It was late in the afternoon that we reached Guwahati on 27 January, a beautiful sunny day. The winter chill hadn’t quite set in. It was festive season in Assam, being celebrated with all sorts of local rice cakes or pithas around the state. I had these pithas last time I came to Assam and the festive feel lingered on.
Shaheen Akhter and I had come from Bangladesh to join the Brahmaputra Literary Fest. This was the first time this festival had been organized. It was held on 28, 29 and 30 January 2017 at the Srimanta Sankerdev Kalakshetra premises in Guwahati.
The girl who came to pick me up at the airport is called Mehjabeen. Another girl came for Shaheen. The organizers had involved college students as volunteers. Two cars had come to the airport for us. It was a pleasant and sunny ride to our hotel, Taj Vivanta. All the visiting writers had thus been brought in, some even provided with security. The boy assigned to me was Prasanta Deka. He was always close at hand wherever I went at the fest. His duty only ended after dropping me off at the airport on 31 January. When I gave him a little gift, this boy beamed at me and said, come again.
This security arrangement at a literary fest was a new experience for me. I asked some of the organizers about it, but they evaded a direct answer, laughing it off with, “we have to see to the safety of our foreign guests.” I didn’t press any further.
On 24 November 2016 I received a letter from Dr Reeta Chowdhury, Director of the National Book Trust of India. It read:
The National Book Trust (NBT), India an autonomous organization under the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India is organizing a literary festival at Guwahati, Assam from 28-30 January 2017 in collaboration with publication Board, Assam and Department of Education, Government of Assam.
The Festival propose to bring together prominent personalities, celebrities, writers, thinkers, artists and performing artists both from the northeast and across the country as well as from abroad. It will include panel discussions, conversations, reading sessions, book signing sessions.
This mail comes to you with the express purpose of seeking your convenience and availability on these dates, to enable us to format the festival. On hearing from you, we will be sending you the details.
Looking forward to your reply”
I visited Assam the first time in January 2016 to attend a literary conference organized by the Natun Shahitya Parishad. That was outside Guwahati, in Manikpur of Bangaigaon district. I was thrilled at the prospect of visiting Assam again and readily accepted Reeta Chowdhury’s invitation. It is a joy to meet so many writers at literary conferences. Interacting with writers of various languages, men and women, expands the horizon of thought, enriches our literary existence.
I came down to the reception in Taj Vivanta Hotel after a cup of tea and saw a woman was checking in to Room 423. I remarked that was the room next to mine, 425. She laughed and asked me my name. I said I was Selina Hossain from Bangladesh. She enthusiastically said she had a session with me and that she had googled to find out all about me. “I’m Rami Chhabra,” she said, “I’ve come from Delhi.” I said I was pleased to meet her. She asked me to join her for a cup of tea and we went up together. Her pleasant demeanour belied her years.
The next morning was the opening ceremony. We arrived at the Srimanta Sankerdev Kalakshetra premises on time. It was an expansive area. The Assam Tribune had published a supplement about the programme that day. The festival was to be inaugurated by the Indian central government’s Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar. With him were Assam’s Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal and Education Minister Dr Himanta Biswa Sarma. My attention was caught by the names of three writers. One was a renowned Japanese writer Randy Tagchi. The second was Damodar Mauzo of Goa who wrote in the Konkani language. And the third was poet Mamang Dai of Arunachal Pradesh. Two of them wrote in their mother tongue. Mamang Dai wrote in English. He was a recipient of the Padmasree award. Meeting them would be so enriching.
The organizers had arranged rallies all the way to the Kalakshetra premises. Cultural activists thronged the roads. There were school children too. Small trucks were also used for all sorts of displays. Artistes took up various poses along the way, depicting various myths, rural rites and rituals. There was Brahmaputra Literary Fest banners everywhere. School and college students streamed to the venue carrying banners. The entire city was throbbing with festivity.
After the customary lamps were lit and songs were sung, the speeches began. The writers spoke, culminating in a speech by the National Book Trust Director Dr Reeta Chowdhury. It was nice to hear the government speakers say that along with material development, they placed importance in cultural development too. They said that unless such development is brought about, human consciousness cannot grow. People are derailed. They said this was the first time the Brahmaputra Literary Fest has been arranged, but it would be held every year from now. There would be special arrangements for students.
There was applause all around. The banners on the stage indicated there were writers of 22 languages at the festival. Over 150 writers had come. Sixty topics would be discussed at 60 sessions.
Then there were cultural programmes, film shows and plays. There would be a river cruise on the last day and poets would read their poems in various languages.
On 28 January, after the inauguration the discussions began. There were six halls erected on the premises. These were named after various writers. The inauguration was held in Bezbaruah Hall. Then there was Tagore Hall, Pandita Ramabai Hall, Premchand Hall, Subramania Bharti Hall, and Nalinibala Devi Hall.
My first session was in Pandita Ramabai Hall. The topic was ‘A Room of Her Own: Women’s Writings.’ This was my pet subject. I believe a writer has no gender and that was the main theme of my talk. A woman will not look at the world only from a woman’s perspective. She has to look at it as a human being. Her writing will reflect human conflicts, challenges and the crises. She cannot narrow her world as a woman. A woman’s creative powers are to view life in entirety. All this must appear in a woman’s creative work. She cannot be put in the slot of a female writer. The audience took to my words. Many of them came up to me and said so. Also present at this session was Tamil writer Salma from Chennai. I knew of her through the newspapers and journals. It was good meeting her. Her novel was the story of her life. I gave her one of my books translated into English.
