The House with a Thousand Stories: A review and an interview with Aruni Kashyap

“Mridul, my friend, told me how life had changed in the village after people with guns started to roam around like rabid dogs.”

“Everyone in the family had been killed. Hiren, his wife, their two sons who were in primary school, his eighty year-old grandmother, his mother, his father and the maid who came to help them with the household chore from the nearby hamlet.” 

The House with a Thousand Stories

Aruni Kashyap

Aruni Kashyap

Aruni Kashyap’s debut novel The House with a Thousand Stories (Penguin, Viking, India) is a poignant tale of human suffering in the backdrop of insurgency and draconian administration. Through the eyes of Pablo, the teenaged protagonist of the novel, Kashyap paints a picture of Assam between 1998-2002 centred on the gross violation of human rights by secret and systematic killings of relatives, friends, and sympathisers of ULFA insurgents.

The House with a Thousand Stories is set in Assam’s picturesque rural area of Mayong (in Morigaon district)  on the banks of the Brahmaputra. Kashyap’s prose is crisp and surgically precise; he captures Assam with the insight and observations of someone who is narrating a story very dear to him.  Kashyap’s mastery lies in his craft of story-telling—it shifts back and forth in time, oscillates between Guwahati and Mayong, and transcends all barriers of time and space to speak about the crisis that administrative atrocities and political high-handedness can inflict on common people.
A typical village by the mighty river with a horde of characters every Assamese can relate to, the psychology of the confused youth: trying to find a voice and holding on to an ideology, the simplicity of the villagers contrary to the complex lives of the Guwahati middle class, the customary bandhs that have been plaguing Assam ever since, the rituals in a traditional Assamese marriage, insurgency and its consequences: Aruni Kashyap paints everything onto his canvas in shades of black and white.
Pablo’s is a tale of loss and grief, of love and longing that desperately needs to be told. It does not only tickle your deep, hidden sensitivities, but it gives you a generous portion of food for thought: about Assam, about society, and about life.

Penguin Viking India. Rs.399

Penguin Viking India. Rs.399

Here is an exclusive interview with Aruni Kashyap through e-mail:

  • What was the experience of writing The House with a Thousand Stories like? To what extent is the novel autobiographical? 

It was exciting and exhilarating. I wrote most of the book during the last year of my college, facing a wall in my small hostel room at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi. When I wrote it, I was mentally travelling in Mayong, the special place where I have the best memories of my childhood.

It is not autobiographical at all but the skeletons of many characters are real. 

  • You recently said that Amitav Ghosh had given you the confidence to write ‘Assamese novels in English’. You have woven the Assamese lingua-franca beautifully into your English prose, especially when the names of places like Bazaar become Bozar and the use of  jethai, borma, da for addressing characters and relations. How difficult was it for you craft your tale in this way?

It was not difficult at all since I grew up inhabiting two languages, like a lot of my contemporaries. I told the story in the same way I would tell an Assamese friend, if we were speaking to him in English.

  • In The House with a Thousand Stories, we are taken through one of the most unfortunate events in the history of Assam through the eyes of Pablo– a sensitive urban teenager. Through what Pablo sees and feels, we realise how rural Assam had suffered mercilessly at the hands of the government backed killers as well as the Indian army—whether it’s people avoiding a certain patch of land beneath an electric post or a raped young girl shrieking with fear on seeing the army. But why does young Pablo never question the misdeeds of the insurgents, the heartless crimes committed by the ULFA in the name of a fight for liberation of Assam? Why does he never question the demand for sovereignty? Does he see only one side of the story?

Yes, he doesn’t and he would question, critique, after he grows up. Pablo is only seventeen and he doesn’t know much about Assam’s history. What he sees in the village is mostly a revelation for him, though previous conversations had prepared him in a way about what he should expect. Though he is very disturbed by the events, he hasn’t yet developed the intellectual artillery to critique or argue about them. In fact, he decides to tell the story because he is scarred by everything that happens during his trip. This is also the one of the reasons why the book is non-linear. There is so much trauma at the heart of this narrative and I was aiming to create a textual equivalent of this trauma. When a person is very disturbed, he or she can’t tell what happened in a straightforward way. Pablo also can’t say this in a direct, linear way. So he goes round and round, comes close to the point, steps back, and so on. Though he doesn’t question ideas of sovereignty and critique human rights violations by the army, he is responding to it at a deeper level that is demonstrated, for instance, in the broken sequence of the novel.

  • Where do you see the future of ‘Assamese novels in English’? And what’s your opinion on this entire debate on Indian writing in English vis-a-vis Indian language writing?

I think it is really for readers to comment on the “future of Assamese novels in English”. I would of course, continue trying to write more such novels or stories or poems.

