North-east troubles

Assam has been burning with political unrest and insurgency for years on end. Unfortunately, many of us in mainland India neither know the history of this disturbance nor its effects on people who live there.

Suravi Sharma Kumar’s Voices in the Valley attempts to showcase the social and political horrors of small town Assam as well as the beauty of the land. The novel is a four-decade account, from the 1960s to the late 2000s, of Assam, told through the protagonist, Milli.
The story kicks off with the Indo-China war of the 1960s. The Chinese army has advanced into Kohoragaon, an idyllic village on the banks of River Luit. The village, which includes Milli’s family, packs up and flees overnight. The once tranquil hamlet becomes a hotbed of terror — banks close operation, asylums and jails free inmates, and the last remaining British citizens take to private jets and fly home.

Soon, the Chinese army declares a ceasefire and the village settles back to its slow rhythm. The story fast forwards to the 1970s when Milli starts narrating what she sees around her as a teenager. At a family level, she sees that she is clearly a second-grade citizen being a girl and the only future the family has planned for her is to marry her off.
Ill-treatment meted out to girls in poor, orthodox families has provided the fodder for a million stories already. Yet, here you are compelled to read on since you know that the story has a bigger scope. There is the natural teenage rebel in Milli, but she has also been subdued over the years to silently accept parental decisions. With no luck coming in the way of marriage, given her mangalik horoscope, Milli is allowed to study

At this point, the writer firmly establishes Milli’s resolve to go beyond the ordinary. She is not a passive college goer but an active student leader. Flatly refusing to play a rejected bachelorette time and again, she continues her studies into post graduation. The story now takes a political turn with its focus on Assam in the late ‘70s. North-eastern India is gripped by anguish with infiltration from Bangaladesh. The locals go ballistic as the government takes no action to stop illegal immigrants but wants to cash in on their votes instead. There is a severe student uprising everywhere and Milli jumps headlong into the movement.

While the novel has a well thought-out plot, there is a lack of depth and style in the narrative and characterisation. A complete absence of clever one-liners, play of words and humour, all of which are quite taken for granted in contemporary fiction, makes the prose here a tad prosaic. In her enthusiasm to bring to foray as many facets and idiosyncrasies of Assam as possible, the writer introduces too many threads and characters that are never dealt with again. Milli visiting her cousin Bibha for example — though the reader gets a glimpse into the life in a tea estate, the incident looks completely out of place. The love story between Monalisa and Mihir, characters we have never heard of before and will never hear of again. The dogs in a hospital eating after births and a havoc-wreaking wild tusker that is found dead — they look force fitted to show the apathy of the government. Given the number of interesting but unrelated-to-the plot incidents, this novel probably would have worked better as a collection of essays.

The story is far more tightly controlled in the last quarter of the novel. Without giving away spoilers, Milli’s marriage and her rise up the political ranks juxtaposed with her sister Mayuri’s turbulent life, provide a satisfying end to the novel. Simply put, it is a good one-time read. The author interweaves the personal and political life in Assam well to give a strong sense of the place.

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