Among the contemporary fiction writers of Assamese language, Bhabani Pegu is a new name but she has pocketed a prestigious award by writing her debut novel. Her second novel Oipulir Soponor Desh has found a place in the bestseller list and has created a ripple in the fictional universe of the Assamese language. In this novel, she has used imagination and intellect to create an extremely readable narrative. She has plumbed the depth of psychologically challenged characters to create a subtle and nuanced novel. All kudos to her and in the following conversation with Subhajit Bhadra, she talks about her fiction and life and above all her recent creation.
Q. 1. Childhood as a formative phase of life is always important in the growth of a person. Kindly tell us in detail about your childhood.
Ans: Looking back to my childhood, I recall a house (Chang ghar). I still have vivid memories of the house and the big campus which was surrounded by the mango trees, jack fruits, pomegranate, banana trees and a part that was nearly kept darkened by the bamboo trees.
From the verandah of that small house, one could see the steep railway tracks in front. And deep down there was a beautiful stream that flows by. That was the house where I spent most of my childhood period. A house that was small, yet so humble.
As the only daughter of the house I was much loved and cared by my father. He was a strict man. A man who had strict rules laid down for his children. And it might be because of his strictness and his concern for us that we did not have many friends during our childhood. I was not allowed to roam and mingle around freely with people.
But I was never that lonely.
My parents had decent government job, they had our responsibilities, yet they always had time for us. They often took us to the green paddy fields.
When they were busy in the field, we would loiter around indulging ourselves with the scent of mud, rain drizzles and the greenery.
In the backyard of our house, there was a fast flowing river where we often sailed on boats made of banana plaintains, or we would make sandcastles on the river bank. Sometimes when our father went fishing, we would run after him with “khaloi” in our hands.
In the evening we used to study under the lamp light. After dinner, we used to sit outside under the bright moonlight. My mother and grandmother would tell us stories. And I remember, at the end of each story, I had endless questions.
In the morning hours, when my parents were busy with household work, I used to read the newspaper for them loudly. They made me read the Ramayana in the same manner. And I remember completing that in 3 nights.
Q 2. Every creative writer holds his or her environment of his or her childhood days in great esteem. What do you think about this.
And: I believe, basically what we are today is shaped during our childhood itself. How we act, how we deal with conflicting situations and other life circumstances are generally very much specific to our personality type. And the childhood period is the backbone of that personality building.
Basically, born in a conservative family, there were rules, regulations and restrictions implied all around me. That might be the reason I was little shy, reserve and submissive type since my childhood. I often had feelings and emotions that I kept only within me. So writing diaries became one of the easy things where I could express my emotions at my best.
As leisure time activity I used to read comics and stories. I often get trapped in the imaginary world. Many times I fell in love with the heroes of those fascinating stories. I had a clear imagination of how good were the heroes and how they were responsible individuals in the society who always did good and tried to eliminate the evils from the society.
I had the habit of thinking further beyond the stories and also from the end of each stories. I wanted the stories to begin again with another dimension.
My childhood falls in that particular time period where there were no internet, no mobile. We had only black and white TV, and a scooter as the only luxury. Instead of YouTube we had our grandmothers who told us bed-time stories. Visiting mama, Mahi and grandparents house during holidays and summer vacations were like our foreign trips.
Specially born in a remote village, sometimes a colourful frock and a small “Kajal tema” from the Wednesday market were our only ultimate dream and fashion. Living a life away from machines, mobiles and technology, I had enormous time for adventure and exploration in nature.
Yes, I do consider my own childhood days with great esteem. I often indulge in my childhood memories and I believe, most of my imagination carves out from that period of life.
It acts like fresh raw material.
Q 3. Kindly shed light on your academic life.
Ans: I started my schooling in a government lower primary school where my mother worked as a teacher. Then I continued my middle primary and high school education in the Jonali Murkongselek Balika School. Thereafter, I came to Guwahati and continued my higher secondary education in R J Junior College, Beltola. After passing higher secondary education, I joined the B.Sc. Nursing course with Asian institute of Nursing Education (AINE), which is affiliated under SNDT women’s university, Mumbai. After passing out the 4-year long graduation course, I completed my internship in the GNRC Hospitals, Guwahati, and later joined as a clinical instructor in my parent institute.
From the same institute I pursued M.Sc. Nursing and worked as a lecturer for one and a half year.
Later, I was recruited as a lecturer in government B.Sc. nursing institute after clearing the state level examination conducted by APSC.
Q 4. Kindly tell us in detail about your professional ventures.
Ans: During my professional education, I have got enormous experience of dealing with patients suffering from various diseases. The backbone of my professional carrier was built in complex super specialty setting like GNRC Hospitals, Guwahati, where I got enormous opportunity to learn professional patients dealing and complex procedures related to patient care. As a part of educational program, I also got clinical exposure in RN Tagore Hospital, Kolkata.
