Tejimola of our Times
A tete-a-tete with Sahitya Akademi Award winning novelist Rita Chowdhury.
Aiyushman: Most of your childhood was spent travelling to different areas on account of your father’s job postings. Were the seeds of a prolific literary career sown somewhere on the way? Please tell me a bit about your childhood.
Rita: Well, it is very difficult to describe one’s childhood. How can you possibly confine an entire episode of one’s life in just a few words or sentences? But yes, I used to read a lot during my younger days. Even when we were tiny-tots, I remember reading pieces like, Daoror Xipare Dhuniya Dekh, which made me start dreaming about foreign shores. This kind of reading must have definitely made it easier for me to start writing.
So deep was my interest in books that once we went to Haflong, I even started learning Bengali there! Owing to its cosmopolitan culture, the time we spent Haflong was definitely a learning point. For it was in this town that my younger sister succumbed to cerebral malaria. As I said, I might have read a lot, or I might have seen a lot of harsh reality that made me start writing — I can’t say but I do know that my childhood stopped there.
Aiyushman: I heard that you wrote your first novel during the Assam movement…
Rita: During the movement, we used to keep travelling to different places so as to hide from the security forces. When I was “underground”, I used to stay alone in Margherita by adopting different names. And can you believe it, people still call me by those names (laughs)! Once while still remaining underground, I got the news of a State-level short story competition. I wrote my first book while remaining in hiding, submitted the manuscript while in hiding and got my first award for the book while being jailed!
Aiyushman: So you were in jail when your debut novel won the award?
Rita: Both me and my father were caught by the police in Guwahati. We were first kept in Guwahati jail and then transferred to the Dibrugarh jail. Once we reached Dibrugarh jail, I learnt that my book has won the award. That is really a momentous feeling — the first book you write winning an award. But I was not even allowed to go and receive the honour.
Aiyushman: I am sure that the Assam Movement must have played a major role in shaping your future life. Is it so?
Rita: The movement taught me a lot of things. But most importantly, it taught me about the existence of a greater life. I came to know about the guided set of patterns through which society functions; about the deeper essence of human relationships. The movement taught me to look above individualistic gains and ideals; it taught me to rise above oneself. Of course, negativities are always there, but it is up to you to discern the positives and work on it. It also taught me about the meaning of sacrifice, which brought in tremendous mental upliftment for me. Spending days, months and years in lock-ups, travelling in police cars, hiding away in exile — all this was definitely a new experience for me.
Aiyushman: After having sacrificed so much for the sake of the movement, were you satisfied with the end result?
Rita: At the end of the Assam Movement, I learnt that a powerful, social movement can change the entire outlook of people and give it an entirely new direction. I might not subscribe to the end result, but on a more personal note, the movement has helped free me of all earthly desires. Its not that I have become a saint or that I have renounced the world, but yes, I am free from materialistic and other desires which confront normal human beings.
Aiyushman: Did the success of your debut novel inspire you to take up writing seriously?
Rita: My aim was never to become a novelist. After coming out of jail, I had to wade through a lot of problems. I was young, immature and I wanted to sacrifice the rest of my life for the sake of the movement. Then the movement ended and I got married to Chandra Mohan Patowary, who was a Minister at that time. That was the time I started thinking about my identity; about who I really am. Am I just a Minister’s wife, I thought? It was at this juncture that I took the help of the pen to wade through the severe identity crisis gripping through my soul.
Aiyushman: Most of your novels are based on human emotions. Can you please elaborate on your works?
Rita: Well, most of my works contain elements of incidents that have occurred in my life or they reflect the socio-political situation of those times. The movement might have had stopped, but my quest for a greater life continued; something which I have sought to portray through my novels.
Aiyushman: You novels are regarded to have a lot of emotional depth. Can you elaborate?
Rita: Freedom is something which I have always strived for; I never did like the word “confinement”. Even as a child, I used to get fever whenever I accompanied my father on his hunting expeditions or even to the zoo. Secondly, I have always been highly sensitive so the quest to understand human emotions continues till date.
Aiyushman: Have you faced any difficulty managing your literary and familial existence along with your husband’s political life?
Rita: I am very clear about drawing the line between both. Politics is something very powerful, one has to tread very carefully. Being a minister’s wife, it continues pervading into every aspect of my life but I have automatically developed some sort of internal resistance against it.
Aiyushman: If there is one mythological character you would like to identify yourself with, what would it be?
Rita: I have always compared my life with Tejimola. There have been many manifestations of my soul. Just like her, my identity has been crushed many times; I have died so many times. But each time, I have successfully resurrected myself once again.
Aiyushman: How did you get the idea for Deu Langkhui? Did you ever fathom the response it would get?
Rita: I got the idea of working on Deu Langkhui when I was once browsing through some books in the History and Antiquarian department in the city. Many years passed since then but I never got down to working on it. Then one day, I woke up and went into depth. I even brought a political map of Assam to help me understand the basics while writing. But I really never thought that it would become so popular. Who would read a historical novel? — I remember thinking.
Aiyushman: Do you think your book has helped bring focus to the need for documenting our oral traditions, like that of the Tiwas?
Rita: Until Deu Langkhui, no one really knew about the Tiwas. When people read the book and saw the Gobha Raja himself inaugurating it, they became more conscious to know about the Tiwas. The book has already provided the spark; the fire will catch on by itself.
Aiyushman: Any message to upcoming writers, especially the new generation?
Rita: From my own experience, I can state that there is no shortcut to success. At the end for a satisfying life, you need dedication and perseverance. I would also urge the new generation of writers as well as students of History to seriously think about documenting the rich oral traditions of the State and the region.
Posted on January 15, 2010, in Personalities/ Interviews and tagged Aiyushman Dutta, assam, Deu Lankahui, Rita Choudhury, Sahitya Akademi award, tejimola, tiwas. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.