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    Interview with Dr. Veio Pou

    Bio Note: Dr. Veio Pou is Associate Professor in the Department of English, University of Delhi. His debut novel, Waiting for the Dust to Settle (2020) won the Gordon Graham Prize for Naga Literature (Fiction) in 2021. He is the author of Literary Cultures of India’s Northeast: Naga Writings in English (2015) and the edited volume Keeper of Stories: Critical Readings of Easterine Kire’s Novels (2023). His research interests include studies on the Northeast of India, oral/written interface, cultural studies and decoloniality. Besides his academic engagements, he also likes to discuss issues on society, life and faith at the popular level.

     

    1. TMYS: Would you like to tell us a childhood memory that is unique to the culture and identity of and brings a smile to you, whenever you think of it?

    Dr. Pou: Well, there are lots. As children, we loved the festivities that brought life to the village community. One such festival is the post-transplantation celebration called Laonii (which I’ve also narrated in my novel). There would be a sense of satisfaction in the faces of the village folks having completed an important activity in the agricultural cycle. The celebration would be marked by community feasts and participatory cultural dance and songs. This is one occasion that would bring out the colours of culture because everyone would don the dresses and items that mark their identity.

     

    2. TMYS: Many in the audience would not know how an ‘oral’ society feels like. In the absence of written documentation, a lot is left to memories and perceptions. Please tell us about this oral tradition and its influence on the culture of a community.

    Dr. Pou: In the oral culture, the spoken word has high value, especially when it comes to subjects of the community. The storyteller is not simply an entertainer but a responsible and respectable member of the people because what she or he tells bears a certain grain of truth, for example, telling about the history of origins. And because it is based on memorialization, telling the story becomes important in retaining memories. But the oral culture is not only about telling. It also includes many material items that are markers of their civilization. However, the arrival of the written word has disrupted this continuity, even leading to devaluing of the spoken word. For instance, the agreement on a plot of land which was earlier made binding by an oath has now been non-validated because the written deed has become the standard of proofing. The pervasiveness of the written culture cannot be non-detrimental to the progress of the society because what gets written could also be subjective. The beauty of the oral culture is that there is a sense of accountability to the community.

     

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    Amazon India link for TMYS Review December 2023 will be available here.

    (Available worldwide via Amazon)

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    3. TMYS: How did reading and eventually writing begin for you? Which books and/or authors inspired you initially? Please tell us about the beginning of your writing journey.

    Dr. Pou: Unlike many writers who tell of their early years of reading habit, I began reading quite late in life. That’s because books weren’t much of our culture beyond school life. And, of course, growing up in the village initially and then moving on to a small town, what we call bookstores were mostly stationery stores. My effective reading started only after I left school and went to college in Delhi University. It was the availability of cheap roadside used books that led me to pick up novels of Mario Puzo, Sidney Sheldon, Louis L’Amour, and other popular fictions. Of course, these were besides the ones taught in literature classrooms, considered the canonical ones. But you know, as most kids do even today, once a text gets into the syllabus you get bored reading them! (haha…) Perhaps, it’s the dissecting of the text to read it critically that makes you want to stay away from them or keep it for classrooms and exams! Nevertheless, some of the enduring influence on my literary interests sprouted from reading European realist novelists like Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and African writers like Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o. It is difficult to pinpoint one or two writers as favourites, but generally writings from the Third World countries have generally interested me. Perhaps, there is a “third-worldliness” in those writings that drew me to find semblances of my culture. Closer home, of course, the emergence of writers like Easterine Kire and Temsula Ao from my own Naga community made me believe in our stories.

    I suppose I’m not one of those ambitious fellows who always dreamt of becoming a writer. But I wanted to write or tell stories because I believe in the power of storytelling. Growing up in the last two decades of the last century, I’ve seen many things unfold before my eyes, especially the wind of change that blew harsh and fast mostly. In many ways, life was tumultuous and yet quite exciting too. Now, when I look back at those years, I realize that many things have disappeared and even forgotten. That is why I decided to write my novel, just to recreate some of the life-changing moments that shaped the society living through those difficult times. And because much of what I experienced would not be a thing of reality for my children for various reasons – only stories remain for them through which they can re-imagine what life was like!

     

    4. TMYS: Which issues about the Naga lives touch you the most? How did those issues feature in your writing? What was the most challenging aspect of writing about the issues that are sensitive for an individual or community?

    Dr. Pou: One of the focal points of my novel is the impact of the conflict between the Naga undergrounds and the Indian armed forces on ordinary citizens and society. Today, the two parties are on ceasefire and difficult dialogues are being undertaken while at the same time longing for peace which remains elusive as always. But things were quite different in the 1980s and 90s. The counter-insurgency operations launched by the Indian armed forces kept the ordinary citizens living on the edge. There was also the problem of factional fights that marked the later-day Naga movement for sovereignty. The ideological differences within the Naga underground government led to much bloodshed, the wounds of which are yet to be healed. These are issues that the larger Naga population is trying to grapple with even today. And yes, these are also sensitive matters. So, when I wrote the novel, I wanted to project the idea of “writing community memory”, wherein, I wanted the community to remain at the center of my story. In that sense, I didn’t want a single protagonist to dominate the narrative. I wanted to tell how the whole community memorializes certain events that affect the larger population. Though my characters are fictionalized, most of them are based on real life personalities whose lives were altered irreversibly by historical incidents.

     

    5. TMYS: What kind of violation of human rights has the Naga community faced in history? How do they affect you personally and socially and how do you respond to them as a formal representative who is educated and established?

