Lives, struggles, language, closely entwine in the literature of Assam.
The debate over whether a translated work destroys the flavour of the original is long over, one assumes. Thankfully! Without translation, voices from around the world, excluding English or any major language, would have been confined into cocoons. In India itself, regional literature is of great dimension. But for the translations, lovers of literature would have been in a limbo to taste local flavours.
For instance, the Assamese language, mainly spoken in the Brahmaputra Valley has a rich literary tradition. Contemporary Assamese short stories are some of the best in the country today, acknowledge litterateurs basing their view on the limited number of translations available in English.
Well-known journalist and translator Dhirendra Nath Bezboruah's A Game of Chess, a compilation of fifteen stories, gives a glimpse of the richness and variety of themes in modern Assamese short stories. Starting with “The Decision” by Syed Abdul Malik, a path-breaking writer from the 1950s, which etches a delightful cameo of a woman (Aimoni) with a mind of her own, and wrapped up with “Parable of an Ancient Triangle” by young writer Moushumi Kandali on the dilemma of a feminist and her student, the anthology covers a wide range of human situations.
Within this range figure some of the most famous short stories in contemporary Assamese language. Bhabendra Nath Saikia, who ushered in a new era in Assamese literature in the 1960s with his insightful observation of the human character and situation, features in three stories. ‘The Cavern” is a sardonic look at such a situation as a White supremacy believer's heart gets transplanted by a Black man's heart and its effect on him, in an oblique reference to South Africa which was still practising Apartheid and where also the world's first heart transplant took place.
“A Game of Chess” by Saurabh Kumar Chaliha, known for his eclectic choice of themes, plays another kind of psychological game with two friends, one successful, the other loser, over a chess-board. His “Bonsai” – on modern society's penchant for consumerism and clever marketing ploys by manufacturers with affordable mini versions of products - ‘sachets' of shampoo or coffee available even in rural backwaters, leaves one wondering – would people enjoy mini-literature, mini-bananas, etc?
Jnanpith Award winner Indira Goswami's “The Journey”, Atulananda Goswami's “Munni's Legs” and Harekrishna Deka's “The Prisoner” are reflections on the unstable state of affairs in the region due to the long-drawn insurgency and conflict and their effect on ordinary people.
Manoj Goswami's sheering “Samiran Borua is on His Way” resonates with the sighs of idealists anywhere, left behind by a society moving on while they themselves lose their youth and home hoping to change an unjust society.
The locale of Arupa Patagia Kalita's “A Nymph of the Desert” moves from the lush green valley of Assam to the arid desert of Rajasthan but the theme of urban-rural divide, of anorexic socialites and starving desert women, can be placed anywhere – even today, and perhaps more so in this global-economic village.
Apurba Sharma's “Monica and Vikram” drawing on one of the India's famous myth story characters — Betaal and Vikramaditya, to transplant into a modern version is an interesting experiment but the story is too long and at times gets tedious with social comments verging on lectures on social ills.
By the translator-editor's own admission, the anthology does not make “claims of ..being a representative collection of any era or period of time” but chosen because he felt ‘impelled' to translate them. “It is possible to have forty or fifty anthologies of good Assamese short stories in translation,” he writes in the preface. Yet the book gives a worthy glimpse into the wealth of this literature from the North East.
The meticulous translation with an eye to maintaining the local flavour, a glossary of local words and their meanings, and profiles of the original authors add to the value to the book.
A Game of Chess; Ed. Dhirendra Nath Bezboruah; Penguin; Rs 275.
Keywords: A Game of Chess