A trip down nostalgia lane
Parbina Rashid

Voices in the Valley
By Suravi Sharma Kumar.
Rupa. Pages 296. Rs 295 

The 1962 war with China is now part of history but what remains fresh in the collective psyche of the Northeastern people is the comment the then Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, reportedly made, "My heart goes out to the countrymen in Assam" before leaving them, as it turned out, in the hands of the enemy. 

This is one statement, which has been rankling the people in the Northeast for generations. Doctor-turned-debut author Suravi Sharma Kumar could not have chosen a better way to begin than by picking up this Nehruvian quote, when she decided to tell the story of the valley. After all, her protagonist Millie was a little girl then, who dug trenches and donated her only pair of gold earrings to raise funds for the war.

The war-torn Assam in the 1960s, people's sentiment and the hardship they went through form the backdrop of her riveting story. But just like the Chinese invaders, who stopped the incursion abruptly for no apparent reason than, perhaps, to tell the world that it had no intention to gobble up India, Suravi, too, shifted gear soon-from the political turmoil in the region to the personal turmoil of her protagonist. 

So Millie grows up in Xurovi Kunj, a respectable household in a tiny village in Assam, with the head priest of the village temple for father and hordes of siblings and cousins for company. But life is not easy for someone as free spirited as Millie. Her defiance of tradition comes through at a young age when she recites the Gayatri Mantra, which girls were not supposed to recite at that point of time in that part of the country.

Her rebellious nature grows with time as when she tries puffing a bidi for the first time in the privacy of her bedroom and, later, becomes a student leader and gets actively involved with the 'boys' leading the famous Assam agitation. Anyone hailing from that area can easily relate to Millie and her rebellious generation, which could stand up against the state on the issue of illegal immigration from neighbouring Bangladesh. However, the same people may not be able to appreciate anyone, let alone a young girl, challenging the social norms. 

So when Millie, well into her thirties and still unmarried, has erotic dreams and sleepless nights, one can easily relate to her and almost heave a sigh of relief when she finally finds love and gets married to another loveable character, Noyon. Alas, her life takes a new turn when she loses her husband at a young age but she turns her misfortune into something positive by joining politics and ultimately becoming a minister in the state.

Millie's is a tale of courage. As the writer moves from one phase to another in her life, she touches on too many subsidiary issues and, as a result, the reader gets confused. Small wonder that the reader may even ask whether it is the story of Millie or a chronology of social and political changes in Assam, home to several sub-nationalities.

In fact, it could have been both, had the author paid a little more attention to details, specially Millie's transition from a middle-class wife to a politician, and also not introduced too many characters, who appeared from nowhere and disappeared into oblivion without leaving any impact on the reader.

Suravi has, however, succeeded to a large extent in capturing the essence of the valley, the strength and weaknesses of its people, their customs and traditions, which will take the older generation on a nostalgic trip to the time when pitha, the Assamese snack, was not something one bought off the shelves of a department store but made at home and the younger generation to mull over something like red ants egg fry, a dish one just heard about.