Voices of DiversityPage address: http://www.mnsu.edu/diversity/commission/arunikashyap.html
From Assam, India to Minnesota State University: Aruni Kashyap
By Heidi Sampson
As a writer who can write across the genres, Aruni Kashyap, a third-year Master of Fine Arts (MFA) student in creative writing, has developed an extensive list of published works in both Assamese and English fiction, non-fiction and poetry. With a thesis focus on fiction, Kashyap is also a Teaching Assistant for Composition in the English Department, at Minnesota State University.
Kashyap comes to MNSU from Guwahati, a city of around 1.5 million people. Guwahati is based in northeastern India, within the state of Assam. Within India, there are hundreds of ethnicities and a thousand different languages spoken. Assam has more than sixty different languages present within it.
“In Assam, the most widely spoken language is Assamese and it is my first language,” said Kashyap. “I come from this very diverse and polyphonic place.”
The state of Assam is known around the world for the production of tea. Assam tea is a black tea known for its body, briskness, malty flavor, and strong, bright color. Assam teas, or blends containing Assam tea, are often sold as "breakfast" teas. In fact, the state of Assam is the world's largest tea-growing region, producing a quarter of the world’s tea.
Although Assam is a beautifully diverse state, with Guwahati lying beside the Brahmaputra River, it is at the same time a bruised and battered state because of a three-decade-old armed insurgency that has taken a toll of around 30,000 lives on both sides. This group of insurgents seeks to establish a separate sovereign nation of Assam, carved out of India.
“I was born in 1984,” said Kashyap. “The insurgency started in 1979. My generation grew up under the shadow of these activities. We have a very ambivalent attitude towards the insurgency. The struggle started due to prolonged exploitation of Assam by the Indian government. I don’t think any solution can emerge out of violence but at the same time, that generation of people in Assam had to resort to arms because they felt they were left with no other options. The insurgents and the security forces have violated numerous human rights that have added to the tragedy in Assam.”
Kashyap attended St. Stephen's College, in Delhi, where he completed his undergraduate and a Master of Arts, in English Literature. Around the time he completed his Masters, he also completed the first draft of his novel, The House with a Thousand Stories.
“It’s a love story set against this political conflict in India,” said Kashyap. “If you read the book there is very little history about the insurgency in Assam. The book is really about the universal aspect of fear. What it means to live under constant terror, threat and fear. Of course, the specificity of the political crisis is important. I also wanted to explore those things that conventional Indian English fiction has not explored previously.”
Once the first draft was finished, Kashyap decided to query an agent in England. He chose the only agent he’d heard of who represented several other Indian writers. Within a month, the agent he queried agreed to represent his book. Kashyap’s agent immediately sent the novel out to publishers. Within a week to ten days, Penguin Books declared their intent to publish Kashyap’s first novel.
“For many people, finding an agent and getting a book deal is a long and frustrating process but thankfully, this wasn’t the case with me,” said Kashyap. “However, I was frustrated when my book got delayed repeatedly because there was a lot of change within the Indian publishing industry during that time. But finally, I am glad that the book was published in June of 2013 and not earlier. During this period, the book went through many drafts. I learned a lot during the process of editing it.”
Shortly after having his first novel taken by Penguin Books, Kashyap started working on his second novel, making notes, sketches and working on research when a poet friend advised him on the existence of creative writing programs. His friend suggested he google it. Up until this point, Kashyap hadn’t thought much about the possibility of building a writing community around him that would challenge, offer support and supply feedback on writing projects.
“When I wrote my first novel it was completely on my own without support from a community of writers,” said Kashyap. “Why not try for an MFA degree where I will have a cohort of people around me? This would be a community where they view writing as a serious mode of expression.”
Kashyap’s first book, The House with a Thousand Stories, is a critically acclaimed novel that broke the long national silence regarding human rights violations by security forces in India. Along with India’s national English media, the novel also received widespread attention from the Assamese-language media and a 24-hour satellite news channel called DY 365, where Kashyap was deemed one of the “10 Most Influential Assamese of 2013,” on the basis of a poll. The novel was discussed in Assamese papers though the book hasn’t appeared in Assamese translation yet.
“The insurgency in Assam is a sensitive issue and the secret-killings of Assam—against which the novel is set—is a disturbing subject matter,” said Kashyap. “The novel raises questions about the widespread human rights violations committed by Indian forces and armed insurgents on its own people. In that way the subject may be polarizing.”
Review of The House with a Thousand Stories:
“A tale where the haunting past coexists with the violent present. Aruni Kashyap’s debut novel, set in Assam, sees the author at the height of his powers with a sensitive yet strong narrative…. Kashyap is below thirty. Amazing talent from one so young!”
—The Deccan Herald
It is 2002 and young Pablo, a city boy who has mostly lived a sheltered and privileged life in Guwahati, is visiting his ancestral village for his aunt’s wedding. This is his second time in Mayong, in rural Assam, since 1998, when he had come for a few days to attend his father’s best friend’s funeral. As the wedding preparations gather pace, Pablo is amused as well as disturbed by squabbling aunts, dying grandmothers, cousins planning to elope for love, and hysterical gossips. And on this heady theatre of tradition and modernity hovers the sinister shadow of insurgency and the army’s brutal measures to quell militancy.
In the days leading up to the wedding, which ends in an unspeakable tragedy, Pablo finds first love, discovers family intrigues, and goes through an extraordinary rite of passage. Written with clinical precision, this gripping first novel announces the arrival of one of the most original new voices from India. The novel is an exploration of fear, about what it means to live under state-terrorism and violence of armed rebellion, and about the far-reaching consequences of living under the threat of terror in world’s largest democracy.
Other works by Aruni Kashyap:
Aruni Kashyap has also translated from Assamese and introduced celebrated Indian writer Indira Goswami‘s last work of fiction, The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar, for Zubaan Books (January, 2013). Currently, he is editing an anthology of short stories by writers from Assam set against the Assam Conflict for HarperCollins publishers. He also writes extensively on socio-political issues and opinion based articles. His short stories and nonfiction have previously appeared in The Guardian UK, The New York Times, Warscapes, Per Contra, Kartika Review: An Asian Pacific Islander American Literary Journal, Evergreen Review, etc.
Website Link: www.arunikashyap.com
Profile Photo: Gautam Deori