As part of Masters in Nursing program, I got some professional exposure in AIIMS Delhi, Hinduja Hospital and J. J Memorial in Mumbai. I have also attended many national and international conferences held in India.
As part of M.Sc. programme, I conducted my thesis work on the topic “Effectiveness of Music Therapy in Reducing Pain among Patients who have Undergone Cardio Thoracic Vascular Surgery.”
Q 5. Do you consider yourself a successful professional individual? If yes, then why.
Ans: In the era of nuclear family, the term “working mother” itself is a challenging word.
By profession, I am a lecturer working in the B. Sc. Nursing College, Dibrugarh. I have regular classroom, clinical and other official responsibilities.
At the same time, I take care of my two children, I have my family responsibilities and responsibilities those are specific only to my own motherhood. Amidst so many responsibilities, it often becomes an exhausting job to maintain a perfect work-life balance.
At work front I meet professional challenges and deal with it regularly. I am able to help my students to develop the desired professional qualities in them. I have students who are working in and around India and abroad. They are successfully dedicating themselves in patient care and teaching in various government organizations, NGO’s and other corporate sectors. Having a good communication skill, I get along well with my colleagues, my seniors, juniors, and other staff as well.
In spite of my busy schedule, I am able to give wings to my dreams. Reading has been my passion since my childhood, and now writing has turned out to become my deepest passion. Recently two of my books have been published and they are able to grab the attention of the readers.
I do have a tedious schedule. Yet I can say that I am managing my time effectively. And Yes, I do consider myself as a successful professional individual.
Q 6. Your novel “Oipulir Soponor Desh” has created a sensation. Tell us about the genesis of this novel.
Ans: I recall a woman. Her parental home was located near our school. She had thick, long braided hair, and very beautiful complexion. Whenever she came out from her house, someone would just come, and pull her hair, and beat her with bamboo sticks. Those incidents were a regular affair.
There was a gossip all around. She had a child and a husband. But she had been thrown out from her home. People called her “pagoli”.
She was mentally ill.
I can recall another woman roaming around the market. She looked unclean and untidy. She had Yellowish jute-like hair, and dresses that were torn. She did not have a home. Or probably she was thrown out from her house. She often carried a bag in her back. She used to eat whatever was offered to her. Later we noticed her belly was growing big; she was pregnant. It made me feel disastrous.
Who on earth was/were responsible for her rape and unfortunate pregnancy? There was no answer. Later, she gave birth to a baby. And to the notice of everyone, she cared for the child; singing lullabies to him, begging for foods to feed him.
Somebody built a roof for her. Somebody brought clothes for her. I was just in my teenage. Whenever I went to market I could only give her a mere biscuit packet or sometime just a ten rupee note.
Later, during the course of my B.Sc. Nursing, I got to meet many other mentally ill patients. As part of educational requirement, I got a 2-months posting in the psychiatry ward. I also got two times exposure in Lokopriya Gopinath Bordoloi Regional Institute of Mental Health, Tezpur. I could closely see and feel the pain of their life. There are endless social stigmas around mental illness. There is hatred and crime over mentally ill patients.
So, mental illness and pain of a mentally ill client is one important aspect of the novel “Oipulir Soponor Desh”.
There were other incidents too. I recall a young child (13/14 years) who had delivered a baby in the hospital. Later, the family absconded. And the newborn was found in the backyard of the hospital over cold sand. The neonate was dead. That incident shook me profoundly. During our ward postings, we got to see many other such incidents of teenage pregnancy and child birth. They were all associated with rape. Mostly crime within family members or close associates. All these incidents had one tag in them “illegitimate”.
(A long sigh and silence looms)
I was not ready to accept the term itself. I felt, the act was “illegitimate”, but the embryo which forms as a result of that act is purely innocent.
So, this thought actually led to the origin and construction of the novel “Oipulir Soponor Desh”.
The questions that arose in “Oipulir Soponor Desh” are basically questions asked to the society as a whole.
Q 7. How far is this novel an autobiographical and how far is it fictional?
Ans: “Oipulir Soponor Desh” is not an autobiographical novel. It is basically a fictional work. I have created the central plotline and the incidents from my own imagination and understanding of the situations centering around real events and problems in our society. Yes, the central philosophy, the ideation and emotions are carved out from my own empathetic understanding of the situations that I have seen or felt closely.
Q 8. You have also pocketed a prestigious award for your debut novel. Kindly tell us in detail about the genesis of this novel and your reaction after winning the prize.
Ans: Journey of my writing started in the popular Facebook literary group “Ardha Akah”. By reading the short stories and the series published in “Ardha Akah”, I too got the inner motivation of writing.
I started to observe the things around me.
My little life experiences, the pent up emotions, and observations made in and around me.
