City as Setting: Reflections of the Changing faces of Guwahati in Assamese Literature
Abstract: The study proposes to be a personal/personalised look at Guwahati which has evolved in the last few years from a sedate, laid-back city to a fast-paced, upmarket metro. The pace at and the time span in which this has happened seem to have put everybody, especially its inhabitants off gear. Through the analysis of a few literary representations of Guwahati, I intend to look at sociological changes both in the city and in the city as a setting and to relate them with contemporaneous realities. Beginning with questioning my own imagination of my home, the study will also qualify the imagination of the city by the authors under consideration. The paucity of literature setting Guwahati in the centre stage will also be an ancillary matter of enquiry.
Bio: Uddipana Goswami is a PhD fellow at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (CSSSCAL). Her focus area is indigenous-settler conflicts in Northeast India. She has done a study for the Centre for Northeast india, South and Southeast Asia Studies (CENISEAS), Guwahati, on the politics of assimilation with relation to the immigrant Muslims of East Bengali origin in Assam. Uddipana has also done a case study for the University of Zurich on settler-indigenous conflicts in Western Assam. She has a Masters in English from Delhi University and has worked with a number of major media houses, like India Today and National Geographic Channel (India), before turning to research. She contributes occasional articles to Assamese dailies on nationalism, assimilation and ethnicity. She is also a translator and creative writer.
with apologies for late posting…
CITY AS SETTING: REFLECTIONS OF THE CHANGING FACES OF GUWAHATI IN AXAMIYA LITERATURE
In a way, this project of mine had begun way back in 2000 when I was working with tehelka.com as a trainee journalist and the editor of the lifestyle channel on the site, had asked me to write a piece for her on Guwahati which I always touted as a better place to live in than Delhi.
The editor loved the piece I wrote but I couldn’t figure out why because to me it only revealed my ignorance. I had been thinking of sitting down somebody and taking myself to task over it and learning more about the city I loved to call home. If it hadn’t been for this fellowship, I don’t know when I would have found the required time, motivation and money to do it. For starters therefore, I think I should post a copy of the piece on Guwahati that I had written in 2000. It is from here my journey of rediscovery begins.
Taking an ecumenical approach, my subsequent postings shall traverse genres of creative writing, autobiography, literary criticism, sociological research, oral history and journalism, all aimed at studying Guwahati as reflected in literature, and linking such literary reflections with contemporaneous socio-politics. But to begin with, a monologue…
Saturday, January 14, 2006
GUWAHATIS OF THE MIND
We had to break up Guwahati as guwa jug hati guwahati, ie., guwa+hati=guwahati; guwa mane tamol, hati mane bazaar. If guwa means areca and hati means haat or market and the two together make Guwahati – as we were taught in Axamiya grammar classes–I could not understand why the city-streets weren’t lined with tamol haats, why we had to get our periodic supply of tamol–that endemic Axamiya addiction–from the village every time we went there.
“The tamol haats gave the city its name. There must have been such haats in the days of the Ahoms”, my mother explained. Names, it seemed to me, do not rue the loss of roots. Well, I’m not just a name and I do rue the loss of my roots. And my roots lie in Guwahati.
Now that I’m away from Guwahati, and so far away, I feel I never knew enough about my city, not as much as I should have anyway. I do know the origin of its name– and I have already flaunted the fact; I do know about the most beautiful places in the city–I happened to live in one of them; I also know the people — there everybody knows everybody else. But all of this was not due to any extra effort on my part. It all just came to me; it was part of my life there.
As opposed to the list of things I know, the inventory of all that I don’t know is colossal: it will probably run the length and breadth of the Xaraighat bridge. Lachit Borphukan who still stands guard near the bridge at the city entrance hadn’t saved the city from the invading Mughals to pass it on to ignoramuses like me.
Our house was on a hill. We could see the whole of Guwahati from the terrace–the Narakaxur and Kalapahar hills in front and the Nilachal hills with the Kamakhya temple towards the left. And behind flowed the Brahmaputra.
A string of hills one after the other stretched from our own Chintachal — Nabagraha (where the ancient temple dedicated to the nine planets still stands), Kharghuli (where the Raj Bhavan stands on the river-front) …
I saw the entire city from where I stood. I saw the Nehru Stadium and heard the cries of a wild audience at the India-South Africa cricket match. I saw the Guwahati Club flyover and heard the trains passing under it. Further right, I saw the TV tower on the Narakaxur hill with the Guwahati Medical College right next to it. The last time I was there, I’d clicked pictures of a lustreless sunset from the balcony of my sister’s hostel room.
From here, the sun looked different–against the backdrop of the Brahmaputra, it looked like Kamakhya’s xendurar phut–vermilion mark on her forehead. It is as red as the Devi’s menstrual blood that the pandas at the temple wash their hands with every ambubaxi.
At night, one couldn’t make out where the stars ended and the city lights began. The blue hills turn black, the Brahmaputra becomes a grey sky, and stars twinkle everywhere.
