FRONTISPIECE - Homeland lost, homeland regained: Bengali literature of Barak Valley : Amitabha Dev Choudhury

Amitabha Dev Choudhury traces the angst of marginalisation that reflects in the literature emanating from Barak Valley

Bengali literature of Barak Valley always remains out of the limelight. The practitioners of mainstream Bengali literature are reluctant to recognise it, just as the centre of political power does not seem to even consider it as being on its periphery. Perhaps the region’s geographical location has largely contributed to this perception. To the outer world, and even to its culturally nearest neighbour Kolkata, the Valley is still a murky underdeveloped borderland between India and Bangladesh, as Dilip Kanti Laskar (1949- ) writes in a poem:

For writers of the 1960s
and ’70s, partition narrative
was not a psychological
necessity as they already
shared cultural practices
with Surma Valley
When I answered his query as to where I am from
stating ‘Karimganj, Assam’, he was thrilled
and quite happily he exclaimed  — ‘That’s nice,
you speak quite fluent Bangla!’...
I tried to clarify his doubts about the location of my home  —
I said, ‘I come from the land of the fifteen martyrs
who sacrificed their lives for the Bangla language.
He literally stumped me with his next words
when he straightaway said —
 ‘Oh, you mean Bangladesh?
You should have said so!’

(‘Locatings’, bordering poetry p62)

It was this question of geographical location that kept one of the Valley’s districts, Karimganj, wide awake for at least two days and nights during the Sylhet Referendum (1947) when political indecision arose about which side of the Radcliff map the fate of Karimganj would lie on. Subrata Kumar Roy (1966- ) was the only writer of the Valley to pen a short story, ‘Swadhinatar Mrityu: Ekti Sakshatkar’ (The Death of Freedom: An Interview, 1997), based on this incident.
Cachar was annexed by the British in 1832 (unofficially in 1830, after the assassination of the last Dimasa King, Gobindachandra), while Karimganj remained with the erstwhile Sylhet. Tea plantation began in Cachar in 1855 and Silchar came to be known as a planters’ town. The railroad, which came in 1899, not only broke the solitude of the Valley but also brought innumerable human resources from various parts of eastern India. On 12 September 1874, Sylhet was severed from the erstwhile Bengal Presidency and annexed to Assam on the pretext of a shortfall in tax revenue. Earlier, in the same year, Cachar had also been annexed to Assam. And again in 1947, Sylhet was surgically removed from the political topography of Assam. So, it is quite evident that Barak Valley has, for its Bengali-speaking population, always been a cultural extension of the erstwhile Surma Valley. In this sense, partition of Barak Valley from the Surma Valley was a case of geographical displacement, not cultural migration. When partition became a reality, Barak Valley had to shelter a good number of displaced families from the erstwhile East Pakistan.
Earlier, before the Partition, what was produced in the name of literature in the erstwhile Barak Valley was scanty and aesthetically insignificant. For example, during the 1940s some political activists wrote poems and stories which, however revolutionary in style and spirit, were really anachronistic as they failed to follow the track of the contemporary Bengali mainstream literature. But during the same decade a group of poets also emerged whose works have largely been underrated, perhaps due to the hubbub of their modernist successors of the 1960s. These poets came with a strong sense of aesthetic collation with mainstream literature, but their point of departure from the mainstream was still more significant. They were mostly poets of nature, but their search for a marginal identity often made them conscious of their location together with its historicity and of their geographical neighbours — so much so that sometimes they became poets of geography. Nature poets like Debendra Kumar Paul Choudhury (1907-2003), Sudhir Sen (1916-1993) and Ashokbijoy Raha (1910-1990) seemed engrossed in a search for a new homeland and definition of its geographical historicity. They showed a keen sense of consciousness of a non-Bengali neighbourhood, thereby discovering a new homeland with heterogeneous ethnicity and cultural pluralism. A different facade of the same search could be found years later, in the 1990s, in one of the best known stories of Arijit Choudhury, ‘Pu Ghosh’ (Mr. Ghosh, 2008), in which job-hunting by a young man of Barak Valley compels him to embrace the life of an exile in Mizoram. The story of ‘Pu Ghosh’ stands unique because it is a journey into the multiculturalism that surrounds the northeastern milieu.
The first little magazine of modernist poetry, Swapnil which appeared in 1957, however, diluted the search of the earlier poets for a homeland in multi-cultural surroundings. It became a proto-mainstream magazine, invoking an essentially Bengali reality. Though Karunasindhu Dey’s (1942-2005) ‘Kanthe Pariparswiker Mala’ (1963) was a leap forward with its social content, it never upholds the convention of the earlier school of Bengali poetry of a multi-cultural Bengali identity. But Karunasindhu’s journey was primarily an aesthetic one. A similar aesthetic journey marked the works of the next generation of poets whose emergence perhaps heralded a new dawn in the history of Bengali literature of Barak Valley.They assembled under the aegis of a so-called literary movement influenced by the little magazine they were attached to, Atandra (1963-1968). Shantanu Ghosh (1946- ), the young Turk among the Atandra poets, was eager to place his marginal identity in a concocted global association. The same colonial discourse with modernity continued throughout the next decade (the 1970s). In the meantime, two more significant magazines, both related mainly to short stories, came into existence – Anish (1969-1972-73) and Shatakratu (1974-1982). The writers were all modernists imbued with a strong affinity with the mainstream, though some of them in later years wrote in a completely different style.
The following years saw a metamorphosis of the writing of most of the poets and story writers of Atandra, Shatakratu and Anish. Some of them became more nostalgic than aesthetic, while some others grew much more tolerant of the hope and frustration, anguish and desperation of the common man. Poet Udayan Ghosh (1940- ) even seemed to be desperately exploring the geographical diversity of the whole world in order to locate his own home. Again it was during the 1980s that some of the rookie poets revived the convention of the poets of the 1940s. It was a spontaneous, almost an unwitting revival of the past in search of the identity of the marginal man amidst geographical and topographical diversity, amidst signs and cultural icons of a neighbourhood which was essentially a non-Bengali one, as Debashis Tarafdar (1958- ) writes:

