Rats, a heart-wrenching story by Bhabendra Nath Saikia about hunger, poverty and loss, begins with a mother’s reaction to a sack of rice smeared with her son’s blood after a truck full of gunny bags overturns and crushes him. As the days pass and her hunger pangs become more severe, her engagement with the sack changes.
Rats is one of 25 short stories in The Greatest Assamese Stories Ever Told, selected and edited by Mitra Phukan, the Guwahati-based writer-translator-classical vocalist. It’s part of a series by Aleph Book Company on gems from Indian literature, now translated in English.
The selection, comprising stories that span more than a century, features works by masters such as Lakhminath Bezbaroa, Mamoni Raisom Goswami, Homen Borgohain and Debabrata Das. For Phukan, the selection was challenging. The stories which made it to the volume are those that have resonated with readers over the decades; they are universal even as they are embedded in the particulars.
Phukan made an effort to limit the selection to short fiction written in the language we know as Assamese, rather than venturing into the literature of other communities living in the state—such as Bodo, Mishing, Dimasa, Rabha. “To have included them in this collection would have been ideal, for they are ‘Assamese’ in flavour and spirit and emanate from the land as much as those included here…. But it would not have been practical, given the huge scope and size that that project would have had,” writes Phukan in the introduction.
As she sifted through the stories, she marked those that remain relevant. She looked for thematic variety and tales strongly rooted in the culture and ways of life of the land—“stories that are from the hills and rivers that are so much a part of the unique topography of Assam,” she says. The ones selected were then translated into English by writers such as Amritjyoti Mahanta, Arunabha Bhuyan and Mitali Goswami.
Some works are from different phases of a writer’s career. Take, for instance, Oxanto Electron, an early work by Saurav Kumar Chaliha, a pen name for Surendra Nath Medhi. “His later stories too are very important but this particular one, I felt, was a landmark. In a way, it was a complete change in narrative style and influenced so many other writers,” says Phukan.
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Among the factors that nurtured the short story genre in Assamese is a strong oral tradition. Phukan says journals such as Orunodoi, Jonaki, Banhi, Awahon and now Prantik have popularised the charm of the short story since the 19th century. “Written literature in Assamese has a glorious history, starting from around the eighth century CE. The flowering of the short story (proper) began more than a century ago. It has been a long and sparkling journey,” she says. Writers have used the flexibility a short story offers to put across ideas and hold up, unflinchingly, a mirror to the world around them.
Through personal stories, slice-of-life narratives, one comes across larger themes—be it of migration in Looking For Ismael Sheikh, or hunger in Rats, or people’s encounters with the army on the one hand and with insurgents on the other in Blood On The Floor. There is a coming together of the personal and sociopolitical. Each story, says Phukan, bears witness to its time. The characters and incidents are convincing, not mere cutouts made to fit into a theme.
“The stories,” she says, “are told with compassion, without judgement, with a clear sense of understanding for the victims. And in these situations, there is no winner. Everybody is a victim.” Ultimately, as she puts it, “Humanity is the basis of all the stories in this collection.”
“Recent history has seen many upheavals in Assam. The students’ agitation gave rise to writings in all genres. Different aspects of the way the once peaceful movement degenerated into violence are showcased in some of the pieces,” she says.
There are certain issues—of migration and borders—that remain unresolved in Assam even today. It’s no wonder then that several stories deal with these, as well as with the idea of conflict, both physical and psychological. And yet these stories could be set in any place in the world that has witnessed conflict. It is this universality, embedded in the particulars of the story, which imbues them with power.
“But,” she adds, “there are also delicate narratives, such as that of a woman with severe obsessive compulsive disorder, told with deep understanding. And there is the conflict between man and nature in a couple of stories, where, for instance, the pain in the hunter’s wife’s eyes is reflected in those of the quarry.”