Mitra Phukan is a writer, translator, columnist and classical vocalist who lives in Guwahati, Assam. Her published literary works include four children’s books, a biography, two novels, “The Collector’s Wife” and “A Monsoon of Music”, and a collection of fifty of her columns, “Guwahati Gaze”. Her most recent work is a translation of Jyanpeeth Awardee Birendra Kumar Bhattacharjee’s novel, “Kobor aru Phool” , “Blossoms in the Graveyard”. Her works have been translated into several Indian and European languages. As a translator herself, she has put across the works of some of the best known contemporary writers of fiction in Asomiya into English. Her fortnightly column “All Things Considered” in The Assam Tribune is widely read, across Assam and by the diaspora. She is an active member of Aradhana, an organization that takes music to the underprivileged sections of society, and a founder member of the North East Writers’ Forum.
Music and Love in the Time of Insurgency
Review by Murli Melwani
“ I can guess your thoughts, sir, at this very moment, as I sit in your beautiful air-conditioned drawing room, sipping tea from your expensive China, nibbling on nuts from sparkling crystal…I’m a little worried about the air-conditioning – will it harm her? I mean, my instrument.”
“They call her the Rudra Veena.” “ Rudra fashioned her after Parvati.” “He watched her while she was asleep…Look at these two resonators, two perfect globes covered with such intricate carvings. They are heavy, blue-veined breasts, of course. And the stem of the instruments, just wrought so – that’s her delicate arm…..”
“ You mean you haven’t heard of the Curse?”
I have chosen these extracts from the story, ”The Choice” because they are a sort of template for the elements Mitra Phukan blends in her stories. Voice. Tone. Background sketched in with the casualness of dropping pennies in a wishing well. Tension, facts revealed bit by bit. (“What you haven’t heard of the Curse?” The unspooling of the curse takes up the rest – 4/5th – I made a physical word count – of the story).
The themes of the 13 stories can be broadly classed as music, love, male infidelity, humor.
These elements may be individual movements, but, just as in a complete musical work, the movements have to be played in succession, Mitra Phukan festoons them together skillfully in their literary avatar.
Music runs like a beautiful strain in “The Choice,” “Ekalavya,” “The Tabla Player,” and “Homecoming.” Music is not only a theme in these stories but is worked as an art to reveal character. Such is the love of the unnamed narrator of “The Choice” for the Rudra Veena that he cannot be dissuaded from devoting his life to it in spite of the possibility of dire consequences. When the curse does materialize in his family, he has to make a heartbreaking decision.
Just as “The Choice” is about the sincerity and commitment of musicians, “Ekalalaya,” exposes at the posturing and hypocrisies of the ustads and pandits. A culture correspondent observes the unrealistic demands a renowned sitar player, Pandit Deenabandhu Misra, makes on the organizers of a concert with the same cool eyes as she records the dedication of the pandit’s talented fan, Rishabh. In an effort to be accepted as a student, Rishabh plays a self-composed dhun before the Pandit. Impressed, the pandit invites him see him Mumbai. The follow up invitation never materializes. Mitra Phukan’s subtle ending lays bare the difference in character between the “renowned” master and the sincere and honest talent.
Rishabh’s dedication is matched by Ram Kumar’s commitment, in “The Tabla Player,” to his profession . Unlike the ustad in “The Choice,” Ram Kumar places his art before family. Tragedy is the currency with which he pays the price.
“Homecoming” shows an instrument maker in the twilight of his life, widowed, arthritic, mourning the loss of a daughter who has eloped with the local goon. He lives on his memories. He recalls the ceremony and the love with which he used make musical instruments for Muslim ustads and Hindu pandits. He gave names like Ragini, Sruti, Gandhari, Bhairavi, “ the daughters of his skill and love,” to the instruments he fashioned. Mitra Phukan merges his love for his errant daughter with the emotion he lavished on his handiwork in an ending that is as masterful as is moving.
The musicians and the instrument maker make cameo appearances in each other’s stories. a trained musician herself, has written the music-themed stories in such a way that they can be read like raags within the main melody.
“The Homecoming” is a link to the three other stories that are about love, “The Gift,” “Spring Song” and “A Long Drive.”
