By Ajitabh Hazarika
India’s northeastern periphery has had a serious and sustained history of political anxiety that owes much to the discourse of insurgency. As a region fringing several foreign territories, it has witnessed a significant influx of people for centuries which historically situates its complex political landscape within a localized framework and informs a tension that marks the nuanced lived experiences of the northeast in a multi-ethnic polity. The post-partition period has seen excruciating episodes of armed conflicts fuelled by subnational ideologies that revolve around the issue of citizenship among others. While separatist agendas afflict lives in states like Manipur and Mizoram, the narrative appears for the most part far from being settled in Assam. In the 90s of the last century in Assam, for instance, “secret killers” as they were called, carried out a wave of extrajudicial killings for reasons which could not be pigeonholed. This left its sinister scars around the corners and crevices of history and affected the lives of the people in more ways than one. However, the conflicts and commotions of the northeast go often unaddressed in media, as if it were a part of their normal life in this region, their history reduced to the footnotes in the process.
Writers from the northeast often resort to the avenues of imaginative literature in order to deliberate that for which the genres burdened by the demands of factuality appear limiting. In this edited volume of stories, How to Tell the Story of an Insurgency: Fifteen Tales From Assam, Aruni Kashyap claims to have compiled “a wide variety of experiences on what it means to have lived under the shadow of the guns” (‘Editor’s Note’) in Assam. The book includes fifteen stories originally written in three languages: four in English, two in Bodo and the rest in Assamese; the idea was to capture the “polyphonic” nature of the region. Needless to say, language has an extended quality to it where cultural indices are cloistered in. The emotive dimensions of the real-world experience are bound to manifest a motley of peculiarities depending on the language in which they are conveyed. It is precisely the plurality of exposure that the editor Kashyap tries to achieve within the corpus of this anthology. At the very outset, he hints at a bunch of trajectories – “experience of minorities, settler communities and tribal people, and their experience of caste, class and a torn social fabric” (‘Editor’s Note’) – along which the cog of this volume brings up the tales into being.
In much of the thematic weaving, what looms large is the grim aftermath of the ULFA (United Liberation Front of Assam) rising in the 80s. The collection starts with “Surrender”, a short story by Anuradha Sharma Pujari, which depicts how the reintegration of former ULFA cadres into a family and society they long abandoned has led to a spate of defections. Jahnavi Barua’s “The Vigil” captures poignantly the inward musings of a helpless mother inescapably trapped in the love for her sons, one of whom is a deputy superintendent in the state police machinery (Bapukon) and the other an insurgent (Moina). Barua’s characteristic forte sheds profound light upon the uncertainty that hovers over the lives of those inhabiting a zone of emergency where the personal is endlessly entangled with the political. A depiction of this kind is found in Manikuntala Bhattacharya’s “Stone People” as well where a futile search to bring home the missing son (Digbijoy) ruptures the very axiom of a familial matrix.
While the ULFA rhetoric has been explored further in Nitoo Das’ “Charred Paper” and Ratnottama Das Bikram’s “Crimsom” [sic], both manoeuvring a dense texture of settler/indigenous rubric fraught with strife, Sanjib Pol Deka’s “What Lies Over Here?” brings into the table questions of a more pertinent nature pertaining to this arrangement. Deka’s rendition can be read alongside the one by Pujari in that both these centre around the plights of a SULFA (Surrendered ULFA) protagonist returning to his mundane life. Against a backdrop of communities locking horns with each other, Deka’s narrative touches upon the mutable inadequacies in the life of a stranded agent strongly conveying feelings of vulnerability and terror. In doing so he brings to the fore the powerful image of the maze from the epic Mahabharata where Abhimanyu was trapped defenceless. However, the flip side of this narrative is not to be lost sight of, which has been informed by Kaushik Barua in “Run to the Valley”. Barua’s delineation acquaints the readers with state-sponsored brutalities in the name of security and those of the SULFAs as a means of usurping authority once they find themselves away from their erstwhile organizational structure. The harsh reality of ordinary life is all that remains to them.
