A translation of Dhurbajyoti Borah’s Kalantarar trilogy brings to life a contemporary classic set in the strife-torn Northeast of the Nineties

Translated into English by the Sahitya Akademi Award-winning author himself, Elegy for the East is a critique of a disruptive political system and the inertia of the middle class in addressing the schisms

Dhrubajyoti Borah’s Kalantarar trilogy is an unforgettable book for readers in Assam. And so, the translation of its first book can offer some new insights and critical possibilities, which otherwise might not be known to those who haven’t read the Assamese original. First published in 1997, Borah’s trilogy (of which the second is Tejor Andhar [Darkness of Blood] and the third Arth [Meaning]) is a realisation of the many perils and paradoxes of freedom. His characters seek freedom, both deeper and internal, and their shattered hopes of rebellion add to the overall melancholic tone of the book. A prolific Assamese writer for over three decades, Borah was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2009 for his novel, Katha Ratnakar.

Set in the Nineties, when militancy in Assam was at its peak, in Elegy for the East, we have Prabhat, a college student caught in a police interrogation about insurgents; journalist Partha is constantly trying to assess his feelings for the ideologies of the rebel outfits in the region and rebel movements across the world. We also have Ron, the camp commander of a militant outfit, who blindly follows the ideals of Che Guevara and thinks alienation from the public at large is, at times, necessary to bring about the desired revolution. His sister Bokul comes as a contrast – though not elaborated in detail, she believes in liberal humanism, something which the men are amused by.

An important book in this conversation is Uddipan Dutta’s Creating Robin Hoods: The Insurgency of ULFA in Its Early Period, Its Parallel Administration and the Role of Assamese Vernacular Press (1985-1990) (2009), which traces how the image, metaphor and the actual “Robin Hoods” of the state led the region into perilous territory. Radical youth leaders – such as Ron and his mentor Bharat Hazarika in Borah’s books – were identified metaphorically with the legendary outlaw Robin Hood, whose tales dominate British folklore.

Amit Baishya in his book Contemporary literature from Northeast India: Deathworlds, terror and survival (2018) calls Kalantarar Gadya a polyphonic novel where the ordinary citizen is gripped by the fear of state terror and “banal bureaucratic rituals”. These narratives of precarity often lead us to the haunted, which is represented by the character Babula in the novel – a spectre who wears a “tattered army shirt and carries a bunch of fishing rods.” Tortured and killed by the army after being picked up for interrogation, Babula or Babula benga (mute) now roams around “the hollongs wrapped by wild creepers, thorny thickets of cane and the stinging nettle bushes,” Borah writes. The novel’s depiction of natural imagery coalesces with the psyche of those suffering. It gives an accurate glimpse of the sheer terror that gripped commoners as rebel outfits justified “necessary deaths”.

While armed torture, military surveillance and the question of loyalty to those in power come alive in the story, it also brings to light the sexual abuse and marginalisation suffered by widows like Sombori, who is raped by a marauding soldier. The villagers urge her to atone in order to be accepted again into the fold – this does little justice to her mental state.

This aptly critiques the inertia of the Assamese middle class to overthrow oppressive structures and to comply with authorities in their bid to lead a hassle-free life. It is essential to narrate these stories not just because of the way militancy has subdued them, but how social and political forces lead the youth down a path that is beyond redemption. The universal appeal of the novel lies in the ways in which it is able to discuss the gaps between ideologies and their practice in real-life scenarios, in completely diverse contexts. Why else would a hero from the Bolivian forests inspire local boys in Assam and the northeastern region to revolutions?

While the translation, done by Borah himself, gets the message across, perhaps, it would have benefitted if the flow had been uninterrupted by explanations in brackets for phrases such as “my heart is like the leaves of jetuka (henna leaves)” or words like saunf (anise), dada (elder brother), borkahi (large brass plate), dheki (husking treadle), and so on. Maybe, in the upcoming translations of the sequels, there will be better cohesion in this regard.

Rini Barman is an independent writer and researcher based in Assam.

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