The June 2013 publication of Aruni Kashyap’s The House with a Thousand Stories (henceforth House) and the author’s subsequent articles and interviews have put the spotlight back on the infamous period of the ‘secret killings’ in Assam. A recurring issue in the public sphere in Assam, but rarely discussed in a pan-Indian context, the ‘secret killings’ were a spate of extra-judicial killings between 1998 and 2001 which targeted mainly militants, their kinsfolk (both near and distant) and suspected sympathisers of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA). Ostensibly a retaliatory measure deployed by the surrendered ULFA militants (SULFA) as a counter to the acts of violence committed against them by their former comrades, and also aided and abetted by the state machinery, the secret killings were a brutal counter-insurgency tactic that followed a recurring, recognisable pattern. SULFA members, assisted by state security forces, would pick up their victims without warning at night. More often than not, the corpses would be found the next day. There were also incidents of entire families related to ULFA militants being gunned down at night.
This was the tragic fate of Umakanta Gogoi and his family, who were wiped out on the night of 11 September 1999 in Borbil Gaon, in Assam’s Sibsagar district. Dismembered body parts of people who were made to ‘disappear’ turned up in the Brahmaputra and in the numerous beels (swamps) and embankments across Assam. These murders also led to a cycle of revenge killings by the ULFA, the most well-known probably being the Moran Polo Ground encounter of 2001, in which many SULFA leaders from Sibsagar and Dibrugarh were assassinated. The K N Saikia Commission, which was set up to investigate these incidents, largely put the blame on then-Chief Minister Prafulla Mahanta, although the state police, the army and the SULFA were possibly jointly responsible.
Literature and the experience of violence
Detailed critical and scholarly analyses of the ‘secret killings’ are still rare, and studies of the impact of this cycle of violence on ordinary life in Assam are virtually non-existent. In the dearth of such studies, cultural artefacts from the region – such as literature – remain one of the most powerful sites for studying the ways that violence was experienced by ordinary people. Works like House give narrative and figurative shape to the experiences of terror undergone by populations inhabiting zones of emergency.
I compare House’s representation of the impact of the period of the ‘secret killings’ with a major Assamese fictional work on the ‘secret killings’ period: Arupa Patangia Kalita’s novella Arunimar Swades (Arunima’s Own Country, 2001). Kashyap has mentioned in an interview that he wants to write “Assamese novels in English”. House manages to do something which very few novels or fictional works in English from Northeast India have done successfully: it creates a very vivid sense of place as far as rural Assam is concerned. For these reasons alone, House could be read alongside the long tradition of depicting rural life in Assamese fiction. However, I am more concerned here with the fictional representation of experiences of fear in times of terror like the period of the ‘secret killings’. Therefore, I think the crucial comparison that needs to be made here is with Kalita’s powerful novella. Both Arunimar Swades and House show that attempts at representing such scenarios of state terror through ‘realist’ registers invariably conjure the uncanny aspects that structure categories such as the ‘everyday’ and the ‘ordinary’. The two texts conjure these aspects by making their narrative structures blend with the codes of fantasy, magic, dreams and rumour. I don’t think, therefore, that it is a coincidence that one of the most powerful representations of the ‘secret killings’ – Arunimar Swades – describes masked gunmen as mayabi hotyakari (magical killers).
Furthermore, the value of reading texts such as House and Arunimar Swades is not just to retrieve information about states of fear experienced in a so-called national ‘periphery’. The idea of peripherality, after all, is produced by the state, and such discourses have a real impact on peoples’ lives. Cultural productions on periods such as those of the ‘secret killings’ teach us that the state of emergency we live in is not an exception, but could very well be a form of rule. What happened in the distant ‘periphery’, seemingly in another time and another age, is once again happening in India in 2013 with the Ishrat Jahan encounter case back in the headlines. Maybe an encounter with such texts from ‘peripheral’ regions can reveal how the imperatives and practices of terror deployed by the security state can potentially impact and stunt the everyday lives of all its citizenry.
A story of circular paths
Arunimar Swades is based on the massacre of Umakanta Gogoi’s family in 1999. This emotionally wrenching novella is a story of two journeys made by the protagonist, Arunima, and the aftermath of these journeys. The story is told not from a first-person perspective, but through Arunima’s perceptions, which are emphasised strongly by powerful sensual motifs, and are the portal through which we witness events unfold. Arunima makes the first journey from her natal place to her husband Abhinash’s house as a new bride; later, she undertakes the same journey once again, but this time with her new born son in tow, towards the end of the novel. The situations that unfold after the first journey occupy most of the novel.