I started to pen them down slowly in the pages of a diary. And later I started to post them regularly in Ardha Akah.
The central plotline about the novel “Ejak Dhumuhar Pisot” is college, hostel life, love, romance and the risk and problems associated with it.
It could jointly bag the prestigious Dr. Dondinath Choudhury Award, 2018. And later the book was published by the Bindu Prakashan Gusthi. It was the first novel of my life and it got an institutional recognition, I was much more than just happy.
I was delighted and motivated to write and create more and more.
Q 9. Do you think that the rise of English as a global language will wipe away bhasha literature?
Ans: With globalisation, there is a rise in the popularity of English. We need a common language in order to communicate with the world around us. And English is that effective language which is spoken and understood by half of the world population.
With this fact, there is that constant growing fear, that this rising popularity of English might wipe out or cause extinction of the bhasa literature.
There are very few who read the local vernacular works. But we cannot neglect the importance of bhasa works. The words and phrases used in bhasa literature represent the mindset and emotion of people. It best reflects the unique identity of culture, beliefs, values and their social system.
In order not to lose our own identity and language, we need to keep our mind and eyes open towards these values. The regional language writers really need to work religiously with their vernacular literary works.
And we should really give emphasis on translation, because it can bridge the gap. It can cross the language barrier and can make the text available globally, and that way the Indian culture can be promoted.
Q 10. What kind of books you love to read? Who are your favorite authors and why.
Ans: Be it fictional, autobiographical, historical, mythological, I read all kind of books.
Among the Assamese writers my favourite authors are Homen Borgohain, Anuradha Sharma Pujari, Rita Chowdhury, Phanindra Kumar Dev Choudhury, and Arupa Kalita Patangia.
I love to indulge in their rich understanding about life, love and their philosophies. Their outlook about the society and the surrounding inspires me a lot. In the new generation, the writers such as Sarmistha Pritam and Dr. Mrinal Kalita are my favourite.
Among the English writers I love to read fictional works of Salman Rushdie, Khalid Hosseini and Jhumpa Lahiri. Crime and thriller writings of Sidney Sheldon were also my favourites. Their deep understanding and outlook about life, culture and problems of society are portrayed in their writing in the most aesthetic manner.
Q 11. Do you think that literature is to be taken more seriously to free individual and social mentality from narrow viewpoints?
Through reading literature, one can develop better understanding about life and the world around us. One can admire the heroes and the good things done by them. We can learn morals from the stories. We can understand about various cultures, myths and superstitions. We can analyse them scientifically and avoid the bad things that are harmful to the society.
In other words, one can restructure one’s own beliefs and imaginations, and bring about positive personal changes.
When every individual brings about positive changes in them, gradually societal changes will follow, and thus modernity and a peaceful world in true terms.
Q 12. What is your future planning as a creative writer.
Ans: Currently I am working on two projects. Writing deep romantic fiction was one of my dreams. And I am working on it. It is nearing completion. Another project for which I am gathering data is over a tribal socio-cultural issues and superstitions.
Q 13. What do you think about the recent trend in Assamese literature about historical fiction?
Ans: We get to read various genres of Assamese novels. Among all, historical novels are very popular and these themes are commonly picked up by the writers. There are novels on Assam history that glorifies the Ahom dynasty. We also get to read historical novels on colonial period. Some are romance based. The writers make attempts to reconstruct and retell the historical characters.
They are interesting. Many might find history very boring. But the same history if projected in a novel, it becomes interesting.
The historical writings tell us about a time that actually happened in the past. I think it’s a tough job to write a historical novel. It might be more challenging, because many of the things that happened in the past are not recorded properly or some may not be recorded at all.
So finding out the fact is not very easy. The writers really need to work hard in order not to distort the facts and the historical characters. Sometimes if proper form is not given, there is a tendency that the novel becomes overloaded with factual data. Then it becomes boring.
Q 14. Many Assamese writers are either drawn to myth or folk lore in their writing. Kindly let us know about your views.
Ans: Mythology is the foundation of all religion and rituals. The socio-cultural and religious system of the Indian society itself has deep rooted myths, epics, and folk tales in its tradition. Assam is a diverse state in terms of tribes and traditions. And each of these tribes has distinct culture, dialects, beliefs and rituals, which are passed on from generation to generation in the form of oral storytelling, short stories and rituals.
I myself is very much religiously and emotionally attached to these mysteries, supernatural events and characters of the myths and folktales. I find them interesting to read. It teaches us morals and values. It explains to us the supernatural ways of existence of this earth and mankind. They are timeless and universal theme. And the best thing is that there are scopes for deep analysis too.
Now a days, the new trend is to pick out a particular character from ancient mythologies and then writing them down with narratives from modern perspectives. Some writers analyse the timeless happenings scientifically. Even the folk tales are re-constructed with logics and reasoning. I find them interesting. But I feel it has its own disadvantages too. There might be a tendency of bending too much and it tends to distort the original work, the theme, character or the philosophies.
