Others’ Appraisal of
Dr. Gobinda Prasad Sarma’s Works:
Interview by Dilip Kumar Jha (b.1972)
I met Dr. Gobinda Prasad Sarma first in a Refresher Course held at the Department of English, Dibrugarh University where he was taking our class as a Resource Person and I was a participant. He impressed me very much with his lectures on the English Novel. Listening to his lecture there in the class, I was overwhelmed and I whispered to myself – ‘Shouldn’t he have been in Oxford University’?
In a meeting of Editorial Board of the Literary Section in our college, when his name was pronounced for collecting his autobiographical information, I was quite excited. Finding my interest in him, the meeting unanimously offered and deputed me for taking the interview of Dr. Sarma along with our Magazine Secretary, Papu Deka, a student of 3rd Sem, Lakhimpur Kendriya Mahavidyalaya , North Lakhimpur.
I along with Papu Deka set on a journey to Guwahati on 18/08/2012 for the purpose of taking his interview. Over telephone our meeting with Dr. Sarma was fixed on 19/08/2012 at 10 a.m. at his own residence. Arriving at his residence I was stunned to see his house having an Wordsworthian ambience with huge range of greenery of bushes and leaves carpeting the campus.
Papu and I, introducing ourselves with primary salutation, entered his drawing cum dining hall and handed over him a letter of our Principal. A little later a delicious cup of tea was served and with due permission of Dr.Sarma , I switched on to ask him some questions as the part of his interview by which I have dared to capture his views through the following queries:
1.Dr. Jha : Sir, tell us about your childhood and how would you like to distinguish your childhood from that of your grandchild.
Answer: Dr Jha, it is quite interesting. The name of my birthplace is ‘Heramjar’, a small village of undivided Kamrup. In those days, childhood offered more freedom but also a struggling atmosphere. Lack of material facilities in the village did not offer me an ideal academic atmosphere. But no burden of books, no burden of routine and no confinement were also attractions of those days in childhood.
The childhood of my granddaughter is totally different. She has to confine herself either in the four walls of school or of residence and she has to bear heavy loads of books, heavy routine and confined life. But my granddaughter is smarter academically, technologically and knowledgeably than me. I am quite happy to have the company of my grand daughter
2 .Dr.Jha : Sir, tell us about your academic life.
Ans. Dr. Jha., I got admitted to Tihu High School which is three miles away from my village . Later I passed my Matriculation in 1957 from Tihu High School. Thereafter, I did my Intermediate in Science from Cotton College in 1959.
3.Dr.Jha: Sir, tell us – Is the teaching as a profession your choice or an accident?
Ans. Dr. Jha, it is a very difficult question for me. Whether it is an accident or a choice, you have to decide. I shall only tell you the story of my taking to a profession. After doing my Intermediate in Science, I was inclined towards Medical Science and I wanted be a doctor. It was in 1959 when I was selected for admission in the lone Medical College of Assam of those days i.e. Assam Medical College, Dibrugarh. But my economic condition was not congenial for it. One of my friends promised to give me the amount for admission and asked me to come to the railway station for the final journey when he would give me the required sum. I came bag and baggage to the railway station and started waiting for the arrival of my friend while waiting for the train. I went on waiting and waiting at the railway platform as many trains passed by. My friend did not arrive even at the nick of time. At last my train came and left and I was still waiting for my friend and his promised money. All my hopes scattered, I finally left for my village home with the luggage unopened.
- Dr.Jha: Sir, when did you decide to join the teaching profession?
Ans: Dr Jha, well, I thought to opt out for teaching as a career not immediately after. First I got admitted to B.Sc with Honours in Chemistry in Cotton College. Hardly had I completed one month in the Dept of Chemistry as a student, when I changed my mind. I was always interested in the study of literature, especially English literature.I approached the Head of the Department of English, Prof. Chandra Kalita – a dhoti and pugree-clad bare-footed Basnav for a seat in the English Honours class.But English Honours classes had already started and the first term exam was near at hand. for which he said, he would not like to admit a student at this late stage. But I was persistent in my pleading and he ultimately yielded. However it was on one condition that I would have to appear in the coming term examination and be able to secure Honours marks. Otherwise I shall have to go back to the Chemistry Department again. Fortunately I topped in that examination and felt relieved.
Having joined the Department of English, I started thinking about my career. In the mean time the personality and popularity of Dr. Banikanta Kakati, Prof. Hem Barua and other such literary stalwarts had always attracted me much. I felt that no profession is bigger and greater than becoming a professor like them. This was the switch on mode time for my teaching career in 1959.
5.Dr.Jha: Sir, when did you finally start your teaching career?
Ans. Ha! Ha! Well, here is another story. After completing my graduation , I again could not continue my study further because of my financial position; and I joined Arya Vidyapeeth School as an English teacher in 1961 and taught there up to 1963. Thereafter I got admitted into M.A and became a student in the Department of English of Gauhati University. When I appeared in the Final Examination of M.A. in English and the result was still awaited, Mr. Giridhar Sarma, the Principal of Arya Vidyapieeth College, invited me for teaching the students as a tutor in his college. After the announcement of the result, I was regularized as a lecturer. This is how I finally started my teaching career.
My teaching career took a new turn in 1969 when I joined the Department of Assamese, Gauhati University for teaching the Western Literature Paper. I did my Ph.D while in the Department of Assamese on Indo-Anglian Fiction specially on its nationalistic aspect under the supervision of Dr. Amaresh Datta, the eminent scholar and Head of the Department of English. It was completed in 1974.
6 .Dr.Jha: Sir, when did you join the Department of English as a teacher and when did you leave this Department?
Ans.By then, teaching had become a passion for me. I was selected in 1975 for a lectureship in the Department of English, Gauhati University where my teaching career enjoyed upward lifts that made me Reader in 1981, Professor in 1990 and finally Head of the Department and Dean, Faculty of Arts.
Well, Dr. Jha, time waits for none. Time came for me also for the final exit from the University. I got retirement in 2003 from the English Derpartment on the completion of the three year term of extension of my teaching service.
- Dr. Jha: Sir, now tell us about your career as a writer.
Ans. Well Dr. Jha, teaching and writing both were my passions and they were inseparably going on simultaneously all the time.
8.Dr.Jha: Sir, please tell us about your writing achievements.
Ans. More than 450 articles, a few novelettes, some short stories, biographical and autobiograhical pieces, criticism and travel writings. I have been still writing and it will continue till my health permits. Because I cannot live without reading and writing which is like my life breath.
` Later Dr. Sarma gave me a hard copy in Assamese of his abridged bibliography which records his publications. He is now working on the unabridged complete one.
9.Dr.Jha: What massage would you like to convey to the young generation?
Ans. Be thoughtful and cultivate fine feelings in yourself.
Our meeting lasted almost two hours in a very friendly and candid atmosphere where Papu and I enjoyed ourselves in his company. We bade good bye after taking light nasta and left his Wordsworthian abode with a very heavy heart though with a sense of high respect.*
* from Pratyush – the students’ journal of Lakhimpur Kendriya Mahavidyalaya, North Lakhimpur.
DAFFODILS AND LILACS :
THE TRAVEL WRITINGS OF DR.G.P.SARMA
Krishna Barua (b.1946)
Ever since the early travellers, Hiuen Tsang, Marco Polo and others, ventured out to explore the world and wrote about their experiences, travel writing has been popular down the ages. The stories of adventurers such as Heinrich Harrer’s Seven Years in Tibet and the Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon – Tiki Expedition written in the last century and the tales of many others, captured the imagination of readers. Just as the need to know about the unknown motivated the explorers and adventurers, the same need which exists in almost all human beings, is fulfilled by travel writing.
In this sense, Daffodil Phul Dekhisa and Lilac Phul Phulibor Botor by Dr. G.P.Sarma which are accounts of his travels across the U.K., U.S.A. and Europe, fulfill this purpose. Yet these books contain discussions on a variety of topics apart from travel – literature, art, culture, philosophy, and civilization and are much more than conventional travel writing. There are autobiographical elements too and these books have qualities of story-telling, characterization and action which resemble works of fiction.
