Book Review: An Assembly of Assamese Greats

When one writes a novel or a short story – or translates one – there is always an audience one is writing for; translating for. Sometimes this audience is actively sought, sometimes it is implied. And sometimes, a writer may even ostensibly aim to neither reach nor please one. The Greatest Assamese Stories Ever Told, selected and edited by Mitra Phukan is a compilation of 25 stories written in Assamese by some of the best-known names of literature such as Lakhminath Bezbaroa, Syed Abdul Malik, Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya, Mamoni Raisom Goswami, Harekrishna Deka and more contemporary writers such Arupa Patangia Kalita and Anuradha Sarma Pujari among others.

I don’t know if Mitra Phukan or the publishing house had a specific readership in mind. But for somebody like me, who is Assamese, can read and write the language thanks to a parent who insisted on writing letters to her daughter in boarding school only in Assamese, and who was always a book nerd but read only in English – this collection is perfect.

The Greatest Assamese Stories Ever Told
Selected and edited by Mitra Phukan
Aleph Book Company (December 2021)

There are a host of reasons why an otherwise voracious reader found reading Assamese tedious, akin to a task; but as one grows older, especially staying away from home, there is a keen and sincere desire to know about the literature of my land. Perhaps this is owing to nostalgia, maybe this a reflection of my need for “imaginary homelands”, maybe it is because that literature is now accessible to me in a way that it never was when I was growing up.

Whatever it might be, I am grateful for this collection and am sure others would be too. It is a phenomenal assembly of stories that are unbelievably progressive, unflinchingly political, richly diverse and beautifully translated.

Subjective inclusivity

Literature available in translation is close to my heart. It is thanks to translation that most of the vast and varied and immensely powerful regional literature of India is available to most of us. What I look forward to when reading any work of translation is the translator’s foreword or introduction. Sometimes, it disappoints.

But that does not happen in this book as the editor laboriously details some of the translation strategies used while putting this collection together. As a result, the translation is surprisingly uniform – which is remarkable given the fact these stories have been translated by a slew of translators.

Does it mean that some of the characteristics peculiar to a writer get lost in translation? One would have to do a thorough comparative study to arrive at that conclusion. Any collection necessarily follows a process of inclusion and exclusion, an inevitable subjectivity in doing so. But the introduction generously elucidates the principles guiding the inclusion and exclusion of choosing certain writers, the choice of particular stories of particular writers, elaborates on an understanding of the genre of short-stories that impinged upon the selection process, and so on.

The stories themselves dazzle you right from the beginning with the audacity of the radicalness of the writers. “Patmugi” authored by Lakminath Bezbaroa (1864-1938) is almost post-modernistic in its self-reflexive drawing of attention to the constructedness of any writing.  This modernity is reflected not just in the exploration of a woman’s sexuality but also the still tabooed possibilities of a relationship forged between a young woman and a much older man.

“Aghoni Bai” authored by Birinchi Kumar Barua tells the story of a woman marginalised on several accounts. The narrative brilliance of the story lies in how the readers are almost beguiled into mocking the protagonist only to have themselves implicated by their propensity to dish out hasty judgements when further illuminating details about the woman are revealed.

Feminist. Liberal. Humanist.

Many other stories in this collection, such as ‘Values” by Mamoni Raisom Goswami and a more contemporary one by Anuradha Sarma Pujari, are not only feminist, but surprise the reader with their intersectionality that show how gender issues are impinged upon by those of class, caste, religion and; increasingly so, by violence and insurgency that Assam has long suffered from. What is also outstanding about this collection is the brave political tenor and subject matter of several stories. Syed Abdul Malik’s “Mistaken Identity” and Mahim Bora’s “Kathonibari Ghat” both allude to the growing communalism in newly-independent India, especially under the shadow of the violence of Partition.

I was especially struck by the depth of Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya’s story “Miyah Mansur”, which unfolds in the context of the exodus triggered by the Partition, but even more so by an almost Marxist preoccupation with the production of a literary text and, the chasm that lies between the value such a text, or its author, is imbued with, as opposed to that of the labour, say of those who work towards manufacturing the paper it is printed on.

Most of the stories draw you into a familiar world, the characters are people we meet in our everyday lives, and yet much of the drama is brought about by the extraordinariness of these lives – their pain, their everyday struggles, their unexpressed desires… that sometimes explode dramatically, but mostly, quietly – sometimes surprising, sometimes overwhelming, and sometimes just stunning you into silence.

Shibani Phukan teaches literature at a Delhi University college.

Featured image: David Nath/Unsplash