The fiction of Assamese Augusts


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IN every place I have lived, one of the months in the year has always been the cruellest. In Minnesota, where I live now, that month is perhaps January, when temperatures plummet as low as minus 20-25 degrees Celsius. Friends say my first winter in Minnesota wasn’t cruel enough. I believe them, because the scenes in Fargo tell a different horror story. In Delhi, for me that month is June, since it was in June 2004, in the scorching heat of Delhi, I had walked on the streets of Chaatra Marg, running around colleges, filling up admission forms. In June, Delhi’s temperatures reach a high 45 degrees Celsius, and people die of sunstroke. And in Assam, where my roots are (or as my father would say, where my umbilical chord is buried) the cruellest month is August. In high school days, it was during August that my mother wouldn’t allow me to leave the house after school to sit on the Chandmari flyover, because she worried that I might become one of the many thousands who returned home cold, to remain hung for posterity on a wall in the form of a garlanded photograph, gouging out cruel memories (not lilacs).

In the August of my tenth class, one of my friends in Maligaon went out of his house for his maths tuition and never came back. In 2010, when I had left Delhi for good to live in Assam, it was in the month of August that I lost my nineteen-year old first cousin. We didn’t ask each other if nineteen was an age to die. In Assam, we don’t ask such obvious questions anymore. As Zubeen Garg asks Hiren Bhattacharya in his song ‘Mrityu’, ‘How is death an art when it is so readily available?’ Hiren Bhattacharya, whose poems generations of Assamese youths used to quote in love letters, wrote that famous poem long ago. It is now used as epitaphs in many graveyards across Assam: ‘even death is an art/carved on the tough stones of life/it is an exquisite sculpture’. But perhaps, the new age wants a new kind of poetry; and fiction too?

But the residents of both banks of the Brahmaputra Valley may have agreed with Eliot that April is the cruellest month, just the way we used to agree over bottles after bottles of Coca-Cola on Chandmari flyover (the most romantic spot in Guwahati) how an evening remains spread out against the sky. We don’t have lilacs. But don’t we have our home grown bluish fox-tail orchids? Wasn’t it on 7 April 1979, when the United Liberation Front of Asom was formed on the courtyards of Ronghor with the resolve to establish a sovereign Assam? It’s because of them that every seventh day of April – the day when my mother fries 101 different herbs to mark the last day of Bohag Bihu – I didn’t get to spend time on the most romantic spot of my hometown with bottles of Coca-Cola, gossip and giggling girls.


The Land of the Rising Sun has been a witness to many cruel tragedies in the month of April, which strengthens the statement that April should be the cruellest. On 6 April 1980, Assam (barring Cachar and North Cachar districts) was declared as a ‘disturbed area’ under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act – a tag that would remain on the foreheads of every Assamese till this time, like that generous tick mark on Nike products. Just a few days later, the same year, the same month, on 19 April, top Congress leader Hiteshwar Saikia’s convoy was attacked in Lakuwa with a grenade by ULFA members. On 22 April 1996, Saikia, who survived the grenade attack, passed away – a date the ruling party of Assam does not want the people to forget. But perhaps, due to the emotions linked with festive Bihu, due to the absence of lilacs but the presence of orchids, due to the natural and political climate in Assam, if Eliot had lived in Assam, he would have declared August to be the cruellest month for us, not April.

August is undoubtedly the cruellest month for us. It was on 15 August 2004 when a considerably weakened ULFA, which had called for an Assam bandh, killed children celebrating Independence Day in Dhemaji district in a bomb blast, staining their palms with children’s blood, further eroding their already lost popularity. But August has another significance for the political life of Assam. On 15 August 1985, the Assam Accord was signed following the six-year long tumultuous Assam Movement. The accord, the movement, changed the fate of Assam forever – the consequences of which the people are still suffering from, akin to rheumatic pains and arthritis that worsen with age. How could we not agree that August isn’t the cruellest month?