Arunima arrives as a new bride to Abhinash’s joint homestead, a house with a beautiful flower garden tended by her father-in-law and two younger sisters-in-law, Baby and Omi. Her mother-in-law and youngest brother-in-law, Rupam, are the other members of the family. Arunima settles into her new home harmoniously, the only glitch in the first few months being Abhinash’s brooding and solitary unnamed second brother, who a few months after Arunima’s arrival, leaves home and joins an underground militant organisation. Both Arunima and her mother-in-law suggest that a mayabi jui (magical fire) mesmerises and summons Abhinash’s brother – a foreshadowing of the real and metaphorical fires that will touch, singe and destroy the lives of everyone soon enough.
Incidents of violence increase in the small town in the week prior to 15 August (India’s Independence Day), leading to a raid by the army in search of the militant brother-in-law, which is followed by a clandestine nighttime visit by four of his comrades. These two incidents terrify the household and the now-pregnant Arunima. Terror turns the everyday routine of the household topsy-turvy – the people who regularly sleep at ten and wake at the crack of dawn now spend sleepless nights, wary of any sound. On 13 August a bomb explosion at the nearby oil pipeline rocks the town. Arunima’s entire household flees in terror, as do the other townspeople. However, like bonor sorai (birds of the wild) they return to their homestead and slowly begin to bring back a semblance of normalcy to their disrupted lives.
This slowly restored state of the ‘normal’, however, does not last long. Besides the occasional visit by the army, different members of the family begin to notice unknown men observing them. Baby is harassed by one of her brother’s surrendered comrades. They are slowly ostracised by the terror-stricken townspeople. Masked men – referred to as sayamurti manuh (shadow men) –begin tailing them, Abhinash fortuitously escapes a kidnap attempt, a bullet grazes Rupam’s leg, their dog is poisoned, camouflaged men observe Baby and Omi washing dishes in the courtyard, and Arunima hears whispers, murmurs and the sound of boots of unidentified men near her window.
Meanwhile, the family is thrown into a state of panic by media reports and rumours of assassinations of surrendered militants and counter-violence against the militants’ family members. Terrified, they send the heavily pregnant Arunima back to her mother’s house. Her son is born there and she waits impatiently to return. When she does eventually make the trip back to her husband’s home, her car passes through the same places she remembers from her first journey as a young bride. However, there is a striking difference: the town seems deserted, funereal, death-like. As the car takes the familiar turn towards the household known for its beautiful flower garden, she sees a crowd of people and a lot of army personnel in front of it. A powerful bomb had gutted the entire household, killing everyone in it. Dismembered body parts are strewn all around and the charred remains of bodies are ferreted out of the devastated ruins. The story ends with a horror-struck Arunima muttering “Your…your…” to her infant son, trying but failing to identify an image of her loved ones in the remains of dismembered human matter.
Arunimar Swades has an intense structure, in which important motifs introduced at the beginning resonate and mutate throughout the middle and end. Seemingly banal statements strewn across the text gesture towards the emotionally shattering closure, and illustrate the play of opposites within a single motif. Thus, Arunima’s admonition to the terrified Baby as they flee from the first bomb blast on 13 August – “Baby! However large the fire, it cannot reduce the entire world to ash” – assumes an ominous ring towards the end as we see Arunima’s world literally reduced to ash.
Furthermore, the structure of Arunimar Swades is circular: at the end we return to the beginning through verbal and situational echoes. The axis of smell and the axis of dreams are two motifs that exemplify this circular structure.
Consider first the axis of smell. The plot begins with a description of the smells that waft into Arunima’s nose as she drifts in and out of sleep while travelling as a new bride. The pleasant, intoxicating fragrances of flowers, jewellery, sandalwood, turmeric, perfume and the materials used in the wedding ceremony are layered with the distinctive smell of dried basil, marigold and the drying turmeric smeared lightly on Abhinash’s chest. Miming Arunima’s state of lassitude, the narrator twice emphasises aru eku nai (nothing more) at this point, and compares her experience of the smell to the twisting movements of a white kandhuli fish that keeps surfacing and then disappearing beneath the shimmering water. The repetition of the refrain aru eku nai and the image of the white fish – symbolising life, movement and joy in this initial section – resonate in melancholic and maleficent ways later in the text. For instance, one of the first things the family notices upon returning home after the blast on 13 August is that the surface of their pond is rendered white because of the floating carcasses of many dead fish. The whiteness of the fish transforms into a symbol of death. The image of the family being surrounded by dead fish is also used to signify the creeping social death endured by Arunima and her in-laws. Similarly, after Arunima’s son is born in her mother’s house and she sees Abhinash’s family for what will be the last time, the memory of the smell of dried basil, marigold and drying turmeric comes back to her.
