people from Assam and the northeast states face after moving to other parts of India. Strangely, though, the very qualities of Assamese people that make them unique – and should be seen as assets to a multicultural society – are used to discriminate against them such as their closeness to nature, their cultural heritage, and their open-mindedness, beauty and mystique. Did colonial rule have anything to do with this, or is the discrimination older than the time of the Raj?

The colonial report by a British medical practitioner John McCosh – which triggered me to write the title story ‘Black Magic Women’ in this collection – mentions that the people of this particular province (read: Assam) are seen by the rest of the country as practitioners of black magic, which has certain negative connotations. Therefore, we can infer that there must have been a pre-existing perception since pre-colonial times, as we can hear the resonance of a recurrent saying ‘Kamrup ek kala jadu ka desh’ or Assam is the land of black magic!

Tell us about the patriarchal and sexist overtones in the phrase ‘black-magic woman’ in the Assamese context, and why did you decide to make this the title of the book?

I am not writing it in the context of Assam, but about the Indian scene at large where a definite section of women hailing from Assam or Northeast are perceived in a particular manner with a sexist overtone. I decided to make this the title of the book, or this particular story as the title story out of the 10 stories in the anthology, because I wanted to put across a message, which is about ‘othering’ in the contexts of both race and gender.

At times, it happens very subtly at the level of perceiving and gazing at these women as overtly sexualised subjects or bodies and, in extreme situations, it manifests in terms of abuse and discrimination. And it happens mostly with people who don’t have much agency in society or are not empowered enough to speak about it.

So I decided to speak through my story (or stories) as fictional accounts of reality, because fiction can do what history can’t do at times, or fails to do!

You have drawn on both non-fictional accounts and historical events in the writing of these stories. What are the freedoms and limitations of weaving fiction as compared with reporting facts?

It has both – the freedom as well as limitations! Freedom, because you can take up the things to a close-up level of reading, imagining and empathising unlike reporting or reportage where there are only bare facts. Reporting is a panoramic affair if you speak in the cinematic language. You cannot see the minute detailing. In fiction, you can talk about the scars and tears as seen in a close-up view of a photograph or a film shot.

As for limitation, you cannot make any truth-claims about the things you say in a fictional narrative whereas you can claim that in the case of reporting. However, I must say that Saadat Hasan Manto’s fictional narrative is much more impactful than all the reports on the Partition of India.

Your stories allude to events in recent Indian history such as the Delhi gang-rape of 2012, the murder of a young boy from Arunachal Pradesh in Delhi in 2014, and many others. Why did you pick these particular instances to highlight through your stories?

Because they impacted me! I think everyone in this world processes their realities that they are embedded or entrapped in, in different ways. Sometimes, one responds in unspeakable creative silence or, at times, one reacts in multiple creative voices or expressions.

In my case too, I respond in both ways. In the cases that you have mentioned, I addressed them by re-articulating and re-telling, because I felt a certain restlessness and pain.

There’s a dark lyricism in the stories as we go deep into the minds of the protagonists. How do you see the connection between human memory and the written word?

It’s a tough question! And a very interesting and significant one indeed. The only thing I can say without any theoretical formulations is that the human memory (both beautiful and ugly, traumatic or euphoric) has always tried to find salvage in written words or oral renditions.

They are a kind of transformation and articulation of what remains within the human innards and becomes unbearable at a point unless released through some form, media or expressions – whether words or even rhythmic gestures and mudras! It is both a release and an escape.

Couples in Assam during the Bihu festival (Photo: Vikramjit Kakati)

There’s a reference in the book to inheriting language as a legacy from one’s people. Indeed, language does profoundly affect our perceptions and experiences. As a bilingual writer, how does the knowledge of more than one language play a role in your writing process?

As a multilingual person, you gain much more from the world compared with those stuck in only one language. One thing that has always fascinated me is the medieval Bhakti movement of India and those saint-poets who used to travel across regions and speak or compose in many languages. I am awestruck by their richness of experiences, the vastness of their inner landscapes, their in-depth knowledge and fluency.

As a bilingual writer, I can say there can be great enhancement in terms of perception, which means one can have different perspectives and multiple dimensions if one becomes multilingual and starts appreciating different literatures in their original languages.

To give an example, when I see an Areca nut tree or a date palm tree dancing in the storm, I am reminded of a doha by Kabir in Sadhukkadi and a Bihu song in Assamese at the same time. And then you realise how fortunate you are to know two perspectives within this one singular image, one about the functionality of human existence in this volatile, impermanent world, and the other about the boundless desire a physical (human) body can carry, like a dancing Areca nut tree.

How can we counter the racism and hate that seem to lie latent in Indian society at all levels, needing only a small trigger to erupt? What solution would you suggest to counter the narratives of divisiveness that are used for political gains by the power-hungry?

I have just two words: empathy and love. Forgive me if I sound preachy or pedantic or like someone giving gyan, but I feel that empathy and love are the only alternatives we have at hand. And we can do that by not ‘othering’ people, by breaking this ‘us versus them’ divide.

But well, I know it’s easier said than done.

Your stories highlight the danger of trying to ‘homogenise’ India in a single language or culture, and why nationalism is meaningless in a country like ours unless it takes into consideration our enormous diversity and heterogeneity. What do you love most about India and what do you fear most about its future?

The thing I love most about my country India is this diversity and multiculturalism. As one medieval Bhakti poet had exclaimed with joy, across every few miles in India, there is a different sight, smell, colour, a different India!

I have no fear about its future as I know Indians are aware of this heterogeneity since ages. It is ingrained in our dristi, our vision, in our understanding about the world. If we have survived and co-existed with this knowledge so long for centuries, we will definitely carry on this legacy in the future too. It’s called indigenous wisdom.

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