“Farman is all too familiar with hunger.
Yesterday, he had eaten a little in the
afternoon — rice, a curry of wild herbs, a
green chilli and a little salt. How long has
it been now? Another afternoon? Twenty-
That’s nothing. He has gone hungry for
three days at a stretch. A mere twenty-four
hours is nothing.”
From the moment I picked up the short novella Hunger by Dhruba Jyoti Borah I can’t help wondering how the intertwined actions on the many planes of existence of our everyday life are based on every single decision we make about food. It ranges from our choice of a decaf or red tea in the busy morning hours to the elaborate meal spread on the dining table at night. The quick snacks at the office lounge, green sprouts in the evening, chana muri, fresh cherries, the juicy burgers and processed chicken--- our every choice is political on the ground that selection of one food over another points to the equally indispensable nexus of what is excluded, devalued and discredited. The way we choose and produce food has political, better understood as societal consequences. The choices we make are also essentially political decisions, also someone’s preference for cheaper food or mechanically-produced food; food produced in a sustainable environment or collected from local sources. The World Economic Forum claims that our choice is “equivalent of a political vote for your vision of the future… As consumers, we indeed are co-responsible for making informed choices, even if it takes an extra 30 seconds to use our smartphone and check if the product we are about to buy meets the environmental, quality and social standards for the future world we want to live in”.
What strikes us hard in Dhruba Jyoti Borah’s Hunger is the fact that the protagonist, Farman, quite pathetically, is denied this basic right, the choice of food. Rather he masters the art of predicting the body’s ability to sustain without food. As the title aptly projects, Farman knows that he can go without food for one or two days, but after a particular time frame or period of tolerance, his famished body becomes a weird machine. It acts strange, willing to conk off at the slightest pretext. The pangs of hungers for Farman are but fatal blows that make him lose control, reduce him to an ill-regulated machine. The heart and the head are not aligned together for a natural syncronicity. He starts behaving odd -- not to mention his constant pangs of hunger that stay with him forever to rob him off his life’s bounty, his mindfulness. He loses his “sanity” -- his body falls apart. The machine suffers from a bout of serious glitches, maybe it ceases to be a machine, less a body. Its a shrivelled up mass of poky bones and sagging flesh, undernourished. At one point of time, the machine dismantles. The body is undone.
For Farman is there a way forward to a world of no hunger? Hunger intersects a poor farmer’s world of unlimited inequalities with his fight for inclusion. The problems with nutrition are underlying factors that lead to tampering with the universal guidelines of food security, food safety, responsible production, and consumption. More so, the dwindling hope of Farman for a real prospect of a better world leads to the way of life of a community that calls for a thorough interrogation of “the spirit of solidarity” popularised by public forums and the government. The real story is grim. Hunger is a clarion call for a repatterning of the codes of ethics in a social space. But, it requires a paradigm shift for the change to take place. It prepares us for that rite of passage.
Farman is well versed in the art of predicting to what extent a certain period of hunger can take a toll on his health and to what degree and also the grave intensities or the kinds of sufferings that it entails. At the outset, he is shown to endure hunger for more than a day. His constant hunger, ever-growing, is played against the hopeless, desolate life of the people in chars (river islands) of Assam. The sudden appearance and equally uncertain disappearance of the chars in Brahmaputra point to the transient states of existence of these homeless people: they throw up disturbing questions on who are ‘ghost citizens’? How are subalterns created? By whom? For whose benefits? For what political motives their struggles are expunged from records and official documentation? The farmers who grow crops in the chunks of fertile lands in chars not only cope with the ravages of the devastating flood and land erosion every year, but at the same time they also face extreme apathy of the government; they do not lead a privileged life -- their agonies and woes bring to the fore the fact that they also have to tame the ferocious red river, its strong currents, the calamitous flood that lap up their precious land and harvest in a frenzy. Farmers like Farman who live on the banks of Brahmaputra put the alluvial sandbars to agriculture, till them, grow vegetables and rice. But they lose all scopes of employment when the chars disappear. Bounty and bliss are not permanent for them.