Written in Dr. Sarma’s typical easy and lucid style , these works are examples of good prose writing, often verging on the poetic, especially in the descriptive passages on nature, as in his description of the London sky dotted with stars and a pale moon on his last night in the city. Such examples which occur frequently in these books give his writings a romantic touch and convey his love of nature. Moreover, his style is informal and sometimes even conversational, so that he, naturally, holds the readers’ attention. In some sections, he seems to be thinking aloud or talking to himself, displaying traits of the monologue. And there is a certain spontaneity and absence of pretentiousness in his works which is a very welcome and positive characteristic.
Dr. Sarma, moreover, is no ordinary tourist. Even though he travels as one with various tour operators, his interests set him apart from the normal traveller since, rather than the usual tourist attractions, he is more interested in places associated with literature, art and ancient civilization. At the same time, however, he derives pleasure from the sights and sounds of new places and the marvels of natural and man-made wonders and enjoys exploring shopping malls and restaurants as much as any other keen tourist. It is this combination of intellectual and ordinary interests that makes his writings so attractive and enjoyable, giving it a refreshingly human quality. The reader travels with him across countries and sees the world through his eyes and gains new perspectives and insights.
The first book, Daffodil Phul Dekhisa, takes the reader along on a journey across England and the U.S.A. and the second, Lilac Phul Phulibor Botor ushers in the world of Europe and its magnificent art, culture, and natural beauty. It is obvious from the titles and as the writer states in the forewords, that literary interests play an important part in these books. The daffodil flower clearly has associations with Wordsworth and the lilac with Eliot. These two flowers being chosen for the titles also indicate the author’s love of nature and beauty. Evidently careful thought has been given to the selection of the titles as they reflect the author’s motivations and inspiration and hint at the subject matter of the books.
Besides, the first book Daffodil Phul Dekhisa, as the author mentions in the foreword, recalls the title of Hem Barua’s book, Sagar Dekhisa which in turn echoes Deba Kanta Barua’s collection of poems with the same title. So there are associations with both English and Assamese literature. Dr. Sarma, as a professor of English, is naturally attracted to Wordsworth, but at the same time is also conscious of his Assamese literary heritage.
In fact, as Dr.Sarma takes in all the sights of the places he visits, there are certain common strands or themes which run through his narratives. One of the themes is his tendency to compare what he sees abroad with the situations in India and Assam. And, as a student and teacher of English, the literary associations of the various places he sees come readily to his mind. He is also very conscious of his Indian identity as his frequent references to the Indian context and his wish to remain rooted to India, indicate. For instance, while he sets his watch to the time abroad he asks his wife to continue with Indian time so that they feel connected to India. He also converts prices of all articles quoted in foreign currency to Indian rupees, implicitly conveying that their value is meaningful to him only in terms of the currency of his country
The trip to England which was carefully planned and organized includes visits to some of the main tourist attractions such as London, Windsor Castle, Bath, Stonehenge, Oxford, Cambridge, Stratford-upon-Avon, the Cotswolds, and the Lake District. But before the tours begin, the author has glimpses of London which delight and enthrall him.
After landing at Heathrow, as they drive out of the airport, he is surprised to see sunshine even at about eight o’clock in the evening. The author notices the absence of people in public places. He is amazed to see rows of houses which look exactly alike, with slanting roofs, like Assam type houses. His curiosity is aroused and he wonders if they are quarters built by some industrial company, but learns from Manohar, who was driving them that they are regular residences belonging to individuals. The designs are laid down by the authorities so that uniformity is maintained.The author notes that this was not the case in India and in Assam particularly, the present trend was to demolish Assam-type houses without a second thought and put up concrete structures. He regrets that old buildings, with historical associations such as the administrative building of Cotton College, were pulled down. Similarly, many other heritage buildings in the vicinity of Cotton College had been demolished. Yet, he notes, old houses in London were valued and preserved. This reflects his concern for heritage which is another strand that permeates his writings. Such comparisons, analyses and observations abound in Dr. Sarma’s writings. His thoughts frequently move back and forth as he relates what he sees abroad to conditions in India.
There are many instances too when the author’s open and liberal outlook is displayed. In his second book Lilac Phul Phulibor Botor he relates that while waiting at the international airport at Delhi to board the flight to Europe, he sees a group of people drinking and remarks that he had no problem with their drinking as long as they did not disturb anyone, which reveals a very welcome non-judgmental attitude.
In London he is excited when he sees places he had come across in Dickens’ novels. But the city is not the London of dark alleyways and horse-drawn carriages of the novelist’s time, but a bright and sparkling modern city of the twenty-first century. He had expected that as London was even older than Kolkata, Delhi or Mumbai, its buildings and monuments would be worn out and in poor condition. But he is pleasantly surprised to find that the wear and tear of time was erased by good maintenance. Moreover, new constructions being built in the old style, impresses him. Trying to understand this tendency he surmises that it might be related to the intrinsic self-restraint in the nature of the British people who were not easily swayed by new fashions and styles. The author thus analyses and tries to understand the new environment he finds himself in. He also frequently attempts to put a new place in its geographical, historical, cultural, social and literary context, so that it may be seen in a proper perspective. Moreover, the organized and disciplined functioning of the city and its public amenities, such as clean and hygienic toilets and the smooth flow of traffic, impresses him. But food is, in his opinion, expensive as also other services, particularly when converted to rupees.
A habit, which almost amounts to a ritual, is the mandatory cup of coffee or Coca-cola with which he starts a journey, ends one, or sometimes consumes in between. His purpose, obviously, is to refresh himself or erase the fatigue of travel. And as he often states, food and drink help him and his wife to renew their energy levels and relax. These occasions when they unwind with a cup of coffee or have a quick lunch or a snack in the middle of a tour, are described with humour as in the incident when he and his wife share their first cup of coffee in London. It turns out to be a huge cup of black coffee which they could not relish even after adding several sachets of sugar to it. Yet, all around them the local people sat with the same large cups in their hands, thoroughly enjoying the drink. They later discover that they should have asked for “café latte” or “cappuccino”, somewhat similar in taste to Indian coffee.
While travelling to Windsor Castle, Bath and Stonehenge, they enjoy all the sights but what really excite the author are places mentioned in literature or having literary associations. For instance, Bath is important for him because of the numerous descriptions of the town in English literature. The Salisbury Plains, much mentioned in history and praised in literature, enchant him. His descriptive powers are seen when he portrays the vast undulating plains, as being dotted with a few small, well-tended forests which resemble the immortal creation of some landscape artists. And Stonehenge reminds him of the incident in Hardy’s novel, Tess of D’Urbervilles when the heroine and her lover take refuge in a forest in the Salisbury Plains. But sadly there are no forests in those plains now. When they visit Oxford he remembers Jalukbari which, however, had only one common feature with Oxford, namely in having a university, although there were no other resemblances. He is also pleased to see Christ Church College where Lewis Carol had taught mathematics.
Seeing the thatched cottages in the Cotswold the writer regrets that they were disappearing in Assam. In Stratford-upon-Avon, Anne Hathaway’s father’s house, a modest cottage and Shakespeare’s house, an ordinary wooden building, indicated that a simple way of life was the norm in those days. He appreciates this simplicity, regretting its absence in modern life. London, teeming with historical and literary associations fascinates the author. The monuments and sights of London, Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, the river Thames and other landmarks move him. He provides information about them some of which may not be known to many, such as the fact that the inscription on Sir Isaac Newton’s tomb in Westminster Abbey was written by the poet Alexander Pope in the form of a verse, in his characteristic ironic and humorous style.
In Central London, Dr. Sarma wishes to walk in Trafalgar Square, Regent Street and Bond Street, tracing the path of Virginia Woolf’s heroine, Mrs. Dalloway on her way to the florist’s to buy flowers on her birthday. The worlds of literature and reality seem to merge temporarily as his description evokes the picture of Virginia Woolf’s heroine absorbed in her thoughts, walking the streets of London on her birthday. Returning to reality, he considers a ride on the London Eye, but rejects it as he recalls a past incident with negative associations. The writer narrates the story with humour, when he had taken his infant daughter for a ride on a Ferris wheel without his wife’s knowledge, which had upset her considerably. So, understandably, he now hesitates to ride on the London Eye.