The anthology brings alive agonizing anecdotes of ethnic conundrum. The tales accentuate forms of actual and real violence. The village burning episode in Arup Kumar Nath’s “Koli-Puran”, for instance, leaves the fabric of the social emaciated beyond repair. Besides this, Arupa Patangia Kalita’s “Our Very Own” and Uddipana Goswami’s “Colours” ruminate on the us/them, insider/outsider binaries and leave a disconcerted feeling. Jayanta Saikia’s “Maryam” stands out prominently in this context amongst others. Etched on an uneventful occasion of childbirth, it encapsulates a haunting syllepses that compels the reader to ponder over a series of questions regarding identity and belonging. “Would the child find a land to be born in,” the narrator inquires, unravelling a situation where individual identities begin to dwindle. Saikia’s protagonist instantiates a predicament of liminality or “in-betweenness” where geographical demarcation rips off the ties of bonhomie. With Katindra Swargiary’s “Hongla Pandit” comes to light the ramifications of Bodo militancy that eschews the hopes of a self-fashioned Bodo pundit to get himself acclimatized into the folds of a caste Hindu society. Likewise, in “A Hen that Doesn’t know how to Hatch its own Eggs”, Nandeswar Daimari taps the issues of unrest and uncertainty that linger even in the period of post-insurgency. Wrought around the thematic linchpin of a “dream deferred”, the narrative corpora in both these stories are rife with pungent satire. A journey motif has been worked out by Juri Baruah, the youngest of the storytellers, to exemplify a process of orchestration that predate a period of political brouhaha in “A Political Tale”.
The last in this collection, “Jiaur Master’s Memorandum” by Hafiz Ahmed, appears to unpack significations of a different kind. It alludes to a bloody phase in history that has gone down often unattended in the popular discourse. The traumatic past of this period passed on to assume a certain form of collective amnesia and justice was never meted to the ones left bereaved and shattered. The narrative sets forth a father figure who initiates a signature campaign for a memorandum seeking justice for those killed in the gruesome Nellie Massacre of 1983. Ahmed’s powerful evocation drives home to the readers the sense of a justice deferred. His is a narrator who strikes a familiarity with the reader by fabricating the latter to be part of storytelling itself: “Dear Reader, now I am going to start travelling in search of Jiaur Master.” This necessitates a more personal tone to the severity that it responds to and reifies a fitting closure to the volume as such.
Scholars like Sanjib Baruah have pointed out, “[O]fficial squeamishness about the use of the term armed conflict – and preference for the term insurgency – is largely explained by India’s well-known defence in international forums of the sanctity of the principle of state sovereignty and the complementary principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of states” (In The Name of the Nation: India and Its Northeast, 2020, p.9). An appropriation as such readily does away with the nitty-gritties of a phenomenon which serves to structure the existential positions of everyday life in a region like Assam. The stories in this collection have tried to grapple with and showcase the material dimensions of terror and trauma, travails and squabbles that render the lives “under the shadow of the guns” invariably precarious, facilitating routes to understand the situations in its myriad facets. But for all that, a few things are in order. Notwithstanding Kashyap’s careful choice, the arrangement of the entries could have been a little more specific. The stories could have been sequenced in such a way that the narrative configuration would correspond to the gradual progression of the historical events. To take this point into consideration, one can think of reading the pieces by Pujari, Deka and Kaushik Barua in one go, for instance, in order to understand the (S)ULFA situation at length. Apart from the ones composed originally in English, rest of the tales are in English translation. For this we have reasons to assume that the intended readers of this volume are mostly not from Assam. With no ontological exposure to the themes it addresses, readers might find themselves muddled in working out the intricacies of a layered framework of “insurgency” at times. Insofar as the readers at home are concerned, it would have been a befitting choice to have the publication details of the Assamese and Bodo originals incorporated so that the ones in the habit of reading in the vernacular could savour the taste of the tales in those languages as well. But there is no point saying that the translations are not assuring, albeit on occasions a few appear hastily carried and perfunctorily concluded. With this, in the words of the editor himself, we look forward to seeing it foster “more dialogue” and “pave the path for more anthologies, more stories from Assam.”
Ajitabh Hazarika is a doctoral student in the Department of English and Foreign Languages at Tezpur University, Assam. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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