Love, Desire and Void: Reading 'The Tale of Nomadic Soul' by Syed Abdul Malik

In Aghari Atmar Kahini, the writer fluently deals with characters from a peri-urban background, their emotions, relationships and complexities.

A new controversy has recently rocked Assam and found its space even in the national media. The ‘controversy’ started when a certain professor with allegedly dubious political links selectively misquoted and then deliberately misinterpreted one of the most famous poems in the Assamese language by Syed Abdul Malik, one of the pillars of modern Assamese literature. Malik, the former president of the Asom Sahitya Sabha and a recipient of the Padma Bhushan, is widely regarded as an undisputed doyen of modern Assamese literature. The concerned poem is titled ‘Moi Asomia’ (I am Assamese). The patriotic poem narrates a popular historical and cultural memory of scores of Muslim soldiers part of the Mughal Army, who had initially come intending to invade Assam and extend the Mughal empire, eventually fell in love with Assam, awestruck by the beauty of the place and its people. The poem ends with the following stanza:

‘I am Assamese in my life and death,
Assamese with my heart and soul;
I am Assamese while I am alive,
(and) I shall welcome an eternally peaceful death in Assam.

(translated by the authors)

The poem is one of the most revered compositions of Abdul Malik. It has found space in the Assamese nationalistic discourse to talk about the religious harmony, the historically significant process of assimilation and the cultural plurality in Assam. (The later stanzas of the poem have also been turned into a song. Debajit Saha, the popular singer from Assam and the winner of the TV show Sa Re Ga Ma Pa in 2005 sang it at the closing ceremony of the 33rd National Games held in Assam.) The Facebook post of the aforementioned professor said that the poem was an attempt by Syed Abdul Malik to ‘sing praise of the Mughals’.

Assam has a unique historical experience of seventeen Mughal invasions into the Ahom territory and the former had only occasional and insignificant successes. The largely successful resistance offered by soldiers and people of the Ahom kingdom and parts of the Koch Kingdom is part of popular memory even today. Stories of the Battle of Saraighat between the Ahoms and the Mughals and of Lachit Borphukan and his chief aide Ismail Siddiqui alias Bagh Hazarika, have been part of the cultural and social memory in Assam. Hence, the attempt to say Malik’s poem sings praise of the Mughals is clearly intended to exploit this historical memory. Since then, Abdul Malik and his poem have been under unprecedented and well-coordinated attacks by various sections of society with vested political interests. However, this malicious attempt has also been strongly contested by scores of concerned citizens and organisations in Assam.

The poem is included in the textbook for the subject Assamese (Modern Indian Languages) for Class X in the curriculum of the Board of Secondary Education Assam (SEBA). A translation of the complete poem was published in The Wire by Delhi-based writer Jyotirmoy Talukdar. This piece, too, has been drawn into the vortex of an unwanted controversy due to its allegedly controversial attempt at conflating this particular issue with Miyah poetry, another touchy issue which has attracted conflicting reactions in Assam.

Syed Abdul Malik
Aghari Atmar Kahini
Guwahati Book Stall (December 1969)

We are, however, not interested in delving into the details of either of these intertwined controversies. Instead, we regard this unfortunate episode as a moment to re-read Malik’s motley of literary works. We have, therefore, attempted a thematic summary of his classic work Aghari Atmar Kahini (The Tale of Nomadic Soul), for which he won the Sahitya Academi Award in 1972. Unlike many of his other works, this tale does not deal with poverty, inequality, oppression of the vulnerable sections of the society, racial and ethnic discrimination and violence. Rather, it belongs to another side of Malik’s versatile literary domains, one where he fluently deals with small and seemingly insignificant characters from a peri-urban background, their familial and inner worlds of emotions and relationships and complexities.

The novel revolves around three characters, Aparajita Khaund, Niranjan Khaund and Sasanka Choudhury. Aparajita and Niranjan are trapped in an unhappy marriage and their mundane and uneventful lives are centred around their individual social and political activism. Although they live in the same house, their interactions are extremely occasional and mostly revolve around unavoidable household topics. Malik brilliantly exposes how two entirely different persons, with unmatched worldviews, tastes, ambitions and personalities, live in a complicated and unhappy wedlock. Malik takes us through a journey which starts with a sudden visit from Sasanka Choudhury, Niranjan’s old friend.

What Malik offers next is a universe of diverse and relatable characters, connected in ways more than one. Malik builds a loosely structured storyline where each character interacts with another at different times and contexts. Malik portrays the distinct lives and worlds of the three main characters, Choudhury and the Khaunds, interacting and intersecting with each other in complex ways. A host of associate characters also contribute to this complex web of connections, betrayal and adjustments that the three main characters find themselves entangled in.

Noted literary historian Satyendra Nath Sarma said in his discussion on Malik, “The central subject of Malik’s novel is love- human love. But the love is largely born of romance. Love finds expression in his novels in a variety of form and colour.” The undercurrents of love, emotional and sexual desires, characteristic of almost all the works of Malik, are hard to miss here too. Malik’s literary genius comes to the fore with the unmissable feeling of a void, and the desire to break free from the mundane and vicious circles of everyday chores and habituated connections with which he paints the main characters. All the three characters have, due to their own reasons, hushed up their inner selves and desires, and are emptied of their essence. The novel describes their uneasy conversations and activities, spanning over a few days with Sasanka Choudhury staying with the Khaunds, in the course of which the main characters are reminded of the invisible chains they are bound by, the distances and silences that they have been inhabiting, and their desires, ambitions and expectations, which they seemed to have forgotten.