    Dr. Pou: It is difficult to surmise the pains and the suffering of the Nagas because of the counter-insurgency operations in few lines. I can at best offer a glimpse. During the heights of Naga movement, roughly from the late 1950s to early 90s, there were reports of gross human rights violation by the Indian armed forces in the form of rape, torture and killing. But many of those went unreported because the armed forces were operating with impunity, empowered by draconian laws like AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act). With the power to arrest without warrant, torture and kill without having to provide reasons, the actions of the Indian armed forces left deep wounds and distrust in the minds and hearts of the common people who were targeted unjustly. These memories continue to haunt the imagination of the people because justice seems unattainable. Take for instance, the story of Operation Bluebird of 1987, the counter-insurgency operation that was launched to recover the arms and ammunition looted by the Naga undergrounds at Oinam Hill village in Senapati district of Manipur. Referred to as the Oinam incident, the people of about thirty villages around the place of action were made to endure the combing operations by being placed under curfew for over three months while they were inhumanly treated and several people were killed. Many of those who survived were maimed for life or couldn’t live normal life and the trauma haunts the memory of the community till today.

    As someone from the community that was marred by a deep sense of injustice done on them, I am affected emotionally and politically. My prayer is that such kinds of cruelty wouldn’t be faced by any society in the world, let alone the Nagas. And as a person who has seen the brutality and discrimination dispensed by laws like the AFSPA, I would continue to voice against such injustices and urge the civilized government to repeal the draconian law. It is disheartening to see that the dreaded law is still in place in many parts of the Northeastern region.

     

    6. TMYS: Please tell us about the portrayal of Indigenous women in your research and writing. How different are their battles from the urban or rural women who may have received better exposure and privileges?

    Dr. Pou: For a vast country like India with many different cultures and people groups, it can be difficult to provide a status of people based on a study on a particular society in a different geographical location. Likewise, even the portrayal of indigenous women can also vary. At the same time, how someone from within the community projects can vastly differ from how they were seen by others. And for someone who didn’t have exposure to all rounded education system, it is not fair to judge her at par with those who had one. And the larger indigenous population, particularly women, are in this situation. From my limited, and still ongoing study, on the position of women in the societies of the Northeast, women have surged ahead at many fronts, one of which is the literary scene. This is a positive sign. But the challenges are still huge because of patriarchal structures that dominate the political and social spheres.

     

    7. TMYS: Are there any specific initiatives or actions you would like to see being taken to address the issues faced by Indigenous women in ‘disturbed areas’, both in real life and in literature?

    Dr. Pou: First of all, the creation of ‘disturbed areas’ is a hugely contentious one, because many of these places may actually be much safer than those that are not declared thus. Ironically, in many parts of the Northeast, the ‘empowered’ Indian armed forces who are supposed to represent ‘security’ concoct a sense of ‘insecurity’ instead. Their presence often brings a sense of ‘fear’ instead of dismissing it. And this is because of many historical reasons. These are the issues that need redressal on different fronts. There is a deficit on trust building mechanisms as contrasted with the obsession on security building mechanisms. So, you see, peace is, in fact, a far dream for many people. And in all places that are often considered volatile areas, women and children are deemed more vulnerable for obvious reasons.

     

    8. TMYS: As a writer, how do you ensure that the voices and stories of Indigenous women are given the space and respect they deserve within your narratives?

    Dr. Pou: Let me answer this by referring to my novel. One of the stories in it is that of a character named Rakhune. She was a victim of factional fights among the Naga underground groups. She had to endure the horror of her husband killed in front of her and afterwards live a tormented life. Eventually, she was psychologically and mentally affected because of the trauma that haunts her. Now, I inserted her story because there are lots of women who lived like her in the Naga society and many families do not know how to handle such cases. In most conflict situations, there are always large numbers of women and children who lost their husbands or sons or brothers, because it is mostly men who fight the war. I wanted to raise a flag that the society needs to respond to these issues and not let women like Rakhune live on the edge. And, of course, that war and conflict only give birth to ugly stories of trauma. What I’ve attempted is to give a voice to these victims. I hope they’ve been heard to some extent!

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    Amazon India link for TMYS Review December 2023 will be available here.

    (Available worldwide via Amazon)

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    9. TMYS: Your recently edited book, Keeper of Stories: Critical Readings of Easterine Kire, was just launched. Tell us more about how works of other literary figures from the North-East shape your opinions?

    Dr. Pou: Literary figures like Easterine Kire and Temsula Ao make me believe in our stories. But more than that, they offer hope that people want to hear our stories and see the angle that literature shows about living through difficult times and periods of transition. For a region like the North East that is highly politically sensationalized, literature offers the interested minds to look at other possibilities, beyond conflict and violence. The fact that today people are reading the writings in English from the North East is a sign that literature represents the society in ways that factual reports in the media may not offer.

     

    10. TMYS: In your personal journey of unshackling yourself and introducing Veio Pou as a loved and reputed author and professor, what are some of the stereotypes that you may have had to face because of your culture, practices, looks etc.?

    Dr. Pou: Well, in a vastly diverse country like India, stereotypes come quite easily. I think, even after 75 years of independence, the larger population hasn’t quite reconciled with this idea. I must admit that I am guilty of this along with the rest at times. We end up being judgmental. I also have faced such unjustified labels many times. Perhaps, because I appear to be an “unlikely” Indian, I get asked odd questions. Even after living in the capital city for most of my lifetime, I am still considered an “outsider”. I can understand why many students and young professionals feel discriminated against when they are refused accommodation just because of their food, culture or appearance. Besides, the fact of being from the North East can concoct several images. This only goes on to show how little the rest of India understands the region. I only hope the younger generation will be more sensitized to the complexity of the nation and not be quick to draw a conclusion with easily available stereotyping labels.

     

     

    Dr. Veio Pou has been interviewed by Joyashree Dey.

     

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