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Life in the land of plenty

Assamese author Leena Sarma

Assamese author Leena Sarma

Delhi-based Leena Sarma is an established name in Assamese literature. Besides being a senior officer in Indian Railways, Sarma has been regularly taking out time to write novels and short stories. She has eight novels under her name so far. “I joined Assam Civil Service during the heydays of Assam agitation, in 1983. I was assigned to the Indian Railways Traffic Service which entailed a 24-hour job. One was expected to rush to an accident site or to the railway control on the shortest notice. So writing became an escape route for me from an otherwise tension filled professional life,” says Sarma, presently General Manager, Centre for Railway Information System.

Recently, Sarma took one step further in her literary graph by publishing her first novel in English. In an interview here, she expounds on the triggers behind “A Melody in the Wilderness”, a novel that zooms on American society through the protagonist of Indian origin, Gayatri, and her gradual assimilation into an alien country. Excerpts:

After writing eight novels in Assamese, why did you think of writing a novel in English?

It was an impulsive decision taken in 2011. I was invited to the All India Women Writers’ Meet convened by Sahitya Akademi in Gangtok where I was to read my short story and take questions from the audience. The time was too short to leave it to one of my friends for translation into English, so I did it myself — during my train journey from Guwahati to New Jalpaiguri and then the four-hour taxi ride to Gangtok. The audience connected with it; some even had tears in their eyes. I felt confident about conveying an emotion in English.

Then in 2012, I was selected by Sahitya Akademi to be part of a litterateurs’ team to Slovakia for which I had to translate some of my stories in to English. Though the trip got cancelled finally, the exercise gave me a good grasp on the language. It finally led me to start writing my first novel in English.

What led you to set your plot in America and about a family from Assam in that land of plenty, a feature not much explored by Assamese writers?

I accompanied my husband to America when he went there on a Fulbright Fellowship during 2000-01. It gave me an opportunity to explore that country. I got involved in my son’s school as a parent volunteer, joined the community centre in the township of Pennsylvania State University, etc. It exposed me to many situations and not all of them were flattering about life in America. America is a strange combination of melting pot syndrome and high arrogance. I met many Americans who never planned a trip outside America. ‘What is there to see elsewhere when we are living in the best country?’ was pretty common. I realised there were many facets of American life which could be reflected through a story conceived against the country as a backdrop.

My protagonist is a woman from Assam who fought against loneliness, lack of higher education, financial constraints, etc. in the wake of her husband leaving her for a white woman and made it big in the alien country. Also, I noticed many Indian parents imposing Indian values on their America-born children. They faced a lot of resistance from their children who couldn’t feel much for an entity far removed from their realm of thought. I felt that it was hypocrisy on their part to tell the children to extract everything from America but continue to love the country of their forefathers. I focused on it extensively in the novel. It is not a simple story of one Indian woman. Though she is there in every frame, America itself becomes a character in it.

What next?

I finished a book in Assamese and one in English recently. The English one is on relationships — between man and woman, and two women, a psychological exploration of love, loss and friendship. The Assamese one is a series of stories about people sent to kala pani in the Andamans. I have written three others novels with historical themes. My last one was on the Chakma tribe in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh (“Surya Uthaa Desh”). It’s a moving story. On August 15, 1947, the jubilant Chakma people hoisted the Indian flag in anticipation of their merger with India. But on August 18, as per Radcliffe award, the landmass went to Pakistan. Then a sordid tale of dispossession, pain and loss began. I plan to translate it to English. I also plan to write a novel on militancy in Assam.


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Printable version | Sep 29, 2022 3:09:47 am | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/interview-with-author-leena-sharma/article6625104.ece