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Writing Conflict, Writing Gender: Looking at Two Assamese Novels

By Parvin Sultana

The North-Eastern region of India has seen many a conflict unfold and take hold of the lives of people. Literature like the other aspects of one’s life in this region has also engaged with conflict – albeit in different ways. Be it Dhruba Hazarika’s Sons of Brahma, which deals with the common people caught in the crossfire between militants and security forces, Aruni Kashyap’s House with a Thousand Stories (2013) or Mitra Phukan’s Collector’s Wife (2005) – conflict continues to be a central theme in the works of writers from the North-East. Works of literature have also looked at the conflict-ridden atmosphere from a gendered lens. This piece will try to explore the engagement of two contemporary women writers of Assam with the conflict and identity politics that the state has simmered in. It will analyze Arupa Patangia Kalita’s Felanee (2003) and Rita Choudhury’s Ei Somoy Sei Somoy (2007).

Both the novels written within a few years reflect on the tumultuous years of socio-political movements that the state underwent. Starting from the language movement to movements of sub-nationalism and demands of ethnic homeland – these two novels try to encompass the impact that the most vulnerable section in the community, that is, the women, faced. Both the novels look at a particular period of Assam’s history. It harps back to that period which can be regarded as the formative years of Assamese nationalism. This period was also marked by social upheavals like the Language Movement in the 1960s, the Nellie Massacre in 1983, and the Assam Movement (1979-1985). These two novels look at women whose lives have been impacted both directly and indirectly by these political and social movements.

Let us look at these novels and then try to understand where these two narratives converge in terms of women’s experience in conflict areas and where they diverge. Rita Choudhury’s Ei Somoy Sei Somoy is a story that travels back and forth through Aditi Choudhury’s escapades in her memory lane. Aditi, now a lecturer in one of the prestigious colleges of Assam, was also an active leader of the Assam Movement. Responding to the nation’s call, she stepped out in the midst of the turbulence that shook the state. The Movement saw a fair participation of women. Many women like Aditi stepped out of home and fought like their male counterparts for the state of Assam. For the period of the Movement, many Assamese women could bypass the shackles of a traditional society and move out of gendered spaces and traditional roles earmarked for them in a patriarchal society. Aditi herself undertook many such daring jobs of picketing, strikes, carrying messages, etc.

Post Movement, however, the scenario changed. Young Aditi who moved across Assam with her male comrades suddenly turned into a woman at the prime of her youth with no family and no guardian. To put an end to the character assassination, Aditi married fellow revolutionary Chandan Phukan. Chandan was also a leader in the new political party and a Minister in the new government. It was then Aditi witnessed the difference between ideological wars and realpolitik. With a change in his socio-political background, Chandan’s friends also changed. The nexus between political class and economic class became apparent. Aditi’s position in Chandan’s home and life was different from previous times. She was to move away from being an independent revolutionary to be the ideal wife of a successful politician. However, in this new situation, Aditi felt out of place. The disillusionment with those at the helm of power after the Movement was not only personal but also political. The decay was not limited to Aditi’s marital life, but reflected the failures of the newly formed government as well. It exposed the gap between a popular movement and realpolitik.

Aditi could not cope with the ideological bankruptcy amongst the ex leaders of the Movement. Also there was a tendency to marginalize the female leaders in the post Movement political set up. The Movement was aimed to address certain problems of the state – the problem of illegal immigration, of meager royalty for the state’s resources, of perpetual underdevelopment, and the need to safeguard the interest of the people of Assam. However, the Axom Gana Parishad, a product of the Assam Movement, failed to address these issues. The party and its leaders fell into the trap of corruption, nepotism, secret killings, etc. Aditi could cope with these issues only by moving away. She left Chandan Phukan, took the responsibility of the rebel Aranya Baruah’s daughter, picked up another daughter discarded by the society and found new meaning in her motherhood.

Aditi’s break with her past is incomplete. She is forced to revisit that part of her life when she is given the project of writing about that tumultuous period. While revisiting the period of the Movement, she acknowledges some bitter facts about it. She acknowledges how the seeds of separatism amongst the different tribes were sown during the Movement. The Movement was on the brink of turning chauvinist and alienated a number of tribes, which earlier identified with the greater Assamese society. It showed the inherent problems in identity based movements.