I think this debate will cease gradually as more and more translations appear in English and other languages from Indian languages.

  • Every Assamese who has lived extensively in heartland India will testify to the common man’s ignorance about North Eastern India. From my own experience I can vouch for the fact that for a large number of heartland Indians, Assam still remains a jungle ravaged by militancy with a certain famous temple called Kamakhya. How do you expect your non-Assamese Indian readers to receive this novel? What has been the reception till date according to market statistics?

I don’t think about a non-Indian or a non-Assamese or non-Guwahati reader when I write so I don’t have an answer to this question. In fact, I am least concerned about readership when I write because I can’t deal with these boundaries. Fiction is a free place and I try to find solutions to questions that trouble me at a philosophical level. If I am worried about readership, I wouldn’t be able to complete my projects. My stories are for anyone from any country, gender or race.

I think it is too early to speculate on sales figures, and that is again, a question my publisher should be answering.

  • A Google search for ‘Pablo’ pops out two names—Pablo Picasso, the painter and Pablo Escobar, a Colombian drug lord; Wikipedia says that Pablo is a Spanish male name. Why is Prachurya Medhi of Guwahati nicknamed Pablo?

I think Pablo’s parents should answer this question! They speak in English with each other at home, his father travels around the world, and his mother wants him to study in the United States after completing his class XII exams. What I mean to say is that they are very wealthy, west-facing parents, though they acknowledge and have roots in the village. 

You know, writing also works in strange ways and it works best when characters you want to kill refuse to die, when characters refuse to love the character you want them to love, so on. When my writing is going on well, I feel someone is dictating everything to me. I am just my characters’ stenographer and in this novel, I took dictation from Pablo. He wasn’t alive in my mind when I thought of him as Bhaity, Gubindo or Putukon – all very-Assamese names. 

Naming is important for me and I change the name of my characters repeatedly while writing a story. In fact, a few hours before my editor sent off the novel to the copy-editor, I changed the names of some characters. Then again, I decided not to. I think he thought I must be mad.

 When I summon my characters, they should talk to me. And they don’t talk to me if I summon them by the wrong name. So I keep guessing their names until they respond. 

(Abhishek Saha is a post graduate student of Journalism at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai)

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WHERE THE MOUNTAINS SANK- a photo-story

WHERE THE MOUNTAINS SANK

a photo-story

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About 65 kms away from Guwahati’s hustle-bustle, there exists a serene lake, nestled away quietly amidst hills, tea gardens and Rabha villages. History says that this large lake was formed during the massive 1897 Assam earthquake and a local further explained that at that time, five mountains had sunken into the ground and hence the name Chandubi- where Chand means five in Khasi and Dubi means sinking.

Chandubi lakes’ picturesque setting attracts a lot of visitors and picnic parties. It is also a home to a large variety of migratory birds in the winter.

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A panoramic view of the Chandubi Lake

Boats lined up for carrying tourists across the lake

Our boatman- a young Rabha boy

In the lake, a number of young boys from the nearby village of Jaramukhia work part-time as boatmen and ferry visitors across the lake

A boatman enjoying his leisure time

Tourists taking pictures of the landscape from a boat

I encountered this man from the nearby village dressed up fashionably with a black hat and boating across the river

Boat-1

Boat-2

The two young Rabha guys who were our boatmen

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Driving directions-

From Guwahati you have to go towards Airport and then up to Mirza Charali (or police point), from there take left turn towards Mirza College and go towards Barihat> Loharghat> Chand dubi or Chandubi lake road. Up to Mirza buses are available but from there you have to take private vehicle to reach the lake. Take food along with you as there is no such provision of food stall near the lake. If you are planning to stay at the government tourist lodge near the lake , must carry full ration including kerosene and petrol. Be careful in doing water activities especially boating as lots of accidents occurs here.

Best time to visit- From November to May.
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“Etai Amar Ambition”

From cousins to friends, everyone around seems to be focused on one question only, “So dude, what’s next? Job or higher studies?” Suddenly life seems to be pin-pointed towards goals, ambitions and, “where exactly you see yourself in the next 5 years”.

What if, if I don’t see myself in the near future, in a place like yours? What if, my goals and ambitions are not conventional? What if, I simply want to chase my dreams, till the last breath of my life?

To these thoughts, and my bohemian aspirations, this piece.

Cheers!

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A photography by film-maker and photographer Inderjit Singh.

During the early 1990s, the Bengali music industry was tangled miserably in a complex knot of monotonous melodies and the new generation-totally demoralised by the raging issues of the time like unemployment- could not relate to the songs out there. Then, a young man from Kolkata packed his powerful and socially relevant lyrics with hummable tunes and released his first album “Ei Besh Bhalo Achi” in 1993. He was Nachiketa Chakraborty, and in the years to come, he became an icon of modern Bengali music, and a whole lot of next-generation singers walked ahead on the path shown by him.