But these are big stories. These are stories that certain political groups – the state, anti-state – would want us to remember forever. A few minutes walk from of my house in Chandmari, we would see a Martyr’s Memorial for the people who died during the Assam Movement. I hear someone had written with blood on the streets there: Tej dim, tel nidio (We will give blood, not oil) during the Oil Blockade Agitation.


What about the small stories of August? Who would remember that I always had to haggle with my mother to hang out after school during the Assamese Augusts? If August was kind, my classmate would have been sitting in the same room with me, writing his board exams. Except for the loss of my friend, the rest of my love-hate relationship with Assamese Augusts is that of petty, unimportant complaints. But Augusts have been painful to thousands of people across the state. These are stories that hegemonic institutions – cultural and political, All Assam Students’ Union and the state government – want us to forget. They would be happy if we never memorialize them because if we remember the Bodos killed by Assamese jingoists in Phulung Sapori during the Assam Movement, the Martyrs’ Memorial erected with Hiren Bhattacharya’s poem inscribed on it would start shaking like the tips of banana leaves caught in a squall.

If we remember the February 2006 massacre by Indian security forces in Kakopothar, if we remember the mass graves of people ‘punished’ by the ULFA that were discovered during counter-insurgency operation of 1989, it would challenge the narrative of the state and the insurgents who want us to remember only certain things, certain events, in a certain way, that would only plough the fields of their political agendas. Where does one look for truth then? Not in non-fiction; perhaps fiction has better answers, a counter-vision? As Nadine Gordimer says, ‘Nothing I say here is as true as my fiction.’ August is the month that reminds us of our relationship with India; reminds us that something is deeply wrong in Assam. The ensuing tension, insecurity, sighs, cheers and lamentations are best reflected in the fiction that has come out after 1979 – ever since August became the cruellest month, breeding blood red-hibiscuses from the dead.


Just the way Assam had metamorphosed after the Assam Movement and the Assam Accord, Assam’s fiction had also taken a turn along with the fate of its state. As a student of literature, I wanted to read them. It was where the small stories that hegemonic cultural institutions would like us to forget were recorded. The stories of people and communities who we shouldn’t know about were brought alive by a new band of writers who had debuted or made a mark mostly after 2001 – Sanjib Pol Deka, Manikuntala Bhattacharya, Geetali Bora, Rashmirekha Devi, Jayanta Saikia, Arup Kumar Nath and Ratna Bharali Talukdar.


But before going to the new fiction on the Assam conflict written mostly after the century took a turn, we need to know the complete story that paved the path of the same. Rita Choudhury’s Abirata Jatra (1981) is one of the first novels to directly speak to the growing political tension in Assam after that historic day in April 1979. Asom Sahitya Sabha, one of the most powerful cultural institutions of Assam that had much more respect and power than it has now, had invited submissions for their novel manuscript contest on the theme of the Assam Movement. Choudhury, who would go on to win the Sahitya Akademi Award two decades later, was a leader of the movement then and had responded by sending her manuscript, consequently, winning the first prize. Though self-consciously composed with characters from all three major faiths of Assam populating its pages, it contained the seeds of a skilful novelist and also underlined Choudhury’s vision of a secular Assam. Akou Saraighat by Lakhinandan Bora was another novel composed during the same time that captured the intensity of the period it was speaking to. As chroniclers of Assam’s most important phase following independence, both the books are valuable.

About a decade later, Parag Das’s Sanglot Fenla (1992) positioned itself on a completely different pole by serving as a repository of reasons why the Assamese people had to take to the course of armed rebellion after the failure of the Assam Movement and the Assam Accord signed in that cruel month of August 1985.

