Category Archives: Essays

HOMECOMING

Jennifer Thangkhiew

My father passed away almost 20 years ago but I remember him every day. I remember him as a loving and doting father, a jolly, generous, kind, often compulsive person, always ready to lend a helping hand to anyone in need. He would buy us gifts – clothes, toys and food whenever he felt like. I would always be so happy and glad just to be in his company.

He had many names and identities you might say. He was known by his Muslim name as Abrar Hussain, his nickname was Khuku and Johnky, his Christian name was Peter.

My grandfather, Late Capt. Iqbal Hussain of IAMC and a major in the INA, was a medical doctor in the British Army. He was from Secunderabad, Peshawar, in West Pakistan. He married my grandmother Matilda in the year 1927. She was from Malki, Shillong, now the capital of Meghalaya. They had five children – three sons and two daughters. My eldest uncle was Altaf Hussain. He was a druggist at Peshawar. He remained a bachelor till his death. We heard a little about him from time to time. He had settled in Germany but moved back to Pakistan due to his failing health. He passed away in Pakistan a couple of years ago. My youngest uncle, Ikram Hussain, is now the only surviving member on my father’s side. He is now settled in Australia with his wife and five children. We are in touch with them and interact on occasion. He used to teach at a Government School at Adnersahar, Peshawar city.

My grandfather had remarried when he went back to Pakistan and no one knows about his wife’s name or identity. She was last heard of as staying with her brother in Karachi after the death of my grandfather. My grandparents lived in Shillong for a few years but soon after, my grandpa was posted at Benares. This is where my father was born in 1939. That very year my grandpa was transferred to Singapore. The family was evacuated from Singapore when it fell to the Japanese during the Second World War. They returned to Shillong but my grandpa stayed behind at his medical unit. He became a prisoner of war. Later on, my grandpa joined the Indian National Army (INA) and was the Special Medical Officer to Subhash Chandra Bose. After the fall of Japan in the war, grandpa was captured by the British Army and was taken to the Red Fort. He was later released when the British granted a general amnesty. He then came back to Shillong to his wife and children.

Unfortunately, perhaps due to personal and religious differences between my grandparents, my grandma filed a case against my grandpa for the guardianship of her children. She won the case and obtained a decree from the courts. But my grandpa deliberately took my uncles and my father away with him to Lahore in 1947. It was a quirk of fate that the area where they lived fell under West Pakistan when India was partitioned after independence. Grandpa had until then never sought or applied for Pakistani citizenship.

My father, on the other hand, when he was residing at Lahore, had always longed for his mother and desired to be with her. The situation at home became unbearable for him after my grandpa remarried a woman whose identity remains unknown. When my father turned 17, he decided to come back to Shillong, back to where his mother was, back home. In 1956, my father decided to obtain a Pakistani passport because according to him it was the only way he could come back to India at that time. For this purpose he took the name of Abrar Hussain. He told us it was a very arduous and long journey for him, traveling alone through unknown and unfamiliar territory. When he reached Guwahati, Assam, he told us that a kind and helpful taxi driver offered assistance to him even though they barely understood one another as my father knew only the Pashtu and Urdu languages. Due to this benevolent act of the taxi driver my father could reach Shillong safely. But he hardly knew the place called Malki. He did not understand Khasi, the local language of the state. He went knocking on each and every door uttering only the name of his mother, ‘Matilda’,  ‘Matilda’, over and over again till at last he was able to locate her. My grandma was taken aback when she saw her beloved son standing in front of her. What joy and happiness they must have felt when they embraced each other after being separated for such a long time.

Immediately after my father’s return, grandma engaged a lawyer who surrendered his Pakistani passport to the Deputy Commissioner. After it was returned, it was destroyed by my grandma on the grounds that he was a minor and she was his guardian. Moreover, he was an Indian.

My father then got admitted to one of the popular schools in Shillong, St. Anthony’s, where he studied till his matriculation 1961. He went to college at St. Anthony’s where he completed his secondary education in the science stream. It was during his studies there that he met my mother while they were watching a movie, fell in love with her and later married her. Soon after, father left college as he had to provide for his family. He began working as a contractor in Hind Construction which was situated at Barapani. He also had to take up cultivation at the family land there. He returned home and was unemployed up to March 1965. But the following month, he got appointed as a teacher in Pynursla Mission School, which is about 90 kms from Shillong. My mother also got appointed as a teacher in the same school. They lived there for some time with my eldest sister who was around two years at that time. However, their peaceful existence was shattered when one CID (intelligence) inspector contacted my father at Pynursla and directed him to contact the Superintendent of Police (SP) as he was a Pakistani national living without any authority in India. My father was kept in the lock-up and served with a Quit India Notice on 7th September, 1965. He was then taken to the Dawki border with Bangladesh and deported to Pakistan. As soon as he reached Tamabil (border area) he was arrested by the East Pakistani police for failure to produce the Quit India Notice. He was then taken to Sylhet (Bangladesh) where he was jailed. He was in jail for a week after which he was taken to the Dacca Interrogation Centre and locked up for 14 days.

During this period when he was in jail, he was interrogated by one army major, a DSP (CID) and many other plains clothes police officers. They questioned him about the location of army units in and around Shillong and about the political development in the hills. They read out names of various politicians of that time and enquired about their position and influence among the tribals and other issues as well. They also interrogated him about the economic conditions, about the Police Bazaar mosque. They gave him electric shocks and tried to ascertain whether he was sent to Pakistan as an Indian spy. He was then sent back to Sylhet where he was charged U/S 13 (3) of the Official Secrets Act and removed to a cell in the jail. During his stay in jail, my father later told us, he came in contact with some Pakistani Hindu leaders like Sadhu Babu of Lakkuthi, Sylhet, Nikunjabehari Goswami, editor of Janashakti and others. In January 1966, Wickliffe Syiem, Syiem (traditional Khasi king) of Hima Nongstoin also came to interrogate my father about the Hill State Movement and the mass support behind it and other political issues.

My father was facing a lot of problems in jail. So he wrote a letter to his younger brother Ikram in Peshawar, informing him about his various difficulties and sought his help in this matter. In July 1966, uncle Ikram came to Sylhet and got him released on bail-town bail. A person by the name of Sardar Khan hailing from Peshawar gave my father shelter in his house. Uncle Ikram had given my father 300 rupees and with that meager amount, my father somehow was able to survive. He got appointed as a salesman in the City Pharmacy, Bandarbazar. This was due to his prior experience of working in his father’s pharmacy. While on town bail my father had to go to the Thana everyday and to the DIB office once a week. This was his daily routine for the next six months.

After his release he came back to Shillong to his wife and children. However, their life was again disturbed. As ill luck would have it, my father was again arrested by the police under section 14 of the Foreigners’ Act, Preventive Detention Act, Defense of India Rules and other rules and regulations on 16 September, 1967, just after a few days after his arrival in Shillong from Sylhet jail, East Pakistan. He was released on bail till February 1972.

My father then filed a case against the Union of Assam and Meghalaya for having arrested, detained and deported him when he was in actual fact an Indian. The Munsiff’s Court at Shillong issued an absolute injunction on the three respondents restraining them from deporting him and also from considering him as a foreigner or a Pakistani National until the case filed against him under section 14 of the Foreigners’ Act was disposed of. This case was still going on when he was again arrested and detained on 14 July 1975 under MISA (Maintenance of Internal Security Act 1973). The detention referred to my father as a Pakistani National, despite the absolute injunction. The renewed injunction issued that month again referred to him as a Pakistani National.

My father’s life was spent in and out of jails as though he was a criminal. He was tortured and subjected to all kinds of humiliation because of the false accusations levelled against him. Despite spending time in jail, my father was fortunate enough to get generous help from some kindhearted people to overcome those uncanny hurdles of life. During that time one of his lawyer friends helped him come out of jail. He had finally won the case. But he had to suffer a lot of trauma and was always worried and anxious especially for his mother and kids. But despite all that he had to go through, he never gave up hope and in the end, his honesty and resilience paid off and he was able to lead a normal and happy life till he passed away in January 1992.

This is the story of my father, a man wrongly accused and detained for the simple reason that he did not possess the valid documents to prove that he was legally an Indian citizen. He got separated from his mother. It was not only a partition of the Indian Nation but it was also a partition between husband and wife and a partition between parents and their children and also a partition between brothers and sisters.

***

Partition Memory and the Northeast: A Note

Jyotirmoy Prodhani

Partition of India is an epochal catastrophe of human history in South Asia. The partition narrative, proliferated in the wake of India’s independence, recaptures the torturous experiences associated with the birth of a nation and the haunting trauma suffered by many. The partition narratives have essentially redefined the memory of the time. The enormity of the human disaster is so acute and huge that historical accounts of the event quite often seem to have shrunk it into a mere footnote, or a reportage at best, for owing to its own narrative limitations, history is always an inadequate discourse to represent the deeper essence of human experiences at a particular juncture of an epochal moment. With the recent rise in the interest of studying memory as a significant discourse, memories associated with historical events like India’s partition have also gained renewed interest. In his book Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory (2003), Andreas Huyssen quite significantly points out, “Historical memory today is not what it used to be. It used to mark the relation of a community or a nation to its past, but the boundary between past and present used to be stronger and more stable than it appears to be today.”

Retrieval of memory is, however, not a neutral rite; this is rather intimately symptomatic of the current imperatives. The literary proliferation on partition has quite distinctively recaptured the human tragedy in the wake the partition primarily in the context of the Punjab and Bengal, the Western and the Eastern locales of partition experiences. There are, however, several other tales of partition experiences that have remained peripheral and unheard of. Northeast India is one such location where partition narrative has a different dimension which is not only about the people dislocated from the other side of the new border to arrive here as homeless refugees, but the same event has some other protagonists as well. In the Northeast the dominant partition narrative is restricted to the Bengali Hindus forced to cross border in the wake of partition to relocate themselves mainly in Tripura and in the Barak valley of Assam. However, there are several other non-Muslim ethnic communities who had to leave behind their native hearth on the other side of the border and come to the India as an act of survival imperative. But their stories hardly find a place in the public spaces. Jennifer Thangkhiew, a young Khasi teacher from Shillong, has a captivating tale to tell about the impact of partition on her family. Partition in the tiny hill station of Shillong was a different experience for the native communities here. Jennifer recalls in this poignant tale how partition all of a sudden changed their intimate world of assurance forever. This is the story she accidentally narrated while interacting in one of my classes.

***

Jennifer Thangkhiew is an Assistant Professor in the Dept of English at Shankardev College, Shillong.
Jyotirmoy Prodhani is a Professor at the Dept. of English, North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong.
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RAMBUAI LITERATURE

Margaret Ch. Zama

Rambuai literature, literally translated, means literature of the ‘troubled land’, and this nomenclature is seen as most suitable for the purpose of this review as the intention is to be as inclusive as possible. This is to say, the fiction, non-fiction, songs and poems that have been generated by the troubled history of the Mizo National Front movement, be they MNF or non-MNF narratives, are included in the composition of this genre that is growing and likely to continue to do so in the years to come. The use of the terms ‘insurgency’ or ‘resistance’ literature/writing is avoided as these are found to be limiting and in several ways politically incorrect, for these terms can be seen as denoting an underlying implication of condemnation of an ideology that others have sacrificed their lives for, or died in the countering of it.

As with other conflicts throughout world history, the Mizo ‘rambuai’ conflict too had its supporters and detractors, the hardliners and those who tried to tread the middle path. There are also crucial questions to which there are several answers – questions such as why, where, who were the real victims, who were those responsible and the like. And as with other conflicts, there is always a suppressed voice which none dare to foreground. The sufferings caused by army atrocities were many, but so were those undergone in the hands of the underground and yet, most narratives remain untold. But with the passing of time, there comes a strong desire to set certain records straight, to retell histories, do justice to those no more, and to provide an unbiased history for the future generation. The Mizoram Upa Pawl (MUP), an association of senior citizens of Mizoram, have begun the process of this recovery of untold stories through 2 volumes entitled Rambuai Lai leh Kei (the troubled years and me) published in 2010 and 2014. More are expected in the future from this generation who underwent the entire experience of the troubled times to survive and tell their stories.

Before moving into a review of the songs/poems and fiction generated by ‘rambuai’, a brief review of the non-fiction is hereby given. There are layers of work and great potential for further research and study, and this review while attempting to be as inclusive as possible, will at the same time focus on key features only.

While focusing on a given period of Mizo history beginning 1st March 1966, it is crucial to recall the political propaganda that came into the public domain through booklets/ pamphlets, and of course songs. A few of such booklets/pamphlets that we can consider forerunners to ‘rambuai literature’ were Zalenna Thuchah No.1. (1962) and Zalenna Thuchah No.2. (1963) (message of freedom), the authorship of which is credited to MNF President Laldenga. To counter their ideology the Mizo Union issued pamphlets like Politics kal Sual lakah Fimkhur a Ngai and Independent Thua Mizo Union Thupuan (1963) which cautioned the public against the deviant politics of secession from the Indian Union, of the MNF.

One of the books considered by many to be a book of MNF ideology is erstwhile MNF Foreign Minister /Secretary Lalhmingthanga’s book Exodus Politics (1965). Others are former Defence Minister R. Zamawia’s book Zofate Zinkawngah Zalenna Mei a Mit Tur ani Lo (2007), former Information Minister Ngurkunga’s work Political Diary of Ngurkunga which was not printed but cyclostyled (date unknown), PB Rosanga’s book Insurgency in Mizoram (1980), Biakchhunga’s book Hnam Kalsiam (1996), Chawngzuala’s Ka Hringnun Zinkawng (1998), Zoramthanga’s book Zoram Zalenna Lungphum (1980) and Mizo Hnam Hlabu (patriotic Mizo songbook) published by the self-styled Ministry of Publicity of the underground Govt. of Mizoram in 1981. Incidentally, Exodus Politics was a book that was seized by the Indian Army during the time, according to the foreword of the revised edition.

In The Dagger Brigade by Nirmal Nibedon, we are told that “On 28th January (1967) the Assam Government announced amnesty and littered the jungles with leaflets” (112), the leaflets being Mizo Entu scattered from a helicopter. By 1967 and 1968, leaders of the Mizo Union party (Mizo Mi Ropui HK Bawichhuaka: 371 and Ch. Chhunga Chanchin: 115) were already talking about the need for forgiveness and reconciliation with the MNF brothers and sisters. There were of course several incidents and words spoken/printed at the time and in the following years, to bear witness to the fact that the voicing of such good intentions did not make an impact on everyone. Even Laldenga himself when asked at a public meeting at Bawngkawn on 20th September 1986 (post Peace Accord 30th June 1986), if he would seek pardon for the killing of over 200 members of the Mizo Union Party by the MNF, responded by saying that he did not find the need to do so! (Sakeibaknei Weekly, October 1-8, 1986).

In 1974, Brig. T. Sailo started the Human Rights movement and wrote several articles to educate and spread awareness among the Mizo regarding their rights and relationships vis-à-vis the military, both in Mizo and English. These also include a Memorandum submitted to PM Indira Gandhi on October 16th, 1974 regarding Village Grouping and so on. All these writings were later compiled and published as a book entitled Human Rights Report of Mizoram 1974 (2013).

Nunthara’s article “MNF hold Key to Political Stability” published in the Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 9.50, Dec 14, 1974 could perhaps be claimed as the first academic attempt at ‘rambuai’ studies. Vol. 16.30, July 25, 1981 of EPW again published an article by him on “Grouping of Villages in Mizoram: Its Social and Economic Impact”. In 1989 Nunthara published a book that continues to serve as an important reference book in academia – Impact of Grouping of Villages in Mizoram.