During that time, my father was an upcoming doctor in the city of Guwahati. He had a wife, also a doctor, and small kid-two years old-me. When I was a little grown up to understand songs and their meanings, I remember my father holding the steering wheel of our first Maruti 800 in one hand and a cigarette in the other, driving me to school between his hectic schedule, while Nachiketa played on the car’s audio system.

In 1994, Nachiketa released his second album, and in it, there was song called Ambition. The title of this article comes from this song and it translates to “This is what my ambition is!” I remember hearing it a number of times- then in the car’s music player and now on my laptop. Times change, but feelings don’t. In his fresh and bold voice, he sang that though everyone wants to become either a doctor or engineer, he wants to follow the wanderlust in him. He questions, in the song, that most professionals in today’s world have lost their ethics and morality, and rather than achieving success within a corrupted system, it is better that he becomes an idiot, or a Baul singer or a globe trotter. That’s what his ambition is.

For me, on one side were these kind of songs, on the other, my parents’ awfully busy life beautifully choreographed with the pattern of a so-called social life; on one side was my strict Catholic missionary school which taught nothing better than ‘not talking in the class’, ‘speaking in English’ and ‘obeying your teachers’, and on the other was my repulsion from all kinds of rules, compulsions and conventional paths of life. May be, from then itself, ambition in life has had a strange effect on my life.

I used to pass pathetically boring days at school stained by rebukes and partiality meted out proficiently by teachers, but then curling up in the bed with a paperback in hand for the entire afternoon made the day for me. At whatever I was persuaded to do, without my liking, I flunked. First my mother brought an old (little deaf too) Indian classical musician to teach me the Hawaiian guitar- I lost all interest in the instrument by two years. Side by side, she had taken me to a table-tennis coaching academy run by a family friend- I played a tournament or two after my two years of coaching then left, with no deep impression of the game, whatsoever. She took all efforts to make her son a polished, intelligent and sophisticated guy, yet her son always craved for that which tickled his nerves, for that which gave him the high. From such experiences since childhood, I have learnt that, it’s very difficult to live your life on implanted dreams. I can’t make being an MBA my ambition- it had never been on the cards, neither had civil engineering been. It’s impossible for me to suddenly evolve myself according to the patterns set for people in my shoes, and completely forget about what gives me, as a human being, pleasure.

I want to dream, and then chase each and every one of them. I want to recline on an easy chair and write fiction, and not manage some obscure data sitting in front of my laptop in an air-conditioned office. I want to document riots, scams, and political and social issues as a journalist rather than measuring the percentage of cement in a certain concrete mix.

I want to roam the world and take pictures-of men and women and their struggles in life, of lions and giraffes in the African grasslands-of their hunts and grazing, of nature- at its serene best, may be in some secluded English countryside, and of the crisis in Darfur and Palestine. I want to call back my wife, back at home, may be after clicking a memorable picture of an African lion roaring into my camera or after my novel has been shortlisted for the Man Booker, rather than after striking a business deal in a conference room, pungent with the smell of alcohol.  And when I get old, I want to show my grand-daughter the picture of a girl of her age, clicked by me, who had lost her limbs in an earthquake in a poor country.

I want to sit in a monastery and hear Buddhist monks recite their prayers, I want to sit with my partner on a beach and watch it drizzle on the sea, and someday, I even want to just vanish with her from the society and land up in an island in the middle of the Pacific ocean, where there is no one else, hopefully.

I want to read. I want to write. I want to take pictures. I want to make films. And, I want to give a damn to the conventions, moralities and patterns of the average middle-class life.

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The men and women I meet at Railway stations.

The Indian society is in itself a randomly diverse mixture and any railway station across the nation seems to me an effective vantage point to observe it. You see people from all walks of life- Hindus and Muslims, beggars and professionals, children and the aged, blind women and mad men, young couples and anti-social policemen. You will see men who sit on the platform wearing shabby clothes and stare blankly at everyone. You will find men who clap and sing, and then bow towards an imaginary audience; you will find women, whose breasts have been flattened by diseases and malnutrition, sitting on the platform with ash-grey faces and begging; and you will find children, whose childhood has been snatched away from them, working as chai-walas. Then of course, you will bump into the middle-class people, who are quite busy yet somehow maintain a perfect balance between their professional and personal life by simply touching the screens of their smart-phones. You will meet students who are going home after exams on vacations, and couples returning with their newborns to the city after visiting parents at an ancestral village.