By the time of the publication of Sanglot Fenla, the metamorphosis of the political and social situation into a more complicated one hadn’t happened; nor had the people of Assam started looking for alternatives to Asom Gana Parishad that had come to power in 1985 riding on the success of the Assam Movement. No, the people of Assam hadn’t yet started to crave for an alternative leadership beyond the ranks of AGP and Congress and BJP. Cruel Augusts went by every year, trapping obedient adolescents at home and killing the unruly ones who didn’t listen to worrying mothers. To capture that spite of Assamese Augusts in fiction in a compelling way, we had to wait until 1997 when Dhrubajyoti Bora’s first novel of his ‘Kalantor Quartet’ was published.


By far, the most captivating account of the Assamese insurgency is Kalantoror Gadya (2007). With a large cast of characters, many subplots, the novel tries to provide an in-depth analysis of the situation of Assam from multiple angles. In Babula’s gruesome death through torture at the hands of the army, Bora narrates the violation of human rights during the counter-insurgency. Through Sombori’s regular, multiple rapes by the army officer, the novel underlines how the conflict of was inscribed often on the bodies of women. Through the story of Gojen’s disintegration from a rational human being to a man who walks naked in his room in frustration when asked to choose between his former comrades or become a government informer, Bora tries to show the conniving process of co-option that the state launched in order to curb the insurgent movement, leading to the bloodbath called secret-killings between 1998 and 2001.

This bloodbath is given a human face in Arupa Patangia’s emotionally intense novella Arunimar Swadesh, where Patangia evokes the true story of the gruesome massacre of the entire family of Umakanta Gogoi. They were killed with bombs while asleep on 11 September 1999 in No. 2, Borbil village, Sibasagar (not too far from August?). Felanee (2003), her larger project, looks at the Assam conflict of three decades through the perspective of gender by following a small group of women. They fight like tiny ants caught in floods through mutual cooperation. Just like the reeds that grow on the banks of the river, they resurface with a new zeal each time they are broken down. It is the petty day-to-day struggles of these characters that Kalita choses to glorify through her loosely plotted, but beautifully described scenes of the novel. The third novel that adequately represents the metamorphosis of Assam is Kolijar Aai (2006) by retired IPS officer Dilip Bora. By appearing serially in Assam’s most popular fortnightly Prantik, it ensured a permanent place in the Assamese mind. Though written in mediocre prose, the novel is significant as it depicts the life of an insurgent who suffers from compunction after choosing the path of violence. Deeply attached to his mother, at a certain point he is forced to make a choice between his mother and the metaphorical ‘Mother Assam’ for whom he had taken up the path of violence.


By 2010, two major events had happened in Assam that further changed the course of Assamese literature. The first was a literary intervention by Indira Goswami, who oversaw the translation of Megan Kachari’s poems and published it with an introduction in English. Released at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2006, it created ripples in Assamese life, suddenly renewing a wave of understanding and sympathy for the ‘lost boys’ who had taken up the path of the gun almost three decades back. Inspired by the success of former ULFA member Kachari’s poetry collection, more surrendered insurgents wrote books. Roktim Sharma’s Boranga Yan (2006), Anurag Mahanta’s Aaulingor Jui (2007), Samudra Gogoi’s confessional memoirs Ejon Prakton ULFAr Swikarukti (2008) further changed the course of Assamese literature and presses published a new crop of writings by militants.


The literary establishment was yet to embrace them. Those books were looked at with scepticism. I was a student in Delhi University at that time, and remember the bitterness expressed towards Goswami’s venture by some Assamese students for spreading a renewed wave of sympathy for the insurgents. ‘Should we love Hitler if he wrote poetry and released his book at Frankfurt?’, a friend who didn’t like my sympathetic review of Kachari’s poems written for Sadin asked me.

In 2012 May, when I returned to Assam after an academic year in Minnesota (and a cruel January), I was pleasantly stunned to find that a mainstream literary and cultural monthly, Satsori had published a special issue on ‘Bidrohee Sahitya’ (Militant’s Literature), unimaginable even a few years ago. I was suddenly convinced that it was because times were changing – August just didn’t have enough space left to bear the burden of dismal events any more. Hence, certain cruel events were spilling over like boiling milk from a container to other months. In this case, it was March – the month Anuradha Sharma Pujari and Diganta Oza edited that issue. I was convinced that people, who were filled with hatred for the militants and blamed them for Assam’s underdevelopment, were looking at them with a new eye. This wasn’t an eye of admiration. It was critical, weighing the pros and cons and ready for a debate. Indira Goswami passed away in November 2011, but she had planted the first sapling on a land that would become a rain forest.