After his wife, Ishita, died, Aditya, in “The Gift” allows the garden that she loving tended to not only lose its bloom but also to go to seed. The lives of his son, Rishi and daughter-in-law, who live upstairs in the same house, are barren in the female sense. Two small miracles happen. On the Sunday on the story opens, a woman that Aditya, Rishi and the daughter-in-law have never seen comes to the house and hand Aditya a flower pot of a variety of roses that Ishita loved.
“A garden needs tending. ‘Nurturing. It’s like life. Like a child.’ .And with that, with no further words, she turned around and walked down the driveway towards the gate.”
When the three find their voices, “it’s …it’s a sign, said Rishi.” The neat end shows what it was a sign of.
The title of the story “Spring Song” has a double meaning. One is the literal one; the story is set at the time of Bohag Bihu, the spring festival of Assam. The other meaning comes through towards the end when we realize why the narrator outgrew her love for a handsome, talented singer, when and how she rose above the stigma of being seen as the betrayer by the singer and their common friends, when we understand how her achievements in science make her see a greater song in nature. The writer uses the second person narrative that suggests a letter being written.
On the surface, “A Long Drive” may sound clichetic: a widow, who has “images” caged in her mind and anger in her heart, meets a visiting divorced NRI, at a dinner thrown by a friend who like to “pair” people. Their emotionally bruised personalities hesitatingly open up to each other during a long drive through the countryside. In a story as alert to the nuances of low-key anguish as to the moments of sudden, unguarded tenderness, the answer as to what the outcome will be is tantalizingly elusive up to the very end.
Male infidelity is the leitmotif of “The Reckoning” “ Jogeswari,” “The Revenge of Annapurna.” Three women, three approaches fighting the humiliation. The different approaches determine the direction of the narrative and reveal hidden reserves of character.
In “The Reckoning” infidelity, insurgency and psychological trauma are blended. Shrabana’s husband Ranjit, the manager of a tea garden in acres of uninhabited green, takes up with a nurse twenty seven years his junior. Shrabana borrow and adapts a tactic the insurgents use to take revenge for herself and her 16 year old son’s trauma. Shrabana’s strategy boomerangs when insurgents kidnap the 16 year old and demand ransom. The prose is as agitated as Shrabana’s body when the author records her actions; it is as calm her thoughts when enters her mind.
In Jogeswari, the wife “disables” her philandering husband with a “weapon” that people with a scientific outlook may not believe exists. In“ The Revenge of Annapurna” Bowari adopts an approach that is almost Gandhian. She out-models a model daughter-in-law for her in-laws’ eyes and shames her wayward husband by increasing her devotion to him.
“A Full Night’s Thievery” is as much a story of Assamese towns in the forties of the last century as it is the story of a resourceful thief, Modon Sur, who was never without a water tight alibi. “Like any self-respecting town (Rupohi) had a thief as well. For having a local thief was a marker of the affluence of the town itself.” This quotation is a sample of the tongue-in-cheek language in which the exploits of this lovable rogue are related.
In contrast to Madon Sur’s self-confidence, Harish Babu in “the Rings” believes that “my horoscope is a battlefield for all the planets, it seems. They have been at war with each other ever since I can remember.” His remedy for every imagined physical ailment or reverse in fortune is to turn to gemology and add a new ring to his ring-laden fingers. When a lucrative contract slips through his fingers, Harish Babu consoles himself by philosophizing: “With so many planets stacked against me, what else can one expect?”
However the most unique character in the collection is the state of Assam. The stories are full of its manifestations in various forms. The moods of the mighty Brahmaputra find expression Rishabh’s raags. “These glinted and glistened like the lapping wavelets of the mighty river that flowed behind him. The meends that he played were the heavy curves of the river; the taans that rippled through his fingertips were the birds that quested eagerly on its banks, sometimes taking wind in a flash of vivid color.”
In “The Reckoning” it materializes as 12 terrorist who kidnap a tea garden manager’s teen-aged son for ransom and in “The Long Drive” as the rebels who stop and rob the occupants of a car in the countryside.
Men’s cruelty is contrasted with the serenity of nature. “ Yes, it’s Bohag (Bihu). The kuli calls out endlessly to its soulmate far into the balmy nights. Setting aside their usual shyness, cascades of kopou bloom boldly, as busy bees hum happily around this sudden abundance of beauty.” “ It’s a defining feature of our land, insn’t it? Xeuji xeuji, xeujiO,xeuji dhoroni duniya,’ he said, quoting the poet. ‘Green, green, how beautiful is this green earth’..”
