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Author’s Afternoon

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On 16th of July, Taj Bengal hosted, amidst incessant monsoon showers, the red-tape event, ‘An Author’s Afternoon’ which saw Rita Chowdhury, renowned litterateur in conversation with the editor-in-chief of Seagull Publishers (Kolkata), Anjum Katyal.

For those not in the know, Rita Chowdhury, is an established poet, novelist and Sahitya Akademi Award recipient who works mostly in the domain of Assamese literature. She holds the office of an Associate Professor of Political Science at Cotton College, Guwahati, Assam. She is also currently the director of the National Book Trust, India. Rita graced the eager audience, which comprised mostly of academicians, journalists and students of the city, with her presence exactly as the clock struck 4:30. Anjum did not waste any time in diving headlong into the background of Rita’s glittering literary career, which as is often the case with humanist writers, closely entwined with her personal life.

Anjum: Rita, you wrote your first book, ‘AbirataJatra’ at the age of 19, for which you won the Asom Sahitya Sabha award. Less than a decade later you had already joined the academia as a senior lecturer at Cotton College. In the meantime, you have had a long-standing relationship with political activism. How did you manage to juggle all of these avatars and how did these multifarious aspects of your life influence and complement each other?

Rita: My father was an important figure in the war of 1971 and I’ve seen him command some of the Muktibahini forces of the erstwhile East-Pakistan and the immense political upheavals had a distinct impression on me as I was just an eight-year old child then. Later on, during the Assam Movement, (the Assam Movement was a popular movement in Assam during the early 1980s where the Assamese people demanded that the Indian Government identify and deport illegal immigrants from Bangladesh) I took an active part in the agitations while being in college. At that time, a person had given me a book on guerrilla insurgency wrapped in newspaper. There was an advertisement by the Asom Sahitya Sabha who were holding a prose competition where the subject was ‘The Assam Movement’. Being intimate with the topic, I was prompted to write and thereby my efforts engendered my first novel, ‘AbirataJatra’ (Incessant Journey). Soon after writing the book, I was arrested, taken to Guwahati police station and soon transferred to Dibrugarh Jail and then back to Guwahati Jail for nearly 3 months. The Assam movement immensely shaped who I am as a human being, a woman and inexorably as writer. After a rather forgettable second novel, I did not take up the pen as an instrument of expression for around 10 years after which I began writing again. In the meantime I had married a co-activist; my husband Chandra Mohan Patowary went on to become a minister which drastically changed how I began looking at politics and the major languages of power that are spoken in the backdrop of ordinary peoples’ lives. I yearned for my own individual identity again, which was when I took up teaching. In this way, I think, the different vocations that I’ve taken up in life are quite intricately connected.

Anjum: What are your novels usually like? Also, please tell us a bit about your latest novel, ‘Chinatown Days’, which was originally written in Assamese and entitled, ‘Makam’.

Rita: One of my literary inspirations was Ashapurna Devi from whom I’ve learnt a lot about human psychology, and like her, I try to make my novels socially impactful and my protagonists are usually women with strong personalities who try to build a sense of self-respect in a patriarchal society. In my novels, I try to be neutral, never showing any partiality for or against my protagonists. My latest book, ‘Chinatown Days’ is set in the early 19th century when the East India company brings in many Chinese slaves to work in the tea gardens of Assam. Fast forward to post-independence Assam when the Government of India starts deporting thousands of Chinese Indians after war breaks out in the high Himalayas in 1962 between India and China, following which the uprooted refugees have to fend for themselves in a land that, despite their origins, is strangely foreign.

The evening ended with a short question-answer session where Rita further explained her stand on the Assam movement and the demographical problems that were being faced at that point of time.

As she was signing a copy of ‘Chinatown Days’ she asked me what I thought about the condition of rootlessness amongst humans, in general, and deportees, in particular. Almost answering her own question, she murmured, ‘What does this bond of nationhood and the feelings of national identity even mean when communities have to face intolerance, feelings of rejection and absolute helplessness at the hands of their own countrymen?’ With that, an enthralling conversation with the Award-winning novelist ended on a somewhat epiphanic and provoking note.