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Rashmi Narzary: The carefree world of a Bodo boy

An interview with Rashmi Narzary, who won the Sahitya Akademi award for children's books

Rashmi Narzary with her two dogs in Guwahati.Photo: Courtesy Rashmi Narzary
Rashmi Narzary with her two dogs in Guwahati.Photo: Courtesy Rashmi Narzary

“I remember having done my first creative bit of writing when I was in the fourth standard. My mother said I used to write even before that," Sahitya Akademi award-winning author Rashmi Narzary says with an unpretentious smile. “That was a poem!"

Narzary chats in a calm, soft voice, laced with good humour, poise and humility. We’re at her home in Guwahati, where she stays with her IAS officer husband, Hemanta Narzary, her children Sandhya and Jairaj, and her inseparable pet dogs Eddie and Fido. When I ask her about the initial feelings on being selected for the Sahitya Akademi Bal Puraskar 2016 for her children’s book, His Share Of Sky (Leadstart Publishing), she says it took a while for the news to sink in. “When it finally did, it felt great and humbling to have my name appear on the same list as that of my idol Ruskin Bond" (Bond received the award in 2012).

His Share Of Sky is a collection of interconnected short stories for children, set in rural Kokrajhar in Assam. The stories revolve around the life of a mischievous 10-year-old Bodo boy named Barsau. His world is full of adventure, and he is never bored or tired. Although he lives in poverty, he is content with whatever nature offers him and has fun with his brothers and friends on the banks of the Jwima river. Every little boy in every part of the beautiful countryside of Assam has been her inspiration for the book, Narzary says.

“It is that little boy I see frolicking by the fields along the highway, enthusiastically climbing up a jackfruit tree, hurling himself from the embankment into the river with happy abandon during the summer and in winter bracing himself in the chill, by the fire, watching potatoes being roasted. But the most vivid inspiration came from tales that my husband narrated of his own childhood in rural Kokrajhar. Through those tales I saw him in one of those joyously unmindful little boys in the countryside," she says.

Narzary’s descriptions of the serene rural milieu take one back to the well-loved folk tales of Assam, Burhi Aaiyr Xaadhu, written by Sahityarathi Lakshminath Bezbaruah. But Narzary, who has also translated several works from Assamese to English, says her stories aren’t influenced by folk tales. “It is the realistic occurrences like the ones that unfold in His Share Of Sky that have actually influenced folk tales of Assam. The innocence of childhood, the carefree attitude and that little harmless trait of mischief in children and then the poverty that sometimes walks up to mar such joys amid nature are all universal."

In His Share Of Sky, Narzary has used Bodo terms like amai (uncle), anwi (aunt), khamplai (low wooden stool) and phali (knee-length lower garment worn by Bodo men), to retain the authenticity of the setting. “You definitely wouldn’t feel the same intense pulse of the Bodo rural set-up had Barsau called his aunt ‘aunty’ and not ‘anwi’. As I intended to bring rural Kokrajhar alive through the stories and not just make Barsau a kid belonging to any other place on the globe, the inclusion and retention of the Bodo terms were essential. The characteristic Bodo tone of conversation could not be effectively highlighted in any manner other than this in literature," she says.

This, incidentally, has been Narzary’s only book for children. Both her first book, Wings (2005), and her new collection of short stories, Mosaic (2016) were for adults. Mosaic, a collection of 20 short stories based mostly in the North-East, was an entry at the Mumbai Film Fest’s “Word To Screen" category in 2016. The War Within, a story from Mosaic, delicately portrays the feelings of human suffering, love and pain of separation from a loved one. The stories in her second book, Looking Beyond (2006), were inspired by children in Snehalaya, a social service programme for the care and rehabilitation of children at risk in and around Guwahati.

“Writing, I guess, never ‘came’ to me because it was always already there. I find my inspiration from everything and every being around me. To such an extent that my folks are sometimes even scared to say things to me, lest I weave a tale out of it!" she laughs.

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