The axis of smell comes full circle at the end of the story when a strange odour of burning matter assaults Arunima’s nose as the car takes the familiar turning towards the house. Like the carcasses of the floating dead fish, mere inert matter which is later buried, she witnesses bundles of burnt, unrecognisable flesh and dismembered body parts being retrieved from the ruins and then thrown together, undifferentiated, in a pile. However, while the pond is later cleaned and new fish introduced, who or what will replace the cinders of this destroyed world?
Similarly, the motifs that circulate around the axis of dreams also illustrate the destruction of Arunima’s world. The repeated account of two dreams and the differences between them reveal how Arunima’s world is gradually unmade. These two dreams are connected to two important motifs representing domestic work: the garden and the beehive.
The first dream is described just before the account of the blast on 13 August. Arunima nods off to sleep and dreams of a garden with colourful strings shimmering like a spider’s web in empty space. A tiny girl with red ribbons approaches Arunima, running through the flowers and the strings. However, this pleasant idyll is broken by a deafening blast – the red ribbons of the dream segue into a frightening red glow in the distance as Arunima tries to gain her bearings. The sudden fade-in between dream and reality represents one of the first instances, after the first visit from the army, where terror infiltrates the gentle, slowly-moving rhythms of Arunima’s idyllic everyday life. The terrifying ‘outside’ begins to tear down the boundaries that demarcate the ‘inside’ – of her home and her psychological well-being. As Arunima escapes from the devastation, the red of the stringy ‘cobweb’ and the ribbons keep shimmering in front of her eyes.
After the return of Arunima’s family to the house, the garden, along with the fishery, begins to represent a space for the renewal of life, symbolised by the colour red. Rupam and Baby try to grow new flowers and organise the garden once again. Rupam cordons off a space with white limestone for Baby to grow flowers. From the town, he also brings a sapling that he says will bear ronga ronga juir ladu jen phul (flowers like red fiery globules). On the morning of Arunima’s departure to her mother’s house, she notices that one portion of the cultivated soil in the garden tended to by Baby resembles the delicate texture of fish eggs. Just before Arunima leaves, Baby says that a lot of flowers will greet her nephew’s return to the house. Instead of new flowers, however, splinters and burning fragments of construction materials scattered across the courtyard greet the first entry of Arunima’s son to the house.
The second dream – or rather nightmare – occurs during the brief period of calm and normalcy after the first blast. To harvest honey, Rupam smokes the beehive that had formed in the ou (elephant apple) tree in their yard. Arunima and her sisters-in-law vehemently oppose this, asking whether the bees strenuously build their hive only to have it destroyed? That night, Arunima dreams she is chasing the beehive only for it to fly further and further from her. She wakes up screaming that all the bees are dead. Although she is reassured by everyone that the beehive still hangs on the ou tree, her comments about the labour involved in building the structure and her screams about the death of the bees foreshadow what will happen later.
The members of the family had first noticed the beehive around three months after Arunima and Abhinash’s marriage. Arunima’s father-in-law says that its construction is a good omen for the household. He also says that its construction coincides with the entrance of Lokkhi (the goddess Lakshmi) into the house, simultaneous events that he says have brought blessings. The cultural significance of the griha Lakshmi entering and blessing the household – associated with the arrival of a new bride – draws upon a model of the good or desirable form of life and sociability, according to scholar Constantina Rhodes. This idea of living the good life is expanded when the narrator says that, for Arunima, this orderly, close-knit household resembles the organisation of the beehive. The bees’ orderly labour is directly compared to the fastidious daily routine of the household, one that will soon be thrown out of joint by the enveloping atmosphere of terror.
Only the unnamed second brother-in-law seems to be out of place in this intricate structure. In the beginning, Arunima compares his presence to the fragment of a beehive that has been torn away by a greedy crow. At the end, a dismembered fragment of a man’s hand is found exactly where the beehive used to be. Thus, the magical fire (mayabi jui) that summons the ill-fitting fragment of the family to the hills boomerangs and reduces the once-orderly structure of Arunima’s cherished beehive to ashes. The mesmerising fire summons someone ‘outside’ only to gain a devastating entry into the once-secure and idyllic ‘inside’. The traumatic impact of the return of the mayabi jui on the witness is evident in the shuttle at the end of the story between instantly understanding and yet being unable to comprehend the horrific scenario. This shuttle is poignantly underscored in the discrepancy between the fantastic yarns Arunima spins about the rest of the family members for her infant son prior to her second journey, and her inability to articulate anything else but “Your…your…” when she comes face to face with the gruesome spectacle of burnt, inanimate and dismembered human matter in her destroyed and smoky beehive.
