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Assam’s literary journey to mainstream

By December 11, 2017No Comments

Source : The Tribune

Dr Dhrubajyoti Borah, President of the Asom Sahitya Sabha, is the man of the moment. His latest Assamese novel Azar, based on the black fever epidemic that broke out in Assam during the British Raj, has been received well. His first novel in English, A Sleepwalker’s Dream, has been receiving rave reviews. Dr Borah, who is also principal of a Government Medical College, has rich repertoire of works that includes 10 novels, five novellas, one historical monograph, two analytical books on nationalism, four books on popular history and a book on travel writing. He has  been recently nominated for the Distinguished Writer Award at the TOI Litfest, 2017, the first Assamese writer to get the award.


In recent times, Assamese writers are enjoying a place of prominence, thanks to the trend of translations and even original works. How do you feel about it?

Assam has an ancient and rich literary tradition. The first Ramayana in Indian language written by Madhab Kandali appeared in Assamese. Saint Sankardeva and Madhabdeva enriched Assamese with their Bhakti literature, and translation of the Bhagavata Purana. In modern times, it developed a strong tradition of writing — short stories, poetry and novels — blossomed. Two of our finest writers Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya and Mamoni Roisom (Indira) Goswami received the Jnanpith Award for their novels. Assamese literature reflects, apart from contemporary reality, human idealism and refined sensibilities and we have a number of talented writers. Things happen slowly in Assam and like everything else awareness of its rich literary tradition spread outside the state a little late. But it’s gratifying that the awareness has come. Translations have helped. Bridges are being built.

In term of publication, since Assamese literature is not performance oriented, it still has miles to go when it comes to capturing the fancy of the masses. What needs to be done?

True, Assamese literature is not performance oriented. But it is generally true of all Indian language literature, more or less. We need committed translators and efficient editors in all languages. There are many who can translate to English correctly but the language they use is not always the language of modern fiction. We also need more publishers who would publish translations. The English readership is growing all over the world. We must be able to be a part of this movement. At the same time we must learn to appreciate more the Indian writers who write in English. There seems to be lack of communication as well as a mental block on both sides. This needs to be bridged by more interaction, appreciation and sharing.

In The Sleepwalker’s Dream, your story starts after a surgical attack. With the sense of nationalism now attached to surgical strikes, had you focused on the valour of the armed forces, do you think your book would have sold more?

Any kind of war is inhuman though humankind has been engaged in war for most of its existence. The Sleepwalker’s Dream is essentially a counter-statement on war and violence and speaks of humankind’s universal yearning for peace. Extolling valour in war sometimes serve to mask its brutality and hide war crimes. We must not forget it.

In this case the truth was different. Neither the Indian government or the Army had issued any statement about Indian forces blasting an insurgent headquarter in the foreign soil of Bhutan. But it happened, and the story had to start from there. Even in fiction you can not deviate from the truth too much.

As president of Asom Sahitya Sabha what are your plans for Assamese literature?

One dreams about doing so many things when one first acquires this prestigious position, but reality does not allow you to do much with a literary organisation that has respect and responsibility but no money or power.

On an immediate level, I am more concerned about the future of our language. Like most Indian languages, Assamese also is under increased threat from English. The shift of the middle-class children from Indian languages as the medium of education to English, coupled with commercialisation of school education, has magnified this threat. We have to strengthen our language, develop and modernise its usage and adopt language-friendly policies simultaneously. We must also strengthen teaching English to all students who are educated in Indian language mediums schools so as to improve their communication skills and equip them for the present world. This is what we are doing at Tezpur University (a Central University) by introducing diploma course for communicative English and Assamese.

Literature does not grow well in closed waters. It needs infusion of newer ideas, thoughts, contending philosophies etc. We endeavour to enrich Assamese literature through translations of modern work from around the world and India into Assamese and translation of Assamese works into English. For this purpose Asom Sahitya Sabha has established a permanent translation institute at Guwahati.

Tell us about your latest book on kalazar?

It is called Azar, which means affliction or disease. Its based on the repeated kalazar (black fever) epidemics that ravaged and depopulated Assam from 1886 to 1940. Through the lives of four generations of a feudal family this period is explored. The criminal disregard of the colonial administration towards the lives of the general population but its discriminatory concern in protecting the indentured labours of the European tea planters, the hopeless condition of common people — form the narrative of the novel.

You have written a lot about insurgency in Assam. Is it because it makes for a popular subject?

I believe that the insurgency in Assam is unlike many other insurgencies in the Northeast. It is not an ethics insurgency of a tribal society, but is an insurgency in the mainstream — in the caste-driven Hindu heartland. It needs special understanding. I also believe the insurgencies bring into sharp focus the unfinished task of nation building in India and the problem of accommodation of various people into it. These are serious matters which need serious search and solutions. I believe my writing is part of such a search. It is heart breaking to see the tragedy, the wasted flow of blood, the smashing of impossible romantic dreams, the loss of practically an entire generation.

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