A few months back, I witnessed something quite nasty at the Guwahati station. I had gone to see-off a friend, and the train, bound for New Delhi was stalled at the station as certain compartments were being added onto it. The Ambubachi was just over and there was a considerable rush at the station. People had settled in their respective seats in the stalled train. I and my friend were standing on the platform and chit-chatting, when we saw a group of four policemen gherao a person and ask him about the details of the solar panels he was carrying to Delhi. The man seemed to be North Indian, and spoke an accented Hindi. His son, a little kid of around five years, was clinging on to his hand. The police was asking him to produce certain papers and documents, to which he replied that he had no idea. They continued to pressurise him and told him that whatever be the case, they wouldn’t allow him to board the train without the required documents. The interaction was going on, when suddenly one of the policemen slapped the man hard and swore at him. They clutched his hair, shook him and started dragging him out of the platform. A few onlookers had gathered around the scene but no one said anything or asked any questions. When the little boy started screaming, one of the policeman told him that if he cried they would break his dad’s legs. The boy, now silenced, followed.

After about half an hour, the four returned to the platform again, all smiles. I had no clue where the father and son were. The four of them stood near a stall and eyed the sleeper-class compartments. By now, I was conscious of the fact that there was something fishy about the group. After some time, I saw that all the four got up into the sleeper class and went to a certain seat where two young girls were sitting. There was a guy with them- and the three were busy talking.  The uniformed gang went and sat with them. Next, one of them angrily indicated the guy to leave and sit somewhere else. Me and my friend tracked the guy and followed him.  We found him in the next compartment in an irritated state. My friend politely asked him, “Bhaiya, aap ko kyun bhaga diya wahan se?”

Though initially shocked at our uncalled for interest in his case, the man replied, “Pata nahi. Mujhe dhamkane lage. Maine ticket dikhaya. Phir  bhi mujhe bol rahe the ki agar jyada kiya toh andar kar denge.”

“Wo dono ladkiyan aap ke sath nahi hai?”

“Agar mere sath hote toh abhi tak mere hath chal gaye hotein.”

He explained that those two girls were travelling to Delhi alone. Their dad had come to see them off and when he found that this young man was travelling together with his daughters, he requested him to take care of them.

We thanked the man for the information and ran back to where the girls were being grilled. From where we were standing, it appeared as if the four of them were engaged in some serious discussion with the two girls. Making a grave face, they were explaining the girls something. This continued for the next fifteen minutes after which, to our utter bewilderment, we saw the two girls, take out thick bundles of hundred rupee notes from their purse and hand it over to the uniformed dacoits.

The train would leave in a few minutes and my friend went inside. I waved him good-bye, and took the foot-bridge. From the top, I could see the gang, giggling among themselves and counting the money. How they successfully threatened the girls to extort the money is still a mystery to me.

The other day while waiting for my late train at the Ranchi station, I decided to take a stroll towards the far end of the platform which was a bit quiet and secluded. Men urinated and dogs made love there, I found out. Suddenly I spotted a haggard- apparently a mad destitute- sitting on the ground, wearing a loose dirty t-shirt and torn pants. His entire appearance was rather brownish due to the dirt and dust settled on his body. He was eating something from a discarded packet, which he had most probably collected from the garbage heap nearby. As I was observing him, suddenly a dog came near him and sat. In the next few minutes I noticed that the man was saying something to the dog and nodding and shaking his head in such a way as if respond to the dog’s reply. I casually walked a few steps closer to the man and the dog, in such a manner that none of them would take a note of me. I heard the man say, “Where will you go without me?”  He laughed mawkishly. Then, the man offered the dog his packet of food but the dog refused to eat and started walking away. The man softly caught hold of the dog’s neck, and whispering something into its ears, pushed it towards the packet. The dog began eating and the man patted its back.

While this was going on, across the station walls, from a posh hotel complex, around 20-25 continuous shots of firecrackers were exploded into the sky. It went on, one after the other for about 10-15 minutes- myriads of colours brightened the night sky and grey smoke billowed.  Men and women had rushed to this part of the platform to have better view of the celebrations and Shakira’s voice blared from a loudspeaker inside the hotel complex. Probably a marriage ceremony was going on. I could see people wearing fashionable clothes getting down from costly sedans and walk towards the hotel gate with large bouquets and gift in their hands. A stage could also be seen at one corner of the field on which multi-coloured lights zigzagged and lanky women wearing shiny skirts were shaking their hips.

The gathered men and women in the platform were mesmerised by the lights in the sky. They started discussing among themselves as to how nice it would be to have such a marriage party. The mad man was still feeding the dog. He didn’t look up at the colours high up in the sky. He was busy blabbering something to the dog. Perhaps being mentally unstable has exempted him from the trials and tribulations of this material world, which makes us, the common mortals, suffer. And suffer, a lot.