Dr. Dhruba Jyoti Borah’s Hunger is replete with metaphors of deprivation and malnourishment which are offshoots of a world ridden by poverty, ill will, hate-mongering and unacknowledged, unpaid labour. Only the poor knows hunger, the unbearable pangs that drive a man to the brink of destructive ends. Hunger has many extensions, one being the slow depletion of energy that leads to failing health. All these are familiar stories to Farman who lives in the chars, known as the almond-shaped alluvial sandbars that show up in the middle of the Brahmaputra and also disappear within a few years. At the outset of the novel Farman, the landless agricultural labourer, famished and hungry for more than a day, sinks in a pathetic state of despair. With nobody to turn to and dwindling hope, Farman has no other means to combat his ever-growing hunger but to seek employment elsewhere. It is to be mentioned that the char-chaporis form only four percent of the total landmass of the state. Ironically, almost ten percent of Assam’s population lives there. In Dr Dhruba Jyoti Borah’s Hunger, Farman’s story takes a sneak peek into a vista of grimness. Farman, too proud to beg and take help from his sister and brother-in-law, takes to an illegal trade deal. The dangerous pact with uncouth businessmen earned him a life of comfort and luxury. From being hungry to being overfed, Farman’s journey takes a new turn. But everything is shortlived in the chars, including Farman’s modes of sustained nourishment. In no time the bubble bursts and Farman loses everything. The pangs of hunger are back. So is sorrow. He loses his family and peace of mind. He loses sanity. At the end of the novel, Farman’s lungi comes off and he starts waving it over his head like a flag, “Stark naked and waving his lungi frantically over his head with both his hands, Farman begins to shout, ‘Hunger. Hunger. Hunger.’”
The conclusion shakes us immensely--- we swim in an ocean of pathos and raw emotions. Farman’s bouts of insanity jab us. He, like many, becomes a victim of the nefarious power play of the society. The frailty of lives in chars is compared to a gourd flower. The flowers bloom for a short time. The male flowers wilt while the female flowers turn into gourds, a fact quite familiar to the ones who grow vegetables. The dying gourd flower is an apt metaphor employed by Borah to paint the lives of people in chars.
Borah’s novel penned down in the 1980s has a timeless appeal. The novel is translated from Assamese into English by Shantana Saikia, who is currently working in the Department of English, Bahona College, Jorhat, Assam. She calls herself an avid reader and nurtures an undying love for literature. Red River, an independent publishing house from New Delhi run by Dibyajyoti Sarma, which has been in the headlines these years for producing beautifully illustrated books on poetry (by Robin Ngangom, Nabina Das, Poornima Laxmeshwer, Raghavendra Madhu, Namrata Pathak, Paresh Tiwari to name a few) is the publisher of Hunger. Red River is adjudged as one of the best five independent presses and named a flag bearer of verse by Scroll.in in India.
Dr Dhruba Jyoti Borah’s (fondly, DJB to his friends) masterstroke is his equal felicity in both fiction and non-fiction. Undoubtedly a powerful voice in the contemporary literary scenario of Assam, he has carved out a niche for himself. His trilogy, Kalantarar Gadya (Prose of the Tempest), Tejor Andhar (Darkness of Blood) and Arth (Meaning) probes into the bleak prospects and tragedies during the insurgency movement of Assam, and adroitly captures the failings and glories of man during a state of unrest. Borah’s non-fiction has a wide range of themes and topics that include a monograph on the medieval peasant struggle (the Moamorria uprising) of Assam; a study of the development of Assamese language tracing a trajectory of evolution from the ancient to the modern form, and other important areas of national interests. His fiction has been translated into many languages including Hindi, English, Bengali, Malayalam and Bodo. He received the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award in 2009.
Dr. Namrata Pathak teaches in the department of English, North-Eastern Hill University, Tura, Meghalaya. She has an M.Phil and PhD from English and Foreign Languages University (formerly, CIEFL), Hyderabad. She has four books to her credit, and her latest are forthcoming from Sahitya Akademi and Routledge. She has been a recipient of FCT-Ford Foundation Fellowship and UGC-Associateship by IIAS, Shimla. She is currently working on a book on drama/theatre and an anthology of poems from North-East India. Her debut collection of poems, That's How Mirai Eats a Pomegranate, was brought out in 2018 by Red River. Her poems are included in the Sangam House Monsoon Issue: A Special on Poetry from North East, July, 2019 and anthologies forthcoming from Aleph and other publishing houses.