Looking for Ismael Sheikh
(Translated from Assamese by Pradipta Borgohain )
I was completely oblivious to time, place or people. Standing in the middle of the busiest road in town. I shouted with all my might, "Ismael!" starling everyone around me. I had started runnng even before my shout died down.
Perhaps there is no forgiveness for even the slightest lapse in life. Destiny's nothing but the immutability of an unknown, preordained scheme of things. If I had not shouted, I would have met the man– he, whom I had been looking for relentlessly for the last five years – at that very spot. But hearing my cry, Ismael vanished, as if by magic. I had made a colossal blunder.
But I must seek out Ismael. Now that I have spotted him, he won't be able to elude me. Even from a distance I had noticed him dart a frightened glace at me before disappearing into a narrow lane off the main road. I dashed to the entrance of the lane.
Two young men were standing there, smoking besided a paan shop. Noticing my agitation, they whispered suspiciously amongst themselves. A secret fear gripped me at their mysterious behaviour the sort of fear that a lonely wayfarer would feel in front of strangers speaking a different tongue in an unkonwn land. I looked at them briefly and quickly stepped into the lane. Immediately a wave of bizarre, wild laughter broke out behind me.
Advancing a few steps, I stopped. It was only about three o'clock but evening shadows seemed to have gathered already inside the lane. I surveyed my surroundings. There were two huge buildings on both sides. At the point where the buildings ended, a wooden fence barred my way. There was no other way beyond the fence, save for a small opening big enough for one person to squeeze through. Probably the passage opened out to some house on the other side, even though it obviously wasn't meant for public use.
I wondered whether Ismael could have gone that side. I had to follow him, but to tell the truth, I was somewhat nervous of squeezing myself through the small opening in that sunless lane. Nonplussed, I stood rooted to the spot. Suddenly I heard the loud guffaw of a woman on the other side of the fence. Laughter is also a kind of language. I realized that the woman's laughter was strangely similar to that of the young men's I had heard recently. For a few moments my mind was engrossed in the intricacies of linguistics and speech communication. The mantle of mystery, it seemed, was being lifted gradually. I made my way in.
"Arre, Kutte ka bachha."
Before I could identify who I had collided with on my abrupt entry through that opening, I was thus pleasantly greeted– the offspring of a dog. The reek of alcohol assiled my senses.
Startled, I took a step back and looked at the man. I felt my blood turn cold. His eyes were red and inflamed, and blotches covered his entire face. The sunken nose in the middle of his hideous face gave him an even more ghastly appearance. Clad in a blue lungi and a black coat, the man stared at me for some time, the unfeeling look of a professional killer on his face. Then with a shrill, broken laugh he advanced towards me.
"Arre saala, don't you recognize me? I'm your......"
Mouthing a foul word he announced his glorious identity and came forward, apparently with the intention of grabbing my hand. My whole body trembled with fear and terror. I felt that it was not a flesh and blood human being who was standing in front of me, but a purried lump of flesh over which crawled fearsome, poisonous insects, whose very touch would make my limbs fall off. As he approached me, I closed my eyes and raised my hand as if to hit him. At the same time I yelled out, "Don't touch, don't you touch me!"
Opening my eyes I saw that the man had stopped, his swagger and bellicosity gone. The horrible abjectness and anguish of lowly beggar appeared on his face. His disease-inflamed, bloodshot eyes filled with tears.
"So you--- you know too?" he asked in his broken, ugly voice.
What are you talking about?" I questioned, feigning ignorance.
"Kutte ka bachha, haven't you seen my disease?" You'll get it too. Get away from me, run, bhago yahan se. Here everyone is sick, rotting away and stinking. I've been doing business with them for the last ten years. They gave me the disease, and now they close their doors on me. Bloody whores, all of them..... thu thu!"
I suddenly remembered that I had to find Ismael. He must be quite far away by now. Taking out a packet of cigaretters, I lit one up and offered another to the man.
"Did you see a man go by a little while ago? A bearded man wearing pyjams?" I asked him.
"Arre saala, why are you looking for someone else when I am here? No one knows what goes on in this neighbourhood better than I do, understand? But you must give me full five rupees."
It was futile to bandy words with this creature. So ignoring his offer I moved forward quickly. Immediately, I could hear squeals of ragged laughter behind me. It seemed that laughter was the lingua franca of the strange inhabitants of this blind alley.
