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Interview | Assam, the Myth of Black Magic Women and Its Relevance Today

Moushumi Kandali, considered one of the central voices in shaping the genre of modern Assamese short stories today, takes questions from The Wire on her new collection.

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New Delhi: In 1835, nine years after the British took control of the Ahom kingdom of Assam, an assistant surgeon, John McCosh, wrote Topography of Assam after a protracted visit to this new colonial territory. 

McCosh’s description of Assamese women in that report – one of the earliest on the region by the British officers – was particularly striking. 

He penned, “The women of this country, they form a striking contrast to the men. They are very fair, indeed fairer than any other race I have seen in India. Radiantly fair. Many of them would be considered beautiful. I do not mean Hindoostani beauty, but the Assamese women have a form and feature closely approaching Europeans…. the women roam about in public divested of artificial modesty practised by native ladies in other parts of India. Unfortunately, their morality is at a low ebb. The inhabitants of most provinces look down upon the Assamese as enchanters, and the women come in for a large share of suspicion – indeed, they all are believed to be enchantresses.”

In 2015, noted Assamese writer-art critic Moushumi Kandali wrote her riveting short story in Assamese, Mayabi Tirutabur (Those Enchanting Women) – hinging it on this description of 19th century Assamese women by McCosh. She compared and contrasted that colonial-era image of Assamese women with that of the present-day gaze in mainstream India by placing her female protagonist from Assam in the national capital. 

Just recently, that short, named Black Magic Women in English, has become the title story of a compilation of Kandali’s writings brought out by Penguin India. Like in the title story, a thick streak of feminist slant runs through the spine of the rest of her nine shorts – all translated into English by Parbina Rashid. The ten translated stories are part of two Assamese short story collections by her – Mockdrill and Framor Bahiror Jonaki Poruwa Bur

Kandali, considered one of the central voices in shaping the genre of modern Assamese short stories today, takes questions from The Wire on the collection. 

Edited excerpts from the interview follow.

Let’s begin with the title story The Black Magic Women. You draw from the pages of British annals on the portrayal of 19th-century Assamese women to depict a fictional modern Assamese working woman charting her course through Delhi. What was the idea behind juxtaposing these two events, divided by two centuries?

The title story is about the mainstream imagination and perception of women from Assam since pre-colonial times. They were once called Mohinis, experts at the art of seduction and black magic (implementers of Mohini Vaan). That pre-colonial imagination of Assamese women was a stark case of stereotyping related to gender and that of a particular location in India. I have done a historic-fictional re-telling of such a bias from an early 19th-century colonial reportage of a British officer by juxtaposing it to the current times through a fictional characterisation of Axomi, a working woman in Delhi in the 2020s. 

Herein, I would like to emphasise that the juxtaposition might look anachronistic on the surface but it is not about the literal understanding of the women as black magic practitioners; rather hinged on a parallelism that these women are still perceived as seductresses and sexualised subjects with questionable morality which the Mohinis or the black magic women of yore were attributed with.

The phrase ‘Black Magic Women’ has been used as a fictive metaphor. This is a trait which has been carried forward from the title story in which the British officer labelled Assamese women as enchantresses with ‘low’ morals – black magic women. Here, I have drawn a parallel between the idea of the ‘black magic women’ of the past and that of the perception of the British officer in order to interrogate contemporary perceptions. The myth of the black magic women, therefore, is not referred to in its literal sense of the term regardless of whether people are aware of the myth or not.

Moushumi Kandali
The. Black Magic Women
Penguin (March 2022)

The short story in the compilation, ‘The Hyenas and Coach Number One’, has come across to me not only as a stirring take on what women in the Delhi Metro go through while commuting because of their gender but is perhaps one of the few powerful replications on the subject even in mainstream literature, let alone in regional literature like that of the Assamese. If you can give a glimpse to our readers on the compelling reasons that had led you to portray that particular experience to an original readership which is much removed from such a metro-urban reality.

The idea of the story began as a mirroring of a life that most of the lower middle-class and middle-class working women go through every day in a big city or a metropolis. It could be any city for that matter but more about a city which is unsafe and fear-inducing for women, or any gender from the margins. When young aspiring women from the remote corners of the country land up in the capital city or any other big city chasing their dreams, they face multiple challenges right from finding a rental accommodation to commuting in the late hours of the day.

The situation gets a bit more challenging when the women are migrants to the city from a remote region which is often tethered to the periphery of the nation’s imagination, such as Northeast India. Perceived through certain tainted lenses by a section of people who are ‘local’, they are seen as ‘outsiders’ and the ‘others’. Most of the time, they stand alone to face the world in handling these crises. The Delhi Metro rail journey of the main protagonist in ‘The Hyenas and Coach Number One’ is a metaphorical reflection of the life journey such women take in the real world amidst such existential challenges and chaos.

