Untold stories

Untold stories

Written in Tears
Arupa Patangia Kalita
Harper Perennial
2015, pp 222, Rs 325

At first glance, Written in Tears — a collection of novellas and short stories from the prolific pen of Assamese Sahitya Akademi Award winner Arupa Patangia Kalita — seems a piece of melancholic reading.

But as one digs into the book (translated from Assamese by Ranjita Biswas), the realisation hits — that this selection offers the non-Assamese reader a ringside view of life behind the Assam Andolan, the real human stories behind the headlines and newspaper articles about the decades old Assam insurgency, a situation that has scarred the life of a sylvan (albeit oil-rich) state and its people — who simply want to get on with their lives, unfettered by extortionists, emotionally high-strung insurgents, and militants with lofty goals of autonomy and self-rule — but little humanity.

The very first story takes us into the respectable joint family of an enthusiastic young bride Arunima — who soon discovers a disquieting truth: that the peace of a quiet affectionate home can be shattered by one black sheep, the second son, lost to a desperate cause, now a harbinger of destruction and death. It’s a dramatic tale full of joy and despair… and ultimately, helpless rage. This sombre tone is carried over in many other stories, though happily, at least two end on fairly positive notes, a semblance of rebellion against injustice. And in one tale, there is even a hint of humour, when a newborn is named Daokhi (meaning chicken-shit) — as a guard against unseen demons.
There is an exquisitely crafted novella, ‘The Cursed Fields of Golden Rice.’ A poor but diligent Bodo youth rises in life and takes his beautiful, wise, illiterate, humane tribal wife to Delhi, far away from gun-toting militants and harassing military-men. Yet, the pull of home is too great, especially for the increasingly unhappy and alienated girl — and there is a return to home-base, but one that does not play out as happily dreamt.

The author has grown up witness to the pain that idealism-conjoined violence wreaks on ordinary lives, especially women. Her stories reflect this injustice. ‘Kunu’s Mother’ features a hardworking mother-daughter pair, joined in affection and adversity. But their paradise is rudely disturbed when an insurgent-extortionist attempts to marry the daughter. What follows is a lesson in brave community action against armed Andolan gangs.

Some stories come across as metaphorical statements. ‘The Half Burnt Bus at Midnight’ weaves its way through a road bordered by green paddy fields and a tree-lined river that flows along, sometimes turning sharply “like a dancer bending her waist”. Astonishingly, this bucolic setting gets scorched by the bus, itself a fiery victim of a bandh. In its wake, the bus manages to poison the water, fish, birds, trees, the very air around, all that it infects through the journey — quite similar to the fate of Assam, a noble, ancient and gracious land, now reduced to a landscape infested with killers and rapacious oppressors.

Yet, despite the mournful telling, there is a charm to this literary piece of Assam. The collection is replete with bits of language that evokes the region. A folk song coos — “My dear, untie the knot of your gamocha.” Folk tales, songs, food, customs, clothes, smells are all used to bring alive the Assamese way of life, be it tribal, rural or urban.

Assam has been beset by innumerable problems: illegal migration from Bangladesh and a consequent change in demographics; the Bodo tribe’s demand for a Bodoland separate from Assam; the hijacking of tender unsullied minds into intolerance and militancy. Fortunately, things seem to have quietened down, for the present.

The rest of India needs to wake up and realise that the Northeast is simmering with discontent. In fact, one of the stories, seemingly autobiographical, touches upon the topic of anger in the Northeast. Books like this and more of the same could help readers feel closer to their isolated compatriots in and around Assam.

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