Novel of memory
Unlike Arunimar Swades, House is a novel of memory. The adult narrator, Pablo, looks back at versions of his younger self. The plot, like Kalita’s novella, is a story of two journeys made by Pablo to Hatimura village in the Mayong region in Assam. The first journey, made in 1998, is for a funeral; the second, in 2002, for a wedding. House is at once a novel about growing up – a richly detailed and evocative picture of rural life in Assam – and an exploration of the climate of fear that prevailed during the secret killings.
The narrative space in House can be divided into a foreground and a background. The foreground presents the story of Pablo growing up, his experiences in Hatimura during the funeral of his father’s cousin (Bolen bortta) in 1998, and the numerous complications besetting the wedding of his aunt (Moina pehi) in 2002. Throughout the novel, terror (the stringing up of the dismembered corpse of the brother of an ULFA leader on a lamp post; the liquidation of the family of a surrendered militant, Hiren Das; the brief recounting of the village girl Mamoni’s rape by four military men, the horror she experiences when an army contingent enters the courtyard of their house) shockingly bursts through and disturbs the foreground of family squabbles, love, friendship, and ordinary village life.
On an initial reading, the relegation of tales of terror to the background and their fleeting appearances may appear unsatisfactory. But as the story is told from the relatively insulated perspective of a city boy, it is towards the close of the text that he (and the reader) begins to piece together the impact of the atmosphere of terror on ordinary life in the village.
Incidentally, Mayong is considered the seat of the occult in Assam, though in a review of House, Sanjukta Sharma notes that the fabled Mayong is rendered “remarkably ordinary”. However, the ordinariness of village life in Mayong is also juxtaposed with the dimensions of the occult and the “extraordinary”. This strategy of juxtaposing the ordinary with the occult effectively maps Pablo’s growing consciousness of the links between everyday and exceptional forms of terror. The effects of state terror are illustrated poignantly through Moina pehi, who dies because of the panic induced by a rumour about her husband’s family. However, the encounter with exceptional forms of terror also colours Pablo’s understanding of the other major death in the narrative. Anamika, the girl with whom Pablo has an affair, is said to have stepped on “terrains she shouldn’t have” when she crossed a little curve near an electric pole in 2002. Everyone in the village avoided the curve because in 1998 the body of the brother of a ULFA member from a nearby village was found strung up a nearby electric pole. Clad only in red underwear, his legs and fingers amputated, the corpse fell exactly on the curve. People avoided that spot because they felt that his ghost would enter their souls. Thus, when Pablo is suddenly filled with a “strange sense of fear” for Anamika because she had stepped on a “portion of the ground which a blood-spattered body had drenched with blood,” does this prefigure Anamika’s own death “in a pool of blood, after a long night of bleeding” when she is forced to abort her (and possibly Pablo’s) baby? To be sure, recognition of such ‘occult’ coincidences only arises through acts of retrospection. But, could we also say that Pablo’s statements about Anamika reveal a heightened sensitivity that connects exceptional and everyday forms of terror, especially those visited on the bodies of women?
House’s exploration of occult dimensions, however, goes beyond magical transmutations of seemingly ordinary occurrences, and is also manifested in the distinction instituted between ‘rumour’ and ‘storytelling’. Pablo forcefully underscores the connection between rumour and alternative realities when he says: “Rumors inevitably destroy all happiness in weddings. But with the girip-garap sounds of boots, with the fratricidal violence in the state, I guess such rumors became verdicts, alternative realities, faceless voices turned real”.
Historian Gyanendra Pandey has written about the “infectious” potential of rumour as a mode of communication. Infection connotes all sorts of other actions: invasion, proliferation, transmission, uncontrollable excess. Pablo suggestively presents the excessive dimensions of rumour and its capability to create panic and fear by setting up a distinction between ‘writing’ and ‘speaking’. The papers, he says “wrote about the ULFA. What they did; how they killed people; how they were killed themselves; how they set up schools and libraries…” However, everyone only “spoke about the SULFA, didn’t write about them. How they roamed about carrying guns. How they married whomever they wanted to…How they started new business enterprises and generated employment for the local youth. How friendly they were with the political leaders…” Writing endows the saga of the ULFA with a substantial presence. On the other hand, the SULFA existed in a shadowy paralegal realm – no one wrote about them (“except in a few short stories”). Instead, hearsay about their excesses was passed on like an infection, creating and proliferating panic and fear.
