Red River by Somnath Batabyal: The past is alive, and not a foreign country

The Brahmaputra is the eponymous ‘red river’.  (iStockphoto)
The Brahmaputra is the eponymous ‘red river’. (iStockphoto)


Somnath Batabyal’s ambitious novel brings the personal with the political to tell a story of friendship and betrayal

Somnath Batabyal’s new novel, Red River, tells an expansive story set in an Assam shattered by insurgency and anti-Bengali protests, where ordinary lives are upturned by cruel sleights of hand. It is a familiar theme explored by many writers, from Indira Goswami to Aruni Kashyap, in Assamese as well as English, but Batabyal brings freshness to the well-worn subject through his gift of characterisation and storytelling.

Red River takes the reader back in time when separatist movements held a death grip over Assam, opposing the demographic composition of the state. As India votes, it is clear that those ancient enmities, ethnic or communal, are far from over. The North-East continues to implode and ever new spectres, like that of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019, cast a shadow over the region.

While hard facts must stay off the nebulous terrain between “what is" and “what if", fiction has no such compulsions. It is in this in-between domain that Batabyal builds a home for his novel.

Red River is an ambitious, inter-generational saga of interconnected lives that has a long provenance. Batabyal’s patient and painstakingly mimetic style carries with it the evidence of the 13-long years of research, writing, and careful editing that have gone into the making of the ambitious book.

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At the heart of the novel is the story of friendship among three boys growing up in Assam in the 1980s. Rizu Kalita, daredevil cricketer and a hero to his peers, has lost his older brother Romen, who was briefly with the ULFA, in an encounter with the Indian Army. There is the bookish and chubby Samar Dutta, a Bengali growing up in a state where he’s unwanted by the locals. Finally, the most gifted of the three, the dashing Rana Singh Chaudhary, son of Kabir Singh Chaudhury, an army officer, whose life is linked with both Rizu’s and Samar’s, unbeknownst to the boys.

The story opens with the excitement of the arrival of the first television set at Samar’s home, where the whole neighbourhood gathers to watch the 1983 World Cup cricket final. Everyone is on tenterhooks over the fate of Kapil Dev and his men, but even as the audience goes through a roller-coaster of emotions, Batabyal subtly brings out the social striations, tensions of class, clash of egos as well as political undercurrents.

There are vivid descriptions of squabbling women, the aroma of home-cooked meals, and the electric mood of the crowd. As the Indian squad flounders in the first innings, quite like today, “From the Mughal invasion to the subjugation by the British, a thousand years of history were held up to explain and damn tonight’s performance." What’s chilling about Red Riverare its shifts from such moments of mundane, everyday friction to violence and bloodshed. The potency of the story comes from Batabyal’s accounting of the insidious evils that poison the fabric of a fractured society—neighbours turning on each other for often the mildest of infractions and a general spirit of menace directed at “foreigners" and “settlers".

Red River: By Somnath Batabyal, Contxt, 356 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>699.
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Red River: By Somnath Batabyal, Contxt, 356 pages, 699.

In Lucky Dutta, Samar’s Cambridge-educated mother from Bangladesh who came to India as a refugee, we see some of the worst scars and wounds of a divided legacy. As a character, she is a mosaic of personal and political tragedies. She is unwanted as a Bangladeshi in Assam, accused of inciting rebellion in the state, loses her infant daughter Tina to a kidnapper at New Jalpaiguri station, is framed by the police as an illegal Bangladeshi migrant, a double agent no less, and sent back across the border.

Firm as a reed, Lucky rebuilds her life with Samar in Dhaka with the help of none other than the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina (in a surprising turn of events). Then, just as she’d finally seemed to make peace with her fate, Lucky is asked to be deported by India.

Despite her multiple incarnations, Lucky remains an inscrutable presence till the end. There are times when Batabyal seems to bestow on her a superhuman resilience in the face of life-altering losses, leaving the reader curious about her deepest, darkest feelings. In contrast, there is also an authorial tendency towards excess, as in an interminably stretched out, blow-by-blow account of a school cricket match. Despite Batabyal’s obvious delight in writing such scenes, these lengthy passages tend to slow down the pace of an otherwise taut narrative.

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In the second half of the novel, where Lucky and Samar are separated from Amol and Tina, the reader is also expected to suspend their disbelief many times over. There are coincidences galore and some strategic tying of loose ends, especially when Samar returns to Assam after living in the UK for years. His intention is to meet with the former headmaster, Madhob Kalita, Rizu’s father, and Leela, Samar’s cousin and Rizu’s widow. The trip is meant to be a homecoming of sorts, as well as a reckoning with the past, but it ends up in a tangle as Samar meets a heartbroken Rana, who has followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the army.

The irony of Rana’s choice of career, given his deep and abiding affection for Rizu, is a moment for the media to mine for what it’s worth. A renowned historian writes an editorial lauding “the Rizu-Rana friendship as a metaphor for the relationship between India and its northeast, never really separate but estranged by circumstance." The question that remains unanswered is, of course, why Rana chose to perpetuate a legacy of oppression, when he could have walked away from it.

The past, Batabyal’s novel insists, is never the foreign country of a popular saying. It’s very much alive, flowing through our veins, carried along by the blood-stained waters of the Brahmaputra (the eponymous “red river"), its watchful eyes trained upon us. Only a few among us can look back at it, confront the faces that stare at us from the gulf of time, and see ourselves for who we are.

Somak Ghoshal is a writer based in Delhi.

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