In a climate of planetary crises and collapses of democracy, Aruni Kashyap’s There is No Good Time for Bad News talks about renewed prospects and survival after violence. The poems in this collection are about a landscape that has much catching up to do compared to its nation’s momentum of progression.
In “Alpha Ursae Minoris,” the first poem in the collection, Kashyap ushers us into this landscape by a solemn pronouncement: “We are ginger vendors, and yet we need to know/ about lighthouses, Orion, the North Star, and the routes of sailors.” The “need” marks a lag in time between the Indian state and the province of Assam in its northeastern region that the poems speak to. Starting in the 1980s, the impact of a long-standing armed insurgency that demands secession from the nation has hit the state of Assam hard.
For the Indian state, Assam that lies at the eastern edge of the country is a frontier region. Many say it is just a matter of a change of hands from the British colonial government who treated these land tracts as terra incognita until the late-nineteenth century. The post-colonial state, being what it is, has always quelled the nationalistic projects of the insurgents of Assam with a heavy hand, harsh public policies, and inimical moves. The people’s demands for the right to their own lands and resources are crushed in the same manner as the colonial state and the landed gentry did with peasants of India in the last two centuries. The conflict and the unrelenting show of belligerence from the two sides often ends up tormenting the families and relations of the stakeholders. The worst part of the story: the trauma and the distress the land itself bears remains beyond our spectacle.
Although there is no (good) time for others to stop by and check on the bad news of this tiny place, I am certain that reading Kashyap’s poems will make you stop short and ponder the landscape Assam speaks of through these poems—of pasts unrecorded, and congealed griefs. The book offers an arrangement of unordinary events, about lives who find a way against state-triggered duress, and recreate history through their survival. In the poem “Where the Sun Rises,” for instance, a girl writes a letter to her insurgent lover asking, “What will you bring for me, if you come at all—mosquitoes, malaria…Or hunger for flesh and food to the point/where flesh will be food and food will be flesh?” The way these analogies of assimilation by the body intertwine with the hunger of the state to control rebels shows how ethics of survival plays out in zones of state aggression.
In another epistolary poem, a mother writes to her militant son narrating how his father, a teacher, is made to frog-jump in front of his students by an Indian army officer for raising his son to be an insurgent. Later, she switches to a whistle-in-the-dark tone and prattles on to her son about trivial everyday details, as though he is sitting close to her. Since anticipation of violence is a banal reality, in another poem called “There is Nothing to Worry About,” a mother replies over phone to her son who gets worried about her safety because there is news of a bomb blast in their hometown: “There is nothing to worry about, because the bomb exploded four kilometers away…and only fifteen people have died”. The commonplace anxiety, and the experiences of living around it, change the grammar of everyday life into an agitated yet eventful one in Assam, a land riven by history.
Things also turn provincial and quaintly anachronistic in comparison to a speeding globe. Like the narrator’s home in “News from Home,” where news arrives only “if the wind chooses to carry it/against the wishes of the media, the governments…” or the old woman, in “August,” who looks at trains and inquires, “Why do people like to travel inside a string of matchboxes?” In another note, the poet also brings out the non-human nature around the setting well, and shows its intricate overlap with the daily lives of the inhabitants. Although instances of human violence have relatively eclipsed these connections in the collection, we can still find these looming out there.
Nevertheless, it’s the river that figures most in the poems. The Brahmaputra River that flows through Assam is one of the largest bodies of water in the world, and is a vital component in the lives of the people who live there. Poets and songwriters have written extensively on the river. In Kashyap’s poems, however, it exists mostly in relation to the heavy floods it gives rise to every year in Assam. In “My Grandmother Tells Me about the Earthquake of 1950,” where the grandmother explains how the river changed after the great earthquake of 1950 making it much deadlier than before, “we didn’t know about the newborn river that had sprouted…stronger than a bomb called Fat Man.” The comparison of the river with a bomb is interesting and provokes thoughts given the insurgency situation in Assam. In another poem, written in the vein of magical realism, a man who grows water spinach to stop the river and the floods gets killed by the insurgents and transforms into a turtle. Stories from Kashyap’s last short-story collection His Father’s Disease also show his knack with the magic realistic style.
Most importantly, the connection of the inhabitants with elements in their ecology, which is so crucial in the body of work from Northeast India, brings Kashyap’s work closer to other powerful writings from the region. Literature from India’s Northeast is often less cerebral and ornate in its style. The key point is that it celebrates how humans are tangled to their animated surroundings, despite the region’s hard politics with the outside world. In Arupa Patangia Kalita’s stories, for example, an impatient river travels alongside a ghostly bus that is burnt with passengers inside by insurgents (“The Half-burnt Bus at Midnight”) or the strange river that nearly guides a vehicle to a shrine that practiced human sacrifice in ancient times (“The Bhogi of the Bogamati Shrine”). In Ankush Saikia’s recent novel The Forest Beneath the Mountains, a river becomes the hub of insurgents who set up a racket to supply sand and stones out of it that leaves the region with less flood protection during the monsoons.
Poems in this collection, however, give a sense of hope amid cruel realities. Kashyap writes, in “Spring 1979,” about a river that has turned red from the blood of the insurgents and others who have lost their lives in the struggle, “The Red River? Who hasn’t written a poem for it…But one day we all shall come back…with a belief in the river’s power/to transform pain into joy during censored times.” And so be it.
There is No Good Time for Bad News
by Aruni Kashyap
Published April 5th, 2021
Dhrijyoti Kalita is a doctoral candidate in South Asian literature at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. His research explores the intersections of literature, environment and other politics in India. He is a writer and a translator. At present he is translating an Assamese novel on ecological migration and modern border conflicts into English.