Let’s start with the positives – a novel about the Bengali experience in Shillong, especially during the troubles, is always welcome. The novel has some nice passages and some wit at times, for example ‘…..he transformed himself into an amalgam of Devdas and Descartes—a perpetually intoxicated mathematical genius, composed, in equal parts, of alcohol and algebra’, to describe Debu’s tutor, Professor Bose… The novel’s treatment of the Sylhet-Calcutta divide imbibes it with an angle that will be new to Khasi readers while the episodes around the first TV in Upper Jail Road and the Bengali fish embargo during the troubles are well recounted. The loss of home or the lack of it, the longing and sorrow that emerges as a result and the plight of people who have suddenly become outsiders in a place they love can be felt throughout the novel and is movingly rendered in parts. But the novel also fails on many fronts. It surrenders too easily to stereotypes and it miserably fails to overcome the tropes that have become a bit tiresome in novels about Shillong…
Everyone drinks in Shillong. It’s cold. A nip of whisky makes you feel good and warm. That’s all there is to it. Go to Eee Cee Restaurant in the evening and you’ll see them—Khasis, Bangalis, Nepalis, Biharis—all of them drinking away to glory.’
This is the opening chapter of Tamil novelist Joe D’Cruz’s first work of fiction, AazhiSoozh Ullagu (The Ocean-Rimmed World) translated by V. Geetha Published in 2004, on the eve of the tsunami that devastated Tamil nadu’s coast, the novel unfolds as a series of events, tales and meditations on the sea, fisher life and the coast, over a period of time, from the early decades of the 20th century to the 1980s.
V. Geetha had translated the 600+ page novel in 2013 and it was all set for publication, when Mr C’Cruz announced his support for Narendra Modi’s candidature as prime ministerial candidate and for the BJP. This upset the translator and she withdrew her translation and decided not to offer it for publication. She has however continued to reflect on her decision, since the novel tells a rich and layered tale and is a great testimony to the lives of fishers, their imagination, powers of endurance and their love of the sea.
‘Chandal Jibon’ (2009) by Manoranjan Byapari is the story of Jibon, a boy born into the hitherto ‘untouchable’ Chandal (or Namasudra) community in East Bengal, whose parents flee from East Pakistan and arrive as refugees in India. The story of the boy’s journey to adulthood – is also the story of the experience of the subaltern Bengali refugee community and of caste oppression, humiliation and violence, providing a trenchant bottom-up view of post-1947 Bengal and of Calcutta in the turbulent Naxalite era. It is an epic tale of the indomitable human will to survive.
The cow is the wife of the bull …