The year 1986 was important in Mizo history marking the event of the signing of the Peace Accord on June 30th between the MNF leadership and the Government of India. It was also crucial and interesting for related reasons for the events leading up to, and after the signing of the Accord, generated so much public interest, debate and participation that the written outcome may be said to have contributed to the development of ‘rambuai’ writings in important ways. Some titles of journalistic writings in the local dailies and weeklies appeared to vie with each other in the use of sensational and provocative language that reflected the extremity of emotions of the times now let loose post Peace Accord, while there were also daily doses of very informative and interesting articles that fed the public.

The MNF returnees alone have given birth to several writers from whom over 30 books have been printed, not to speak of articles, memoirs and others published in dailies, weeklies, souvenirs and the like. These are the ‘MNF narratives’ referred to earlier in the review of this section. From the higher hierarchy of their structure, the written output usually touches on the origins and history of the movement including hiccups experienced, up to the Accord. The output from the ranks usually dwell on the action component, in particular between the years 1966-1971 considered to be the most violent period of the movement. The approach and writing style as well as the content of these works often reflect the level of, or lack of, formal education on the part of many of the writers. Many of the writings romanticize and valorize the movement while remaining silent on the resultant sufferings of the people, and at times, attempting to gloss over or justify several incidents that have not reflected well on them or the movement.

It was K. Hawla Sailo, former underground, who expressed a strong opinion on the fact that history is biased and incomplete when it is written from one aspect only. In his book Mi An Ve Nan (to be like others) 2007, he admits that admitting the many wrongs committed by him and his compatriots is a difficult and shameful thing to do, but if the wrongs are not admitted by those who actually underwent and experienced it, others will later misinterpret history, and this will not be a good thing (139).

‘MNF narratives’ no doubt offer some very interesting fare, but ‘rambuai’ literature does not end here. There are still many unwritten records of silent voices that refuse to speak out till date from both sides of the fence, for reasons best known to them. It also includes the flip side of many a story, the ‘non-MNF narrative’ emanating from pastors, church elders, pensioners, ex-servicemen, politicians, former bureaucrats, school teachers and all those who have something to tell, to narrate. In a sense this category of ‘non-MNF narrative’ can be viewed as the counter voice of the ‘other’. Though the corpus/output is still limited in number, the narratives come in the form of articles, books, memoirs, biographies and so on. Information provided by these writings depends largely upon how outspoken (or reticent) the writer chooses to be. The first-hand accounts of sufferings undergone by the writers themselves prove deeply evocative and provide an effective counter-balance to the undiluted ‘MNF narratives’. This is to be appreciated as a healthy trend that provides space for debate and growth besides its contribution to the enrichment of a balanced history and its records.

Several submissions found in Rambuai Lai leh Kei (2010) published by the MUP referred to earlier was at first, the outcome of the efforts of F. Malsawma, erstwhile Education Minister under the T. Sailo Ministry who invited school teachers of different villages across Mizoram, to write of their experiences during the troubled years. The submissions were kept in a file which much later got to see the light of day in this book. Thanseia, government official pensioner and noted social worker, wrote in his Foreword what has proven to be revealing about the written output of this particular genre of ‘rambuai’ literature. He reflects on the dilemma that, (my translation) one is afraid to reveal the truth, yet one is also afraid to be untruthful. He expresses the hope that the book will truthfully reveal the sufferings caused by both the army and the underground without bias, that the future generations to come will know the truth for whatever it is worth, that we will be able to trace if acts committed by the underground were acts in consonance with Mizo behaviour; that if acts committed by the army were acts in consonance with the behavior of an army long known for its good reputation, and that if acts committed against its own citizens deserved merit in any way (xii, xiii).

Such writings have critical value particularly for those who wish to learn and know more about the plight of the common man during the troubled times – who is the writer, where was he at that point in time? What was he doing? What was his involvement? Questions that will provoke some more of the ‘silent voices’ to speak up in times to come.

There is not much input to speak of from women writers. There were a number of female volunteers who joined the underground while some remained over ground to perform specific jobs given to them. Many who married members of the underground also became actively involved. Lalzawmliani is one who wrote on the sad lot of wives whose husbands left for the underground in books like Pathian Hruaina Kawng (1992) (the god-led path) and Tuara leh Malsawmna (2013) (travails and blessings) – the titles themselves are definitely reflective of Christian influence and the solace sought from the spiritual. B. Sangkhumi wrote a book I Pa Tak Tak Ka Ni (2011) (I am your real father) wherein she wrote about her father MNF MP Biaksanga. A female MNF volunteer Zaihruaii wrote of her own experiences in Thingsat Souvenir (2005). An article published in the weekly Hriatna, 29th July-4th August 1986 entitled “Ka Bialpa Ruhro a Tel Ve Lo” (my lover’s remains is not included) was written by Sakhawmawii – probably a reference to the remains / bones brought home for burial by the MNF returnees, of their fallen comrades from the jungles after the signing of the Peace Accord in 1986. Incidentally, these remains were provided a resting place at Luangmual now christened Martarte Thlanmual (graveyard of the martyrs) wherein the collected bones of 1563 individuals lie, all individually engraved in granite. Room for another 2500 is also in place. This was a project undertaken by the MNF Party over a period of time post the Peace Accord.

Buangi Sailo’s book Lunglen Zun A Zam (2008) is a work that contains her observations of the aftermath of ‘rambuai’. In Rambuai Lai leh Kei Book II (2014) we find one lone woman contributor Maj. Lalchhingi from the Salvation Army. Mafeli so far, is the only female writer who has contributed to the area of ‘rambuai fiction’ with her novel Nghilh Har kan Tuar (2010). However, in the ‘rambuai song/hla’ section we witness that contribution from women composers are much more. Some of them are Dr. Laltanpuii, Lalruali, Thansiami, RTC Lalduhawmi, Lalsangzuali Sailo, and Lalthanrengi. There is a collection of songs in a compilation made by the Peoples’ Conference (PC) Ram Kalsiam Hla Bu (2013) wherein is found several songs composed by women. Journalist Lalhruaitluanga Chawngte in Zozam Weekly, June 29, 2009, published an informative article “Zalenna sualin Mizo nulate”, the title itself being self explanatory – ‘young women who fought for freedom’.

‘Rambuai’ Songs / Poems

In order to emphasize the power and influence of politically motivated songs, particularly in the role played by them in ‘rambuai literature’, the review of this section will make a start from two important song writers / composers Laltanpuia (of Sialsuk) and Rolkunga who, in post-independent India, succeeded through their songs in arousing the Mizo patriotic sensibility with an intense longing for Mizo nationhood. RL Thanmawia in History of Mizo Literature, (2013), acknowledges the contribution of Rokunga’s songs in facilitating the MNF movement by emphasizing that such was the widespread popularity of Rokunga’s songs post 1960 that it was difficult to gauge whether it was his songs that gave birth to the MNF or the other way round. In any case, that the patriotic songs composed by him stirred the public imagination and accelerated the growth of the MNF ideology is an accepted fact, for in no time his songs immersed the whole of Mizoram.

Ch. Saprawnga too in his book Ka Zin Kawng (1990) gives particular reference to one of Rokunga’s song “Harh La! Harh La!” (1962) saying that it was this song with a marching beat that roused the Mizo youth with its clarion call (to rise, to wake up) (p 196). In Rambuai Lai leh Kei (2010) it is mentioned that the songs of Rokunga and Laltanpuia used to be sung by young boys and girls with tears in their eyes and that it seemed as if the whole of the land was convinced of the importance of independence (p 60-61). Laltanpuia had already composed in 1964, two years pior to the outbreak of the 1966 MNF-armed uprising, a song called “Independent kan Zoram tan” (independence for Zoram), “wherein he blatantly bore witness to the MNF nationalistic mindset and its policy of secession from India” (Emerging Literatures of Northeast India , p 67).

While writing of the influence and contribution of patriotic songs to the enrichment of ‘rambuai literature’, there were other equally important contributions to this genre. Even as some songs were composed to rouse the sentiments of people towards hope for a new nation, a new future, there were song composers and even prophetic voices like Thanghleia who foretold of the untold sufferings and death that would be the outcome of such an uprising. There were obviously very few takers to share such a view, if not none, for there was no room in those times of high pitched emotions, to reflect on the possibility of harsh reality. J.Malsawma too ironically comments in one of his essays in Zo-Zia 2001 (2nd ed), that songs such as those composed by Rokunga and others fell silent once the might of the Indian Army took over the land.

As the dark period of ‘rambuai’ unfolded, composer Laltanpuia was compelled to compose his touching song on the burning of his beloved village Sialsuk by the Assam Rifles on 15th June 1966. The song “Sialsuk Khaw Kang Hla” was composed in the month of August of the same year. Because the incident caused such deep sorrow in the hearts of the people who witnessed the pride of their lives reduced to ashes – a village of over 300 homes with a hospital, a post office, a Primary, Middle and High School and a PWD Inspection Bungalow, and the churches – that the composer came up with a second song of the same title in the month of December of the same year!

The burning of villages along with village groupings became the order of the day and in no time the prophetic words of Thanghleia came to pass. It was the turn of Suakliana of Lianpui village who was grouped in Vanzau grouping centre to compose his famous song “Khaw Sawihawm Hla” in 1968, sung by Siampuii Sailo in the AIR, that made listeners openly weep and came to be known as ‘hla lungchhia’ (the grieving song) (VLC Vanlalriatrenga. Pathian Thlaraua Mi Ril Suakliana leh A Hlate. Gilzom Offset, 2010). Below is the first verse and its summary for a sampling of the content of the song :

Kan huntawng zingah khawkhawm a pawi ber mai,
Zoram hmun tin khawtlang puan ang a chul zo ta;
Tlang tina mi khalhkhawm nunau mipuite,
Chhunrawl a vang, riakmaw iangin kan vai e.

(The most tragic of times ever encountered in our history is the village grouping, wherein the entire community is lifeless like a faded cloth, and people, mothers and children, herded from across the hills, are hungry and homeless like the ‘riakmaw’ bird in search of shelter).

Two-lined couplets and three-lined song compositions are not a new thing, particularly in the Mizo traditional songs. What is interesting is that there is a reversion to this type of composition though not widespread, during the troubled years. They, like the rest of the songs of the period, again provide an excellent landscape of the social and political history and mood of the times. For a sampling, in the month of September 1967, the Indian Army had rounded up over 600 men from the villages of Samthang, Zawlsei, Khuangthing and Khawbung, and imprisoned them in a confined space in Khawbung Middle School for 9 days and 10 nights. It took a mentally challenged man Lenchhuma to compose the lines below that reflects their miserable condition under heat and rain:

 Khawbung e, Samthang e, Zawlsei e,
Khuangthing e, Khawbungah pho ve;
A sat leh seng loh, a sur leh seng loh (Zoramin Zalenna A Sual. Vols 6 & 7 : 49, 50)

(the men of Khawbung, Samthang, Zawlsei, Khuangthing, were put out in the open without shelter from the hot sun, nor the pouring rain).

Again, the villagers of Ngopa worked out a strategy to avoid the harsh physical blows that the Indian Army freely meted out, by saying “ram ram sap” each time they passed them by. So out of this was born the following couplet which villagers on their way to work in the jhums in groups, would loudly chant :

Vai sipai kutthlak a na lua,
Ram ram sap ka ti e zang dam nan (Zoram A Tap : 169-170)

which means, “I say ram ram sap in order to spare my back from the heavy blows of the heavy handed Indian army.” Beyond the obvious pathos of the context, there is an underling note of subversive humour and the Mizo ingenuity to adapt which perhaps can be seen as an element of the coping strategies they developed for the dark period. There were of course, numerous songs generated by the period and composed by the MNF cadres themselves which have been compiled in Mizo Hnam Hlabu.

R. Thangvunga in commenting on ‘raltiang ram’ (ideal land beyond) romanticized by Rokunga in his songs, poses the question “is the breaking of dawn foreseen by songwriters not happening?…O songwriter, could it be that you misread the bravery of our ancestors in your people?” (my translation) (Zoram I Tan Chauh : pp 53, 54). Rochamliana Ralte in Mizo Nih Tinuamtu Rokunga (pp 290-298) enumerates the reasons for Rokunga’s deep regret and the burden of responsibility that he carried in his last days, for the tragic aftermath of the troubled times and the sufferings of the Mizo people. He composed a song that reflected this depressive mood of his in 1969, the year of his demise, “Ka Pianna Zawlkhawpui” (Aizawl, the place of my birth) wherein he expressed his sadness over the changes he witnessed in Mizo society and Aizawl town – the crime and corruption that used to be alien to the old Mizo way of life.

In contrast to Rokunga, the regret and heartburn that Laltanpuia (Sialsuk) underwent was quite different according to his daughter Chuhthangi who in speaking about his song “Kan Ram Hi Kan Ram Ani” (1964) (Zoram is our land), said, that in the midst of all the revelry and rejoicing as a result of the Peace Accord in 1986, he was enraged and said that no one now had the moral right to sing his song as it was composed for the cause of independence and not mere statehood (Laltanpuia Thu leh Hla Zirhona : pp 28,29).

Amidst these conflicting emotions undergone by song composers who through their songs had laid themselves bare for the cause, we have V. Thangzama who in 1971 composed a song that continues to be popular and touch hearts till today “Tho La, Ding Ta Che”, translated as “Arise and Awake” by the composer. It is a call to the people of the land to get on with the business of rebuilding their lives and society, and not to indulge in thoughts of revenge and anger. In other words, a song to regenerate and not look back, but to look ahead as there is a bright future before us all. (Deh Loh Sakei Huai : 118-119).

The songs and poems generated by the ‘rambuai’ period have their own individual stories to tell, each worthy and deserving of individual study. Just as the times and context undergone by the songwriters / poets are not the same, so also the choice of themes and personal leanings. It is this very variety that makes this genre a rich source of information and research for not only the socio-economic and political mapping of the times, but of the workings of the Mizo psyche as well. However, while it is the prerogative of researchers and academia to unravel subtexts and put forth interpretations, it needs to be a responsible and accountable study gleaned from careful research on the history and politics of the times and also the context of the individual narratives themselves.

  • A brief overview is provided here of more of the songs other than the ones already given, to showcase other aspects of this dark history :“Chawngtlai Khaw Hal Hla” composed in 1966 by TBC Zoramthara of Chawngtlai village. (Col. Lalrawnliana. Zoramin Zalenna A Sual. Vol. II. Zorin Compugraphics, 1996). This song is a lamentation for the burning of Chawngtlai village in which 180 houses were destroyed and an old woman Nawlchini burnt to death. This incident was followed by famine wherein the young and old were the most severely affected. This incident was army retaliation of the ambush carried out by MNF volunteers between Khawzawl and Champhai village.
  • “Chul Hnu Vangkhua” composed in 1966 by Roliana Ralte (L) of Lunglei (Leng-Hnem, Lunglei : Mizo Zaimi Inzawmkhawm, 2003). This is a song which relates the trauma and sense of loss experienced by him and his family as they fled their home to live for a period of time at Hauruang village in an old dilapidated barn belonging to a relative. He desires most by the grace of God, to return to his hometown which though destroyed, remains in the same place, the same hills. This nostalgic song narrates an experience that many families share, who had to flee their homes to seek shelter elsewhere with families and friends in other villages. For those who could, some fled to far off Shillong, Halflong, Nagaland, Manipur, and other places.
  • “Chang Khawpui A Chul Zo Ta” composed in 1968 by PL Lalnuaia (L) of Hnahchang village. (Lalbiakliana. “Hla Phuahthiam PL Lalnuaia leh A Hlate.” Thu leh Hla, Oct 1999).

This song reflects the twin trauma of having their village burnt just prior to their forced grouping at Pangzawl in 1968. (This was the method enforced for village groupings at the time). The song laments the very prospect of having the name of his village Hnahchang fade with time. The additional 5th stanza was promptly composed when, in 1972, permission was granted to grouping centres to return to their old village sites and rebuild. The stanza declares that they will now rebuild their old village never more to fade or be destroyed – “Chul lo tur Chang khawpui I din thar leh ang u”.