Finally, they proceed to the Lake District which was the chief attraction for Dr. Sarma in the entire tour of England. The home of the poet William Wordsworth and the source of his inspiration, this beautiful district of lakes, waterfalls, mountains, cataracts, rivers and forests enchant the writer and his wife. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wordsworth’s contemporary, had also lived in this region and been inspired by its beauty. On seeing this beautiful district, the author mentally travels to his homeland as he often tends to do and finds similarities in the waterfalls and cataracts with those in Arunachal Pradesh and in parts of the scenic landscape on the way to Cherrapunjee.
They visit Wordsworth’s grave in Grasmere. There was a daffodil garden near Wordsworth’s grave but no flowers were in bloom, since it was not the season for daffodils. The author consoles himself with the thought that he would have to be content with the mustard fields of Assam which were perhaps, as beautiful as Wordsworth’s “host of golden daffodils”.
Although they saw Wordsworth’s Grammar School in Hawkshead, the Beatrice Potter Museum located in that area, and the Dove Cottage in Grasmere, it was not possible to go inside the Cottage because of the dearth of time. The outside view, however, indicated that it was a modest dwelling and it impressed the author that this simple house was considered adequate for the needs of a great poet like Wordsworth.
With this, the brief, ten days visit to England ends. It was, obviously, not possible to see and absorb very much in such a short space of time. Yet, the writer felt that what he had seen was impressive, particularly the British peoples’ restrained character and their wish to preserve their heritage. He noted that while they welcomed development, they did not allow it to destroy the legacy of the past, but used its benefits to enhance their heritage. They applied this approach to nature as well and made it more beautiful by human effort. Dr. Sarma reflected that he would cherish memories of the visit in his mind as a valuable treasure.
From England the author and his wife fly to the U.S.A. where they spend several months in Fort Collins, Colorado with their daughter Sagarika, son-in-law Paban and grand-daughter Anoushka. As it is a long stay of four and a half months they enjoy the visit at leisure, in contrast to the tour of England which was hectic and rushed. They land at Denver airport via Miami and even as they drive to Fort Collins, the author notices differences and similarities with the English landscape and urban areas. The prairies which stretch for miles on both sides of the road, are wild brownish grasslands untouched by the hands of man. Whereas the English fields, lush and green, have been neatly trimmed and maintained by men to enhance and beautify the surrounding areas. However, the urban neighbourhoods have similarities since the houses are low rise structures with sloping roofs like English houses.
In Fort Collins, the author goes out for his customary morning walk and it is an educative and enjoyable experience for him. He notes the differences with his walks in Guwahati. The fragrance of tropical flowers in the fresh morning air is missing, while all the houses are similar with identical façades and gardens with a tree in front of each house. They lack variety, the author reflects, but still there is a kind of beauty, he feels, in these regulated houses and landscapes. The morning walkers he meets are warm and friendly. And his spirits lift up at the sight of flocks of wild geese flying towards the distant Rocky Mountains filling the air with their rhythmic cries.
When they go for a drive at night, he is fascinated by the endless flow of moving cars. He describes the lights of the cars in front as fireflies and the light of cars from the opposite direction as sheets of gold. So he appreciates beauty, not only of nature but also of man-made objects.Moreover, the author is impressed with the American peoples’ work culture, which he sees in the eagerness with which they go to work early in the morning. Being an academician, the Fort Collins University interests him. Its excellent upkeep impresses him as also the quiet and peaceful ambience of the Student Centre. And he is pleased to discover that his book Nationalism in Indo-Anglian Fiction is also stocked in the Library.
Their long stay in the U.S.A. gives the writer and his wife opportunities to visit many famous places of interest such as the Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Teton National Park, places in California including Freemont, Stanford, Berkley, Los Angeles, Hollywood and Disneyland among others. They also enjoy a picnic in the Rockies and experience a snowfall in Fort Collins. The writer notes appreciatively the community spirit and co-operation seen in neighbours coming outdoors to clear the snow on the footpaths in front of their houses. Finally, a trip to New York rounds off this interesting tour, even though disappointingly, Washington D.C. could not be covered. While returning to India, Paban, Sagarika and their grand-daughter accompany them so that the sadness of parting is avoided. On reaching India, they discover that Dr. Sarma’s luggage is missing. This causes much anxiety as his suitcases contained, along with other items, his books, papers and writings. Finally, however, after many enquiries with the airlines office, the suitcases arrive intact, concluding the trip on a happy note.
Lilac Phul Phulibor Botor, the second travelogue written by Dr. Sarma, depicts his visits undertaken in 2010 in the European Continent, England and Scotland. This book, written in the same style as the earlier one, is equally interesting, informative and enjoyable. There are, perhaps, more discussions and sharing of information on various subjects in this book, than in the earlier one. But in a way, this is inevitable, since Europe being the centre of Western art and culture, there is a vast body of knowledge related to these topics which a writer might wish to share. And if this is done in a way which attracts and interests the reader; it adds value to the writing and gives it more depth.
The title of the book, as the author mentions at the outset, has associations with T. S. Eliot’s poem ‘Portrait of a Lady’. Eliot’s heroine, a middle-aged lady is reminded by the April sunsets, of her youth, which she spent in Paris. And now, as April is the season for lilacs, she has a bowl of lilacs in her room.
In Eliot’s Wasteland too, there is a reference to lilacs at the beginning of the poem.
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land,mixing
Memory and desire, stirring dull root
With spring rain
Hence April and lilacs are connected with Eliot’s poetry and Paris. But the title of this book also resonates with Bihu which is the season for the nahor blossom and “nahor phul phulibor botor” is a line from a popular Bihu song which Dr. Sarma uses for the title where he substitutes “lilac” for “nahor”. So, as in Daffodil Phul Dekhisa, the title suggests a combination of associations, Western and Indian, specifically Assamese, in the second travelogue also. The associations are with western literature and culture as well as Assamese folk literature and culture. There is an indication also, as in Daffodil Phul Dekhisa, that while the author focuses on the west, his roots are in the east. The title further hints that there will be more than just travel descriptions and travel experiences in the book.
Appropriately for the author, who had secretly nurtured a wish from his school days to visit the sites of the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, the tour of Europe begins with Athens and a cruise to the surrounding Aegean Islands. Helen, the heroine of Homer’s epic was abducted and taken to the island of Crete. The author draws the parallel of the abduction of Sita by Ravana. When referring to the goddess Europa, the author mentions that while Mount Olympus is the abode of the Greek gods and goddesses, the upper reaches of Mount Kailash are the abodes of the Hindu deities.
These comparisons, and allusions to the Indian context are an attempt by the author to present unknown and exotic subjects to the Indian reader in terms of what is familiar and known
In Rome, the author is fascinated by Michael Angelo’s depiction of scenes from the Bible on the forty feet high ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Again, the name of Michelangelo recalls a couple of lines from Eliot’s poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
After Rome they visit Pisa, Florence, Venice and Innsbruck. While they see the masterpieces of Renaissance artists in Italy, they experience the beauty of the Alps in Austria and learn about the famous musicians and composers such as Mozart, Beethoven and others. In Switzerland, they enjoy the snow at Jungfraujoch, where Dr. Sarrma experiences walking in the snow which comes up to his thighs. This indicates his innate desire not to miss anything new and also reflects his spirit of adventure.
At last they arrive in Paris after the visit to Switzerland and Germany. Paris, one of the high points of the tour for the author, the Paris of Eliot’s ‘Portrait of a Lady’, with all its historical, artistic and literary resonances, enthralls Dr.. Sarma. He recalls that Eliot had first come to Paris after he left the U.S.A.and before he went over to Britain to take up British citizenship.
The city of Paris turns out to be, as the writer anticipated ,the city he wanted to see and enjoy. Different aspects of Parisian life including a cabaret dance in the Latin Quarter are all to his liking. But while the tour includes trips to many important attractions including a cruise on the Seine, there are no visits to museums and art galleries so that they see neither the famous Louvre nor the Musee de Orsay.
