DUST OFF - No separatist treatise - Revisiting Parag Das’s Sanglot Fenla : Aruni Kashyap

 The novel is not an apologia for violence. It attempts to show how the Assamese had to take the course of armed resistance after all democratic means had been exhausted. 

Sanglot Fenla
Parag Kumar Das
Udangshri Prakashan,1993
`50, 212 pages
I have heard many people in Delhi and Guwahati, in Golaghat, Mayong and Nagaon, tell me that they had struggled with a strong desire to go to the forests of Burma after reading Parag Das’s Sanglot Fenla. While I was growing up, I was never denied a book but in 1993 or ‘94, when I had asked for a copy of the novel after seeing a poster hung in the Guwahati Book Fair, my father had instead bought me a young-adult novel. Forbidden stuff has a strange allure and many years later, I spent an entire day scanning the length and breadth of Guwahati looking for it.

Sanglot Fenla, which roughly translates as Revolution’s Army, captured the minds of an entire generation. During my undergrad years, reading Manoram Gogoi’s memoirs Paragdar Xannidhyat (In Paragda’s Company), I was amazed reading about its popularity. When was the last time the publication of a book became an event in itself, a cultural moment? In the world, I could only think of the release of the Harry Potter novels and recently, Haruki Murakami’108QSanglot Fenla was serially published from July 1992 in the pages of Budhbar, the newspaper Das edited. Its first edition was over at the Guwahati Book Fair that had started on January 20 and the next edition was printed for the Asom Sahitya Sabha’s 59th session at Sibasagar. Due to some tiff between the organisers and the publishers, the book shops were shut in protest during the Sabha. Gogoi narrates that even during this phase, hundreds of people thronged Budhbar’s stall only to buy Sanglot Fenla and Rastrodrohir Dinalipi (A Seditioner’s Diary, 1992). One old woman demanded a copy immediately despite being told that they were not selling as a mark of protest. “I came all the way from Lakhimpur only to buy these two books, you better give them to me,” she said. Has anyone heard of an old lady travelling 415 kilometers only to buy two books?

Sanglot Fenla is no more in print, but has left an enduring legacy. In the early ‘90s, after the counter insurgency operations, many ULFA cadres had surrendered. The ones still underground nurtured a romantic idea of the separatist insurgency. Away from the hunger, diseases and death in the valleys of Burma, they were leading a life of luxury in Guwahati and Dibrugarh, earning a bad name for the organisation. But there were many more cadres who were still committed and took their goal seriously. Parag Das wanted to celebrate the struggle of these committed cadres, who according to him had not yet been co-opted into the system.

Parag Kumar Das
Actually, there is no single narrative thread in the novel. It is about Digonto, his training in Burma, where he had seen the hard work of many of his comrades. It is about how various sections of the society such as the Assamese tribals and migrant Muslims were excluded from the movement and the immense potential these groups had to contribute to it was left untapped by the mainly upper-caste ULFA leadership. In many ways, Sanglot Fenla reworks the picaresque novel. It rests in the tradition of The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling or Kim by Rudyard Kipling by following the escapades of a hero over a range of experiences. But Sanglot Fenla is not comic from any angle. It is the search for an alternative: what happens when all attempts of democratic means to achieve justice get exhausted? What happens when you are betrayed by your own comrade-in-arms? What happens when decadence and luxury and arrogance traps the rebel? How does one deal with the irony of running a rebellion under the indulgence of the same government you want to overthrow – everyone in Assam has speculated about the nexus between the AGP government led by Prafulla 
Mahanta and ULFA – something which Parag Das was very critical of and rightly so.

However, the novel is not an apologia for violence. Rather, it attempts to show how the Assamese had to take the course of armed resistance after all democratic means had been exhausted. It is also not a separatist treatise for youths who read the book unguided. In fact, to understand the novel properly, one must read Parag Das’s non-fiction and Manorom Gogoi’s memoirs. What Das narrates in the novel is merely an extension of his narrative non-fiction retold with characters and situations.

Throughout his career, Parag Das dreamt of a multi-hued Assam, bound by unity because he knew that breaking down into small groups would not help and would only appease the central government’s imperial design that has always feared the common cultural thread binding different communities in Assam. He also tried to raise awareness on human rights abuses by the Indian Army in Assam. Sanglot Fenla fits into this larger project: but what redeems the novel from the clutches of narrow, jingoistic nationalism is his depiction of the inhuman brutality of the ULFA cadres on their “traitors”, their decadence. Chillingly, the torture scenes at the Indian Army camp and the ULFA camps are very similar and successfully (sadly) compete with torture scenes of Chilean testimonios under Augusto Pinochet’s regime.

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