Thought Box

Simply a storyteller: Mitra Phukan

Simply a storyteller: Mitra Phukan

by Vinta Nanda June 28 2021, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 13 mins, 23 secs

It is my privilege to introduce, to those among you, who don’t know her, Mitra Phukan - a writer, author and thought leader - writes Vinta Nanda

Her published literary works include four children's books, a biography, two novels, The Collector's Wife and A Monsoon of Music (Penguin-Zubaan), several volumes of translations of other novels and a collection of fifty of her columns, Guwahati Gaze.  

Her most recent works are a collection of her own short stories - A Full Night's Thievery (Speaking Tiger 2016), and a collection of short stories in translation, Aghoni Bai and Other Stories (2019). She writes extensively on Indian music as a reviewer and essayist.

Her works have been translated into many languages, and several of them are taught in colleges and Universities. As a translator herself, she has translated into English the works of some of the best known Assamese writers of fiction, including Blossoms in the Graveyard, a translation of Gyanpeeth Awardee Birendra Kumar Bhattacharjee's Kobor Aru Phool.

Her column titled All Things Considered, in the Assam Tribune, is widely read. She has been extensively anthologized too. The Collector's Wife is a novel set against the Assam Agitation of the 1970s and 80s. It was the one of the first generation novels in English written by an Assamese writer to be published by an international house.

Through the questions that I asked her, Mitra Phukan talks about herself, her process and her work. Over to her then…

At this juncture of your life and it’s on the eve of your latest release, where do you feel you are in your journey as an author?

After twelve published books and umpteen articles and essays, I have a feeling of satisfaction no doubt, but also I feel I have many more stories to tell. I consider myself to be first and foremost a storyteller, in my original writings. And as a translator, I put some of the best stories written in my language into English, so that others can read them, too. The next book, due soon, is a translation of short stories.

As a storyteller, I tell of the life and times of characters I create, in locales and settings that come from my mind. I do not, at this juncture, wish to be pigeonholed into the “Conflict Writer from the Northeast” slot. I have written about conflict no doubt, in many stories and a novel, from the perspective of characters that I created for the story. But I am writing about so many other things as well. Things that are relevant to me, and to what I see around me. I often write of music, my passion, and I am very careful not to bring in any hint of conflict into those and other stories if it is not relevant.

Where did writing start for you and why?

Writing was something many in my family did - my parents, my uncles, and my grandfather. And everybody was a voracious reader. Gradually, I realized I loved writing. It was, is, a means of self-expression. It was, is, my way of making sense of the world around me, especially in times of crisis, as now, or during the days of violence and insurgency in Assam, or when I was going through several personal crises. But it is also a way of expressing joy.

I love creating plot, characters, to put across a point of view. I love creating dialogue appropriate to the characters. It’s like creating an alternate world. I love telling a story - that was how it started. It’s as simple as that.

Do share with us your experience as a first time author and first generation English author from Assam, and the apprehensions and anxieties that you dealt with when your book was going to hit the market?

Actually, my first book was a children’s book, Mamani’s Adventure, which won the CBT UNICEF prize way, way back. 1985 I think. I still feel wonderful when I think of writing that little book; it’s a story about a little girl in a tea garden who sends away through song an elephant wanting the sugar cane she had planted. I know it’s done well, and little children who read it then are all grown up now, and they sometimes come to me at lit-fests and tell me how much they enjoyed it.

My first novel, in 2005 after four children’s books and a biography was The Collectors’ Wife. Zubaan and Penguin were the joint publishers, a first in many ways. I was of course excited about it - the reviews, the reader feedback, the works. Of course there were misunderstandings too, from people in my State, who did not understand my point of view about the insurgency. I spoke from the point of view of humanism, and that did not, at the time, go down well with many with alternate viewpoints, who believed violence was a means to a justified end, and the dead were ”collateral damage.” I am happy that younger people today have understood me much better. And, it’s still widely read, translated, and is taught in many colleges and Universities. Looking back, I realize now I could not have written it any other way.

As an author in the English language in India, what are the advantages and disadvantages that you can think of?

Reach is the primary advantage. Given a good publisher with a fine editorial staff and marketing network, writers in English in India have this amazing readership that can potentially reach across the globe. I have been very fortunate in having some of the very best publishers who have taken a great deal of interest in my books. And from English, one can be translated into many different languages too. In fact, some of my own work has been translated into many other languages. Including, may I add, back into my own mother tongue, Assamese! So competently, it won several prestigious awards!

In my own language, Assamese, the readership is very small, because we are a small community. Our publishers cannot hope to reach across the globe given their limited resources, even if they commission translations. 

One of the biggest disadvantages is that at least in my State, Assam, writers who work in English are perceived to be elitist. This is slowly changing, because as I keep saying, we may be talking of urban lives, we write in English, but we are still Assamese writers.

Speaking for myself, the fact that I situate my stories in this part of the world, firmly in our culture, causes some difficulties. Many aspects of life as we know it here have not been written about in English before, not in stories originally written in this language, which often has no vocabulary for our unique cultural concepts and practices. It needs some kind of explanation, but without the interruptions that having glossaries would mean.

On the other hand, one does not want to be accused of “writing for outsiders”, with too much explanation, even though I always want clarity in my stories. I want my writing to be accessible to the general reader, not just to academics or students of cultural studies, though of course I am gratified when this happens, too! I want my works to be read for the joy of reading, for the satisfaction of following my characters that I situate in this part of the world.

Tell us about your early life, your growing up years and what were the major influences that guided you?

