What the Poet Can Do in the Face of the Modern Colonial State
Aruni Kashyap Finds Defiance and Potential in Tradition of the Testimonio
It is 2009; I am on my way to my grandmother’s village to talk to people who have survived the armed secessionist insurgency and the brutal counterinsurgency operations of the government. My grandmother’s village is in a remote area of the state, where only a couple of buses go every day from the city’s outskirts. It is during this trip that a co-traveler, a man in his fifties, tells me the story of a tortured schoolteacher; a story so harrowing that it will never make it to the novel I am writing.
This is a conflict that has taken close to 50,000 lives so far and is rarely discussed globally when it comes to news about India—after all, it is just one of the many lesser-known insurgencies against Indian rule. Who cares about a 30-year conflict that has killed only 50,000 or so people?
On this trip, I am in search of stories that I would use to write a novel. I am especially interested in a period in the late 1990s when secret, masked killers went on a rampage, killing hundreds of people they thought sympathized with the rebels. A lot of the victims had nothing to do with the insurgency; they were merely relatives of the insurgents, who were targeted to demoralize the rebels.
During my interviews, people repeatedly used the word “allegedly” a lot: “allegedly” the rampage had been organized by the government, but no one would say for sure. It reminded me of the phrase “et cetera”: it suggests the possibility of knowledge the user may not possess. “Allegedly” is an umbrella many people use while sharing stories in confidence to protect themselves from the rains and the hail.
It rains a lot back home.
I meet the co-traveler who tells me the story of the tortured schoolteacher during one such rainy day. A schoolteacher who this person knew was accused of sheltering insurgents and thus knowing their whereabouts. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the teacher sympathized with them. Such stories are never that simple. The insurgents come with guns hanging from their shoulders and demand to be fed and sheltered. You don’t argue with people who are carrying guns; you do what they say. Even my family had to shelter insurgents, cook for them, and later face the army’s wrath. One of my cousins was tortured so badly that he vomited blood for days after he was returned.I was not only bearing witness to my community’s events. I was also creating space for defiance.
The bus that will take us to Hatimuria village. We sip tea together. I have just graduated from college. I know little about the rules of writing. I am haunted by stories I want to tell. Stories I am eager to listen to and include in my book. A literary agent in London, the only one I queried, has sort of assured me of representation.
It is raining hard.
The sound of rain is deafening on the tin roofs of the shack that calls itself “Hotel.” “Rice, meat, fish, and rootis are sold here,” the Hotel announces through red paint on its walls.
“You won’t believe what the schoolteacher did after he was tortured,” the co-traveler tells me.
“Why not? I have heard so many harrowing stories from that period.”
I had indeed read and heard about nails pulled out one by one, electric shocks on genitalia, testicles crushed with boots, and other innovative kinds of torture the Indian soldiers had used to extricate information from people who the soldiers thought had information. “Trust me, I would believe.”
But I wasn’t ready for what the man was going to tell me.
The tortured schoolteacher’s last act of courage was both horrific and defiant—done by a person who the soldiers had left for dead—and, for a moment, stripped the mighty army of their strengths. My novel, The House with a Thousand Stories, came out in 2013, but this story didn’t make it to the book.
I am a writer from a literary culture that few in the world read from. It is a literary culture with a strong written tradition that began in the 5th century in parallel with a rich oral tradition. Thus, I have often found inspiration from other writers in the Global South. The predominantly upper-class and upper-caste, urban, Indian literary writers—who wrote, in English, about snow in New England, highly functional democratic spaces, a cosmopolitan and globally connected India—didn’t have strong appeal for me.
Growing up in the northeast of India, beyond the small strip of land that connected us with mainland India (nicknamed the “Chicken’s Neck”), news from the rest of the country. The states in northeast India weren’t an important market for media, so national newspapers reached us a day late and thus some of the news, too. Sim-cards and mobile phones that worked in the rest of India didn’t work in northeast India. Many in mainland India essentially considered us part of China; some of them thought traveling to us would require a passport. There was ignorance, and there was racism.Here, instead, the author figure is an assistant, a stenographer, challenges our conventional ideas of how literature is composed.
We grew up as unequal citizens, and our tradition of literature is one that academics and writers have started to study and analyze, as a separate body of work from so-called “Indian Writing” in English. During my university years, reading Native American Writers, African American writers, and African Anglophone writers made a lot of sense to me. They not only inspired me to write, but also, they served as imaginary creative writing professors.
In the winter of 2018, I had settled in the US, in Georgia, and began revisiting and writing the poems in what would become a collection. I found myself writing in a multitude of voices, but I didn’t know why—and I couldn’t bring myself to send out the manuscript without knowing that answer. It was then that the schoolteacher’s story returned to me, providing a solution.
