I need to begin this review with a disclaimer: I have followed and admired Dhurba Hazarika’s work for a long time now. Years ago, I bought his book of short stories, Luck to read to our young niece in Berkeley. A spirited, animal loving little girl, she would always ask wide-eyed about what happened to Ghostie – the street dog around whom the author had woven a tragic, touching story – and I was never able to tell her what I thought. It was a straightforward enough story of a group of young Shillong boys who adopted a street dog and cared for it. The dog was an integral part of their growing up and just as the reader felt comfortable with the story, Hazarika introduced another character into the plot. With the arrival of the new person, who was wealthy and callous, the boys drift apart. They turned on each other and poor Ghostie bore the brunt of their transformation. I always made up a happy ending for my niece.
A few years later, I bought two new books about Shillong and Kalimpong and enjoyed reading them. Young, gifted writers, whose prose was mellifluous, authored both the books in question. However, there was something distant about their relationship with the two cities that are very similar for being storehouses of mystery and intrigue. Then, as if to restore my faith in the paradoxical universality and uniqueness of small towns, I read Hazarika’s unapologetic ode to Shillong: Bowstring Winter. Having grown up and idealized the city, I was ecstatic about the wild and garrulous texture of the story and even more so, for the author’s ability to make Shillong appear as though it were the centre of the universe. Instead of being caricatures and ciphers of social groups, Hazarika’s characters were rambunctious, drink soaked persons who did not need any qualifiers for existing. They simply belonged to Shillong and the city belonged to them. There and in the books, they came alive in and were nurtured in their world of intrigue, human fallibility and desires.
It was therefore with such a sense of anticipation that I picked up Sons of Brahma the other day. The story, about a young man, Jongom Hanse, who finds himself trapped in the nebulous world of counter-insurgency, hunted by both insurgents and security agencies alike. As the story unfolds, the reader learns that Hanse is a research student at the university. One day, an insurgent leader, who wants to harness Hanse’s writing and research skills to help with the secessionist movement, approaches him. A reluctant Hanse is rather quickly drawn into events that he has little control over. The police, led by a stoic and ruthless Nilim Kumar, bursts into his room to arrest him and the insurgent leader, Anjan Phukan. Without giving away the novel’s plot, the story moves quite quickly from one episode of violence to another, with Hanse and his friend Pranab Kalita trying to keep out of harm’s way. There is a twist to the story, one that is expected from the author.
However, Sons of Brahma lacks the developed, wholesome characters of Hazarika’s earlier novels. Hanse and the cast of characters that appear are almost caricatures of who they are supposed to be: noble, bungling, menacing, innocent, calculating and so on. The dialogues defy common sense, as the author tries very hard to pack in historical and political information that is often demanded of persons writing on and about themes pertaining to Assam and Northeast India. Much of the conversations between the protagonists read like annotated academic notes in dense texts. Instead of magnifying the voices of the characters, it reduces them to ciphers of the communities that they belong to. Moreover, the larger political story of insurgency and counter-insurgency in Assam get reduced to a more-or-less flat narrative that is neither engaged nor analytical.
If, in his earlier books, Hazarika was pointedly cavalier about footnoting his characters and their milieu, he has made up for it in this one. Both Luck and Bowstring Winter were books that could not have cared less about the reader’s ignorance. It was almost as if the reader was being told to stop being lazy and learn about Shillong, Tezpur and other small towns that appeared in these narratives. This gave the books a universality that was refreshing. Instead, Sons of Brahma keeps explaining political and social events to the reader, thereby distracting her/him from the nuances of the story itself. This is precisely the kind of burden that editors and reviewers like to put on writers who tell stories about the Northeast. This makes it difficult to tell stories without forever falling back on bad scholarship in the history, culture and politics of the region.
Two things had struck me in my association with fellow-students and researchers from Latin America in the early part of this century: (a) their marvelous disdain for market-driven recognition and (b) the aesthetics of their local politics. They would drag me from my bed to various staid pubs in conservative parts of Switzerland and tell me how Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magic realism had become a marketable good, as had the popularity of Hispanic cultural artists who were seeking their fortunes in Hollywood. Instead, they had introduced me to seemingly obscure Chilean writers, who wrote about working class issues in small localities of Santiago and to radical Argentinian rock bands like Arbolito. This segue allows me to wish that Dhruba Hazarika had had a free hand with telling his story, instead of being burdened with the need to continuously explain things to the non-Northeast reader.
Despite my disappointment with Sons of Brahma, I remain convinced that Dhruba Hazarika’s novels and characters are symptomatic of a particular Northeastern world view – a Weberian weltanschauung – that needs to retain its creative autonomy from the mundane world of ignorance that plagues both publishers and readers from outside the region.