Songs composed on the theme of village burning and village grouping were plentiful and they more or less convey similar sentiments that reveal the trauma of having their strong link with the place of their roots so brutally cut off. Their repatriation elsewhere even though it be with their own kind, cannot replace the nostalgia and longing that is reserved for their original homes.

Other selected songs with themes that depict various other parameters of the impact of the ‘rambuai’ period are:

  • “Curfew Kara Suihlunglen” composed in 1967 by K. Rammawia (L), Lunglei. (Thuamtea Khawlhring. Zothlifim. Aizawl : Mizoram Publication Board, 2001). This song is interesting for the various dimensions it projects. It is a well known fact that curfew was imposed with rigidity during the ‘rambuai’ period and any trepassers were dealt with harshly by the armed forces. However, it is said that K. Rammawia used to strum his guitar and sing his way through the hated curfew hours with full knowledge of the authorities. Surely a subversive way to defy authority! The chorus of the song goes :
  • “Aw lunglen Curfew karah hian / Tuar I har hrilh ka thiam zo love; / Hmanah Zoram nun leh Chim loh thadangi zun, / Ngaih hian chin lem a nei thei dawn lo” which can be summarized as follows – one cannot explain the experience of the lonely curfew hours which only serve to enhance the endless nostalgia felt for the bygone life of Mizoram, and the ceaseless longing for one’s beloved.
  • “Jail Run Thim” composed in 1967 by C. Durthanga of Durtlang/Zawlnuam. (C. Zama. Mizo Hnam Hla. Aizawl : Mizoram Govt Press, 2005). This song was composed by C. Durthanga when he was captured and imprisoned in 1967. The song voices his loneliness and despair and questions if this is to be his lot decreed by destiny. He declares that he is not ready to accept such a life and wonders if happy days will ever return for him – “Engtikah her chhuak ang maw hlim ni tur, / Hei hi chantawk khuanu ruat em lo ni? / Ka zuam lo kumtluanga Jail run thim nghah reng chu”
  • “Prisoner Boy” composed in English probably in 1969, by Vanlalngaia of Aizawl. (C. Zama. Jail Run Thim. Aizawl : JP Offset Printer, 2013). Vanlalngaia was one of the top leaders of the MIS (Mizo Intelligence Service) when he got arrested and imprisoned in Silchar Jail. The thoughts that preoccupied him during his experience in the prison cell can be gauged from the lines “Someday I’m gonna write, / The story of a prisoner wall / For the sake of freedom call, / ‘Cause I’m a prisoner boy”.
  • “Aw I Hming A Dai Lovang” composed in 1967 by Chhawntluanga, Biahte. (Lalthangmawia. Thangrawiha Lungdawh. Aizawl : Bethesda Offset Press, 2012). This song is not only tragic, but contains an ironic twist to it, for the composer Chhawntluanga who composed this song in memory of his beloved comrade-in-arms who died at the hands of the army, two years later became a victim himself to a most gruesome death. Arrested by the army, his health deteriorated compounded by physical torture. While transferring him to the army camp at Seling from Khawruhlian, his escorts clubbed him to death on the way by the banks of the Tuirini river because he was too weak to move on. His song for his dead friend ironically came to be a song that told of his own sad fate. “Aw I hming a dai lovang, / Thang leh thar chhuan tam ral mahse; / Zoram chhana I tuarna hian a man tawk e, / Chham ang I zalna piallei hmun leh / Zan mu chhing lo doral karah; / Kan tuanna mual tuai ang tharin / Nghilni I awm dawn lo” can be summarized thus – though many generations may pass your name shall not die, earned most deservedly by your sacrifice for Zoram. The memories of the many sleepless nights we spent while at war, and our sojourns among the hills is renewed even as I recall the thought of you lying beneath the earth as one dead – indeed, you will never be forgotten.
  • “Rock Edict Number Thirteen” composed in English in 1972, by Jeremy Zobiakvela (L). (Ngurthankhumi. JB-a Damlai Sulhnu. Aizawl: Milan Press, 2000). One of the verses of this song expresses quite succinctly the dilemma experienced by the composer as well as many others who, as followers of Christ’s teachings about universal love, cannot reconcile with the continued bloodshed and hatred of the prolonged ‘rambuai’ years :“Why don’t we follow his footsteps of Peace if not his religion
    And live in Peace and Harmony into the future
    And then we’d smile again and say that this is what I longed for
    We’d never ever have to live our lives in fear of the next war
    I do declare I’m not gonna make no more war”In another song titled “Bad Dream” that is undated, he writes :
    “Make peace, make love, put down your gun…
    What do they do when people die?
    Who or what makes them lose their minds?”
  • “Biplobi Mizo Bhoni (Mizo Farnu Hel) composed in Assamese in 1980 by Ramesh Deka of Melpara, Assam, and translated into Mizo by KL Pachuau. (Hriatna, August 12-18, 1986). Ramesh Deka was a member of the All Assam Student’ Union (ASSU) at the time of composing this song in praise of a ‘rebel sister’ B. Vanlalzari who was arrested on 18th January 1975 for her involvement as a collaborator in the assassination of 3 top police officers at Aizawl on 13th January 1975. Her incarceration at Tezpur Jail ended in December 1980 and brought to Gauhati Jail from where she was released on 16th December 1980. The sufferings and sacrifice undergone by Zari inspired many inmates imprisoned at the time in Tezpur due to the AASU movement. The song is a salutation to Zari for her bravery and loyalty, and hails her as their role model.

Lalsangzuali composed / or gave tunes to a number of songs of lamentation over the political killings of persons by the underground above and beyond her other songs on the atrocities of the army during the ‘rambuai’ years.

  • “A Na Ka Ti – A Pawi Em Mai” composed in 1982 by Lalsangzuali Sailo (L), Aizawl. (Laldinliana, Lalsangzuali Sailo Hla Te. Aizawl : Hnamte Press, 2007). This song of lamentation was composed for Lalthlamuani, the widow of ex-MNA (Mizo National Army) R. Zadinga who was brutally murdered by the underground on 15th June 1982, and who at the time was an MLA of the People’s Conference Party touring his constituency Phuldungsei. The lamentation of a wife for her slained husband, with her only confrontation with his killers being the words “you have misunderstood, my husband is not a bad person” drew tears from many.
  • “Pu Lalthawmvunga Sunna Hla” composed in 1984 by F. Vanlalthuama and given the tune by Lalsangzuali Sailo (L), Aizawl. (Laldinliana, Lalsangzuali Sailo Hla Te. Aizawl : Hnamte Press, 2007). Lalthawmvunga was an MLA candidate of the People’s Conference Party for N.Vanlaiphai constituency. He was brutally murdered during his campaign, on 11th April 1984 by “unknown persons” though the lyrics of the song clearly insinuate who the killers were.

Rambuai Fiction’

History writing as we already indicated, is often biased as it is influenced by the context and hegemony wielded at the time. In creative writing however, the scope is more flexible and the hidden subtexts often come to light under this genre which we will call ‘rambuai’ fiction.

‘Rambuai fiction’ is no doubt creative writing, but behind the creativity lie several sub-texts that the writer embeds, and attempts to voice. The trauma and terror experienced during the troubled history, the trials and tribulations brought on by events often left untold by many, make their appearance in such writings under different guises. Though such writings can also serve as support to historical documents to a great extent, the extra-textual layering found in them which is often the product of the writer’s deep involvement with the text, affects the work of interpreting the ‘truth’ or ‘reality’ and can be biased or unreliable at times.

A few selected fiction works are given below, to once again depict the rich variety of themes generated by the ‘rambuai’ years.

  • Pramod Bhatnagar. Zoramthangi : Daughter of the Hills. Delhi : Vikrant Press, 1982. (written in English). Set against the backdrop of the ‘rambuai’ years, this is the story of Zoramthangi and Ajay Kapoor, a police officer from Punjab who dies at the end of the book. Although Zoramthangi’s maternal uncle is an underground hero with a head bounty of Rs.10,000/-, their house in Lungdai village is burnt by the MNF, and her father Sangzuala is killed by them.
  • James Dokhuma. Silaimu Ngaihawm. Aizawl : Zosys (1992) 1999. (translated into English as The Beloved Bullet, published by Katha in 2005 in Fresh Fictions). This is a novella that tells the tragic story of Lalramliani and her lover Lt. Sanglura of the Mizo Army. Sanglura dies in an ambush with the army while his death brings on a slow demise to Lalramliani who dies pining in secret for her dead lover. Embedded in the story are details of the trauma, particularly one of loneliness and despair, suffered as a result of the Village Grouping by the army.
  • Hawlla Sailo. Mizo Ngaihdan Dek Che Tham. Kolkata : Display Printers. 2001. This autobiographical fiction comes from one who served for over five years in the underground government as a senior administrator high in the hierarchy. The book makes no bones about the cruelty of both the underground army and the Indian army. It has historical value particularly about the events of 1968 when the underground army moved through Sajek range into East Pakistan, and their involvement in the Liberation War and the shameful behavior of some of his compatriots best left unsaid. The book depicts in turn the narrator/writer, and the male and female protagonists Zoramhmangaiha and Chhiari.
  • Mafeli. 1966 Mizoram : Nghilh Har Kan Tuar. Aizawl. : Samaritan Printers, 2010. This novel is located at East Lungdar village during the darkest period of the ‘rambuai’ years and voices the lot of the women who are the worst victims of atrocities commited. In her defence of the people of Lungdar, she shows no qualms about lashing out at both the Indian and underground army who perpetrate sufferings of the people. Embedded in the book, which is a product of one of the younger generation of writers, are several uneasy questions that seek clarifications on several issues in connection with the troubled times.
  • Chhuanvawra. Rinpuii leh Seizika. Aizawl : JP Offset, 2011. Written by an ex-underground member, this story takes place in and around an imaginary place called Chhinlung during the years 1965 to 1971. The actual times and events of the period are interwoven with several fictional elements that involve a famous traitor or ‘kawktu’, the burning of a school named Champhai Gandhi Memorial High School, and the relationships of fictional characters like Capt. Sapana, AO Richard Lalnema, and Rinpuii.

***

margaret-zamaMargaret Ch. Zama is Professor in the Department of English, Mizoram University. Her areas of research are cultural studies, translation and northeast studies. As a member of North East Writers’ Forum, she had collaborated extensively as a language coordinator in translating works from the region. Her own translated works have appeared in The Heart of the Matter: Handpicked Fictions from Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Assam and Nagaland (2004) and Fresh Fictions: Folk Tales, Plays, Novellas from the North East (2005).

 

 

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DEEPLY UNSERIOUS: THE CONTRADICTIONS OF LOVING HINDUSTANI CLASSICAL MUSIC

Anu Kumar

Image: Divya Adusumilli

Image: Divya Adusumilli

A Google search invariably brings up an impressive catch. But memories and people and things we loved?

Things like some of my father’s old classical recordings, from his collection that once included long playing and the shorter 45 and 78 rpm discs.    Black shellac discs, almost like frisbees with no lips, delicate in their thin paper covering,   with the grooved lines and the tiny writing at every disc centre.  There was one record whose every detail I can still recall. Its green and red cover, the cellophane over the writing and the letters that for a time made no deep sense – that is, in the way it takes for something to be loved.  Two singers and their song, a thumri, that lasted just four minutes or maybe a bit more. But I know from the way I listened to this record time and again, that the thin paper covering frayed in no time, the cellophane came to wear a blurry look.  And the times I was overeager to pull the disc out, so its paper cover tore a bit, I learnt to stick a piece of cello tape cleverly on the inside, hoping it would not catch  my father’s attention.

But the older that 45 rpm record looked, the more meaning it acquired. Not just for its frayed look but the music it had inside.  And of course, the two became inseparable, even in memory.  I simultaneously remember that thumri and the record it came from. Long after, when I glimpsed the two musicians in a YouTube clipping, it was like meeting something loved long ago but in a quite different way.  I was reminded of what I had listened to, almost in an obsessively repetitive way, but it rendered that memory sharper. Many years later, I listened again to the thumri of my childhood as it played on a CD I just had to buy. And while my old memories were not written over, yet the raw pain of nostalgia was considerably diminished.  And I can’t tell if that’s a good thing.   Some things are best left as they are.  I can’t quite explain to myself if its holding that thin paper cover of a 45 rpm disc that I really  miss, or something else altogether. The secret listening that became a secret falling in love and like all secrets, hard to ever find again.

The thumri I lost and then retrieved in a totally different and altered way lay in one of my father’s many 45 rpms. And I first had the chance to listen to it around 25 years ago. My father had several of these playing discs in every format. These had been stored in five boxes whose existence till then I had had no idea about. But these were taken down from an old wooden almirah and displayed on a low divan, the same day he came home with a portable player. We lived in Cuttack then, a city with only one notable music shop to its name, from where my father made his purchase.  Shopping then wasn’t  the consumerist experience as it is today, and people didn’t come back home loaded with plastic carry-bags,  so we all crowded around  father as he spliced  the carton open. There was in the end, after  all the strings had been loped off, the tapes slashed through,   a free standing portable speaker and a turntable,  with a hooked claw like apparatus that he said was very delicate. This was the stylus with a hardly visible playing needle hooked to its very end.

That night after he came home with it, there were other treasures he unveiled, such as the neat rectangular cartons that once opened, revealed his collection of vinyl records.  Most were covered by a thin paper sleeve, the bigger ones had a jacket with more details; several had the words ‘Columbia’ or ‘Hindustan’ on it.

It was from my father’s collection of records that I was first introduced to Hindustani classical music.  My father tells me now that his love too began in similar ways. In the mid 1940s, an uncle of his released after four years in jail celebrated his freedom by buying a second hand record player and some records of Khan Abdul Karim Khan, Ustad Faiyaaz Khan, Gangubai Hangal and some others. I can imagine the two of them, uncle and nephew, in that crowded house, listening to a music that only they loved (or had time for).  Still it was blissful: his uncle soaked in freedom once again while my father had found a love of sorts.

For my part, I listened to this music in secret. My father  would play his records as he sat in his lounge chair, on the darkened veranda that framed the house and overlooked the river Mahanadi.  He would listen to the music as the river  turned from  sombre blue to gray and then changed to a black ribbon as night came on, bringing with it the garland of forest fires from across the river.

I was supposed to be studying and not letting my attention stray but it did.  I would strain to catch and remember for myself the first line of most pieces, and this in the instance of Hindustani classical vocal always took some time as I soon realised. But when father was on tour or in office, I got his set out, read through every record label till I found the one I had heard the day before.  That was indeed how I first heard Nazakat Ali and Salamat Ali’s thumri in Gorakh Kalyan, ‘eri mori ali piya’.

*

It was quite a chaotic education, catholic and secular in equal measure, but also much more than these words  can ever hold.  I randomly listened to other pieces,   and something about a piece could make me listen on: It could be the deep melancholy in Amir Khan’s voice, the sensual robustness in Gangubai Hangal’s, the thunderous majesty that came so easily to Bhimsen Joshi, the dexterity and free falling grace in Kumar Gandharva’s voice that reminded you of rivers of the plateau and that unique mix of youth and age that you noticed in DV Paluskar’s.

Because I liked their music and couldn’t understand what I liked, what the record flaps revealed was almost educational too.  Sometimes these explained the progressions and variations in a raag but had other information too: Ali Akbar Khan had composed Medhavi in memory of Rabindranath Tagore,  Ustad Amir Khan had died in a car accident in 1974,   Nikhil Banerjee had once been a disciple of Allauddin Khan, who had also taught others who would go on to make a name for themselves and others who couldn’t quite, such as  the khan sahib’s daughter, Annapurna Devi.  There would be things  I’d read elsewhere and randomly picked up, such as the short   biography of Allauddin Khan in my English reader. The great maestro had had a rich and varied life and  had run away from home to join a jatra group. His music education was eclectic but the maestro enriched the tradition with his own contributions.  Allauddin Khan learnt from Ustad Wazir Khan of Rampur and even took violin lessons in the western classical tradition from a musician from Goa.

