Thought Box



by Soumya Duggal April 18 2024, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 6 mins, 6 secs

With Kahini: A Story of Our Times, Om Books International’s recently published English translation of his 2008 Assamese novel by the same name, Dr Borah is drawing in new readers, writes Soumya Duggal.

In the decades to come, whenever literary fiction is called upon to assist history books in capturing a fuller image of the human condition in modern Assam, Sahitya Akademi Award winner Dr Dhrubajyoti Borah is likely to come to mind. A medical doctor by profession, Dr Borah has, in a literary career spanning over three decades, published many critically acclaimed works of fiction and non-fiction, including novels, monographs on history, travelogues and collections of articles. He received the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2009. His work explores the realities of ordinary life in contemporary Assam, as informed by the intricacies of its strife-torn past. Here’s an excerpt from a conversation with the author…

First published in Assamese over 15 years ago, Kahini has been positioned as a social commentary. But the discourse here operates through subtle nuances rather than the direct mentions of topical or historical events in Assam. How would you describe the text’s exact socio-political context and the critique it offers?

I always like to believe that for a text to attain topicality, it has also to be universal in the sense that though situated historically, it should transcend the barriers of time and thus of specificity to be able to depict the true conditions of the human society it is seeking to portray.

Kahini is a tale of times of anarchy that visited Assam when homegrown insurgent groups and persons taking advantage of the weakening of governance and the situation of political directionless-ness had indulged in actions of intimidation, extortion, kidnappings and other antisocial activities. This is a situation not specific to Assam alone but is present everywhere in the world where non-state formations produce trouble and anarchy – be it in Latin America, Europe, Africa or elsewhere. Kahini is set on those themes.

Direct mentions of actual historical events in a fictional discourse may present some data but usually fail to capture the essence and flavour of life actually lived under such situations. For fiction, it’s not the historical events but the people who have actually experienced them that are much more important. I believe subtlety and humour bring out some situations best. Herein, I believe, comes the role of the author as creator.

As regards the critique the text offers, it is mainly the unveiling of spineless hypocrisy of the elite sections of the society who lead a life of diabolical ideological opportunism.

It is also a critique of radical nationalistic aspiration and activity, which ultimately exert a negative influence on society. The book depicts a time of trouble and feelings of betrayal by the people of Assam, especially the youth. The novel looks for their roots and tries to portray the manifestations these things take.

I believe that in fiction, depiction alone is not sufficient – that would make it a mere story, a fable only. With depiction, therefore, one needs the critique – the questioning of times and the values that are sought to be projected, especially the narrative that is sought to be constructed by the powerful, by the rulers, and imposed on the rest. It is here that humour and satire come in, which, I believe, can do these things better, making the text’s social criticism more poignant and telling. It possibly brings better understanding and can offer deeper insight into the individual and society. This is what I have attempted in Kahini: A Story of Our Times.

There’s an interesting moment of intertextuality in your book as you resurrect three iconic characters from Saurabh Kumar Chaliha’s well-known work Oxanto Electron and give them new literary journeys. Tell us about the inspiration and the process.

The tone and temperament of the three characters – Nikhil, Ranjan and Jati Babu – in Saurabh Kumar Chaliha’s epochal story Oxanto Electron were such that they never failed to offer a critique of that was happening all around, albeit humorously and insightfully. Therefore, these characters were not only very attractive but also became a sort of both comment and commentator of the times and society they were living in. When I translated this story to English, this thing struck me and I felt that a master storyteller had devised a literary stratagem by creating these three characters to depict and analyse the then-current society beautifully through their sayings and doings. These three characters became my most favourite literary characters.

While I was starting to write the story of Kahini and unconsciously named the young protagonist Nikhil, I suddenly wondered why not bring into the story Nikhil’s other two companions – Ranjan and Jati Babu. In real life, the age of these three would have been more than sixty years at the time I wrote Kahini. In my writing, they have not aged but remained as old as in Oxanto Electron. I just wanted to see how they would behave in the times I was writing about. What would their reaction be to the unfolding events of anarchy in contemporary times? To this cast of three, I added my own characters such as the Shakespeare-quoting Koka (grandfather), his rustic valet Raghu, and Nikhil’s mother (as well as his long-dead father), and set the ground for a story (in two parts), which would not only examine contemporary Assam but also critique many of its fondly held beliefs, some bordering on hypocrisy, with wit, humour, and sarcasm trying to unveil the irony of our existence.

Giving a new existence to three famous characters in a completely different situation and context – well, I don’t know how far it fulfils the requirement of intertextuality. I am rather weak in these departments of literary theory. But it was fun – fun with a purpose in writing this novel.

The original creator of the three characters was hugely amused by the idea when I told him about my intention, and he later appreciated the results. I had intended this novel as a personal tribute to a great writer and that is what remains – a tribute to Saurabh Kumar Chaliha.

How would you characterize the humour in your book?

I don’t really know whether you can characterize the humour of the novel as black humour or not, but surely it is quite unsparing humour that tries to dissect and analyse much of our existential behaviour that is at times odd but has a deeper and different meaning.

Humour and satire are weapons that surely make reading a fictional work more pleasurable, and it is also like a double-edged sword that can expose, dissect and subvert the dominant discourse of the society with much more case and effectiveness. Humour can be quite incisive at times. I believe it is humour that brings sense to our lives and being in a world that appears to be senseless most of the time.  

The book translated by author Mitra Phukan is available on Amazon.

You can buy it here,disallows%20pleasures%20for%20the%20elderly.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.