Astorag (Sunset) was first published in Assamese in 1986. It has already been translated into Hindi and published by Bharatiya Jnanpith in 1991. Astorag is about the problems the old face in a society in translation from a traditional to a modern way of living. Embedded in the centre of Astorag is a drama of guilt and expiation, a drama that admits the emotive-evocative, but with an overtopping of the clinical-diagnostic on the emotive; and this gives the novel a tone and temper unlikely, at first encounter, to be agreeable to conventional expectations. Astorag is a pioneering work of its kind in Assamese because of the genuine attempt to blend the strain of creative-exploratory to that of the clinical-diagnostic. The novel reminds us of the great literatures of the world on the theme of ageing. It reminds us also of the unforgettable lines of T.S. Eliot from the The Waste Land:
Home Borgobain (b. 1931), novelist critic and poet is a well known name in Assamese literature. In 1967, he resigned from the Assam Civil Service to devote himself wholeheartedly to literature. His first novel Subala was published in 1963. Since then he has written eleven novels. His magnum opus is Pita Putra (Father and Son) which is a long novel. His novels taken together, reveal a wide range, inclusive of the rural and wide range, inclusive of the rural and the urban, the social and the political, psycho-analytical and the critical-intellectual. Homen Borgohain’s interesting poems are of the period 1950-60. He has edited several collections of Assamese poetry of different periods and of different types. He has also edited a collection of Assamese prose and is currently editor of Asom Bani.
Ashok Bhagawati (b.1946) is a Reader in English and the author of Politics and the novel, a critical study of the social, political and moral ideas of Joseph Conrad. He writes in both English and Assamese and has published a novel and a short biography of Mother Teresa in Assamese. For the last two decades he has also been writing in Assamese periodicals on literary topics apart from doing translations.
To the readers of contemporary Assamese literature—poetry, prose fiction, essays, biography, criticism-Homen Borgohain (b. 1931) is a name long familiar and much admired. For about four decades now, his work in all genres of literature has received appreciation from critics and common readers. It is, however, his prose fiction-his short stories and novels-which has over the years attracted a wider and steadier homage of informed enjoyment and close, critical analysis. Now the editor of the Asom Bani, the oldest and widely circulated vernacular weekly, Borgohain has also contributed immensely to journalism in Assam since he resigned from the civil service in 1967. As a journalist, he is known for his objective reportage, his persuasiveness and crusading zeal, his passionate clarity and commitment and inventive prescriptions in matters of crucial importance, and his courage in standing up unambiguously for or against a cause. Quite naturally, his gifts for fictional imagination and for objective but value-based reportage have been interactive and interweaving. In his short stories and novels, particularly those that turn upon social change and political decadence in contemporary Assam, his genuine creative power has validated his profound sense of anguish at, and passionate resistance against, all assaults on the dignity of ordinary men and women, who, as he sees them as a novelist as well as a journalist, are precariously yet bravely battling against the insidious undermining of their values by social snobbery, political seediness and institutionalized crime.
I wish to concentrate on Astorag's form and content, keeping my comments on Borgohain the man and writer and on the growth and development of Assamese novels to the minimum, and that only to ease my way to a brief yet somewhat complete statement about the novel itself by way of introducing it to those who do not read Assamese.
In Assamese, as in other modern Indian languages, the alien seeds of prose fiction were first sown at European initiative in a climate of eagerly assimilated western literary influence, which impinged on our language, literature and modes of feeling and thought, from about the middle of the nineteenth century. The Assamese translation of John Bunyan's Christian allegory, The Pilgrim's Progress (1678), made at the instance of the American Baptist Mission (which printed and published the monthly, the Orunudoi, the first ever Assamese literary and news magazine from 1846 to 1882), marked the initiation of the Assamese language and its very small number of readers, to a rudimentary form of prose fiction. This translation of Bunyan was called Jatrikar Jatra. It was first serialized in 1851 in the Orunudoi before being published as a book. It was an interesting irony of Assamese literary history that the novel, an inherently and insistently secular form of European literary art from the late seventeenth century, was first nurtured with the religious sentiments of alien Christian missionaries, who, assisted by Assamese converts, also translated during 1876-81 a couple of novelettes from Bengali and published them. A.K. Gurney, a missionary, also wrote and published Kaminikanta (1877), which appears to have been the first original novel in Assamese. At about the same time, there appeared some fitful novelistic traits in the satirical Assamese prose of Hemchandra Barua (1835-97), the first modern Assamese lexicographer. The features of the novel were also written somewhat more positively and consistently into Sudharmar Upaebyan (1880), the first ever Assamese novel by a modern Assamese author, Padmavati Devi Phukanani (1853-1927), daughter of Anandaram Dhekial Phukan, the great and pioneering architect of the transition of Assamese society from the medieval to the modern.