After Paris, the tour operators take them to Belgium and its capital Brussels and from there to the Netherlands. Here a trip to a tulip garden charms the author and he also sees the daffodil which had eluded him on his last trip to England. Later he traces the lilac to his hosts’, Manohar and Shilpi’s backyard in London and realizes that he had actually seen the flower in many places, in Greece, Rome, Paris, and the Netherlands, without recognising it. After seeing the lilac his first response, as usual, is to know more about it and so he goes to the internet to access further information. He also relates the lilac to the American poet Walt Whitman and quotes this line from one of his poems:
“When lilacs last in dooryard bloomed ….”.
But it is not only poetry in English that moves him. Assamese poetry is very close to his heart and seeing the flowers and the swans in the lake in the tulip garden, he recalls Shankardev’s poem “Harmohan” and quotes some beautiful lines from it.
This visit to the garden concludes the trip to Europe and they now prepare to cross the English Channel and arrive in the UK.
On this second trip to the U.K., the writer is able to visit those places which could not be fitted in during the last one. So, along with his wife he spends time in the British Library and British Museum where they inspect some books and other interesting items. And finally, the author’s wish to walk with the Londoners in the streets of London and merge with the crowds, materialises. He remembers Charles Lamb’s ‘Londoner’ and recalls these lines in his essay:
Magic streets allure me,
And haunting human eyes,
Eyes that I love
And never see again.
The author wishes he could stand on a footpath at a busy crossing and recite those lines while watching the streams of people flowing by.
After this, the places in the itinerary are Edinburgh, Haworth and Glasgow, the main attractions being, of course, Sir Walter Scott’s Abbotsfordshire and Emily Bronte’s Haworth. But disappointingly, after exploring various options, the idea of going to Abbotsfordshire had to be abandoned because no suitable transport facilities could be found.
However, the author’s long cherished dream of visiting Emily Bronte’s home town is realised. The climax of the entire trip, this visit to Haworth exhilarates and satisfies Dr. Sarma who admires Emily Bronte’s famous novel Wuthering Heights immensely. To see the Bronte house which is preserved as a museum, to walk in the streets of Haworth, to breathe the air of Emily Bronte’s Yorkshire, and experience the environment she portrayed in her novel, in other words, to surrender himself to the Yorkshire landscape, is extremely rewarding and satisfying for him.
Finally, after a brief visit to Glasgow, their return journey begins, to London and then to India. But first, while in London, they have an opportunity to visit the well known Brent Cross Shopping Centre where they buy a much-needed suitcase, required to carry a large wall clock left behind in London by their son Atanu on his last trip. They also take in a play, The Lion King, in London’s Lyceum Theatre near the Strand. This is an appropriate end to their tour and is, in fact, as the author says, the “grand finale” of the trip.
On arriving in Delhi ,Dr. Sarma is surprised and delighted to be greeted by a brand new modern airport terminal which came up during his absence. This is an unexpected pleasure in addition to the excitement and happiness of returning to his country after a long trip abroad.
Ultimately, while this may be the conclusion of Dr. Sarma’s journeys for the moment, his readers certainly hope that there will be many more in the future. And they will wait eagerly to accompany him on his travels, once again, in their imaginations. No doubt many of them will be inspired to embark on their own journeys, whether physical or mental – journeys of discovery and self-discovery. And new meanings and dimensions will be found in his works which are layered and have depth and will continue to stimulate and enthuse readers as good writing always does. *
* from the Book, Dr. Gobinda Prasad Sarma, Person, Personality & Writings (2013)
The Tryst with Words
Writer and Scholar
Subhajit Bhadra (b. 1980)
A perceptive critic who believes in unflinching objectivity combined with sustained analytical perspective, a creative writer rooted in his own socio-cultural milieu, a writer of travelogue, who successfully transcends the boundary of stereotypical expectations and notions associated with the genre, an outstanding academician with rare insight, a voracious reader of world literature, a philanthropist with exceptional integrity, Gobinda Prasad Sarma, familiarly known as GPS among generations of his students, has carved a niche for himself in the cultural domain of Assam, and he deserves a place in the cultural canon of the State because of significant output over the last few decades. Sarma does not believe only in quantity, rather he believes in quality, which in turn, defines the nature of his critical and creative oeuvre. He has always attempted to explore newer grounds in the realm of Assamese literary criticism and very few academicians of the State have been able to balance the demands of academic engagement with their passion for words. Gobinda Prasad Sarma’s deeper engagement with western literature and criticism has enabled him to acquire and internalize a critical idiom and rigour that have in turn, enriched his critical output in Assamese, Sarma’s profound knowledge of western modes of criticism does not colour his literary criticism in Assamese as he has al- ways been able to strike a balance between the different cultural and geographical horizons.
Gobinda Prasad Sarma has always put emphasis on living a life based on integrity and ethics, which in turn, often irritated his detractors, but he never compromised with either his ideological beliefs or his unwavering professional ethics. Though he can boast of a body of work defined by excellence and relevance, yet he stubbornly refuses to wear an artificial garb of vanity and pride which generally characterize the average academicians and literary critics of the State. Sarma’s tryst with the written word continues even at the ripe age of seventy, an age when many a talent withers away; and it is a delightful fact that Sarma’s intellect and perspective have sharpened with the years. Sarma has always stayed away from crass publicity or unproductive controversies, though sordid realities occasionally forced him to be vocal to air harsh truths. Sarma has always attempted to maintain artistic commitment, critical distance, intellectual integrity and above all, a passion for arts and letters. Sarma was not only the head of the department of English, Gauhati University, he was also the dean of the faculty of arts, and he discharged his responsibilities with remarkable ease, dexterity and felicity. In recent years, Indian Writing in English has emerged as a notably significant entity within the academic domain throughout the world, and it has also attracted the much desired and much deserved attention from serious critics everywhere. Gobinda Prasad Sarma deserves special kudos in this context as his remarkable work Nationalism in Indo-Anglian Fiction (Sterling Publishers, New Delhi, 1978; 1990), remains one of the earliest attempts to chronicle and evaluate a huge corpus of Indian Writing in English from the perspective of nationalism. Sarma’s book was written at a time when reputed critics on Indian English writing like Meenakshi Mukherjee and CD Narsimaiah were charting out the changing trajectories of this infant entity. Sarma’s book was also published at a time when critics like Benedict Anderson and Partho Chatterjee were yet to come up with their canonical views on nationalism in books like Imagined Communities and Nationalism and Its Fragments respectively. Sarma’s book Nationalism in Indo-Anglian Fiction has clinched a unique place in the august critical body of Indian Writing in English because of temporal reasons, as well as for its intrinsic critical rigour. A careful perusal of the book brings to light Sarma’s painstaking research, his sustained critical insight and his consistent attempt to vindicate a place for Indian Writing in English in the critical canon. It is a rare achievement from a committed intellectual who believes in relentless work defined by class, and it should be specifically mentioned here that the book has been widely acclaimed in England and America as well.
