WEB OF WRITING: INTERNET AND THE NORTHEAST

by Gitanjali Das 
This article was originally published by the Seven Sisters Post on 16 July 2012 at http://sevensisterspost.com/?p=24593#

The Internet is becoming the town square for the global village of tomorrow,” said Bill Gates, and rightly so. The Net has over the last few years come to be accepted as an indispensable part of our lives; the information superhighway has opened up a wide array of possibilities to educate and empower netizens. With the rise of social media, more and more people, regardless of geographical boundary, are sharing information on almost everything under the sun. With bloggers and online groups growing in numbers, the Web today is a valuable tool for performing and showcasing creative activity. In Northeast India too, people are joining hands, though not on a large scale, to promote and preserve the literature of the region through the medium of the Internet.

Thanks to Internet access in towns and cities, there has been a significant rise in the number of e-zines, websites and blogs focusing on northeastern literature and culture. Some of the popular e-zines from and about the region are Enajori (enajori.com), Nila Charai (nilacharai.com), Fried Eye (friedeye.com), The Thumb Print (thethumbprintmag.com) and The Four Quarters Magazine (tfqmagazine.org).

Founded by Himjyoti Talukdar in 2010, Enajori is a monthly bilingual e-zine that showcases the literature, ethnicity and culture of Assam. Besides bringing out monthly issues, the Enajori team maintains a database of directors, movies, books, songs, and digitalises rare photos. “When I started the website, there was not much information on many famous Assamese personalities. We provide short biographies of such personalities and also hope to catalogue 1000 books,” says Talukdar.

Another e-zine dealing with Assamese literature is Nila Charai. Fried Eye and The Four Quarters Magazine, though not Northeast-centric, give a platform to talented writers to make it big at national and international levels. Fried Eye also highlights the Northeast before its global readers. The magazine, with its varied content, experiments with the multidimensional slices of life through photography, dialogues and expositions.

“The Four Quarters Magazine was started in 2011 as a non-profit publishing venture by a few of us, friends and acquaintances, mostly from Delhi, Kolkata and Silchar,” says Arjun Choudhury. Published in both digital and print formats, the magazine’s primary aim is to provide a platform for creative writers from anywhere in the world. Contributors from all over the world contribute works of poetry, prose and translations. The peer board of the e-zine comprises authors from the UK, the USA, Europe and South Asia.

Another much-talked-about e-zine is sevendiary.com. Though the site is not online yet, its page is very active on Facebook with regular posts about the Northeast. “It’ll be a content-based website and interactive digital magazine promoting the unique cultures, lifestyles and tourist destinations in the region”, says founder and content head John Hingkung. The site will also feature northeastern literature with weekly book reviews and authors’ biographies. Within a short time the page has attracted lots of interest.

There are also a number of bloggers who are trying to popularise the regions’ literature online. One such person is Zualteii Poonte who maintains a blog called Mizo Writing in English (mizowritinginenglish.com). It contains Mizo literature translated into English as well as original English pieces.

Other individuals and collectives have also come together to maintain websites like e-pao (e-pao.net), itsmynortheast.com and assam.org, which concentrate on literature and allied aspects of the cultures and societies in the region.

The most important factor boosting the online promotion of the language and literature of a particular community is, of course, Unicode. Designed by Unicode consortium, it covers almost all the scripts in the world, many of which are extinct. “Unicode provides a unique number for every character, no matter what the platform or language is. A standard for representing characters as integers, unlike ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange), which uses 7 bits for each character, Unicode can represent more than 65,000 unique characters,” says Chetan Deka, UK-based software developer and webmaster at enajori.com. So Unicode has huge potential for preserving and promoting various scripts and even for creating a library for the future generation.

Enajori and Nilacharai use Unicode to publish articles in Assamese, while websites such as e-pao publish in Meetei. Meetei Mayek is the first Northeast language to be included in Unicode Standard. This is a breakthrough in the fields of technology as well as literature. With English becoming the medium of instruction in most institutions, regional languages and dialects are said to be under threat. It is here that Unicode can come into play, for it provides us with the scope to preserve our scripts, albeit in digital form.

The e-book is another important improvisation of the Internet age. It was conceived by Michael Hart in 1971. He went on to found Project Gutenberg (gutenberg.org), one of the oldest online literary projects. It has over 20,000 free texts and more than 100,000 books. Also, the site offers e-books in seven different formats, including ePub, PDF and Kindle. E-books have revolutionised the way we read. Also, although traditional institutions like libraries and universities preserve old books, most of them have many drawbacks as compared to archiving e-books. In fact, at the AANK-BAAK Upanyax Bota (AANK-BAAK novel awards) function in April 2012 Kulendu Pathak, Assamese science fiction writer, talked about how the electronic media was slowly but surely taking over the print media.