Suddenly a bunch of women burst into laughter in unison. I started. The lane ended near three rows of houses, together forming a horseshoe. Four of five women were standing in the open space in the middle, puffing bides. Cheap cosmetics were thickly layered on their callous, ex
I asked, 'Did you see a man come this way just a while ago?'
Hearing my question, they leaned against one another and laughed. It was as if my question was completely meaningless, as if I had spoken the language of prehistoric man. I wondered if Ismael could possibly be lurking inside one of the houses here. Once again I asked politely, 'Did you see a man come this way?'
A skeletal figure spoke up in a cracked, mannish voice, "What kind of man, babu? Has he made off with anyone? If he has, let him. There's no shortage of females.?"
Her companion's guffaws drowned the rest of her words.
I was at my wit's end. I had quite clearly seen Ismael come this way and there was no other way out either. This was the only place where he could be hiding. But these women would not reply to any of my questions. What should I do? Probably there was just one way. I would have to go inside these houses and search them. Finally, I resolved to do just that, I advanced towards the first houses.
The door was closed. Clearly the probability of someone hiding there was greater. I was about to push the door open when the women gave an anxious shout, "Ei, there are people inside!"
I halted in my tracks. Peeping through a crack in the broken door, I caught a glimpse of what was going on inside. I realized that it would be inhuman to disturb the man inside at this moment.
I approached a second door. Finding it slightly ajar, I shoved it open. A beautiful girl was dabbing on make -up in front of a mirror.
Hearing my footsteps, she turned around to look, and then runned back again. Mechanically applying lipstick on her lips, she asked in a muffled voice, "Will you sir?"
I did not reply. Her almost runnish gaze and the indifferent ex
She finished her make-up and rising, came forward to stand to front of me. She was really beautiful and the proud yet melancholic ex
"If you won't sir, then go. If you stand at the door like that others will be scared off." She said these words very simply and calmly.
"What are you? Nun or prostitute”
"I have not seen a crazier person than you. It seems that you’re not quite right in the head. Why are you asking me these questions?"
"If I see an Alberto Moravia novel lying-half-read on the bed of a girl who peddles her body in such dingy surroundings, and it becomes clear that she is the reader of this novel, wouldn't I feel the urge to talk seriously with her?"
Her gaze went to her bed where Moravia's Women of Rome lay. A shy and slightly guilty smile, of someone who has been found out, appeared on her face.
"You are the second one."
"What do you mean?"
"You are the second person who has come here and talked the language of human beings. There was another one, a college student."
I noticed that she was now using the more respectful address "Aapuni" instead of "Tumi." Perhaps my proximity had brought her closer in touch with humanity, making her forget the mercenary in her. I felt like paying homage to her as human being. I said deferentially, "If you permit, I'll give you some books in a few day's time. Now I have to leave. Namaskar.
"For a while the girl stood as if stupefied. When she saw that I was really about to leave she came to her senses and said hastily, "Wait wait, where are you going? I meant it in a different sense. Please stay a while."
"Why did you come to this basti?"
I thought that it would be better to tell her about Ismael in some detail. Perhaps she was the only woman in this place who could helps.
"I came to this locality in pursuit of a man who has been evading me for a particular reason. I have been on his trail for a long time, almost five years. Today I suddenly spotted him on the street and called out excitedly. But hearing my cry, he ran away into this lane. I ran after him, but after reaching here I myself am lost. Tell me, is there another way out of the house?"
"Then he must be hiding in one of these houses. But who would allow him to do that?"
"For a bit of money, who wouldn't? But why is he running away from you? And why are you hunting him?"
"That's a long story. And if I narrate such a lengthy story, I won't be able to find Ismael because he would bolt in the meantime."
"How do you know that he hasn't already fled while you're here?"
"That's true. I got so carried away talking that I forgot my main purpose. Would you please make some enquiries anyway? I still feel that he is lying low around here somewhere. He must be thinking that I wouldn't follow him to a place like this. In fact, it's more likely that he would stay here until nightfall, instead of going out into the streets and risk being caught."
"What is this man to you.?
At my answer the girl sighed deeply. Then she said, almost herself. "Who knows what lies at ehe end of this quest?"
Her tone startled me. "What do you mean? Whom are you talking about?"
"About you, about me. Don't you feel pricked with curiosity even after seeing a prostitute who reads Moravia?"
"Of course. But I don't want to offend you by prying into your private affairs."
