‘Returns’ to the past: violence, counter-memory and ethics
AMIT R. BAISHYA
TWO fictional works in Assamese – Rita Chowdhury’s Makam (The Golden Horse, 2010) and Arupa Patangia Kalita’s Felanee [2003, translated as The Story of Felanee (2011)] – have been in the news lately and are, in my opinion, among the most powerful literary works produced by the contemporary generation of women writers in Assamese. The death of Indira Goswami last year was a tragic loss for the Assamese literary world. Her strong literary voice, aura and public persona make her a hard act to follow. The poet and literary critic, Uddipana Goswami, writes that ‘maybe we should give birth to a new approach to our evaluation of…other women writers of Assam’ – an approach that ‘evaluate(s) the literary creations, minus the aura of the creator’ (114).
In this respect, the translation of Felanee last year by Zubaan and the upcoming translation of Makam by the same press are important milestones as we begin to evaluate the corpus of writings by Assamese women ‘after’ Indira Goswami. I think that evaluating and translating the works of prolific and powerful fiction writers like Purabi Bormudoi, Manorama Das Medhi, Anuradha Sarma Pujari, Mousumi Kandali, Navanita Gogoi, Gitali Bora, Bonti Senchowa, Monikuntala Bhattacharjya and Rashmirekha Gogoi (this list isn’t exhaustive) should be continued further as they reflect the rich polyvalence and diversity of themes in contemporary Assamese literature. This article is a modest proposal in suggesting a new direction.
Makam’s publication became a public event because it brought the focus back on the forgotten predicaments of Chinese subjects who were expelled from India after the Sino-Indian war of 1962. The novel and its subject matter generated a lot of discussion in the Indian and Assamese public spheres. Although Felanee’s initial publication cannot be considered an ‘event’ of the same type, the two novels share a lot of similarities. First, both novels focus on communities that are not traditional subjects of representation in Assamese literature. Speaking of Chowdhury’s earlier novel, Abirata Jatra and Felanee, the literary critic Tilottama Misra says that ‘these women represent one of the most remarkable features of Assamese society, its multicultural dimension… militant movements based on ethnicity have broken apart this structure and made it vulnerable to multiple categories of violence’ (251).
Makam, of course, goes back to a period before the rise of ethnic militant movements. It shows how situations of emergency, such as war, expose severe fault lines in the distinctions between ‘friends’ and ‘enemies’ and rent asunder existing notions of community and friendship. Manjeet Baruah writes that Makam ‘not only demolishes "Assamese" as a political identity, but in the process liberates the modern Assamese language from the need to perform any role of representing "Assamese" identity’ (167). While I wouldn’t go the full distance with Baruah’s comments (a certain notion of ‘Assamese’ identity is still performed by the diasporic Chinese subjects in Makam), I agree that Makam, and I would also add Felanee, conducts a scathing critique and deconstruction of purist and fixed notions of identity.
One mode via which the two authors deconstruct fixed notions of identity is through their use of the temporal figure of the ‘return’ to traumatic and repressed histories. Although I am wary of defining literature from India’s Northeast solely through the lens of ‘violence’ and ‘trauma’, it is undeniable that the scars and wounds inflicted by colonial and post-colonial potentates linger on in the region in the present. I propose, therefore, that ‘violence’ can be a heuristic through which we can define a particular trajectory in the field of fictional production by Assamese writers. A clarification here – I argue that such fictions are about violence only in a limited sense (especially if one is only looking for reports on life led by ‘others’ in an exotic, ‘violence-ridden’ zone of emergency); rather, they illustrate how the world-destroying capacities of violence engender powerful reflections on the adequacy and limits of narrative forms and representative frameworks.
Violence and its lingering aftermaths call for complex strategies of narration and remembrance that reconfigure crucial facets of narrative time. Such reconfigurations of narrative time facilitate ways through which subjects can return to effaced pasts that may well be hiding before us in plain sight. Through these processes of return, subjects confront the impact of the wounds of multiple, hidden pasts on the formations of the present. Theorists like Leo Bersani argue that to endow a restorative function to art which deals with traumatic events is to devalue both historical experience and art. Bersani argues that the ‘catastrophes of history matter much less if they are somehow compensated for in art, and art itself gets reduced to a kind of superior patching function…’ (1). Instead of performing a patching function and becoming compensatory, the point of returning to the past is to be confrontational. Confrontation keeps the effacement alive in the present, enjoining us to intervene ethically and politically.
