A past woven in silk

Reading Swarnalata is taking a step back in time in more ways than one.

Reading Swarnalata is taking a step back in time in more ways than one. The novel is set in the past, in tumultuous mid-19th century Assam, and its style too is pedantic and archaic, as though wrenched straight from the arms of a realist Victorian novel. This is not necessarily a negative thing — the focus, as we see, in the grand tradition of realism and the novel, is on the quotidian, the commonplace, the daily struggles of the average, the middle class. Hence the language, in its attempt to be an un-distorting and faithful mirror of the “real”, is also measured, toned down and voiced by the traditional omnipresent narrator. The reader is not plunged into a torrid churning of events, but taken by the hand and led gently into the time and space of the book — the small town of Nagaon caught amidst the troubled stirrings of nationalism. The novel centres around the wealthy and cultured Barua family, and Tilottoma Misra uses her characters to bring to the forefront the various pressing debates of the day. Gunabhiram Barua, the head of the household, has embraced the Brahmo Samaj faith — considered by conservative Hindu families as debased, as Christianity. What they also find shocking is his marriage to a widow, Bishnupriya, a gentle, affectionate woman still wounded and haunted by the cruelty of her past. We meet their daughter, Swarnalata, at the young age of five or six and, in true bildungsroman style, follow the story of her life as she grows into a sensitive, caring adult inflicted by great personal tragedy. Through her, and her two friends, Tora and Lakhi, Misra addresses the immense problem of women’s education at a time when women were expected to serve their husbands and learn only as much as required to “keep him happy”. The author’s strength lies in the fact that the issue is not reduced to pages of prosaic debate, rather it is brought to life and tackled in everyday experiences. Tora, whose mother converted to Christianity, studies at the missionary school run by Americans, while Lakhi, despite being a child bride and widow, fights to get herself an education, even resorting to enrolling in a government high school for boys. Swarnalata, blessed with progressive parents, is first tutored at home and then in Calcutta’s Bethune College, where she dreams of becoming a writer. The then capital of British India plays an important role in the novel — as a foil to Assam (where people aren’t as proud or keen to promote their culture and literature) and as the space where ideas and opinions are debated and absorbed by young Assamese boys such as Dharmakanta, Lakhi’s future husband. It is also where the Barua family enjoys interacting with the educated elite — watching a play at Thakurbari, written by a young Rabindranath Tagore. In Calcutta, the waves of nationalism are strong, and arguments rage over whether the Indian National Congress, still in its infancy, is right in merely asking for reform and concessions rather than complete independence from the British rulers. Apart from being alive and vibrant with the voices of artists, intellectuals and social reformers, Calcutta is also the centre of the Brahmo Samaj movement, where it experiences fissures and fractures from within. Yet the author’s loving and unflinching gaze reverts time and again to Assam — its seasons and landscapes, its wide, rushing rivers, its struggle against exploitation by a callous and grasping government. On its wide canvas, Swarnalata draws out the problems of indentured tribal labour brought in by the droves to work in the tea estates, the issues of caste and its strangle-hold on the Assamese society, of small towns like Nagaon caught between the ambitions of foreign missionaries and deep-seated conservative Hinduism. Amidst the turmoil, though, we have islands of quiet and simple joy — the Barua family’s steamer journey along the mighty Brahmaputra, for instance, Christmas celebrations, or an evening performance of traditional Hajo songs. Readers may find Swarnalata tedious to begin with — the pace of the novel is exasperatingly slow and unhurried, but the effort is eventually rewarded. The story unravels before you like a delicate, intricate silk mekhla.

Janice Pariat, a freelance writer, is based in Shillong

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