And witchcraft: “I watch fascinated, as she withdraws the three objects. The root of that particular plant, dug up on a moonless Amavasya night from the edges of the cremation ground. The withered claw of the hen that had been sacrificed before the huge image of Kali on another moonless night. And lastly, the hair from the head of a person after he had been placed on the pyre.”
In her novel, The Collector’s Wife, Mitra Phukan introduced the world to the students agitation in the 70s and 80s, the illegal migration from Bangladesh and a full blown insurgency. “A Monsoon of Music” records the interaction of nature, music and personality. With the publication of A Full Night’s Thievery-Stories, Mitra Phukan has cemented her reputation as the most perceptive and versatile writer in English to emerge from the 7 states of the North East.
Links to the review: https://www.openroadreview.com/review-mitra-phukan/
Musical Tales of Choices and Sacrifices
Review By Payal Jain
A Full Night’s Thievery (2016) is a collection of thirteen short stories by the renowned Assamese writer, Mitra Phukan. Written over a rather long period of time, it is a pleasurable experience to both senses and emotions. While going through the stories, one cannot miss the melodious tone, the variety of notes, and the resonant language with which the musician-cum-writer treats us. The stories are diverse in terms of theme as well as setting. Subjects such as a struggling artist, an agonised mother, an upcoming musician, a local thief, a devoted wife, a superstitious businessman, a young widow, a victim of insurgency, a betrayed wife, a hypocrite guruji give the collection a note of familiarity as well as wide range.
Seen closely, these are stories of common men and women, who at some unusual juncture in their lives must make those choices and even sacrifice which would alter their lives forever. These underline the unbound capacities of human beings to bend, to negotiate, to manage, and to cope and, also, to come out of the dark bog, sometimes successfully, and sometimes irrevocably changed. However, what stands out in these dramas of human life is the jijivisha, that indomitable spirit we all have within us.
Thematically the world of music dominates three stories, titled, “The Choice”, “The Tabla Player” and “Eklavya”. “The Choice” is about a successful musician who must give up his beloved instrument, his most valuable possession, the Rudra Veena, for the sake of something much more precious. Written in the form of a dramatic monologue, which is quite unusual in a prose work, the narrative moves languidly and there are notes of procrastination, which perfectly suit the subject-matter in hand. “The Tabla Player” records how the protagonist unintentionally loses most of what matters in his life in the pursuit of his art. “Eklavya” is the story of an upcoming musician whose devotion towards his supposed master fails him utterly. Despite their differences, the stories play upon the fundamental binaries between art and life, art and human values, and finally between reality and illusion.
The ingenious strategies of women to deal with the infidelity of their husbands are at the core of other three stories. “The Reckoning” represents how a wife after years of humiliation from the cheating husband finally hatches a plan to settle a score sadistically in the fashion of a detective fiction. “Jogeshwari” is denser in psychological depth and is about the working of the alter-ego of the suffering wife, who takes recourse to black magic to get rid of the insensitive husband. In “The Revenge of Annapurna”, the woman chooses to become too good to be cheated for long, to become the goddess of plenty to fight injustice and to “not only survive, but to live with dignity.” Coming from a woman writer about the predicaments of women and how they bend, twist, undercut, and subvert the norms of being a “good wife” reminds one of Anita Nair’s Ladies Coupe, where six women share the stories of their negotiations and survival in life. However, this collection cannot be called only musically layered or women centric – the two identities that we generally associate with the author, Mitra Phukan. A range of human emotions and experiences have been covered in these thirteen stories and each story in itself offers much more than just one broad brushstroke. For example, stories like “The Homecoming” and “The Gift” depict the experiences of ageing and loneliness, but also assert how memories of good times and the rhythm of everyday life can give a sense of solace in difficult moments. The significance of parent-child relationship is, in fact, at the heart of many other stories. However, the most poignant and at the same time disturbing one is “The Journey” that deals with a less touched upon subject and still lesser opted choices and sacrifices. In contrast, “A Full Night’s Thievery” and “The Ring” are lighter and humorous in tone, and attest to the writer’s capacity to retain the interest of the readers without taking recourse to serious emotions and feelings.