Although Makam ultimately succumbs to a ‘compensatory’ impulse in its closure, it forces its reading public to confront this historical erasure squarely. Thus, reviews and write-ups on the internet and in newspapers were full of phrases like ‘revelation’, ‘too shocking to ignore’, ‘unpardonable episode’, and ‘untold story’, testifying to the fact that it shocked its audience into recognizing the injustice perpetuated on Chinese subjects in 1962.1 Makam’s plot focuses on the history and predicaments of Chinese subjects who had settled in the town of Makum in Assam in the early half of the 19th century. Makum was a coal mining town established by the British in the 19th century. The British also set up an extractive economy like the tea industry that initially used Chinese labourers. Descendants of these Chinese labourers, who settled and thrived in the multicultural lifeworld in Makum, were labelled ‘spies’ and absolute enemies during the war of 1962, produced as non-citizens, abandoned in a zone of exception in Deoli camp (Rajasthan), and finally expelled from India.
Retrieving the effaced traces of such ‘enemies’ whose tragic histories are buried under the weight of a narrative of national ‘humiliation’, necessitated a meta-narrative and non-linear mode of narration. The key for an understanding of this complex narrative procedure, I think, is found in the figure of return mentioned in one of the paratextual details in the novel. In the ‘Author’s Note’ appended to the novel, Chowdhury reveals that the motivation for writing the novel arose out of the lingering memories of seeing Chinese denizens in Makum during the author’s youthful days. ‘However, (a) lot of time elapsed while I kept thinking I would write a book. If I had known the critical importance of the topic, I would have begun this task a long time ago… When I eventually started writing, it was already too late.’2 (603, italics mine.)
Atemporal gap opens up here in the progression from the melancholy tenor of ‘If I had known…’ to ‘it was already too late’ (the Chinese had already been expelled from India and many of them had died abroad). The belatedness of the endeavour impelled the author to return to the recesses of personal memory, and to supplement this act of return by tracing the stories of the expelled Chinese subjects she managed to come in contact with. Unfortunately, she couldn’t trace a lot of people (‘it was already too late’). Therefore, the harrowing story of Makam had to be framed out of what Chowdhury calls ‘ximito tathya’ (limited materials): the interviews she managed to conduct with Chinese people living in India and abroad, a lot of secondary research and a few imaginative supplements from her side.
I want to focus on two aspects of how the story of the Chinese in Assam is told in Makam: the picture of the everyday interactions of an existing multicultural community in Makum which is gradually rent asunder by war, and the concretization of the figure of ‘return’ in one of the narrators of the text and, also, the recipient of this particular narrator’s discourse. I will also briefly touch upon the issue of the two ‘closures’ to the text. The first five chapters of the second part of this epic novel constructs a nostalgic picture of inter-community amity in the Makum town of 1962. Friendship prevails between the local people and the Chinese denizens (barring a few exceptions), people from different communities marry and fall in love, and the Chinese are represented as one of the key nodes in the socio-economic life in the town.
As the impending war casts it destructive shadow, Chowdhury illustrates the gradual breakdown of this flourishing lifeworld through a brilliant narrative technique – interspersing short segments of ominous dialogue between anonymous members of the public while keeping the narration focused largely on a public or community event such as a football match or a school assembly. I will mention one such instance here. In chapter six of part two, the focus is on a local football match. ‘Seven Star Club’, the local football team from Makum, is winning against an opposing team. Their overall athletic superiority is resented by fans of the opposing club (a few Makum residents of Chinese descent play for the opposing club while a lot play for ‘Seven Star’). Chowdhury intersperses the commentary on the match and the cheers of the audience with exchanges among unnamed fans like the following:
‘It’s very hard to win against Seven Star.’
‘It’s time to shut down that Chinese club.’
‘They shouldn’t have brought Hong and Ming. They are Chinese. Obviously they are beholden to their own people.’
‘Hasn’t Ming scored a goal? Don’t talk nonsense.’
‘I am not speaking nonsense. Tell me why Hong could not intercept the ball passed by Lee-sang?’
‘Keep quiet! They will hear us.’
‘Let them. What will they do? I get angry whenever I see the Chinese nowadays.’
‘What did they do?’