Years  later, this love stays with me,  though any random meeting with  a connoisseur can put me to shame.  For the life of me,  I cannot wax knowledgeably on the different  progressions of a raag,  its rhythmic variations and the modifications and experiments of great musicians.   I can tell what a drut is,  but will stumble between a khayal and a thumri.  In an age when in several ways a totally different kind of music is popular,  I remain an anachronistic, even at times a lone defender,  of Hindustani classical music.  And my defence of the music is at times more a loyalty to the artiste.  I can stay still while  Ustad Amir Khan sings the Hamsadhwani,  or at the evocation a cloud filled sky that Nikhil Banerjee conjures up in Raag Megh, even as I learn that raags too adhere to a distinct hierarchy.  So I know Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and Ustad Amir Khan will render  Marwa in their own unique ways, but  I’d like a bhajan in Bhairavi by Shruti Sadolikar just as much as by anyone else,  for the bhairavi is that versatile after all. On the other hand, the powerful Malkauns would require the attentions of a genius to help it occupy the night.

In my amateur love and defence of classical music,  I have  felt like Zuleika Dobson in Max Beerbohm’s eponymous novel set in early 20th century Oxford, often echoing like her, ‘I don’t know anything about music really but I know what I like.’  The connoisseur can silence everyone by her knowledge  while the amateur lover knows  just what she loves. Such a  lover occupies a strange mid way land. At best she can put up a weak defence, offer a staunch loyalty or  a blind devotion.  Sometimes, it’s a treacherous love as I’ve found on some occasions.  It’s a love that I have most times also inadequately defended.

Any conversation with someone else,  professedly ignorant of classical music,  would go like this:

What he is singing?

Me: But he is a great man. 

How is he  great?

Me: He sounds good to me.  And he is good and great.

In college there were the SPICMACAY concerts organized at different venues and I travelled as much as I could to listen to artistes first hand and watch them perform for those were pre YouTube days after all.  It was an experience, to realize that for the artistes,  the fact of being great did not matter, or that it was not worth it.  They gave themselves up to music with an effortless grace and you  were moved by the divinity and the simplicity.

When Ustad Imrat Khan came to perform at the management school where I studied,  there were just five of us in the small music room, and we  had bunked our evening classes to listen to him.  The ustad  played before us as if we were a royal audience or rather as if the minimal audience  did not really register on him.  He had come that very evening on the train from Calcutta,  but there was no sign of fatigue in him as he played  timeless pieces over and over on his surbahar.

In Ahmedabad,  there was a lone music shop on CG Road that I frequented in my  underpaid, overworked days as a management trainee.  It was a small corner shop,  in a four storey building,  remaining there for a long time while glass fronted high rises grew all around it. The owner stocked cassette versions of most of the records I had once loved.  I spent hours there, while outside vendors played Altaf Raja and his then popular qawalis. My cassettes and   walkman moved with me as I moved cities, shifting from hostel to paying guest accommodations to tiny congested flats that I shared in suburban Bombay with  my husband.   The cassettes metamorphosed into CDs and the shelves occupying them grew in number even  as I remained hard pressed to explain my strange love.  The exuberance of an artiste at a particular note would evoke amused queries that would be a secret affront to witness and even a form of  disloyalty.  Yet sometimes a rendition could not be held within your headphones and there was a special happiness if a voice you loved was recognized.

‘So this is Amir Khan?,’ asked my husband once.

‘Ustad Amir Khan,’  I said,  touching my ears that I had learnt was a gesture of respect.

*

I was once part of a sparsely populated audience,   watching a dance recital by Pandit Birju Maharaj. That hall,  huge and majestic like a tiny universe,  its lights appeared to exist only to catch his every move,  heighten his twirls,  his mesmeric hand gestures.  His anklets had a  life of their own, resounding in all that space.  There was a man, ordinary in every way, in the audience.  He must have stopped by on his way back home from office.   His office bag and the way he was dressed gave that away,  considering that dressing up for an event is as much a performance today.  There he sat,  hypnotized,  the sparkle of tears in his eyes,  and when a particular movement was over, he got up,  as if he could not help it.  He walked  up to the foot of the stage and stretching out, he  held out something in his hand.  It was perhaps  an ill-expressed measure of his  happiness, for there  were titters,  even a hiss of shock.  But the Pandit acknowledging the man’s homage paused, raising the gift to his forehead in a brief gesture, twirled away and danced on.  The man did it time and again,  but I understood a bit of his sad, inexpressible love.

***

Anu Kumar

Anu Kumar

Anu Kumar is in the MFA program in writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has written for children and also for the older reader.  Her collection of short stories, Girl in a Washing Machine and Other Stories appears in early 2015 (Kitaab).

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JANE HELEN ROWLANDS: PORTRAIT OF A WELSH-BENGALI LIFE

Nabanipa Bhattacharjee

Following the takeover of Assam by the British East India Company in 1826, the region witnessed brisk missionary activity. Of the many missionary dispensations the one led by the Welsh came to have considerable presence in colonial Sylhet and Cachar (Surma Valley), the two Bangla speaking districts of the province, by the end of the nineteenth century. Undoubtedly, the mission to evangelize was what led the members of the Welsh Calvinist Methodist Church (also known as the Presbyterian Church of Wales) to travel to foreign parts. The conversion mission, however, went hand in hand with efforts, among others, to impart education, encourage the growth of vernaculars, build institutions of learning and generate awareness about healthcare among the populace.

Having worked extensively in the adjoining Khasi Hills since the 1840’s – the Khasi Hills, just as Sylhet and Cachar, became an administrative unit of Assam in 1874 – the Welsh Calvinist Methodist Church (WCMC) had quite a long and impressive history in the region. As a chronicler of Welsh missionary activities in Assam writes: ‘[T]he Welsh missionaries served faithfully … in Sylhet-Cachar plains and Hills. They introduced education by opening schools. They opened boys and girls schools in the town and also in the villages. They also taught practical subjects like cookery, housekeeping, child welfare, care of the sick, hygiene, needle work and weaving to the Indian and (now) Bangladeshi girls. They opened teacher training schools, the lady missionaries worked among the zenanas …. The missionaries tried their best to uplift the Namasudras in various ways’ (Vanlalchhunga 2003 [Preface]; also see Morris 1996; Passah 1998). In fact, women’s education was central to the missionary efforts: while Sylhet town had two (one for girls) Welsh missionary run schools – established by the Pryse couple – by the 1850s, Silchar (Cachar) had one (again, for girls) by the time the century drew to a close.

Undoubtedly, it was to the credit of WCMC that the culture of women’s literacy spread in the Surma Valley. However, it must be noted that the Brahmo initiatives or the individual contributions of the likes of Pandita Ramabai, who married and lived in the valley in the 1880s, were no less important (see, for example, Bhattacharjee 2002). The strishiksha (women’s education) programme launched and carried out by the Bipin Chandra Pal, Sundari Mohan Das, Maulana Abdul Karim, Reverend Jayagovinda Shome and others led Srihatta Sammilani (Sylhet Union), Calcutta played a major role too. Steadfast in its resolve, the Srihatta Sammilani (Sylhet Union) not only supported the establishment of schools for girls but more importantly, arranged annual examinations and merit awards for the non-school going, antthapurbashini mahilagan (home-confined women) of Surma Valley. Interestingly, it also encouraged, thanks to Dr. Sundari Mohan Das, the ‘spread of knowledge related to mother and child health, obstetrics and midwifery’ (Bhattacharjee 1988: 11 [translation mine]) among the region’s women folk. Indeed, Das would later, in the 1920s, go on to write the famous treatise on obstetrics entitled Briddha Dhatrir Rojnamcha (see, for example, Bhattacharjee 2012).

In 1916, a young Jane Helen Rowlands arrived as a missionary of the WCMC in the Sylhet (and Cachar) plains. Thus began a long career devoted to missionary work and, most importantly, engagement with women’s welfare and education – as a linguist and teacher – in the region. Born on April 3, 1891 in Menai Bridge, Anglesey, Wales, Rowlands was the youngest child of Captain Jabez and Martha Rowlands. The family was one of ardent believers and it was not surprising that her brothers – two of them – took to joining the ministry. Eventually Rowlands would also do so but not before she completed an honours degree in French from the University College of North Wales in 1911. After a brief (and incomplete) stint at the University of Cambridge, she began teaching French in 1912.

Jane Helen Rowlands (Photo credit: www.rowlandsmemorialhighschool.com. Last accessed on 3 August, 2014)

Jane Helen Rowlands
(Photo credit: http://www.rowlandsmemorialhighschool.com. Last accessed on 3 August, 2014)

In 1913 she was appointed to teach at a girls’ school in Newtown, Wales. Influenced at an early age by Thomas Charles Williams, a minister in Menai Bridge, Rowlands throughout the period remained in contact with him. Consequently, her involvement in church work grew. In 1915, the final decision to become a missionary was made. Following a short training course at St. Colm’s College, Edinburgh she sailed from Liverpool for India on October 23, 1916. Reaching India on November 28, Rowlands headed to Sylhet (and Cachar) where her missionary work was to begin and finally end, with her death, in 1955.

In April 1918, Rowlands, already a devoted enthusiast of women’s welfare in general and their education in particular, was appointed headmistress of the Williams Memorial School for girls.  Fluent by that time in the Bangla language, she displayed great abilities to teach (also how to knit and sew to the girls) and organize. In course of time, her brilliant linguistic skills attracted widespread attention. In 1926 Rowlands completed the post-graduate degree in Indian vernaculars from the University of Calcutta. During a furlough to Wales in 1930, she decided to pursue a doctorate in the Bangla language from the University of Sorbonne, Paris. In that regard she had the support of none less than Suniti Kumar Chattopadhyay, the famous Indian linguist.

After the completion and award of the degree of Doctor of Letters, Rowlands was offered chairs and teaching positions in universities across the world. Interestingly, she declined all except the one that the Karimganj College, Karimganj, Assam offered. ‘She served as an honorary teacher in the Departments of Philosophy and English in … Karimganj College …. She occasionally delivered some lectures in the Bengali department as well’ (Ghosh 1996:113). Karimganj, a small town in southern Assam, was part of Sylhet till 1947. After partition and independence it became part of the Cachar district of Assam.

Karimganj College, Karimaganj, Assam  (Photo: www.karimganjcollege.org.in accessed on 5 August, 2014)

Karimganj College, Karimaganj, Assam
(Photo: http://www.karimganjcollege.org.in accessed on 5 August, 2014)

Rowlands could, as mentioned, never let Sylhet go – it officially did join Pakistan in 1947 – and hence, continued to stay on in Karimganj (a slice of which fell on the Indian side). In time, she established Dipti Nibash (Home of Light), a home for widows and orphans of the area.

She continued with her writing: her book in French entitled La Femme Bengalie dans la Litterature du Moyen-Age (Bengali Women in Medieval Literature) was published from Paris in 1930 and remains widely cited, for instance, in the works of Anne Pearson, Anne Gold, June McDaniel and many others. She also published evangelical (WCMC) works and relentlessly continued to train poor, rural women to become self-reliant. The economic independence of women, Rowland ardently believed, was the mainstay of a just, egalitarian and free social order. No wonder she dreamt of and struggled for it all her life.

‘Helen Rowlands was a truly notable person, who reached scholastic heights, and mixed with people of note. She read from Scripture in Gandhi’s memorial service, and she knew the Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore, translating some of his work into English and Welsh. But … she chose to serve others, to take up a … position to help the weak and the poor’ (Rees 2002:206). Rowlands’ fight against the caste system and patriarchy in early twentieth century India, as also her contribution to education and the Bangla language and literature, certainly calls for a deeper exploration of her life. The Jane Helen Rowlands (Missionary) Papers, 1921-1947, held by the Anglesey Archives, Wales will help us begin that on the multi-faceted, but nearly forgotten, woman missionary of Assam.

Rowlands Memorial High School  (Photo: www.rowlandsmemorialhighschool.com , accessed on 3 August, 2014)

Rowlands Memorial High School
(Photo: http://www.rowlandsmemorialhighschool.com , accessed on 3 August, 2014)

Dr. Jane Helen Rowlands, the last European missionary of Karimganj, lies buried in the town for sixty years now. But the Karimganj College would never let her die. She smiles from a large photograph in the principal’s chamber and makes her presence felt in the library named (Rowlands Hall) after her. As for the town, it is hard not to hear of or pass by the Rowlands Memorial High School while walking about it.

References:

Bhattacharjee, R.1988. Prasanga-Srihatta. Calcutta: Oriental Book Company.

Bhattacharjee, J. B. 2002. “Pandita Ramabai and the State of Women’s Education in the Barak-Surma Valley in Late-Nineteenth Century”, Proceedings of North East India History Association, XXII Session, Tezpur, Assam.

Bhattacharjee, N. 2012. “Strishiksha in Colonial Assam: Interventions of Srihatta Sammilani (Sylhet Union), Calcutta”, unpublished paper presented at the International Conference on ‘Changing Patriarchies and Gendered Constructs:  Gender History in Northeast India’, Assam University, Silchar, 19-20 January.

Ghosh, S. K. 1996. “Portrait of a Visionary: J. H. Rowlands” (112-113), Golden Jubilee Celebration Committee Souvenir, Karimganj College, Karimganj.

Morris, J. H. 1910 [1996]. The History of the Welsh Calvinist Methodists’ Foreign Mission: To the End of the Year 1904. New Delhi: Indus Publishing Company

Passah, A. 1998. “The Welsh Presbyterian Mission in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills: Early Expansion into Sylhet, Cachar and Mizoram” (155-165), Proceedings of North East India History Association, XVIII Session, Agartala, Tripura.

Rees, D. B. 2002. Vehicles of Grace and Hope: Welsh Missionaries in India, 1800-1970. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.

Vanlalchhunga, Rev. (compiled). 2003. Reports of the Foreign Mission of the Presbyterian Church of Wales on Sylhet-Bangladesh and Cachar-India, 1886-1955. Silchar: Shalom Publications.

***

nipaNabanipa Bhattacharjee teaches Sociology at Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi.

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HELLO, WHO ARE YOU?

Samrat Choudhury

At the start of any conversation between strangers, after the greetings, the first thing people usually do is introduce themselves. They give their names, talk about their work, or where they live, and ask similar details of the other.

The reason is probably because identity is basic. We want to know who other people are. We also often want them to know who WE are.

And how do we introduce others or ourselves? Well, that depends on context. For example, if you were introducing yourself on a football pitch, you might say, “I play midfield”. If the context was a seminar, in a foreign country, on Tagore, you might mention that you are Bengali. If the seminar was on insurgency in India’s Northeast, you might say that you are from there. At a Durga Puja pandal, during the anjali, you might participate as a Hindu.

Who we are is an aggregation of all such parts. Sometimes a part of us may embarrass us. A nose may be crooked, a tooth may be out of line. In such a situation, do we cut it off and throw it away? No. We either go to a doctor to get it fixed, or we live with it, because to cut it off and throw it away would harm us.

Yet when it comes to identity, we are not as sensible. We often try to cut off bits of our selves.

While all the bits that make up our selves are important, it is also a mistake to think the part is the whole. I am not my nose only. Nor am I only a Hindu. There’s also the rest of me.

Which part is most important varies from time to time. A person can be Hindu or Muslim or atheist, but on the cricket or football pitch, he is a batsman or a bowler or wicketkeeper. Other parts of his identity are of little relevance in that context.