The inequality and injustice in our society is appalling. And the sooner we stop turning a blind eye to the raging issues and stop being so selfish, the better it is for all of us.

***

Is it only hanging Ajmal Kasab that will help us attain Moksha?

Well, the day has finally arrived. After 4 years of political leg-pulling and rhetoric, Ajmal Kasab the lone terrorist survivor of the 26/11 Mumbai attack, has been sentenced to death by the Supreme Court of India. Apart from the death sentence the verdict also establishes that India officially accepts the fact that the plan for the attack was hatched in Pakistan, and it would be of common benefit if our north-western neighbour co-operates to bring to book all the perpetrators as soon as possible. Our politicians are quite happy with the verdict because something positive about the system has finally come out and the aam aadmi, tired of scams, scandals and porn-stars in mainstream cinema, is jubilant that they have something to believe in finally.

But the deeper fact remains that, Ajmal Kasab is more of a robot- a certain brainwashed, misguided and ill-informed humanoid- who was just one of the small pawns in the game. A robot who had been engineered to kill, indoctrinated to false tenants of his own religion; who doesn’t know a single verse from the Koran, yet is convinced that he had killed for Jihad. Reading the events of his life, you can easily figure out that Kasab belongs to a certain uneducated, poor and unemployed strata of Pakistani society which has been continuously dragged into terrorist organisations, most probably seduced by the conformity of achieving a goal in life through this.

The most important question that we Indians should ask ourselves at this point, when our politicians and media have created such a hype about the death sentence, is that whether this verdict of capital punishment, executed now or thirty years later, gives any reason for us to be happy? What are we actually jubilant about? Is it that a mindless psychotic mass-killer is going to the gallows? Or is it that this verdict completely seals the future of a terror free India- just like Dhananjoy Chatterjee’s hanging in Kolkata in 2004 has stopped all rapes in the country? Or are we happy because this verdict is going to send a strong message across the world conveying how strong India is on its anti-terrorism stance?

The culmination of this legal case of such extraordinary magnitude and grave circumstances in a death penalty is not something out of the blue. But the sad part is that the reactions from our politicians and political parties, starting from the calls of a certain saffron party to hang Kasab publicly to another rejoicing the end of biriyani for him, just shows how superficial our political system is. The system wants us to believe that hanging one man is our answer to that unbelievable incident in Mumbai. And what about the millions of poor and misguided youths in Pakistan, in India, all over the world, who fall prey to the malicious sleight of politics, power and greed, and will continue to become Kasabs and Abu Jindals. Someone pulls the string in some distant land, and some puppets dance in illusion. And that dance kills millions of innocents.

May be our politicians know that they can never undertake that gargantuan task of creating a beautiful tomorrow breaking the shackles of inequality, exploitation and immorality. So the system as a whole manufactures certain farces for us to believe in and be content with. May be because of that just after the Coalgate scandal comes up Kasab’s hanging verdict, and we the foolish credulous Indians, forgetting the 186,000 crore where corporate crocodiles with political alliances have sucked dry the country’s resources and economy, will soon be rejoicing at the hanging of a single man. May be because of that we will always remember how gruesome 26/11 was and how boldly it was avenged by the country, forgetting the facts that, “Food inflation in double digits. Vegetable prices rising 60 per cent in a year. Child malnourishment doubles that of sub-Saharan Africa. Families cutting back sharply on milk and essentials. Massive increases in health costs bankrupting millions. Farmers unable to afford inputs or access credit. A drinking water scarcity for many, as more and more of that life-giving substance gets diverted for other purposes.”  (P. Sainath, The Hindu)

May be this kind of living on farces and make believe stories have become just a part of our lives- that’s why people who have all their lives insulted people from the NE states as chinkis  suddenly threw open their arms to embrace Mary Kom and her success, may be that is why the alibi of prosperous industrial development successfully covers up the acts of a mass-murdering Chief Minister, and may be that is why every middle class child has to sacrifice his or her childhood dreams and join in a dream-chasing dash for securing a bright career in this doomed country.

But yes, there are things we should be happy about. We should be happy about the importance of the Kasab verdict from an international and strategic point of view. And we should be more happy I think, on the fact that on the same day as the Kasab verdict came out, a special court in Gujarat convicted former BJP minister in the Narendra Modi cabinet Mayaben Kodnani and Bajrang Dal leader Babu Bajrangi, who reportedly felt like Maharana Pratap after massacring Muslims, in one of worst episodes of the post-Godhra riots- the Naroda Patiya massacre.


Ajmal Kasab should be hanged (although the debate on capital punishment continues) following the judgement of the highest judicial authority of the country. But let’s not act as if the country can attain Moksha by this, please. There are far more deadly wounds to be healed, grotesque crimes to be solved, and strong acts of justice to be affirmed; and along with this we need long term pro-people financial and educational plans for the overall development of the nation. Only then can our democracy achieve what it should.