Sarma’s critical book Nareebad Aru Asomiya Upanyas (Feminism and the Assamese Novel), is a stupendous achievement as it attempts to analyze and understand the works of a host of Assamese writers spanning over a large historical time frame from an accepted paradigm of feminist literary theory. However ,Sarma does not transplant western feminist precept upon his indigenious literary ethos, rather he critically conceptualizes the novels of Padmavati Devi Phukanani, Rajanikanta Bordoloi, Dandinath Kalita, Chandraprabha Saikiani, Mamoni Raisom Goswami, Purabi Bormudoi and others in order to highlight the affinities and differences between an alien concept and a native awareness of unique socio-cultural values. In the preface to his book on feminism and the Assamese novel, Sarma contests many popular beliefs associated with this particular western critical perspective, and his work is a conscious attempt to scrutinise a number of stereotypical assumptions in terms of indigenous priorities reflected in literary works that uphold the trials and tribulations of women characters. Sarma’s exceptional book Jeeboni Aru Atmojeeboni: Asomiyat Aru Praschyattwat (Biography and Autobiography in Assamese and the West), is another bold and unique attempt to conceptualize, configure and comprehend the genre of life-writing from a comparative perspective of the East and the West. Sarma’s extensive research makes itself apparent throughout the pages as he distinguishes between biography, autobiography, letters, memoirs and reminiscences, and he also categorically pinpoints the differences with sufficient illustrations. Sarma believes that criticism should be always contemplative, as well as thought-provoking; and in this book, he provides a counter to impressionistic criticism that generally characterizes standard critical works in Assamese. Sarma’s only travelogue till date, Daffodil Phul Dekhicha (Have you seen Daffodil flowers?), is an interesting and stimulating output that brings to light his subtle skill of observation, alert and receptive mind, a lively interest in Nature, his compassion for humanity in general, and above all, his critical insight that refuses any black and white understanding of the world. In this travelogue, Sarma chronicles his journey to England and America, which turns out to be extremely engaging as Sarma goes beyond geographical depiction and successfully reaches the cultural hinterland of these countries to come up with fresh perspectives and provocative insights. Sarma has also published four books of short stories that shed light on his creative streak, which has remained submerged within the glare of his critical output, and it should be noted that his short stories are characterized by humour and concern for Nature and animal life, along with a thorough engagement with roots. Sarma has always lived life with zest, enthusiasm and integrity, and he deserves a unique place in the world of arts and letters, as his tryst with words continues unhindered. *
- From The Assam Tribune Mosaic, 8 October, 2010.
Dr.Gobinda Prasad Sarma: Writer and Critic
Dr Tapati Baruah Kashyap (b.1967)
Good news for lovers of Assamese literature that the entire short stories and novels written by eminent author and scholar Dr Gobinda Prasad Sarma have recently come out in two separate volumes. A former Head of the Department in English, Gauhati University, Dr. Sarma has a special place in the contemporary Indian literary world for his scholarly pursuits particularly focused on feminism, biographical criticism as also on Indo-Anglian literature.
Born in 1940, Dr Sarma is indeed a very prolific story-teller who would always like to remain in the periphery of the writer’s world, preferring to contribute silently yet solidly. As such, his versatile literary talent can be perceptible in his recently published complete works of short stories and novels, which distinctly map his remarkable contribution towards Assamese literature.
Dr Sarma started writing short stories in the late 1950s, when he was a student of Tihu High School, and like most of his contemporaries, his first two or three short stories too were published in the hand-written school magazine. His first short story in print however ‘Tritiya Upalabdhi’, which was carried by Birendra Kumar Bhattacharyya’s Ramdhenu in 1960 when he was a BA class student in Cotton College. Since then the story-teller in Dr Sarma has not looked back; his short stories – and subsequently his novels – have found place in all prestigious Assamese magazines through the past five or six decades. Aamaar Pratinidhi (editor: first Padma Barkataki), Samakal (editor: Amulya Barua), Sadiniya Navajug (editor: B.K. Bhattacharyya), Asomiya and Prakash (editor: Chandra Prasad Saikia), Gariyashi (editor: C.P. Saikia – his short stories and novels have found place in all of them.
“When I was a student, I was really influenced by the short stories of Syed Abdul Malik, Umakanta Sarma, Homen Borgohain and Jogesh Das,” he said in an interview. He prefers to place his short stories in the stream of consciousness that had also influenced Assamese literature in the 1960s and 1970s. Thus, when Guwahati-based publishing house Banalata recently came out with a complete collection of his short stories and another of his novels, Dr Sarma said, “One would sure find my ideas and concepts about life and society in my short stories. Though ideas, concepts and techniques of literature of the West remain active in my mind when I write short stories, yet it is my society, the people around me which keep floating in front of my eyes while writing them.” Undoubtedly he is one living writer whose short stories reflect Assamese society spanning over more than six decades, which would sure make very good resource for research work on both society and literature.
Dr Sarma has also successfully experimented with trilogy in Assamese literature. As a student of literature he was definitely fond of Shakespeare as well as Greek plays. “I would often wonder why many Greek playwrights wrote three plays with three different stories about the same person. Each of them is subject-wise complete in itself, yet the three plays together put up a wider and deeper issue,” he said. Inspired by that, he has so far come out with three trilogies – Pradyumna Trilogy, Arundhati Trilogy and Pitoni Pukhuri Trilogy – which earlier comprised his trilogy collection ‘Kanchor Dore, Hirar Dore’ (1968) and is now part of ‘Upanyas-Samagra’, a compilation of all his novels.
A leading scholar of biographical literature and criticism, three other outstanding books that Dr Sarma is known for are ‘Jivani aru Asamiya Jivani’, ‘Upanyas aru Asamiya Upanyas’ and ‘Naribad aru Asamiya Upanyas’. While the first deals extensively with biographical literature in the Assamese language, the second is an outstanding treatise on the journey of the Assamese novel. But ‘Naribad aru Asamiya Upanyas’ is a pioneering research work in which he not only focuses on women writers but also on the way in which male writers have explored the female psyche.
Dr Sarma is also considered a pioneer in the study of Indo-Anglian literature. His book ‘Nationalism in Indo-Anglian Fiction’ (Sterling Publishers, 1990) is considered in global literary circles as a “highly conscientious and painstaking survey of Indian English novels and short stories” that also brings within its purview many more works of Indo-Anglian fiction than most critics and readers are said to be aware of. It is also among the prescribed readings in several universities across the country. Talking about Dr Sarma however will remain incomplete if one does not refer to ‘Daffodil Phul Dekhisa’ and ‘Lilac Phul Phulibor Botor’ – two travelogues that actually take the Assamese reader on a journey through both the land and literature of Europe and the USA. To sum up, Dr Gobinda Prasad Sarma’s meticulous selection of subjects, whether in his short stories, novels, critical studies or travelogues, essentially incorporate the theme of modern-day monotony as well as the mental agony in confronting the realities of one’s life. *
* from Assam Tribune Mosaic, June 4, 2016
Narrating the Nation:
An Appraisal of Nationalism in Indo-Anglian Fiction
Krisha Das (b.1980)
Theorists in general would agree to the proposition that nationalism began in the Western world from where it gradually spread to the rest of the world (Kohn 1939: 1017; Kedourie 2000: 252) . Outside the Western world, in Central and Eastern Europe and in Asia, nationalism followed social and political development: the frontiers of an existing state and of a rising nationality rarely coincided. Nationalism there grew in protest against and in conflict with the existing state pattern – not primarily to transform it into a people’s state, but to redraw the political boundaries in conformity with ethnographic demands. Kohn in “The Idea of Nationalism” discusses nationalism as a state of mind, which at the same time is also an ideological project since the group that adheres to it also seeks to find expression in a sovereign state. “Nationalism is an idea, an idee-force, which fills man’s brain and heart with new thoughts and new sentiments, and drives him to translate his consciousness into deeds of organized action” (Kohn 1939: 1016). Nationality is not merely about organization and forming a homogenous identity but more importantly, it is a group seeking to find its expression in what it regards as the highest form of organized activity, a sovereign state. The ideals of the French Revolution played an important role in the development of the universal urge for liberty and progress, which in some sense is representative of what nationalism sought to achieve. The French Revolution provided the kind of disruption of local political units plus the unseating of dynastic, aristocratic, and church appeals that began to wed some citizens to a national state and some leaders to the idea that nation, and not just revolution might be a useful rallying cry. Kedourie relates the idea of the nation to education insisting that the purpose of the latter is ‘to bend the will of the young to the will of the nation’ (Kedourie 1966: 259). For the European world, nationalism represents the attempt to actualize in political terms the universal urge for liberty and progress (Chatterjee 1999: 2). However, such understandings of the concept lack the phenomenon’s historicity; they are inclined to see nationalism as a monolith, involving essentially the same cultural baggage and mass enthusiasm regardless of time and place (Stearns 1997: 58-59). “Like all complex historical movements, nationalism is not a monolithic phenomenon to be deemed entirely good or entirely bad; nationalism is a contradictory discourse and its internal contradictions need to be unpacked in their historical specificity” (Radhakrishnan 2001: 195). The theory of nationalism has always been complicated by this background, and by the intrusion of nationalist ideology into the theory. There are also national differences in the theory of nationalism, since people define nationalism based on their local experience, which makes the task of writers and intellectuals difficult, as they need to be in tune with the people as a whole, and not just with small intellectual elite. The long tradition of anti-colonial, radical nationalist thinking has found its way into literatures of various nationalities. In fact, postcolonial thinkers like Timothy Brennan have focussed their attention on the novel as a distinct work of art, which plays a crucial role in defining the nation as an “imagined community.” According to Brennan, nations are imaginary constructs that depend for their existence on an apparatus of cultural fictions in which imaginative literature plays a decisive role.
