The coronavirus pandemic is a tremendous challenge for the people of Assam, and its publishing industry is no exception. As an interview with Assam’s oldest and largest bookseller-publisher reveals, the challenges posed by the pandemic are the latest in a long series of social unrest, including decades of insurgency and the violence in the wake of the anti-CAA protests.

The miseries of the pandemic unfurled during the annual floods in an especially horrific combination this year. It has not only thrown up the paradox of implementing public health measures such as social distancing during an environmental emergency but also leads us to ask if the vocabulary and modes of the pandemic are drastically new: the NRC detention camps, after all, stand as sites of isolation and embody the limits of care and empathy in the quest to build a sanitised, wholesome citizenship database.

The Coronavirus pandemic is a reminder like no other of our global interconnectedness, but regional literature serves as important archives of loss and despair. Fiction is a means to explore the social conditions of the communities affected by a medical issue. Dhruba Jyoti Borah’s novel, Azar, for example, deals with the suffering of the common people under the British Raj at the height of the deadly kalajar epidemic in the nineteenth century. This is of crucial importance when we think of Assam because it is largely present in the national imagination through periodic events in the political news cycle: Disease in Assamese literature is a productive way to trace the evolution of these discordant political notes over the decades.

It is in Assamese short stories particularly that one can find a multi-layered treatment of sickness and its relation to society. Assamese fiction, concerning diseases, often has the binary of social assimilation and exclusion as a primary concern. This is significant in the political landscape of Assam where the spectre of the outsider has galvanised public debates for decades and has been key to developments such as the NRC and the CAA.

In addition, the writers use this theme to highlight a gamut of issues and assist the reader to realise the social consequences of biological illness. Disease provides a vocabulary to simultaneously erase and articulate the unspeakable. Who is a healthy Assamese citizen and which individuals and communities are deemed to be sick?

What individual sickness can symbolise

These issues are prominent in the well-known Assamese short story “Prithibir Oxukh” (Disease of the Earth) by Jogesh Das. Illness in Das’s story becomes a lens to observe how a society can push anyone perceived as “abnormal” to the periphery, and opens up space for thinking of the social consequences of isolation and physical distancing.

Das’s story is about the siblings Nibaran and Manorama. Manorama is a widow and Nibaran Baruah, an alcoholic. The story frequently suggests that they have been ostracised by the people of the town due to their perceived status as “asamajik” (not acceptable in society). Nibaran’s alcoholism and Manorama’s perceived insanity are viewed as a complex of social and medical illness for which they have to be relegated to its margins.

The story is key to understanding the complexities present in the process of integration in an Assamese community. Published in the late 1970s, it can be read against the backdrop of the unrest unfolding in the form of the Assam Agitation movement, where the questions of assimilation and integration were foremost.

But the theme of disease can also throw up complications to a simplistic narrative of the Assamese insider/outsider debates. This is illustrated by “Bemar” (“Disease”), one of the later works of the noted modernist Rebati Mohan Dutta Chowdhury, who is more popularly known by his pen-name Sheelabhadra. His fiction is at a remove from the conventional centres of Assamese literature and draws attention to the linguistically and culturally diverse regional hubs of Dhubri and Goalpara, which is yet another means to approach the insider/outsider dynamic.

In “Bemar”, the narrator reminisces about his old acquaintance with a man named Purna Chakraborty. Chakraborty was a learned elderly gentleman, and the narrator admired his wide knowledge of world affairs and his practical advice on matters of life. However, the news that Chakraborty descended into insanity towards the end of his life shocked the narrator.

Chakraborty suffered from cancer, and in his last days, he would attempt to set fire to things around him, eventually dying by self-immolation. The narrator believed that this unforeseen and unexpected behaviour represented a contrast to Chakraborty’s usual rational self. The author then uses this instance to open a poignant question, “Can one’s mind develop cancer?”. He concludes by commenting that a disease can probably attack any race, society, nation etc, suddenly and rapidly. “Bemar” uses the concept of individual sickness, unsettling a person’s mind, to reflect on the unrest in the wider society.

If “Prithibir Oxukh” tells a story of sickness perceived as an imbalance to the society, “Bemar” provides a semblance between society’s imbalance and a character’s incurable illness, gesturing towards the irreconciliation between the disparate elements that constitute an Assamese cultural identity.

The medical is not divorced from the social

For Assamese readers who have witnessed the recent double horrors of the Coronavirus pandemic and mayhem caused by seasonal floods, the realisation that pandemic isolation protocols cannot be imposed on societies plagued by yearly disaster has become crucial. The above two stories can provide moments of reflection on how social connections are relevant and unavoidable even through episodes of social distancing.

But this does not exhaust the spectrum of experiences during the pandemic: social distancing and quarantine has not resulted in greater empathy for those detained in NRC detention centres, some languishing for years without any recourse to legal rights. It has been a year since the contentious NRC exercise and we are no closer to any sustainable, humane solutions. Assamese literature’s engagement with disease reveals that the limits of care and concern, on which the pandemic has necessitated urgent global conversations, are caught up in older political divisions.

