Maitreyee Siddhanta Chakravarty
On a Wing and a Prayer
New Delhi: Rupa Publications Private Limited 2013
Pages 246, Price 250
Vivid descriptions and Poignant issues
Set in Assam against the backdrop of India's freedom struggle, Maitreyee Chakravarty's book On a Wing and a Prayer which is a translation of Arun Sharma's Assamese novel Ashirwador Rang, touches upon the issues of migration, relocation, rights of women, freedom and communal tension.
At the very outset, we are introduced to Mansoor Ali, an inhabitant of Chittagong who has set out on a voyage in the Misimi on the Brahmaputra. During the course of his voyage, Mansoor Ali finds vast stretches of ownerless land in Kuroiguri Sapori, near the tiny Assamese village of Sonaruchuk. Although the area is predominantly Hindu, the sight of the vast stretch of fertile soil which can be converted to cultivable land tempts Mansoor and as he sails twice every week for a year past the Kuroiguri Sapori, the land draws him towards itself:
"....Each time, he felt the virtual softness of the sands below his feet and they roused in him a tingling lust for the land." (pg 9)
Finally Mansoor surrenders himself to this dreamlike temptation and relocates his family –his wife Nerissa and his daughter Hasina to Kuroiguri Sapori. Kader Khan, Mansoor's companion in the Misimi is the next one to set his hutment in Kuroiguri and:
"...soon , one more family moved in, then another...and another....until there were many."(pg 10)
The neighbouring Nepali village of Doloni has its own story of settlement. The first of the settlers in the region are the Thapa brothers- Durgaram, Bishnuram and Tikaram, popularly known as Jetha, Chaila and Kaila. Jetha and Chaila were initially appointed by Khargi Mauzadar to take care of his livestock. But the settlement of Nepali village in Kuroiguri is based on a scandal- an illicit love affair between Khargi Mauzadar's adopted son Swargaram and Chaila's wife Suramaya. When Khargi got to know about this affair, he sent his son Swargaram to Kolkata and made an offer to resettle Chaila and his wife Suramaya. He also offered to make over a vast stretch of the grassland by the forest to Jetha. Suramaya gave birth to three children and died of ill health. Since Chaila could not take care of his children by himself after the death of his wife Suramaya, Jetha along with his family joined him and soon both were joined by Kaila and his family. Only Maila remained to look after the livestock in Kuroiguri. Thus, the village of Doloni was set up. Although some of the Nepali folk stayed back in Kuroiguri, with their cows and buffaloes, most of them relocated to the adjoining area, creating a village of their own.
Not only does migration and relocation take place at the larger public level, but it equally takes place at the individual level as well. At the individual level, it is brought about by the institution of marriage as seen in the case of Bapudeu's daughter Joba. Inspite of her reluctance, Joba is married off to a sick elderly person and has to suffer the taunts of her in laws. After the death of her husband, much to the chagrin and disapproval of her father, she elopes with Modon, a lawyer and freedom fighter; thereby relocating to the city with a new family and a new environment altogether.
As the novel proceeds and India is on its way to attain freedom from the British rule, the lives of both the Hindus and the Muslims are engulfed in the activities of miscreants like Khargi Mauzadar and Jadob Bora. Although the inhabitants of the village and of the settlement, bound by their respective religions, customs and traditions had managed to live together in peace in spite of various social and political turmoil at the national level including the division of the country into two parts, the inhabitants of Kuroiguri Sapori and Sonaruchuk are gripped in communal tensions in due course of time. As Gojen Keunt, the courageous and outspoken protagonist of the novel witnesses the hutments of the Muslim settlers of Kuroiguri set to fire, his heart is filled with remorse and he is all set to pour his vengeance on Khargi Mauzadar and Jadob Bora:
" As soon as he was atop the hillock, Gojen saw that all the hutments in the Muslim settlement had been reduced to ashes. The fire had died down and except for the few posts that were still aflame, there was no trace of any house anywhere." (pg 169)
As the houses are turned to ashes, most of the settlers are either killed or they flee from the place. Terror stricken Hasina has no other option rather than seeking refuge in Gojen's house where Gojen lives with his grandmother. In spite of religious differences, Gojen's grandmother lets Hasina stay in the house as she is filled with sympathy at the girl's plight. Threatened for life by various anti social elements, Gojen finally decides to marry Hasina as he thinks that it is the best that he can do to provide her safety and protection. Because of this decision, Gojen has to face adverse consequences. He consults Bapudeu and comes to know that there is no provision for a person belonging to another religion to be converted to Hindu and hence it is he who has to convert to Islam in order to marry Hasina. Against all disapprovals, Gojen converts to Islam, changes his name to Abdul Ghani and marries Hasina. As a result, he is ostracized and even forbidden to enter his house by his grandmother.