It was poetry of a different kind on our house on the hill and it was lost once we shifted to ‘the plains’. I became really and truly a part of the city for the first time. And once face to face with the real Guwahati, poetry failed to find metaphors.
What was Guwahati? It used to be Pragjyotishpur once upon a time and I could imagine my city as the light of the east when I saw it from our house on the hill. I couldn’t relate that Guwahati with the Guwahati I found myself in now.
The city I saw now was like any other city–dirty, unplanned, congested, polluted, ever-expanding. The beauty that I had so far seen in everything turned out to be merely the construct of my naïve, poetic (if you could call it that) escapism–because I didn’t want to see what lay beyond the bright lights, starry or otherwise, I hadn’t realised there were dark, unlit streets in my city as in others. Because I had not wanted to know what happened to people when there were the rains I revelled in, I hadn’t seen the water-logged streets of Guwahati: on a rainy day, I was safe on my perch; any commerce with the world below could be postponed to a sunny day. The black-out calls by this or that organization in protest against this or that atrocity, imagined or otherwise, gave me a chance to view a dark and mysterious Guwahati whose secrets–I fancied–only I knew. It was only in the next day’s papers that I would read what violence the same darkness had veiled from me and wreaked on others in its midst.
Thus, I was an insider-outsider. A part and apart. I was in Guwahati but in a Guwahati that did not exist outside my imagination. I had created a new Guwahati, a Guwahati nobody else knew. Conversely, I knew very little about the real Guwahati, or other people’s Guwahatis.
It was in Delhi, a place I’d hate to call home, that I realized the need to know about my real home. After all, if you need to explain your hatred for a certain place, you have also to have enough knowledge about the place you love in order to defend your love for it and contrast it with what you hate. And my knowledge of Guwahati, as I’ve unabashedly admitted, is pathetic. I’ve set out to learn now. And once I do, perhaps I shall be able to write about other Guwahatis–more real Guwahatis possibly–other constructs of Guwahati, bridges with the Guwahati which is my mind’s own place.
Here’s the dual face of the Guwahati mentality that I tried to explore:
Taking the Other Route
Adda: rendezvous; meeting place
I stood where the Rajgarh Road ended, just beyond the railway crossing and watched Moni Bhattacharjee stripping down to his skin. The occasion: a 3 hour-long film festival being held there in a makeshift open-air theatre. It was organised by a group of young people wanting an audience to showcase their work. The setting: incongruous in the extreme. There was the railway track at the back, noisy cycle and auto rickshaws in front and in between, an audience thousand or more in number. Over it all, was the larger than life image of Moni suffering the ennui of life in silence. The film: Wind of Change by Rajiv Borthakur. It is a depiction of life fragmented in today’s topsy-turvy times, and of the mundane activities of life: waking, sleeping, walking, waiting, dressing, undressing…
To my surprise, I noticed that none among the audience shuffled uncomfortably in their seats or coughed discreetly or made catcalls either as they watched Moni undress. I felt then that it had been wrong of me to attribute puritanism as endemic to the Guwahati psyche. But then, I had drawn my inference from events like vandalisation of fashion shows in the name of cultural preservation, and from the lived experience of my neighbour Mrs. K complaining to my mother that I, as a girl, should not return home very late every day. I just had to thank the young people from one of the various addas of Guwahati for acquainting me with this other face of the city.
Guwahati is where the capital of Assam, one of the seven states (federating units) of the Northeast frontier of India, is located. It used to be a sleepy town till the acceleration of commercial development reached such a pitch in the last decade or less that it lost its balance – it remains, as in the peoples’ attitudes, a small town; outwardly however, it can compete with any third world metropolis today.
And like any growing city, it attracts a large number of people who come here looking for livelihood avenues.
Most of the members of the adda Moni frequents are not from Guwahati. They came to the city from different parts of Assam to pursue their respective professions – mostly connected to the film industry. While some of them have been in the industry close to ten years, some are relatively newcomers. But everybody shares a common passion – cinema. It was this passion that dominated most of their daily conversations and culminated in the film festival where the Wind of Change had been screened. The adda members called it the Addabazor Suti Sobi Prodorxon: Screening of Short Films by the Addabaz (adda lovers).
The adda culture is nothing new to the Guwahati scene. An informal get together of like-minded individuals, addas have a dichotomous nature and are viewed with wide ambivalence. On the one hand are some addas outside pan shops, under roadside trees and in hip and happening food joints, where the members meet regularly to play cards or carom and to gossip. These regular hangouts are mostly identified with loafers and the general inclination is to equate adda with decadence. On the other hand are the addas of poets and writers, or professionals and workers, also maybe on roadsides, or in coffee shops, tea stalls and other eating joints or perhaps at a member’s house. These addas are looked at with much awe as the spawning ground of brilliant ideas and intellectual innovations.
