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The River Man of Assam

An Academic’s Tryst with the River Brahmaputra

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Dulal Chandra Goswami

By Aiyushman Dutta

The Brahmaputra River is the pride and very lifeline of Assam. On the banks of this mighty river, a number of great civilizations flourished and these very banks gave rise to some of the world’s greatest monarchs, emperors, social reformers, artists, et al who have managed to carve a name for themselves in the chronicles of world history. From Ahom emperor Suikapha and saint Srimanta Sankardeva and Madhabdeva to our very own late Bhupen Hazarika, the river has acted as a catalyst to inspire and nurture the hidden talents in these legendary global personalities. While the mighty river has nurtured life to the fullest, it has also played the contrasting role of a mass destroyer as its mighty waves and currents, which erupts in the form of massive floods and erosion, have time and again proved nature’s, especially this particular river’s, superiority over mankind.

In this article, I would like to acquaint our readers with a unique man from Assam who has spent his entire life studying the flow and course of this river. Studying this river and its nature has taken him to various prominent positions across the entire world but wherever he has gone – be it to the farthest reaches of America or down South to South Africa, he has always taken a piece of the river along with him.

I am talking about none other than eminent environmental scientist and engineer Prof Dulal Chandra Goswami, who is nothing short of an authority on the River Brahmaputra. An erudite scholar and academician who holds significant positions in different academic and professional organizations, Dr. Goswami is widely known for his expertise on different issues related to the River Brahmaputra.

A former Colin Mackenzie Chair Professor at Anna University, Chennai in 2004, Prof Dulal Chandra Goswami retired as a head of the Department of Environmental Science at Guwahati University in 2003. He has also been associated with John Hopkins University (USA), Howard University(USA), Berne University (Switzerland), NASA Project (USA), NRSA, Department of Space, India and the founder of the Assam Remote Sensing Application Centre at Guwahati, besides holding a number of other important positions. His area of specialization is Fluvial Geomorphology, Environmental Science and Geoinformatics. His doctoral research was on Fluvial Geomorphology of the Brahmaputra River, Assam, India at Johns Hopkins University, U.S.A.

An academic with more than 150 publications to his credit, he received the prestigious Rockefeller Foundation Grant for research on the Brahmaputra river by the John Hopkins University, USA; a Research Fellowship from East- West Centre Fellowship, USA, to name a few. Not just as an academic, he has also mentored a number of researchers on the dynamics of the River Brahmaputra. Under his research supervision, 25 students have received their doctorate degree while 12 others have received their degree in M. Phil.

Having travelled across the world, Prof Dulal Goswami has been based in Guwahati since 2004 and has been heading a number of government bodies and committees, including as Member, L. C. Jain Committee of the Planning Commission for Economic Development of   Assam, 1990, Member, State Wasteland Board, Member, State Wetland Board, Member, Technical Committee, State Land Use Board, Member, Flood Enquiry Committee, Govt. of Assam, 1986 and 1988, to name just a few.

I recently met the distinguished scholar at his residence on the outskirts of Guwahati to know about his family, his work with the River Brahmaputra and his journey to the States and other parts of the world. Following are excerpts.

Q. Please tell us about your childhood and growing up days.

Ans: I was born and brought up in 1943 in North Lakhimpur. While I was born in Silonibari Tea Estate, where my father worked, in the interiors of Lakhimpur town, I spent most of my formative years in our ancestral house in the town. My father’s name was late Keshab Chandra Goswami. The place where I grew up was a bit remote and even though people called it part of Lakhimpur town, it was still pretty rural.

I did my initial schooling in the Lower Primary School of Silonibari TE with children of other tea garden labourers. But later on, my father enrolled my into Lakhimpur High School from where I completed the rest of my schooling. I remember the great earthquake which struck Assam in the 1950s pretty vividly. The road leading to our school had got damaged overnight and that was the first time I got introduced with the vagaries of nature.

After completing my schooling, my father sent me to Shillong to pursue my higher secondary education at St. Edmunds. The journey to Shillong from Lakhimpur proved to be my first major acquaintance with the mighty River Brahmaputra. In those days, we had to cross the river via Jorhat in order to reach the other bank. I was so immensely fascinated by the River Brahmaputra and this fascination with the river has been chartering the course of my life all these years.

Later on, I came to Guwahati to study at Guwahati University where I chose Geology as my major subject. In those days, GU had provisions for classes in Geology, Geography and Anthropology at the undergraduate level and these courses were much sought after by the students. After completing my graduation, I worked for a while as a subject teacher in a high school back home. Once my financial condition improved a bit, I went to Saugor University in Madhya Pradesh to do my M. Tech in Geology.  However, the train serves were pretty dismal in those days and I could not make it on time for my admissions. But since I had already reached the University, I did not want to come back. In that place, I met a university lecturer who had earlier visited Assam and who looked at me with sympathetic eyes. He told me to study Geography and I accordingly did my M.Sc in Geography with specialisation in Fluvial Geomorphology and Geoinformatics.