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Photographs courtesy: 1. Reuters 2. AFP 3. Arko Dutta

Abhishek Saha, a final year Civil Engineering student at Birla Institute of Technology, Mesra, Ranchi, is a freelance writer and photographer. He can be contacted at abhsaha@gmail.com. 

The Wild Manas Experience

“Once inside the jungle, keep your voice low and eyes wide open,” the forest guard in our jeep advised us as we were about to enter through the main gate of the Manas National Park. He checked his rifle, and the jeep started. We were the fourth in a row of around 8 jeeps.

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Forest department elephants returning after work

The Manas National Park, which has six national and international designations- UNESCO World Heritage Site, National Park, Tiger Reserve, Biosphere Reserve, Elephant Reserve and Important Bird Area, is divided into three ranges. The western range is based at Panbari, the central at Bansbari near Barpeta Road, and the eastern at Bhuiyapara near Pathsala. “The site is noted for its spectacular scenery, with a variety of habitat types that support a diverse fauna, making it the richest of all Indian wildlife areas“, notes the UNESCO website which lists the World Heritage Sites.
As the jeeps queued into the narrow forest road, dust billowed and covered the air. Our first encounter with the wild was when the jeep in front of us suddenly halted and signalled us to do the same.  Somewhat confused about what the matter was, we realized that a segregated elephant had suddenly made an arrogant entry in between the row of jeeps. The jeeps screeched to halt and everyone stared at the young elephant with awe. Then we saw peacocks perched up on trees, calling out cheerfully and rhythmically swinging its feathers; and eagles marking the skyline sitting on branches of very tall trees. The road we were following, lead us to one of the view towers in the forest. From its top, we could see a rhino lazily grazing around- the guard explained about the rhino relocation project under which rhinos from Pobitora and Kaziranga have been relocated to Manas. From the view tower, we retraced back and took the other branch of the Y-shaped road.

A safari jeep, shot from the view tower

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“Now, we will start moving towards the river. You will see the sunset against it. That place is called Mathanguri, another side of the forest”, the driver told us.

A peacock perched up on a tree

We had moved into a rainforest like part of the jungle. A green envelope of dense tall tress lined the path and sun rays streamed in through narrow slits between the canopies. Then, we spotted a herd of wild buffaloes and another that of the Indian bison, quite far away. The jeeps stopped, and the tourists focused their cameras and binoculars as the animals moved away into the thick jungle against the yellow setting sun.
We kept on advancing and soon had a glimpse of the hills of our neighbouring country, Bhutan, and within a few minutes we witnessed the view that Manas National Park is best known for- the majestic blue hills standing firmly behind the gurgling waters of the Manas River, and a bright orange ball of fire gave a warm tinge to the entire scene. Mesmerizing, indeed!

A panoramic view of the Bhutan hills and the Manas river

On a small hillock just by the river, is the Upper Bungalow (forest guest house)- and it’s not very easy to get a booking here. But yes, it’s obvious that if you make an overnight stay in this guesthouse, it will be an experience of a lifetime, comparable to the most exotic of resorts in the world!

The guest house overlooks the river. An embankment is also seen.

Our guard explained, “Right behind the Bungalow, a road goes up to Bhutan. Through this road, every morning trade vehicles cross the border and enter India. On the other side of the river, Royal Bhutan has a very beautiful guesthouse overlooking the river and the hills.”
The Sun had set, and it was dark. We got up in the jeep and the guy standing at the back, switched on a high voltage searchlight, connected to the jeep’s engine. He would stand there and focus the light into the pitch dark jungle, to search for animals.
And thus began our return trip- a night safari.

Our guide making the necessary arrangement for the searchlight

*

I have been to the world famous night safari at the Singapore zoo, but believe me, the raw thrill of the return trip at Manas is way ahead of that in Singapore. As a chilly wind blew across, the safari jeeps boldly made their way through the eerily silent and dark jungle. The most surprising thing was that we spotted about 5 big herds of elephants and at one point two segregated members of a herd had almost chased our jeep! It was the most nerve tingling moment of the safari! Apart from elephants, we spotted sambars and buffaloes (again!).

After driving for about two and a half hours from the Manas River we returned back to the main gate.