This view of layered and multiple identities is one that has been championed by Prof Amartya Sen among others. Despite the persuasive arguments presented by the good professors, debates and indeed fights over identity have shown few signs of receding.

That’s because in many situations, groups clash with one another for benefits or resources. For instance, in July there was a huge hungama over a test called CSAT in the Civil Services exams in which those who wanted to take the test in Hindi came out in protest. Those who are happier taking the test in English were on the other side of this argument. Their interests clashed; it was a matter of securing limited jobs. There would be winners and losers.

Similar clashes happen over reservations in education and government jobs between caste groups.

Dalit activists often say that the discrimination, at least in the case of socially and economically backward castes, was on the basis of such identities. Therefore the corrective should also be on similar lines.

In my view, this is not necessary unless you believe in retributive justice for correcting historical wrongs. That is a dangerous path to go down. The Babri Masjid was brought down by people supposedly trying to right a historical wrong. This caused the country to burn. In Mumbai, riots followed, as stabbings of Hindus in Muslim areas led Bal Thackeray to unleash the Shiv Sena. The Mumbai serial bomb blasts came next, as Dawood Ibrahim, who had until then been a local bhai not involved in religious violence, was provoked into revenge.

The pain of that cycle of violence has arguably moderated the politics of Mumbai. People have seen the costs of trouble, and the benefits of peace, and largely chosen the latter.

If people start fixing historical wrongs, the logic of “an eye for an eye” will, to quote Gandhi, make the whole world blind. The cycle of revenge could be potentially endless and stretch across centuries.

It is hard to think of any group of people who have never oppressed any other through their history. Western Europe and America have slavery and colonialism and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to answer for. Their crimes against humanity are enormous.

The Germans are still carrying the burden of Hitler and what he did to the Jews. The Jews themselves turned into Zionists and Israel now has its own excesses in Gaza to answer for. Closer home, the excesses of Hindu high castes continued for hundreds of years. The way lower castes were treated was terrible and inhuman.

However, even at their worst, the Hindu upper castes did not manage to do as much harm as the White men who colonized the world. One of the worst things they did during their days of colonial glory was practically erase from existence the native Indian populations in North America and the aboriginals in Australia. These populations were physically annihilated through war and disease. Their lands were taken over, and even their children were taken from them, to be raised in the ways of their conquerors. Their cultures survived only in little native reserves, which were maintained like zoos or national parks for animals. In Australia, some aboriginal peoples were officially classified under “fauna”, not as human beings.

In India, indigenous tribal populations are still very much around, largely ruling their own lands, and quite free to keep their cultures alive. The threat to their cultures does not come from the government or people of India. It comes from elsewhere.

Funny headgear

Most people instinctively see the death of a culture as a bad thing, even if we do not exactly know why. However, living cultures that are different from our own, and from the one that claims to be “global”, evoke discomfort or derision. A lot of people are uncomfortable when they see folks wearing skullcaps or tikas, for example. Tribal headgears provoke hilarity. No one laughs at neckties, however, even though the tie is quite a useless and ridiculous item of clothing. Even the flowerpots worn by fashionable ladies at the races are not seen as hilarious; they are greatly admired.

The liberal elites of our country are conspicuously Western. We came to modernity through the experience of colonialism, and our ruling classes were sahibs, followed by brown sahibs. We have not yet learnt to separate the notion of being modern from being Western.

We have also come to associate class with degree of Westernisation. So, for example, those who wear dhotis are generally perceived as low class. Those who wear suits and ties are seen as high class. Those who wear flowerpots on their heads are VERY high class. Those who speak Bengali or Khasi or Hindi are low class. Those who speak English are high class. Those who speak it with a British or American accent are really posh. And so on.

This is really a reflection of the global order of power more than anything else. It has its relation with the fact that old ways of living have broken down.

The world indigenous civilizations adapted for changed with the Industrial Revolution. Success in the new world of global capitalism depends upon new knowledge and skills. Knowledge of the Sanskrit scriptures was what made a pandit in the old days. Today’s world honours and pays the IIT and IIM pundits more handsomely.

Harvard and Oxford count for more than Indian colleges. Those are the gurukuls where today’s royal families send their princes and princesses. What they learn there is less important than the stamp. It is like a caste mark of the global elite. It tells them who they can associate with as equals, and give jobs and favourable reviews to. This helps perpetuate the caste dominance of today’s global Brahmins.

It is not true that these new caste groups are open to all with merit. For the most part, it is open to those with money, and those with connections.

A common affectation of the new Brahmins from India is an evident desire to distance themselves from their roots. They are by turns patronizing and demeaning of their own traditions, histories and religions.

I don’t think this is either necessary or desirable. There is no need for us to succumb mentally to the dominance of a certain elite Western worldview. What I would argue for is equality. We should meet the world as equals, without being forced to cut off parts of our identities to fit in.

We damage ourselves when we do that.

The desire to deny, hide or cut off parts of the self arises out of need to be in step with contemporary social fashions. We all want to be the cool folks who wear the right clothes, watch the right movies, listen to the right music…and generally fit in with the ‘right’ cultures.

The ‘right’ culture in a hyperconnected world is the globally dominant one. This dominance came about through an exercise of military power. It is a result of centuries of colonialism, whose winners gained and retained their advantages by waging wars. The challenge to their hegemony by Germany and Japan, which wanted to join the club of colonial powers, resulted in the Second World War, and ended with the passing of the baton from London to Washington. The US signalled this by dropping the two atom bombs on Japan after Germany and Italy had already surrendered, and the war was practically over. The indiscriminate extermination of men, women, children, animals…indeed all life forms…in Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the two greatest acts of terrorism in human history. However, these were not considered war crimes. Since then, Iraq has been destroyed and Saddam Hussein was hanged for allegedly thinking of building a bomb. The standards of right and wrong vary widely indeed.

There is no reason to believe that the dominant Western worldview is best, unless you believe that might is right, because that is what it actually boils down to.

Nor should civilizations and cultures that have not ‘done well’ in the modern world be viewed as failures. As the anthropologist and explorer Wade Davis put it, “Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit”.

Different cultures viewed and understood the world in different ways. They evolved different languages, literatures and worldviews. In these, they encoded the knowledge of thousands of years. They are rainforests of the mind.

That is why cultures big and small ought to be kept alive as the collective heritage of humanity.

To erase one and replace it with another is unnecessary and wasteful, though that is not in the DNA of certain cultures that historically obliterated whatever came before them. We can easily speak two or three languages, and enjoy literatures and cinemas in all of them, and most of us do. Just because I watch Hollywood doesn’t mean I have to give up on Bollywood. Just because I wear trousers doesn’t mean I can’t wear kurtas. I can eat machher jhol and sushi with equal relish.

The only clash occurs in religion, because there most of us are forced to choose one or another.

I see this as unnecessary, since there is wisdom in all. However, for the purposes of identity, even if we do get buttonholed into one, it need not be a problem.

Hinduism is essentially different from other religions because it has incorporated elements of its pagan past into itself. It did not say “convert or perish”; it allowed Kali worshippers with their blood sacrifices and pure vegetarians who eat nothing that grows beneath the soil to be equally Hindus.

In the same spirit, we can choose to love our own cultural practices, so long as they are not in conflict with the law, without hating anyone else’s cultural practices. The ‘global’ Western elites and their representatives here in India should not insist that we convert into imitations of them, or perish.

(The article expresses the author’s personal views.)

***
samratSamrat Choudhury is the editor of The Asian Age, Mumbai, and author of The Urban Jungle Book (Penguin, 2011). His short stories and essays have been published in translation in Spanish, Portuguese, German and Italian. He is from Shillong.

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WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS?

Geraldine Forbes

Roland Barthes wrote that old photographs convey the “tension of history” because their meaning depends on our reading of them, yet we are always looking in from outside. Using a 1931 photograph from the family collection of Manmohini Zutshi Sahgal, I want to illustrate how the tendency to “read” a photograph from the outside can lead us to conclusions that have little to do with what actually happened.  At the same time, I want to point out that when we “read” photographs methodically, paying attention to technology, the photographer and studio, the patron and consumer, and the subjects themselves, they can become valuable historical documents.

I first began to look at photographs because women I was interviewing – participants in India’s freedom struggle – insisted I could learn something about the movement and their involvement in it by looking at images.  For example, when a freedom fighter showed me a photograph of women newly released from Vellore Central Prison, she pointed out her sister, cousin, and aunt. The relationship was not obvious from their surnames – different because three of them were married – but an extremely important detail to understand women’s involvement in political protest. This photograph was instrumental in turning my attention to family photographs as valuable historical documents.

Most of the family collections I examined, including Manmohini’s, featured women photographed at the time of marriage (Figure 1), with their children (Figure 2), and in family portraits (Figure 3). In “progressive families”– those interested in new roles for women – there are school and graduation photos (Figure 4), photos with friends (Figure 5), and images of women taking part in social and political activities (Figure 6). As contemporary authors have noted, family collections are notorious for their omission of pain, ill health, discord, and rupture. This was certainly true of Indian families during the colonial period.  Moreover, photographs were considered so serious that one rarely finds people hamming it up or posing for fun.

Figure 1. Wedding portrait of Sahayram Basu and Ranu, 1907

Figure 1. Wedding portrait of Sahayram Basu and Ranu, 1907

Figure 2. Woman with child, c. 1910

Figure 2. Woman with child, c. 1910

Figure 3. Parsi Family, c. 1906

Figure 3. Parsi Family, c. 1906

Figure 4. Maharani Girls School, Darjeeling c. 1912

Figure 4. Maharani Girls School, Darjeeling c. 1912

Figure 5. Suniti Majumdar and her friend Lalita, 1911

Figure 5. Suniti Majumdar and her friend Lalita, 1911

Figure 6. Swadeshi League, Madras 1931

Figure 6. Swadeshi League, Madras 1931

Standing out among hundreds of conventional family photographs, are a number that do not fit.  Among them are images of women engaged in a wide range of activities from riding horses to rowing boats and driving cars. There are also photographs of women posed in unusual attire such as these photographs of Shudha Mazumdar in riding breeches (Figure 7)  and Manmohini and friends wearing  flight helmets (Figure 8). At first glance, we might conclude that Indian women in the 1930s were engaging daring sports but careful research reveals a different story.

Figure 7. Shudha Mazumdar in riding breeches, 1933

Figure 7. Shudha Mazumdar in riding breeches, 1933

 

Figure 8. Manmohini and friends at the Karachi  airfield, 1931

Figure 8. Manmohini and friends at the Karachi airfield, 1931

The photograph of  Manmohini and her friends in flight helmets was taken in 1931 when they were attending the Karachi session of the Indian National Congress. Although women had been visible politically since 1917 when they formed a delegation to meet Lord Montagu and ask for the vote, their numbers were few until 1930. The Civil Disobedience Movement of 1930-31 was significant in terms of the number of women who joined, demonstrated, picketed, and went to jail. Young women, with more opportunities for education and a later age of marriage, threw themselves into the movement. They would prove, some of them said, that they were as brave and patriotic as young men.

The 1931 Congress was well financed and well organized, with plenty of young women volunteers. One of these young women was Manmohini Zutshi (b. 1909), the daughter of Motilal Nehru’s nephew and his wife  Lado Rani.  Keenly interested in the new opportunities available for women’s education, Lado Rani in 1917 moved  with her four daughters to Lahore where she enrolled them in missionary schools and arranged for private music lessons (Figure 9). After Motilal became President of the Indian National Congress in 1919, Lado Rani and her daughters became staunch supporters of the freedom struggle.

Figure 9. Manmohini with sitar, c. 1924

Figure 9. Manmohini with sitar, c. 1924

Manmohini first attended Kinnaird College, and then took the unusual step of joining Government College for Men in Lahore.  A skilled debater, she took a keen interest in student affairs and joined the Lahore Student Union, becoming its first female President in 1929.

Following Gandhi’s Salt March in 1930, Manmohini organized protests, demonstrated, courted arrest, and was sentenced to prison on three separate occasions. Here she was photographed with women just released from prison (Figure 10).

 Figure 10. Women released from prison in Lahore, 1931

Figure 10. Women released from prison in Lahore, 1931

At the 1931 Congress meeting, Manmohini was a minor celebrity, beseeched by young women and men for her autograph. When a young man offered to drive them to an airstrip where a small plane had landed, he soon had a car full of single women in their late teens and early 20s ready for an adventure (Figure 11).

Figure 11. Manmohini and friends, 1931

Figure 11. Manmohini and friends, 1931

The young women donned helmets and prepared for a flight that never happened. However, the fact there was no flight is of little importance compared to what this photograph represents in terms of female autonomy in the early 1930s. Gandhi’s initiatives legitimated independent political action by young men and women that made possible new friendships and adventures. At the same time, these educated and self-assured young women gave the North Indian movement a youthful, self-confident, and glamorous image.

This example is one of many unusual photographs in my collection that, when examined, illustrate the importance of context in understanding the meaning of the photograph as an historical document. To believe we can read a “look” or motive  in a photograph is folly. What we see could well be imposed by the photographer or technology, or both.  It is equally difficult to assess emotions from captured facial expressions or to assume continuity of  reactions and emotions across time. Even when the subject of a photo reaches back into her memory for what she felt at the time a photo was taken, we are witnessing someone taking control of a past image rather than an exact  representation of the past.

When we place unusual photographs within the context of the family collections where they were found, we find more conformity and less rebellion than a superficial read might yield. Women who were photographed riding bicycles, wearing jodhpurs, and letting their hair down belonged to families that encouraged  female autonomy within limits. The photographs were not discarded, judged too blurry or over/under exposed to keep, but instead preserved with those of graduations, weddings, and other significant events.

The value of these photographs is in the issues they raise as much as the clues (not answers) they give to questions about women’s autonomy, representation, modernity, and family culture. These documents add a new dimension to our understanding of subtle changes within families, changes  that are not easily captured in conventional records. In the final analysis, these photographs are only unusual when we ignore the cultural context.

***

101118_forbes_0003Geraldine Forbes is Distinguished Teaching Professor Emerita in the Department of History at the State University of New York Oswego. A graduate of the University of Alberta and the University of Illinois she began her research in India over four decades ago. Her first book, Positivism in Bengal (1976) was selected for the Rabindra Puraskar. Among her publications on the history and lives of Indian women are: Shudha Mazumdar, Memoirs of an Indian Woman (1989), Manmohini Zutshi Sahgal, An Indian Freedom Fighter Recalls Her Life (1994), Women in Modern India (1996) for the New Cambridge History of India, and Women in Colonial India: Essays on Politics, Medicine and Historiography (2005) as well as several articles on women in colonial India. Her most recent book, “Because I am a Woman”: Child Widow: A Memoir from Colonial India (2010), with Tapan Raychaudhuri, is the translated and edited memoir of Hamabati Sen.

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RAY’S ‘KANCHENJUNGA’

Ruma Chakravarti

When I began to write about the Satyajit Ray film ‘Kanchenjunga’, I admit that I reached for the DVD copy that I had. For a film that is about the kind of Bengali people that many of Ray film watchers today would know far better than the poverty of Pather Panchali  or Ashani Sanket, this  is not as widely watched. It is a story of the quiet changes that happen to families with time, so subtly as to often go unnoticed, but of great importance none the less. The events are set against the physical backdrop of Kanchenjunga, the second highest peak of the Himalayas. Ray uses the mountains as both prop and metaphor; showing the uphill struggle of some characters, the monotony of the existence of others and a heightened sense of confidence that various characters begin to enjoy as they conquer the mountain in their own ways.

The story depicts the last day of a stay in Darjeeling for a wealthy family. The film begins with an introduction to the family members who are dominated by the father, Indranath, played superbly by Chhabi Biswas. Biswas was one of Ray’s favourite actors and when he lost his life in a head on collision between his car and a truck five weeks after the release of this film in 1962, Ray was devastated and stopped writing parts for middle aged men; that quintessentially Bengali institution known as the ‘Bhadralok’. He believed that Biswas was one of the very few actors of the time who possessed the high degree of acting ability required to bring the character to life.