Q. You had worked as a teacher in Cotton College for a brief period of time…

Ans: Yes, after I came back from Madhya Pradesh, I started looking around for a job. Thankfully, there was an application for a post in Cotton College in those days. I applied for the same and was thankfully selected for the job. I spent around five years in Cotton College before I left to join Guwahati University.

Q. You had spent quite a lot of time doing field study of the River Brahmaputra…

Ans: Yes, while in Guwahati University, my interest in studying and knowing about rivers and river systems deepened. I had by then resolved to go abroad for higher studies but wanted to know more about our own river systems before doing so. So whenever I got the chance, I used to venture out to study about the river. During university breaks, I would go to Arunachal Pradesh and spend time in the dried-up river beds, visit government offices to study reports about floods. It was during that time that I started writing articles on the flood problem of Assam in the Assam Tribune.

I wrote letters to foreign universities and began corresponding with Professor M Gordon Wolman of JHU about my interest in the Brahmaputra river. The professor, who later became my guide and mentor, said he knew about the river and offered me a seat to study in their university. The government supported me and although the financial support was very minimum, it helped me reach the United States in 1976. Under Professor M Gordon Wolman’s suggestion, l studied Fluvial Geomorphology in the Dept. of Geography and Environmental Engineering, Whiting School of Engineering at the Johns Hopkins University.

Since the government’s financial support was very less, I was finding it difficult to complete my course. At that point of time, my mentor Professor M Gordon Wolman of JHU came to my help once again. Taking due cognizance of the low fellowship amount I received from the State Government, he introduced me to the Rockefeller Foundation, USA and fixed an interview with one of their office bearers in 1977. I considered myself to be very lucky to get this godsend opportunity and accordingly, applied for the interview at Rockefeller Foundation in New York. After a long and exhaustive interview session, the foundation granted me a fellowship to help complete the remainder of my thesis. Till date, I remember the proactive role played by my mentor Professor M Gordon Wolman of Johns Hopkins University who helped me continue my Ph.D. course in the States.

This fellowship helped cover the expenses for my frequent travels back home to Assam for my field work. It was during that period that I collected a lot of data for my thesis. There were very few tools for data collection and it was a laborious exercise. For instance, there were no Xerox machines in those days and I had to write everything down by hand. I had to make a lot of trips up and down to the university during that period. Somehow, in 1982, I managed to receive my Ph.D. degree.

Q. You were also involved in a NASA Project on Himalayan Snowmelt Modeling in Washington D.C…

 Ans: Yes, after I received my Ph.D., I was approached by the NASA to conduct a project on Himalayan Snowmelt modelling. Although the project was titled Himalayan Snowmelt Modeling, it was mostly based in the Western Himalayas. That project lasted for almost a year and a half.

Q. So when did you decided to come back to India?

 Ans: I must have done seven-eight such projects in the Western Himalayas when I decided that I had enough publications to my name. By that time, our son was also born and I wanted him to grow up in India. At that point of time, I got an invitation from the Indian Space Research Organization to be part of the Remote Sensing Centre in Hyderabad. I did not think twice and accordingly came back. Once I reached India, I was asked to lead a project on erosion caused by the River Brahmaputra in Assam for the Remote Sensing Centre. After that project got over, I had resolved to come back to Assam. Thankfully, during that time, a readership post in Guwahati University fell vacant and I was selected for the job.

Q. You were also the founder of the Assam State Remote Sensing Centre…

 Ans: Yes, after I reached Assam, the State government approached me with an offer to start the Assam State Remote Sensing Centre as part of ASTEC. I took up the offer and led a group of young professionals to form the State Remote Sensing Centre. All these were, of course, honorary positions.

Q. As a person who has been actively involved with the dynamics of the River Brahmaputra and who is regarded as an authority on the Brahmaputra basin, do you feel that a solution to the flood and erosion problem which plagues Assam on an annual basis can be achieved in the near future?

Ans: I am very much optimistic that a solution to this grave problem will be found in the future. We have already hit rock bottom and the worst is already over. However, in order to mitigate this problem of flood and erosion, I feel that we need to take a more holistic approach to study the course of the river, right from its origins in China, before we can find a long-lasting solution to the problem.

Thank you sir, for taking out time to talk with us. It has been an enriching experience to know about your work and association with the River Brahmaputra.

