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Bengali Literature of Barak Valley :
A Homeland Lost, A Homeland Regained
Amitabha Dev Choudhury
When Ramprasad Sen (c 1720-1781) wrote in one of his most memorable
songs : ‘My mind, thou know not the art of cultivation/ such a human-soil
remained fallow/ had thou sown, it would have yielded gold,’ he was perhaps
pointing in his own way to what we know today as human development, though
behind his agricultural metaphor, the religious motif was quite explicit and un
mistakable. Novel, too, was once considered as the epic of the rising
bourgeoisie. In this sense, the history of novel written in any language can be
read as the history of human development. And bildungsroman which grew as a
sub-genre exploring the all round development of an individual can also be called
the genre of human development. This perhaps explains why the difference
between the Bengali bildungsroman ‘Panther Panchali’ (The Ballad of the Road,
1929) and the Bengali psychological novel ‘Putulnacher Itikatha’ (The History of
the Puppet Dance, 1936) lies not in genology, but in zeitgeist. In the context of
the greater Bengal, Apu, the protagonist of ‘Panther Panchali’ is the archetype of a
generation who went from the rural Bengal to the city or mainstream with dreams
in their eyes in order to acquire education together with the certainty of a correct
placement. But Shashi, the existential hero of Manik Bandyopadhyay’s fiction
represents another generation who had to come back to their native villages, had
to succumb to the fate of a marginalised existence with memories and visions of
a brighter life they had left behind.
Literature, thus, has always represented this human development in its
multifaceted dimensions over the centuries and literature has done this more
authentically than any demographic account since it has a unique way of
representing human life : through the process of re-creation. The reality of being
is represented in literature as the reality of seeming. This makes literature
doubly authentic in that it not merely records but re-creates history. So, what we
derive from literary works is not just a matter-of-fact record or piles of
information, but a compact and vivid historicity encompassing almost all walks
of human life including even the blind alleys.
Bengali literature of Barak Valley has always been a marginalised one. The
mainstream Bengali literature has always been reluctant to recognise it even as a
tributary as, for example, the centre of political power has always been hesitant
to recognise Barak Valley even as a periphery. Such a neglect was perhaps
enhanced by the geographical location of the Valley. To the outer world and
even to its culturally nearest neighbour Kolkata, the Valley has always been a
murky borderland not only between India and Bangladesh, but between
development and underdevelopment------ as Dilip Kanti Laskar (1949- ) wrote in
a poem :
‘When I answered his query as to where I am from
stating ‘Karimganj, Assam’, he was thrilled

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and quite happily he exclaimed------ ‘That’s nice,
you speak quite fluent Bangla !’... ...
I tried to clarify his doubts about the location of my home-----I said, ‘I come from the land of the fifteen martyrs
who sacificed their lives for the Bangla language.
He literally stumped me with his next words
when he straightaway said-----‘Oh, you mean Bangladesh?
You should have said so !’
(‘Locatings’, ‘bordering poetry’, p-62)