In the film, Indranath’s wife Labonya seems wearily acquiescent to her husband’s word being law. elder daughter Anima looks unhappy while her husband Shankar advises his sister-in-law Monisha to not marry a man without first falling in love; thus confirming the idea that all is not well in his own arranged marriage. Monisha is shown to be a timid girl who does not question what is planned for her. As the day progresses, an unrelated uncle and nephew duo are shown climbing the steep steps leading to the Darjeeling Mall. The older man is breathless and unable to talk after the climb which parallels his own life of hard graft. When they find the industrialist and his family graciously taking the air, the uncle attempts to remind Indranath that he was once house tutor to the only son of the family, down to the year of his employment. The contrast between the importance of this memory to the poorer man and Indranath’s inability to recognize him is as stark as the difference in their personal circumstances and is made worse by his desperate plea that his nephew Ashok be granted a job.

Indranath is a man whose Anglicized manner and clothing belie his close links to the patriarchal belief systems of the past. Having achieved success during the recently ended British period, he is regretful over their departure from India and derides the role of revolutionaries including his own classmates in gaining independence. He wants Monisha to marry a foreign returned man, Mr Banerjee, who is considered to have ‘good prospects’. He is unable to appreciate things beyond his own materialistic interests. He fails to see both his own and elder daughter Anima’s marriages as one-sided and unhappy and responds to his brother-in-law’s delight at finding a long sought after bird by asking whether the creature can be roasted for eating. He represents the sort of Anglophile post-colonial mentality that Ashok, a young character in the film, seems to be struggling against as a representative of the new order.

The film unrolls in the form of several conversations between pairs of characters as they take long rambling walks. At no point in the film are these characters more than a few minutes apart from each other. I felt the different stretches of mountain roads were almost an allegory for the different paths people take. The married couples have their conversations in situations where they are generally static. The younger un-married characters such as Monisha, Mr Banerjee and Ashok are shown walking almost constantly.

The characters are fleshed out through the film. Monisha’s prospective groom, Mr.Banerjee talks about his professional achievements and indicates his liberal lifestyle by referring to the company of women he enjoyed abroad. As he understands Monisha’s coolness towards him he shows an attitude which contrasts with her father’s intolerance. Monisha seems to come alive only while interacting with Ashok who tells her that he has turned down the job offered by Indranath; he mentions the fact that the mountain and their surroundings have enabled him to feel like a giant and that he might not have dared to say no had he been behind a desk in the city. Their friendship is a chapter left unexplored but a growing bond between the two is hinted at despite their disparate social situations. The bitter exchange between Anima and Shankar begins with a barrage of accusations by each. The conversation takes place as they watch their daughter and the surrounding scenery and covers problems that have taken place in the city far from the mountains around them. As they talk, they seem to grow expansive and attain a degree of forgiveness. They both agree to make another attempt at saving their marriage for the sake of their child who is shown constantly riding a horse through Darjeeling, in a possible reference to the set patterns that people will fall into. Labonya’s brother Jagadish is a keen birdwatcher who seems less worldly but understands the situation of his relatives better than they do themselves. As a result of his unspoken encouragement Labonya takes on the role of an assertive parent after years of blindly following her husband’s dictates. The scene where she is shown singing while sitting alone on a bench, seemingly to the mountain and for herself epitomizes for me her metamorphosis into a human being who does not need anyone else to tell her what to do or how to feel. The song is one by Rabindranath Tagore that speaks of the angst of being exiled and living in doubt and sorrow. The use of Rabindra Sangeet ties this film firmly to the soil of Bengal and is another of Ray’s skilful touches to indicate her traditional roots while speaking of the torment within her.

At the end of his walk, the father arrives at a previously arranged point, expecting to meet the rest of his family but no one is there. He is unaware of the changes that have taken place within the family as they take the first steps to free themselves from the boundaries he has set for them. As the mist lightens, Kanchenjunga is revealed in its full glory but Indranath is too pre-occupied with his thoughts to notice it or appreciate it, despite having missed out on this throughout his entire stay.

This was Ray’s first original screenplay and also the first film that he shot in colour. Colour has been used to great effect throughout the film. The brilliant skies, the dense grey mists rising out of the wooded valleys and the soaring mountain above all the human activity – all these create a mise-en-scene that is as far removed from the city the characters come from as is imaginable. One is able to imagine that each character has drawn strength from their surroundings and from the presence of Kanchenjungha, as Ashok admits to Monisha. The sound track is also instrumental in furthering the ambience of the location. The film makes great use of local folk songs to accompany the hand drawn credits which were done by Satyajit Ray himself. Background sounds such bird calls, the radio and yak bells serve brilliantly in setting various scenes.

It is a contemplative movie – quiet and slow, filmed as a series of conversations punctuated by sudden spells of activity; an ode to the spirit of progress and social change against the setting of the glorious mountains. It is proof of Ray’s expertise as a film maker that he manages to produce a film that engages the viewer with images as well as the dialogue which is imbued with multiple layers of interpretation achieved through attention to a multitude of details. The power of the film comes from both this and the sensitive performances of the cast. Ray’s remarkable achievement is in making us become deeply aware about the fortunes of this cast. We completely understand why it is necessary that the wife becomes a person capable of independent thought, or that the father is overthrown as the lawmaker of his kingdom and that each of the young people come to an understanding about their own roles in life.

Although it is shrouded in mist most of the time, we are constantly reminded of the presence of the soaring heights of Kanchenjunga as a symbol of the progress of India’s men and women as they step out of the shadow of the past and look to a more egalitarian future. The director has been quoted by Andrew Robinson as saying,

“The idea was to have the film starting with sunlight. Then clouds coming, then mist rising, and then mist disappearing, the cloud disappearing, and then the sun shining on the snow-peaks. There is an independent progression to Nature itself, and the story reflects this.”

He manages to convey this and much more throughout the film’s entirety, through a beautifully crafted ode to both human nature and the glory of nature that is Kanchenjunga.

***

Ruma ChakravartiRuma Chakravarti was born in Africa, had her schooling in India and has lived in seven countries. A high school mathematics teacher in her other life, Ruma is an avid blogger, writer and people watcher. Her interests include Rabindranath Tagore, reading, folklore and music, crafts, gardening and films. She currently lives in Adelaide, Australia with her family which includes three children, one dog and one rabbit.

 

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SEHNSUCHT

Samraghni

Samraghni

It is my earliest memory of travelling to Calcutta. I must be three years old. I haven’t slept all night on the train. When we finally arrive at Sealdah, I can see my grandfather standing on the platform. I alight, hug him, look around, and the first thing I ask is, “Dadu, pahar kothay chole gyalo?” [“Dadu, where have the mountains gone?”] I don’t remember if my parents laughed at me, but I certainly remember that my mood was inevitably spoilt for the rest of the trip. Growing up in Siliguri had assured me that regardless of whatever I do, and wherever I look out from, the mountains would be there to say “Hello!” From our main road-facing balcony we could see the Kanchenjunga every day of the year, regardless of rain, fog, or mist. Later, while attending college in Calcutta, I would talk about this very matter-of-factly, and watch looks of horror, disbelief, wonder, and envy on each of my friends’ faces. Initially I pitied them, for they do not know what they are missing; but I gradually revered in the schadenfreude that settled down.

Yet each of them, like true tourists, had systematically woken up at 3.30 in the morning on their visit to Darjeeling, seen the sunrise at Tiger Hill, and clicked many pictures with the Kanchenjunga at the background. My parents, who were probashi Calcuttans [expatriates], were slightly dismissive of their brethren who would wax eloquent about the Kanchenjunga the moment they would alight at NJP station. I—like a true mongrel belonging nowhere—was more vocal about my jeers at them. “That Kanchenjunga you see from my balcony, it’s mine; I see that every morning, every evening; I see it and the green hills from my school window. What do you see from Shyambazar? Bus number 78/1!”

My hamartia has been taking beauty for granted. When I first shifted to Calcutta, I would physically pine for two things: the sight of the mountains from the balcony, and the ringing of the church bells every Sunday. In my mind, the two were inextricably related. For, as long as the sun shone in Siliguri, I could see the Kanchenjunga from my balcony, and as soon as it would set, the Don Bosco church, very near my house, and in the same direction as the mountains, would turn on the red light at the top of the altar. I always thought that while one was out of sight, the other assured that it would be back soon.

Years later, I found a word in a foreign language that could attempt to describe this longing I felt. While looking at a print of Caspar David Friedrich’s Mondaufgang am Meer, my teacher introduced me to the German word Sehnsucht. Duden’s prosaic definition was “inniges, schmerzliges Verlangen nach jemandem, etwas.” I had trembled slightly as I translated it in English: an intense, painful longing for someone or something. I had finally found my word. Sehnsucht.

Many things used to happen while the Kanchenjunga slept in the 90s. The Doordarshan tower in Kurseong would be two pinpricks in the sky, like an inland lighthouse providing direction to the foothills of the Himalayas in Bengal, and for parents to point at it and say, “That is where the signal in your TV comes from!” With no white majestic mountain range to steal the show, one could look at ascending and descending rows of light, and the parents would explain again: “Those are vehicles travelling up to and down from Kurseong.” And so many other memories, tucked away in the twilight zone between real and imaginary: one day when the weather was exceptionally bright, you thought you could extend your hand and touch the Kanchenjunga; another day, by an exceptional set of circumstances which optics could possibly explain, you saw Kanchenjunga alternating between light and darkness.

I carried my Sehnsucht like a dull pain inside me for years. It was probably in 2009, when I was visiting Siliguri after a disgracefully long interval, that I failed to find the Kanchenjunga. For a few seconds, it seemed like a fantasy novel, or the beginning of rising action in a fairy tale: “And as the princess looked out of the window, she saw that the beautiful mountain range had disappeared. The wicked witch had cast her spell.” Maa came up to me and said that a new hotel had been built in the opening between the Bansals’ lavish sal, teak, and shisham trees, and the Kanchenjunga, which blocked our sight of the latter completely. Every other night there would be parties in the hotel, with Bollywood music blaring loudly, and I took it as a personal affront, a punishment that had been meted out especially to me for my nonchalance this long. I returned to university, this time to talk about Kanchenjunga with a sense of loss.

I am often surprised by the tendency of life to fit into fixed, definite patterns. In January this year, I learnt that I would be travelling to Darjeeling with other German teachers to attend a four-day seminar. Days before we left, I learnt that we would be staying at Hotel Windamere. I had an old print of the view from Observatory Hill (where Windamere is located), and while packing warm clothes I dusted the picture. Some research revealed that it was in Windamere that Satyajit Ray’s film Kanchenjunga (1962) was shot, and it was here that the cast had stayed. I was amused. On our first morning, my friend woke me up at the crack of dawn to show a beautiful silhouette of light around the Kanchenjunga (yes, it was there). Both of us rummaged for our cameras, and moved the lace curtain minutes later to find the silhouette gone. Yet life came a full circle two weeks ago, when I woke up at three in the morning, and walked down the dark lawns of Windamere, looking for friends and colleagues, who were all ready to go to Tiger Hill to watch the sunrise.

In the midst of frightened Calcuttans loudly invoking God to help them survive the bad roads leading to Darjeeling; in the midst of disappointment at failing to procure places inside Sunrise Point for being late; in the midst of the biting cold and wind mercilessly hitting the face; in the midst of fear that all will be ruined by fog creeping up at the last minute, I stood and wondered if I could really watch the Kanchenjunga wake up from such close quarters. While in school, I was an avid reader of Narayan Gangapadhyay’s Tenida, and the part in Jhau-banglor Rahasya, where the four friends go to Tiger Hill to watch the sunrise, had left me miffed with the author’s declaration that: “Finally the sun rose. How did it look? What plays of colours did it leave over the clouds and Kanchenjunga? That I will not say. Those of you, who have seen sunrise at Tiger Hill, know already. Those of you who haven’t will never know unless you see it.” [Translation mine.] I wanted to know the details then. But after seeing the sun rise in the East, and the Kanchenjunga systematically wake up in the West, I too would refrain from putting words into the occurrences that morning at a certain hilltop 3358 feet above sea level. When we were waiting for the light, in an attempt to beat the cold, I joined the others in singing, “Aloy-e alokmoy kore he, ele alor alo.” [“Illuminating everything, you bring light into my world.”] After the hill was flooded with light, and all was over, I stood with them, with the Kanchenjunga at my back, and let myself get clicked into innumerable pictures. Later when I was in the car, waiting for the others to join, and waiting for my parents to wake up in Calcutta so that I could tell them all about the sunrise and the Kanchenjunga, I sang softly to myself,

“Shoponduar khule esho, arun-aaloke

Esho mughdho e chokhe

Khonokaaler aabhash hote chirokaaler tore esho amar ghore.”

 

[“Open the doors of your dreams and come to light,

Come to these inspired eyes

Advancing from a moment’s impression to an eternity of presence: come to my abode.”]

***

Samraghni passed her MA in English Literature from the University of Calcutta in 2011. In 2013 she was the Goethe Stipendiatin to Berlin. She now teaches German as a foreign language in Calcutta. Her hobbies are reading, watching vintage cinema, and listening to old music.

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THESE HILLS CALLED HOME

Sampurna Chattarji

Photo : Subhrata Ray

Photo : Subhrata Ray

A few years ago, as part of the social programme at a literary festival in Bhutan, we were taken to visit a Bhutanese village. The trip made me think of Ashis Nandy’s book An Ambiguous Journey to the City, in which he has an essay titled ‘The journey to the village is a journey to the centre of the self’. I often get asked the question, “Where are you from?” Seeing my Bengali surname, strangers assume I must have been born in Kolkata. When I tell them I was born in Africa, in Dessie, Ethiopia to be precise, eyebrows rise, and people like my (then) ten-year old god-son ask me if I am African. Adults say, “Oh, so you grew up in Africa!” at which point I have to say “No, I grew up in Darjeeling”. “Oh, Loreto! I was in Loreto College, which year?” at which point I have to explain that I graduated from Lady Shri Ram College, New Delhi. At this point my interlocutor starts getting a glazed look in her eyes. To ease her pain, I put an end to the story, and say, “But now I’m based in Bombay, have been for the last 15 years.” Relief, exclamations (“So Bombay is home for you now!”) and finally we can move on to other things. This kind of exchange has had an educational effect on me. Now when I get asked the same question, I respond with the short answer “Bombay” and let myself off the hook. But in a country where you still get asked the question, especially when travelling long-distance by train, “Where is your village?”, I wish I had the presence of mind to say, quoting Nandy, that my village is at the centre of my self; to say—I left my village at the age of thirteen but my village has never left me. That centre is Darjeeling; that centre is, I suspect, home.

