The book “Elegy for the East” by Dhrubajyoti Borah has been translated by the author from the Assamese original “Kalantarar Gadya”.
Dhrubajyoti Borah is an Indian writer who writes in Assamese and English. His novels, set in the lush green valleys, steaming forests, emerald tea plantations, and rolling hills of Assam, are seeped with the essence of contemporaneous history and the historical experience of the people.
The novel explores the utter helplessness and travails of man in face of overwhelming odds. In a narrative not far from truth, an overbearing State co-creates situations of social and political strife, and innocent and beautiful dreams of the masses die in the stony bed of terror and counter-terror in this novel. And through all these, the eternal narrative of man’s quest for peace and meaning shine like a beacon.
Read an excerpt from the book below.
It was the third time Ron had come to the Karbi hills.
Yes, for the third time.
The first time he came to this green world, he was entrusted with an important task.
Yes, it was a really important job: he was given the responsibility of finding out a road. Yes, a road! From Nagaon and Shillong, he had to find a secret way through the Karbi and the North Cachar Hills to Bangladesh. The local cadres of Nagaon were talking about such a path for quite a long time. Ultimately, the idea made its way into the minds of the leaders. Yes, the path really existed! Local people were travelling from one place to another by this path; they did not go the whole way because it was not necessary for them to do so. If one could connect the pieces, the whole route will be found out.
He was given the task of finding out this path.
With a few companions from Nagaon, along with his shadowlike bodyguard Mohan, he started looking for this path. Oh, he really felt like an intrepid explorer. David Livingstone, Sir Cecil Rhodes, Drake, Cook, Amundsen—so many courageous explorers, searching for treasure-laden countries through the dense forests of Africa, charting the course of the Amazon through the impenetrable forests of South America, or trying to find new trade routes through the seas of the world! Partha felt like the heroes of yore— the intrepid sailors, the courageous explorers who did all those things. He would also try to discover a path, a forgotten mysterious route. No, he did not disclose his feelings to Mohan or any of his companions, but his heart was filled with happiness. He became elated with the thrill of the campaign, with the expectant uncertainty of a discovery!
And he found the route.
Like many small streams coming together to form a river, many small paths originating at different points joined one another to form this route. The name of the route is also quite catchy: Umpanai-Howang Khanduli path. Starting from various places of the Karbi and the Khasi Jaintia Hills, this route twisted its way down from north to south and reached the hot water springs of ‘Garam Pani’. From the east, this route can be accessed from Kampur and Baithalangso, and from the north via Roha, Jagi, Khala, or Nelli of Nagaon. From the west side, one can get to it from Shillong, Nongpoh, Umpanai, Umsning, and also from Hamren. From ‘Garam Pani’, one can go southward to many places, to the Naga and Mizo hills, Manipur and Tripura, and crossing the international boarder, to Burma (Myanmar) and Bangladesh.
Many people do not know about this fragmented route; it is not possible to know and there is no need to know. In most of the places, there are no motorable or even properly built road sections. But people travel through every part of it, walking over long stretches at times. While travelling over these paths, Ron realized that it was an ancient and historical thoroughfare, an ancient trade route. It was the old historical way of communication and trade between Assam, Jaintia and Kachari kingdoms, Nagaland, Manipur, Tripura, and Bengal too.
During the Ahom rule in Assam, envoys, messengers, traders and, at times, armies travelled by this way. Yes, Ahom envoys Ratnakadali, Ramcharan, Bijoyram; envoys of Tripura, like Rameswar, Nyayalankar Bhattacharya, Udaynaranayan Biswas, or Jaintia envoys like Joy Visharad, Kanthabhusan, Pitambar—all travelled by this path. They came to Guwahati, to Raha, and to Kajalimukh by this route. Afterwards, as the Britishers opened up other roads, this route disappeared from memory. Only the local inhabitants knew about these paths and used them; it was also used by petty smugglers, clandestine arms merchants, and by the guerrillas.
When he entered from the Shillong side, he had to travel part of the way by a ramshackle bus. These vehicles carry vegetables, spices, poultry, and pigs put in bamboo baskets on the way to Shillong, and on the way back they take garments, flour rice, and other provisions. A part of the way has to be travelled by famous World War II vintage ‘mama’ jeeps pulling a trailer behind. People sit on the load of bags of rice, oil tins, and other goods. In some places, one has to walk a stretch; then again, one might get a bus or a ‘mama’ jeep. One the way, one finds village settlements on the side of the road—two rows of wood and tin shanties lining both sides, wherein some of the jadohs (cabin) sell fried pork and kakiyat (local brew).
When he entered the road from Nagaon side, he had his bodyguard, Mohan, a few local comrades from Nagaon and a guide—old man Ingti. How the local comrades could find this guide was surprising, really surprising.
Ron felt really strange when he embarked on the exploration. These places were so near but were so unknown; he never knew about these places before. It was strange, really strange.
It was a really strange hilly path. At all times, you feel as if you have lost your way travelling over it. Sometimes over the hills, sometimes through dark forests and sometimes, you could even travel a part of it by a motorable road. Human habitations were far from one another; one had to walk nearly half a day to go from one to another. After one crossed the villages of the Karbi people, Jayantia and Khasi villages came into view; and towards Umrangso, Dimasa villages sprang up. Old man Ingti easily guided them through this long-forgotten path. Ingti was a really strange and kind person. This thin man built like a curved knife was really quite old. The skin over his chest and abdomen had wrinkled into loose folds, and his expressionless face had a thousand wrinkles. The eyes could hardly be seen due to these. And because of these lines on his face, Ingti appeared to be always smiling. His teeth were black and had gaps; a few in between had already fallen off. The old man had a pair of carefully folded khaki trousers, a khaki shirt, and red canvas shoes without laces. On the first day when he came with them, he had put on his khaki dress and canvas shoes. But the very next day he gave up that attire. He folded them neatly and put them inside his hanging shoulder bag. He felt much more comfortable with his daily wear—the loin cloth and bare torso. Whether day or night, the old man did not leave his jhola (tote bag) and the long-handled dao. In the other hand, he would carry an aluminum kettle. Many a time on the road, he brewed tea in it and offered it to everybody. Once or twice, he even cooked rice in it. Holding his dao in one hand and the kettle in the other, he would walk so fast that Ron and others found it difficult to keep pace with him sometimes.
Row after row of hills, some covered with forests but some nearly bald, their hard, stony surface barely covered by a thin layer of grass and shrubs; sometimes there was a lush valley between two lines of hills, sometimes a deep chasm, with a small river or a stream flowing through them with many bends. At places, there was slash and burn type of cultivation, while in some were the regular rectangular fields of paddy. At one place, Ron observed that in the paddy fields down below the path, people were ploughing the fields with water buffaloes. But looking a little closely, he saw that the plough was missing; the man was just driving the huge buffalo in the muddy fields.
Ingti Koka, what is that man doing with the buffaloes?’ he asked.
‘Ploughing the field,’ the old man answered without looking there.
‘Without a plough?’
‘Here, they till the fields like that.’
Ron stopped to look at the spectacle below. The old man also stopped. He took two steps back towards Ron and looking at the scene of ploughing below, said,
‘They build bunds and dam the water in the fields for a long time. When the land turns soft, then they bring in buffaloes and make them walk to turn the whole field into soft mud; then they plant paddy there.’