The older generation of Guwahatians met at Panbazar, the book land of Guwahati – also considered the intellectual hub of the city. Addas still happen here, some of them having survived decades. But today’s young and happening destination is Rajgarh, opposite the Guwahati Commerce College, where one can see different kinds of addabaz. One of these kinds represents the flashy and consumerist pop-culture of Guwahati, which has placed the city among the topmost in the purchasing power index of the country. Rich kids with big cars and ‘modified’ bikes may be seen parked outside fashionable eating joints, enjoying their money power. Close to them however, might be another adda where a group of people would be equally enjoying themselves talking about art, literature, world affairs, family gossip, and what have you.
The adda which Moni and Rajiv and a number of their friends frequent also meets at the Rajgarh Link Road. This particular adda had its genesis with its members meeting between long working hours in the nearby editing studios. They would get together to smoke or chew tamul (betel nut) or sip tea and to have some conversation. Gradually a fraternity developed with the realisation of their common passion. Numbers swelled. The adda became their permanent address. So much so that anybody looking for young people associated with the industry would either meet them at the adda or in the event of their absence, leave a message, delivery ensured.
The idea of organising a short film festival came up in the course of regular adda discussions. Notwithstanding what was portrayed in the introductory film of the festival, Moments (of Adda), these young people met not merely to talk into their cell phones and drink tea with cigarettes dangling from their fingers. That was part of it. But they also had moments of intellectual introspection and times when they constructively contemplated on their shared desire to ‘do something different’. The idea took a few months to grow roots. Then, Amar Gogoi, one of the earliest adda members, took it upon himself to push the project through. Owing mainly to his enterprise, the adda members and their friends put together their films, publicised the event, pooled the required funds and set up the modest infrastructure for the screening within just a month.
The leitmotif of the festival was freedom – of expression, of participation, of appreciation. The idea of freedom was inherent in the choice of setting: the open-air theatre in the street. The entire process by which the festival was put together also spoke of the same idea of unrestraint. None of the 32 films submitted for screening were rejected. Any subject matter was allowed – the painfully moralising Values and Vision was screened as was the intensely erudite Las Vegasot. No limit was set on the length of the film or the age of the maker. Thirteen year old Raeesha Tanvir Altaf, for instance, showcased her film Khakuar Paro Sorai. Neither was experience a precondition: from a veteran like Altaf Majid to an amateur like Abinash Lahkar, everybody was provided a platform. And finally, nobody was barred from viewing the films or from airing their views about the films.
Those who did air their views though, chose to talk not so much about the individual films as about the entire event. For them the remarkable fact was the ‘something different’ that the festival signified, and the intellectual labour and out-of-the-box thinking that went into making it a reality. The genre of the short film also provided novelty. Larger significance to the phenomenon came from the realisation that it was all done by a group of talented but cash strapped young people without any institutional support. It was the sole urge to ‘do something’ that had made them put together an innovative film festival in such a short time and with funds less than INR 10,000 (USD 217 approx) – most of it contributed by the members of the group.
As it happened though, the films showed a poor understanding of the short film genre. In fact, technical, grammatical and dramatical shortcomings in most of the films were quite conspicuous. Most of the filmmakers suffered from poor execution of ideas and inability to translate individual visions into moving communicating pictures. Language barriers also often proved insurmountable. Where amateurs were making the films this is perhaps understandable, but quite a few of the adda members are professionals. Paucity of time has been cited as one cause of all shortcomings. But one of the possible reasons could have been that everybody tried to do everything. An editor trying his hand at direction or an actor or a director turning scriptwriter may not have been the best use of their respective specialisations. What if they had pooled their expertise and come up with one extraordinary flim? A different experience would then have awaited the Guwahatians.
The adda film festival was one burst of enthusiasm, a sustained effort of a month, and a temporary shedding of the characteristic Assamese attitude of lahe lahe (sloth in equivalent terms) by a group of young people and it exposed an entire city to the possibility of alternatives to established institutions, avenues and perspectives. It also made people realise they had an aptitude for such alternatives. There’s hope for the city yet. But what about Mrs. K?
Translating Guwahati Here’s a short story I translated that very effectively captures the moment of transition of the Guwahati that I loved to the Guwahati that I abhor. Reflections on this transition to follow soon.
Saturday, February 18, 2006
A short story by Silabhadra
Translated by Uddipana Goswami
This is a short story I translated that very effectively captures the moment of transition of the Guwahati that I loved to the Guwahati that I abhor. Reflections on this transition to follow soon.
Suddenly, Sushil Duara stopped in his tracks. How can they be laughing in such a carefree manner? A group of young men. Looks like they work in the office nearby; they must have come out together. They are walking this short distance together; once on the main road, they will board a bus, get on to a rickshaw, or if it is not too far away, they will walk it home. It must have been something really funny that had made them laugh so much.
