NUMAL MAHATTA is a man with unparalleled chutzpah – while he wields the baton as a top cop of Assam Police during the day, he burns the midnight oil to dabble with words and nourish his love for literature. When he talks about his roots in the lush tea gardens of upper Assam, he also makes an important observation. ‘English is not just a language but considered a status symbol. Knowing the English language is regarded as a skill,’ he observes. He is amused by the fact that an intoxicated person often tries to speak in English or rather Hinglish. His first ever initiation into English language and literature was through his father who used to tell him Shakespearean tales like the ‘Merchant of Venice’, ‘Macbeth’ and Othello while they were ploughing in the fields or carrying a bunch of reaped paddy home. He values this experience because it put him on a path to self-discovery. He started immersing himself in literature and took it up as a subject for higher studies. He speaks to The Thumb Print Magazine about post-modern and contemporary literature.
Q1 Please tell us something about your writings.
NM: I love writing poetry. ‘Modern Poetry is my favourite subject. A theme comes to the poet spontaneously,’ he says. My subject for poetry has been the varied nuances of rural life and their travails and triumphs. For instance, after a hard day’s work, a female tea plucker, comes out from tea factory after weighing the tea leaves and return to the labour lines. The sight of the smoke coming out of the chimneys from the tea factories also symbolizes their pain and despair. I also write about the pangs of post-modern life dealing with uncertainties, lost opportunities, lost possibilities as in Haruki Murakami’s work.
Of late, I have chosen some of the best works of Assamese poetry and prose and started writing critically on them. I have been working on and writing on the period of Renaissance, the transition period and the advent of modernism, post-modernism and latest trends of literature worldwide. Writers always choose the theme of their work from the contemporary society with their backward and forward linkages of human development. After Marxian and Hegelian doctrines, people have started new forms of literature to give a realistic approach towards life and the world. Gradually, Sartre’s works like La Nausea, existentialism influenced contemporary fiction as well as verses.
New writers who have emerged as prolific writers started writing both in prose and poetry reflecting the various aspects of surrealism which is expressed as ‘pure psychic automatism’ as mentioned in the Surrealist Manifesto published by French poet and critic Andre Breton. The readers are always taken to an unexpected different world with an element of surprise. Some new writers like Burges, Marquez and lately Haruki Murakami started writing fantastical events based on realistic incidents. Some writers of the age like Murakami thinks that all the great happenings or events in the world like 9/11 have a fantastic, historical sequence. According to this group of writers Surrealism cannot truly portray reality either in fiction or work of poetry and therefore, they have started writing magical events with a realistic approach. This is known as magic realism as depicted in the One Hundred Years of Solitude (Marquez, 1967), Midnight’s Children (Salman Rushdie,1981), Kafka on the Shore (Murakami, 2004). These are the various trends in the world literature and I consciously try to find out their delineation into Assamese literature.
Q2. You try to weave in the literature of western world with Assamese literature. Please tell us more about it.
NM: Kolkata, had been the hub of literary activities. Most of educated, aristocratic Assamese students had gathered in Kolkata for their higher education. They had come across Western thoughts and philosophy and modern technological developments that started reflecting in their literary works — like pangs of city life has been in the poetry of Amulya Baruah (Kukur) and Navakanta Baruah (He aranya he maha nagar) even when there was no modern city in the entire North East. The modern education that we have today is truly based on the western education system. Lord Macaulay’s epoch-making decision to bring into the Indian Education Act has received an overwhelming response from the educated Indian stalwarts saying—English has ready access to all the vast intellectual wealth, which all the wisest nations of the earth have created and hoarded.
As a student of literature, I have been an ardent reader of world-wide works of literature and while reading some of the best Assamese literary works, I strongly feel that some of them are underrated. This kind of feeling gives me immense pain — like Homen Borgohain’s novel the ‘Astarag’ has been a milestone in Assamese fiction and run parallel with contemporary world literature. Noted Indian writer Amrita Pritam once wrote that Mamoni Raisom Goswami’s short story ‘Sanskar’ can be included in the top ten short stories of the world. Then there was a hue and cry in the Assamese intelligensia. It is my endeavour is to bring some of the remarkable Assamese literary works to the common readers.