The rise of Indian English fiction during the colonial period also displays similar preoccupation with the “nation-centeredness” of the postcolonial world. Indian English Literature has always heavily relied on certain emblematic and ideologically problematic notions of nationhood as its central thematic concern. Nationalist themes find their way into the Indian English novels written in the last half of the nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century. In this context, a book that needs to be examined for its contribution in rendering a systematic and insightful study on the rise of the Indian English novel and the role it played in the rise of Indian nationalism is Nationalism in the Indo-Anglian Fiction by Dr. Gobinda Prasad Sarma. In this book, Dr. Sarma has highlighted the various phases of national liberation by placing writers and their works in their peculiar contexts thereby completing a journey, which begins with the recovery of the glorious past and ends with the successful establishment of self-government. One of the initial thinkers of the postcolonial theory Frantz Fanon believed that it was necessary for writers to propose a political programme through their writings to show the way towards liberation. Dr. Sarma in the first seven chapters of his book highlights precisely how the Indo- Anglian novelists traced “the Indian national struggle under the leadership of Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi when political workers left for the villages and worked for rural reconstruction” (Sarma 1978: 235) in order to gain purna swaraj and establish a progressive nation. In the eighth chapter titled “An Era of National Consolidation”, he takes up the herculean task of analysing post-independence fiction and identifying its various trends and tendencies. In this chapter, he traces how Indian English novels in their varied subject matters continued the reformist zeal of the pre-independence era as well as portrayed the qualms of an entire generation of people who were not sure as to where the state of affairs was heading in the newly formed nation. Debates and discussions regarding the fate of the Indian nation in its formative stage found expression in the novels, which Dr.Sarma discusses.
The preoccupation with nationalism in Indian English Literature needs to be understood in relation to the politics of the English language. Dr.Sarma notes in his book that 1835 was a significant year when the General Committee of Instruction in India decided that “the contents of education should be Western literature and science and the medium of instruction should be English for the native population” (Sarma 1978: 6). He insists that in the light of English education, the Indians could understand the meaning of individual and constitutional liberty and understand that the British were depriving them of it. If a brief assessment of the colonial encounter is made, then it has to be accepted that such an encounter made it imperative for the natives of the colonized lands to review their own culture and religion for at least two reasons: 1.) in order to reform certain social practices which might hinder the advent of modernity; 2.) in order to facilitate the quest for freedom accompanied by a process of self-definition, which may be regarded as laying the foundation stone for future participation in the public life of the nation (which had already come into existence as an ‘imagined’ space). Both these points look at two different views that define the two very distinct phases of the Indian freedom movement – one being the reformist view of the first half of the nineteenth century and the other being the revivalist nationalist view of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Dr.Sarma illustrates these phases in his book by providing appropriate examples from various novels of the concerned period. The discourse generated by blending the history of the national freedom movement with the development of Indo-Anglian fiction in Dr.Sarma’s book needs to be appreciated for its innovative nature as well as for its originality and precision.
Gauri Vishwanathan in her 1989 study on modern English studies in colonial India titled Masks of Conquest, examines the ways in which the British rule used literary education as a definite ‘mask’ of ‘conquest’ by evoking the humanistic ideals of enlightenment that were adapted to their administrative and political imperatives. Throughout her study, an interesting relationship between the institutionalization of English in India and the impulse to ‘dominate’ and ‘control’ develops (Vishwanathan 1989: 3). The issues that need to be addressed the moment one thinks of the history of education in India, specifically colonial India, are related to its nature and purpose. The British carrying their torch of enlightenment wanted, as Macaulay claimed, to rescue the “ignorant and barbarous” Indians by introducing them to a language they have been “craving” to learn (Macaulay 1835: 7-9). He said that “we must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect” (Macaulay 1835: 13). Even though Macaulay makes such claims, it needs to be clarified that more than preparing Indians for a future government of their own, the British administration wanted to impress on their minds the concept of a Western style government which would facilitate the business of state (Vishwanathan 1989: 35). On the one hand, the educated Indian mind was impressed by the wider horizons that the Western contact provided them with and on the other, wanted to cross the limitations that were imposed on them as part of the education package. In this regard, Dr.Sarma notes :
In this way, when all the Indians irrespective of their religious and linguistic differences could have the same system of education through the medium of the same language, a unity was developed among them. Thus, at long last, an Assamese could understand a Tamilian and a Bengali could understand a Marathi; and the possibility of a common platform for all the educated Indians dominant by the same rulers was in sight (Sarma 1978: 6).
However, the very project of introducing English literary studies from the mid 1820’s to the mid 1850’s in the Indian curriculum served a predominantly religious and moral function , which Vishwanathan sees as ‘mask’ by means of which the colonial government ensured ‘conquest’ over the minds of people (Vishwanathan 1989). Macaulay’s Minute paved the way for the transition from religious to secular motives in English education, at the same time, achieving through education, a comparable system of stratification in India on the theory that division of labor was the key to England’s economic prosperity. However, modern studies promised an upward mobility, which was denied to a majority of Indians and this paradox exposed the motives of British colonialism among the Indians. As Vishwanathan rightly notes:
At one level, education as part of the state is complicit with the reproduction of an economic and cultural order. But because education is also expected to provide opportunities for advancement, it becomes an arena of social conflict, and this tension ultimately reduced the British administration to a position of acute vulnerability and paralysis (Vishwanathan 1989: 164).
In this tension was hidden the beginnings of resistance to a dependency role. The inherent contradiction in the educational policies of the colonial government need to be analyzed. On the one hand, modern education is responsible for the creation of the modern individual – one who can actively participate as good citizens in the affairs of the state, and on the other hand, the individual’s movements needed to be restricted for the sake of the colonial government’s success. The tables, however, were turned in order to display ‘the loss and recovery of selves under colonialism’ in the words of Ashis Nandy. The resistance itself speaks volumes of the ordinary Indian’s psychology of colonialism refusing to be mere “gullible, hopeless victim of colonialism caught in the hinges of history” (Nandy 1983: xv).
The reasons Dr.Sarma gives for the growth of Indian English fiction writings may be analysed in the light of these theoretical developments. He primarily notes two important reasons, which again are not the only ones, he says. Firstly, by writing in English an Indian author got readers all over India as well as in England, America and other parts of the world where English was in use. Secondly, by writing in English Indian writers could have communion with the British – the ruling class – regarding Indian problems and the British rule. However, another very valid point that he does not directly state here but mentions in the subsequent chapters is the issue of identity. When the British established that India in the present condition with diverse cultures, religions and languages was not fit to rule itself, the necessity of a need to fight for one’s identity was felt tremendously. It was because of this rising sense of identity that, in the 19th century, Indian writers of literature first began to imagine cultural unity through their fictional and poetic works. The need to write in English was primarily a need to assert their identity. Frantz Fanon in his book The Wretched of the Earth (1968) discusses the manner in which native intellectuals first internalize European views of them, thereafter mimic the white man and then start resisting and protesting against the discriminatory treatment meted out to them. The rise of Indian English novels can also be seen in a similar vein. According to Dr.Sarma the preoccupation of these writers with “Indian themes, Indian characters, Indian life and manners, Indian totems and taboos” may be regarded as an assertion of what was otherwise denied to them, an act of restoring one’s lost glory and thereby creating a sense of unity. At the same time, the book in a sense also hints at an anxiety of these Indian English writers to portray what we may refer to as “Indianness” in whatever they seem to write. Postcolonial critic Meenakshi Mukherjee identifies the phenomenon that results from the peculiar pressures under which Indian English Literature is produced as the “anxiety of Indianness” (2607-2611). Writing in the colonial language, Mukherjee contends, the writer keenly feels the pressure to prove her loyalty to the nation. It is this pressure that produces the “anxiety” in the writer to prove her “Indianness” as a “compensatory act” for the “supposed alienness/elitism of the language” (Mukherjee 1993: 2608).