How can they be laughing? They are well-dressed and work in offices. They are educated, so they cannot but be aware of the prevalent situation in the country. Then? Nero played the fiddle while Rome burnt. What use singling Nero out? What are these people doing? Some of them will be boarding the bus at the bus-stop. There could be a bomb-blast that could severe somebody’s leg. And this is not in the realm of fantasy; it is almost an everyday real-life incidence. Despite being aware of these possibilities, how could they be laughing? Sushil Duara stood rooted to where he was in the middle of the road, staring at the young men, utterly baffled.
“What has happened to you?”
Sushil Duara is irked by his wife’s question.
“What is there to happen? Nothing.”
“Well then, get up. Go to that room.”
“I have to clean the cobwebs. Don’t you see what state this room is in?”
Amazing! While the country is in such a desperate state, all she is concerned with is cleaning cobwebs. It was today’s newspaper that carried the news: 10 killed, 90 injured seriously in bomb-blast at New Delhi bus-stand. Her elder sister’s son lives in Delhi. She has taken it for granted that he is safe, but something might as well have happened to him. Waiting for a bus at the bus-stand is not an improbability. Sushil Duara’s wife is not illiterate; she too has read the papers.
The nerves remain strained twenty four hours a day. There is always an agitation, endless tension. What if there is no water supply for three days on end? How will so many people bathe, what will they drink? What if there is no power? What if the gas is exhausted before the new cylinder is delivered? There is no saying when you will get one. How does one cook then? These are not mere possibilities, they happen in real life.
All bonds have grown loose and unsteady. One cannot say when they will actually collapse. And why not? In the present state of affairs that is just what one can expect. These anxieties are always there. Over and above that, if any member of the family leaves home to go somewhere, there is always that same uneasiness. If you could at least return home alive, even with an injury, consider yourself fortunate. Who knows what could happen and when? You do not know where there will be a bomb blast or when a minibus will run you over. Such incidents occur almost daily. Wasn’t Mahanta killed by a truck the other day when he was on that rickshaw with his grandson? The grandson was thrown off and was somehow saved. What precautions can one take? They will chase you and run you over even on the footpath.
And then, on the one hand there is the dance of death orchestrated by the terrorists, on the other, the brutal atrocities of the armed security forces. You cannot stay detached from these even if you wanted to. Sushil Duara’s elder brother is a Congress worker. He has been a Congressman since the days before India’s independence. A good man and devout worker, he has never tried to avail of any political privilege. Everyone in the village respected him. But so what? Was not Manabendra Sarma shot down? And everybody says he was a good man. Sushil Duara always remains apprehensive; anytime now, the news of his brother’s death might reach him. Let him die if he has to because he is quite old now, it will not be a matter of much bereavement. The only relief for Duara will be if he does not die a violent death.
Now Sushil Duara firmly believes that one of his nephews has links with the terrorists. A good boy, quite intelligent. Being the first son born to the brothers, he was everybody’s pet. However, once he fell into their hands, the security forces would not lavish love on him. Nah! Cannot think of such things anymore. Impossible, unbearable. What days, what circumstances!
Thinking of the country makes your head reel. You shiver in terror seeing what you do of the political leaders. These are the very people who have been governing the country and will continue governing it. Imprudent, self-centred Liliputs! How can they afford the time to think about the country? They are ready to destroy not only their parties but also their own country for the sake of the gaddi. Not one of them has a modicum of morality. Sky high avarice, lust for power, for affluence. Otherwise, how could Chautala be unanimously elected leader of the party?
What is the use of talking about Chautala alone? The more corrupt a political leader is, greater is the number of his supporters. Political Science has today become a full-fledged criminal science. Murderers, rapists, have a field day now. And politics now informs every aspect of national life. Even art and culture are today under the control of these politicians. If you can keep the right connections, you are a famous musician, a reputed artist; if not, your talent remains unheeded. Being cheated over and over again, Sushil Duara has lost the stamina to keep alive his slight hopes. Maybe this one will be able to do something. Fruitless hope, illusory belief.
Death of your son, gruesome death of your kin, all these are normal occurrences. There is no guarantee that anyone leaving home will return. Explosions in the bus-stand, explosions at the market place. You have to wait at the bus-stand, you have to go to the market. Even at home, there is no escape. You have to accept these as normal occurrences.
Then would we not have to re-assess our feelings, our emotions? A new species of people will have to evolve; a people who know not how to weep even at the death of their loved ones. What kind of people will these be? People or robots?
No one knew exactly why Sushil Duara suddenly went mad. He was a good man, an accomplished man. What happened all of a sudden? Was there anything like this in his family?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Silabhadra is a Sahitya Akademi award winning writer from Axam. This story is taken from the anthology Madhupur Bahudur (Madhupur is Far Away) (1992: Barua Book Agency, Guwahati). It was for this book that he won the Sahitya Akademi in 1994. Interestingly, Silabhadra took up creative writing only after his retirement. He used to teach mathematics earlier.