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The Great Indian Hornbill

Overall, the visit to Manas National Park was a multifaceted experience. On one hand there is this extraordinarily magnificent jungle glorified with all its wilderness- flora and fauna, hills and rivers. But then again the jungle shrieks in the memory of its past- more than two decades of ethnic clashes which have ripped it apart- the animals were mercilessly poached, the officials left their posts, and the jungle was left to be roasted in the fire of human ambitions and political fiasco. The development of the jungle as a tourist destination was dragged by many a mile due to this insurgency, and it seems Manas has just missed the pivotal point in the Indian socio-economic situation when the tourism industry had boomed. Lower Assam itself lies in a pool of neglects and Barpeta Road- the major town nearest to the national park- shows no sign of a prominent tourist industry built-up around the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Right from the National Highway leading to Manas from Guwahati to the condition of the lodges near the forest, everything needs improvement and a touch of professionalism in it to bring it on the list of fantastic tourist destinations in the country. To bring back Manas it would need a concerted effort from a lot of different quarters- be it the government, the UNESCO, the organisations associated with the different rhino relocation projects, tourism department, local people, or NGOs-and the sooner we achieve it, the better.

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Text and Photographs by Abhishek Saha. All Rights Reserved.

Abhishek Saha, a third year Civil Engineering student at Birla Institute of Technology, Mesra, Ranchi, is a freelance writer and photographer. He can be contacted at abhsaha@gmail.com

Salman Rushdie & the Hullabaloo

My special thanks to Anwesha Saha, Md Zishan Khan and Trisha Roy, without whose help this piece couldn’t have been written.

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“Question mark over Rushdie’s participation in Jaipur festival”

 “Muslim groups to go ahead with Rushdie protest”

 “Salman Rushdie’s censoring-out from the ongoing literary festival in Jaipur will be remembered as a milestone that marked the slow motion disintegration of India’s secular state.”

“Four writers who read from The Satanic Verses leave Jaipur to avoid arrest”

“‘Rajasthan police invented plot to keep away Rushdie’”

With this, even the hope of glimpsing Mr. Rushdie on video screen was over.”

“”I’ve investigated, & believe that I was indeed lied to. I am outraged and very angry: Salman Rushdie.”

“UPA behind disruption of Salman Rushdie’s address: Arun Jaitley”

 

Protests against The Satanic Verses

And yet again, it has happened. Rationality, open-mindedness and free speech have been flown down the dirty waters of a filthy drain by a shrewd government and political pressure. Even after all the tumultuous revelations regarding the oppression of the freedom of expression that followed the legendary artist M.F. Hussain’s death last year, nothing has changed, and it seems all those essays and full-page editorials championing freedom in art, culture and literature were a mockery in itself.

Salman Rushdie’s identity is not only that of an eminent Indian-born English writer who had won the Booker and the Booker of Bookers, but of the most prominent harbinger of a paradigm shift in the literary scene of Indians writing in English. He is one of the brightest literary stars the country has ever produced and an inspiration for people who have already made or wish to make a mark for themselves in the world literary scene from India.  And yes, it now stands as a fact that the author was kept away from the Jaipur Literature Festival 2012, the biggest annual literary festival in Asia, thanks to shrewd scheming and religion based political moves having strong connections with the upcoming state polls.

Recently, a lot has already been said in the media (and the above mentioned headlines, which most of you might have followed thoroughly, capture the entire timeline of the issue in a precise manner).  about the freedom of speech of a writer- whether it comes with a right to offend or not; about Rushdie’s right to security- he had the full right to have security against the threat to life; about how Rushdie’s numerous visits to the country of his birth after the 1988 ban on his book The Satanic Verses never created such a mayhem as it has now which clearly indicates how the different political parties got involved in the issue to target different vote banks in the upcoming Uttar Pradesh elections; about the apparent lie that the Rajasthan government conveyed to him in a poor yet clever and successful attempt to keep him afar from the Festival; about how the Central government didn’t confidently come out in support of his visit and fell a weak prey to the fundamental forces operating in the country; about the legal aspects of reading from a banned book even though it is banned only by the Customs act, about the morality of politicians and sentiments of the aam aadmi.

Over the past week I found my thoughts on the entire Rushdie incident to have bifurcated into two parallel directions. On one hand I thought about how easily an issue, with a slight touch of religion, could be turned into a major political issue by instigating the masses and commenting blatantly and irrationally in the media. And on the other, I thought about how the entire JLF thing was hijacked by the Rushdie issue! I agree that the silencing of a writer’s independent voice due to irrational political atmosphere in a literary fest itself, must be the most significant element of all debates and discussions, but giving so much of media space to this particular issue was a little over-the-top which might have given someone the impression that this Jaipur-Whatever-Festival was either some meet for communal politics or some propaganda event for a writer called Salman Rushdie- because, do remember that, we live in a country where lumpen thugs are art and culture critiques. Whatever, the second point is minuscule (or rather absurd!) compared to the first one, so let’s talk about the former.