We were a family of four, all avid readers, of different genres. My father worked around the globe when we were young, so some of my schooling was outside the country, though we came back and I finished school in the pretty little town of Shillong. So all these exposures to different cultures certainly did me good. And now I’ve been in Guwahati for decades, and identify myself completely with this place. Books were companions, they still are. But I love being surrounded by people too - all kinds of people. These are the sources of my stories, my “influences” if you will.

I’ve always been fascinated by the older generation of writers in English. Narayan, Khushwant Singh, Kamala Das, Jayanta Mahapatra - how they took Indian experiences, ways of looking at life, and conveyed them in English, in ways that were sometimes startlingly original; their stories are not Anglicized, they are completely Indian. This was a huge inspiration - it still is. I am still greatly inspired by “Train to Pakistan”.  

But I also read a lot of Assamese works, because our house was full of these books. These works certainly influenced me, aside from the fact that many family discussions that my parents had with their friends, and relatives cantered on the latest books that were out. It was part of my growing up years.

You straddle the role of a translator, columnist and author. How does it work for you, in terms of your time?

I do some writing every day, except weekends, which I need for recharging the batteries! Also, I love meeting people, travelling, which also, as a by-product, trigger ideas for stories and characters. But other than that, and except when I’m travelling, I write a fixed quota every single day.

As a storyteller, I sometimes need a break from the planning and executing of a long piece of work. I find translations a way to continue with the craft of writing, while allowing the mind to go follow on the story in progress. So both complement each other. As for the columns, which I enjoy writing greatly, I think about them for the week before they are due. Getting an idea for the theme is the hardest part. The actual writing takes one session, and then the polishing, later. So it’s not that I do all three projects in one day, for days on end. It’s usually a sequence. And then I do some editing too, which again takes up another slot of time.

You’ve translated some of the best Assamese literature. Why did you feel the need to do it?

I feel really grateful that some of the best contemporary Assamese writers have entrusted me with their work for me to translate. Actually I came to translate late, but now I find I love it.

I translate for several other reasons. Since I write in English, I feel it is a debt I am repaying to my mother tongue, and my State. Also, and more importantly, I have come to realize that some of our writers are as good as any, not only in India, but also across the world. Poets such as Nirmal Prova Bordoloi, writers such as Gyanpeeth Awardees Indira Goswami and Birendra Kumar Bhattacharjee are world class. I wanted to make their work known to others. We are a small community in Assam, and the readership is therefore limited. These stories need to be accessed by a much wider readership. So yes, it is pride in my heritage, also, that makes me translate. And a love for these stories, told with such mastery and involvement by the authors themselves. 

Guwahati Gaze – a collection of your columns – what makes you love Guwahati so much?

Well, this is home. So of course …

But then, as you must have seen, Guwahati is beautiful in many ways, (though we seem to be trying our best to destroy it). Luckily, the river on its doorstep, with its calm serenity and, paradoxically, its power, is still pristine. Guwahati is surrounded by hills – it’s called the land of the Blue Hills and Red River. It has a wildlife sanctuary attached in Pobitora, just forty-five minutes from my house. There is Amchang Sanctuary, too, just a little way away. There are several reserved forests around the city, and its outskirts. Deepor Beel, on the way to the airport, is a Ramsar site, home to many protected species of birds and animals, and an important elephant corridor.

Besides, Guwahati buzzes with life. In normal times, there is always some theatre or music festival going on. Guwahati embraces all kinds of cultural activities - different kinds of music and dance, food festivals, fashion shows, so much. (Our girls are extremely fashion conscious, even while holding down responsible jobs).

Some excellent bands call this city home. During Bihu, the hills resonate to the sounds of drums and music, and dancers and singers perform for free in front of huge crowds well into the night. In winter, book fairs attract a huge number of visitors, and on the stage at these places are some of the best writers and playwrights of this State, interacting with readers, students. The sandbars that appear in winter are ideal for picnicking, camping - it’s all very lovely.

And it’s all-accessible, because it is still not a large city. Also, Guwahati is a comparatively safe city, for men as well as for women. Young women can drive back past midnight without feeling unsafe. There is still the “neighborhood” concept. The anonymity of the big city hasn’t reached this place, and yet the nosiness of the small town is also not there. Restaurants, nightlife – it is all here. What’s not to like, then?

What were the transitions you made internally as a person, at the following three releases: 1) A Collectors Wife, 2) A Monsoon of Music and 3) A Full Nights Thievery?

I don’t think I made any internal changes at these specific points. Of course I have evolved over the years, but it’s been a gradual process. Right now, the pandemic situation has changed all of us, me included. These are events, which affect us all.

The release of a book is always gratifying, and satisfying, and watching its journey through different readerships is fascinating. But changes happen all the time, triggered by so many other life changing events. Deaths, births, friendships; and more…

All these stories were growing in my mind for months, years before I put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard. So actually the changes came before, not after they were published. Of course it’s encouraging when the books do well.

What’s next on your desktop/laptop? Tell us about it. 

Of course the pandemic has pushed the pause button on many things. Publishers are very hard hit, like so many others. Two completed novels are ready to be worked on with the publishers, and I am waiting for better times for that to happen. One is the story of a senior Brahmin widow who, defying community norms, has a relationship with a Muslim man. It’s an urban story. There are gender as well as age stereotypes, which are examined here. The second is set again in a small town by the river, which is on the cusp of change because an Assisted Living facility is to be set up there. This also explores ageism, mother-daughter relationships, and sibling rivalry. As you can see, I like exploring different themes! I am also putting together an anthology of Assamese stories in translation for a well-known publisher - as an editor and as one of the translators. It’s a lot of work, but very satisfying.

I have already written some essays, stories and of course columns about various aspects of the pandemic. I would, at some point, like to write a novel about this. But for that one needs distance, in terms of time. I need to process all that’s still happening. Hopefully one day, I can put into words some of what we are all going through.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.