It was this question of geographical locating that kept one of the Valley’s
component-districts Karimganj wide awake at least for two days and two nights
during the Sylhet Referendum (1947) when a political indecision sprang as to
which side of the Radcliff Map the fate of Karimganj would lie. Subrata Kumar
Roy (1966- ) was the only writer of the Valley to make use of this incident to
create a short story, named ‘Swadhinatar Mrityu : Ekti Sakshatkar’ (The Death
of Freedom : An Interview, 1997)
Cachar came under the British annexation in 1832 (non-officially in 1830,
after the assassination of the last Dimasa King Gobindachandra), while
Karimganj remained with the erstwhile Sylhet, Tea plantation began in Cachar
in 1855 and Silchar town came to be known as a Planters’ Town. This town got
a lot bigger when the rail-road came in 1899. Though there was none to exclaim
like the female onlooker of ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ : ‘It’s coming...
something frightful, like a kitchen dragging a village behind it’ (P. 210), the railroad not only broke the solitude of the Valley, but hailed innumerable human
resources from various corners of the eastern India whose babbling hearts were
later translated into a poignant song :
‘Come Mini, Let’s go to Assam
Our land is full of sorrow.
We will go to the land of Assam,
To the green of many a tea-garden.’
On September 12, 1874, Sylhet was severed from the erstwhile Bengal
Presidency and annexed to Assam on the pretext of a shortfall in tax revenue.
Earlier the same year Cachar had also been annexed to Assam. And again in
1947 the same Sylhet was surgically removed------ as if it were a carbuncle-----from the political topography of Assam. So, it is quite evident that Barak Valley
has, for its Bangali-speaking population, always been a cultural extension of the
erstwhile Surma Valley. In this sense, partition of Barak Valley from the Surma
Valley was not a cultural migration, but a geographical displacement. When
partition became a reality, Barak Valley had to shelter a good number of
displaced families coming from the erstwhile East Pakistan. ‘Communual riot
was brewing up in the erstwhile East Pakistan,’ Kali Prasanna Bhattacharjya
wrote in his memoir ‘Silcharer Kadcha’ (The Silchar Diary, 2008), ‘In 1952 a
brutal mass-killing took place on the railway bridge at Bhairav. How many lives

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were lost that day is still a matter of speculation. Just after this incident the
exodus of displaced persons began from East Pakistan. The local Govt. High
School opened up a camp for the evacuees.’
Earlier, before the partition, what was produced in the name of literature from
the erstwhile Barak Valley was scanty and aesthetically insignificant, for example,
during the 1940s, some political activists wrote poems and stories which left no
mark on the literary works of the later decades and which, however
revolutionary they were in style and spirit, were really anachronistic as they
failed to follow the track of their contemporary Bengali mainstream literature.
But during the same decade a group of poets also emerged whose contribution
has largely been underrated, perhaps due to the hubbub of their moderist
successors of the 1960s. These poets came with a strong sense of aesthetic
collation with the mainstream literature, but their point of departure from the
maistream was still more significant. They were mostly poets of nature, but their
search for a marginal identity often made them conscious of their location
together
with
its
historicity
and
of
their
geographical
neighbours------ so much so that sometimes they became poets of a geography.
This is somewhat a unique experience in the history of Bengali literature as a
whole------ poets of nature becoming poets of geographical diversity------ and they
can only be compared with the first generation of poets of the Brahmmaputra
Valley who were chronologically their successors and who were either a
political activist or a historian------ viz. Hemanga Biswas (1917-1987) and
Amalendu Guha (1924- ). These nature-poets seemed engrossed in a search for
a new homeland, in difining its geographical historicity as Debendra Kumar
Paul Choudhury (1907-2003) wrote in a memorable poem :
‘While on the train, I have often heard
the call of Haflong Hill-----not a free moment I had to spare then
to be a guest there at Haflong Hill’
(‘Haflong Hill’, ‘bordering poetry’, p-21)

Or, as Sudhir Sen (1916-1993) wrote, extolling a tribal-dance :
‘A striped, bright saree draped her limbs
Like some snake, as if she had arrived from afar,
crossing the wild wastes of the Tripura forests’
(‘The Rihang Dance’, ibid, p-25)

Or, as Ashokbijoy Raha (1910-1990) describes :
‘I want to feel the soft throb of the Naga queen’s young heart
I see visions of the Naga hills-----a white steed flashing by------ with Joan of Arc.’
(‘The Naga Queen’, ibid, p-17)

These poems show a keen sense of consciousness of a non-Bengali
neighbourhood and this consciousness of the neighbourhood did not mean in