"I understand your feelings. Therefore, I voluntarily want to tell you about myself. I don't know why have been hounding your quarry for five years, and what you'll do when you find him. But a man is also searching for me, and he too has been looking for me for nearly five years. I've seen him, but he hasn't seen me. If he sees me, and that too in these surroundings, he'll probably kill me instantly I'm not afraid of dying. But I dread the shock that the man will get when he sees me. You're chasing a man, and I'm escaping from a man. Do you notice the similarity between your quarry and me?"
I was astonished. Really, I hadn't been prepared for such a dramatic encounter. All this time I had been standing, but now I wanted to sit down. Whether the woman standing in front of me was a poor prostitute or an affluent lady, whether the room in which I found myself was a library or the chamber of a Working Woman– such questions seemed totally irrelevant. At that moment the intimacy between two suffering human beings, harried by a stroke of fate, appeared more important. I was standing in front of a woman and was talking to her about life's conflicts, sorrows, hopes and dreams, and these were the same for her and for me, as they were for the rest of humanity.
The realization raised a flood of emotions in my heart. Sitting down on the bed. I asked sympathetically, "Who is this man who has been searching for you?"
Again, I was startled. Hiding my surprise, I requested, "Please regard me as a friend and tell me your story. Your words have really kindled my curiosity."
"I'll tell you. I also have my own reasons for telling you the story. For a long time I was looking for a person with whom I could discuss this problem. But how could I expect to find such a friend among the scavengers who come sniffing for the flesh of women? God has delivered you to me today. Please sit a while. I'll be back soon."
Parting a curtain, the girl went inside. I lit a cigarette. When she came back I couldn't recognize her. She had washed away the layers of make-up, taken down her bizarre hairdo, spread out her hair and put on a white sari and a white boluse. It was a metamorphosis. I looked at her silently with respect and admiration.
"Don't hope to hear a long narrative," She warned and started her story. "Life's events don't occur rationally, or as one planned. But while describing such events, people enrich them with emotion. imagination and logic. I'll not do any such thing. About five years ago I got separated from Deuta at Sealdah station in Kolkata. We had taken shelter there as refugees from Purbo Banga, Bangladesh. That shelter was completely temporary because no one sat there to hand out food. When I saw Deuta– a brahmin and a scholar in Sanskrit– scrounge leftovers from some whore because of the fire in his famished belly, I plunged into a dark abyss, not in disgust, but in inconsolable grief. In one leap, from the temple of a brahmin I reached the hovel of whores. I thought all transactions with him were over. But it wasn't one day, while strolling down the streets of Guwahati, I saw my father, Annada Chanran Mukhopadhyay, who had never touched anything except vessels of worship, pulling a riksha with two women passengers on it. I can't give the precise count of the number of tremors that shook the earth at that moment. I immediately covered my face with my oroni, and my father passed me by. Seeing his roving, helplessly yearning gaze. I understood that he was constantly searching for me. After that incident I was really frightened. I shuddered to imaging what my father would do when he found out that his daughter, who had committed the Bhawad Gita to memory, was making a living selling her body. I was even more frightened because most customers come here on rikshas. If by some twist of fate my father is to come here, and I am caught at an unguarded moment...."
For some time she remained silent. Not finding anything worthwhile to say, I Kept quiet too. Suddenly a hint of a smile appeared on her face. Throwing sharp look at me, she asked, "Feeling sorry for me?" I did not reply.
She continued, "I've talked with only one other human being about these things. That college student. Do you know what he said? He was not, or rather, he did not see any reason to be particularly saddened by my father becoming a rikshawala or by my turning to prostitution. People from the lower strata of society are being forced to change their occupation everyday. Today's peasant or labourer becomes tomorrow's rikshawala due to the swings of fortune. If we don't lose any sleep over the fate of a thousand rikshawalas, why worry about just one? If a brahmin learns that one from his own caste has become a rikshawala, he will probably rant and rave because he will take it as a sign of the erosion of his caste. Do you know what else my friend said? If one brahmin becomes a rikshawala, it is a matter of rejoicing for society, although it might be a tragic event from a personal view point. For five thousand years brahmins and other and other high caste people have been living off the labours of others, without doing anything themselves. In the beginning the justification for such idleness was the pursuit of knowledge. But later it became a big sham. After five thousand years cracks have started appearing in the once rigid class divisions. Now if even one brahmin pulls a riksha for his livelihood it's good thing. Only through such harsh shocks can there be a revolution in the social consciousness."