In leaderless Assam politics too, a new leader had captured the imagination of the youth and the middle class – Akhil Gogoi, who had been using non-violent means to protest against the brutal inequalities in Assam. Gogoi’s rise in post-peace talks Assam and post-satellite TV boom in Assam, is one of the most significant events bringing year-round, twenty-four hour cruelties of Assamese Augusts to the bedrooms of middle class households; this ushered Gogoi’s movement for a different Assam into the drawing and dining rooms. Suddenly, we were reminded that we should be looking for alternatives. Though the middle class is perhaps still very sceptical of Gogoi, he has been able to acquire a mass following in the villages of Assam, where the people have started to get disillusioned with the established political parties and their neck-deep corruption. On the pages of monthlies and weeklies and dailies, fiction was looking for alternatives too, by twitching, by taking a new turn. We have come a long way since August 1985, after all.


This new chapter is best reflected in Sanjib Pol Deka’s wonderful short story, Eipine Ki Ase? that blends the personal and the political, hinting at the mess after three decades of insurgency. Published in the April 2010 Bihu issue of Asom Bani magazine as a novella, and later included in his debut fiction collection, Deka skilfully employs the trope of performance to depict the life of a surrendered insurgent, Sudipto Hazarika and the people surrounding him. The entire text is populated with characters that have been affected directly by the cruel Assamese Augusts: Modhu Mastor’s son Sudipto is a surrendered militant; Biplob’s father is in perpetual mourning after losing his son at the hands of the army. Sudipto could return like a ‘wings-clipped moth’ but Deka writes, Biplob (the insurgent who had inspired Sudipto) could never return for he was burnt to cinders in the fire of revolution. Modhu Mastor’s conscience isn’t clear as he is haunted by the ineffective role he had played during the Assam Movement that took the lives of his East Bengali Muslim immigrant friend’s family. Sudip suffers from a similar kind of agony because of the people he had killed before surrendering; nor is he safe because the possibility of being killed by his former colleagues always looms large.


When the story opens, the village is after a long time preparing for a bhaona where they would enact the Abhimanyu Vadh play. Abhimanyu was the son of the Pandavas, hounded and unfairly killed by seven skilled, senior warriors in the war. While every-one in the village is obsessed with the upcoming performance, Sudipto tries once again to portray a normal life. But though the youth of the village could perform their female roles on stage by wearing coconut shells on their chests, haunted by his past he is unable to play his role of a husband and son. The use of folk songs in the story gives it the dimension of a short novel, though in the collection it is included as short story.

At the end of the story, after a series of events, as the village weeps when the Abhimanyu on stage is killed, Sudipto is also taken away by his erstwhile colleagues from the insurgent organization and murdered. Sewali, his wife, who was the only character unaffected by the insurgency directly, joins the host of people in the story who have suffered direct loss, unlike some of the villagers who were brutally beaten up years ago during one such performance letting Hanumans and Ravans flee across the village. Long after finishing the story, one remembers the jester’s song that starts with the death of Sanjay Gandhi and ends by pointing towards Indira Gandhi’s policy on Assam. Abhimanyu’s no-way-out situation isn’t just the climax of the play but also the climax of Sudipto’s life.


While Deka’s story retells how public history is impressed on the bodies and minds of people, Manikuntala Bhattacharya’s novella Xilor Manuh, published in the Fall 2009 issue of Dainik Asom on the occasion of Durga Puja, probes the consciousness of a single, thirty-three year old woman whose elder brother had joined the insurgent organization. As the only young member of the family, she sacrifices the small joys of her life and serves as a support to her ailing, ageing parents who are obsessed with the loss of their son and ill-treat her despite her best efforts to serve them. When a match comes for her, the prospective groom’s family rejects her as ‘too masculine’. She joins work after clearing the Assam civil services examination but whenever her brother ‘comes down’ to Guwahati, her parents force her to go and meet him.