Some might ask why are you speaking about these women (and also the men), particularly about the Northeastern women (men too) now when things have changed a lot in mainstream India, or when there are other pressing issues in the country. Are you also engaging in the process of othering then? Are you playing the victim card? All I can say is that there could be some cosmetic changes in the last few years; however, deep down that perception towards the people from the Northeast in mainstream India still exists. Otherwise, during the recent pandemic times, we wouldn’t have witnessed incidents where people from the Northeast were branded with terms like ‘Corona’ or ‘Chinese’, or not allowed inside shopping malls or markets in certain cities. 

Be it ‘The Black Magic Woman’, ‘The Hyenas and Coach Number One’, or some other stories of this collection, what stands out for me is this insider-outsider gaze that you have mentioned. It is a strand also prominent across the Northeast not just in the societal dealings but in its politics too. How much of this palpable gaze from the region is a conscious effort from you to look at Delhi as a writer? Is it your upbringing also as a non-tribal Assamese raised in a tribal majority area like Karbi Anglong in Assam that has played a role in firming up that gaze? 

You are right! From the very childhood, I became aware of this ‘insider-outsider’ dynamic which we as humans play and engage in all the time with such vigorous zeal. Right from the individual self, to the communitarian collective identity, from the gendered, racial and caste identity to regional and national identity, we tend to indulge in this “us vs them” binaries endlessly. Growing up in a hill town inhabited by the Karbi people, I as a non-tribal Assamese saw different shades of such dynamics, and realised how such a gaze can wreak havoc on the lives of people; it can twist and tweak truths and play the politics of appropriation when it is from the side of the hegemonic group, and most importantly, how it can often shift within the changed circumstances. So when I went to Delhi to work (as a lecturer at the Ambedkar University), I could witness the same play within a larger context. As a writer, I tried to place myself both as an insider and an outsider, and then also to understand things in a holistic manner, positioning myself in a third neutral space. A writer needs to act like an omniscient narrator at times to see things in totality.

Also, across the collection, what is striking is the sprinkling of mythology and a sense of the history of the region that you come from, even when you are portraying a plot outside of Assam. Any particular reason?

A sense of history is very important for me to understand any human condition. To begin with, why do some of us eat meat as a part of our tradition while others condemn it so vehemently. Why the tattoo culture for some is a high canon of beautification while for some others it is a gross violation of the body. So, history and culture – these two categories – are important entry points and tools to respond to such questions; to understand human beings and their associated contexts, both as individuals and collectives.

Historical understanding will allow us not to make any hurried and superficial judgments about any person or a group of people. It is a way to reach the goal of conflict resolution. It is as simple as that! For that, one doesn’t need to go to theoretical formulations; it is just a basic understanding of human conditions and conditioning. Therefore, I had to historicise certain things and issues while writing some narratives about them, or retelling their tales.

To come to the second part of your question, mythology for me is the other face of reality which appears before us as truths in a masquerade. Myths, fables, folklores, everything can be seen as coded, encoded and decoded realities told with a different twist through symbols, signs and metaphors. After all, it is a very interesting and powerful way of narration. Indian literature(s) has a very vibrant tradition of mythology, fables and folkloristic narration ranging over centuries. I am just trying to carry forward that in contemporary contexts.

As I have said elsewhere, I use mythology to talk about the contemporary realities, to make an entry point, to draw a parallel or to use the available mythological resources as metaphors, symbols or analogies to make a point.

Also Read: Interview: ‘Assamese Literature Should Evolve To Meet the Challenges of Changing Times’

Your stories have always had a prominent feminist gaze; this aspect runs through almost all your shorts in this collection too. Do you think the Northeast requires a feminist gaze somewhat different from that of mainstream India? Patriarchy exists in the region, even in tribal societies, like in mainstream India, but lived experiences have shown that it is not as black and white as it is in several societies in other parts of India.

To a great extent, I would say a yes to it. Though we should not homogenise this geo-cultural and geopolitical location called Northeast India, there are certain strands which have some shared commonalities. One is this particular aspect that you have pointed out here. To speak on the whole, we do need a different gaze. Ultimately, northeastern societies too are very much a patriarchal set-up but due to the legacy of several matrilineal societies too and the different indigenous cultural manifestations where women play important roles, the situation is a little different from mainstream India.