Threatened that Khargi Mauzadar is all set to capture the Kuroiguri land, Gojen builds his hut on Mansoor Ali's land and relocates to Kuroiguri Sapori with Hasina:
"...Everything was ready in a week. In the place where Mansoor's hut once stood, Gojen had a nice, strong thatched house erected and a bamboo fence put up around it." (pg 214)
Closely aligned with the concept of migration and relocation is the concept of identity and identification. When Mansoor Ali first comes to Kuroiguri, he identifies with the land and lured by the vast stretch of cultivable land decides to settle there, making it his home. Little is he aware of the consequences that he has to face years later. A Bengali Muslim of Chittagong who speaks in the Mymensingh dialect, very soon starts acquiring the Assamese language after settling in Kuroiguri Sapori. His daughter Hasina who learns to write in Assamese very soon starts learning Assamese language. Later on when she is married to Gojen she speaks in Assamese with a tinge of Mymensingh dialect.
An identity switchover does take place when Gojen, a Hindu converts to Islam, wears kurta pyjamas and marries Hasina. Ostracized by the society and not allowed to enter his own house by his grandmother, Gojen has to search alternate options for settlement. He changes his physical identity or rather converts to Islam only to protect Hasina from the miscreants though marrying Hasina was not his first option. When Hasina was orphaned and left to Gojen's care, Gojen initially thought of searching a suitable groom for her and consulted the Muslim medicine man named Peer Mohammad Suleiman Rasool at the Saturday market, since all the Muslims of Kuroiguri had disappeared. But Gojen could not relent when the seventy year old medicine man offered to marry Hasina himself. When Gojen converts to Islam even his best friends Rupai and Konloura desert him:
" Are you leaving already? Why- you haven't yet told me what you think of all this", said Gojen, a little disturbed at the lack of response from his friends.
" What is there to say? You have already done what you have done", said Rupai.
" Right we can't think of anything", Konloura added. (pg 205)
After being converted to Islam, Gojen is looked upon as an alien creature until he himself starts feeling unfamiliar with his surroundings.
Even Hasina undergoes some sort of an identity switchover when Aai (Gojen's grandmother) puts vermilion on Hasina's parting hair and draws a large dot on her forehead; before both of them move to Kuroiguri. Although Aai has a soft corner for Hasina, she thinks that the very presence of a Muslim girl would pollute her house. Although both have gone through some type of transformation as far as their identities are concerned, both are the same selves- Gojen, the same fearless, outspoken and honest village youth and Hasina, the vulnerable yet undaunting girl who carries on in spite of Gojen's untimely death and gives birth to a son who later on becomes a doctor named Rahim Keunt; the very incarnation of his father.
At a time when India has attained independence, the situations portrayed in the novel itself lead us to question the very idea of independence. It leads us to ponder whether we have attained independence in the real sense of the term- are we not bound by various other shackles of casteism, tradition, religiosity and regionalism? What is independence, when in a free country one is not allowed to live on one's land just because he belongs to a prominently religious minority in the particular area? What is the role of independence if one is not allowed to practice secularity in the practical sense or one is not secure to move freely in his own country? Written in a lucid style, giving us ethos of the era of India's freedom struggle, the novel while intertwining the private and the public, not only addresses the poignant issues of the time but also points at the eminent conflicts in the days to come!