If one believes that the narratives by Assamese writers should be Assam-centric, then this collection may disappoint them a little. While stories like “The Choice”, “The Journey”, “The Tabla Player” are not set in Assam, in many others, like “Eklavya” “A Full Night’s Thievery” Assamese history, folk culture, and Assamese lore form a part of the background only. “The Spring Song” and “A Long Journey” are the two stories where the local flavour is foregrounded and there are direct references to the unrest that mar the state of Assam. Both are about young and vigorous Assamese women, who make unconventional and even risky choices for themselves, despite being fully aware of the dire consequences. While one decides to move away from an incarcerating relationship, the other decides to fight back those who extorted much more than just money from her. “The Spring Song” gives a beautiful picture of Bohag and the Bohagi songs, something which every Assamese holds very close to his heart, and the other one with references to bomb blasts, violence, and extortions become an equally familiar experience for the locals. Frequent allusions to familiar Indian myths and mythological figures like Eklavya, Kali, Durga give the collection a kind of broader range, and at the same time the use of local Assamese terms like Daktor babu, Tridib ukil, daroga babu, the mastor and mastorni, Ajoy Dukani, etc. give a local favour to the stories. In fact, regional Assamese words like dhuti sador, alna, mekhela sador, Biya-Naam are used unapologetically and rightfully, too.
Here we have stories of unique individuals, who are surely shaped by the society, but do not represent any specific social issue. More than being stories of social problems, these are stories of personal life that unfold without ever being registered in histories. The protagonists are commonplace people with their own virtues and weaknesses, and their unique capacity to deal with a challenging situation in life. This is one of the reasons why even when the distinction between rationality and irrationality, reasons and superstition is blurred at times, as the readers go through the stories, the choices and actions of the characters come across as the most natural responses to their lived experience. For example, in “The Choice” the myth of the curse upon the Rudra Veena becomes real for the musician who finally chooses his son’s life over the Veena. The protagonist of “The Reckoning” is sure that by indulging in her craving for revenge, she has invited disaster, “Tempted Fate. Given ideas to the Gods.” Rationality is challenged at much larger scale in the story titled, “Jogeshwari”, where a medieval devotee of Kali successfully performs black magic to avenge her wronged mistress.
As a whole, this collection, just like any other artistic form, offers a lot and misses out on many aspects at the same time. Most importantly, coming from a woman writer from Northeast India, it comes as a breath of fresh air, for not being solely about women and other clichéd aspects, like insurgency, terrorism, and violence per se. Mitra Phukan deserves accolades for doing this offbeat job with a sense of musicality. A Full Night’s Thievery is not only starkly inviting, but it also has the power to leave a lasting impression on the minds of the readers with memorable lines such as: “Music is a harsh taskmaster, one that does not acknowledge the ties of friendship or family”; “Like any other self-respecting town, it [Rupohi] had a thief as well. For having a local thief was a marker of the affluence of the town itself”; “One can battle injustice, evil, badness. But how can one battle a sense of duty, and just plain goodness?” and many others.
A Tapestry of Evocative Images
Review by Dr. Bibhash Choudhury
Arrestingly suave, Mitra Phukan’s new book of short stories, A Full Night’s Thievery is a riveting read.
Capturing locale with the artist’s fine hand, Phukan’s tapestry bears the distinctive signature of a writer whose creative powers and understanding of contemporary reality coalesce to produce a book of remarkable fiction.
In her appended note to the book, Phukan traces the genesis of these stories to situations that were grounded in personal knowledge, yet their presence in the form of fictional narratives make them products of a vibrant imaginative journey.
” Several of them were inspired by real- life incidents and characters, but they are not biography or history. They are, unquestionably, fiction.
The characters and incidents that insisted on coming out onto the pages are from my imagination, though they have roots in real life in some way: a word heard here, an incident witnessed there, a riveting expression on a person’s face, an observed relationship… These have all been triggers, over the years, which led me to the stories.” Using the power of suggestive irony — as in “The Revenge of Annapurna” — and the engaging forcefulness of a collective discourse — as in “The Long Drive” — the stories in this collection showcase the verve of the individual spirit in ways that display the writer’s outstanding control over the medium.