Q3. Who is your favourite litterateur/poet and why?
NM: I read and re-read the Shakespearian tragedies and every time they appeal to me differently; they have different levels of interpretations deep into the humankind transcending the time barrier. Like Hamlet’s problem ‘to be or not to be’ is an existential crisis for the modern-day civilization or the phrase ‘the time is out of joint’ or ‘there is something wrong in the state of Denmark’ are always perennial problem with contemporary human society. Shakespeare is always my all-time favourite. Apart from this, I read the various works of Francis Bacon, Bertrand Russel, Jean Paul Sartre and discover amazing ideas they have preserved for the development of human race.
4. What do you think has been the contribution of Assamese literature in the Indian context?
NM: Assamese is one of the richest languages in India. There are number of Assamese writers who have written some of the greatest works in the Indian languages. From Mahapurush Sankerdeva to Hiren Bhattacharya, they yielded their best in the Assamese cultural history for which we celebrate life. In the entire works of Srimanta Sankardeva, he has never used the word – Axom or Axomia anywhere: rather he was a visionary person and dreamt of a greater India — dhanya dhanya bharat barish. Nabakanta Barua, Nilamani Phukan, Hiren Bhattacharya and Nilim Kumar are some poets who have enriched Assamese poetry to a greater extent. The poetical as well as critical works of Dr Kabin Phukan has been wonder for me. His intellectual height cannot be measured; every line he uses in poetry is after a rigorous poetic exercise and refinement; henceforth his poetry has no loose ends. Homen Borgohain’s novel ‘Subala’ has been a wonderful work and trendsetter in Assamese fiction; it deals with the life of a prostitute with human touch. The short stories of Saurav Kumar Chaliha, Bhabendra Nath Saikia and some of the stories like ‘Khoj’ of Manoj Kumar Goswami are noteworthy contributions to Assamese literature.
5. Is there a fragrance of Assam’s tea gardens in your writings?
NM: R. Venkataraman, the former President of India once said that Assam is the tea garden of India. It’s true, wherever we go in the world Assam’s identity is tea. Tea is a labour-intensive industry. Most of the tea pluckers are women. They deserve salutation for running such a big industry that have a direct contribution to the national exchequer which can be rarely found in any part of the world. Around 200 years back, when these people came to Assam from various parts of India, their brothers and sisters also migrated to some foreign lands like Fiji, Mauritius, Singapore, Port of Spain in search of work as labourers in ‘neel’ or indigo cultivation; but today they are ruling classes and here still ruled. Behind the beautiful tea bushes, there are sordid sagas of their life. They have brought a rich cultural package with them which remains almost completely unexplored. The allegorical tales of karma and dharma and their chivalric expeditions relating to Karam puja are the part of wonderful Assamese folk culture which invites poetic justice. A scientific thorough, unbiased anthropological and cultural research would really enrich the Assamese cultural tradition which can be undertaken by the universities of Assam.
I have undertaken some selective transcreational works on the popular folk songs like jhumoir/domkoich and most of them have been published. I am still working in the project; it’s an interesting field to work on. Jayanta Mahapatra, famous Indian English writer has done prolific work on the folk poems of the life of the Santhali people as well as other tribal culture of Kalahandi and other parts of Orissa.
One who writes does not belong to a community; he or she dwindles in the broad current of the world. Toni Morrison in ‘Sula’ writes about the pangs of the African women and their fight with the hard reality; it’s not just compartmentalization of their life but it invites life’s universality.
6.Where do you think Assamese literature stands today?
NM: Assamese literature is one of the richest among other Indian literature. Apart from Bengali I have a little knowledge about other Indian languages; what is known all from the translation works.
Translations only can enrich literature to a large extent. Once famous poet and critic Dr Kabin Phukan started a translational journal ‘Anubad’ from Dibrugarh University to bring world literature to the Assamese readers which did not continue due to financial crunches. One strong challenge before the Assamese literature today is the decrease in readership. Urgent efforts are required from the government as well as other organizations like Axom Sahitya Xabha for its revival.