Assamese Novel: From Inception to Second World War
Assamese language boasts of a long experience of vibrant written literature. That it was the first regional language to have Valmiki’s Ramayana translated into it (by Madhava Kandali in the 13th century) is one sound indication of the same. Its literature reached new heights in the in the 15th-16th centuries during the days of Sankaradeva (and his main disciple Madhavdeva) who was a giant participant in the Bhakti movement that swept through India at the time. In their commitment to propagate monotheism (eksarana naamdharma) in the region comprising present Assam and its neighbouring areas, the mahapurushas - as the aforementioned guru-sishya are reverentially referred to in Assamese - made prolific translations, adaptations and recreations of gems of Sanskrit classics into Assamese which established a mighty literary tradition in the language that continues to inspire connoisseurs and writers in all succeeding centuries.
Assam’s foray into modernity can be politically punctuated from 1826 A.D. when the six-century long reign of the Ahoms (a people that migrated into the Brahmaputra valley from the east in the early 13th century and became part of the Assamese identity over the centuries) was brought to an end by three rounds of invasion by the Burmese army who were then pushed back by the forces of British East India Company and made to sign a treaty conceding the region to the company.
A group of American Baptist missionaries landed at Sivasagar in the Brahmaputra valley in the mid-nineteenth century with a printing press and started publishing a monthly journal Orunodoi, with the express purpose of propagating Christianity in the region. Orunodoi carried write-ups on various matters and happenings in various parts of the world, and thus it acquainted the newly growing Assamese reading community (albeit a miniscule one) with the wider outside world. In 1848, Dr Nathan Brown, one of the missionaries, serialized the Assamese translation of John Bunyan’s Pilgrims’ Progress in Orunodoi with the title Jatrikor Jatra. It was the first taste of a “novel” for Assamese readers. It came out as a book in 1857. In 1854, another missionary translated into Assamese a Bengali novel with the title – Phulmoni Aru Karuna. Then in 1877, Kaminikanta by A. K. Gurney, the first original ”novel” in Assamese, was published from the Baptist Mission Press in Sivasagar. M. E. Lesley’s Alokeshi Beshyar Bishay was also published in the same year. Gurney’s Koni Beheruar Bishay came out in the next year. All these books were written with the purpose of preaching Christianity. They are called novels because the narratives were, very loosely, in the pattern of novels. That they laid the foundation of the novel in Assamese literature was only a by-product of the religious efforts of the missionaries.
Around the same time some Assamese writers also tried their hands at fiction writing. Hemchandra Barua’s Bahire Rang-Chang Bhitore Kowa Bhaturi (1876) was one such, which could have been categorized as novel but for its explicit banter on the anachronistic and often hypocritic mores of the Assamese society of the time. Padmavati Devi Phukanani’s Sudharmar Upakhyan – with a story extolling the virtues of a good house wife – was another ”novel” in the loose sense of the term and is historically the first one by an indigenous writer.
Bengal came under the company rule much earlier than Assam and Calcutta (Kolkata) grew to be the happening city in entire east India witnessing a great symbiosis of the East and the West. Batches of students from Assam landed there to pursue higher education at various colleges. Inspired by the intellectual life of the city and feeling a new sense of responsibility, some of them brought out magazines in Assamese from Calcutta. The first was Jonaki (1889). In fact this initial stage of modern Assamese literature is referred to as the Jonaki Age. Bijuli came a year later and it was in the pages of Bijuli, in the early 1890’s, that the first genuine Assamese novel – Bhanumati by Padamanath Gohain Baruah – was serialized. Next year his second novel Lahori was published in a book form. Meanwhile, Lakshminath Bezbaruah, another one of the Jonaki intellectuals, wrote Padumkumari. Then in 1894, Rajanikanta Bordoloi‘s first and very successful novel Miri Jiori was published. Set in a tribal community in Assam, it is a love story with a tragic end, and Miri Jiori is the first Assamese social novel. Kusum Kumari by Hareswar Sharma Barua and Harideu Kaniar Katha by M. R. Dass were two other novels written in 1898. Bordoloi’s more famous Manomati came out in 1900. The story of this time-tested novel is based on the bloody years of the Burmese army’s invasion of the Ahom kingdom in the 1820’s. The writer masterfully knits into it a love story and a family feud.