Between 1890 and 1930, the Assamese novel registered a progress from the initial Christian other-worldliness in the historical romances of Padmanath Gohain Barua (1871-1946) and Rajanikanta Bordoloi (1867-1939). Their romanticized historicism went a long way to liberate Assamese fictional imagination into secular liberalism, even though some of their novels gave expression to a strain of Vaisnavite intuition. Synchronizing with the great neo-Vaisnavite movement, and under royal patronage, Assamese prose chronicles, occasionally throbbing with the creative power of a fictional variety, began to be written from about the late sixteenth century; and it was therefore natural that the pioneering Assamese writers of prose fiction, now familiar with the novels of Walter Scott, and of Bankimchandra nearer home, should turn to the precolonial history of Assam for narrative sources to be freely mingled with the picturesque and with romantic fancies. As in poetry, then inspired by the great English romantic tradition, so in creative prose, there was a release of energy, hitherto unknown, from the new-found emotive focus on the beauty, power and mystery of external nature. The romanticized prose of the Assamese novels of this period was also zealously interfused with almost a discoverer's sense of the heroism of unhertoic men and women holding on to their simple, self- effacing dignity, even when bent and broken by undeserved misfortunes entwined with our political past. Very significant indeed were the new-spun images in them of noble womanhood resulting from an awakening of the imagination to the marvels realizable in the theme of the love of man and woman. With the passage of time, the creative prose in Assamese novels became a flexible medium for an enlargment and refinement of consciousness as it began to embody the strain of a nascent patriotic awareness of social and political realities in their reassuring as well as sinister and unsettling aspects. As the Assamese sensibility of the time internalized the spirit of Gandhian idealism and nationalism in the 1920's and the 1930's, and as the anthropological curiosity, inspired and suported by the academically-oriented British bureaucrats, enlarged the sympathies of our creative writers, Assamese fictional imagination opened up to the possibilities of unknown worlds and strange sensations of setting, and of body and spirit.
Between 1890 and 1930, about twenty five novels appeared in print, but thereafter, between 1930 and 1945, hardly any novel, except two serialized in a magazine called Awabaon, was written. Speculating, with the benefit of hindsight, about this drying up of the imagination that creates novels, we can only say that the old masters who had written by mingling history and romances stopped writing, and that the energy of the young was attracted by the fervour of the struggle for independence and by 'other activities. The blending of history and romance by which in the earlier four or five decades the novelists had spun the texture of their work had by now worn off as the substance of fiction, and a new mode of sensibility, and the consequent ability to weave in words significant images of life, was taking shape. In the turmoil of social and political life this took longer than it would in ordinary times for the final product to come to the surface. The turning away from history and romance did not immediately give rise to a new and formed consciousness of contemporary social reality, now made more complex by unprecedented complications in the economic life of the early twentieth century colonial era that was beginning more radically to unsettle the inner conscious as well as the outer unconscious in Assamese life. The new sensibility was yet to sink deeply enough and to re-surface thereafter in the form of fresh and penetrating verbal images capable of an imaginative portrayal of life in a state of transition from the agrarian to the semi-urban-a transition effected not by industrialism but by a consumerism made possible by an emerging and more self-consciously expansive and buoyant Assamese middle class that could rely upon the services, the professions and some of the enterprises opened up in the colonial dispensation. And then the war came and it affected life in Assam and the north-east in more visible ways than anywhere in the country and almost silenced the voices of imagination and wrenched the drowsy and medieval Assam into a new orbit.
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