30 Mar 2024  |   04:03am IST

In Dibrugarh with Damodar Mauzo

In Dibrugarh with Damodar Mauzo

Vivek Menezes

Just one month after our own Goa Arts + Literature Festival, it was an honour to be invited alongside the beloved laureate of Konkani literature Damodar Mauzo to the first-ever Dibrugarh University International Literature Festival, all the way across the country in Upper Assam. Our most eminent writer is also by far our best cultural ambassador, and it was a very special treat for me to witness and savour the non-stop back-and-forth love embracing ‘Bhaiyee’ wherever he moved amongst the people with his characteristic grace, humility, and savoir faire. We were 3200 kilometres away from Goa in that pleasant college campus surrounded by tea estates spilling down to the mighty Brahmaputra, but it really did feel distinctly like home. 

This is but another step in an established continuum that tracks back to GALF, which Bhaiyee and I co-founded in 2010 on behalf of the Goa Writers group in partnership with the International Centre Goa, where Assam and the surrounding states have always remained central to the festival DNA. Our logic was clear then and now: like so much else in the country in our times, the cultural landscape is being corporatized, captured and homogenized via New Delhi nexus, for which Goa is permanently stereotyped as an irrelevant and provincial oddity. The arrogance – indeed ignorance – is hard-wired, and nothing can be done about it. That is why GALF was created to celebrate Goa’s own alongside the very best talent from across the subcontinent that is being similarly excluded from the corpus of the cabal. From day one, this curatorial emphasis resulted in an extraordinary flow of talent from the North-East states.

Looking back at the give and take that has played out so positively over twelve editions in fourteen years, it is interesting to remember what our two very distant locations have meant to each other at different times. Here is what the terrific Guwahati-based novelist and translator Mitra Phukan said in her straight-from-the-heart keynote at GALF 2013: “Goa’s culture of inclusiveness that is so different from what much of Assam is now going through, constantly amazes. Of course it is nobody’s case that smaller groups, and ethnicities should be overlooked, or swamped in any way. But in Assam today, what we are witnessing is a sharp and terrifyingly violent fragmentation of a once-rich mosaic that made up our totality. There seems to be no space for dialogue, no give and take leading to meaningful discussions between groups, as the whole entity corkscrews into small, and unviable sections.”

Phukan said that she was glad young people from the North East were pouring out of the region because “it is an eye-opener for these young people to move from the stifling atmosphere of their own home states to the invigorating air of freedom in these places [like Goa, and] it is absolutely vital that the young and even the old move out to experience the way other states, other regions have been moving forward, and developing. It is important for these stifled minds to come to a state such as Goa where literature is being written in several different languages. Amazingly, Konkani is written in four different scripts, yet it is the same language [and] it has been pointed out that historically, Goans have written in thirteen languages. And miraculously, this diversity is not divisive, for together, these form the writings of Goa. It is sometimes said that the uniqueness of Goans is that they understand different cultures. Not only that. They also help others understand each other’s cultures. To people like us, who are coming in from a region that seems to be self-destructing, this quality, this mindset, is of immense value.”

It’s hard not to feel ashamed when you think about what happened to India’s smallest state and its cultural footprint in the intervening years since Phukan made those perceptive observations. As just one part of the catastrophic misgovernance that has brought ruin to so many different aspects of contemporary Goa, all our premier arts and literature institutions have been wrecked to mere shadows of what they were then. Grotesque ignorance and incompetence reigns, and every time any politician or administrator speaks about literature, art and culture in recent years it only induces further shame about how far we have fallen. But here’s the twist in the tale that no one expected: it’s not like that in Assam, or most of the rest of the North East either. From the evidence of the vibrant, highly impressive Dibrugarh University International Literature Festival, they are now far outclassing us with much more signal, far less noise, and zero ultra-vulgar propaganda of the kind that has become so ingrained in our part of the world. 

In all this, of course, Bhaiyee has been one shining exception, and our genial and soft-spoken man of steel did Goa proud as usual, with his robust defence of the right to freedom of expression, and the value of literature as the best way to understand each other and ourselves as well. He began in Assamese, to the delight of his audience, and did not fail to mention Gaza and Ukraine, along with technological threats that have arisen from the pursuit of artificial intelligence. All along, he used the examples of Goa and Konkani to elaborate on his greater points, and I found it sublime satisfying to sit next to Shaila Mauzo listening to Bhaiyee captivate this full Assamese house about our tiny slice of the far-away Konkan.

Just how far away came sharply into focus as we met the international delegates, because the festival curators did an outstanding job of grounding the event in its cultural and geographic location. There was an outstandingly comprehensive representation from Assam itself, several other authors from the surrounding states, and a slew of delegates from Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia and Vietnam. On meeting the dynamic change-making publisher, author and translator Socheata Huot, we discovered her hometown of Pnom Penh is almost 500 kilometres closer to Dibrugarh than is Panjim, and her language belongs to the Mon-Khmer family group that extends into Assam, which makes her entire cultural milieu is much more linked there than ours. 

The inaugural Dibrugarh University International Literature Festival was absolutely great because it really did bring the world to that tiny sun-soaked hinterland above the Brahmaputra, especially with the presence of an entire delegation from Vietnam and two authors from Ukraine. On the last day, in a panel on fiction chaired by me, and including Bhaiyee and the Australian writer Kate Mildenhall, all of us were floored by the testimony from soulful Kiev-based writer, journalist and singer Irena Karpa, and the brave and witty critic Quyen Nguyen from Hanoi. They compelled us to recall that writers live in increasingly dark times everywhere, but they are much worse for some than others, where censorship and war are omnipresent everyday realities. Huge credit to Dhruba Hazarika and Rahul Jain and the rest of their organisational team for that important reminder of why literature and literature festivals matter so much, and congratulations for their outstanding first edition of a truly lovely new landmark on the national cultural calendar. 


Idhar Udhar