In the afternoon I chatted with Rami. She was basically a journalist. Her book was published from the National Book Trust. It was a large volume based on long experience. It was called ‘Breaking Ground: Journey into the Media… and Out.’ She gave me a copy of her book. She said, “Tomorrow is our session.” I smiled, “Yes, that’s so. We’ll talk about each other’s writings.” She laughed, “I have experience in journalism. I think our session is going to be very interesting.” I remembered seeing the event in the programme. It was written, ‘Prabuddha Sundar Kar and Urmi Rahman (Moderator) in Conversation with Selina Hossain and Rami Chhabra.’ Prabuddha had come from Tripura and was a Bangla language poet. Poet Muhammad Samad and I had published a collection of Bangla poems of Tripura from Dhaka. Our aim was to expose Bangladesh’s readers to Tripura poets. Prabuddha’s poetry was included in the collection.
I had met the poet from Tripura at the Guwahati literary fest. I had read her poetry before meeting her. Urmi Rahman was a writer from Bangladesh. I’ve known her for around 40 years. She lives in Kolkata now. The two of them were the moderators of our session.
The session was held in the Subramania Bharti Hall. It had a lot of seats and the hall was packed, mostly with young writers. We replied to the many questions of the moderators and then the audience had questions for us too, It was a good session. The audience included writers from Kolkata, Amar Mitra, Bhagirath Mishra and Binod Ghosal. From Assam there were the writer Imran Hossain. There was Basudeb Roy and others. I had met the renowned Assamese writer Imran five years ago at the SAARC writers’ conference in Delhi. His novel had been published in translation by Harper Collins in Delhi. His translated stories were read in two American colleges. Imran’s bright countenance stood out in the crowd. He asked me question about my writings related to the liberation war. At the end of the session, several young writers came up for autographs. They were from Assam and their language was Bangla.
I had no idea that Rami was a poet. Her mother tongue was Punjabi. She was born in 1938 in Dera Ismail Khan of the Northwest Frontier. They migrated from Pakistan after partition. The poem in her book on dealing with journalism was called ‘The sky’s our common boundary, If…’. It was in Punjabi with English translation that read:
These young boys
Neither ours, nor yours,
Were went to adorn coffin-biers
The vigour of their youth
Is the bloom on the progress we each seek to root
It was quite a long poem. She had read it on 26 June 1999 at an event organized by Citizens for Democracy on the 24thanniversary of emergency being imposed. In keeping with its title, the last line of the book read: “But I have come to realize that the journey is not quite over and out, yet. Cannot be, will not be, till it comes to the inevitable end.”
After the session the two of us walked down to Premchand Hall. Rami presented her book to Urmi and Shaheen Akhter. I congratulated her on her book and she warmly embraced me. Literary fests build bridges.
I met Damodar Mauzo at the Tagore Hall. He told me he had met me 12 years ago in Delhi at the South Asian literary conference organized by the Shahitya Academy. I had read a story there. I said that when I saw in the newspaper supplement that he was a Konkani writer, I guessed I had met him before, but wasn’t quite sure. He laughed and gave me a copy of his book. It had won the Shahitya Academy award in 1983.
I congratulated him. The book was called Karmelin and was translated by Vidya Pai. It was about the struggle of a girl, Karmelin, to break out of poverty. I found it close to our own society. The culture, the social system and environment may have been different, but the same picture had been conjured up, the same context. Karmelin could have been any Bangladeshi girl surviving the struggle against poverty. She too takes up a job in Kuwait, only to be sexually abuse by the Arab masters.
I had met Suparna Lahiri before. She was a resident of Assam by marriage, but a Bengali by birth. She has books both in Bangla and Assamese. The book she gave me was called ‘Nadir Naam Nirupoma’, published in Kolkata. I liked her style of writing. It was different, not a typical biography.
Makarand Paranjape was the moderator of the session, ‘A Picture of India: Foreign Perspective’. Makarand wrote poetry, novels and articles in English. He was a professor of English at JNU in Delhi. I was at that session too. He told me he had met me in Jeonju, Morea back in 2007. I happily said, “Yes, it was at the Asian-Africa literary conference in November.” Two other writers I had met long ago in Guwahati also recognized me. I had forgotten about them but their memory was sharp. Such a fest was a literary feast and my happiness knew no bounds.
I was talking to two writers at the dinner organized by NBT on 29 January. They had been sitting at a table when I entered and I joined them. They told me one of my stories had been translated to Assamese and published in a newspaper. They were husband and wife. Professor Upendranath Sharma had taught a college and was now retired. Eliza Sharma has also retired. After chatting for some time, Upendranath said, “We would like to translate one of your novels into Assamese.” I was taken aback. Translate my book? Eliza reached out and pressed my hand, “We want your permission.” I was only too pleased to give my permission. We both said ‘thank you’ in unison.
Before leaving I gave them a copy of my novel ‘Purna Chhobir Mognota’ and asked whether they would like the English translation. But they said the Bangla would be fine because they wanted to translate it from Bangla. They happily went off with the original Bangla version.
On the day of departure, two members of the Natun Shahitya Parishad came to meet me. They said that they had translated my story ‘Motijaner Meye’ into Assamese and it had been published in a newspaper.
It had indeed been a happy visit. I finally left the hotel. Prasanta Deka and the driver took me to the airport. I looked at the houses, the lakes, the hills and the forests as I left Guwahati. The Brahmaputra Literary Fest was over, but remained within me.
[Selina Hossain is a renowned Bangladeshi novelist. She received SAARC Literary Award in 2015 for her contribution to South Asian literature. She is currently the Chairman of Bangladesh Shishu Academy.]