"The emotion with which you recount at this almost leads me to believe that you're glad that your father has become a rikshawala."
"I try to make myself hear these words every day. I must fortify myself like that, otherwise I'll go mad."
I realized that the room had become dark. Perhaps dusk had fallen. Looking at the girl I could see that she was oblivious of the passage of time. On the pretext of smoking a cigaretre I lit a match and saw tears flowing from her eyes. I put out the match. It was useless illuminating unappeasable grief. Darkness was preferable.
She spoke up. "I'm very keen to know why you've been seeking that man. Is he as unfortunate as I am?"
I suddenly decided that I should narrate Ismael's story to this girl. A girl who could discern the social implications of her own father becoming a riksawala, would discover yet another historical truth in Ismael's story and would get the strength to harden herself further.
"The name of the man I am seeking is Ismael."
"Ismael?" The girl was startled. I had expected that. All Hindu refugees who had run away from Purbo Banga during communal riots react in the same way, with shock, when they hear the name of a Muslim. Nevertheless, I asked her, "Why are you shocked."
"Muslim goondas have devastated our lives. Because of these hoodlums I am a whore despite being the daughter of a learned brahmin. When I hear the name of one such goon why shouldn't I be shocked? What did he do to you?"
"Listen to my story. The man I am looking for is called Ismael, and like you, he too lived in Purbo Banga. I don't know his past history very well. I only know that he was a landless peasant under some zamindar. One day he heard that hundreds of peasants like him were migrating to Assam, where several lakh bighas of land were lying fallow. In their homeland there was not an inch of lnad from which they could eke out a living. Slaving for the landlords, they had approached the threshold of certain. Without hesitation. Ismael joined the band of fortune hunting exiles."
Looking at the girl, I continued, "You yourself had to leave your homeland. How did you feel when you had to sever all ties with the soil to which your entire being was intimately bonded? Let me tell you on behalf of Ismael– surely, just as Ismael felt, just as his wife and children felt."
The girl protested angrily, "What are you saying? They left their homeland voluntarily. No one killed them and hounded them at swordpoint like they did us. How can it be the same?"
"When Ismael left his home, his wife had rolled on the ground in their compound and cried. When she look her farewell from a bottlegourd creeper that had climbed upto her roof, her heart had broken into tiny pieces. Yet you are saying that they left their homeland of their own free will? Didn't an invisible sword chase them away too?"
"Who drove them away?"
"The conspiracy of history– a history whose course has been guided through the ages by a handful of landowners and capitalists – the landed people and those with money. Why is it that Ismael and his kind had no claim on the land that they had made fertile with their heart's blood? Why did they have to leave their own country? Because more of them were born than the number of slaves necessary to keep the machinery of oppression going, they were chased away like dogs and cats. The tears that sprang to your eyes, and Ismael's wife's eyes at the moment of being exiled from your motherland have no religion. Those tears are neither Hindu nor Muslim."
"Why do you forget that Muslims chased us away in the name of religion? They inflicted unspeakable atrocities on all Hindus, rich of poor alike. It's those Ismaels of yours who presided over the Hindumedh Jagya, to slaughter the Hindus."
"You should also not forget that the blood that soaked the streets of Dhaka in 1947 had a religion– that religion was Hindusim. The blood that drenched the streets of Delhi at exactly the same moment also had a religion– the Muslim religion. But as a woman, don't you understand the difference between blood and tears? The source of tears is humanity, and tears flow spontaneously at the prompting of the heart. Therefore it's pure and true. But blood erupts due to violence and hatred, it's impure and false. The dharma of the Impure and the False is Adharma."
The girl fell silent. It was now her turn to question herself.