For those who have read the translated short story i posted a few days back – here’s a follow up: http://my-guwahati.blogspot.com/2006/02/when-city-lost-its-soul-average-urban.html
Wednesday, February 22, 2006
WHEN A CITY LOST ITS SOUL
The average urban middle class individual that gave Guwahati much of its character is fast vanishing, whether for good or for bad one has no answer.
Look at Sushil Duara – a very sensitive individual. He felt in his pulses the angst of a city in the throes of violence, corruption, of near breakdown, and anarchy. This was 1992, a significant year in the period when a complete turnaround was being effected in the Guwahati psyche.
Duara was not alone. I could observe, in small measures, a Sushil Duara in everybody in the family and friend circles that I met. Goes without saying I belong to Guwahati’s urban middle class myself. I saw everybody talking about the state of the country, and I heard everybody blaming the government, the politicians, the insurgents and their neighbours for it. Nobody thought they themselves mattered enough to cause anything good or bad in the society. Much like Sushil Duara.
And everybody was tensed, afraid, suspicious.
I was in school, a student of class eight, and I fancied myself a revolutionary. I had had an overdose of political literature – I remember reading nihilistic philosophy behind my social studies textbook in the backbenches. I wrote insurgent poetry on the sly and a small coterie of friends read and admired them. And we all read poet-revolutionaries and dreamed of overturning the establishment.
Revolution abandoned me when school authorities threatened to report to my parents about my annunciation of insurgency. By then, the unreserved support that ‘our boys’ in the ‘xangathan’ (organization) leading the ‘revolution’ had been receiving from all strata of the Axamiya society had begun to dissolve in the face of a highly successful counter-insurgency strategy robbing the insurgents of their biggest strength – their mass support. And especially in the urban centers, the middle classes were persuaded to shed their emotive response to the movement. It seemed too uphill a task to me to try and persuade my parents against the flow – so I joined the flow and left for Delhi.
Scholarship in the time of insurgency did not seem feasible, so I came to a place where everybody from Assam was branded, in the popular imagination, a ‘terrorist’. Silabhadra’s story also uses this term and it made me wonder about the complete turnaround in public opinion and of the resultant literary reflection of a band of boys who had begun a fight for self-determination as ‘terrorists’. What do you call them really? To urban middle class people like my parents and the author, for whom security of life and property is the be-all and end-all, anything that threatens to destabilize their carefully organized lives seems terrifying. Be it insurgents who make political statements through bomb and bullets or the state’s armed forces stationed in the pavements outside their houses, leering at their girls (they read almost daily reports of rapes by the army in villages thought to be insurgent hideouts) or slapping their boys just because they were walking by (we laugh at our cousin now but he still can’t understand why the Black Panther slapped him that day so many years ago in Panbazar).
I have seen my Ma do a Sushil Duara many times when any of us were even a few minutes later than our usual time. The fear was real, palpable.
Guwahati got over it quite fast though. There is just too much money and too many opportunities for Guwahatians to have any reason to complain against the state. The city figures prominently in some of the indices listing highest purchasing powers in the country. Certain places in the city are being developed so that those habituated to places like Delhi or Mumbai or Bangalore might not remember where they are. The crowd at Café Coffee Day on the GS Road, for instance, exudes an air of comfort – they finally feel at home in Guwahati, in interiors that make them forget about the reality outside.
The addas (meeting points) at Panbazaar, Uzanbazaar, and all those places where poets, actors, artists, students or professionals gathered and talked about things other than the latest consumer good they had acquired, have lost much of their vigour. Quite like the Neros of Sushil Duara’s making, most of the younger generation is oblivious to the fires burning today; they are too busy fiddling alien tunes composed for them by unsuspected musicians. And yet, somebody’s dying, somebody’s killing. Nobody seems to care much. Guwahati is on a different road altogether. And these roads are narrow, cluttered with too many cars, emitting too much smoke, its sensibilities fogged over. It is a city enveloped in smog all right.
posted by Uddipana Goswami at 3:28 AM
I’ve been following your posts. Makes for some interesting reading. I will be linking you. 🙂
That was really interesting.For your research you can look for Anuj Barua’s novel called ‘Maharathi’ serialised in Prantik and also the first issue (perhaps)of the magazine called ‘Katha Guwahati’.Even the young poet Himanshu Prasad Das has represented the city to some extent in his poems with love as the backdrop.
That was really a very nice post.. You have been doing a very good task.. BUt I cud not understand the topic -” from MIYA to AXAMIYA “.. What is MIYA doing here?
it may sound very romantic to you say that “everybody from Assam is considered a terrorist in Delhi”, I would say you are exaggerating at the cost of truth.
Uddipana Goswami said…
don’t understand why favourable comments come with names and unfavourable criticisms come anonymously. would appreciate transparency.
for this month, two poems on my city, written almost two decades apart:
Sunday, March 19, 2006
A poem by Nilim Kumar
Translated by Uddipana Goswami
Do you know his whereabouts now?
He lives with a bird on a hill.
