Translation Books

Ferns on her sador: Vaishna Roy reviews Arupa Patangia Kalita’s ‘The Loneliness of Hira Barua’

The book of short stories titled Mariam Austin othoba Hira Barua that won for Arupa Patangia Kalita the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2014 has now been translated from Assamese to English by Ranjita Biswas, opening another important and sensitive window to a corner of the elusive Northeast. The 15 stories are soaked in nostalgia for a way of life slowly disappearing from interior Assam, which Kalita celebrates and memorialises here with a tenderness that is immediately apparent. Each grinding stone, each wood stove, each bakul tree and fragrant malati flower is dwelt over lovingly and lingeringly, as if she were touching a beloved’s belongings after he was gone.

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In doing so, Kalita performs in this book a task more important than its literary function — she becomes a cultural anthropologist, cataloguing customs and manners, festivals and foods in vivid detail, ensuring a life for these accounts well beyond the margins of the simple stories they tell. In ‘The Girl with Long Hair’, Kalita describes the young Mainao’s hand-woven sadors with the farou-megan motif of pigeons or the dhekia pattern of ferns. A young man is served tea with tekeli pitha, stuffed with sesame and jaggery. The details are lovely — she doesn’t simply write that an old woman makes bhedailota fritters; instead she describes how she picks the leaves of the bhedailota creeper, chops ginger and garlic, dips the leaves in a spicy pithaguri rice powder, and then fries them.

Three skeins run through the stories — the heavy toll that a conflict-torn Assam takes on everyday life; the loneliness of old age; and the intrusion of raucous modernity into a gentle land. The last of these is perhaps the most weakly treated idea, descending into over-wrought prose and melodrama that sits falsely in this otherwise quiet collection. Stories like ‘Scream’ and ‘The Auspicious Day’ fall in this category.

The title’s eponymous story stands out, a masterly delineation of an elderly woman’s lonely life and her dependence on her beloved dog. As does ‘Stream’, in which an unnamed old woman cooks passionately to replace the music snatched away from her, each dish a celebration of smell and colour and texture. ‘A Warm Jacket for the Son’ is another gem, gently mocking the inept son’s elevation in the eyes of his loving mother who will do anything for him, even steal. Both ‘The Girl with Long Hair’, a heartbreaking account of mindless parochialism, and ‘The House of Nibha Bou’, describing a posse of soldiers wrecking Nibha Bou’s carefully tended home, gently push back against the politics of othering — without a word uttered.

In an odd rhythm, the book starts well, falls into a trough, then rises strongly again, but the good stories abundantly showcase Kalita’s subtle, mellow prose that brings a region and a people glowingly alive.

vaishna.r@thehindu.co.in

The Loneliness of Hira Barua; Arupa Patangia Kalita, trs Ranjita Biswas, Pan Macmillan India, ₹450

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