In his assessment of the politics of Indian nationalism, he mentions the growth of different modern Indian languages. In this regard, he writes, “The Indians in their encounter with the race-conscious Britishers, their civilization and their culture, felt the need for asserting themselves, their thoughts and their ideas. When they took to English education, they became more zealous for developing their own language and literatures. They had then formed a new cult of mother-tongue worship along with their new cult of motherland worship” (Sarma 1978: 29). He draws attention to the development of languages like Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, Assamese etc in this regard which again points towards the rise of regional nationalisms. However, as the book progresses the scope of the rise of regional variants of nationalism diminishes as the writers, according to Dr. Sarma are preoccupied with formulating a pan-Indian spirit of nationalist ideology at the cost of the vibrant, everydayness of Indian culture and its myriad socio-political contradictions. The preoccupation of these novelists with “the anxiety of Indianness” does not permit Dr. Sarma to delve further into the regional variants of nationalist thought. In remaining tied to nationalist ideology, which under the leadership of Gandhi wanted to exhibit India as one in spite of its multi-culturedness, Indian English Literature fails to represent what Homi Bhabha terms the “temporality” and “locality” of culture (Bhabha 1990: 292).
Dr.Sarma provides his readers with a nuanced reading of the various phases of nationalist movement. The first novel that he identifies is S.C. Dutt’s The Times of Yore (1885) and K.K. Sinha’s Sanjogita (1903), novels where he finds no mention of a growing national spirit.” He further writes, “the people of a country are enthused by this spirit generally in the first stage of the development of nationalism in the country” (Sarma 1978: 60). In his study of cultural nationalism, Benedict Anderson defined a nation as “an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” According to Anderson, the growth of the print medium contributed to the growth of an imagined community, which is true even in the case of colonial India. These notions of collectivism and belonging and a mutual sense of community that a group of individuals imagine it shares, is central to the idea of the nation. Dr.Sarma’s analysis of the various phases of the nationalist history and their reproduction in the novels of the times demonstrates very well the phenomenon of the formation of an “imagined community” despite all regional variations. Therefore, whether it is Raja Rao or Bhabani Bhattacharya, their aim was to narrativize the nation and give it an essentialist identity and Dr.Sarma, by providing apt illustrations makes this point very clear in his textual analysis of the works of these writers.
The rise of Indian English literature is closely related to the rise of the nationalist movement. M.K. Naik and Shyamala A. Narayan write in this regard:
It is possible to see the connection here, if one remembers that by this decade the nationalist upsurge had stirred the whole country to the roots to a degree and on a scale unprecedented earlier, making it acutely conscious of its present and its past and filling it with new hopes for the future. (Naik and Narayan 2009: 15)
They identify three writers, in particular – Mulk Raj Anand, R.K Narayan, and Raja Rao. They further write, “It was in fact during this period that Indian English fiction discovered some of its most significant themes such as the ordeal of the freedom-struggle, East-West relationship, the communal problem and the plight of the untouchables, the landless poor, the economically exploited etc” (Naik and Narayan 2009: 15). However, Dr.Sarma’s in-depth assessment of these writers and their works allows a greater understanding of the purpose with which these writers wrote at a crucial juncture of history. In his comparison of R. K. Narayan and Mulk Raj Anand, he notes that whereas Anand writes with a social and national purpose Narayan took to art for observing life in its depth and variety. Dr.Sarma further adds, “And as he observes life, he does it always with a detachment and genial smile.” This is followed by a detailed discussion of Narayan’s novels beginning with Swami and Friends. His meticulous examination of the primary novels of each novelist has been immensely beneficial to students of literature in forwarding candid critique of the writers and their works. Another strength of this book is in its depiction of lesser known novelists like Louise Gracius, Ahmed Ali, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, S.K. Ghosh, S.M.Mitra etc. whom he not only mentions but also meticulously discusses. In fact, he dismisses Meenakshi Mukherjee’s assumption that the novels of Ghosh and Mitra are essentially romantic. By doing this, Dr.Sarma attempts to reproduce a nationalist discourse, which may not merely be swept under the carpet of the grand narrative of Indian nationalist movement. He not only mentions the names of lesser known writers but also furnishes his readers with detailed description of each of the novels written in the nationalist context by these writers. Such an attempt bears ample testimony to the painstaking research that Dr.Sarma had to undertake to arrive at the kind of thoroughness that his book demonstrates.
Dr.Sarma’s book was published in 1978 at a time when postcolonial critique of creative literature produced in India was still in a nascent phase. That is why his book may be considered as a path breaker as it has insisted on viewing Indian English creative literature as a process involving changing relationships and positions with regard to a culture where English was the language of the ruling group and to the postcolonial subject’s identity. Dr.Sarma in the course of his career as a critic has written several books addressing various literary genres and schools of thought. His contribution in the field of critical tradition is immensely important of which nationalism forms a significant part. His other critical endeavours include Jivani aru Asamiya Jivani (Life Writing and the Assamese Life Writing), Upanyas aru Asamiya Upanyas (Novel and the Assamese Novel), Narivad aru Asamiya Upanyas (Feminism and the Assamese Novel) among others through which he has registered an important place in the panorama of literary criticism in Assam. In the Introduction to Nationalism in Indo-Anglian Fiction, Dr. Sarma mentions that it is his desire to show that “Indo-Anglian fiction is nationalist in spirit.” (Sarma 1978: xii) In fact, it is this obsession with nationalism that led Frederic Jameson to make a sweeping comment, “all third world texts are necessarily…national allegories”, which was strongly critiqued by Aijaz Ahmad in his essay “Jameson’s Rhetoric of Otherness and the ‘National Allegory’.” The success of Dr. Sarma’s book makes it possible for us to consider Jameson’s critique in a more positive light. In spite of criticisms that Jameson’s idea is Eurocentric, his effort of reading what he regards as ‘third-world’ literatures from the vantage point of first world academy is flawed, it may be argued that Jameson’s concept of “national allegory” introduces a model for a properly materialist approach to postcolonial texts and contexts thereby generating a postcolonial discourse with an agency, an act which is vital in postcolonial studies. It just remains to be said that Dr. Sarma’s book is a major contribution in the field of postcolonial studies. *
* from the Book, Dr. Gobinda Prasad Sarma, Person, Personality & Writings (2013)
The Chinese Dragon is Alien no more :
Darshana Goswami (b. 1975)
“Stripped of all our basic certainties
We strayed from our old ways
And let our soul-mountain recede
Into a tiny ant-hill …
In the agony of the re-birth
Our hills and valleys reverberate
With death-dealing shrieks of unfamiliar arms
As the throw-back generation resurrects”
—Blood of Others, Temsula Ao
What makes a nation a nation? Is it a common religion, or a language, or a common pattern of cultural behaviour? The question invites endless debates. Some say that the idea of nationhood is built upon certain spontaneous, shared, collective awareness, while some others say that it is a mere construct arbitrarily given. We are all aware that this idea of nationhood was first conceptualised and given shape in post Industrial Revolution Europe and later on spread all over the globe cutting across the continental boundaries. Thus, the empires, the kingdoms, the oligarchies, of the older days were replaced by ‘modern’ nation-states. As in the ancient and medieval period, history remained a witness as well as a recorder of the rise and fall of many civilizations and empires, big and small, and subsequently a process of assimilation of many races and cultures; so also the modern day history is fraught with dichotomies of coloniser-colonised, central-margin, mainstream-subaltern or paradoxes of globalisation and reclamation of ethnic identity or the worst among everything else, the horror of terrorism in the name of one people one nation.
