Dating back to the 1970s, the native Assamese people have engaged in conflict with the Indian government, leading a growing insurgence movement in the name of independence. The following years have resulted in the deaths of 30,000 people on both sides of the fight, as the Assamese people have continued to reaffirm their desire for separation. In lush, vivid description and visceral, jarring language, Aruni Kashyap tells the story of the longstanding violence that has been constituted as a result of the demands of secession by the state of Assam. In his new collection, There Is No Good Time For Bad News (Futurecycle Press, 2021) Kashyap blends historical context, individual anecdotes, and cultural descriptions to offer a counternarrative to the image of India that pervades mainstream media.
From the first poem, “Alpha Ursae Minoris”, Kashyap situates the collection in its first-person perspective. The reader learns that this poem is constructed from the diary of Ranjit Singh, a general and administrator of the Indian army. The following poems expand on and complicate this usage of first-person perspective, zeroing in on individuals who have had their lives brutalized as a result of the Indian army’s violence, and swiftly transitioning to those who are living in the aftermath.
The brilliance of Kashyap’s structural and stylistic choices is rooted in this fragmentation, in the way that the trauma of directly experiencing violence swells over to those who are removed from it. In “News from Home,” Kashyap writes of a speaker who is removed from what is going on in their homeland, one who receives news “a week or more, / even a month” late. The structure of this poem centers it in dilemma, as the speaker struggles with how to handle the distance between them and their home country,“ they tell me these are lands unfamiliar, so I must not speak about them. / I should yearn for a language, which goes well with people who decide / who should know what, how much, / how many times, when, in which perspective / and how many days news from home / should take to reach where I live.” Kashyap’s acknowledgement of the complexities of even discussing this issue underscores the efforts to hide it, the hopes that it will fade from public purview without action being taken. The emphasis on certain people being able to decide who should know what is going on, how much, through which perspective, etc, indicates the control with which the Indian media has gripped this narrative, and the lengths they will go to conceal the atrocities.
One of the threads that runs through this collection is the discussion of women and the effects that this violence has on Assamese women in various roles in their lives. From the descriptions of grieving mothers being told of the loss of their sons in the war to the fear of violence that may be enacted on women by the Indian army, Kashyap centers these women’s plight by underscoring the damage that has been done to their society as a result of the rebellion’s efforts. In the lines “[s]he must have thought, / she would be one of them now / who were peeled to be enjoyed by many;” of “Fake Boots,” Kashyap expertly illustrates the dehumanization of the Assamese women, the way they are objectified and denied agency. The use of the word “peeled” is haunting in its literal and metaphoric connotations, in the level of violence that it implies is possible for this woman, and the abject loss of humanity she may endure.
In a subsequent poem, “The Chinese, Who Came Much Later,” Kashyap writes, “They were worried the fair-fair ones / would be picked up by the tiny-legged Chinese, / the dark-dark ones left for them to marry.” With the inclusion of ideas of colorism, Kashyap furthers this critique of the objectification and dehumanization of women. These lines are written from the perspective of the Assamese cowherds, whose fears are rooted in colorist, misogynistic beliefs. They demonize darker-skinned Assamese women in favor of the fair-skinned ones. This decision by Kashyap, to present the Assamese people as both harmed by the Indian army and perpetrators of harm in their own communities, is brilliant in its resistance of what is easy. In “No One Would Hear Me If I Screamed”, the female speaker asks, “Why terrorize people / who were working harder than we were” In these lines, Kashyap calls attention to the Assamese rebellion movement’s capacity for harm. This signifies a resistance of the monolith, of the oppressor-victim binary, by denying the audience the comfort of simply “siding” with the Assamese community. Rather, Kashyap’s goal is to inform and educate about the nuances of this conflict and the reality that has resulted for the people living through it.
Ultimately, part of Kashyap’s collection functions as a brutal reckoning with the ways that the Assamese-Indian conflict has been suppressed by many Indians, immigrants, and Indian Americans alike. In “An Invitation to Murder Me” the speaker describes how one could actually kill them, ultimately landing on smothering, “Just press a pillow on my face; I will / stop breathing. […] I hoist the national flag / every year on Independence Day, though the nation gives me / reason to be ashamed every day.” Throughout this collection, Kashyap has made multiple references to Indian Independence Day, underscoring the dissonance between its celebration and its defamation. These lines vocalize that complexity—how one can reconcile the celebration of independence from an oppressor while simultaneously oppressing individuals in their own country. The act of smothering, then, indicates this suppression of Indian history, this deliberate erasure by the Indian media to perpetuate measures that continue to subjugate the Assamese people. The harsh realities of this conflict are often excluded from narratives about India and the Western consciousness of the Indian subcontinent. In a world where the Hindu, upper-caste, cisgender-heterosexual perspective dominates the narrative, Kashyap’s work in lifting the veil is vital in order to reveal an accurate depiction of India’s strife-ridden history.
Neha Peri holds a BA in English from Rutgers University. In her senior year, she was appointed Editor-in-Chief of the university’s oldest literary magazine, The Anthologist. While at Rutgers, she also tutored for the Rutgers Writing Program, completed internships with the Rutgers English Department and the University of Mississippi Press, and wrote an honors thesis. Her work has been featured in The Anthologist. Currently, she works as an intern at the Princeton University Press.
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