Book Title: The Areca Nut Tree and Other Stories
Author: Ranjita Biswas
A GOOD translation can bring the ethos of the land alive for the reader. And Ranjita Biswas’ English rendition of short stories by Assamese women writers has well captured the essence of Assam.
The collection includes authors such as Manika Devee, Gayatri Doley, Kavyashree Mahanta, Moushmai Kandali and Leena Sarna, to name a few. Their work depicts the liquid beauty of the landscape, brings alive the aroma of the paddy fields, the greenery of the bamboo groves, the redness of the soil, the deep rivers, breathtaking waterfalls and the areca trees with betels mellowed and withered. Most stories have successfully captured the nuances and rhythms of the lives of its people.
While exploring the equation between men and women, these writers prefer to narrate stories of empowerment and the innate shakti of women rather than dwelling on their exploitation. The evocative story — ‘The Bhuichampa Flower’ by Ruplekha Devi — narrates the tale of a young girl, Champa, who gets married to the abusive Nimu and is sold, raped and battered in brothels, as in temples. Eventually, she wrests back her power as she dons the avatar of “the powerful, angry Kali-ma”, who dances at religious festivals and rules over the village temple.
The title story ‘The Areca Nut Tree’ tells the anecdote of a tender young bride who gets brutally beaten by her husband. This immensely pleases her mother-in-law and sisters-in-law. However, her husband realises the extent of his savagery and accords her respect and equality, thence establishing her as the mistress of the household.
The stories by the new generation of Assamese women writers featured here delve into not just themes of patriarchy, but also other universal themes. However, most of them are sad and centered around protagonists to whom life has been less than kind, such as the simple Dunoi, who is speech impaired but managed to earn a respectable living in the city until he meets a sad end. The story ‘Even Tagore Said So’ by Anamika Borah tells of a day in the life of the under-confident insurance agent Miju, who has a skin condition that makes her appear ‘black and white’.
‘Flight to Freedom’ by Geetali Borah is an allegorical narrative about a man whose pet bird has escaped. As he searches for the bird, he reflects upon the various relationships he has lost. ‘Oye Nathuram’ by Ratna Bharali Talukdar is a story of lost idealism. The protagonist is an old lady devoted to Gandhi and his principles. The author imagines that a statue of Gandhi comes to life at night and traverses Guwahati, witnessing the state of the country he had led to freedom.
The stories chosen are thematically varied and offer the Assamese experience in both rural and urban settings. These could have a significant role in promoting non-metropolitan vernacular fiction.