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any way that the poets were living the lives of exile. Their ecstasy or euphoric
state of mind prevents the reader from arriving at such a conclusion. Rather their
ecstasy incorporates a sense of discovery : they were discovering a new
homeland with its heterogeneous ethnicity and cultural pluralism.
A different facade of the same search can be found years later, during the
1990s in one of the best known stories of Arijit Choudhury------ ‘Pu Ghosh’ (Mr.
Ghosh, 2008) in which the job-hunt of a young man of Barak Valley compels
him to embrace the life of an exile in Mizoram. There amidst various exotic
experiences, the man finds a new home in an alien landscape------ though always
listening to the call of his homeland at the back of his mind like the protagonist
of Rabindranath’s story ‘The Postmaster’. Finally, when he comes back home, a
postcard too arrives tracing his address------ a postcard whose blurred ink-letters
perhaps hints at a would-be oblivion from both the sides, at a mental and
cultural gap that is difficult to bridge : ‘It seems that the post card had been
lying unnoticed in some dark cave or in a deep forest. Only ‘Dear Pu Ghosh’
and the address of Pu Ghosh remained unaffected, God knows due to whose
affection.’ (Pu Ghosh, P.42) With this unbridgeable cultural gap, the story stands
unique because it is a journey into the multiculturalism that surrounds the
North-Eastern milieu.
But a Bengali-speaking middle class poet and writer of Barak Valley had
other avenues to explore, to submerge his multi-cultural identity into a unicultural and uni-dimensional one. He had, for example, his history which
always reminded him of his exile from the greater Bengal. So when the first
little magazine of modernist poetry ‘Swapnil’ appeared in 1957, it diluted the
search of a homeland of the earlier poets in a multi-cultural surrounding, but
became, so to speak, a proto-mainstream magazine, invoking an essentially
Bengali reality. Though Karunasindhu Dey’s (1942-2005) ‘Kanthe Pariparswiker
Mala’ (1963) was undoubtedly a leap forward with its social content and social
commitment, it never upholds the convention of the earlier school of Bengali
poetry of a multi-cultural Bengali identity except in its name------ where
surrounding becomes a garland around the neck of the poet.
‘I will go indeed, o helmsman, to your ramshackle skiff
and build therein a home of luxury past compare
(‘O Boatsman, O Saviour’, ‘bordering poetry’ p-37)

But Karunasindhu’s journey was primarily an aesthetic one and a similar
aesthetic journey marks the venture of the next generation of poets whose rise
perhaps was the harbinger of a new dawn in the history of Bengali literature of
Barak Valley.
The next generation of poets assembled under the aegis of a self-styled
literary movement after the name of the little magazine they were attached to :
‘Atandra’ (1963-1968).
Shantanu Ghosh (1946- ), the young Turk among the Atandra -poets, who
was rewarded the Krittivas Award in 1968 wrote in a poem :
‘Dear you are, Silchar to the dynamics
of possibility and impossibility, devoid of dreams,

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bereft of the very capacity to move at all-----only the breezes in my eyes you faintly touch
with a soft veil, I pinch an orange from the fruitseller’s cart
and slyly move away ... ...
I visited Jyoti yesterday------she brought me a refeshing spring
from the white fridge...’
(‘Composition1’, ibid, P 54)

