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DECEMBER 04, 2011

SEVEN SISTERS

L’AFFAIRÉ literary

Zombies in no-man’s land
Amit R Baishya takes us to the noman’s zone between India and Bhutan through the testimonio-fiction of former rebel Raktim Sarma

NEW

PRINTS

THE EXOTIC RISSOLE
Tanveer Ahmed NewSouth Publishing, 2011 AUD$32.95, 197 pages Paperback/Memoir

AMIT R BAISHYA
Ball State University, Indiana

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ORMER United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) rebel, Raktim Sarma, is the author of Borangar Ngang and Kafila. Both are fictional accounts loosely based on his experiences as a guerrilla. While the former represents life in the underground camps in Bhutan (up to Operation All Clear in 2003), the latter narrates events occurring after Pratyush, the protagonist of both novels and a fictional alter-ego of Sarma, is released from prison. Borangar Ngang represents Sarma’s strongest literary achievement and is comparable with some of the best examples from the genre of guerrillero testimonio emerging from Latin America. Well-known books from this genre include Che Guevara’s Bolivian Diaries and former Sandinista Omar Cabezas’ Fire on the Mountain. Sarma insists in his introduction that his novel should be read as a fictional account based on his experiences. I will therefore, refer to it by an awkward neologism of my own: testimonio-fiction. Sarma’s testimonio-fiction has to be located first within a genre in Assamese literature dealing with the experiences of guerrilleros in “no-man’s zones” between the boundaries of India, China, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bhutan. Probably the best example of this is Parag Das’s novel Sanglot Fenla which shares some notable features of the guerrillero testimonio. The second genre with which it shows an affinity possesses a distinct narrative structure characterised by two main features. First, although these texts are non-fictional testimonials in the first person, they resemble the structure of the literary bildungsroman – the narrative of gradual individual growth into a particular form of consciousness. However, the difference between the bildungsroman and the testimonio, as the literary critic John Beverley points out, is that in the former, a collective social situation is experienced as personal destiny while in the latter, the narrator speaks in the “name of a community or group, approximating in this way the symbolic function of the epic hero...” Second, we can say that guerrillero testimonios reveal an epical or epochal notion of the every-

Illustration: Amrith Basumatary

FRONTISPIECE
day with the figure of the male guerrillero at its centre. A similar sensibility permeates Sanglot Fenla. For instance, in the closing scene, Diganta, the protagonist of the novel, and another guerrilla, Probin, walk out “like courageous soldiers”. They reject the lucrative incentives that former militant, Ranjit, and other “traitors” to the cause offer them in return for their surrender. At this point, Diganta is released after prolonged incarceration and excruciating torture by security forces. The last lines of the novel are revealing – “Dawn was a long way off.” The first part of Sanglot Fenla concludes here. As a literary trope, Barbara Harlow notes, such inconclusive endings play with the symbolism of dawn and darkness and signal a “commitment to the future.” The world depicted in Borangar Ngang is different. It would not be incorrect to call it an anti-epic. The life-worlds of guerrilleros are simultaneously death-worlds which, to quote the postcolonial thinker Achille Mbembe, are “new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead.” Usually, the persistence of revolutionary hope sustains the guerrillero’s belief that inhabiting the death-world in the present presages a passage into a life-world. However, in Borangar Ngang, the death-world is experienced as a world bereft of possibilities. Doubts about the failure to hope for the final culmination of the “people’s” revolution are constantly expressed. These doubts reveal the existential fears besetting the guerrilla that his personal destiny may now have become unmoored from the collective context of the revolution. Given the anti-epic nature of this novel and the subtle departure from recognisable forms of anticolonial and revolutionary political action, does the narrative gesture towards a different space of the ethico-political? The form of the political that the text gestures towards is different from arguments presented by literary works on revolutions in colonial or neocolonial areas – namely, the growth of an individual rev-

olutionary consciousness and the gradual immersion in the cause through a “love” for the people. Central to this different ethics and politics is what Mbembe terms “the generalised instrumentalisation of human existence and the material destruction of human bodies and populations.” Thus, in Borangar Ngang, we notice a relentless focus on the dying and decaying body of the defeated, isolated guerrilla abandoned in “wild zones.” At the beginning of the novel, Pratyush feels at home in the bucolic pleasures of nature. However, as the guerrilla band disintegrates from lack of organisational support, internal dissension and acts of betrayal, the natural environment is represented as anything but bucolic. The guerrillas regularly cross the heavily forested zones along the Indo-Bhutan border into Assam and back. The lack of water in the densely forested areas often forces the guerrillero to lap the water that collects in the footmarks left by elephants. The army’s techniques to capture guerrillas also resemble those used for trapping animals. The narrator recounts an episode where a guerrilla contingent is ambushed by the army. While many guerrillas are killed, an in-