New readers may develop negative attitude towards various characters and hence tend to neglect the morale behind such myths.
Q 15. Do you think that writing is a sort of catharsis?
Ans: Yes. I do feel a sense of catharsis while writing. In our day to day life many incidents occur around us, many things happen to us or to others. These incidents may have great emotional impact on us. There might be deep frustrations, sorrow, fear, anger, shame or guilt related to that.
I am sure, almost every person has secrets that we keep only within us, that we don’t want to or we may not want to share with others. But, there might be an internal necessity for emotional outbursts. I feel, complex emotions can be best expressed in creative writing, where one can acknowledge these deep conflicting emotions.
I create the characters with emotions, I create the events and conflicts, and I let the characters move within a structured and organised storyline. I feel free to express my emotions, my ideations and my own opinions and philosophies through the characters. This way I can release and cleanse the pent up emotions.
While writing the climax and completing the plot I treat them like pure fiction. It gives me freedom.
I feel when it is a sort of catharsis for a writer, that energy of emotions can be felt even by the readers. While reading the tale, the readers can experience the deep emotions too.
Q 16. How would you react to the debate about bhasha literature and Indian writing in English?
Ans: No matter what language we choose to write. What matters is, we should write, and our writing should represent our culture and tradition in the best form.
Here the question arises, which type of literary work best represents our culture? Undoubtedly, bhasa is our emotion.
It carries within, the basic identity of a culture with great emotion and sensitivity. If we read the regional works we can understand the region as a whole.
But, India is a multicultural, multilingual country with diverse tradition and rituals.
There are many languages and dialects in India. In many regional languages bhasa works are carried out, but we are not able to read all of them.
Is it possible for us to read all the regional languages? Certainly not. Here comes the importance of English as a global language.
The Indian English literary works are popular. We notice they have the content and plot created keeping in mind the Indian consciousness. Mostly their plot is rooted in the Indian culture and we see many of them use the bhasa element in their writing. Some authors are also carving out plot from Indian mythology, deeply analysing and rewriting and retelling the folk tales etc. But in majority of these we can see the use of the bhasa element. It may be in order to add the original cultural flavour and to give the real feelings to its readers.
With the growing popularity of English, it is very much possible that cultural and linguistic identity will be lost gradually. We need to keep our mind open towards reviving our own bhasa.
And here the translator is the hero, who can bridge the gap between bhasa writers and Indian English writers. To make our text global, there is a need for translation.
Translation to English and also between one Indian vernacular language to another.
Q 17. What is more important to you as a novelist? Plot or form.
Ans: I consider the plot to be most important. And the real brainstorming occurs here while picking or finding out a meaningful plot. Plot is the main body of the whole tale. Without a plot actually there cannot be any story. If the plot is not planned well in advance, the story goes bizarre or may not end up well.
I believe, in order to value the time and money of the readers this brainstorming is really important.
When I start a novel, I create the characters well in advance. They are made to live a life in the story. The central conflict and the other sequence of events are planned and unfolded. The characters speaks, they suffer, they fight in the planned setting. Emotions and conditions are narrated.
I prefer to display the meaning and morale of the story through logical reasoning, internal debates and sufferings of the characters.
According to me, climax of the story is most important part of the plot, as the emotions of the readers are heightened at this phase. It needs to be directed well and justified.
Otherwise it might lead to an impression of incompleteness.
In fact, I prefer to write down the climax at the earliest. And then I direct all the incidents and occurrences towards the climax. I find it easier and more meaningful that way.
Yes, at the same time I can’t afford to neglect the form too. If plot is the heart of the novel, the form is the brain. In order to make the writing readable and attractive, I carefully put the story in proper order. Because I believe, a well-structured and organised novel can attract the readers as they can easily understand the emotion, imagination and the intention of the writer.
Q 18. You excel in writing extravagant romantic writing. Why?
Ans: Personally I love to read romantic writings. I believe, we may have the worldly luxury of our life, but without “love” can we even call it a life?
In my writings, I prefer to keep romance as the soul element. Because I believe, romance is not funny.
It is a hope. It is the most special human desire.
And that is why probably it works like the most intoxicating ingredient, be it in books, movies or music. It is the strongest human emotion that can force us to unite our differences, inspire us to do good things, or to sacrifice for our loved ones.
And sometimes, adding romance in writing is a kind of escape from the harsh reality of life too.
There is another thing, Love and romance is a universal theme. Everybody can relate to it easily, because it is something that everyone has experienced in their life. It is timeless.
Romance never gets old or outdated.
I feel it is a particular genre in literature which is most popular, at the same time most underestimated. It often gets readers’ recognition, but the authors of romantic writings are often ridiculed by critics and others.