Try to remember
What he did not love about you.
You know he bathed in the Brahmaputra of your bosom every day
You know he waited every day at the ferry ghat
To watch the red dead sun
Descending, shuddering, into the fisherman’s net.
The motorcars lining the lanes of your bosom
Trails of auto-rickshaws, like red ants; squealing of horns;
Barking of dogs; laughter of big buildings; the squirms of a hovel
Gasping for breath; your fire and ashes;
The smell of your kerchief; the lines on your palms;
Your nails and their nick;
Your sunbathing body, its sweat and wintry mist;
Your nose-ring, nostril, the vapor in your breath;
Your lips and the poison in them;
Your teeth and the bite in them;
What did not he love about you?
You know he did not turn up his nose even at the maggots wriggling
On carcasses in alleys and sewers in the darkness
Beneath the footpaths – he was fascinated by them.
The mice and white rats in your storehouses
The ones that hide themselves in your arteries;
What did not he love about you?
The dresses you wore made of
Slogans and commercials, posters of films and protests;
The blue in your eyes that shone like stars
And the agony of insomnia.
Your hair untied on the heights of Nilasal:
How many times he climbed that peak
To rest in the shadow of your hair! In the ocean-like waves
Of your hair, you know his tired fingers swum around like so many fish.
The bird of his dreams
Wanted to build in your bosom a bridge of green vines
You cut down the vines
Like you cut and discard your nails.
At the Bharalumukh turning he gets very agitated
You are the crematorium of his dreams, the pyre of love
You are the shores of his dejection.
Why did you raise to his lips the cup that holds your black blood?
Inebriated, he flounders around
In alleys and footpaths, under sewers
In storehouses in the dark, amidst the cacophony of motorcars.
Even now, hanging from a city bus his soul comes looking
For your dear voice
With his unkempt hair and unruly beard
Guwahati, you will not be able to recognise
This primitive lover of yours.
With a bird
He lives now on a distant hill.
(Kumar, Nilim. 2003. ‘Guwahati’ in Panit Dhou Dhoubur Mas. Banalata: Guwahati)
posted by Uddipana Goswami at 11:11 PM 0 comments
A poem by Harekrishna Deka
Translated by Uddipana Goswami
With every breath
Through my blood
Upstream and downstream
Isn’t that you
Layers of filth, a thousand years old
On your reeking body
If stripped off
Maybe I shall see
Under a green veil of pat.
Standing on the other end
Of the flow of time
I want to reopen the casket
Of a love that was.
The Bornoi has washed away
To the sea
My crazy carefree captivating youth.
Where the dream ends
Like a blackhole I see your bosom
Sucking in all the mud water earth
Blood and sweat
Sound and silence
Ah! In the Kasari field I hear
Once again those angry cries
At Nehru maidan
Cheers of happiness
Even though like lost souls
Crowds and crowds of flesh and blood puppets
Come and go. To and fro.
The sound from your veins
Resound once again
(Deka, Harekrishna. 1986. ‘Guwahati (I)’ in An Ejan. Barua Agency: Guwahati)
having translated the two poems, i interviewed the poets i translated,
tried to understand what is it about guwahati that enamours them
Tuesday, March 21, 2006
INTERVIEW WITH NILIM KUMAR, POET AND AYURVEDIC DOCTOR, BY UDDIPANA GOSWAMI ON 20TH MARCH, 2006
WHY THIS INTENSE ATTRACTION TOWARDS GUWAHATI? YOU KNOW IT IS UGLY, FESTERING, AND YET WHY IS THERE SO MUCH LOVE FOR IT?
I was born and brought up in Pathsala and moved to Guwahati in 1979. Guwahati attracted me from the very beginning. I wrote the poem when I was briefly away from the city: my posting was in Karbi Anglong then. There is a lot of nostalgic love for the city in this poem. My entire youth was spent in Guwahati, the city shaped me in many ways. So naturally I was in love with it.
1979 WOULD HAVE BEEN THE TIME WHEN THE ASSAM MOVEMENT HAD JUST BEGUN. WHAT WAS YOUR EXPERIENCE OF THE MOVEMENT IN GUWAHATI?
I was studying in the Ayurvedic College in Jalukbari and you might know that the movement had its centre in the Gauhati University at Jalukbari. Naturally I was drawn into it, everybody was. However, given my leftist leanings at the time, I did not get entirely involved in the movement, I did not jump into it so to say.
WHATEVER THE CRITICISMS WE MAY LEVEL AGAINST THE MOVEMENT TODAY, IT WAS INDUBITABLY A GLORIOUS MOMENT IN THE HISTORY OF ASSAMESE NATIONALISM WHEN THE YOUTH OF ASSAM, FIRED BY AN IDEOLOGY AND DEDICATION TO A CAUSE, ROUSED AN ENTIRE NATION TO CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE. WHERE IS THAT FIRE AND PASSION GONE NOW? I DON’T SEE ANY OF IT IN THE YOUTH TODAY…
The youth today have lost their faith in political ideologies and have given up their idealism. The political unrest that has marked the past few decades of Assam’s history has mainly been the cause of that. Insurgency and the centre’s policies aimed at controlling insurgency have also affected the youth’s psyche to a great extent.