As a book imbued with the land’s ambience, Phukan’s choice of language variations exemplify not just appropriateness — diction designed to convey the distinct cultural nuance — the words also carry the weight of a socially- endowed vision.
Mere arrangement never suffices to serve the purpose of representation, and Phukan’s adept verbal knowledge of the narrative medium, along with an adaptive use of local idiom, grant the prose a naturalness, which makes the reader feel refreshingly at home.
Phukan’s penchant for tracking the feel of the place, as much as the temporal circumstance associated with it, comes through with great clarity in the title story: ” The late forties of the last century. The air was clean and the streets uncrowded. True, there were very few cars in the town, people preferring mostly to walk it to nearby places. At a pinch, they would cycle to work, or perhaps take a rickshaw. Even so, there was an air of spaciousness about this little town of Rupohi in Western Assam that was not seen in too many places in the state, even at that time.” The cinematic description is more than a narrative asset, it enhances the visual dimension with a slice- of- history mark, and brings to life a world whose way of life connects the contemporary with that of its immediate past.
“The Reckoning” offers an opening up of the parent- child territory, traversed through the tough ordeal of value searching, and it is a test of mettle, of the quiet that deals with the stormy exterior of life: “Boyhood had fallen away from Rahul that morning, as she had looked helplessly on, unable to speak, numb with a double- edged dagger in her heart. Like greedy hands stripping away a warm garment from another person on a cold morning, his father’s actions had stripped innocence and security away from Rahul.”
A Full Night’s Thievery is a book to hold on to, its narrative spaces replete with life- visions of striking beauty and elegance. With the sense of recognizable reality attending the stories, it is the feeling of a worthy read that lingers, the craft behind it quietly empowering the experience that each fictional account depicts.
Stories set in Places of Great Scenic and Serene Beauty in Assam
Review by Saikat Niyogi
These tales, set in small-town Assam, speak of torments and desires, and are soaked in music. Varied styles mark out the modern masters of the short story—the compressed richness of Alice Munro and Tessa Hadley, the dialogic profundity of Raymond Carver and James Salter, the pulsating rhythms of Richard Ford and Lorrie Moore and the impressionistic allusiveness of the recently deceased Irishman, William Trevor. But Mitra Phukan is not a stylist; she tells her stories in a simple, direct style.
All of her stories in this collection are set in and around small-town Assam, though the author is niggardly in giving much local detail. Most have a deep anguish hanging over them, and trauma and sadness are borne into the narratives by characters. Phukan’s women are often wronged, or lonely; the men are often in thrall of weaknesses they helplessly pander to. Instincts, natural and supernatural, often drive events; swiftly moving prose drives headlong towards a satisfying resolution. All this is a counterpoint to the untarnished charm of small-town Assam, places of great scenic, and serene, beauty. Assam’s troubled years of insurgency, and its usual undergrowth of crime, rear their heads too: the rich are “touched by gun-toting youths”, forests “bristle with guns”, banks battle extortion and bomb blasts hurl shrapnels of misery into the future. Phukan describes food and clothes with exactitude and the foliage with great enthusiasm.
A Full Night’s Thievery is a sympathetic and humorous account of an expert thief with a “watertight alibi” who comes undone on an Amavasya night; in The Reckoning, an unhappy mistress of a grand tea estate is forced to disclose her plot of psychological terror, directed at her adulterous husband, when her teenage son is kidnapped by insurgents; in The Gift a widower contemplates a garden fallen into barrenness after the death of his wife, and receives two gifts in the course of a radiant spring morning; The Rings is about a rich businessman who gets his just deserts for his total reliance on astrology. In Spring Song, an NRI, back in Assam for Bihu, directs a hard gaze back on her youthful relationship, while in The Revenge of Annapurna, a wife reacts to her writer husband’s unfaithfulness by turning herself into a bounteous domestic goddess, thus isolating him in his illicit passion.
Yet these tales, engaging enough, suffer from a mundane literalness, as if an intention to tell her tales straight out, with a minimum of artifice, imparts a flatness that fails to satisfy a demanding reader. Sometimes, one feels that Phukan’s world isn’t fully realized. For example, in A Full Night’s Thievery, set in the late ’40s, Phukan had an opportunity to bring to life a bygone world with craftily embedded particularities (old ways of doing things, say, or a long-dead brand of hair oil). By nimbly gliding over her frameworks, Phukan has passed over chances of fully fleshing out her milieu.
