It ought to be a universally acknowledged fact that literary creations and controversies are strange bedfellows.
On the one hand, questions are raised regarding the intentions and credibility of the author or the literary work in question; while on the other hand, such allegations often urge curious readers to check for themselves the culpability – or lack of it – of the author in question.
Of late, a noted littérateur from Assam, Syed Abdul Malik (1919-2000), Padma Bhushan, Padma Shri and Sahitya Akademi awardee, has been drawn into an online controversy, courtesy a Facebook post, where a specific portion from his poem ‘Moi Axomiya’ (I am Assamese) was quoted out of context and allegedly projected him as an ‘anti-national’, and much worse, a ‘fundamentalist’, and a ‘jihadi’.
As a Muslim who lived through the days of the Muslim League in pre-Independence India, the horrors of Partition, and the subsequent crisis of integrating oneself with the grand Nehruvian Indian dream, it was understandable on the part of Malik to have had to negotiate his way towards carving out an identity for himself, politically as well as socially.
Much has been or shall be written on his social or political affiliations in the wake of the recent online controversy. In fact, such ‘allegations’ often work the other way: as mentioned above, they give us an opportunity to reassess the creative works of the author, so long just one among many luminaries of the region or rather forgotten entirely, from newer perspectives often going beyond the author’s particular work at the root of the controversy and looking at his or her other significant works. So taking a cue from this situation, it would be fitting to evaluate Malik as one amongst a small percentage of littérateurs in Assam who have attempted to write an imaginative biography of Sankardeva, the pioneering craftsman of Assamese cultural identity since the early modern period of Indian history.
Within the genre of ‘biographical novel’ in Assamese, especially the ones based on Sankardeva and his disciple Madhavdeva, Medini Choudhury’s Banduka Behar (1976) was the first of the kind. Syed Abdul Malik wrote two such novels, namely, Dhanya Nara Tanu Bhal (1987) and Prem Amritara Nadi (1999). Lakshminandan Bora has also written two novels in this genre: Jakeri Nahike Upam (1993) and Xehi Gunabidhi (1999).
The latest addition to the genre is the novel Lauhitya Tirar Amrit Gatha (2015) by Rudrani Sarma. Considering the Vaishnava saints envisioned as protagonists of an imaginative plotline and subject to reconstruction at the hands of the novelist, these novels present alternative perspectives on the culture and society of fifteenth and sixteenth century Assam when the issues of language and religious fidelity were far from being crystallised into closed and mutually exclusive categories.
What makes the novel Dhanya Nara Tanu Bhal stand out amongst the rest is its depiction of an Assamese cultural space continually subjected to numerous social and political upheavals of the time coupled with the revolutionary impulse of the Bhakti Movement cutting across religious and sectarian boundaries. And upon this wide terrain of a social-cultural geography extending from Dhuwahat, near Narayanpur, to Cooch Behar that Malik has mapped the life-journey of Sankardeva.
In the course of the novel, Malik also described the appearance and spread of Islamic culture in Assam as a contemporary event – an authorial intervention that has often been glossed over or considered extraneous by critics in their evaluation of the novel, and given the circumstances, one may even accuse him of appropriating the narrative space for the propagation of his personal faith.
However, just like what happened with his poem ‘Moi Axomiya’ due to selective reading of a specific part of it to the exclusion of the whole, it is equally fallacious to pass over or misconstrue the personal faith or belief of an author to be unduly infringing upon his literary work in actuality only supposed to adhere to the avowed intentions of the author declared by him at the outset. Isn’t it possible to read such interventions as gateways to alternative world-views rather than criminalising the author for his alleged sinister intentions?
And interestingly, the subject matters of both ‘Moi Axomiya’ and Dhanya Nara Tanu Bhal belong to that period of Indian and Assamese history where human and social identities or even political boundaries were fluid and yet to coagulate into insular entities. Sankardeva, for Malik, possessed the sensibility to recognise the diversity of the social-cultural geography that he was traversing and that he sought to unite and assimilate into his grand project of Neo-Vaishnavism without effacing the ethnic diversity of the region.
Writing this novel in the mid-1980s, Malik was aware of the dissident elements in operation not only in the north-east, but in the whole country. And the following passage from the novel, loosely translated, poignantly reminds us of the unfinished project that Sankardeva had undertaken to execute and fulfil:
“Within the vision of saint Sankara, there appeared a new, yet undiscovered, hazy picture in the horizon – of a pure, truthful, widespread Vaishnava society, an impartial society of the bhaktas, a beautiful society based on equality and humanity. An oppression-free, prosperous society energised by the hymns of the bhaktas. A intellectually prosperous and historically endowed society peopled by the illiterate, uneducated and poor yet acquiring mastery in the art of music, dance, drama and performance; a society of new men sufficiently prepared to understand the new values of life and its meaning. A vast society encompassing everyone including the Kachari, the Chutiya, the Moran, the Ahom, the Miri, the Keot, the Kalita, the Brahman, the Daivaigya, the Muslim, the Buddhist, the hill-tribe, the inhabitants of the plains, the Kaivarta and the Chandala.”
Utopian as it may seem, the vision nevertheless holds value for the diversity it recognises and seeks to uphold within the fabric of the Assamese society. And Malik, as an inheritor of this vision handed down to the generations of the inhabitants of Assam, rightfully gives it back to the master. For he was only one among the handful who could actually dare to touch upon a subject-matter zealously guarded by the custodians of social and cultural propriety in Assam, that is, the lives of the Mahapurushas.
Whereas it was admirable on his part to have endeavoured to undertake the gargantuan mission of creating a fictional avatar of Sankardeva, invested through words with flesh and blood; the same cannot be claimed on our part as readers and critics who have failed to look beyond his religious identity. Be it the communal forces who have time and again maligned him for his writings on Islam (as if he is not entitled to do so) or the liberal army for whom his religious identity qualifies him to be equated with other members of his ‘community’ reviled on similar grounds, neither side seems to acknowledge the expanse of his intellectual and social-cultural vision that has often transcended the barriers of religious and ethnic affiliations.
We collectively owe him this recognition, not only in appreciation for a littérateur who has to his credit 67 novels and over 2000 short stories, but also in order to keep ourselves from falling into the trap of polarised ideologies. The sooner we act, the better for us, the Assamese community, still struggling to find a suitable definition for ourselves in spite of having more than 600 years of unbroken literary history at our disposal.
Dhurjjati Sarma teaches in the Department of Modern Indian Languages and Literary Studies, Gauhati University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.