‘What have they done? Don’t you know what they done at the border? Just look at their faces. You know that they are happy when you look at them. Obviously! If they defeat us here today they will feel as if they have occupied India’ (211-12).
The interesting point about this exchange is how metaphors of friend and enemy from one arena (that of sports) are slowly mapped on to a larger geopolitical arena (that of war) – a point Paul Gilroy has studied astutely in Postcolonial Melancholia (2006). These ominous signs – initially represented as jagged shards of dialogue which soon metamorphose into outright calls for the expulsion of the ‘enemy’ – prepare us for the sharp cleavages that rent asunder the community of ‘friends’. For one to ‘live’, the other must be exposed to expulsion or death.
Second, the figure of return is concretized in two of the central figures in the text: the first-person narrator Arunabh Bora, whose voice occupies the majority of the text, and the primary audience of his embedded ‘novel’, Lailin Tham. Arunabh, an Assamese author, is initially flummoxed by the hatred that Lailin, a writer of Chinese origin, displays towards him at a writer’s conference in Canada. Lailin’s hatred (at one point in the beginning she tells Arunabh that she has ghrina for all Indians – the Assamese word ‘ghrina’ combines affective connotations of both hatred and disgust) becomes the primary element that impels narrative desire as Arunabh wants to know why she reacts to him in such a visceral fashion.
Gradually, as Lailin’s demeanour and attitude towards him softens, he gets to meet the former’s mother Meilin, who speaks to him, to his utter amazement, in Assamese. These meetings with Lailin and her mother impel Arunabh to investigate the story of the Chinese presence from the 19th century on in Assam. However, we soon realize that the bulk of Arunabh’s first-person narrative (except the last two chapters) is actually filtered to us by a third-person viewpoint that sporadically reveals Lailin’s emotional reactions as she reads Arunabh’s embedded historical ‘novel’ on the fate of the Chinese in India in Hongkong (Lailin resides with Meilin in Hongkong).
The ‘return’ to the past here operates on two levels. The more evident level of return in the text is represented by Arunabh whose memorial narrative act, mirroring Chowdhury’s own endeavour of returning to the past, exposes the hidden and unacknowledged wounds to public view. However, the biggest metamorphosis in the novel occurs in the case of Lailin, not only in her relationship with Arunabh, but, most importantly, in the way she relates to the repressed dimensions of her mother’s past. This is evident in what I consider the first ‘closure’ in the book (the third-last chapter) as Lailin attends to the sick Meilin after having completed reading Arunabh’s ‘novel’:
(Lailin speaking) ‘You have fever, mother.’
‘Just a little. It isn’t much.’
‘Just a little! It isn’t much! I can’t decide whether I should cry or be angry at you. Why, are you like this, mother? Oof, what type of person are you?’
‘An Assamese person.’ Her mother said, smiling slowly…
(Meilin speaking) ‘I don’t have a high fever. It will be fine if I rest a while.’
‘Are you a doctor?’ Lailin queried with anger, shaking the thermometer.
Suddenly, Lailin halted, troubled by an extreme agitation, as she gazed at her mother’s wrinkled, aged hands that were held out to receive the thermometer. She knelt down on the ground and placed her head on her mother’s lap.
‘I can’t stand it anymore, mother. I can’t stand it anymore. I now understand why you are still attached to India, mother.’
Lailin was drenched in the incessant flow of tears (595, emendations in brackets mine).
From ‘ghrina’ for Arunabh and a lack of understanding for her mother’s love for her lost homeland, Lailin arrives at a position where she acknowledges her mother’s pain and longing.3 The daughter here finally acknowledges the mother’s pain in this moment of narrative transference. Significantly, the axiomatics of sickness and healing frame this sequence. In my opinion, this first closure is far more successful aesthetically and ethically than the second ‘closure’ in Makam – the long drawn out ‘compensatory’ conclusion to the text where Meilin is tearfully reunited with her husband (and Leilin’s father), Pulok Gogoi, and the secret of Arunabh’s parentage is revealed.4 This second ‘closure’ operates far more within the orbit of the completion of the gesture of mourning loss through an overtly melodramatic resolution.