Which Silchar was this? An emerging town not yet eager to get rid of its feudal
charm and rustic spell ? Or a town of the poet’s own make-believe ? A replica
perhaps of Calcutta ? Or of even Brooklyn ? Because the same poet had
elsewhere described Silchar as a town either of the Barak Bridge or of Brooklyn
Bridge.In other words, he was eager to place his marginal identity in a concocted
global association. The same colonial discourse with modernity or modernism
continued throughnt the next decade (i.e., the 1970s). In the meantime two more
significant little magazines, both related mainly to short stories came into
existence : Anish (1969-1972/73) and Shatakratu (1974-1982). The writers
were all modernists and imbued with a strong affinity with the mainstream, though
some of them,however, in later years took a different bend altogether and wrote in
a completely different style. The Mithilesh Bhattacharjee (1946- ) or the
Ranavir Purkayastha (1949- ) of the 1970s, for example, was the embodiment of
a style of writing that existed and was in vogue in the mainstream during the same
decade. Almost all the story-writers wrote about the middle class ennui on angst,
theirs was not at all the tale of the common man. Rather they felt more conversant
with writing stories about the enigmatic man who was in some way or other a
mirror image of themselves and whose dreams and despair did not represent or
affect the common man.
The years to come, however, saw a metamorphosis in the writing of most of
the poets and story writers of Atandra, Shatakratu and Anish. As years rolled by,
Shaktipada Brahmmachari’s journey became more nostalgic than aestheic,
down memory lane to a land which he had been forced to leave years back and
Mithilesh Bhattacharjee, Ranavir Purkayastha, Shekhar Dash (1950- ), Tapadhir
Bhattacharjee (1949- ) and Swapna Bhattacharjee (1952- ) became much more
tolerant of the hope and frustration, anguish and desperation of the common man
of society. Even Udayan Ghosh (1940- ) in his poems launched a search : he
seemed to be desperately exploring the geographical diversity of the whole world
in order to locate his own home------ the home of the marginal man. And the
discourse of the periphery with the centre that Anandra and Shatakratu had
almost involuntarily opened up was later taken up by Bijit Kumar Bhattacharjee
(1939- ), the legendary editor of Sahitya (1967- ) and rejuvenated as a
discourse between the periphery and other peripheries of the centre.
Again it was during the 1980s that some of the new-comer poets revived the
convention of the poets of the 1940s. It was a spontaneous, almost an unwitting
revival of the past------ when a lost leif motif reappeared almost in the shape of a
deja vu : to seach the identity of the marginal man amidst geographical,
topographical diversity, amidst signs and cultural icons of a neighbourhood
which was essentially a non-Bengali one as Debashis Tarafdar (1958- ) wrote :
‘Like Harangajao. A minor settlement it is, surrounded by green hills,

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with small river, there people are Sylheti in origin, or Assamese,
or Dimasa, or Nepali, or they speak Hindi------ there are many such.
(‘Of Nation’, ‘bordering poetry, p. 73)

or as Monotosh Chakravarty (1951- ) penned his tribute to the legendary Mizo
leader :
‘Today, o friend,
do cast aside all that hosility
and open out you palms, in friendship.’
(‘To Laldenga’, ibid, p. 55)

Question arises as to why this search for a new homeland amidst alien
surroundings was left unheeded during the 1960s and throughout the 1970s ?
Why did this search give way to an aesthetic journey following the trends and
routes of the mainstream ? Why were the writers and poets of the 1960s and the
1970s so reluctant to create a poetic or a fictional partition narrative of their own,
though most of them hailed from the erstwhile East Pakistan ? There is no such
internal evidence the study of which may bring a ready-made answer to this
question. A total silence prevails and there is not a single signifier anywhere that
can tempt the reader to read this silence itself as a narrative. Most of the
displaced writers and poets bore in their minds memories of trauma, and yet
there in no story to depict the exodus of the 1950s. Why ? The poet
Karunaranjan Bhattacharjya (1929-2009) often told of losing his nearest one
during the mass-killing of 1952 at Bhairav. The killing, he would often say,
resembled a geno-cide. But still Barak Valley could not create a fictional
partition narrative of its own. Why ? Shyamalendu Chakravarty (1937- ), the
editor of Anish once gathered the courage to remark that they were trying to
forget the partition and its aftermath. But later writings------ particularly in the
form of personal or cultural memoirs or historiographical narratives of Sujit
Choudhury (Harano Din, Harano Manush : Lost Days, Lost Faces, 2005,
2010), of Jaylakshmi Devi (Chalar Path ar Chena Mukh : The Road to Traverse
and Known Faces, 2004), of Lili Nath (Smritisudha : The Nectar of Memory),
of Bimal Choudhury (Aaola Jhaola : The Medley) of Anurupa Biswas
(Nanaranger Din : Those Many-hued Days, 2006, 2007) and of many others
(both published and unpublished) and the later poems of Shaktipada
Brahmmachari (1937-2005) bear evidence not to any oblivion, but to retention.
The country they had to leave behind during or after the partition was always an unforgettable reality in their minds. yet most of these narratives are just notalgic
accounts of the past and it is only due to a dearth of a grand partition narrative that
we are often bound to accept such personal anecdotes as partition narratives. But
why ? Why did the writers of the 1960s and the 1970s entirely shun writing a
partition narrative of their own ?
As a matter of fact, Barak Valley has always been a target for economic
deprivation. Its marginalised position and politics after independence devoid of
any ideological footing have been the cause of its underdevelopment. While the
politics of the Valley has been bound to endorse the hegemony of its state capital,
the mental framework of its middle-class Bengali population almost reversed the
existing structure of its centre-periphery, substituting Calcutta for Gauhati. This
subconscious rejection or mental reversal was almost like losing a homeland