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SARMA reveals the existential fears of the guerrilla that his personal destiny may have become unmoored from the collective context of the revolution
jured guerrilla named Bonojit Deka falls into the hands of the armed forces. His eyes are gouged out, acid is poured on his face and his corpse is strung on a tree while the army lies in wait for the guerrillas to come and claim it, much like a hunter strings up bait. However, the potential of being reduced to the level of zombies in no-man’s zones has an antidote: love. The effect of love is best illustrated in a lengthy incident in the novel that involves one of Pratyush’s closest comrades, Anurag. Anurag’s band is ambushed by the army on a reconnaissance mission across the

no-man’s land in Bhutan and four of them, including Anurag, go missing. They are given up for dead, until one, Deepkon, messages via radio that he is stranded in the forest and badly injured. When the army finally withdraws, the guerrilla band sends out a search party that includes Pratyush, to retrieve the (presumed) dead bodies. After two days of searching, they hear someone crying out weakly in the distance. They come across Deepkon lying hidden within some tall elephant grass: (Deepkon’s) bullet-ridden leg had swollen considerably and resembled a bloated banana tree… They had never imagined that Deepkon would be alive like this. The sight before them horrified Pratyush and his troop. The smell of rotting flesh was wafting in the air. Kamal examined Deepkon’s bullet-ridden leg by lifting it carefully and saw, to his horror, that hundreds of insects came crawling out of the holes that had been bored into the flesh by the bullets. Deepkon screamed in intense agony. The horrifying sight of insects crawling out of the body of a living person filled Pratyush with so much disgust that he was forced to close his eyes. Somehow clinging on to life, the body called Deepkon resembles a form of death-in-life. We notice an absolute disjunction between the speaking and the living being here. Pratyush cannot bear to look at this sight. Sarma shows us the gruesome scene for a split second before telling us to turn our eyes away. This recurrent showing of the disjunction between the speaking and the living being and then enjoining us to turn the eyes away undercuts the epic, heroic tonality of the classical form of the guerrillero testimonio and instead enjoins us to focus on the reduction of the human body to the level of thinghood in a noman’s zone that is outside the reach of law. Sarma’s testimonio-fiction shows how “ordinary” feelings like love, friendship and trust can still sustain horizons of hope and orientations towards futurity, even when any semblance of a recognisable form of life, as in the instance narrated above, dissipates in zones of emergency. More than anything else, the exploration of the ordinary dimensions of human existence in states of emergency in Borangar Ngang remains Sarma’s most enduring achievement. T

A

memoir which tells of the turmoil that surfaces when cultures collide. Tanveer Ahmed narrates the complexities of growing up in an immigrant Bangladeshi family in Australia.

DEO LANGKHUI
Rita Choudhury Jyoti Prakashan, 2011 (1st ed 2005) `190, 416 pages Hardcover/ Novel

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journey through the legendary history of the Tiwa community of Assam. A story of injustice and generosity of spirit, of pain and love.

UPROOTED FOR WHOSE BENEFIT? DEVELOPMENTINDUCED DISPLACEMENT IN ASSAM 1947-2000
Walter Fernandes and Gita Bharali (ed.) North Eastern Social Research Centre (NESRC), 2011 `350, 734 pages Paperback/ Non-fiction

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study on developmentinduced displacement in Assam and the need to search for alternative development paradigms.

Northeast

DUST OFF
I ARUNI KASHYAP

NUGGETS
uWho are the Dimasa people and why was there a controversy over the renaming of North Cachar Hills as Dima Hasao District in April 2010? t THE Dimasa are a part of the Kachari group and their name means “children of the big river” (di=water, ma=big, sa=children) and they lived by the Dhansiri River (called Dima in their language). The renaming of the district caused controversy because other tribes living there objected to the identification of the district with only the Dimasa.

