'Haunted by relentless turmoil but strive to tell our tales'
Arupa Patangia Kalita talks about the turmoil in Northeast, seriousness of readers in Assam and need for democratic evolution.
The relentless and persistent political and extremist turmoil might have left the Assamese society searching for answers but writers in the state are unfettered, their creativity undiminished and, in some cases, as for renowned and highly-decorated Arupa Patangia Kalita, it has given them an extra edge to strive further to tell their tales.
"Whenever we pick up the pen, we are haunted by the disturbed times resulting in repetition and hackneyed handling of themes and characters but that doesn't stop us. We strive to tell our tales," Kalita said.
"Assam has a serious set of readers and I have complete faith in them," says the Sahitya Akademi Award recipient, whose latest work, short story collection "The Musk and Other Short Stories", explored themes such as insurgency, women's rights and child labour.
Since the All Assam Students Union (AASU) agitation or the Assam Movement of the 1980s, which, according to Kalita, was the "harbinger of terrorism in Assam", writers have had to face a "terrible and unkind time".
But she asserted that there were a few who were not inhibited and freely explored their creativity.
Asked to reflect on the present state of the Assamese society and the changes that have taken place since the agitation, the author said: "Firstly, it was a highly negative movement which grew out of a very serious and real problem: the illegal immigration from Bangladesh, a grave threat to the demographic contour of the land.
"The chauvinistic agitation, marred with ethnic cleansing, riots and extreme intolerance, crushed the process of the Assamese society's growth and also destroyed the leftist and democratic trend in the state.
"But the only good thing that resulted from it was the highlighting of the region's problems, which forced the Centre to pay more attention to it."
In her book, Kalita beautifully and poignantly gives the readers a look at how insurgency has ruined normal lives in the state. In "Aai, the Mother", an old, ailing widow still expects her two terrorist sons to return home while her third son is killed in a bomb blast.
"A Precarious Link" tells us how a simple flourishing fruit seller loses all his business when bomb blasts turn his beloved town into an inferno. "Two Days from a Phantom's Tale" is the story of a man who is abducted and killed in crossfire.
On the long-time effects of the 1980s, Kalita says: "The betrayal and treachery of the agitation leaders led to massive unemployment, an open black market for jobs, and corrupt politicians, resulting in an ideological vacuum in the Assamese psyche. The ULFA (United Liberation Front of Asom) with its secessionist mindset came forward to fill the void."
In nearly 40 years since its inception in 1979 to establish a "sovereign socialist Assam", the extremist group has achieved nothing and has no future, the writer said.
The other important issue that Kalita spun into her stories was women's rights. This is highlighted in "The Goddess", about a homeless woman who comes to steal offerings from a Kali temple.
"Mrignabhi" tell us the story of Sontara who wanted to study but is forcefully married off to a man only to lose him the day she gives birth to her child and then leads a life of contempt and bitterness.
"Doiboki's Day" is about a low-caste fisherwoman who takes shelter in a 'naam ghar' (Assamese temple) only to be beaten up by the locals for entering the sanctum sanctorum.
But Kalita says Assamese women are still holding their own, even more than their counterparts elsewhere in India. "In spite of a disheartening atmosphere, including lack of avenues and unemployment, Assamese women have managed to excel in various fields. Assamese women do enjoy a better position in society compared to women in other Indian states."
For the betterment of women's status, she said, "Offer them a society where they will be safe and free, then see miracles will happen." Kalita feels the democratic system of Assamese society still needs to evolve after the people have had to
face various issues over the years such as illegal infiltration, a constant fear of
losing their identity, not being able
to enjoy a genuine numerical majority and a continuing panic of getting swamped by outsiders.