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which told on the literary works produced during the 1960s and the 1970s. For the
poets and writers of the 1960s and the 1970s, the search for a new identity did not
at all become pertinent. Since Barak Valley had always been a cultural extension
of the erstwhile Surma Valley and since they had not been culturally displaced
during the partition, they never had any feeling of a psychological vaccuum.
This is also evident from the fact that during those tumultous decades, all news
came from Calcutta through the Jugantar and the Amrit Bazar and the Ananda
Bazar. It was years later, during the 1980s that a change came over the printing
media when newspapers too emerged to cater to the Valley’s hunger for local
news.
So, for the writers of the 1960s and the 1970s, partition narrative was not at all
a psychological necessity. Whatever sense of vacuum they had in their minds-----of displacement------ had already been filled in by the common cultural practices
they knew they were sharing with the Surma Valley. But when the language circular
of 1960 became a reality, when the Language Movement of 1961 knocked at
their door, most of them realised with a shudder for the first time that they were
living in an alien land. But their faces almost instantneously turned towards
Calcutta which had all along been their imaginary buffer against every stress over
the years. Calcutta was the dreamland where they wanted to live even when they
were all awake. This is why they failed to decipher the message of the Language
Movement which had a hidden political agenda : to enhance human
development in Barak Valley. Everybody ignored it------ right from our
politicians to our writers.
There was, however, the solitary figure of one writer, viz., Badarujjaman
Choudhury (1946- ) who wrote about and thought for his own people even
during those modernist upheaval in Barak Valley’s Bangla literature. As because
he was a religious minority, Calcutta could never become his dreamland------ the
very communal structure of the regional politics was responsible for this mental
polarisation and this accounts for Badarujjaman’s enless tales about his own
soil. Because he had never been mentally alienated from it, Badarujjaman,
togetherwith his two contemporaries Moloy Kanti Dey (whose ‘Asraf Alir
Swadesh’ or ‘The Homeland of Asraf Ali’ is almost a trendsetter story
searching the identity and the homeland of a religious minority :‘Now the place
where he stands is a no man’s land. Standing here, Asraf realises he has
no land of his own in the whole world.’ ) and Arijit Choudhury (whose
‘Aagun’ or ‘Fire’ written during the 1980s is almost a nighmarish narrative of the
so-called ‘foreigners’ issue’ of the then Brahmmaputra Valley) wove either
iconoclastic or committed stories about the people of Barak Valley on many a
theme including gender politics. In this sense, these three writers were perhaps
ahead of their time and it was only their successors who became their real
contemporaries.
These successors were the second generation of poets and writers born after
the partition. They were sons of this soil and their terrain was this Valley alone.
Partition was no more a reality to them, but a Pandora’s box which they did not
want to open any more. Rather their concern rested with the all round
development or retardation of their own species living in this soil. Though the
1980s happened to be a bleak decade for human resource development in