"Moreover, you were not chased away by Muslims or even by communal frenzy. You were hounded out by the same conspiracy of history. You said a little while ago that you had been persecuted in the name of religion. Do you know what religion is? In every period of history a bunch of landlords and capitalists have been depriving the poor multitude of all comfort and pleasure by dangling before them the promises of eternal comfort in an illusory heaven. In the Bible it is clearly written that only the poor can go to heaven. This is the neat arrangement put forward by the rich– If you people, the lowly slaves, serve us by shunning all pleasure and comfort in this life, you'll be able to regale yourself with meat, wine and courtesans in heaven for eternity. Only the poor and the beggars will be given passports to heaven and since we rich people are destined for hell, let us enjoy ourselves in this life. But no scripture has been able to explain why the cleverest section of society, the rich, have chosen the transient pleasures of this life in exchange for an eternity in hell. Do you know what religion is? At one time in Europe, the Pope of Rome was pimping paradise to fill his empty coffers. He was selling gate passes to heaven! According to Islam one earns god's blessings by making a believer out of single kafir, an infidel. Why worry yourself sick about the salvation of others? And why do you have to tempt others with the prospects of god'd blessings? The reason lies not in religion but in the incipient Arab national consciousness, and in the interests of the expansionists of Arab capitalism. Because of this injunction in Islam, millions of Infidels from Spain to Indonesia were made to believe in Allah at swordpoint and lakhs of poor soldiers laid down their lives for the holy cause. I don't know whether those unknown soldiers ascended to heaven or not as a result of their sacrifice, but history bears testimony to the fact that a handful of emperors and nobles enjoyed paradise on this earth itself. The rich treasures accumulated in Hindu temples through the ages could deliver millions of people from poverty in this life itself, but the custodians of heaven– the brahmins – are seated, embracing the gates of those temple, preventing any such deliverance. In the name of religion the Muslims of Purbo Banga plunged their hands in the blood of Hindus. Do you know what drove them to it? The history makers made them drunk on wine, the wine of religion. Without being drunk, can someone rape a woman about to give birth to a child?"
Having delivered this long sermon practically in one breath. I raised my head and looked at the girl. It seemed as if she had no more questions to fire at me, and no logic left to argue with.
"Listen to Ismael's story," I resumed my account. "They came and settled in the heart of the deep, impenetrable jungles of Assam. From birth to death their life was one perennial struggle with nature. They were the brave children of this earth. No blow could break them. Every year the wild waves of the Brahmputra came during season of floods, and swept away their precious homes, built with blood, sweet tears and infinite love. Every year they built their homes again with renewed, vigour. About twelve years went by like this. But, in 1954, Nature hatched a new conspiracy against them. Massive innundation under Brahmaputra waters resulted in the loos of thousands of bighas of land. Before they knew it, in two swift years, the insatiable river had claimed Ismaels village and paddy fields. Then, like ghosts beingjoined by devils, a cholera epidemic swept down on the homeless creatures, huddling on the trees and a big chunk of the population dies. Among them were Ismael’s wife, and a twelve year old son. Ismael was left with a copuple of children, both of tender age. You’ve told me a little earlier that events don’t happen according to plan. It is people who add there own imagination, emotion, and logic to these events. Like you, I won’t do any of that. But I feel like shedding a few tears for Ismael. Anyway, after losing everything, to the fierce hunger of the Brahmaputra, about a hundred families from Ismael’s village petitioned the governemnt for land. There was no response. There was no fallow land where they could quickly build their homes. In desperation, they decided to break law for the check o survival. They started encroaching on government land for grazing. That is where I came in.
“How?" she interrupted.
"As a government official I was entrusted with the task of evicting illegal encroachers like Ismael. One day I headed a campaign against Ismael and other villagers. With me were armed policemen, peons and ten, twelve elephants. According to the dictates of the low I had to demolish their homes with the help of the elephants.
On elephant-back, I assessed the situation from one side of the village. A plain covered with the kahua, khagori and ulubon reeds stretched for miles, and on a patch of clearing in its middle, there were a few thatched huts. Against the vast and lonely background of the wilderness, made profound by the unceasing roars of the wind, the hundred huts looked so tiny and their inhabitants looked so frail and helpless that I wanted to reassure them by clasping them to me, instead of ordering the pitiful dwellings to be razed to the ground.
But I heard myself give the order for the demolition to begin. Ten elephants bore down on the huts. The women and children started wailing. Their cries were scattered on the wind.
"Suddenly a man rushed toward me like a lunatic. Raising his hands to the skies he started crying loudly, In the name of Allah huzoor, spare my home. Both my children are suffering from smallpox. If they do not have a bit of shelter in the chill of this month of Magh, they will die this night. Their mother and elder brother have left them, huzoor, and they haven't had anything proper to eat for a long time! Saying this he fell on the ground. I immediately ordered that his home should not be demolished. But the Mondal informed me that the work was already done.