It is only now, when I look back at my writing and glean from it the presence of this absence, that I see how pervading it is; how growing up in Darjeeling gave me a core that would manifest itself in my poetry and fiction in the strangest ways. In my novel Rupture, one of the characters, Partho, an anglophile film buff, is a product of a public school set seven thousand feet above the sea. When he descends from the hills to the plains, he finds he doesn’t fit in, and in his anger he blames that unreal, paradisiacal childhood:

It had ruined him. The pristine air in which everything seemed sharp and immediate, as if summoned that very instant by some faultless conjuror’s hand. The presence in his life of those mountains of shadow and ice. The way in which, on clear evenings, the setting sun brushed each glittering white peak into a thing so ravishing and transitory, so technicolour that he could hardly believe in its existence. How could something that looked so real and solid and provable be enchanted into something so unreal by a trick of the light? Between the steepness of a slope under his climbing legs, the blueness of the air above his spinning head, the ache in his teeth that told him the mountain existed, the fog in his eyes that spirited it away—between all those implacable contradictions, how could he not have got tainted?[1]

Being unfit for any other kind of life, particularly life in the plains, makes him a slightly warped and more-than-slightly dislikable man. And yet, I realized that when I wanted Partho to redeem himself, to find some way of reaching out to the wife he abandoned, and the children he never cared for, it was to his most cherished memory—that of the hills—to which he returns:

It was the fog I loved most, because it was the fog that made the light so warm in that cold place of my youth. The thin drizzle, the thick fog, the warm yellow light in the classroom, in the dorm, in the cubes. Fat slices of bread, butter so cold we ate it in chunks, tea so hot we skinned our tongues. Everything golden, the butter, the apple juice in the end-of-term glass, the sun through the cryptomeria hitting your eye as you lay on the wet crunchy grass. And inside the dak bungalow the candle, as we bent over a game of cards, teachers and students cheating equally—all is fair in the circle of light against the dark. A bear prowling outside, honest, someone saw it with his own two eyes. Huddle closer, here no bear will get you. Off the road, in the khudside, with our peashooters. No peas in them, just hard, scrunched up pellets of paper, nicking the ankles of those who walked past our noses as we hid among the insects, invisible until betrayed by a stinging nettle and the yelp of a bare-legged boy. Eat the stem of this tender green shoot, suck the juice from the rhododendron flower. Part the fern on that mossy wall and look into the gap between the stones. It feels like a discovery, the orange marble that you hid. Here is treasure, immeasurable.

Under a bush near the chapel was our little hidey-hole when we were in Primary. We hid there and watched. There was nothing to watch, it was the hiding that mattered. On that tree with the flat branch was where we built a little machan made of twine. We were going to hunt tigers from there, when the rest of the world was sleeping. In two days, it was found and with it our nest egg of three stolen library books, for reading by torchlight as we waited for the tiger to arrive. On that bend is where I fell often, gouging open my knees. In that corner of the junior field is where we did our Mowgli dance. Akela we do our best. Up the narrow stairs, but not all the way to the Infirmary, is where we burnt the wax and drew the batik patterns. Below, we planed wood, rejoicing in the spray of dust, the pile of wood shavings curling at our feet. Across the senior field, we banged at the pianos, rows and rows of notes straining to become music. Sometimes, on an empty afternoon—where was everyone—you would hear a melody, someone playing again and again, practicing, perfecting, because this was the thing he loved.

They gave us so much room, Paromita, to find out what we loved. [2] 

I think it is that love for the hills that has stayed with me, no matter how far away I went. The American poet Elizabeth Bishop asks in her wonderful poem ‘Questions of Travel’— “should we have stayed at home, wherever that may be?” It was while attempting to understand the ‘whereverness’ of home that I realized home is what sneaks up on you when you least expect it, as happened in the last section of this poem:

 

One or Two Things about Home

 

Hungarian sausage, from an Indian friend in Austria.
A hard white cylinder, twisted at one end, like a sweet.
The white is a dusting of flour (on wax?),
the cylinder hard as a shinbone.
Tear the twist of wire off, unwrap the flour-skin.
The meat inside is red. With a sharp knife, cut a slice.
Press hard.
Bite into the little red disc.
It’s sharp, and salty, and good. Could do with a glass of wine, though,
to go with this Loidl Spezialitaten, this Haussalami,
saying the words all wrong, but wanting
to say them, wanting the mouth to do more
than eat this red and salty foreign meat.

What is it about Hungary these days? Should I treat them as signs?
Why else should I be reading Sándor Márai, recalling Csoma de Körös,
the Hungarian who walked to Tibet and died in Darjeeling?
If that’s not a sign, what is? Darjeeling, my home for thirteen years.
I left, at thirteen, and what it left me was a taste for mist
and gloomy afternoons, a relish for steep roads and gabled roofs,
a zest for steamed pork momos and cups and cups of tea.
Not for Csoma de Körös, he died of malaria in Darjeeling.
And Márai committed suicide in San Diego.
What is it about Hungarians and death?

“Who are the Hungarians?”
Lapps? Finns? Turks? Huns? Körös was keen to find out.
Instead, he found a monastery, a bitter cold and a language
he would learn, a grammar he would take back for the world.
Which journey ends the way you imagine? I try and imagine
a journey on foot, in bitter cold, in rags. All I can summon up
are prayer flags, the tall fluttering wisps of cloth I walked past everyday
without noticing what they might be saying, blind to the language
of signs made of wind and air, white on blue, white on grey,
speaking to spirits that must have watched me go. And the more
I’d like to stay with Hungary, the more Darjeeling comes back—
the sound of Buddhist gongs, the stench of horse dung,
the juice of the Bhutan apple spurting on my tongue, the sight
of a yellow light in fog—each separate and terrible, each sign
invisible inside me, marking me for who I am, foretelling every
word, every action, that I might one day make.

It’s hard.
Press deep, cut through to the bone.[3]

Journeys never turn out the way you imagine. Now an affirmed city-dweller, the hills where I spent all my formative years made me, in invisible and undeniable ways, the writer and the person that I am. Like Eustace Trotter in Allan Sealy’s The Trotter-Nama who thinks of the Himalayas as a “vital place to which his thoughts would go back again and again…”, a feeling that goes “deeper than the ordinary longing for a sense of quiet rootedness” and is instead “the sense of a source or spring”—Darjeeling continues to be a motherlode for my work which I am yet to fully mine. For me these hills called home are not just a place on the map but a feeling in my heart. I will end with a poem which I smuggled into my book of children’s poems, but which is really about my adult sense of longing, belonging and loss.

 

Used To Be

Used to be
just waking was reason
to go mad with joy.
Fed, dressed, kissed,
then sent hurtling
past the lawn
past the field
past the slopes
past the trees
past the breeze
past the town
past the high Himalayan peaks

into this: 

A desk
in a room
in a city.

Used to be
just the thought
of a book
unread
was cause
to lose my way
through a day.
Rapt, not hearing a word,
just waiting for class
to be over
and then

walk run race home
open the door
fling down the bag
drink up the milk
throw off the shoes
jump on the bed
take out the book
and sink into: 

A quiet depression.

Used to be
just the sight of yellow light
in mist was poetry,
hot bread and jam,
a hiding place in a wall
behind a fern
where a single orange marble winked,
firestruck and swollen,
a candlepowered tin
floating titanic in a tub. 

Proud of the red apple cheeks
I stole from my little Bhutia friends,
proud of the Kanchenjunga
I fitted into my window,
proud of the giant night shadows
I spread across the wall,

I sit: 

Too close,
too distant
from where I began.[4]

***

[1] From Sampurna Chattarji’s Rupture [HarperCollins Publishers India, 2009]
[2] From Sampurna Chattarji’s Rupture [HarperCollins Publishers India, 2009]
[3] From Sampurna Chattarji’s Absent Muses [Poetrywala, 2010]
[4] From Sampurna Chattarji’sThe Fried Frog[Scholastic India Pvt. Ltd., first edition June 2009, reprinted September 2009]

***

Sampurna Chattarji

Sampurna Chattarji

Sampurna Chattarji is a poet, novelist and translator with twelve books to her credit. Her four poetry collections include Sight May Strike You Blind (Sahitya Akademi 2007, reprint 2008), Absent Muses (Poetrywala, 2010) and The Scorpion; her two novels are Rupture (2009) and Land of the Well (2012), both from HarperCollins. Wordygurdyboom! (Puffin, 2004, 2008) is Sampurna’s translation of Sukumar Ray’s Bengali poetry and prose; and Dirty Love (Penguin, March 2013) is her short-story collection about Bombay/Mumbai. Her latest book is her translation of Joy Goswami’s Selected Poems (HarperCollins, 2014) http://sampurnachattarji.wordpress.com/

 

 

 

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BALLADS OF THE UNQUIET RIVER VALLEY

Tanmoy Sharma 

Bhupen Hazarika’s poetic legacy bears emancipatory possibilities to imagine a democratic political struggle for the Brahmaputra valley’s very survival.

The Bard of Brahmaputra

It was the McCarthy Era of the early 1950s and the ‘Red Scare’ had reached its peak in the United States of America. In New York, a young man from Assam was attending lectures given by the blacklisted communist singer Paul Robeson. One such day, the black cult-icon brought a guitar to his classroom at the Jefferson School of Social Sciences and asked the gathering what on earth it was. The chorus rose to call it “a guitar”, “a musical instrument”, “an accompanying instrument”! Robeson uttered an emphatic ‘no’ and corrected the class saying that “a guitar is not a musical instrument, it is a social instrument. The strum of a guitar can alter the way a nation thinks!”

That very moment altered the life of Bhupen Hazarika, then a graduate student at the city’s Columbia University. He later wrote, ‘I too wanted to be a singer with the power to change society’. Back in 1939, at the tender age of 13, he had already composed a radical song with a social vision – ‘I am the spark of a flaming era, I shall restore to the deprived their dues and build a new India, I shall forge weapons from human skeletons and slaughter the oppressors’.

Growing up at Tezpur, on the north bank of the Brahmaputra, he had been deeply influenced by the aesthetic milieu of the town. It was shaped by Assam’s two foremost artistes of that era–Bishnu Rabha and Jyoti Prasad Agarwalla, self confessed ‘worshippers of beauty’.  Both of them had a keen political eye on the ongoing anti-colonial struggle and during the decades of 1930s and 1940s, they wanted to create an art renaissance in Assam, by weaving together plays, poetry, music and cinema. It was during his formative years, the Bishnu- Jyoti duo, sowed in the young Bhupen Hazarika, the seeds of a dream of creating a progressive cultural vision for the region.

To add to that, Paul Robeson’s friendship in the United States decidedly instilled in him a lifelong zeal to create ‘music for millions’. Many would like to argue that Hazarika, till the end of his life, always remained a triptych, embodying the three canvases of his mentors – Bishnu Rabha, Jyotiprasad and Paul Robeson – carrying forward each of their dreams: the quest to build Rabha’s Mukti Deol, a temple of freedom, the quest to be Jyoti’s biswa bijoyee nojowan, the young revolutionary conqueror of the world, and at the end the quest to spread Paul’s message- ‘we are in the same boat brother’!

Yet in his life’s course, Bhupen Hazarika embarked on multiple boats to traverse varying political currents. In the larger landscape, he is seen as one of the greatest cultural communicators in South Asia’s modern history, through a package of soulful ‘universalist’ songs sung in several languages, sometimes in diverse folk tunes. On the other hand, back in Assam, he came to be seen as the most important regional figure, who had reflected and in turn constituted the collective imagination of the millions of people living by the Brahmaputra River. If on the pan-Indian stage, he was seen alongside the great left-leaning cultural figures, for his home state he is seen to have signified particular meanings, throughout the entire postcolonial period.

Such particular meanings in turn owe their roots to the complex political history of Assam.  To read Bhupen Hazarika’s Assamese songs as social texts, one must locate him in the aspirations and the changing moods of the people of Assam. Perceptions of marginalization by Indian national narratives have historically formed subnationalist currents in Assam’s politics. In such a climate of mass uprisings ever since the 1960s, Hazarika’s songs wanted to pay homage to the hundreds of thousands of people who had come out to the streets.  Coming to realize the serious shortcomings of a ‘nationally’ oriented socialist politics for a complex postcolonial periphery, he decided early on, not always to travel on theoretically prescribed trajectories. Instead, Hazarika went on to invoke the mother motif for his trouble-torn land and rhetorically warned the so called advocates of a shallow cosmopolitanism – ‘Unless you wipe the tears of your mother’s eyes, your love for the world will be wasted. If you become a crippled limb in the world’s body, will the world love you for that?’

Nonetheless, enough waters have flown down the Brahmaputra! Today we are at a juncture when his ‘beautiful Assam, the land of sunrise in India’s eastern marges’, has reached an unbeautiful predicament.  The fragile ‘ethnoscape’ of ‘the land of the red river and the blue hills’, and the tales of a million mutinies should give us a new urgency to engage with Bhupen Hazarika’s legacy. The unstable peace of Assam invites us to reread the texts, and re-imagine a new cultural discourse – infused with the melodies of those old ballads – upon which the survival of this diverse river-valley rests.

I would often imagine the Brahmaputra and Bhupen Hazarika, as flipsides of the same metaphor, indistinguishable and interwoven. If the river was the silent mirror that reflected the history of the vast humanity that has inhabited this land, the bard was the voice that echoed this history. The ceaseless flow of the Brahmaputra, through the ages, had rendered the green soil of the land fertile for everyone to settle along and this in turn inspired Bhupen Hazarika to spin dreams of unity through his music. Today, when both stand the risk of being claimed by hegemonic discourses for exclusive imaginations, the challenge is to revive the multiplicities of both the bard and the Brahmaputra – the people’s singer and the people’s river.

That is because Bhupen Hazarika’s music spoke directly to the heterogeneous humanity of the Brahmaputra valley, cutting across boundaries– from the poor fisherman to the autorickshaw-puller, from the peasant in his field to the young girl weaving at the loom, from the young man in his country-boat to the ‘tribal’ old man gathering woods in the hill forests, from the mahut riding an elephant in the dense forests of Goalpara to the leaf-pickers of Assam’s countless tea gardens. In turn, as if he was speaking to the Brahmaputra itself, to ‘the ceaselessly flowing waters of the tired Luit, which turn crimson red, smearing the fancy hues of the setting sky!’ He would go on to chronicle the social history of his land through his ballads and would sing- ‘a multitude of humanity on both the banks, multitudes of histories, breathes of hopes and heart-loss down the ages!’

Even so, the river’s silent witness to the social crisis on its banks anguished Hazarika. He would protest to his beloved Luit, calling it a cold old man. Inspired by Robeson’s song ‘Ol’ Man River’, the celebrated working-class anthem of the African Americans along the Mississippi River, Hazarika wrote and sang for his own people- ‘Though you hear, the cries of despair, of the hordes who dwell on your boundless banks, oh Burha Luit, why do you roll impassively, silently on?’

The sheer frustration with the Old Man River that ‘don’t say nothing, jes’ keep rolling along’ would extend to the Ganges, to express his camaraderie with the people’s struggles across Northern India.  Indeed, to sing of the great rivers of the world, from the Mississippi to the Nile to the Volga, and the liberation of the people on their banks was Bhupen Hazarika’s passion for life and he said, ‘Each wayfarer I met made me feel at home, and that is why I remain a roving nomad’. The Ganga and the Padma, the Meghna and the Yamuna, are ‘all mother’ rivers; ‘streams of tears from the same eyes’ and ‘the sky and the wind are the same’ for all the riverine people, along the green plains of South Asia. Through such imageries of rivers merging into one common sea, he would make his deeper political point – the dream of building solidarity among the dispossessed masses by transcending the ‘shadow-lines’ that divide people and nations.

The necessity to transcend is indeed the subtle message of all of Bhupen Hazarika’s songs. However, in the bard’s world view, true transcendence is that which is not seen as a submission into some ‘other’ cultural hegemony that could erase local histories.  This was his attempt at negotiating the perturbing ‘nation- question’ for a peripheral people increasingly bordered in someone else’s idea of India. Therefore he wished to emphasize the sovereign cultural imagination of a region of the modern times and only then, could today’s ‘great regions’ come together to form ‘great nations’, that in turn a ‘great world’.

Paul Robeson

Therefore the events that had evolved out of the local populace’s worries of economic, cultural and linguistic subjugation deeply affected Bhupen Hazarika.  And he made rather forceful statements to suggest that his support for such mass movements should not be seen as an exercise in parochial provincialism –  ‘Assam too has the rights to look up to the sun and fight for its dues; By dubbing such aspirations as narcissistic, you are hiding your own evil transgressions’. For all his life, he sang, ‘To say that I love my mother, can in no way mean, I hate the other’s’.