There is, however, no place for such quibbles in The Journey and Jogeshwari. The former closely observes characters in a closeted AC compartment of a moving train, with the author manipulating interest through deft changes of perspective. In a story where the narrative moves with cinematic rapidity, Phukan’s qualities are on full display. The terrifying end falls like a blow of hammer. Jogeshwari, meanwhile, is a darkly effective tale of witchcraft, possession and the retribution a wronged wife brings upon her famous husband with aid from the world beyond. Phukan’s imaginative world is one of sudden silences, secret longings and anathemas, and unspoken emotions.
It’s in the stories about music that Phukan—a trained classical vocalist—hits the high notes effortlessly. Ekalavya is a cynically troubling confession of a ‘cultural correspondent’, but it’s really about the single-minded devotion of Rishabh, a sitarist, for Pt. Deenbandhu Mishra, an international star who deigns to visit their town for a concert. The ardent follower prepares a special composition for a test of discipleship; his idol is cruelly unsparing in his gurudakshina. The Choice is a near-perfect act of ventriloquism, where a famous player of the rudra veena, in an address to an unnamed, unseen benefactor of music, explains how the long fingers of an ancient curse attached to the instrument has made him want to give it up, and much of his life with it. In The Tabla Player, Ram Kumar, drunk with music, cannot tear himself from a soiree, and tragically stands up his pregnant widow.
Phukan is a writer of the inner life; she excels in the slow unfolding of the processes of the heart—not its conflicts, however, but it’s slow movement towards a certain direction. Great rivers dominate landscapes, lives and imaginations. Phukan’s stories unfold before the serene presence of the Brahmaputra. It slips in and out, always near at hand, a witness to the human comedy unfolding by its shores. At its best, Phukan’s prose approaches that lucid poise.
Here is the link to the source:
Like the warmth from the winter sun, Phukan’s writing warms the cockles of your heart with her emotion-laden storytelling, but leaves you with some harsh realities of life.
Review by Dipankar Mukherjee
A Full Nights Thievery is a collection of simple tales about life, stories that take you to the land of Bihu, the voice of Kuli, and the greens of Assam. The writer easily steers the reader into worlds that are seldom known to people outside Assam. For those who know these places, the people and the ambience, the book will surely create nostalgia and for those who don’t know much, like me, it becomes a journey of discovery that draws the reader into itself. Phukan has captured the nuances of life in Assam, be it the setting of small towns, the bounty of Nature or the presence of arms. She has managed to capture a diverse set of emotions and human predicaments through these thirteen stories.
The first thing that strikes you is a generous doze of music and instruments in the collection. Given Phukan’s background in classical music, this was not a surprise. Four out of the thirteen stories are based on music and musicians. From how one falls prey to superstitions, to the prevalance of abuse of power and position by the high and mighty, these four stories present a good view of the art and artist. Names of instruments like the Surbahar and names of raags makes one yearn for some music.
The next thing that one observes is the way Phukan has brought out strong feminine voices in a very subtle way. Majority of the stories have women protagonists. Three stories have brought out the angst of a wife who has been cheated or neglected. In each of these stories, she, once again, weaves in interesting facets of life – a glimpse of black magic, parts of Assam is known for, vengefulness resulting in wrongdoing and strength of self-belief. Another one, Spring Song brings out the confident stand of a woman blamed for deceit. The last story in the collection, A Long Drive brings out the psyche of a modern woman who has been at the receiving end of tragedy, her fears and her apprehensions.
The common thread across all the stories is the believable characters that the reader can empathise with. Phukan has built them with utmost care capturing their emotions, especially those of women characters.
One may not place this collection in the category of fast reads with a lot of pace, yet the slow and steady progress in each of the stories is akin to the brew of Assam tea that simmers to its perfection at an unhurried pace. The narration calms you, and creates a beautiful laid-back imagery of the north eastern world and lets you enjoy the perspectives that Phukan brings out – Truth that lies beneath the calm surface of life can be difficult but necessary to be dealt with, for time to move on and bring closure to many of life’s inner conflicts.
Read this book to search for yourself, hidden somewhere within its pages. It brings a soothing effect to one who is looking for good literature.
This review was first published on Readomania.com
Other reviews of the book can be read at the following links: