The last decade has seen an explosion of writing from North-East India. While fiction and poetry from the region led the way, nonfiction, recording the history, politics, anthropology, environmental concerns of the region has made its impact felt of late, one book at a time. In 1989, Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin wrote the pathbreaking The Empire Writes Back, which examined how postcolonial texts mounted a radical critique of a Eurocentric view of language and literature. In a similarly effective though not consolidated manner, writing from the North-East, both fiction and nonfiction, seems to be increasingly and successfully challenging the erasure and glossing over of the region that mainstream Indian writing and literature has subjected it to. Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty’s recent book, The Assamese: A Portrait of a Community, is a meaningful intervention towards filling the void.

Barooah Pisharoty takes on the ambitious task of condensing what could have been an encyclopaedic work into a single book, and succeeds in painting a comprehensive picture of the community, their origin, history, politics, cultural practices, modes and subjects of worship, language and literature, crafts, cinema and more. Adopting an approach that is a mixture of the journalistic and academic, The Assamese is born out of extensive research, conversations with those who are considered authorities in their fields, and her own understanding and lived experiences of issues.

Right at the onset, the need for such a study is foregrounded by the author’s statement regarding the uniqueness of the Assamese community. It is seen as a unique one not just in terms of how it is composed of both tribal and non-tribal sub-groups, but also how the ties that bind the community together are not based on linguistic unity, but on one of common cultural practices. This is an important observation, shedding light on the language wars that Assam has witnessed in the past. It also facilitates an understanding of the fact that the identity politics of Assam continues to revolve not around questions of religion, but mostly of language.

This focus on culture and not language as a binding force between Assamese communities also serves indirectly as a critique of a lack of understanding of policymakers towards the northeast and its uniqueness borne out by the imposition of a standard policy of dividing states based on language unmindful of their peculiarities.

A journey through history

The author forays into the question of who is an Assamese from the rather interesting perspective of examining the physiognomy of an Assamese. She reveals that the question arises from her own experience of residing outside Assam, and the remarks made by those no from the state in their attempts to match their preconceived perception to a diverse reality. This discussion on the lack of a standard Assamese physiognomy paves the way for a fascinating discussion on migration and the role it played in forming the community that we now know to be Assamese.

We learn of the gradual formation of a community comprising tribes that trace their roots to Austro-Asiatic and Tibeto-Burman ancestry. Barooah Pisharoty’s insightful research goes on to further study Assam’s ancient history, revealing the gradual Aryanisation of a people and the embrace of Hinduism by a diverse community with multiple religious practices and rituals, glimpses of which can still be sighted in some tribal communities, and whose traces can still be seen in mainstream ritualistic practices.

The author provides a fascinating account of how trade routes “facilitated human passage” and resulted in the migration of people from the West and the East, particularly from South East Asia, to Assam. The book shows how the saga of migration continued in colonial times with the setting up of tea industries resulting in migration from other parts of India and undivided Bengal in particular. This is significant for anybody who seeks to understand the politics of Assam and needs context for comprehending present-day political issues.

The issue of immigrants has been at the heart of Assam’s politics since British times, giving rise to concerns about “Assamese jatiodabad” or sub-nationalism, an issue that elections have been fought , won and lost over, and one that continues to hold sway over a large population in Assam as witnessed during the protests that singed the states during the movement against the Citizenship Amendment Act.

With the partition of Bengal and the referendum in Sylhet leading to its separation from India, a large Bengali-speaking Hindu population migrated to other parts of Assam. This influx of immigrants antagonised the existing Assamese population, and the simmering anger towards them ultimately led to the Assam agitation in the 1970s and, subsequently, to one of the darkest periods of Assam’s history – the rise of the United Liberation Front of Assam. Barooah Pisharoty, a journalist by profession, who has also authored a book titled Assam: The Accord, The Discord, incisively traces the growth of “jatiodabad” and traces its trajectory to when the first seeds of a sense of belonging to a nationality were sown during the rule of the Ahoms and the Koches.

Increasingly, and especially since the time of British colonial rule, one notes that the greatest challenge thrown to this sense of “jatiodabad” was from a perceived attempt at Bengali linguistic hegemony over Assamese, which was also felt to cross over into other areas from literature to politics. While in recent times, attempts have been made to give the issue of “jatiodabad” a communal hue, Barooah Pisharoty’s narrative clearly indicates that the problem is a historical and complicated one.

Politics of “jatiodabad”

Assam has often been in the news because of the period of insurgency and sporadic instances of violence, but as peace makes a gradual return to the valley, it has awakened an interest in its rich tradition of literature, cinema, crafts, and cuisine. Barooah Pisharoty’s book is thus an enriching one because it goes beyond Assam’s history and politics and provides a glimpse into a range of interesting areas which have mostly been left unexplored, or have been a subject of interest only amongst those with scholarly designs. Thus, for instance, readers of The Assamese will discover that most of Assam’s population are meat-eaters, and that fish especially is an integral part of offerings to the gods and goddesses, and also the “praxad” that devotees are given at temples or a religious gathering at people’s homes. But keeping in mind the diversity of Assam, one will also discover that the neo-Vaishnavites, followers of Sankardev, are not just vegetarian but also refrain from the consumption of onions, garlic and so on.

Similarly, one learns of the crafts such as the art of making bell-metal utensils practiced in Sarthebari, and the various weaves of Assam such as the famous gold silk derived from silkworms that is known as muga is found only in this state. What is worth mentioning is how Barooah Pisharoty’s work unfailingly goes beyond facets of Assam and its culture that are well-known to bring to the fore lesser-known but integral aspects, be it the various war weaves that adorn the textiles of communities such as the Bodos and Dimasas, or how traditional jewellery such as the “gaam kharu” is made of gold in some communities but in silver amongst the Bodos, Rabhas, and Karbis.

Once again, while more famous forms of traditional folk music such as the Bihu songs find their due space in this work, so do lesser-known forms such as the “jikir”, which is so important to one’s understanding of the syncretic culture of Assam. Perhaps, more than anything else, it is this attempt at presenting an inclusive portrait of Assam and the Assamese, wherein one tribe or community, one mode of living or culture, does not dominate over the other, that the true worth of Barooah Pisharoty’s endeavour lies.

The Assamese is an interesting read to say the least, peppered with anecdotal and personal accounts, and one that should be of interest not just to the non-Assamese but also to those from within the community, especially those who live away from Assam and want to know more about where they come from. The work is immensely readable and enjoyable too, even if some sections, such as those that detail the history of Assam’s rulers, may prove slightly daunting to the average reader.

If I had to choose a favourite bit, mine would be the appendix, which has a host of voices – those of intellectuals, journalists, filmmakers, lawyers, and others – telling us who, according to them, is an Assamese. The polyphony of opinions that one hears is perhaps the truest reflection of a diverse community that has largely lived harmoniously with one another.

The Assamese: A Portrait of a Community, Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty, Aleph Book Company.