No wonder then that House opens with a description of a rumour-monger par excellence –Pablo’s cousin, Anil-da – and closes with a reflection on storytelling. Pablo realises that, like him, the rumour-monger is an avatar of the storyteller. Although rumours arrived at a wedding “like unwanted guests,” much depended on how the story was told. Like an engaging storyteller, Anil-da could create tense situations with his ability to “inspire curiosity”. However, Pablo outlines a key distinction between storytelling and the infectious potential of rumour:
Anil-da wasn’t a great storyteller. He didn’t know the truth behind great stories, and that was why the story he brought into the wedding on the day of the juron…only spread panic and suspense. There was no possibility of redemption in his tale. There wasn’t an iota of hope in it. But, the truth is, life goes on and stories have to end, and yet not end…
Pablo seems to be saying that storytelling communicates a form of experience, a proposal about the continuity of life to the audience. This process is open-ended: even though the story closes, it does not end. There is always a strong possibility that it will be relayed and continued. On the other hand, always arriving from an indeterminable elsewhere, rumour, to paraphrase Pandey, generalises, exalts to an extraordinary status, and employs the sweeping and apocalyptic terms of deluges and just desserts. Anil-da, with a “sullen” face, narrates such a sweeping story, which he hears from “somebody in the market” (emphasis mine), to a shocked audience on the day before the wedding – that the younger brother of Moina’s prospective husband had joined the ULFA, that the family had lied about his being in Delhi, that this same younger brother had been tortured by the army.
The responses by the audience to this rumour, given the bloody background of the secret killings, are predictably apocalyptic – “It’s better to cut our Moina into pieces and throw her body into the river than marry her off to a groom whose younger brother is a rebel!” Already entrapped within a vicious patriarchal logic, the “old maid” Moina was presented with very few choices other than marrying her much older groom (the alternative was to remain a spinster like her elder sister Oholya). But, she is so terrified that “she would be raped during combing operations by army men, whom she feared more than death” that she consumes phenyl on the night of the wedding. One of these raped women, Pablo reminds us, is Mamoni, “who had screamed and fainted, leaving behind a pale yellow trail, when she had heard the sounds of boots marching girip-garap”.
Squeezed between two oppressive systems – that of patriarchy and the sovereign power of the state-apparatus – Pablo vividly recreates Moina’s entrapment in a state of fear in a passage which shows how voice (logos) can be reduced to noise (phone) in an economy of terror: “There is government suchrumours come to all wedding houses myparents heard the groom already hadawifw there is law and order mychild, please don’t behave likethis do you want to remain an old maid likeme there is lawandorder inthiscountry this is just a small rumo urplease don’tcrysuchru mourco met oallwedd…” The narrative voice tries to mime the cacophony of noises, accentuated by the periodic repetition of “such rumours”, in Moina’s terrified imagination, and thus renders the shrinking and destruction of her world real and tangible. Although Moina somehow makes it through the marriage ceremony because of a hastily administered lavage, her dead body is brought back from her husband’s place the next day “like garbage”. The spectral but imperative afterlife of the rumour, and the panic and fear that follows in its wake, renders Moina’s tragic, unfinished story (along with that of Anamika’s) one that haunts Pablo over and over again, probably leading to the desire to retrace and continue the stories in the very first place.
Reading and engaging with texts like Arunimar Swades and House can propel forgotten or unknown events that happened in a so-called peripheral ‘background’ into the centre-stage of national conversation, reminding us that what happened ‘there’ uncannily repeats itself in the ‘here’ and the now. The narrative structures and subject matter of such texts remind us of the famous last lines from Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog: “Those of us who pretend to believe that all this happened only once, at a certain time and in a certain place, and those who refuse to see, who do not hear the cry…” In this context, it would be appropriate, I think, to conclude with a paraphrase and transposition of a famous Conradian statement: the task of Arunimar Swades and House is to make us hear, to make us feel and to make us see. A modest proposal perhaps, but a necessary one, I feel, in these times when staged killings are once again back in the spotlight.
~ Amit R. Baishya teaches in the Department of English at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. He is currently completing a book on literary representations of terror and survival from India’s northeastern region.