Author Somnath Batabyal on ‘Red River’, his new novel that tells the story of three families torn apart by history and violence in Assam

The novel raises larger questions of identity, migration, nationalism and separatism

February 16, 2024 09:45 am | Updated 11:51 am IST

Somnath Batabyal says he wants to tell the stories of his father who was a refugee from Bangladesh.

Somnath Batabyal says he wants to tell the stories of his father who was a refugee from Bangladesh.

For his third book, Somnath Batabyal, an anthropologist and ethnographer by training, wanted to document the life of a small village in Assam between two election cycles. But as he began talking to people, he realised he wanted to tell a larger story about migration, displacement, exile, home, separatism and the nation state, and turned to fiction. On the sidelines of the Samsung Galaxy Tab S9 Series Jaipur Literature Festival 2024, where his new novel Red River was launched, Batabyal talks about his roots and why it’s important to tell stories. Edited excerpts:

How did an anthropological study become a work of fiction?

I moved from non-fiction to fiction to tell a larger story. That story was about the nation state, about who belongs, who doesn’t, who isn’t allowed to — and I couldn’t do that within the constraints of facts. The novel is rooted in ethnographic detail, but raises larger questions about identity, migration, nationalism, separatism, etc. The first draft was 2,60,000 words, and over the past four years, I edited it to bring it down to a manageable 1,00,000 words.

You tell the story of three families, whose lives are torn apart by history and violence.

Yes, I tell the story through three friends and their families; one is born to refugees, the second boy’s father is in the army, and there’s another boy whose family sympathises with the separatist group, ULFA. I write about their childhood, adolescence and adult life, trace their joys and sorrows, the upheavals they go through, all playing out under a sceptre of violence which rules their lives. The nation state often rules by terror as we know.

Why is the story set in several places in Assam?

I left Assam in 1991, when Guwahati, where I was growing up, was a smallish town. When I returned 15 years later, I couldn’t find the town I remembered. I moved to Golaghat, a town near Kaziranga, and there I found a little village, Melamora, which becomes Moramela in fiction. I got to know the local people, and very impetuously, bought land in a tea garden and built a hut there with two rooms. I started talking to various people, Muslims, tribals, other communities, and this collided with my own experience as a Bengali in Assam. And I decided to begin the story from Melamora, and write about people on the margins, from different communities.

Your father came from Bangladesh, and so you were always an outsider in Assam. How does this experience tell on your fiction?

When my father passed away, his stories — he was a refugee, settled in Kolkata, and worked for years in Assam — got lodged in my head. My father always felt he had never left Bangladesh. He came as a six-year-old from Dhaka holding his pregnant mother’s hand, and with a four-year-old brother in tow. For the first few years, he could not stop himself from asking his mother almost every day, “Ma, Dhaka kobe jam? (When do we return to Dhaka?)”

As for me, I am a chameleon, I can speak Assamese like the Assamese. I lived through the whole ‘Bongal kheda’ (Bengalis go away) movement. A migrant lives in all these spaces, in the fractured borderlands of memory, nostalgia, wanting to belong and fit in. All this play a part every day, and your happiness depends on how much you can mask, and I explore this in my fiction. I am not very good at masking, I am an uprooted Bengali whose father was born in Dhaka and lived in a refugee camp — and I am looking for a way to pass on these stories.

Do you worry that Assam is losing some of its syncretic character?

No. There are diverse communities in Assam that are very resilient. Various sects of Hindus live there, Muslims and tribals too. What can a hegemonic understanding of India and Assam for that matter do to these diverse communities? What is important though is to tell stories to each other, of each other, because stories are the way we can understand the world. The Northeast is a treasure trove of stories, and only the surface has been scratched. The borderlands alone are immense and so fractured, we haven’t fully tapped into them yet.

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