There was a time when student politics was development oriented, forward-looking, passionate. But since the entry into Assam politics of the discourse, degradation and corruption that marks pan-Indian politics, student politics here has also changed character.
AND HOW DOES THE LOSS OF IDEALISM AFFECT THE YOUTH’S RELATION TO THEIR CITY?
We had an emotional relationship with Guwahati, we cared. We were roused by events that took place in Guwahati. I do not see that happening among the youth now. Guwahati has been reduced to a carnival ground, where they only have fun. They use Guwahati today as their playground but they do not care for the city. It does not belong to them, nor do they belong to it.
IS IT BECAUSE OF THE RAPID COMMERCIALISATION THAT HAS BEEN TAKING PLACE IN THE PAST FEW YEARS?
It works both ways. Commercialisation gives rise to this kind of an apathy towards the city on the one hand; and on the other, it is this kind of apathy that encourages commercialisation at the cost of everything else.
YOU SPOKE ON THE ONE HAND, ABOUT THE IMPACT OF INSURGENCY AND ON THE OTHER, OF THE STATE’S COUNTER-INSURGENCY MEASURES ON THE PSYCHE OF THE YOUTH OF GUWAHATI. IT IS COMMON KNOWLEDGE THAT TO A GREAT EXTENT THE INFLOW OF UNACCOUNTED MONEY AND RAPID COMMERCIAL GROWTH OF MOST OF THE NORTHEAST, ESPECIALLY OF ITS URBAN CENTRES, HAS BEEN A RESULT OF THESE TWO FORCES. DO YOU AGREE WITH THE VIEW THAT GUWAHATI HAS ALSO BEEN A VICTIM OF THE PHENOMENON?
Definitely. When one is flush with funds one does not care about ideologies. Emotions suffer in the bargain. And Guwahati, as the cultural and political centre of the Northeast, has taken the impact of all the negative impacts of insurgency and counter-insurgency. Even if certain incidents do not happen in Guwahati per se, tremors are felt in the city; it is sensitive to developments in the entire Northeast.
posted by Uddipana Goswami at 10:24 AM 0 comments
INTERVIEW WITH HAREKRISHNA DEKA, POET AND RETIRED POLICE OFFICER, BY UDDIPANA GOSWAMI ON 20TH MARCH, 2006.
WHAT DOES GUWAHATI MEAN TO YOU?
The poem is a reflection of my attraction towards the Guwahati city. It is an ugly city, an unplanned city, and it is a city that, like a blackhole, gobbles up all energy. But inspite of that, I have always been attracted to it. That is what the poem also expresses.
WHY THIS ATTRACTION? WHAT IS IT ABOUT GUWAHATI THAT CONTINUES TO ATTRACT POETS LIKE YOU OR NILIM KUMAR WHOSE POEM EXPRESSING THE MAGNETISM OF GUWAHATI – BOTH OF YOU CONSIDER HER YOUR LONG LOST LOVER WHO STILL CAPTIVATES YOU, YOUR EMOTIONS – WAS PUBLISHED ALMOST TWO DECADES AFTER YOU WROTE YOUR ODE TO GUWAHATI?
There is pulsating life in the city. It is a living city, not a dead one. True there has been a lot of social degeneration here, but there are still a few things about it that make the city alluring. Its intellectual and cultural lives, for instance, are still vibrant. And most importantly, nature has not abandoned Guwahati. Despite all vandalism by human beings, nature continues to be kind to its inhabitants. The Brahmaputra continues to flow and the hills still provide scenic beauty. Although human habitation has come up like ugly sores upon these hills, they are still beautiful. The tress still grow, the birds still come to visit Guwahati.
BUT FOR HOW LONG?
For as long as it takes. Guwahati will live. All it requires is awareness on the part of its inhabitants and a tremendous effort to reverse the onslaught made upon the city.
MY EXPERIENCE HAS BEEN THAT THE CITIZENS OF GUWAHATI ARE BECOMING LESS AND LESS AWARE, AND MORE AND MORE APATHETIC.
There has not been any dramatic show of civic awareness maybe, but a slight growth has been noticeable. There have been instances when citizens have come out into the street to get their demands fulfilled. Besides, a few NGOs are doing their best to save Guwahati. We need more concentrated effort and proper policies and planning. For instance, satellite townships have become a necessity given the pressure of population on Guwahati. We need to think along these developmental terms.
BUT GUWAHATI HAS BEEN DEVELOPING – IF YOU CAN CALL THE KIND OF COMMERCIAL GROWTH WE HAVE SEEN IN THE PAST FEW YEARS AS DEVELOPMENT AT ALL – AT A FURIOUS PACE, SO FAST THAT I FEEL IT HAS BEEN THROWN OUT OF GEAR ALMOST. WOULD YOU AGREE TO THAT?