"Hearing this, Ismael stood up. Suddenly his unbearably grief stricken face and eyes became hard. Khuda, it was for this that I roamed all over the world, left my home for a foreign land, pushed my woman to death by cholera. Today, you didn't even leave a roof over my children's heads for them to die in peace. Thus addressing an invisible god, he moved away slowly. There was nothing more I could do. I wrote down a few details about this man, including his name. Then I came back to my quarters after finishing the demolition work.
"Getting up the next morning, I opened my front door and was greeted by a sight the memory of which will haunt me for the rest of my life. On my veranda lay the corpses of two children, their faces horribly disfigured by smallpox. Everything was clear, there was no question of not understanding what had happened.
"Afterwards I made enquiries and learned that on the night of the demolition Ismael had disappeared from the village with his two children. Gradually everyone came to know about the children, but till now no one has any information about Ismael. Perhaps no one felt the need to find out about him. But I must seek him out. For the sake of humanity and on behalf for the barbaric and brutal laws of human beings, I must beg forgiveness from Ismael. Otherwise even in my death I will not find peace."
Ending Ismael's story, I lapsed into silence.
I had hoped that the girl would say something, but she too remained silent. The room had become completely dark.
"Won't you light a lamp or something?" I asked. But she did not reply. I realized that she did not want to attract any customers by illuminating the room.
I must find Ismael, I quietly vowed to myself. But at the same time I was tormented by the thought of this girl sitting still and speechless in the dark. I was chasing a man, and she was running away from a man. I had come looking for Ismael, but on the way I had found this girl who traded her own flesh. I wanted information, but I came to know about Annanda Charan Mushopadhyay. But strangely enough they were all the same, their stories were the same. Although they might not comprehend it, they were all sacrificial victims of the same conspiracy of history. How can I go on searching only for Ismael now, leaving this girl all alone in the dark? Now I must also find Annada Charan Mukhopadhyay. After finding him whom else will I have to look for? I wondered who had the might and perseverance to search for the millions of Annadas and Ismaels of this world. Actually, by knowing one you knew them all. Now it was necessary to look for the enemies of Ismael and Annada, the foes of humanity.
It was very late. Getting up to leave, I asked the girl, "Won't you light the lamp?"
This time too she neither uttered a word, nor made any move to light the lamp. I felt after listening to my story she wanted to re-examine whether Ismael was a Muslim or a human being. Her mind had flown away looking for Ismael Sheikh.
(Pradipta Borgohain is an author and a translator. He teaches English in Gauhati University. He is a recepient of Katha Award for translation )
This English translation was earlier published "asomiya - Handpicked Fictions" published by Katha (http://www.katha.org ) in 2003. nezine.com is grateful to Katha for granting the permision to reproduce this translation.
An interview with Homen Borgohain by Arindam Barkataki
( Homen Borgohain is the most popular and at the same time controversial personality in the realm of Assamese Literature and also in the field of Assamese journalism. He has been the spark of Knowledge for all those who developed reading habit during the eighties and nineties. When I met him for this interview session I realized that he is the kind of personality ,whose personal life apart from his literary and journalistic one ,is equally rich and multi -dimensional - creative and lively. Though all the three compliment each other yet each is independent in its own way. As a interviewer I felt as if it was not an interview but the reflection of the vivid thoughts of a dignified person of high esteem.
Your attraction to this mystifying life took a different turn when you pursued higher education in Cotton College. For example- the first day in Gauhati (then Guwahati) you enjoyed sunset over the Brahmaputra, the next day you visited a red light area. On one hand there was the Cotton College library and on the other the long idle talks amongst hostel mates. Did these contradictory statuses make a permanent influence in your life and writings?
Let me clarify one thing- long time ago I came across a sentence quoted by Graham Greene in one of his novel -“Middle years are the years of truth telling”. I have reached that age either I speak the truth or don’t talk at all. I go for self analysis in all writings because I remain conscious to all my actions and activities. Most people flow along as life swirls ahead, a few are pre-conscious of their next step and I believe I am one of them even before my youth. The head (consciousness) is the main weapon and it should not be ruled by the heart (emotion) or the person can never enjoy life to the fullest. With this introduction I confess have been deliberately living a dual life, parallel in my entire life. To experience life man needs to adopt both with just and unjust ways- introspect and analyse every move- adventuring different areas - but many people confine their adventure in tasting varied culinary experiences – whereas I desired to understand life acquiring different experiences- so I have to live a dual life, one for knowledge and one fully personal. You mentioned the Cotton College library- you know it was not a bogus show on my part. Even today the regular visitors of the library see some books, places marked ‘H’- I did it because it helped me find easily the particular place, stack or book that caught my attention, the next time I visit that section. And I many said I was the only reader of some books till date but I doubt it. My point is that I took full advantage of the library. Ironically those same people alleged not only I spoiled my health by playing cards at nights but also winding to an uncertain future. I knew my mind was sharp- I didn’t use it for acquiring good academic results alone. Studies and leisure are very much essential in anybody’s life; that’s how I justify my actions. Moreover I felt to evolve as a right person one has to understand the minds of idlers’, gamblers, knaves. In a way I felt I became an example of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde- mind it, it’s just a metaphor. But such characters do exist in a society but I consciously carry a twofold way of life not character.