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Assam----- at least for its Bengali-speaking population------ (because the Language
issue of the 1960s now took on a new political turn baptising itself as the
‘foreigners’ issue’), the arena of literature in Barak Valley remained, ironically,
very bright during this decade for its poets and writers . The 1980s was a decade
of real home-coming for Barak Valley’s poets and writers. A lost homeland was
getting regained because the poets, writers and playwrights of the decade were no
more obsessed with Calcutta. A good number of poets like Shamkarjyoti Dev
(1959- ), Manjugopal Dev (1959-2009), Joydev Bhattacharjee (1960-2007) and
writers like Debabrata Choudhury (1960- ), Deependu Das (1965- ), Soumitra
Baishya (1962- ) and Subrata Kumar Roy (1966- ) emerged during this decade.
It was, incidentally, also the decade of the rising playwrights like Chitrabhanu
Bhowmik (1953- ), Shekhar Debroy (1957- ), and Tirthamkar Chanda (1959- )
who refused to compromise with the dictates of the conventional Calcutta-based
drama-script which had no traffic with Barak Valley’s reality, but decided to write
their own drama. A group of female writers like Vijoya Dev (1959- ) and Jhumur
Pandey (1962- ) also came up during this period and they all began to write about
a human development and human right which almost inevitably involved gender
politics. It was during this period that the cammon man , the raw and mum human
resources of the Valley, the dispossessed sons of the soil irrespective of their
class character and gender discrimination became the subject matter of Barak
Valley’s story writers and playwrights------ their hope and aspiration, dream and
utopian longing, anger and frustration, job-hunt and exasperation, unemployment
and poverty, decadence and fatalism, love and search for a new home, their
nightmare, seclusion and solitude all came within the purview of literature. But
even during the 1980s no grand narrative came into being about the language
movement of the 1960s. Perhaps the political message of the movement was
lost from the society. What now remained was a cultural memory of the
movement and this rendered the movement just into a leif motif for the poets like
Anurupa Biswas (1939- ), Dilip Kanti Laskar (1949- ) and Bijoy Kumar
Bhattacharjee (1959- ) and for a host of street drama writers who would pour out
dirges every year exposing the scar and also the bleeding memory of the language
movement.
Deependu Das (1965- ) wrote a story in 1994 entitled Maina Dwip (The Maina
Island). It is an intertextual re-creation of Manik Bandyopadhyay’s novel Padma
Nadir Majhi (The Boatsman of the River Padma, 1936)------ about Hussain Mian’s
island of wish fulfilment which became a prison of despair. Almost all the
characters of Manik Bandyopadhyay reappear in the story with their utopian
longing amidst a dystopian reality. The reader feels a sudden temptation to
consider this island as an extrapolation of Barak Valley itself, hermetically sealed
off from the outer reality,always at the mercy of Hussain Mian i.e., political
leaders whose corrupt whims and anarchism coincides with the neo-fatalism of
its inhabitants.
And yet the Valley------ particularly in this post-modern, globalised era------ has
been producing human resources and sending them to different corners of the
country or abroad. Who knows ? Those who have left the Valley in search of better
opportunities may write their own narratives about the Valley. While those who
are at home are writing their own narratives. If ever these two narratives converge,

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perhaps our forefathers’ search for a new homeland and the nostalgia for a lost
homeland may find a new dimension and a new horizon.

Primary Materials :
1. bordering poetry, An Anthology of Translated Poetry from Barak Valley, Arjun Choudhuri, Vicky
Publishers, Guwahati, 2010.
2. Silcharer Kadcha, Kaliprasanna Bhattacharjya, ed. Amitabha Dev Choudhury, Parul, Kolkata,
2008.
3. Ninth Column ,Vol-10. Issue- 8, ed. Amitabha Dev Choudhury and Prasun Barman, Guwahati,
January 2010.
4. Pu Ghosh, Arijit Choudhury, Evom Mushayera, Kolkata, 2008
5. Yapanchitra, Special Supplement : Selected Poems of Barak Valley, ed. Amitabha Dev Choudhury
and Tamajit Saha, Kolkata, 2009.
6. Barak Upatyakar Nirvachita Golpa, ed. Kapishkanti Dey, Akshar Sahitya Prakashani, Karimganj.
1994.
7. Britter Baire, Deependu Das, Akshar Publications, Agartala, 2008.