I am originally from Sarthebari, but was born and brought up in Tinsukia. But I moved to Guwahati for my education way back in 1959. I have seen the kind of commercial growth Guwahati has undergone since then, especially since the capital of Assam was shifted from Shillong to Dispur, and it became the gateway to the Northeast. The growth has been rapid and haphazard. In present times, the commercialisation has been more frantic; there is a lot of fund money coming in from all quarters, and all of this gets concentrated in Guwahati, with no accountability or transparency. The money does not filter down to rural Assam where there is more need for it. Mismanagement of resources by the state has resulted in such discrepancy.
But having said all this, I would still maintain that the city has not been derailed or thrown off its tracks. Take Calcutta for example. It is a metro but it still retains its value system in many ways. Similarly in Guwahati, the sense of community, especially among the Assamese and Bengali communities, is not entirely lost. And that is the saving grace.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE YOUTH OF GUWAHATI?
The positive side of the commercialisation and expansion of Guwhati has been the opening up of new avenues for educational and vocational training of the youth. They are certainly benefiting from it.
CAREER DEVELOPMENT APART, WOULD YOU SAY THE YOUTH OF GUWAHATI TODAY HAVE THE SAME KIND OF VALUES IN THEM THAT THEY PROBABLY HAD IN THE 1970S AND ’80S WHEN ASSAM SAW A CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE MOVEMENT OF TREMENDOUS PROPORTION AND THE STUDENT COMMUNITY PROVIDED LEADERSHIP TO THE MOVEMENT?
No, certainly not. When I wrote the poem in 1981, the situation in Guwahati was volatile. It was the peak of the Assam movement. And inspite of the unrest, Guwahati attracted me; it was throbbing with life. I was the Superintendent of Police (Kamrup) at the time, and I have seen and dealt with student politics of the time. But it is sad that student politics today has been reduced to a politics of opportunism. It is all about easy money. There is a lot of glitz and glamour that steers the youth of Guwahati today.
from introspecting after a discussion with vivek at sarai:
more to follow on the same subject…
HOW IMAGINED IS THE IMAGINARY HOMELAND?
I don’t know…
Why these ramblings about a home I no longer feel at home in? Was there anything utopian about the past, other than the projections of a wishful imagination? What is the ‘ideal’ really? Why do I look to the past for it? Am I not also a victim of the Romantic, the burden of which the Historical has always had to carry? Or am I perpetrator and a propagator of the same?
The answers to these questions, if I were to be very honest, would be
– Don’t know
– Don’t know
– It’s convenient
– I am
– All of the above
A present that derives from a utopian past that I subscribe to makes it convenient for me to rave and rant against the ‘others’ who have ostensibly gone against the tenets of that utopia. I can safely proclaim, ‘I am not in that brigade’. End of story. I do not commit myself to anything beyond that.
But imagine if I were an optimist and looked forward to a utopian future. It would put the onus on me to work towards it, would it not? Would I not have to decide what would constitute that utopia? Would I not have to live up to it then, if only to maintain my high moral ground? I would most certainly have to.
So what do I do to shirk responsibility? I live in the past. I wear the mantle of the exiled intellectual who knows her homeland is only imaginary, but still hankers after what was and is now lost.
I ask the poet what he thinks about the loss of ideology and erosion of values in the Guwahati psyche of today – as if it was or could ever be one unified entity, a homogenous glob of ideas and sentiments, one identity. And I know I am too lenient with the past, too indulgent; my line of questioning is selective, just like the collective memory.
Dating from the late 70’s and early 80’s, there are these pictures of civil disobedience and mass defiance everywhere; there’s a lot of blood in some of them. There is one of blood on the main road at Chandmari. Inscribed in that blood is a now immortalized slogan of the movement: tej dim, tel nidiu: take blood, no oil. Swathed in bandages, the chest that oozed all that blood appears as a symbol of the dedication and determination that fired an entire generation of youths to fight for the right to self-determination and against neo-colonization. There were many who shed more blood and not quite so voluntarily either.
On the north bank of the city also – that part of Guwahati which remains sub-urban in nature but from where the city originally began developing – some blood was being spilled. Only this was the blood of indigenous agriculturalists, and among the perpetrators of violence were student leaders fighting against the bohiragata, ‘foreigners’. For obvious reasons, images from Phulung Sapori do not make it to pictorial depictions of the Assam Movement.
It was not ideology that was involved in the Phulung Sapori incident, and I skim over it, as does the collective memory. Only somewhere at the back of my mind, the cover page of Syed Abdul Malik’s Moi Morinu Najau Kiyo flares up for an instant. I can almost smell the putrid smell of rotting dead bodies of people massacred in one of the worst genocides ever, at Nellie, hardly a two hours’ drive from Guwahati…