You joined the Administrative Services in 1955. Can we assume the creative Homen Borgohain underwent some change during those thirteen years?
Surely and I confessed it all in my autobiography - prior to my joining the government services I was totally unaware of the real society. Till my twelfth year, it was the golden period in my life; I come from a rural background and from a well off family, not rich but I never got to know poverty or misery, in a way grew in a respected environment, barring aside trivial problems. I left my house at the correct time when it was needed to explore life beyond. However, corruption, exploitation, poverty, injustice were non-existent in my single-eyed doe life; I lived in a world of idealistic romance where my word was the final say on all matters in my entire college life. But it was the tenure in the services that all those airy castles fell apart. For the first time in my life I experienced harsh problems, pain of farmers, exploitations, corruptions, demonic problems of the government (although much less than today)- all those deterrents scared me so much that my smooth progression halted, and I began to search ways to cope ahead and understand life- indeed, those thirteen years of service surely made a deep impact on my life and writings.
How much did those experience the influence your extraordinary creations like ‘Subala’, ‘Ismail Sheikhor Xondhanot’, ‘Xixur hanhir dore’?
Those may seem extraordinary to you, actually they were reflections of experiences gathered during my service period. My real life experience during an eviction drive formed the base of my novel ‘Ismail Sheikhor Xondhanot’. I wrote ‘Xixur hanhir dore’ which was based on the life of my laundry man when I was posted as Deputy Collector in Chayagaon from 1958 to 1960; during this period I learnt many facets of the society which later on gave me ample information for my writings. And it was Chaygaon that inspired to write my first novel ‘Subala’ and that too very dramatically. It so happened that one day the postman delivered a letter, immediately without going through the address I went through the contents only to find midway it was for my neighbour which by mistake was dropped at my place. But the content was so touching that I was compelled to read to the last overriding guilt. It was written by a local girl, whose lover turned out to be a fraud after she eloped with him to Gauhati, now poverty made her a prostitute. I believe she knows my neighbour well, so she is seeking his help. I handed the letter to my neighbour but noted the girl’s address. I discovered I could write a novel based on the girl’s story- and I did my first a novel on the life of a prostitute which would be the first of it’s kind in Assamese.
I sought her out in Gauhati; not daring to venture alone in the red light area I took the company with a close friend and colleague, Late Abanikumar Gohainbarua. Her heart wrenching tales, persons exploiting her and my experiences of the socio-economic scenario of Chaygaon, all these formed the contributing attributes of the novel.
Once you wrote you took up journalism out of compulsion. But today your power and popularity is vested on journalism. What do you say in this regard?
Believing is your part, telling the truth is my part- I never vied for the so called popularity because I carry a suspicious feeling on it. I find all very popular persons very doubtful and have very little respect for them. I never bask in the recognition journalism brought for me. Secondly you mentioned about power- the term which I find very derogatory. Of course I love power- but the power of a rational mind; suppose I believe in a principle, and I succeed in making you believe it too convincingly, that is power to me. I share this belief with D.H. Lawrence although I am not an avid reader of his writings but the single book which I read, cast a huge influence on me. All social scientists and thinkers state man is ever hungry for power and many forwarded several categories according to their style. But you mentioned power acquired vide the fourth pillar of democracy- is something I loathe. I like when I am appreciated as a writer, because I always narrate the truth, and if appreciated and gain popularity I enjoy it as success. But power attained through journalism is short lived - no doubt it gave me an influential position- but it was never my desire and I see no point of enjoying it.
You are a creative icon in Assamese journalism. As an editor of several newspapers and magazines, you brought forth many topics never ‘touched before’. Don’t we get a glimpse of the positive philosopher Homen Borgohain behind all those popular writings?