The book also responded to certain social problems and the degradation of social values. Interestingly the novel juxtaposes different women characters. While Aditi is the idealist disillusioned with the degradation of an ideology, characters like Sukanya’s mother (Sukanya is Aditi’s younger daughter’s friend), a nouveau rich, is the quintessential other. She is someone from an elitist social background, who expresses her sexual desires. The novel also comments on other female characters like Aditi’s colleagues – Jayshree, ex compatriots from the Movement days, and Niva. These are all women who have compromised at some level or another. The novel no doubt valorizes a female protagonist who has crossed the confines of a middle class life; the values that the text seems to enshrine are a certain middle class sense of respectability – where questions of female desire remains subsumed.

While Rita Choudhury’s book looks through the eyes of someone who has been in the centrestage of the Assam Movement, Arupa Patangia’s Felanee gives an account of the experience of people in the fringes. This is looking at the movement from the below. Felanee translates to ‘thrown away’ and is the name of the protagonist. This work of literature traverses across generations – Ratnamala, a child widow and the daughter of a rich Mauzadar, elopes with the mahout Kinaram Bodo; her daughter, Jutimala, grows up and gets married to a Bengali shopkeeper, Khitish Ghosh. Meanwhile the language movement began and the state was in turmoil; Jutimala and her husband are killed. Their newborn daughter is thrown in a nearby pond. She is Felanee and she is rescued by her uncle. When she grows up she marries Lambodar Koch. As Felanee gives birth to a son and starts her own family, another problem starts brewing in the state. They are forced to flee. In a riot that follows, Lambodar goes missing and Felanee is left on her own with a young child, Moni. The novel enters the territory of the lives of the working class through communal riot, ethnic unrest, and state sponsored violence. The novel also destabilizes any notion of a puritan Assamese community. Someone like Felanee has a mixed lineage and she fails to understand the cause of clash amongst the communities.

When identity politics was at its height, people from different communities also tried to co-opt Felanee. While Kali Buri asks her whether she is a Bengali, Bulen, who joined a Bodo militant outfit, asks her to wear Dokhona – the traditional attire of Bodo women. She is left rethinking about her identity. Felanee’s life is a living example of the fluid nature of identity. Unlike the protagonist, Aditi, who is convinced about the ideal of the Movement, Felanee has no affinity to it and is a victim of that movement. Rather she feels empathy for other victims like those murdered in the Nellie massacre. Her friendship amongst women who struggled to meet their daily needs is a survival technique. She has Kali Burhi who has transformed herself from the social outcast Arati to a Kali incarnate; she has Sumola – Bulen’s mentally unstable wife; she has Minoti, who was duped by her employer’s son who later joined the rebels, and Ratna’s mother, who works very hard to make ends meet.

The novel shows how violence overdetermines the lives of these women. Starting from domestic violence, the larger socio-political violence, state sponsored violence render women as the worst victims. Ideological warfare and politics impact the lives of the common people. While Rita Choudhury’s novel pinpoints the degradation at a move away from the ideals upheld in Assam Movement, Arupa Patangia’s novel, through the hardships of Felanee, questions these very ideals. While women suffer the worst during any kind of socio-political upheavals, these two novels bring forth the difference between the experiences of women based on their social locations. While Aditi, an educated middle class woman, could move away from the Movement and move on in her life, Felanee a working class woman has been thrown into the turmoil again and again. The multiple marginalization that women from the lower rungs of the society face finds resonance in the story of Felanee.

While both the novels talk about women’s engagement with the Assam Movement, they show how this engagement is mediated by other factors like ethnic and class background. It has also shown how violence in the larger society re-entrenches violence in the domestic sphere. Both the novels show the resilience of women – Aditi gives up a comfortable life and chooses hardships because of her ideals; Felanee builds alliances with other marginalized women and rebuilds her own life. Their lives are marked by frequent displacements because of riots, harassment triggered by the state apparatus, and violence inflicted by the rebels. The novels raise important issues of how Movements like Assam Movement alienated other ethnic communities which led to the rise of newer secessionist groups and how neither the rebels nor the state security took up the cause of the downtrodden. It was the common people who got caught in the crossfire and women suffered the most.

Photo: A Rainy Day by Maulee Senapati

Parvin Sultana teaches in P. B. College, Gauripur, Assam.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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