The debates whether e-books will replace books in print has been raging for a long time now. Many believe that the Internet will supplant the print media someday. Retailers who deal in books also sell e-books for tablets and e-readers. Amazon, Kobo and Barnes & Noble (B&N) are selling more downloadable e-books than printed ones. Though e-books are not very popular in India, it could be a matter of time. In Europe and USA, almost every book sells both in print and digital format. Nowadays most aspiring writers publish their works online before approaching publishing houses. “Most people are comfortable with writing online,” says Pramathesh Borkotoky, publisher for Fried Eye.

After all, by publishing online, the writer can reach a wider international audience without depending much on factors like logistics, marketing and big publishing names. Also, maintaining a blog or writing for an e-zine gives one quicker visibility. But this is the larger picture. Where does Northeast India, a region considered by many to be lagging behind when it comes to technology, stand vis a vis e-publishing?

The first Assamese e-book was posted on miksijili.com in the early part of the last decade, previously maintained by Jatin Mipun. But the author passed away and the URL was not renewed. More recently, Mahapurush Madhabdev’s Namghosha has been made available on the Internet by Pratim Pratap Baruah, a member of the group ‘Asomiyat Kotha-Botora’. Tezpur University has also undertaken a similar project. A group called Nirvana Sutra is planning to convert all the works of famous Assamese author Bhabendra Nath Saikia into e-books. “We will create e-books out of his (Saikia’s) short stories, plays, children’s books, humour books, collections of essays and autobiographies. The first e-book, The Cavern and Other Stories, is available in the Kindle e-book store,” says Bikash Kalita from Nirvana Sutra. The e-book includes 10 short stories of Bhabendra Nath Saikia, translated and edited by Dhirendra Nath Bezboruah. The group is also working on the second and third e-books. They are planning to make the e-books available in other e-book stores like B&N, Kobo and iTunes. So far, mostly only scattered pieces of Assamese literature were available online in scanned versions. Sauravkumarchaliha.org is also worth mentioning here. A group of fans of noted Assamese writer Saurav Kumar Chaliha – the Saurav Kumar Chaliha Anuragi Sanstha – have devoted themselves to translating the writer’s works into other languages and posting his original and translated works in PDF and doc formats on the Internet.

Publishers from the Northeast, however, are yet to explore the market for e-books. Universal concerns like piracy and Digital Rights Management laws are of course there. More than that, however, one of the major reasons why e-publishing has not caught on in the region is that many, particularly in the rural areas, are not computer literate. Nor do they have Internet access, which is mainly restricted to towns and cities.

Talukdar feels lack of technical awareness is another contributing factor. Technical knowledge and research on the international e-book market are required for publishing e-books. Marketing is another key factor. Groups such as Nirvana Sutra encourage writers to publish e-books by providing them with technical support.

Audio books have also made a significant development in Assam over the last few of years. A group of Assamese youth have produced online audible versions of some Assamese classics. They launched Lakshminath Bezbaruah’s play ‘Godadhor Roja’ in 2011. It received tremendous response from readers all over the world. Now, they have brought out an audio version of Padmanath Gohain Baruah’s ‘Tetun Tamuli’.

The other northeastern states can boast of a rich cultural and literary heritage, but they have not made best use of modern technology. Kalita says literary circles from the other northeastern states are not as active online.

According to LR Sailo, press secretary to the chief minister of Mizoram, there are not many online literary groups in that because of poor Internet connectivity. “BSNL is the only Internet provider in Mizoram,” he says and adds that Mizos are literate but due to the lack of technology, not much is being done on the Internet. Often, power shortage in the northeastern states makes it almost impossible to maintain a website.

Robin Ngangom says that the Internet is not widespread in other northeastern states as it is in Assam. However, Manipur and Meghalaya are catching up. But e-books and audio books are still new concepts for these states.

“Another reason for this lag is that in many states literature is still in its nascent stage,” argues Ngangom.

“There has been little development of literature in Arunachal Pradesh,” says noted author Yeshe Dorjee Thongchi. He adds that Arunachal Pradesh, which doesn’t have its own script, still has a long way to go before it becomes active on the Internet.

