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Swarnalata: A journey towards lightTilottama Misras novel about renowned Assamese reformer Gunabhiram Barua and his daughter is not just a finely-crafted biography but has also been expertly translated into EnglishANJALI SARMA
ILOTTOMA Misras Swarnalata is a historical and biographical novel of rare brilliance depicting the intellectual and social environment of an era. The novel, published in 1991, is set in Assam and Calcutta in the latter part of the 19th century, an important period in Assams history. Assam came under British dominion as per the Yandaboo Treaty in 1826. The end of indigenous rule brought about a change in the Assamese mentality and social life. Christian missionaries played a key role in the transformation that Assam was going through. Orunodoi, the mouthpiece of the Christian missionaries, excited a renewed interest among educated Assamese people in national consciousness, language and literature. On the other hand, Bengal, which had become part of the British Empire a century earlier, was already witnessing what was known as the Bengal Renaissance, thanks to the Brahmo Samaj movement led by Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. In Swarnalata, Misra has portrayed Gunabhiram Barua, an English-educated man and a senior government official who, influenced by the Brahmo movement, advocates widow remarriage and womens education. Swarnalata, the title character, is his daughter. Barua lives by example. He marries a widow after the death of his first wife and staunchly supports equal rights and education for men and women. Though there is no formal education system for women in Assam, he makes sure that his wife Bishnupriya gets at least home education. Barua and his family pursue Western education while holding their own literature and culture in high regard. He is religiously liberal although he hesitates to send Swarnalata to a Christian missionary school because it propagates a particular religion. Swarnalata develops a liberal mind because of the family environment. Barua appoints Panchanan Sarma as a private tutor for his daughter before sending her to Bethune School, Calcutta. Against all odds, Swarnalatas parents want to shape her as an ideal of the new age. Swarnalata learns from her parents about the values of modern education and religious tolerance. Gunabhiram rationally tries to give an inquisitive
SWARNALATATilottoma Misra Udayon Misra (trans.) Zubaan, 2011 `295, 293 pages Paperback/Fictionnocent Lakhi, however, puts a pertinent question to the male-dominated society on widow marriage when she asks Lakheswar, a distant relative: If there is no harm in a man marrying a second time, what is wrong if a woman does it? Gunabhiram is saddened by the indifference of Assamese society towards womens education. The novelist describes his feelings in symbolic language: Watching the dark dense forests on both sides of the river, Gunabhiram was filled with a feeling of despair. Calcutta was lit up by so many glittering lamps. Would he alone be able to bring some light into all this darkness in Assam? The story of the novel, however, gives an indication that an orthodox society like Assams is undergoing some change. This is evident from Lakhipriyas admission into a boys school in spite of being a widow and from her remarriage with Dharmakanta. That is why Gunabhiram and Bishnupriya have decided: Well never get our Swarna married before she is fourteen, no matter what others may say. Notwithstanding the limitations of the social life in Assam, Swarnalata moves ahead in life by benefiting a lot from the intellectual and liberal environment in Calcutta. The conversation she has with her friends Tora and Lakhi while working for the Assam-Bandhu journal at Bilwa Kutir reveals her maturity. As Tora and Lakhi observe:
BARUA lives by example. He marries a widow after the death of his first wife and staunchly supports equal rights and education for men and womenSwarnalata an idea of what caste really is. He believes, One does not lose ones caste by going to church. He also says, Caste divisions are one of the evil practices of our country. A persons nature is his real caste. One who possesses a good nature naturally belongs to a higher caste. One who indulges in evil practices actually belongs to a lower caste. Even an educated person like Panchanan Sarma struggles to break free of the prevailing evil customs. His