I never thought it that way, and it is the first time somebody asked me a question of this type. A man is like an actor, however he might think he has done a good job, it’s the audience who would judge him. Personally I think Homen Borgohain the journalist and the writer are poles apart, each have their own parameters of creativity and both don’t understand one another to the fullest. I won’t lie – indeed both influenced each other in some way or the other. The ‘never touched before’ subjects in daily papers and magazines were not the creation of fantasy just for the sake of creativity since I am a creative one – but presentation of actual happenings with a logical and rationalised view. Our state has lesser number of book readers than newspapers, because the latter has become a part of their daily life in this democratic country. I feel these daily gazettes are the best source to release all my experiences, thoughts and comments to the public- and I do that with full sincerity and dedication. Again there is limitation because our newspapers consist of hardly eight pages or so unlike other national dailies of over thirty pages- wish we could have increased at least to sixteen pages; at least I could have included more topics. Moreover manpower is limited. So within all these constraints I could project only the facts not some extended imagination. Hence all that was done not for publicity or showcasing any creativity and it’s a written with conviction.
Is journalism an obstacle to your creativity?
Hugely. I shall always regret of opting journalism as a livelihood. At one time I devoted myself very seriously in writing novels and desired to bring out some good ones in my life span. But it calls for a great deal of time, physical and mental concentration. Searching less words to convey a thought requires more time than vice-versa. I don’t boast that I am a novelist par supremo but I believe I had all the inherent qualities of a good one, sadly lack one quality even during my youth days - which is constant concentration for long time; because I had to be associated with newspapers for my livelihood and that took a giant time of the day. Again people often cite that in spite of being a journalist so and so is a great writer but they forget writer journalist like Hemmingway created his eternal literatures only after leaving his profession as a war correspondent. To incorporate experiences in novel and fictions picked as a journalist needs time to sort out logical explanations. And Assamese writer-editors cannot be compared to their counterparts’ because of the socio-economic differences. An editor like me cannot take up the writings for the whole day because my life extends from reading the Holy Scriptures to mending my own shoes; so I get very less time to delve in creative writings for long hours, and I don’t I think will get in future- now that period has passed. Now I am satisfied because it’s journalism that is contributing to maintain my livelihood and presently I am a journalist and a journalist alone.
Your close association with different Chief Ministers like Hiteshwar Saikia, Golap Borbora, Sarat Chandra Sinha, Prafulla Mahanta and Tarun Gogoi always stirred confusion amongst the general readers who look up to you – yet you maintain an enigmatic distance from political scenario-
The duty of a Journalist is reporting, and political leaders are the chief sources of news items - higher the status of the leader higher is the report quality. As I am mainly a political journalist and editor, definitely I have to be in touch with all those leaders at the top. But I can say with conviction that I never had to visit any leader for collecting any news but it was always the other way round. Personally I am not close to any political leaders. I believe the rumours that ‘I am very close’ were spread by those you named. I stated in my two books ‘Mur Sangbadik jiban’ and ‘Dhumuha aru ramdhenu’ how Hiteshwar Saikia was desperate for my companionship when he was alive. I may have done heavy interactions with many leaders but always kept a safe distance from their personal lives –like dew drops and leaves. Even a sworn enemy cannot bring allegations of such types against me. People see my association with such leaders mainly for two reasons- firstly I cannot ignore them as they were the news feeders and secondly most of them declare themselves my closeness with them. But when I hear somebody saying ‘Homen Borgohain is my personal friend’ I think it’s an ex
In 1979 an interview published in ‘Prakash’ alleged you are confused in your political idealisms and possess an unclean image. You acknowledged it. How do you react today?
Even today I have that unclean political image. I have stated again and again journalism is my livelihood and also is my biggest enemy. No doubt I carry my profession very dedicatedly but never got immersed in it. Like Hamlet I am still confused which way I should proceed. I never delved deep to learn which road would be smooth or which rough; had I done, my commitment would have spoken volumes. But presently I am committed to only one aspect- portraying the truth and justice. Analyze your questions you will find them conflicting and contradictory- and that is who I am. My profession enabled me to be an active social worker but the same person, I, however have a very different style of living in innermost private life. Good or bad- that is irrelevant for me and that is the truth.
( Translated by Monami Bezbaruah. Her contact is 9864012641)