I knew Homen Borgohain (1932-2021), who died in May 2021 after post-Covid complications, for more than a decade—as “closely” as one may know a reclusive man. He lived alone for more than four decades and wrote a memorable book on loneliness, but I felt he was never lonely. Books and music were his constant companions. He read, wrote, and reflected about life in that environment. He always seemed to be a man at peace with himself, calm, cool and incredibly composed.
Work kept me out of Assam for nearly two years, and when I permanently relocated to Guwahati from Pune in the first week of April, one of the first things I wanted to do was to meet him. He invited me to his elder son Anindya Borgohain’s home. I was somewhat intrigued as I had always met him in his own residence located at a different part of the city.
It was on April 15 – the first day of the Assamese New Year that I met Borgohain for the last time. Anindya Borgohain and his banker wife, Shobhini Borgohain, strictly followed all Covid protocols. Borgohain, one of the first persons in Assam to be inoculated with both the doses of the vaccine, looked very cheerful that day. Almost oblivious of the rampaging pandemic, he talked about life and literature most of the time. He also dwelt on the history of other pandemics and the ultimate triumph of human ingenuity and spirit. I could never imagine that we would eventually lose him to Covid-19 soon afterwards.
Life and work
Homen Borgohain was born in Dhakuakhana, a small place 450 kms east of Guwahati in 1932. His father had a sizeable collection of books, which he started devouring from an early age. After completing his graduation with honours in English literature from Cotton College, he joined the Assam Civil Service in 1955. His first book, a short story collection titled Bivinno Chorus, was published in 1957. But he became disillusioned with government service soon and resigned in 1968 to become a full-time journalist.
Borgohain’s editorials and other articles in the weekly newspaper Saptahik Nilachal earned instant popularity, as he developed the style of prose he came to be known for among both literary critics and everyday readers. His essays offered a window to the western world, from complex philosophical issues to important historical events, from profound sociological questions to new literary genres. Borgohain was a literary search engine in Assam well before Google.
In more than 50 years of active life as a journalist, spotting and nurturing new talent became one of his defining traits. Many poets, novelists and authors in present day Assam will ungrudgingly attribute their emergence to him. To be sure, this earned him criticism too, but Borgohain preferred to encouragement to disparagement.
Being a journalist meant maintaining a balance between an inner urge for creative literature and journalistic responsibilities, at least in the first three decades of his life. His novel Pitaputra won the Sahitya Academy Award in 1978. He went on to receive many accolades from the government, including the very prestigious Srimanta Sankaradeva Award and other important organisations like Axom Sahitya Sabha.
Controversy and criticism
A few eminent literary critics with a pronounced leftist ideological orientation were not always happy about the endings in some of Borgohain’s novels from the 1960s and 1970s. They felt he could have been more direct in underlining and amplifying the ascendancy of their ideology – the victory of the oppressed and exploited.
But perhaps Borgohain’s liberal creative instincts led him in a different direction. The uncertainty and open-endedness in some of his short stories and novels emanated from his belief that a writer’s job is neither to establish an ideological narrative nor to predict the future. Only a nuanced end could encapsulate the various possibilities of a story. Moreover, he trusted the imaginative prowess of the reader.
The critical response to Borgohain’s work has been changed since then. Throughout, his own style of responding to his critics was through silence. He may have believed that his subsequent work would speak more effectively than an immediate response.
I was in my late teens when his autobiography Aatmanuxondhan was published. I lapped it up in a couple of days. It was not for the powerful prose alone, it was mainly for its brutal honesty about himself. Borgohain’s personal life was not free from controversy. A woman journalist accused him of sexual harassment in 2003. Although there was no immediate consequence, the accusation resurfaced during the #MeToo movement subsequently. As before, there was no follow-up action. Borgohain wrote a book, Mur Hridoy Ekhon Judhokhetro, in which, it is believed, he may have addressed the controversy.
On becoming the President of the Axom Sahitya Sabha in 2001, Borgohain conceptualised a project to publish an encyclopaedic series in Assamese. When he announced his plan, sceptics spoke up, but he arranged for financial resources quickly and formed a committee to work on different volumes. Eventually, five comprehensive volumes saw the light of the day.
Borgohain was deeply disturbed by the growing intolerance and bigotry in society, which he made no effort to conceal. Majoritarianism rattled him in no small measure. In 2015, he symbolically returned the Sahitya Academy Award in protest against the brutal lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq.
I spoke to Gitali Saikia and Pradip Gogoi, two sub-editors of Niyomia Barta who worked very closely with Borgohain during the last three years of his life. He would dictate pieces to Saikia as he had virtually stopped writing in long hand. Both of them told me how he never allowed the pandemic to distract his attention from his work, and was as prolific as ever during these trying times.
Borgohain’s last piece appeared posthumously on May 23, in which he talked about the subtle difference between health and life. Quoting Marcel Proust, Henry David Thoreau and Mahatma Gandhi, he drew the conclusion that the less one thinks about one’s illnesses, the more one is likely to lead a healthy life.
Mayur Bora is a bilingual author and social commentator in Assam, with 16 published books.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.