daughter Lakhipriya herself is a victim of superstitions. Sarma gives off Lakhi in marriage when she is a child. Early marriage is perhaps a major reason why she becomes a child widow. The novelist vividly narrates the status of women in conservative Assamese society then, where womens education and widow marriage are taboos, where a widow is forced into a life of austerity, and where a man can marry several times. It is a society where woman is nothing less than a commodity. When Panchanan Sarmas family comes to know that he wants his daughter Lakhipriya to join Swarnalata in her lessons, Sarmas elder brother Bholanath lectures on womens education: The true meaning of womens education lay in their doing their duties well and in providing succour and satisfaction to the husbands at all times. Educated women are by and large thought to be women of ill repute. The rules followed by Lakhi while going to study in Bilwa Kutir, Gunabhirams house, well illustrate the situation Barua faces for marrying a widow and embracing Brahmo religion. An in-
Those girls who stay indoors with their heads covered are seen as the good ones and girls like us are termed shameless. Swarnalata chimes in: Our people think that way because they have not learnt the true meaning of womens liberty. An important event in Swarnalatas life is the talk of her marriage with Rabindanath Tagore, son of Maharshi Debendranath Tagore. Debendranath, however, rejects the match on learning that Gunabhiram had married a widow. Finally, Swarnalata marries Nandakumar Roy, a doctor who has recently returned from London. Hers is a happy married life until the death of Nandakumar. He dies the day her father retires from government service. After the passing of Nandakumar, Swarnalata gets married to Hooghly College principal Khirodchandra Roychoudhuri. Swarnalata, despite her misfortunes, faces life with patience and fortitude. Towards the end of the novel, she comes across as a progressive girl who can take decisions on her life. This is how the writer, through the character of Swarnalata, depicts in lucid and pleasantly emotional language what Gunabhiram did for womens education and emancipation in 19th century Assam. The novel has been translated by renowned professor of English literature Udayon Mishra. A translation is successful when it is able to portray the books main idea. To achieve this, a translators needs to have command over both the languages and the subject matter of the book, which the translator does in this case. Swarnalata has a special characteristic as a biographical novel. It does not deal with the entire life of the eponymous protagonist, but rather charts her mental growth as an young adult. The novel belongs to the genre of Bildungsroman, or the novel of development. Novels of this kind in Assamese are very few; more so because the genre focuses on the psychological development of women. In the light of this, Swarnalata is a big achievement for Tilottoma Misra and a unique addition to Assamese literature. Gunabhiram Baruah was one of the forerunners of modernity in Assam. He not only wrote Ram-Navamir Naat, a drama on widow remarriage, but also married a widow himself. The novel is based on his daughters life. Translating such a novel in English itself is worthy of praise. Udayon Mishras translation has been received well by readers. He has successfully rendered the prose into English and yet preserved the nuances of the Assamese dialects. He has retained words like deuta, aai, maaisena, borkhuriti. The spontaneity of the language has helped readers to enjoy reading the novel. T
OTHER WORDSARUNI KASHYAP
IGERIAN author Chimamanda Adichie writes in her essay, The Colour of an Awkward Conversation that she was offended when a black man called her sister at a Brooklyn book store in the United States because To be called sister was to be black, and blackness was the very bottom of Americas pecking order. I did not want to be black. Towards the end of the essay, she writes, There are many stories like mine of Africans discovering blackness in America. When I read this essay, I was struck by the relevance it could have to many Northeastern migrant students in Delhi who had discovered their Northeastern-ness in Delhi in different amusing and offensive situations, that pointed towards the deep-rooted prejudice mainland India had towards people from this region. I had never considered myself as a Northeasterner before moving to Delhi. It was in this city I was told so and, gradually, I started accepting that label. In her famous TED Talk titled, The Danger of a Single Story, Adichie enumerates how demeaning and damaging the single story about Africans is. How it stifles the diversity of African life and projects the helpless, hapless images of Africans repeatedly. She illustrates this with several personal anecdotes, in a language tinged with humour and warmth. She mentions how her first American roommate was highly disappointed when she fished out Maria Carey from her bag because the girl was expecting Adichie to listen to tribal music. It resonates with a personal incident of mine when we had gone to Himachal Pradesh on a trip from my college in Delhi. Our bus had suddenly stopped in the middle of the night on a lonely road that had forests on both sides. Jokes about wild tribals attacking us were cracked by many. But the laughter had reached a new decibel when a friend of mine had said, Dont worry, no tribals would kill you, we arent in the Northeast. I didnt find that