So we see that while religion was the theme in the formative years of the Assamese novel, history replaced it a quarter of a century later. Except Miri Jiori, almost all the novels of the period were either based on some important period of Assamese history or set in the backdrop of the bygone period. There was a reason. While the western enlightenment and proximity with Calcutta encouraged young writers to venture into fictional writings, they could not be sure of a receptive society. Bordoloi in his Manomati begged his readers not to censure his hero Lakshmikanta for developing amorous feelings towards Manomati. The last sentence of Miri Jiori also indicates the inhibitions the writers had to tackle at the time. So history was safe in the sense that historical tales, including descriptions of love affairs, would not have offended the puritanical values a large section of the society was still languishing in.
Though Rajanikanta Bordoloi placed Assamese fiction in a new high within a short, the trend was not continued with equal competence in the period immediately after. Meanwhile the freedom movement had started and writers took to it as their favourite theme. Some of the later novels of Bordoloi had some bearings of social consciousness and nationalistic feelings. From Manomati to Dandua Droh (1909) to Nirmal Bhakat (1925), he promoted the cause of a broad camaraderie overcoming parochial divisions in the society. It leads us to opine that the author was somewhat influenced by the call for unity and brotherhood among countrymen given by the national leaders of the time. In his novels like Rangili (1925), Tamreswari Mandir (1926) and Rahdoi Ligiri (1930), there is a dignified portraiture of the socially downtrodden section, which appears to be an indirect influence of Gandhiji’s preaching.
Dandinath Kalita (Sadhana) and Daibachandra Talukdar (Apurna) are the mentionable names around the third decade of the 20th century in whose novels the cause of fighting for independence is a major theme. Gobinda Prasad Sharma, a noted critic of fiction in Assamese, observes that apart from the nationalistic feelings, the educated young minds of Assam at the time also took it upon themselves to give shape to an Assamese identity. “From the late nineteenth century when the modern Assamese literature made its beginning, we notice two trends of nationalism in Assam – one is the Indian nationalism and the other is Assamese sub-nationalism or regionalism”. (Asomiya Upanyasar Gati Prakriti 2002, Sahitya Akademi).
The aforementioned novel by Talukdar provides ample testimony of this. The freedom struggle is the theme in many hues in several successful novels written in the later decades of the 20th century. The most notable one is the Jnanpeeth award winning Mritunjay by Dr Birendranath Bhattacharyya where the writer uncritically depicts the righteousness of the quest for securing freedom from British rule: it was the 1920’s and the writer portrayed it as a moral duty of the characters to do whatever it takes to fight for freedom.
The society in Assam, like other parts of India, witnessed a great change with the onset of the Second World War. Together with the Quit India Movement and several armed skirmishes with the British authorities, the 1940’s became a particularly cataclysmic period. Its reflection was seen in several successful novels written after independence. However, before independence, in 1944, Dr Birinchi Kumar Barua wrote his first and arguably the best Assamese novel so far, Jibonor Batot (On the Path of Life), under the pen name Bina Barua. The writer masterfully captures the life of rural and suburban Assam prior to the war and independence in this virtually untranslatable novel. Woven around a simple story of love and betrayal, the writer paints a wholesome picture of the domestic life of rural Assam, the degeneration brought into the society and the minds of people by colonial exploitation and the unflinching sense of dignity and innocence of the central character, an ordinary rural woman, amidst all sorts of betrayal, hypocrisy and deprivation. Throughout the narrative and in its end, the novel manifests an indelible tone of melancholy and sadness, so true to the life of the ordinary people of this country. Freedom struggle is also delineated therein, but in a non- political way.
The aforementioned assessment follows a chronological route and is by no means an exhaustive discussion. The country got independence and the society marched forward thanks to the growth of trade, education and so on. This also ensured the growth of a reading public. Hence from the 1950’s onwards, novel writing became a prolific activity in Assamese literature. And the journey continues.