The mother-child relationship and the connection between generations are also central for an appraisal of Arupa Patangia Kalita’s Felanee. Like Makam, Felanee too probes how a complex, multicultural lifeworld is gradually rent asunder due to the violence unleashed by ethno-nationalist elements in Assam of the 1970s and ’80s. The novel encompasses the fortunes of a group of displaced women of different ethnicities who are subjected to an atmosphere of fear and violence during the Assam agitation, the rise of the ULFA and the Bodo movement. The novel does not flinch from the description of scenes of excruciating brutality. Felanee’s ‘confrontational’ ethic lies in the fact that it never shows the women simply as passive victims of extreme violence; rather, they are active agents who continually renew the promise of life even after violence dismembers their living environments repeatedly.
Fear, violence and situations of extreme dehumanization do not foreclose capacities for the nurturing of ethical bonds and possibilities of collective action. Labour, work and friendship enable the community of women to remake their shattered worlds time and again. Like Makam, Felanee too has a unique narrative structure. It does not begin directly with the story of the titular character, but starts off-centre by focusing briefly on the stories of Ratnamala and Jutimala, Felanee’s grandmother and mother. Jai Arjun Singh’s review of the English translation of Felanee misses the point because he does not consider this crucial ethical aspect of intergenerational transmission to be an important cog in the narrative:
…Felanee… is a novel about a woman who spends much of her life being buffeted by the winds of ethnic violence in Assam…Little thought is given to novelistic structure or flow, and the prose mainly follows the arrangement ‘This happened. Then this happened. And immediately after that, this happened’…the inertia in the early chapters of Felanee doesn’t seem harnessed to a larger cause, it’s merely stultifying...The story arc is odd too: the first, ten-page chapter is a static account of the lives of Felanee’s grandparents and then her parents; the chapter ends with the newborn baby girl being rescued, and before we know it Felanee is grown up and herself the mother of a seven-year-old boy.
Far from being a ‘static account’ with an ‘odd’ story arc, I wager that the first few chapters are crucial if we want to evaluate the ethical investments of this powerful narrative. Feminist narrative theorists like Judith Butler (2005) and Adriana Cavarero (2000) argue that any project of narrating a self is intrinsically connected to, as Butler says, ‘primary forms of relationality that are not always available to explicit and reflective thematization’ (20). For instance, since I am not present at the moment of my own birth, part of the story of my ‘origins’ always persists as a ‘gift’ I inherit from others. Such ‘gifts’ (think, for instance, about stories told about relations who died before we became conscious beings, but which become important cogs for the way we form narratives of our selves) are important for any account we seek to provide about ourselves. Thus, I become a narrative ‘I’ by bearing witness to what I could not possibly have seen.
Such forms of imaginative ‘witnessing’ connect me to forms and structures that predate my emergence as a knowing subject armed with authoritative knowledge. An accounting of such dependencies and forms of ‘unknowingness’ also has implications for our ethical bearing towards others. As Butler writes: ‘…it is precisely by virtue of one’s relations to others that one is opaque to oneself, and if those relations to others are the venue for one’s ethical responsibility, then it may well follow that it is precisely by virtue of the subject’s opacity to itself that it incurs and sustains some of its most important ethical bonds.’ (20)
Iargue that far from being a ‘stultifying’ story arc, the first few chapters of Felanee are crucial for any appraisal of the novel’s relentless critique of the imaginary ‘purity’ of identity and an understanding of the ethical bonds that the titular heroine fosters and maintains throughout the story. It is also important to note that Felanee’s hybrid identity – she has Bodo and Bengali ancestry – functions as a critique of the ethnic absolutism that marked a major strand of both the Assam agitation and the Bodo movement. This critique reaches its culmination in the following passage:
While rubbing the blood stains from her sador, she wondered about the various people whose genes ran in her blood.
Her grandmother, Ratnamala’s?
Her grandfather, the elephant mahout Kinaram Boro’s?
What about her mother? Did she have more from Ratnamala or Kinaram? And what about herself? Did her blood have stronger genes from Khitish Ghosh…
Felanee thought of her grandmother, Ratnamala’s gold chain, and the dokhona woven by Kinaram’s mother. She had her mother’s shell bangles set in gold. She had the Muga clothes that Moni’s father had given her when Moni was born. What should she wear? What should she keep? Baishya had asked her to take off the shell bangles lest people mistook her for a Bengali… Bulen, on the other hand told her, that if she wanted to survive, she should wear a dokhona. (2011, 185-6)
Two points are important to note about this passage. First, we see Felanee reflecting on the complexity of her hybrid identity. In situations of extreme violence perpetuated by forces beholden to the illusory absolutism of ethnic ‘purity’, Felanee’s reflections on the ‘genes that ran in her blood’ symbolize the vulnerability that pluralistic forms of multicultural coexistence are constantly subjected to in contingencies that demand a clear demarcation between self and other. Second, she reflects on the ‘gifts’ given to her by representatives of generations that preceded her – the gold chain, the shell bangles set in gold, the Muga clothes, the dokhona. While each ‘gift’ functions as markers of identity for particular ethnic communities – shell bangles (Bengali), Muga clothes (Assamese), dokhona (Bodo) – they also represent figures that ‘return’ to the past and bear witness to what Felanee has never seen.
