Aruni Kashyap is a writer and an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Georgia, Athens. Originally from Northeast India, he has published two books of fiction and has edited a collection of stories about the insurgency in Assam before publishing his first collection of poetry There is No Good Time for Bad News in 2021. This work is an attempt by Kashyap to erase the invisibility and silence surrounding the long history of conflict in India’s Northeastern border states. The human costs of this largely under-reported conflict and its ongoing traumatic effects on multiple generations is the thematic focus of Kashyap’s poetic debut.
The beginnings of the insurgency in Assam can be traced to the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War which produced an influx of Bengali-speaking Muslim refugees who were not accepted by the native Assamese. This led to many student-led agitations from 1979 onwards as well as some horrific acts of ethnic violence. Even after the establishment of the Assam Accord, the insurgency continued with other groups like the ULFA and the campaign for Bodoland. The ULFA had a separatist agenda and were subjected to ruthless killings by the government forces. The history of the insurgency in Assam is a complex web of neglect from the Central government, movements against the influx of Bengali Muslims, demands for secession from India, and demands by various tribal groups such as the Bodos for the creation of autonomous regions to preserve culture.
This is the historical context from which Kashyap writes his long poem There Is No Good Time for Bad News which also serves as the title of the volume. This poem is narrated from the point of view of a man whose job is to inform families that a militant’s body has been found and needs positive identification by family members.
From the beginning, we are made aware of the repeated trauma inflicted on the mother who has been asked to identify about thirty-one bodies prior to the last one, which ends up belonging to her son. These multiple inspections of bodies have spanned over a period of nineteen years, during which she has lived in the limbo of not knowing if her son is alive or dead pursuing the path of militancy that he has chosen. The officer has the unenviable task of finding this mother at various intervals during these nineteen years and taking her to identify a body matching her son’s description. Each time she is plunged into a state of madness:
“Run on the coal tar road/ screaming Baba, Baba, her long clothes trailing her like a tail/ Baba! On that hot summer day, molten tar on the road…” (26)
Yet, each of these episodes ends with a lack of closure. This last journey happens on the day of her second son’s marriage. The narrator who has been friends with the woman’s missing son is overwhelmed by his own memories of their one-time friendship:
“Left for Burma, before he decided/ to make a home in the forests of Bhutan, before/ he decided to abduct Russian engineers and / Indian social workers…” (29)
The narrator’s memories of his youthful friendship with this militant emphasize how serendipitous it is that the narrator did not become a militant, instead working to identify the bodies of dead insurgents.
When the final moment of recognition of her dead son’s rotting corpse happens, the mother who has suffered and endured does not break down in her grief. Instead, Kashyap describes her as:
“With the calmness of a saint/ bright like burnt gold” (30)
The final identification provides the mother with a sense of relief from perpetually living on the brink of disaster. In a sense, each of these experiences of body identifications has exacerbated the trauma of losing her firstborn son to the insurgency. The final knowledge allows her the grace of closure.
In the poem The Militant’s Mother: A Letter, we hear some of the same episodes of the earlier poem narrated in the mother’s voice. She begs her militant son to return once more, promising to cook his favorite fish and payas with cinnamon. The hope of this reunion will erase the stigma and shame the father has been subjected to for raising a militant and the casual torture of pins being hammered to the fingertips of the brother to extort information. The mother bears no resentment towards the militant son and dreams of welcoming him at the riverbank.
The volume depicts the region in a state of siege with cascading waves of violence. In At Age Eleven, My Friend Tells Me Not to Wear Polyester Shirts, we are offered a glimpse of the resentment of tribal Assamese against the non-tribal Assamese with escalating acts of violence.
The volume is a powerful testimony of the traumatic history of the Northeast and its continuing toll on the state: people witnessing family members embracing militancy, the violence within the state, and a community forged through shared suffering. Kashyap is a remarkable storyteller and in this collection, he skillfully blends the voices of officers with families of insurgents as well as a host of other characters. The collection is a polyphonic medley of voices — ordinary people telling their stories.
Sometimes, as in The Man Who Loved to Plant Water Spinach, the dominant genre of testimony and its allegiance to facts, changes suddenly to fabulist mode. In this poem, a man who is suspected to be an Indian spy is thrust into a river, where he transforms into a turtle, offers his flesh to the village, and protects the village by covering the island with water spinach. This poem employs the beast fable to create a myth of transformation of a suspected Indian spy into a benevolent spirit that protects the village from environmental disasters. This collection of poems is not only creating an archive of voices of those who suffered in the insurgency, but it is simultaneously imagining a future when this conflict will give way to a fragile peace.
Lopamudra Basu is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She grew up in Calcutta and currently lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.