Chimamanda Adichies Fiction and Indias NortheastAdichies novel about the Biafra War and its parallels with our region could be a pointer to how diverse narratives from here should be placed before the mainstreamIndia conflict. The novels title, referring to the flag of the short-lived country of Biafra, reminded me of ULFAs flag: divided in the middle into yellow and green, the yellow, upper-portion of the flag contains half of a red rising sun with seven rays. Biafra is called The Land of Rising Sun. It is an epithet the Assamese people use to refer to their state, made famous by many songs among which Bhupen Hazarikas Asom Aamar Rupohi is the most popular one : Our Assam is Beautiful/ In the eastern part of India/ it is The Land of the Rising Sun. This is one of the reasons why this novel is close to my heart. Just like the Assam Movement an important phase in the history of the Northeast where answers to many contemporary problems in the region rest the subject of Biafra is a sensitive matter in Nigeria that people are reluctant to engage with. Apart from rejuvenating discussion on that period, Adichies novel extends the tradition of literature on Biafra by joining the long line of books such as Chinua Achebes Girls at War and Other Stories and Beware, Soul Brother (poems) and Buchi Emechetas Sunset in Biafra (civil war diary). The AssamIndia conflict is indeed much different and the tragedy hasnt reached a similar scale, but the parallels are unmistakable. Biafra was forced to starvation and famine by the federal
u What future do you see for literature from the Northeast? t Literature is all-pervading and it will always have a large readership, especially in Assam. Journals and magazines in the vernacular are most appealing to readers. They deal with contemporary issues that many are familiar with. Since newspapers are widely read all over the region, they should do a lot of knowledge-sharing that deals with todays issues in a userfriendly way. The target should be the youth and they must get to know things that are happening in the world of performing arts and sports which may give them an opportunity to make contacts with people in context here and nationally.
u How close is your relation with literature in general, and with literature of the Northeast in particular? t I am not an avid reader like many of my friends. But the literature of the Northeast attracts me because I work on issues of the region. Regional literature is wide ranging, from fables to grandmothers tales, rural stories and those depicting contemporary problems. Being most familiar with the issues of women I have gone through a range of literature dealing with the subject, in relation to our situation, the neo liberal contradictions that put women into risks and the decline of food sources in the face of infrastructure development and big business. In this context, novels have actually represented the abovementioned issues.
u What does literature mean to you? Do you think it has any relevance in our day-to-day lives? According to you, does it have anything to do with all that is happening around us? t To me reading fiction or non-fiction that deals with social realities is good literature. I personally feel that a truly good book is when I am at work and look forward to returning home to read the rest of it! One thing is certain that celluloid has taken over the minds of people in different ways, decreasing reading habits of people. And yet, literature has relevance to our daily lives because people are reading, whether its is in the form of newspapers, journals, magazines and books.
Monisha Behal is founder member and chairperson of the North East Network, a womens organisation that has initiated several projects on womens development within the region. She tells Uddipana Goswami she feels happy when writers from the Northeast are read by people elsewhere
JUST like the Assam Movement an important phase in the history of the Northeast where answers to many problems in the region rest the subject of Biafra is a sensitive matter in Nigeria, with which people steer away from engagingforces, which had led to a death toll of nearly one million. As a Northeasterner, I was struck by the character of Uguwu, who extends the idea of what Adichie refers to as the danger of a single story. Among Professor Odenigbos regular guests is his friend Okeoma who visits often, stays longest, wears shorts often and drank Fanta. A poet, he is hailed by Odenigbo as the voice of our generation. Its curious that very little of the poetry that is so often read in Odenigbos house is shown in the book. But throughout the novel, another book called The World Was Silent When We Died unfolds, charting the genesis of Nigeria, the ethnic tensions, the war and starvation. At the end of the book, it is revealed th...