Often, the story-sharers I encountered over the years repeatedly insisted that I pass on their stories. In the absence of formal justice, that someone somewhere would know about their experiences and empathize was the only possible outcome resembling justice. Perhaps this is true of all embattled, contested, brutalized, and underrepresented regions; my bloodied home that is crisscrossed by at least 55 rivers and drenched by too much rain is one such region. But the only way I could retain the immediacy was if I wrote the poems in the voices of the narrators, the survivors.
Thinking about what the schoolteacher did—which I’ll tell you about soon—made me realize something crucial. I was not only bearing witness to my community’s events. I was also creating space for defiance. To dramatize this defiance effectively and invigoratingly, I would have to rely on oral narratives and draw inspiration from other literary forms, enacting wider artistic and literary solidarity at a global level.
My introduction to the testimonio genre emerged from my love for Latin American novelists: Mario Vargas Llosa, Julio Cortazar, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Isabel Allende. The testimonio was commonly used in Latin America during the 80s and 90s to expose state violence—a potent decolonizing tool in places where the state has stripped people of dignity, perpetuated generational trauma, and instigated a migrant crisis.
I found inspiration and literary permission in the testimonios I had read. An act of transplantation, of taking ideas from the literary elements in testimonio to write my poems, seemed most fruitful. The defiant and rebellious streak of this form, of these narrators, told me that in courage and subversiveness, my narrators weren’t too radically different from what I had learned long ago in the red brick walls of Delhi University shaded by neem trees. Every poem challenged the state’s version of events, providing a viewpoint that one would rarely hear about in discussions of South Asian literature in the US. Every poem took me closer to the answer.
For a poet interested in challenging the modern colonial state, which often wants to impose a monolithic idea of the nation through violent means, the testimonio can be effective in other ways. First, the form enables us to question what is literary, which is often the realm of the erudite, the trained, the university educated. The women, soldiers, turtles, ants, ghosts, crows, grandmothers, diaries, in these poems narrate their experiences of surviving violence on their terms. They defy poetic conventions, forms, structure, meter, and privilege the aural rhythms closer to the community’s voice.
Secondly, the form silences and erases the poet’s authority, making them a mere scribe or editor. The poet is present in all these poems, but as the silent listener. This listener is archiving and will later edit but will have no voice. In standard literary forms, such an act of defiance wouldn’t be allowed; the narrator—the polished, trained, measured voice of the writer and poet—will always seep in. Here, instead, the author figure is an assistant, a stenographer, challenges our conventional ideas of how literature is composed. Borrowing the elements of the testimonio allows us to defy the narrow and reductive binaries the neoliberal capitalist marketplace has created in conversations around reading fiction and telling stories.
There are also practical benefits to the form. Fiction is also safer than an interview: not everyone who shared these stories would like to be named. Most of them often said, please change the identifying markers. A strict adherence to facts wouldn’t allow me to take the leaps of imagination I needed to shape stories that would generate conversations about justice: that was my goal. Fiction challenges an obsession with the truth that is empirical, binary, and legally provable; it is about telling the truth through lies.
Finally, the form highlights the stories of survivors while honoring the stories of victims who didn’t make it. Survivors tell us about the man who didn’t get a proper burial because the village was flooded, the boy who was shot by the army, the pregnant woman who was murdered by the state. In the folk stories I have been told since childhood, these kinds of embedded narratives are a guiding light. One of the most popular stories among the Assamese is the story of Tejimola, a girl whose stepmother tortures her. Tejimola refuses to die, refuses to give up on life. She takes multiple forms and returns to haunt her stepmother until she gets her due in the household. By focusing on survivalist narratives like these, we make a radical gesture; we become better ancestors by leaving inspiration for our next generation.
The schoolteacher didn’t survive. He was first asked to dig a grave for himself and then tortured, accused of helping insurgents. He didn’t know the information the state was asking him. You don’t argue with people with guns, so he fed the insurgents who had wanted to be fed. You don’t argue with people with guns, so he dug his own grave, where he was pushed after he was tortured and left to die, with inch-deep soil thrown over his body. But when almost all the soldiers had turned, convinced he was dead, he made it to the surface of the grave and shouted, “I dare you, shoot me once more so that I don’t die slowly.”
The horror! The unbelievable!
Did it rain that night? I don’t know. The co-traveler didn’t know, either. But if it had, it would have washed away all the blood and soil covering his body, lying in the shallow grave in the deep recesses of the forest.