DUST OFF - Romance of the Garo Hills : Barbara S Sangma

Barbara S Sangma re-introduces us to a Garo classic, placing it within the context of Garo literature, culture and society

The novel has made an indelible impact on Garo readers down the generations. Besides, it marks the beginning of modern fiction writing in Garo language

Khalsin aro Sonatchi (Khalsin and Sonatchi) is a Garo (A.chik) romantic novel. The title stands for the names of the novel’s two protagonists. Khalsin and Sonatchi are A.chik romantic icons just like Romeo and Juliet created by Shakespeare and Laila and Majnu in Indian context. Milton S Sangma in his book History of Garo Literature (first published in 1983) writes: “The first novel was written by Redin Momin under the title Khalsin aro Sonatchi and was published posthumously in 1972 by Tura Book Room.”
Khalsin and Sonatchi are the archetypal Garo man and woman representing the idealist essence of the moral universe of the Garos. However, there is a controversy over the authorship of this manuscript. According to some, Upendra Ch Momin was the real author of this manuscript, but it slipped into the hand of Redin Momin who revised and improved upon it.
Khalsin Aro Sonatchi Bak I & II
Redin Momin
Tura Book Room, 1996
Rs40, 155 pages
Paperback/ Fiction
Today Khalsin aro Sonatchi is accepted as written by Redin Momin. In the foreword to the novel, the publisher, Grimchi C Marak, says Redin Momin was a primary school teacher and his age and experiences helped him write a mature fictional narrative. As a writer, he has been rather prolific. He is credited with writing the Ramayana in Garo, Katta Chisak Chibisik and Gipin Golporang. He spent his retired life fruitfully by writing about and rendering religious services.
In the introduction to the novel, Redin Momin wrote that the story of Kalsin and Sonatchi was narrated in different versions in different regions of Garo Hills. It is noteworthy that the story has also been written in a play form by Julius LR Marak with certain variations; the chief of them is in the name of the male protagonist whose name is spelt as ‘Kalsin’and not as ‘Khalsin’ as in the novel.
The author acknowledged that the novel incorporates pre-modern lifestyle, education scenario, dress habit, thoughts and expressions in Garo society. He stated that the novel has captured the essential ethos of the age-old A•chik customs and traditions and hoped that the present-day A•chiks would take the best elements and qualities in the story, and would practise and preserve them at the same time.
The Garo or A•chik community has a strong oral tradition. Its stories, songs, sayings, religious chants, rites, and even the laws that govern society are all handed down orally. It was only with the coming of Christianity that the A•chiks were made to adopt the Roman script. It was easier than using the Bengali script. The year 1902 saw the dawn of a new era for A•chik writing. That was the year when the Roman script fully came into force. However, even after over a century, A•chik literature has not attained the desired growth despite efforts being made by a few educated A•chiks to write stories, poems and pursue other forms of literature. It is observed in A•chikku or Garo language that poetry is more voluminous than other genres. This may be because mostof their oral narrations arepoetic in form.
Milton S Sangma in his book History of Garo Literature traces the origin of Garo (A•chik) literature in oral and traditional literature. Garo written literature was ushered in with the compilation of Garo words. It was the British officials and American Baptist missionaries who introduced the written form of the Garo language in the last decade of the 18th century. Most of these compilations of Garo vocabularies were published by the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, Calcutta. This was followed by various dictionaries, including Bengali-Garo Dictionary in 1863 by Reverend Ramke W Momin, one of the first two A•chik converts. The compilations were done in Roman and Bengali scripts. There followed more textbooks and religious books. However, in 1902, an official decision was made to adopt Roman script for Garo language.
An important landmark in the evolution of Garo literature is the translation of the Bible into Garo (1874-1924). Garo secular literature may be said to have begun in 1924 with the publication of books containing folklores, stories, social studies, essays, etc. The first published book, Nokdang (Family), a drama by Keneth M Momin, appeared in 1969, while the first Garo novel Khalsin aro Sonatchi was published in 1972.
The novel Khalsin aro Sonatchi is set in Goalpara, now under Assam and parts of which are in Dacca in present Bangladesh. The novel is basically a romantic tale that bears witness to the ultimate triumph of love. It also speaks about education in general and women’s education in particular. It is set at a time when both education and Christianity had just made an entry among the Garos. That was the time when Meghalaya and Assam were within one state. There are many Garo villages along the Meghalaya-Assam border even today. Thus there is also an undercurrent of clash of values between Christianity and traditional A•chik social set-up.
Contained within 155 pages, the novel tells the story of Khalsin and Sonatchi, which is familiar to almost every Garo, although in different versions. It enjoys great esteem among the Garo readers and occupies a high place in Garo literature. It has also gained a canonical status and become part of the MA syllabus of Garo Literature.
Sonatchi is an exceptionally beautiful girl born to a rich family, while Kalsin is a destitute. They are desperately in love with each other. Kalsin wanders off to Dacca to get educated. He leaves Sonatchi with solemn promises to remember and love her wherever he is. He reaches Dacca and finds a home in the house of a Bengali lawyer.
Kalsin fares well in his studies and later works as a teacher. Sonatchi is not allowed to continue with her studies. Her father forces her to marry his nephew Chandra. However, Sonatchi even hates the shadow of Chandra. Chandra has a friend by the name of Malsin who is an expert in herbal medicine.
The time is fixed for the marriage of Sonatchi to Chandra. However, Sonatchi gets seriously sick. Chandra comes with the medicine concocted by his ‘kaviraj’ friend, Malsin. The medicine works on Sonatchi and makes her unconscious so that she is buried with great promptness. Chandra and Malsin go to the burial place with the intention of abducting her. But Chandra and Malsin fail in their dubious attempt.
Sonatchi regains consciousness and she too wanders off to Dacca in search of education and Kalsin. She finds a loving home in the house of a reverend who helps her resume her studies and subsequently gets a job for herself.
It takes Kalsin and Sonatchi nine years to meet in Dacca. They finally get married and leave Dacca after some years. Back at home, they take up the reins of the family in their hands. The novel has made an indelible impact on the Garo readers down the generations. Besides, it marks the beginning of modern fiction writing in the Garo language. The latest edition of the novel is a must read. The language is simple and lucid. The rich narrative of the pre-independence Indian geo-political reality in the novel makes one nostalgic of a pristine past. This is one book which deserves to be translated into various languages of the Northeast as it would unfurl the landscape of the region’s shared emotional universe.

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