Like Harangajao. A minor settlement it is, surrounded by green hills,
with small river, there people are Sylheti in origin, or Assamese,
or Dimasa, or Nepali, or they speak Hindi — there are many such.

(‘Of Nation’, bordering poetry p73)
The question that arises here is why this search for a new homeland amidst alien surroundings was left unheeded during the 1960s and throughout the 1970s? Why did this search give way to an aesthetic journey following the trends of the mainstream? Why were the writers and poets of the 1960s and the 1970s so reluctant to create a poetic or a fictional partition narrative of their own, though most of them hailed from the erstwhile East Pakistan? There is no ready-made answer to this question.
Barak Valley has always been a target for economic deprivation. The region’s underdevelopment can be attributed to its marginalised position and politics after the country’s independence. While politics in the Valley meant endorsing the hegemony of its state capital, the mental framework of its middle-class Bengali population almost reversed the existing structure of its centre-periphery, substituting Calcutta for Guwahati. This subconscious rejection or mental reversal was almost like losing a homeland which told on the literary works produced during the 1960s and 1970s. So, for the writers of the 1960s and 1970s, partition narrative -- of displacement -- was not a psychological necessity at all because they were already sharing cultural practices with Surma Valley. But when the Language Movement of 1961 knocked on their door, most of them realised for the first time that they were living in an alien land. As Calcutta had all along been their imaginary buffer against every stress over the years, they failed to decipher the message of the Language Movement which had a hidden political agenda: to enhance human development in Barak Valley. Everybody ignored it — right from politicians to writers.
There was, however, a solitary figure, Badarujjaman Choudhury (1946- ), who wrote about his own people even during those modernist upheavals in Barak Valley’s Bengali literature. Choudhury, together with Moloy Kanti Dey and Arijit Choudhury, wove stories about the people of the Valley. Their successors were the second generation of poets and writers born after the partition. To them, partition was no more a reality, but rather a Pandora’s box. The 1980s was a decade of real homecoming for writers of Barak Valley. They started regaining a lost homeland because they were no more obsessed with Calcutta. It was during this period that the common man and the dispossessed became the subject-matter for the Valley’s story writers and playwrights. 
In this post-modern, globalised era, Barak Valley has produced human resources and sent them to different corners of the country or abroad. Who knows? Those who have left the region in search of better opportunities may write their own narratives about the Valley, while those who are at home are already writing their own narratives. If ever these two narratives converge, perhaps our forefathers’ search for a new homeland and the nostalgia for a lost homeland may find a new a new dimension.

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