Every northeastern state has its own literary heritage which can be popularised through the Internet. Audio books, for instance, can go a long way in preserving the Northeast’s oral traditions and bringing them closer to a wider audience. But sadly not many efforts have been seen in this direction. All said and done, however, the Internet is here to stay. And it has heralded a new chapter in the history of literature of the region. Twenty years from now, the Northeast could well be part of a new digital world.

Tumter Riba
The Internet can definitely play a pivotal role in popularising northeastern literature. In this modern, busy world switching on your computer seems to be much easier than going to a book shop. Internet access means that the world is just a click away. We can reach more people worldwide through the Net. In Arunachal Pradesh we don’t have any literature preserved by our forefathers. Even if we try to find out our history, there are no written records of that. It’s just folklore that has been passed down through generations. Now some of our intellectual people are working to preserve it and some books in Tani Lipi have also been published.
We are lagging behind others as the Internet arrived very late in our area, but I believe in a year or two we too will catch up with them. I hope publishers from the Northeast will also use this medium to reach out to the rest of the world. Unicode is related to computer. It’s a computing industry standard for consistent encoding, representation and handling of texts in most of the world’s writing systems. I am sure it will bring about many good changes. I am planning to bring out e-books and pictorial books of the folk tales that I grew up listening to from my grandparents and parents.
(Tumter Riba is the director of Arunachal News Network)

Mrinal Devburman
The Internet is playing a leading role in popularising literature. Sites like museindia.com, poetrytranslation.org and many others are becoming popular. What the Net is doing for Indian languages, including Hindi, is simply fantastic. It has opened up avenues for more than just Northeast literature in English. It took 10 long years for Assam to have e-zines, websites, blogs, etc., but it does now thanks to a group of young writers and netizens of the state. For other states of the Northeast, the main problem is language/dialect. The common belief that ‘English is the only Internet language’ is responsible for this stagnation. But the number of Mizo bloggers/writers is increasing. I am also hopeful for Tripura. You can visit kokborok.com for a taste of Kokborok poems or to learn the language. E-books, however, cannot replace the original texts. Books will always have their own place and I have observed that the GenX is returning to books. Also, e-books are not free at all. Downloading is not cost-effective and it gives good returns only when you have your own site with dynamic uploading facilities. It may take some time in the Northeast, but publishers will prefer the Net for placing business orders at best. The Assamese script needs Unicode recognition to build a distinct identity. But 90% of the other northeastern languages/dialects are in Roman script only! More work needs to be done for Unicode to change things drastically; in particular, emphasis has to be laid on shaping the fonts as per choice.
(Mrinal Devburman is assistant director of programmes at the office of the additional director general of All India Radio, Northeastern Region)

Debarshi Prasad Nath
There are literary traditions in the Northeast that can be popularised through the Internet. For this, we have to think in terms of translating these texts or of retaining these in original. But then we have to think of the target readers. If we encourage a unidirectional flow of ideas into one global language, our own literatures and languages will lose out on many fronts. There needs to be a balance. Assamese literature has the largest number of followers in the region. However, all the communities of the Northeast have strong oral traditions, but the focus has been so much on the written form. There is still a sense of distrust about e-books. There is a sense of romantic association with books that will continue for a long time. This is particularly true of literature. Unicode will bring about a lot of positive changes in our literature and languages. It will help rekindle interest of young people in our languages. I see that many prefer to communicate in their mother tongues in social networking sites such as Facebook. We are planning to bring out an e-journal very soon.
(Debarshi Prasad Nath teaches cultural studies at Tezpur University. Earlier he was with Rajiv Gandhi University, Arunachal Pradesh)

Thingnam Anjulika Samom
I FEEL the Internet is very useful for work purposes. But in Manipur, electricity cannot be availed for more than four hours every day. Even with laptops, it is hard to access the Internet. Reading something online is very difficult. But nowadays the youngsters are becoming aware of the need of the Net. There are a few people who write online but their writing is in English. No doubt the Meetei Mayek was included in Unicode Standard. But there is a huge problem when it comes to preserving the script. The ancient script is being promoted by some young people. But most of Manipuri literature is in Bengali. Even in Manipur, the rich Manipuri literature is not getting much exposure. When we were children, we had to study Manipuri in Bengali script. When it comes to publishing e-books, Northeast publishers are not exploring this area; there are almost no publishing houses in the region. Most of the publishing houses are in Delhi and the marketing of the books is also done from there. There are no publishing houses in Manipur either. Most books published here are by the writers or groups of people committed to promoting literature. Even publishing 500 books is a huge burden. The few publishers that we have in Manipur are mostly interested in publishing scholarly works.
(Thingnam Anjulika Samom is a freelance journalist and writer based in Manipur)

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