If we refer to the comment of John McCosh in his colonial reportage about Assamese women where he had said that ‘the women roam about in public divested of the artificial modesty practised by native ladies of other parts of India….’, we can say that the women from this part had enjoyed some freedom and they were not tethered to the interiority or domestic chores entirely, compared to some other parts of India.

Interesting insights come from such observations found in colonial accounts, or literary evidence which gives us ample inferences that the Northeastern women have had certain agency and stature compared to their counterparts in other parts of India. Once I heard an interesting reference made by the writer and former Head of the Department of English at the Tezpur University, professor Madan Sharma, at a conference. Sharma had cited a comment by a Burmese army officer’s account titled Boishali Thaomung. He was part of the invading army to Assam in 1817. That officer, in his narration, had said that the native women would roam in the weekly bazaar without veils, and right from selling to buying things, women of all classes were seen merrily and actively taking part. All I want to say is, taking these two historical references into account, it can be deduced that there have definitely been certain differences and we will need a little different outlook or a specific gaze to look at this region in the context of gender.

Here, I want to clarify another aspect. Someone might say that while talking about ‘Assamese women’, I am doing a huge oversight of homogenising the ‘tribal’ and ‘non-tribal’, or I am not differentiating between the frames. However, one should remember that the Assamese have two dyadic strands in their collective communitarian composition. It is an interesting blending of two different racial strands.

And, most importantly, the particular racial or ‘tribal’ look which often becomes the reason for othering in rest of the country, is just one of those reasons, the first prominent reason may be, but there is more to it… it is the culture and traditions, the overall way of living or even the accent with which one speaks the mainstream languages, all these factors together comprise the particular type which certain section in the mainstream tend to perceive as the ‘other’. 

Author and art critic Moushumi Kandali. Photo: By arrangement

Do you think translation as a tool has not been utilised at the rate it should be to open a window to not just short stories but Assamese literature in general, both old and contemporary, to non-Assamese readers? If yes, what do you think could be the reasons? 

As we know that comparative literary studies would be impossible without translation. Translation is the ground on which world literature stands today. The same can be said of Indian literature too. Therefore, unless we translate not only to English and other foreign languages but also to the Indian languages, our literature would be just limited to a narrow readership. Keeping this in mind, I have been deeply engaged with translation for the past two decades. Whether it is from Assamese to English (Miching folk oral poems translated into English as Listen My Flower-Bud published by National Sahitya Academy, Delhi. 2009) or from Hindi, Bengali and English to Assamese (the autobiography of the artist Salvador Dali Diary of a Genius into Assamese), I am particularly passionate about translation. And that is the reason I, in collaboration with Parbina Rashid, came forward to take up this endeavour, The Black Magic Women, and I must confess that I kept on checking every word, phrase and sentence of the translation and made Parbina’s job rather difficult! I believe translation is a cerebral exercise of lingual trans-creation.

I also believe what you said – that it has not been utilised at the rate compared to other Indian literature, say in Tamil or Bengali. Assamese literature is indeed very rich when it comes to modern poetry or short fiction. The Bhakti literature is enormously noteworthy too. In fact, we have a great tradition of translation.  Medieval scholar and poet Madhav Kandali had translated the Ramayana into Assamese from Sanskrit in the 14th century itself. However, in the colonial period, that trend became less vibrant. The reason could be a lack of appreciation of this practice as a creative genre in popular perception. But I can see that when it comes to translation from other languages to Assamese, the scene is much more pulsating since the beginning of the 20th century. However, when it comes to translation from Assamese to English, the scene is not that exciting; may be the reason being a certain lack of interest in the English book industry to publish Indian literature in translation compared to books written in English itself.

What are you writing next? You also have a full-time job as an academic at the Cultural Studies department of the Tezpur University in Assam. Several writers have straddled the two spaces because they need a means of livelihood aside from writing for the sheer love of it. Have you ever felt it? If so, how do you overcome it?

Right now, I am focusing on an art history book which maps the modernist discourse of visual art in Assam. The modern art discourse had been my area of research for both my master’s dissertation and doctoral thesis (at the M.S. University, Baroda). I have already published three books in Assamese but the one in English about this topic had been overdue.

As for your second question, it is a big yes. So many times I wished I could be a freelancer but then I realise that I love teaching too. I learn so many things in the company of young people, my master’s level students and the research scholars. It’s really rejuvenating. Finally, I see my job as an academic as a wonderful opportunity to understand empirically the diverse ground realities of our societies and their intersectional contexts, whether it is gender, race, class, caste or culture from which the student community comes up. My latest story titled ‘Hang on in there Boys…Hang on’, was based on my experience of online teaching where I captured the angst of a boy without a smartphone.