Given this background, we may ask ourselves, “What about the Assamese identity?” Or, more simply, “Who are the Assamese people?”, as Assam, the land we inhabit, is by no means insulated from the magnitude of the crises faced by our planet at large. Now, posing questions may not mean trying to get into the solutions right away. First, we need an unbiased approach to our history, our traditions, our cultures, and of course the political blunders that we committed in our past. For such an approach we do need to fall back on Gobinda Prasad Sarma’s Asamiya JatiChinta (2013), a book that traces the emergence of “the Assamese” into a nationhood and attempts an assiduous analysis of the existential threats looming large over this “nation” or jati. Though the book has been introduced as “A collection of reflective essays”, in fact the essays are analytical under their reflective garb. The lucidity and simplicity of the arguments belie the erudite dynamism on which each argument is built.
Gobinda Prasad Sarma is a well-known name in the field of contemporary Assamese creative writing and criticism. Asamiya JatiChinta is his latest title – a collection of twelve essays that situate the ‘Assamese’ in its essentially kaleidoscopic identity. The essays take into account various local, national and international phenomena while analyzing our problems as a means of introspection and also, a possible way out of the endless cycle of violence and ethnic conflict rewarding the perpetrators and political opportunists but at the cost of the innocent and ignorant people. All the essays had been earlier published in various magazines circulated throughout Assam; however, this collection under the aforementioned title add significantly to the discourse on Assamese identity in the lights as diverse as medieval, colonial, post-colonial as well as postmodern perspectives as the writer attempts to dig out the definition of ‘the Assamese’ buried under the dusty layers of these phases down the history of Assam.
Sarma undertakes to address issues like the contributions of Sankaradeva, Lakshminath Bezbaroa and Bishnu Prasad Rabha to the cultural life of Assam and explores ways of settling into a consensus regarding the very question of “identity” in an unsettling time. Devoid of statistics and jargon of political analysis and the writer’s delicate handling of certain sensitive matters make the book different from the rest of the kind apparently written on the same issue – ethno-political conflict and assertion of ethnic selfhood and sub-nationality in Assam and North-East India; for example, Order in Chaos, Contemporary Concerns and so on.
In his essay on Bezbaroa, Sarma incorporates Bezbaroa’s many-faceted and multi-layered nationalism. Bezbaroa’s Assam is colonial Assam – and Bezbaroa, along with a few of his contemporary educated Assamese young men felt doubly colonised. First, it was the peak time of India rising into a new national consciousness against the British; secondly, Bezbaroa was alarmed by the cultural and linguistic colonization of Assam by Bengal. Sarma even points out that though Bezbaroa chose to remain a self exile, living his youth, middle age and the last days of his life outside Assam, his consciousness of Assamese nationalism was even more intense than his Indian nationalism. Sarma mentions Bezbaroa’s novel Padum Kunwari and play Jaymati Kunwari both of which are of specific importance –while the former stresses the glory of Upper Assam- Lower Assam unity, the latter upholds the need for the integrity of the hill and the valley.
While offering his analysis of the contributions of Sankaradeva, Sarma goes on to compare him with Martin Luther, the Renaissance German reformer and also with William Shakespeare, the Renaissance English playwright. Sarma marks that while Sankaradeva brought home ideas from the other parts of India to Kamarupa and combined them with the indigenous cultural resources, Martin Luther’s reforms were carried outside his nation. Shakespeare’s social background was Renaissance England; but medievalism still prevailed in Assam in Sankaradeva’s days. Thus humanism is the central concern of Shakespeare; but Sankardeva makes religion his prime concern. This makes the writer say that these two authors are incomparable since they belong to two different cultural milieu. Definitely Shakespeare belonged to a more developed intellectual and literary background, according to the author of Asamiya JatiChinta.
What Sarma appears to mean is that as we recognise the contribution of Sankaradeva to the cultural, literary, and religious life of Assam, we should not go overboard in claiming that he is the sole cultural leader of Assam for all castes, communities and tribes. Sarma categorically states that Sankaradeva brought revolutionary changes to the cultural arena of medieval Kamarupa and undoubtedly he is the greatest Assamese cultural leader of all time; but any sort of closed, provocative, repeated imposition may stimulate uncalled for resistance. This type of fanatic claim could also mean that that there was a cultural and literary void in pre-Sankaradeva Kamarupa, which is not true. In today’s context of postmodern zeitgeist and globalisation, Sarma suggests, we should not only look up to Sankaradeva, but also beyond.
As Sarma writes in the Foreword, Bishnu Rabha could foresee the shadow of crisis lining the cultural and geographical integrity of Assam and a whole chapter extensively deals with Rabha’s vision of Assam. Bishnu Rabha upholds the view that for a mutual cohabitation, what is most important is, mutual exposure to one another’s language and culture among the tribes. However, Sarma eschewingly points out that though Bishnu Rabha voiced for a mutual understanding and exchange among the dominant and the dominated groups, in practice, Rabha himself was more inclined towards Sanskritisation. It was not only Bishnu Rabha, but many tribal people of his time took to Sanskritization in order to be in the mainstream political or cultural sphere.
G.P. Sarma points out that Rabha’s vision of an all-inclusive greater Assam never materialized and the tribes were humiliatingly ignored in the power game of the state politics – no matter if it is the ruling party or the opposition or for that matter, the agitating groups. Assam continued to be divided into more separate states and autonomous councils. But, are the autonomous councils the ultimate solutions? At this point, we may take note of what Ward H.Goodenough comments, “Efforts to restore self-esteem may take the form of trying to adopt and master the cultural tradition of the dominant power…Efforts to restore self-esteem may go in the opposite direction. People may reject the culture and values of the dominant power and insist on having nothing to do with anything but their local tradition…Neither of these approaches is likely to be entirely successful in the long run.” p. 22 (American Folklife) .
The chapter Asamiya Asamiya, though short in length, carries certain key thoughts. The repeated use of the word Asamiya in the title is suggestive of the fact that superimposition may not always be a good idea. Sarma observes that the tribal people living in the Brahmaputra valley accepted Assamese as a common medium of communication before and after Independence. But after the Language Agitation, there were demands for using tribal languages as official languages. Sarma accounts for this intimidation on the parts of the tribes, as an extended form of insecurity among the so called Assamese speaking dominant linguistic and cultural group.
In the context that Assam has turned into a pot now simmering and now boiling with demands for separate autonomous or sovereign statehood, G.P.Sarma offers the solution of multicentrism brought forward by postmodern trends of thoughts. In the chapter on the crisis of Assamese nationality against the backdrop of postmodernity, he emphasizes that postmodernity is not only an awareness of the other, but an overexposure to the other. But then, this overexposure also means hybridity to a relative extent. Thus, trying to maintain ethnicity in its pure, isolated mode, is not merely impossible, but futile too.
The book Asamiya JatiChinta is a critique of the illusory, over-enthusiastic, utopian thoughts, approaches and activities of a group of people, some of whom incidentally happen to be followers of Bishnu Rabha and Bezbaroa too. The author points out that there is an imminent danger in mixing up the idea of assertion of one’s identity and a paranoid obsession with identifying one’s enemies one after the other. In the book Asamiya JatiChinta, there is also an overt warning regarding one people one nation type of theory. He suggests that openness and exposure to the other ethnic groups would not only sustain the unique ethnic self of Assam but also politically protect it from the so called alien powers. However, Sarma does dwell upon the idea that in the postmodern era, there is nothing alien. The clear indication is that unless we are sternly decisive about settling the ethnic identity politics issue at this crucial juncture, it would be too late to erase the stinking damned spots of blood of our brothers from our hands. Certainly Asamiya Jati Chinta by G.P. Sarma is a significant contribution to the Assamese nation.
Gogoi, Dilip (ed.): Contemporary Concerns, Essays by Young Minds: Cotton Conclave: Anwesa,
Hussain, Wasbir (ed): Order in Chaos: Spectrum, Guwahati/ Delhi, 2006
Misra, Tilottoma (ed): The Oxford Anthology of Writings from North-East India, Poetry and Essays, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2011
Sarma, G.P. : Asamiya JatiChinta : Bhabani Books, Guwahati, 2013
Yoder, Don (ed.): American Folklife : University of Texas Press, Austin and London, 1976 *
* from the Book, Dr. Gobinda Prasad Sarma, Person, Personality & Writings (2013)