Jangam, a seminal Assamese novel by Debendranath Acharya (1937-1981), is finally available in English through a translation by Amit Rahul Baishya, adding a much-needed element to the corpus of Indian literature in translation.

The book serves a two-pronged purpose – it refines the ambit of (post)colonial literature from the subcontinent, and it reconfigures the narrative of travel writing. I deliberately mention “travel writing” because we have been long been used to travel as a largely benign or overtly romanticised phenomenon. Baishya’s translation of the Assamese masterpiece makes us conscious of the way Acharya portrays travel as a story of human suffering and endurance, forced displacement, personal tragedies, and retribution of war and peace alongside beautiful passages describing sylvan stretches, village environment, and meticulous cartographic layouts.

I also deliberately say (post)colonial because I see this book as a commentary on not simply the linear way critics and readers have read about the aftermath in the erstwhile colonies, but as one that takes up issues of “internal” colonialisms essential for understanding subcontinental migrations and socioeconomics.

Not a standard war novel

The hapless Ramgobinda, bunched with a group of Indians, is fleeing the hamlet of Manku. With a pregnant wife, a young son, and old mother in tow, he is one of an estimated 450,000-500,000 Burmese Indians who undertook an exodus to avoid the brutality of a Japanese advance as well as Burmese ethnic violence during World War II. Ramgobinda relies on the members of his group to chart an escape as must have hundreds and thousands of “unacknowledged people” during the 1940s in this war-torn part of the subcontinent. While the story is mostly around Ramgobinda and his insurmountable sufferings, a few other characters shuffle as quasi-protagonists in the book.

Although it is a war novel, the usual trappings of war narratives are absent from Jangam, or are recounted mostly as reported speech. The narrative certainly breaks the cliche of war fiction, its focus being less on action, and more on introspection springing from the experiences of the characters. In this, the novel stands out as a unique one in Indian literature.

Mistrust and loss

At the very onset of the book, the reader encounters the thematic strain of Jangam, a well delineated sentiment of tragic loss expressed by Ramgobinda:

“What will we leave behind for them,” he mused. “They will mark their appearance on this earth shadowed by the pitiless curses of war.”

The sordid legacy of conflicts is what Acharya delves into in his novel. Naturally then, it dwells considerably on the subject of identity and the fears of being rendered the “other”:

“...Once a foreigner, always a foreigner,” Ramgobinda said.

“But aren’t these foreigners humans as well?” Jayanao queried.

The dialectics of this issue play out throughout the book. Baishya points out in his introduction how the current Rohingya crisis seemed uncannily similar to the Indo-Burmese tragedy described by Acharya. Particularly because the role of religion – Buddhism here – becomes a bane that seems to stall all human compassion:

“Inhuman, inhuman! Although these people look human, they actually are vile creatures assuming the guise of human beings. Actually, only the residents of this vast circular Burma of ours are truly human...Of course, you aren’t guaranteed the status of being human just because you are born in Burma. You have to follow the commandments of Tathagata...”

Throughout the excruciating journey in this absorbing text, the “outsiders” are riddled with fear and apprehension:

“Who? Nungnao?” there was a note of doubt in Chinti’s voice. “Will he do anything to help us?”

“Why not? Nungao is a decent boy,” Nitu said.

“Say what? Do these degenerate Burmese have any decency? They are all the same. Bloody spies for the Kempeitai! Who knows what his intentions are?” Chinti said.

“Please don’t talk like that. The poor boy has tried a lot...”

Acharya’s deft depiction of the mistrust displayed by the Indians balances the tension in the narrative.

In translation

Jangam is lush and lingering. It conjures up a scene of extreme beauty and the basest of human failures. War, aggression, killings and displacement are the elements that bind the narrative thread. The authorial voice recognises this as it steps back from the characters and their deep travails: “This unique natural backdrop was such a peculiar combination of violence and beauty!”

Baishya’s translation is subtle and precise. He remains attentive and objective throughout, and not once does Acharya’s seminal text lose its gravitas as one travels into the blank albeit volatile spots of history. In rendering Acharya’s characters afflicted by madness – a tragic collapse of all the dimensions that human existence entails – he chooses words meticulously:

“Everyone will die! Ha, ha, ha! Everyone will die one by one!” Haricharan’s unearthly laughter suddenly shattered the stillness of this deathly ground. His laughter resounded off the cruel, evil hills and re-echoed like the dictates of fate. The callous hills seemed to be mocking them by laughing in unison as bystanders. A flock of birds that had settled on a branch flew away creating a din. 

Baishya, an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma, has published wide-ranging academic work and it is rather curious and delightful to encounter, from his repertoire of “zombie” literature, the innovative English usage for “ardhamrita” or half-dead:

A sliver of light in the midst of the all-enveloping darkness! A strange smile illuminated the faces of these zombie-like travellers almost immediately. That was the smile of true, unadulterated joy – the smile of accomplishment. 

Epic and timeless

In his novel of an epic scale, Acharya creates a smorgasbord of the living and the non-living to almost cinematic effect: stray dogs feeding on dead canines, countless dead and charred human bodies, stunning hill ranges and fierce rivers, the near angelic-cum-erotic appearance of the young Ma-Pu amid signs of destruction and disaster, the manic outbursts of some characters, as well as their rejoice at finding dear ones.

Ultimately, it is humanism that is at the crossroads, for the story is not just of a journey that physical bodies undertake, but also their sensibilities. Jayanao, the Burmese father lamenting the brutal murder of his son Nungnao (who helped the Indians escape) turns prophetic:

“The British, Japanese or Indians aren’t our enemies; our most formidable enemy is ourselves,” Jayanao said, looking in the direction of his eldest son. “Keep this bit of counsel in mind...”

In the axis between Ramgobinda’s madness and the buildup of a climax in the “vast theatre of movement (jangamata)“ along the Irawaddy’ river’s mighty span – a terrain that is fearsome as well as beautiful – the reader’s mind too wavers in hope and despair.

We live through challenging times when history is being manipulated to suit vested interests and it is now that we must all read Jangam. After all, it is literature such as this helps us in the quest to ensure when “eternal peace will reign on this earth”.

Jangam: A Forgotten Exodus in which Thousands Died, Debendranath Acharya, translated from the Assamese by Amit Baishya, Vitasta.