A translation brings alive the conflict in the northeastern state that hogged headlines a few decades back
Dhrubajyoti Borah needs no introduction in the Assamese literary world. The Guwahati-based sexagenarian writer and novelist is the author of over two dozen books that he published in a career spanning around three decades. He was honoured with the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2009 for his novel, Katha Ratnakar.
As such, when one of his classics is translated into English by the author himself, it draws a lot of positive attention and interest among readers and others alike. Never mind if the original in Assamese, Kalantarar Gadya (Prose of Tempest), was first published over two decades ago in 1997. The narrative still holds relevance today because it talks about dreams and despair, illusions and dilemma of the youth in one of the most geographically and ethnically volatile regions of the country. Decades of insurgency may have given way to relative peace, but Assam and the Assamese youths are still struggling with the same set of issues, ranging from unemployment and low levels of education and skills to a quest for dignity and identity.
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Elegy for the East is a story from 1990s’ Assam when militancy was at its peak in the state, as it was in most parts of northeast India, and security forces were constantly engaging in military operations to contain and flush out rebels from their hideouts. It is told from the point of view of a young journalist Partha who works in Guwahati as a correspondent for a national daily. It is also the time when the unrest in Assam was attracting the attention of the national media.
Initially Partha tries to analyse the very idea of insurgency. Was it the outcome of ‘the whims of a few emotional, idealistic young men or was it deeper than that’? Was it born due to a social vacuum? Why did it fan out like flames? Or was it a quick way to glamour and power for a group of young men? Several questions arise in his mind.
In this journey of discovery, Partha meets several people — from youngsters who chose the path of violence to ‘change the world’ to innocent men and women who become victims of military excesses. And in the process, he gets emotionally attached with some of them.
Through these characters, readers are taken to a world where bloodshed, death, rape and terror are commonplace, but at the same time there is a longing for peace and meaning among the masses.
Borah is an authority when it comes to telling the stories of youths in angst, of people who yearn for the true meaning of life amid trials and tribulations. Many of his works are viewed through the eyes of the marginalised section of society, whose lives are longing for emancipation from social and political forces that seek to subdue them.
This particular novel, too, delves into the lives of such people. There is Prabhat, a college student who is picked up by the police, harassed and tortured in a bid to extract information about the rebels; then there is Ron, member of a tiny armed unit that is determined to take on the might of the nation, along with his leader Bhaskar Hazarika who is later killed in an encounter.
Caught in the crossfire are innocent villagers like Sombori, a widow raped by a raiding soldier; Babula, an old woman’s ‘idiot grandson’ who is killed in an encounter and labelled ‘dangerous terrorist’; and Bakul, rebel Ron’s sister who falls in love with journalist Partha.
Elegy for the East is a work of fiction. All the incidents and characters narrated in the novel are a figment of the writer’s imagination. But, in the words of the author himself, it reflects reality in a more truthful way. In that, it can simply be called a masterpiece.
Kunal Doley is a freelancer
Elegy for the East
Rs 595, Pp 378