It is a significant fact in the novel that Felanee never knows her grandmother or mother (both die in tragic and violent circumstances before she is born). But, in the narrative, Felanee constantly returns to these ‘gifts’ to reflect on the legacy of the past and to imagine and bear witness to her connection with the narratives of absent others. I think that such reflections and returns to the past sustain Felanee’s ethical bonds with her son and her companions, and also with the most abject characters represented in the narrative such as Bulen’s mentally challenged wife, Sumala. Felanee – which means ‘thrown away’ – thus emerges as the most humane and ethically oriented character in the narrative. The sustenance and nurturing of her ethical bonds means that she refuses to throw any one away.
Although violence is not the overriding thematic in contemporary Assamese literature, Makam and Felanee illustrate how situations of deprivation that cause human misery engender narrative forms that probe the multidirectional nature of memory (both public and private) and reflect powerfully on ethical issues that arise in the wake of contexts of extreme dehumanization. We can also see these concerns reflected in works by writers like Manorama Das Medhi, Mousumi Kandali and Anuradha Sarma Pujari. Their fictions function as powerful tools of counter-memory. Through their acts of return to unacknowledged pasts, they impel us to confront the legacies of lifeworlds destroyed by or remade in the wake of extreme violence.
1. Chowdhury has since gone on to produce a documentary on Chinese-Indians titled The Divided Soul. There have been talks about amending ‘The Enemy Property Act, 1968’ through which the properties of Chinese-Indians were confiscated. There have also been calls for apologies and for the construction of a monument in Deoli. For examples of reviews or commentaries on the issues raised by Makam, see the essays by Jaideep Mazumdar (2010) and Sangeeta Baruah Pisharoty (2010).
2. All translations from Makam are mine.
3. At various points in the narrative earlier, Lailin reprimands her mother for her attachment to the country that humiliated and ejected her.
4. In my opinion, this narrative strand where Arunabh is revealed to be the son of an expelled Chinese subject remains the most unconvincing aspect of an otherwise brilliantly plotted novel.
Manjeet Baruah, Frontier Cultures: A Social History of Assamese Literature. Routledge India, New Delhi, 2012.
Sangeeta Baruah Pisharoty, ‘Untold Tales’, The Hindu, 27 November 2010.
Leo Bersani, The Culture of Redemption. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1990.
Judith Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself. Fordham University Press, New York, 2005.
Rita Chowdhury, Makam. Jyoti Prakashan, Guwahati, 2010.
Adriana Cavarero, Relating Narratives: Storytelling and Selfhood. Trans. Paul A. Kottman. Routledge, New York, 2000.
Paul Gilroy, Postcolonial Melancholia. Columbia University Press, New York, 2006.
Uddipana Goswami, ‘After Mamoni, Who?’ in Uddipana Goswami (ed.), Indira Goswami: Passion and the Pain. Spectrum Publications, New Delhi and Guwahati, 2012, 113-15.
Arupa Patangia Kalita, Felanee. Jyoti Prakashan, Guwahati, 2003.
Arupa Patangia Kalita, The Story of Felanee. trans. Deepika Phukan. Zubaan, New Delhi, 2011.
Jaideep Mazumdar, ‘The 1962 Jailing of Chinese Indians’, OPEN Magazine, 20 November 2010.
Tilottama Misra, ‘Women Writing in Times of Violence’ in Preeti Gill (ed.), The Peripheral Centre: Voices from India’s Northeast. Zubaan, New Delhi, 2010, 249-72.
Jai Arjun Singh, ‘Drab Storytelling Mars a Worthy Story’, The Sunday Guardian, 2 May 2012.
The Divided Soul. Directed by Dip Bhuyan, 2012.