Review by Rini Barman
“They couldn’t stay in a city that I discovered had lost its soul and drowned in a cacophony of disinterested silences. Silences that saw but turned away from the real live ghosts of the land: people — just alive — who would have been better off as ghosts and who are alive only because they could not all be killed.“
To imagine one’s home as a land of specters is most unlikely in a country where homes have traditionally been abodes of cultural bliss and prosperity. Does that mean we are too lethargic to discuss the appearance of death, especially in areas that are witnessing tremendous upheaval (away from the cultural/political mainstream)? Talking about ghosts (also “ghost” ideologies) in real and symbolic terms, Uddipana Goswami’s No Ghosts in This City argues that silences may, in fact, fuel positions worth examining in this context. To illustrate this, she describes how an Other (in the form of witches and ghosts) is created for women in the hills to fear, just so they do not step out of their houses (This tale is also a tale of the hills “otherising” the plains and vice-versa.) In a darkly funny story in No Ghosts in This City, there are people who are rumored to have seen gamusa-wearing ghosts, a hint at the failure of Axomiya nationalist insurgents to create a sovereign socialist Assam. Later in the same story, we get a glimpse of the large number of people who have become complicit in the death of ideologies; in short, their cynicism is directed at the decades of feigned bloodshed in the name of greater freedom.
Uddipana has no illusions about freedom. In fact, according to her, to achieve freedom in the truest sense of the term, we have to identify ourselves in synergistic rather than exclusive ways. Her stories explore hyphenated areas; reminiscent of the term “brisure” that Derrida talks of, a breaking and joining at the same time, a continuous chain of endless location and dislocation. When we think of hyphens in a sentence, we are easily tricked by their structural usage. How can two identities not annihilate themselves to merge into one, but survive with distinct elements from both, thereby questioning the (structural) location of the hyphen itself?
Drawing from the field work that aided her extensive research study Conflict and Reconciliation: The Politics of Ethnicity in Assam, Uddipana’s new book is a kaleidoscopic journey into the mundane, everyday lives of people in Assam. Much as we may want to evade violence, sitting in the comfort zone of our middle-class households, the “indoctrination of militancy” only gets a better chance to flourish under the complicit silence from the greater audience. Throughout the book, the skill with which this silence is woven stays with the reader
The author uses black humor in several stories, often while discussing domestic middle-class values. For example, in the story I Thought I Knew My Ma the protagonist copes up with caste discrimination by “little rebellions”; renouncing the oppressive Brahminical rules and connecting with tribal friends over beef and pork, who also talked of ethnic reconciliation and religious tolerance. The character Jonali tells us in another story I Do Not Love Samthat “her rebellions were always silent” and hence the puritanical convent educators (“Sisters”) never “burnt her carnal poems at stake”. Convents and other Christian institutions also had a role to play in imparting regressive notions in the Assamese society; this much has also been mentioned by writers like Temsula Ao in the past. The material reason parents send their girls to convents is to get lucrative jobs and marry grooms with stable jobs. But the “spiritual reason” amounts to a blind bowing down to puritanical discipline.
In the story This Is How We Lived, we get an insight into how killing becomes a narcotic that surpasses excuses of ethnicity and politics. A Punjabi Army officer, after a soldier under his command brutally shoots a brother and sister returning from school, accuses their parents of not co-operating in his task. Furthermore, the officer comes to pay his respects and blames the act on the terrorists. The story discusses the outsider-insider debate to argue that ultimately, it was blood everyone was lusting for, not a separate land or identity.
Uddipana’s book becomes crucial in this regard; her stories are very conscious of the milieu that they inhabit. Voices generally seen as stigmatized or mutant, get an opportunity to present their side of the story. The world of children for instance, and how they cope up with violence, the scars it leaves in their psyche, are conveyed very powerfully. The Swing presents a poignant and painful picture of Aimoni, who saw her father being shot dead. Elders would take children for granted and never discuss their horror stories with them, but Aimoni would spend her time numb in her swing. Nobody could ever imagine she would manage to kill herself with the swing itself. The swing, then, becomes a perverse tool for freedom from her stifled existence.
Most of the stories are also experiments with language and translation; colloquial memories are kept intact by using regional words for them, a kind of rediscovery of lost meanings. Perceptive and challenging, this book casts an ironic yet affectionate look at the inner realities of a state that seldom features in national dailies in times of dire need.
Published in The Sunday Guardian, Nov. 29, 2014. Link: http://www.sunday-guardian.com/bookbeat/there-is-no-narcotic-more-powerful-than-violence.