The smell of the land
Literary luminary Rongbong Terang reflects on his masterpiece “Rongmilir Hanhi” in an interview with Mangalsingh Rongphar
In the literary firmament of Assam, Rongbong Terang is a renowned name. The former president of the State’s apex literary body, the Asam Sahitya Sabha (from 2009 to 2012), hails from the Karbi Anglong Hills. Terang, born in a Karbi family, is regarded a symbol of unity among the hills and plains of Assam.
Terang, a Padma Shri, has also picked many prestigious State awards for his literary prowess. He was conferred the Bishnu Rabha Award by Assam Sahitya Sabha in 1982, Basudev Jalan Award and Mahapurush Madhavdev Award (both in 2008) and Assam Prakashan Award (1983) besides the Assam Valley Literary Award (2008).
Over the years, Terang has produced many acclaimed works -- novels, short stories and literary articles. He has also authored several books on Karbi grammar and the language, produced a Karbi to Assamese dictionary too and a collection of Karbi folktales among other publications. His novels -- “Neela Orchid (2001)” and “Krantikalar Ashru (2005)” and “Jak herowa pakhi (2005)”, a collection of articles, and “Samanway Prabah (1989)”, and the compilations of short stories “Faringor Geet” and “Langsoli-etor Kakrung” bear testimony to his versatility. But Terang shall remain in readers’ heart for his first novel “Rongmlir Hanhi”, published in paperback in 1981.
“Rongmilir Hanhi” was presented to readers in a series in the Assamese monthly, Prakash. It was the year 1979. We were high school students at that time. The picture of “one greyish evening in autumn…”, the lines I read long ago in Prakash, is still fresh in the mind. The story impressed many readers, including me, so much that they used to eagerly wait for the next issue of the magazine.
Long after the last part of the novel appeared in 1980, the various characters of the novel kept dangling from my memory. In 1981, “Rongmilir Hanhi” came out in paperback edition and I was overjoyed to have got the opportunity of reading it once again in book form.
My government job took me to different parts of Assam, also to west Karbi Anglong. There, I heard about the shooting of the novel for a TV serial. People welcomed the serial warmly when it was telecast on DD Guwahati. Though, a little controversy also arose over the depiction of some scenes in it.
To get a clear picture, I read the novel once again. It was a pleasant coincidence that my present work place, Rongkhang, is the background of the novel. I have already been to many of the places cited in the novel.
The novel, written in Assamese, delineates the life and culture of Karbi people living in the Rongkhang area of Karbi Anglong. It portrays the Karbi society of pre-independence era, the people and their dilemma between the old and the new values of the society.
It features the character Sar-ik Terang, the headman of Rongmili village, an idealistic man who stands for modern ideas. On the other hand, there is Sikari Teron, the Habe or the chief of that area, conservative and evil minded. The story moves on through events like the advent of Christianity into Karbi society, also education, commerce, opium, and the connection with Kampur and refugees from East Bengal and Nepal occupying Karbi land.
Habesiko Sikari Teron uses his authority to remove Sar-ik Terang from his position. But good prevails over evil. People support Sar-ik Terang who takes a firm step towards progress and modernity by sending his son Hemai for education to Kampur. Habesiko’s own village faces near destruction. The turn of events force the king to dethrone Sikari Teron. Sar-ik Terang’s beautiful daughter Amphu sacrifices her love for the unity of her village and gets married to a young man from far-off Rongmandu. So Rongmili smiles and keeps on smiling because of Sar-ik Terang’s progressive ideas and Amphu’s far-sightedness.
I always had a desire to meet my favourite novelist and get answers to many questions that arose in my mind while reading the novel. One fine evening, I visited him at his residence in Diphu town. Terang was sitting by the fireside. He smiled his warm smile and invited us to his drawing room. But we preferred to sit by the fire as it looked cosy that wintry evening. He ordered tea for all. The entire time was spent talking about various topics related to “Rongmilir Hanhi” making it a memorable evening. Excerpts:
What was your inspiration for the novel?
Firstly, it was the lack of reflection of Karbi social life in the vast fold of Assamese literature other than Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya’s Iyaruingam (1960) and Lumber Dai’s beautiful depiction of tribal life in Prithibir Hanhi(1963). Another inspiration was the contemporary situation in Assam and the feeling that literature can bring about integration of the people of the hills and the plains and make it one whole, like the water of the Brahmaputra, an endless flow. My dream had always been to introduce the land and the people of Karbi Anglong to the outside world. “Rongmilir Hanhi” became the medium to make that dream come true.
You are not from Rongkhang. Yet you chose it to be the backdrop of the novel. Karbi Anglong is a vast area, yet the places written about in the novel are from Baithalangso or Vothat Langso and its adjacent areas in Rongkhang. Why?
When Joysing Doloi was Chief Executive Member (1972-78), the Karbi Anglong District Council made a documentary film, Pragotir Pothat Karbi Anglong. Renowned Assamese filmmaker Shiva Prasad Thakur was its director. The responsibility of writing the screenplay was given to me and Roy Enghee. Later on, Roy Enghee left the project. So I was left alone with Shiva Thakur to travel all around Karbi Anglong. That gave me the opportunity to visit west Karbi Anglong, that is the Rongkhang area starting from Ronghang Rongbong to Umrasi, Umteli, Tika and Rongmandu. I was much influenced by the rich and unique socio-cultural traditions of the Karbis in the Rongkhang area. The Karbi king, his ministers, the pinpo, the habe, still occupy a prominent place in the social system of the area. That was the reason why I chose Rongkhang for my novel.
It was at Hongkram that I saw the bamboo house on stilts build in rows, met the Habe and the Pinpos. So in drawing the village of Rongmili, Hongkram surely played an important role.
As the story is about the Karbi society in pre-independence era, many influential names have to be brought into the story in some context or the other. I had no intention to show any disrespect to these great people. So they had been kept in isolation from the other characters and events in the novel. Both the story and the characters in it were completely imaginary.
So the novel has a mix of real and imaginary characters. It is also said that the character of Sar-ik was influenced by your father-in-law Joysing Hanse. Is it true?
As I said earlier, there is surely an indirect influence of Hongkram in the novel. I married from that place and that region is the background of my novel. So it’s likely a few personalities may have influenced my characters. It is natural, whereas my personal experiences and imaginations have gone into the creation of some of the characters. For example, take the description of Hemai crossing River Kopili to go to Kampur for his schooling. It reflects my own childhood experience of crossing River Jamuna to go to Langka and the experience of the people of Hongkram going to Kampur for their studies. All these are bound together and brushed up with some of my own imagination. So the influence of Hongkram is surely there.
In the literary genre of a novel, there is a category called regional novel. According to KDM Snell, it is fiction that is set in a recognisable region and which describes features distinguishing the life, social relations, customs, language, dialect or other aspects of the culture of that area and its people. Fiction with a story sense of local geography, topography or landscape is also covered by this definition. In such writings, a particular place or regional culture may perhaps be used to illustrate an aspect of life in general, or the effects of a particular environment upon the people living in it. And one usually expects to find certain characteristics in a regional novel; detailed description of a place setting or region, whether urban or rural, which bears an approximation to a real place.
By regional novel, we can also remind ourselves of Thomas Hardy’s famous Wessex novels. The environment around the Wessex area influences the people living there, in their way of life, their conversations, musings and mannerisms. The imaginary characters are very realistically placed in the novel. The influence of the area over those novels is so strong and so far-reaching that no character can be kept in isolation from it.
According to critics, to be a perfect regional novel, it must produce that particular area’s life, mannerisms, song, dance, etc. clearly and to such an artistic level that it gets strongly implanted in the minds of the readers.
In “Rongmilir Hanhi”, the people of Rongkhang area, their lives, conversations, colloquialism, social customs and the various places are reflected so realistically that even the non-karbi readers find it interesting. The social system and its traditions leave a mark on the minds of the readers. Can we then term it a successful regional novel?
I don’t mind calling “Rongmilir Hanhi” a regional novel. But I can’t say how far it has succeeded. The readers will have to judge it. I have only written it, its value will be judged by the people.
How long did it take you to complete the novel?
I took almost six months to complete it. After travelling all over the Karbi Anglong district for an entire year, I caught a serious malady. I was bedridden for six months. I completed my novel during that period of time. I was encouraged by my late wife to keep the mind active. Many women related issues were interpreted by my wife. I alone could have never fully drawn well the social life of the people. My wife’s knowledge of the Rongkhang area, its customs and traditions, the people, was of great help.
(Mangalsingh Rongphar is a freelance writer and an Extension Officer in the Panchayat and Rural Development Department, Assam)