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Source: Haksar, Nandita (ed.). 2011. Glimpses of North East India. Chicken Neck: New Delhi

HAVE heard many people in Delhi and Guwahati, in Golaghat, Mayong and Nagaon, tell me that they had struggled with a strong desire to go to the forests of Burma after reading Parag Das’s Sanglot Fenla. While I was growing up, I was never denied a book but in 1993 or ‘94, when I had asked for a copy of the novel after seeing a poster hung in the Guwahati Book Fair, my father had instead bought me a young-adult novel. Forbidden stuff has a strange allure and many years later, I spent an entire day scanning the length and breadth of Guwahati looking for it. Sanglot Fenla, which roughly translates as Revolution’s Army, captured the minds of an entire generation. During my undergrad years, I was amazed reading about the book’s popularity in Manoram Gogoi’s memoirs Paragdar Xannidhyat (In Paragda’s Company). When was the last time the publication of a book became an event in itself, a cultural moment? In the world, I could only think of the release of the Harry Potter novels and, recently, Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. Sanglot Fenla was serially published from July 1992 in the pages of Budhbar, the newspaper Das edited. Its first edition was over at the Guwahati Book Fair that had started on January 20 and the next edition was printed for the Asom Sahitya Sabha’s 59th session at Sivasagar. Due to some tiff between the organisers and the

No separatist treatise this: Revisiting Sanglot Fenla
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SANGLOT FENLA
Parag Kumar Das Udangshri Prakashan,1993 `50, 212 pages Paperback/Novel
publishers, the book shops were shut in protest during the Sabha. Gogoi narrates that even during this phase, hundreds of people thronged Budhbar’s stall only to buy Sanglot Fenla and Rastrodrohir Dinalipi (A Seditioner’s Diary, 1992). One old woman demanded a copy immediately despite being told that they were not selling as a mark of protest. “I came all the way from Lakhimpur only to buy these two books, you better give them to me,” she said. Has anyone heard of an old lady travelling 415 kilometres only to buy two books?

Sanglot Fenla is no more in print, but has left an enduring legacy. In the early ‘90s, after the counter insurgency operations, many ULFA cadres had surrendered. The ones still underground nurtured a romantic idea of the separatist insurgency. Away from the hunger, diseases and death in the valleys of Burma, they were leading a life of luxury in Guwahati and Dibrugarh, earning a bad name for the organisation. But there were many more cadres who were still committed and took their goal seriously. Parag Das wanted to celebrate the struggle of these

THE novel is not an apologia for violence. It attempts to show how the Assamese had to take the course of armed resistance after all democratic means had been exhausted
committed cadres, who, according to, him had not yet been co-opted into the system. Actually, there is no single narrative thread in the novel. It is about Digonto, his training in Burma, where he had seen the hard work of many of his comrades. It is about how various sections of the society such as the Assamese tribals and migrant Muslims were excluded from the movement and the immense potential these groups had to contribute to it was left untapped by

the mainly upper-caste ULFA leadership. In many ways, Sanglot Fenla reworks the picaresque novel. It rests in the tradition of The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling or Kim by Rudyard Kipling by following the escapades of a hero over a range of experiences. But Sanglot Fenla is not comic from any angle. It is the search for an alternative: what happens when all attempts of democratic means to achieve justice get exhausted? What happens when you are betrayed by your own comrade-in-arms? What happens when decadence and luxury and arrogance trap the rebel? How does one deal with the irony of running a rebellion under the indulgence of the same government you want to overthrow – everyone in Assam has speculated about the nexus between the AGP government led by Prafulla Mahanta and ULFA – something which Parag Das was very critical of and rightly so. However, the novel is not an apologia for violence. Rather, it attempts to show how the Assamese had to take the course of armed resistance after all democratic means had been exhausted. It is also not a separatist trea-

tise for youths who read the book unguided. In fact, to understand the novel properly, one must read Parag Das’s non-fiction and Manorom Gogoi’s memoirs. What Das narrates in the novel is merely an extension of his narrative non-fiction retold with characters and situations. Throughout his career, Parag Das dreamt of a multi-hued Assam, bound by unity because he knew that breaking down into small groups would not help and would only appease the Central government’s imperial design that has always feared the common cultural thread binding different communities in Assam. He also tried to raise awareness on human rights abuses by the Indian Army in Assam. Sanglot Fenla fits into this larger project: but what redeems the novel from the clutches of narrow, jingoistic nationalism is his depiction of the inhuman brutality of the ULFA cadres on their “traitors”, their decadence. Chillingly, the torture scenes at the Indian Army camp and the ULFA camps are very similar and successfully (sadly) compete with torture scenes of Chilean testimonios under Augusto Pinochet’s regime. T

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