These themes emerge more sharply in “Chameli Memsaab”, which will strike an evocative note to anyone familiar with contemporary Assamese culture. It started life as a short story by the popular writer Nirode Chaudhury in a periodical and gained cult status through its cinematic adaptations. The Assamese film of the same name by Abdul Majeed won multiple National Awards in 1975, and was immortalised through the music composed by Bhupen Hazarika.

Disease is present in a minor manner in the text, but performs a crucial role in negotiating the complex range of social issues that it tackles. Here, Chameli is a young Adivasi woman who falls in love with and marries a British manager of the tea plantation where he is a relic of the colonial order, while she is on the other extreme of the social ladder as a member of the labouring Adivasi community. The story provides occasion to examine how the shock of love and marriage across class and race is registered and dealt with in modern India.

Chameli makes the significant move from the labour “lines” to the manager’s bungalow in which her husband Barkeley “Sahib” lives, but it is not enough to integrate her into his lifestyle. In the Bengali film version, there is a poignant scene in which the newlyweds go to the colonial era club and Chameli is shunned by everyone.

Juxtapose this with an earlier scene from the Assamese movie when she sings, in a mix of standardised Assamese and Bagania, to the tune of Bihu music, to the effect that although her ancestors may have come in from elsewhere long ago (a reference to the history of colonial indentured labour) a young woman like her has fun dancing and singing Bihu alongside Adivasi cultural forms such as the jhumur dance. Chameli is presented to us as an Assamese “girl”, but she cannot be accepted as a legitimate member of Assamese caste society.

When Chameli is diagnosed with leprosy, her condition can be read as a manifestation of the contamination that her presence signifies. Her separation and confinement from society to contain the spread of the disease becomes a way to control the challenge the marriage posed to the social order. The mystery and romance of “Chameli Memsaab” hinges on the suspense created by the disappearance of Chameli from the serene colonial tea garden landscape and her suspicious death.

The suffering caused by the coronavirus pandemic has been unequally felt across social groups, classes, and nations and has contributed to uprisings such as the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States and elsewhere. “Chameli Memsaab” is a striking text in this context as it reminds us that the medical is not divorced from the social. As is the case with the present scenario, disease demarcates and compounds the social inequities that are already widespread.

When purity is pitted against sickness

A more contemporary example of the effective use of disease to talk about the complexity of existing social factors can be found in Aruni Kashyap’s short story collection, His Father’s Disease. The titular story in the book is a complex fictionalisation of the decades of insurgency in Assam through a queer perspective.

While Kashyap’s work as a novelist, translator, and editor has consistently highlighted the difficulty of capturing any definitive account of the troubled period, it also forms an important archive of the myriad experiences of conflict with the state and its representations. “His Father’s Disease”, in particular, demonstrates the crucial role played by literature in articulating the liminal spaces of encounter between the state, individuals, and communities.

In the story, the protagonist’s sexuality complicates and brings out the tensions present in community identities such as ethnic and linguistic affiliations. His mother does not have a word for articulating his sexual relations with men, just as she did not have one for her husband’s (the protagonist’s father) similar sexual activity – so she calls it a disease, or “his father’s disease”. It challenges the normative masculinity within the village community as well as pointing out the overwhelmingly sanitised, heteronormative remembrance of the insurgency.

The son has an affair with a Hindi-speaking army man stationed in the village to weed out rebels. While the presence of the army often created terror among the people during the troubled period and placed them in a constant state of surveillance, Kashyap’s story pushes one to imagine a transgression of the state apparatus through a queer relationship. The use of the word “disease” to focus on this dynamic is thus layered: it stirs notions of purity and moral consensus within the Assamese village that reacts violently against the son for his sexuality, even as he is active in local activities and service.

Once again, disease in literature pushes us to ask who belongs and what is considered socially legitimate. It is relevant to reflect on the prominent link between purity and sickness in this case, particularly as social stigma and public perception around cleanliness and the current pandemic has played a factor in South Asian communities’ approach towards Covid.

The pandemic presents novel challenges to the publishing landscape in Assam, but a look at the treatment of disease in Assamese literatures shows that it is yet another in a complex history of social disruptions. Short fiction from the region enables readers to contextualise the pandemic and connect it to continuing themes of what volatile questions such as ethnicity and a modern Assamese identity mean and how they translate across a range of actors.

Sometimes disease is an overriding plot concern that hides complex ambiguities, and sometimes it might need to be picked out and examined closely. Nevertheless, a focus on disease holds important clues to ideas of social health and purity that the pandemic has forced a reckoning with in immediate terms. Can the health of individuals and communities be divorced from vexed contemporary debates of citizenship? Assamese literature shows that these are overlapping concerns and that vernacular literature plays a key role in determining and maintaining social purity and health.

Sangeeta Bhagawati is a PhD student in the Department of Comparative Literature, King’s College, London.

Sneha Khaund is a PhD student in the Comparative Literature program at Rutgers University, New Jersey.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.