All aboard the ghost bus

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One of Assam’s most powerful voices uses magic realism to translate insurgency into resilience
Written in Tears | Arupa Patangia Kalita | Translated by Ranjita Biswas | Harpercollins India | Pages 232 | Rs 325
One of the stories in Arupa Patangia Kalita’s Written in Tears is about a ghost bus. As it moves towards its destination, after all its passengers have died in a violent attack journeying through a Bodo insurgent stronghold, its shadow on the river kills fishes and its touch turns human beings into stones. A magic realist story, The Half Bus Burnt at Midnight is a haunting tale not only about a ghost bus, but also about a ‘little town [that] begins where the rows of simolu trees end’ and a river that ‘girdles the town, flowing serenely by the backyard of a house, the window of another, even the front doors of some other homes’. Though it comes fourth in this collection of eight, it could well have been the inaugural story; much of what happens in the other stories is symbolised by what the bus does to this peaceful hamlet.

The story also acts as a smooth welcome into this violent universe by focusing on the beautiful description of a riverine town, living peacefully. The other stories don’t provide this safe passageway into the problems of the characters or the larger political conflict that engulfs them. Arunima’s Motherland—the most well known story among Assamese readers—is about the liquidation of a family during the secret killings of Assam: extra-judicial killings of perceived insurgent sympathisers during the late 90s. In Kunu’s Mother, a surrendered militant wants to forcibly marry a young working class girl, and the girl’s mother tries to save her. The drama erupts immediately, without providing any preamble to complex political realities.

Patangia, a powerful contemporary Assamese voice and author of 15 books, writes in order to fill the gaps that the Indian media leaves, with its selective and biased reporting. Her award-winning fiction covers portions of contemporary Assamese history from the inside, by depicting the small but perennial struggles of middle and lower class people who have not benefitted from India’s so-called economic progress.

Most of these stories were published in Assamese periodicals in the form of novellas. For people who are not acquainted with the literary traditions and culture, it is difficult to imagine its context. Every year, during spring (Bihu festival) and autumn (Durga Puja), almost every monthly and weekly in Assam brings out a special issue of 500-plus pages. These issues are targeted at readers heading home for the holidays. They feature several short novels or novellas, scores of short stories, non-fiction and poetry. Originally, quite a few of the stories in this book were published in this form, which is why some of them straddle the worlds of short fiction and the novella. What is noteworthy is also the effect it must have had on readers: the tranquil days of their vacation interrupted by the disturbing, tragic stories of violence, stories of people who have nothing to do with the machinations of power, but paying a heavy price for it. Patangia’s fiction, over the last two decades, has repeatedly knocked on the doors of the conscience of Assamese readers.

What doesn’t come across in the English transition—for no fault of the translator—is the evocative language and warm voice of the author. In Assamese, Patangia’s language is strongly visual, soaking up unique (and sometimes obsolete and beautiful) expressions, as if plucked from the speech patterns of the milieu she tries to represent. Cursed Fields of Golden Rice features one such memorable description, of a woman: “Her face was like the wide leaf of tora grass, her waist was slim like the middle of the big red ant, her nose was like the sharp thorn of a ghorakagzi lemon tree, the calves of her legs were like the bamboo shoot stalk, the neck was like that of a deer, the eyes were like the brown eyes of a pigeon.” The redolence of these descriptions work best for the reader who is familiar with these images.

Though Patangia’s fiction has chronicled the tragedy of Assam relentlessly, her stories are full of optimism, suggesting the possibility of serious social change through collective resistance. For instance, Kunu’s Mother, a story about the atrocities perpetrated by surrendered militants on common people, ends: ‘As the word spread from mouth to mouth, more people gathered. And then in the evening light the people surged towards the house of Kunu’s mother. She saw that among them was Mainao’s mother too. The people came in and stood silently. Kunu’s mother saw that her small courtyard was now full of people.’ People’s resistance is provided as a solution in most of Kalita’s fiction, about underprivileged sections of the society, and at times it is repetitive and implausible—but it is perhaps important to keep optimism alive in times of duress. This sense of resilience is not reflected in the title, but one may access it by reading these sparkling stories.

(Aruni Kashyap is a translator, teacher and author of The House With a Thousand Stories)