Sasanka is smart, witty, and sufficiently mysterious for both Apara and Niranjan. His quirky and rather unapologetic tone in expressing harsh opinions of both Niranjan and Apara makes the latter feel awkward and defensive. Yet they also feel their defences fall flat in front of the outspoken and extremely intelligent Sasanka. Apara, in her prolonged conversations with Sasanka, where Niranjan too chips in occasionally, discovers the complex life histories with which she is connected to Sasanka and his family. Apara is surprised when Sasanka says he knew her since their childhood and that he was the reason behind the incident in which Apara lost an eye. Sasanka talks, with a sense of guilt and strange indifference, how he has always felt responsible for ‘spoiling the prospects’ of the beautiful Apara, and for the power and money with which his father, a minister, managed to hush up the matter and silence Apara’s hapless widowed mother. Sasanka also promptly says he had planned to marry Apara to try and atone for his feeling of guilt.

Also Read: In Assam, Syed Abdul Malik’s Ode to Composite Culture Is Being Vilified on Social Media

Sasanka then says he discovered one day that his powerful and wealthy father had an illicit relationship with Apara’s mother. Apara finds out that Sasanka is also aware of Apara’s long affair with his brother Mriganka Choudhury. Apara is shocked and disgusted with herself and her life when she realizes that her mother was the mistress of a powerful man and she was the mistress of his pompous son. However, more surprises await Apara as she gets to know that Niranjan, just before their wedding, wrote to Sasanka asking him whether he would be okay if Niranjan marries Apara, to which Sasanka had replied in the affirmative.

Sasanka gradually opens up to Apara and Niranjan and narrates many phases of his life. Sasanka’s frankness convinces the couple to also share their thoughts and life stories with him, albeit separately. In her turn to tell her tale, Apara also narrates about her professional career, her small-time social and political engagements and her affair with Mriganka Choudhury. She also talks to Sasanka about the episode when she had confessed about her relationship with Mriganka Choudhury to Niranjan, sometime after their marriage. She narrates how the warm and loving Niranjan became cold and indifferent towards her since then, and how though they live under the same, they are leading two separate lives totally disconnected from each other. This led her to resume her relationship with Mriganka Choudhury. She is unapologetic in describing the nature of her relationship with Mriganka and the influence she enjoys in the management of the plantation estate Mriganka owns. Malik develops the complex and layered character of Aparajita Khaund with care. Her withdrawn and simultaneously warm and sufficiently confident personality shines through in happenstances. A subtle touch of unflinching dignity, self-respect and ego are also present in Apara’s character. After having a disturbing past how she manages to live as a dignified social worker showcases her strong personality.

Malik narrates the long conversations between Apara and Sasanka with rare poetic brilliance. Throughout their conversations, Sasanka gradually reads the complex relationship between Apara and Niranjan. Sasanka’s realisation comes as the essence of the novel, which he declares to Apara, “We all are nomads- Niranjan, you and I.” In one of their long conversations, Sasanka asks Apara, “Aren’t you happy being married to Niranjan?” Apara, with an indifferent tone, replies, “I wouldn’t have been happy even if I was married to someone else.”

In one sense, one can also interpret that the character of Sasanka Choudhury is Apara’s inner self, containing her old wishes of having carefree and happening life, her ambitions and desires. When Sasanka comes into Apara’s life, it is like a rejuvenation of her old self, lost in the complexities and the corners of a mundane life and a seemingly dysfunctional marriage with a man for whom she feels sympathetic and responsible, but no connection or love. Through the episode of Sasanka coming into the life and world of Apara, Malik weaves together a metaphorical and poetic process of Apara’s rediscovery of her own self, to make her live, relive, realize, enjoy, talk, feel, cry, and feel pained – all the feeble human emotions and reactions which Apara has carefully managed to bury for long. Malik weaves it all together in a slow yet thumping rhythm.

Malik’s careful and nuanced attempt to build the two characters of Apara and Sasanka was probably exhausting, as the character development of the other central character, Niranjan, seems considerably flat, simplistic and surprisingly conventional. Niranjan’s life is like an open book. Once an idealist and radical political activist, Niranjan, full of life and zeal, is a tired soul now, hiding in the piles of office files and a shell of silence and emotionless thoughts. Apara, perhaps, regards herself guilty for making Niranjan a machine lacking any zeal and excitement in life. When Sasanka asks why Apara does not leave Niranjan and go live with Mriganka, she calmly responds, “But, Khaund will not survive even a single day without me.”

Niranjan emerges as a person with a fragile male ego, to be hurt only by his wife Apara’s honest confession about her pre-marital illicit affair with Mriganka Choudhury. In the later pages of the novel, we find that Niranjan meets with an accident and is brought to the hospital seriously wounded. Apara’s brazen indifference after hearing the news that her husband is possibly on his death bed shocks Sasanka, the calculative businessman too.

The novel ends with Sasanka and Apara setting out to the civil hospital to see Niranjan. While driving his car, Sasanka asks, “Apara, will it be too bad if Niranjan dies?” She does not respond to his query. Sasanka tells her again, “But I am a vagabond Apara. You will never be a minister or an MLA if you come with me forever.” Apara, lost in her thoughts, feels pained for Niranjan, and wants to see him once for the last time. She also feels safe and forever familiar sitting next to Sasanka. Malik leaves us with this cliffhanger. Maybe that’s what a nomadic soul prefers.

Jahnu Bharadwaj is a doctoral scholar in IIT Gandhinagar. He can be reached at jahnu.bharadwaj@iitgn.ac.in. Chandana Deka is a doctoral scholar in IIT Guwahati. She can be reached at chandana@iitg.ac.in.