  The Satanic Verses was published in UK and banned in India twenty-four years ago, in 1988. A lot has happened since then. Violent protests against the author and the book followed in India. The book was banned in South Africa, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Somalia, Bangladesh, Sudan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Qatar. In 1989 fatwa was issued against Rushdie by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran  ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie. Copies of the book were burnt down and book stores were bombed in many countries. Salman Rushdie apologised to Muslims and even signed a declaration to re-affirm his Islamic faith. The Japanese translator of the book was murdered, the Italian translator seriously wounded and an attempt was made to nab and kill the Turkish translator. The Satanic Verses was a 1988 Booker Prize Finalist and won the 1988 Whitbread Award for ‘novel of the year’.

In between many of my freewheeling discussions with friends and acquaintances the topic of Salman Rushdie has come up a number of times. It’s unfortunate to say, that other than a very prolific English tuition teacher of mine, I haven’t found even one who can talk at length about the literary genius of Rushdie, rather, they say, ‘he is blasphemous’, ‘his last wife was very sexy’, ‘he does all these for glamour’, and a high school mathematics teacher has even told me that, ‘blasphemous writers like him, who marry a thousand times and move about only with ladies, should be shot down’. We live in a country, where a very small section of the population actually reads good books, and fewer still are those who can actually critically analyse a great piece of literature, or for that matter, art. And yet these are the people, who led by politicians with vested interests, can come out in full force on the streets to protest against creative works, and even go on rampage. And this is precisely the mob- a crowd blindly obeying whimsical political decisions, irrational and jobless- which our administration fears, the mob which is used to threaten, to destroy and destruct.  I even wonder that the activists and leaders who have gunned their disapproval at having Rushdie in the festival have even read a single line from the banned novel, leave aside critically analysing it.

Apart from Midnight’s Children, The Enchantress of Florence and Haroun and the Sea of Stories I have also read Midnight’s Diaspora: Encounters with Salman Rushdie, in which intellectuals, critiques, writers and political thinkers provide their interpretations into the complex political and cultural meanings of Salman Rushdie’s writing.  And, my humble opinion is that, it’s not that easy to completely understand and reflect on Rushdie’s work. Moreover, it is very unjust and foolish to club Rushdie entirely with a particular book, make a helluva issue out of what he had written some 24-odd years ago and protest vehemently against his visit to a lit-fest.

Fundamentalism of all sorts is bad and history is full of unfortunate events- Galileo was imprisoned, Socrates was executed, M.F. Hussain had to leave his country and Taslima Nasreen was hounded. Every now and then, you will come up with such issues where someone, or some film or some book has “hurt the religious sentiments”, but at the end of it you will realise that it was a small part of a bigger political game or for that matter business game. The only thing that beats me is, how can we have a better future if there is no diversity in thought, if there is no alternative perspective, no different interpretation of a certain mythological event or a religious texture in the form of art or literature? Is it justified that people should be incited by saying that ‘your religion has been insulted’ by this novel or that piece of art and that protests and hooliganism is the only answer to it?

Rather I think, it is high time that we start understanding that art and culture is something beyond entertainment, they edify thoughts, and thoughts though may be based on the popular beliefs can sometimes take the side of unpopular ones. They can be pondered upon, discussed and elaborated, criticised or praised, thrashed or accepted, but we should neither ban books nor destroy paintings.  Husain painted Hindu deities in the nude not for insulting Hinduism or any other perverted cause, but because he had a certain idea and interpretation of our Indian mythology and he put it in canvas. He was much more Indian than the frauds and thugs who, on the name of protecting and upholding our Indian culture and heritage breed hatred between people of different religions, steal crores of money and indulge in thousands of immoral activities.

Perhaps the Rushdie incident at the JLF was only the tip of the ice berg of problems that hound the Indian society today.  The important question that we must ask ourselves is whether art and culture and for the matter, the media be allowed to be toys in the hands of archaic laws and unjust political motives?

The past has never been perfect and whatever good we see in the present is the result of a number of rebellious thoughts, conflicting ideas and innovative decisions. Why is the country being dictated by the whims and fancies of fanatical leaders, who unfortunately have control over the masses? It seems as though these leaders are the primary abusers of freedom of speech, which they use to continue to suppress the country in a narrow minded thought process.

Napoleon Bonaparte had rightly said, “The world suffers a lot. Not because of the violence of bad people. But, because of the silence of good people.” If we sit quiet against these rampant draconian styles of the country’s administration today, then we will step into a bleak, disintegrated and narrow-minded tomorrow. It’s high time that we think and speak up.

Let’s stand up for Salman Rushdie. Let’s stand up for ourselves.

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(Abhishek Saha, a third year Civil engineering student at BIT, Mesra, is a freelance writer and photographer. He can be contacted at abshaha@gmail.com.)