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regular-article-logo Saturday, 15 June 2024

Too meandering a plot

The first part of Somnath Batabyal’s novel is a fine demonstration of how literature can spot the nuances of human predicament during trying times that history is generally blind to

Pradip Phanjoubam Published 24.05.24, 07:30 AM
Brahmaputra

Brahmaputra The Telegraph

Book: RED RIVER: A NOVEL

Author: Somnath Batabyal

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Published by: Context

Price: Rs 499

The first part of Somnath Batabyal’s novel is a fine demonstration of how literature can spot the nuances of human predicament during trying times that history is generally blind to. It succeeds in giving readers an intimate understanding of Assam during the troubled 1990s.

The story centres around three school friends: Rizu Kalita, the son of an Assamese rural school teacher and respected community leader; Samar Dutta, the son of Bengali
middle-class parents who trace their roots to erstwhile East Bengal; Rana Singh Choudhary, the son of a Punjabi brigadier in the Indian army.

Rizu and Samar are older friends, having been together in a missionary school for boys in Guwahati. The Assamese boy is the dominant of the two friends, athletic, bold and carrying traits of his father’s leadership. Rana joins the school mid-session in their final year when his father is transferred to the state. Handsome, tough and outgoing, Rana is at first seen as a challenger to Rizu’s status in school. However, the boys handle the rivalry maturely, never allowing it to come out in the open, even though it flickers subliminally.

Deftly reflected in the trio’s relationship, as well as in the glimpses of their families, are the layered nature of identity affiliations amongst Assam’s communities. Rizu and Samar both consider themselves Assamese; but deep down, one becomes the hegemonic Assamese and the other the wily Bongal to each other. Rana does not qualify to be Assamese. Each character becomes a creature of destiny, swept along by the winds of fate. Thus, the plot is shorn of moral dilemmas or internal struggles with the conscience. It is largely a drama in the macrocosm.

The second part descends into melodrama. The rise of the anti-immigrant movement heightens the insecurity of Assam’s Bengalis. After a riot, Samar and his family make an escape bid to Bengal. There seemingly is another reason for their flight; Samar’s mother, Banalakshmi, alias Lucky, is suspected to be involved in the assassination of Rana’s father, but this is never fully explained. A series of misfortunes befall them. Samar’s sister gets kidnapped, they lose their belongings, including their identity papers, and come to be treated as infiltrators by the police and are kept in a detention village. Samar and his mother escape to Dhaka where Lucky re-establishes contacts with the prime minister whose father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was a close friend of her father. They are then brought into the prime minister’s inner circle.

When Samar returns to Assam as a tea prospector 20 years later, he discovers Rizu had been killed by Rana, then an army colonel, after he became entangled in an affair with Rizu’s wife and Samar’s cousin, Leela. Rizu had joined the ULFA. After being captured in Bhutan, he turned SULFA (surrendered ULFA) and became wealthy, with a hand in practically every trade, including gun-running, the last in partnership with Rana, who, ultimately, ends up committing suicide.

The fortunes of the three friends are allowed to spiral too far apart, so much so that tying up the loose ends becomes a challenge for both author and reader.

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