There are two trips narrated in the novella: long and arduous, inconvenient and unsafe for her. The first trip breaks her down physically and emotionally because, despite the arduous journey, she doesn’t get to meet her brother who had to suddenly leave. The news leaks out that he is in the city. Her brother, now a top leader of the insurgent organization, is well protected. She returns halfway from the second trip, refusing to meet her brother, frustrated at the futility of it. During both these trips, the events of her life are told: how her brother left the house and its aftermath; how after one of his visits home she had lost her first cousin Debojit at the hands of secret killers; and how she was once beaten up brutally by the same band of state sponsored gangs, left to die on the Bahini river. Manikuntala maps private history through the lives of her characters. In contrast to Sanjib, she doesn’t mention concrete details about the outer world and yet both texts take us into a trip, a journey through the unofficial history of Assam.

Geetali Bora’s novella Doriyoli is based on a famous incident that she had read about Megan Kachari alias ULFA’s former top leader, Mithinga Daimary, who had lost his entire family at the hands of secret killers, and whose book was released by Indira Goswami at the Frankfurt Book Fair, 2006. She had read that Daimary had once found a wounded deer in the forests of Bhutan, just before Operation All-Clear in 2003 that was launched against ULFA. Drawing upon this incident, she reconstructs the character of Dihang Rajguru – a poet, a nature lover, loyal to friends and emotionally weak in the proximity of his mother; so weak that he makes midnight calls to her and almost breaks down. When his gun injures a little doe, he brings her to the camp, nurses her and names her after the state he wants to free from Indian rule: ‘Asomi’.


Focused on the last few days of life in the ULFA camp before Operation All-Clear, though Bora doesn’t claim to tell the life of Daimary, it is the most polemical fictional piece set against the Assam conflict after Parag Das’s Sanglot Fenla. Quite explicitly, but with great expertise and emotional depth, Geetali invites us to admire and adore the character of Dihang. The ‘Author’s Note’ at the end that mentions the original incident that inspired the novella, further adumbrates her intention to take a sympathetic look at the life of an banned militant – as if following Indira Goswami’s advice. Quite curiously, Indira Goswami makes a guest appearance in the dream of Dihang in the novel, where she places a pen in his hands and says, ‘Ah, too much sorrow? Write, write, and be happy.’


The granary of fictions of Assamese August looms large in contemporary Assamese literature. Small presses, literary magazines with low circulation, annuals with very local reach have all recorded this experience of victims and survivors of the conflict. They are a necessary counter-vision in a state where institutions constantly manufacture ‘truth-s’. These stories unsettle such a climate by placing the readers alongside the characters and fling them into the cobweb of ethical dilemmas. Arup Kumar Nath’s haunting short story, Koli Puran, set against the Assam Movement, when supporters of the movement were on a Bengali Muslim killing spree, uses a marvellous metaphor to tell us how rumours about Koli’s past spread and created hurdles in her life: ‘Whenever Aandheri sits on anyone’s backyard, that secret comes out of her mouth like threads coming out of a spider’s mouth and that silky thread wraps up the daughters, daughters-in-laws, mothers-in-laws, grandmothers, grandchildren sitting on the backyard. Soon after, that thread is emitted from the mouths of each and every woman in the village, covering the entire village in a web of secrets. On that web, Koli becomes an innocent butterfly and struggles for life.’

By travelling with the characters to meet a lost brother, to watch the Abhimanyu Vadh play, to nurse a wounded deer, we go through an experience that challenges our political loyalties, invites us to pay attention to the untold stories – stories that make martyrs’ memorials shake like the tips of banana leaves in a squall.