In retrospect, it is evident that Bhupen Hazarika blended the ideals of Marxism with the perceived powers of an inclusive ‘subnationalism’, to imagine a humanist struggle that would help uplift the people of the Brahmaputra valley from their destitution and daily humiliations. However, to realize this goal, the revival of Assam’s multiculturalism and the imagination of a unified regionalism were central -‘So many nations, and subnations, with their vibrant cultures, came together and embraced, and my beloved Assam was made. If we do not forget, our divides that separate, and if do not toil, with our hands on our soil, and rebuild our land, this land will go to hell!’

His ‘Assamese’, therefore was a ‘nationality’, equally composed of every community of the region, created by a confluence of peoples. ‘Those who have come from afar and have called the land of the Luit mother are the neo-Assamese’. Even during the tumultuous Assam Movement, Bhupen Hazarika never lost sight of the real issues- that of the structural malice of the Indian nation state, that of the politico-economic discrimination towards the people of his region, on which the resolution of all other issues depended.

For that reason, rather than celebrating the consoled bourgeois- imaginations, he would sing to caution – ‘Today , I salute you all the Assamese people, new and old, and want to remind you, if Assam’s public does not wake up, ‘durbhog’ (misfortune) will grip us even during the prosperous bhogali Bihu, and the joyous heritage of Rongali Bihu too will turn into the destitution of Kongali Bihu…If today’s Assamese do not save themselves, Assam will be plunged into beggary, Being born in this world, one must be conscious, else we will lose all the rights we deserve’. Such awareness would in turn prepare all for a social resurgence to resolve the wrongs of a rather unfair history.

Assam: History’s Pandora’s Box

We have learnt from Marx, how through a cruel process of ‘primitive accumulation’, an emergent capitalist class appropriated, commodified and privatized peasant land, commons and all communal holdings; and thereby separated the very producers from their means of production. In Capital, he famously put it, ‘the history of this, their expropriation is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire.’ Any exploration of the history of Northeast India, not only validates such interpretations, but also shows how this was an ‘accumulation by dispossession’.  Examining the convergence of ‘nature and nation’, social anthropologist Bengt G. Karlsson has drawn our attention to the paradox which sums up the region’s fate-‘rich environment, poor people’!

One can argue that through an intricate concoction of ecology and economy, modern Assam was made sometime in the nineteenth century.  Historian Jayeeta Sharma has eloquently shown us how the advent of the British in 1826 changed the fate of the region permanently as the colonial state transformed a jungle-laden frontier into a cultivated system of tea plantations, making Assam an ‘Empire’s Garden’. Eating up the endless tracts of Assam’s most fertile lands, the export oriented tea enterprise, tied the region to the capitalist world market solely for the profit of the lords in London; but in return altered its social landscape completely by the induced settlement of more than one million migrants. The colonial plunder was hidden under the carpets through a wide ranging rhetoric of “improvement” and “progress” (unnati).

What progress Assam achieved is a matter of wonder! Explaining the never-ending inter-ethnic violence ever since the 1980s, political scientist Sanjib Baruah argued that this was a result of the contradictions among the many worlds created by modernity. If the textbook history teaches us about modernization as a list of good things brought about by the West such as national unity, democracy, and constitutionalism, he asks the question – ‘how would one make sense of the rest of the package that came to Assam along with modernity! For example, political conquest, tea plantations, private property, economic incorporation into larger market networks, the dispossession of peoples whose command over resources was governed by rules of precapitalist social formations, and the violent militant expeditions of the colonial modernizers against “primitives” and “savages”- that often, were methods of dispossession?’

And one of the clues to the current imbroglio of a ‘Durable Disorder’ indeed lies in the nineteenth century history, what Baruah has called the ‘clash of resource use regimes’. From the times of the Ahom state, the precolonial economy was such that most Assamese peasants did not practice settled agriculture due to the abundance of land across the vast green plains of the Brahmaputra valley. The advent of the colonial land settlement policy and the merger with the British Indian state, not only connected Assam into a global resource use regime, but also dispossessed the peasantry in more ways than one- the obvious burden of tax, but more importantly, the complete denial of access to the surrounding land, which all peasants more or less, traditionally availed, both for occasional cultivation, to collect fish, fruits and vegetables and for essential non-agricultural purposes such as collecting house building materials, raw material for basket weaving, and very crucially also to raise silkworms for the large indigenous silk industry.

Further the reckless grab of what was called Assam’s ‘wastelands’ became the goose that would forever lay golden eggs for the English tea company, but with the blood and sweat of migrant men and women from places as far as Jharkhand and Chattisgarh, who were brought a century and a half back. Unlike many a creative reflection of poets and writers, Bhupen Hazarika’s ballads do not romanticize the tea gardens as aesthetic sites of regal imagery. The Adivasis, the community of tea garden workers, despite the baggage of extreme mistreatment, have retained with them fragmented memories of distant lands long left, echoed in their rich songs and dances.

Deeply aware of their plight and history, Bhupen Hazarika becomes one of them, shares their joys and sorrows through his songs, singing in their tune the love story of Janakpur tea garden’s Janaki with Ratanpur’s Budhu. Capturing the highly gendered space of the tea-picking woman, he becomes the voice of Chameli, the young jolly girl, who has to constantly bear the brunt of the sahib’s lustful advances. Despite her love for the new land, she laments at the end-‘Oh my English Lord, why did you bring me here, deceiving all the way?’

  And if regions too, like nations are ‘imagined communities’ and are constructed through a play of myths and histories, then the ballads of his Mising Brother or the Bodo sister, the Gorkhali girl who lost her cow or the Khasi farmer playing the shorati flute , the people on the Karbi hills or the East Bengali Muslims who came to Assam dispossessed by the floods of the Padma river, carry deeper meanings, promises of the future. It is in such a ‘poetics of space’, Bhupen Hazarika’s songs unites all along the Brahmaputra valley and creates a rainbow region, with a proud cultural heritage.   

Looking back, it needs little overstressing that land and resource use are at the heart of all conflicts in Assam, the struggles over which wars were waged between the state and the society, between the ethnic groups, between one another. The colonial legacy of profit-oriented planting of people everywhere and the commodification of agriculture, in order to ‘civilize’ and ‘improvize’ the land created our modern destiny. Peoples who were at the receiving end of this, more than others, were the ‘tribes’ of Assam who had been traditionally practicing a hunting-gathering economy along with shifting cultivation. As thousands of peasants had been brought to settle in the ‘surplus lands, the local tribes of Assam began to feel left out by the new socio-economic formations.

Yet the memory of a past, a time of harmony and union, and of a peaceful cultural economy, forged by the confluence of different groups never eludes Bhupen Hazarika. Mesmerized by the spectacular beauty of the Tirap frontier of Arunachal Pradesh, the bard reminisced the precolonial times, singing – ‘In the good old days of the Ahom Swargadeo, the Noktes came down the hills, to exchange salt; such were the times, Sri Sri Ram Aata embraced the Nokte king, and christened him Narottam, nara-uttam-the best among humans, and said if humans turn human, and hug one another, no caste-creed matter!’

For a region whose cultural boundaries were always blurred, all throughout the ‘pre-modern times’, Hazarika’s songs imagine a landscape of bonhomie between the people of the green plains of the Brahmaputra valley and the eastern Himalayan hills that surround it – “The Galongs of Siang, the Khamtis of Lohit, the Wanchus of Tirap, all beckon me today; joy and ecstasy fill the gateways of Assam, as if there was a fair of love and affection!… I clasped my Monpa brother to my arms, he gave me an idol of Buddha in return, told me, the flag of age-old amity is fluttering.’

Tragically, as if the flag of age-old amity could not keep fluttering, colonial history altered it all, separating people from people with rigid administrative boundaries. Far worse, even after independence, people began to wonder whether there was indeed a separation between ‘the colonial’ and ‘the Indian national’. In curious ways, Assam’s natural resources travelled outwards, while military resources from New Delhi travelled inwards to suppress peaceful political protests. ‘The new youth’s expressions, of the yearning for their dues, cannot be rubbed out; coz the tyranny of the police cannot last long!

Yet when a supposedly liberal democracy started showing its illiberal face towards the people on the edge of the ‘nation’, politics would consequently take militant turns. Starting from the early 1980s hundreds of thousands of men and women went into agitation, who cried out- ‘Tej dim, tel nidiu’ (We will give our blood but not our oil).  Scholars pointed out that Assam had continued to exist as a ‘Colonial Hinterland’ and the fate of such continuity had resulted in an ‘India Against itself’! Many youths started writing fiery poetry, many more picked up guns, joining the secessionist United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), failing to see any promise from the Indian nation state,

And Bhupen Hazarika did sing of the fire that enveloped the red-river valley in the last three decades- ‘The Brahmaputra is aflame today, the smoke rises on the mind’s horizon, meteors circle the firmament… This fire is not of green forests, this raging fire is of enraged millions, whose piled up pains of being denied, erupts like volcanoes.’ 

Songs for the future    

Bhupen Hazarika and Jayanta Hazarika Courtesy : Ruma Baruah (via Bhupen Hazarika Foundation)

Bhupen Hazarika and Jayanta Hazarika
Courtesy : Ruma Baruah (via Bhupen Hazarika Foundation)

Recently, when I read Aruni Kashyap’s debut novel, set in a village near Mayong during the climax of tensions between the ULFA and the Indian state, I was transported back to a past, left not long back-to the first decade of my life. To grow up in the 1990s’ Assam is to virtually grow up under the shadow of the gun. Mobilizations, animated by a whole host of socio-historical factors, were crushed with brutal counter-insurgency operations by the Armed Forces, making it the bloodiest era of my state’s history. Capturing the chaos of life, death and love among a people caught in the crossfire, Kashyap’s The House with a Thousand Stories will remain an emblematic novel of the Brahmaputra valley during its recent turmoil.

We need such stories, to remind us that we do not want to go back to those days. Those were the days when the coercive state apparatus showed the extent to which it could go.  How massively, everyday lives were affected in such climates of fear- the fear of the sound of Army boots in villages, the fear of strange knocks at the door at midnight,  the fear of sudden disappearance of family members- still haunt many. Of late, one had been optimistically hoping that Assam was about to arrive at a post-conflict era, having moved on, from a haunted past.  That is because the separatist insurgencies are somewhat on the back foot today.

Yet our hopes of peace were once again put to the test when the devastating violence broke out in the summer of 2012 between the Bodos and the Muslims of East Bengali descent in western Assam. The violence killed many, burnt hundreds of houses and displaced hundreds of thousands of people, permanently changing the lives of countless dwellers on both the banks of the river.

As a matter of fact, the experiences from identity – driven mobilizations based on notions of exclusive ethnic homelands, have taught us that such projects often end up empowering only a few, disempowering the majority and in turn create their own vicious cricles of further exclusion. However complex historical circumstances had failed the projects of creating an inclusive regional imagination.  All the more, the modernist idiom that tends to circumscribe the ambit of a language to the ambit of one particular community, led bourgeois-sectarian elements to ‘ethnicize’ the Assamese, along with other groups.

The ballads of Bhupen Hazarika always reminded us of the dangers of such circumscriptions, for a land, a language and a community, are composite creations. And ‘Through the ages, without knowing each other’s tongue, men have come towards men, since the language of love has no script, so easy to read, just with will.’ What other than the red river bears its majestic proof – ‘The mighty Brahmaputra, holy site of great synthesis, for untold centuries has been conveying, the message of unity and harmony!’

If love is to be used as a political concept for collective becoming, as philosopher Michael Hardt proposes, Bhupen Hazarika was definitely a true champion of the politics of love. For it is love that can effect a complete transformation  increasing the joys of the social life; and Hazarika’s numerous songs are not only poems of love at the level of the couple, but are radical texts of romantic social possibilities –  ‘If man is indifferent to man, shows no compassion, who else will think of humanity?’

At a time when we are confronted with the ardent necessity of reconciliation, mutual apologies and looking beyond past wrongs, what better way is to walk to the future than to live by the cultural imaginations of the bard who had created for us a montage of a past, sketching the snippets of assimilation in this land, stretching back to ages.  Indeed, how crucial it is to envisage a humanist discourse for the valley, breaking all the binaries of the ‘insider-outsider’, since all who have come to live along the great river have called this land their home- ‘From a thousand plateaus, from a thousand plains, and from a hundred streams, we flow down to, merge into the great Luit!’

Such synthesis is indeed the call of the day in this ‘holy site’ along the Brahmaputra. It is only through harmony and trust, the larger structural issues that fuelled militant movements of the last decades can be resolved. These issues, that are multiplying every day, have to be resolved for a peaceful future. Today, the threats of pan-Indian religious-nationalist currents loom large, which can cripple the century-old multi-cultural social landscape of Assam.  What’s more, the neoliberal aggressions of the large-scale hydro-power adventures in the river’s upstream may jeopardize, not only the future of its flow, but also the livelihoods of millions, who have built a riverine civilization, with their hard toil on the soil.

The local peasants who are already broken down by increasing landlessness have been further dispossessed by the woes of river-borne erosion, recurring floods, drying up of many a tributary and droughts. The new movements that have arisen today for the rights of the vast riverine peasantry of Assam should certainly take inspiration from the songs Bhupen Hazarika sang, the songs that carried the agony of the millions of toiling masses, upon whose everyday struggle an unequal society was surviving-‘Along the zigzag paths, we trudge and carry the dola, the palanquin of the lords…  But if it slips from our soldiers, it will tumble down, the dola of the grandees, the dola of the great kings!’  Against such indifference of the ‘grandees’, the revolutionary voice of the bard cried out – ‘Let me be a smoldering fire, on a cold wintry night, warming the tumble down cottage of some poor, unclad peasant’ .

Indeed, Bhupen Hazarika’s poetic legacy bears emancipatory possibilities to imagine a democratic political struggle for the Brahmaputra valley’s very survival. Around six decades back, at the founding moment of Assam’s first university in Guwahati, the bard sang, ‘Shattering the barriers of darkness, there flows a stream of light through Pragjyotisha (the ancient name of Assam), radiance from hundreds of earthen lamps, sparking a festival of knowledge, will illuminate the banks of the Luit!’. Such a dream of radiance illuminating the banks of the river remains unfulfilled even today. With new plunder coming our way, the conversations of the valley, therefore must not forget the songs long sung- ‘Assam is a great organ of the great India; but all neglect must be resisted; the greedy neo-imperialists have exploited us, but thousands wake up today, the courageous chants of the exploited, would crush the exploiters.’

In a region where natural resources are rich, but human resources are poor; the new political discourse of Assam would do well to take an environmental turn that can create a new reference for a collective peoplehood. Coz, the monsters of the proposed mega dams pose before us the anxieties of a mega catastrophe on all scales- seismic, economic and ecological. They stand to wipe out the very culture of cultivation along the Brahmaputra. Far from being the multipurpose projects that benefit the entire river valley, these hydro-dams are machines that seek to convert rivers into dollars. Like all peripheries in a capitalist world system, the region’s rivers would light the outside world, with the powers generated and driven out through the grids, leaving itself in darkness.

In fact, the times are such that the new market logics tempt societies to turn both the river and the singer into mere icons that can be appropriated. Against such times, both the bard’s verses and the Brahmaputra’s waters must be made to flow on, without being commodified. The creative forces of the ‘multitude’ must shape creative politics for the future; and for that matter, the strum of a guitar shall reproduce the rhythms of the powerful ballads, ever always relevant- ‘struggle is another name of existence, and history sings the victory of mass resistance!’

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Tanmoy SharmaTanmoy Sharma grew up in Guwahati and studied physics for his bachelor’s degree at the Delhi University. He is presently a graduate student of sociology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. His essays have previously appeared in Open Democracy (UK), Open Magazine, Kafila, The Assam Tribune and The Sentinel.

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