(First published in melange, The Sentinel on July 8, 2018)

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Paddling to Glory

In Conversation with Veteran International-level Table Tennis player Arunjyoti Barua

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International-level table tennis player and former Indian TT captain Arunjyoti Barua

By Aiyushman Dutta

As sport lovers across the entire world, and also our very own north-eastern region, gear up to witness the finals of the FIFA World Cup 2018 tournament being held in Russia today, the spirit of sporting frenzy amongst soccer fans is unmistakeable. And when we also take into account young Assamese sprinter Hima Das’s recent historic feat in the Women’s 400 metres final race at the IAAF World Under-20 Athletics Championships in Finland, the entire atmosphere seems to be reverberating with the sheer power and glory of sports. For those who are still off the grid, Hima Das had created history last Thursday evening when she won the gold medal in the World Under-20 Athletics Championships at Finland.

As we go around celebrating the beauty and sheer power that sports and sporting extravaganzas have blessed upon us, this time around we would like to remind our readers about the historic feats of another son of the soil who had brought many a laurels for the country in the domain of international table tennis. We are talking about veteran International table tennis player Arunjyoti Baruah, a soft-spoken and unassuming sportsperson, who had brought numerous accolades for the country in many prestigious forums like the Commonwealth Games, South Asian Games, and the like.

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With former President of India Gyani Zail Singh as a member of the Indian Table Tennis contingent

A former captain of the junior Indian Table Tennis team, Barua has many historic feats to his credit. Some of the include winning the South Asian Games Gold medal in 1991 and 1988, Silver medal in 1991 and Bronze in 1991.  A certified black belt degree holder (Six Sigma), he also won the World Youth Teams Gold & Singles Silver Medal in Turkey (1982), Asian Junior Bronze Medal Winner in Indonesia (1982) and Asian Junior Doubles Bronze Medal Winner in Bahrain (1983).

In an international career which stretched for almost a decade and a half, Barua represented the Indian team in the World Senior Championships held in Sweden (1985,) India (1987) and Japan (1991); the Asian Senior Championships in Pakistan (1984), China (1986) & Malaysia (1990); Seoul Asian Games, South Korea (1986); Commonwealth Senior Championships in India (1982); UK (1985) and Kenya (1991); SAARC (SAG) Games in India (1985 & 1988) and Sri Lanka (1991); Asian Junior Championships in Indonesia (1982) & Bahrain (1983); World Youth Championships in Turkey (1982); Belgium Open (1985); Hungary Open (1985); Czechoslovakia Open (1985) and the US Open in 1983, 1985 & 1995.

 A sportsperson who has been honoured with numerous prestigious awards like the Lachit Bota, conferred by the Government of Assam; Eklavya Award conferred by Delhi University and a Government of India Special Recognition for International Achievement, Barua’s still repents at having missed the chance to represent the country in the Olympics Games – the ultimate bastion for all sportsperson. And not surprisingly so because given his form and the dream run that he was in, he was a sure shot contender to make the country proud in the Olympics pavilion as well.

Nevertheless, Arunjyoti Barua today stands as a proud reminder of Assam being a historically rich strong-house of sporting talents, and the superiority and prowess of Assamese paddlers in the global sporting stage during the 80s and 90s of the last millennium. It would not be justified to keep Barua’s achievements limited only in the sporting arena because he has made an equally enviable transition to become a highly dynamic technocrat in OIL India Limited where he is presently employed as the General Manager Administration (Pipeline Headquarters) in Narengi.

As we get ready to cheer our favourite teams playing for the most coveted football world trophy today, we would like to reproduce excerpts from a highly absorbing discussion that I had recently entered into with the veteran paddler. Following are excerpts.

Q. At the outset, let us begin with your childhood. How do you recount your growing up days and how did your tryst with table tennis start?

Ans: I was lucky to be born in a family which supported me tremendously in my sporting endeavours. My father late Mahendra Kumar Barua was a forest official who retired as the Chief Conservator of Forests. I grew up with two other siblings; my elder sister Mallika Barua Sarma is incidentally also a veteran badminton player who represented the country in the Asian Games. Due to my father’s job postings, we grew up in the naturally rich areas of Assam and our growing days was a beautiful blend of studies and sporting activities. I remember taking up table tennis seriously during our days in Dibrugarh, where my father was posted as the DFO of that time. We had a huge hall in our house and there we made a wooden TT board to play the game.

Q. So when did you start taking formal training in the sport?

Ans: That is a good question. Everyone plays but very few manage to pursue it as a sporting activity. I used to study in Don Bosco School Dibrugarh and our principal was father TT Thomas – a man who has inspired me greatly in my journey. I don’t know whether it was my good luck or sheer co-incidence but when we had to come back to Guwahati owing to my father’s transfer, Father TT Thomas was also posted to Don Bosco Guwahati as the principal. Father Thomas knew my passion for table tennis and sporting activities and as soon as he saw me here, he started prodding me to play the game seriously.

At that point of time, we had a famous coach late Nihal Singh Thakur who used to come and train the students of Don Bosco School every morning. I was fortunate enough to meet a person like him who groomed and trained me in the initial stages. My seniors in Don Bosco School, like Curfew Roy, Gautam Hazarika, etc were also huge inspiring personalities for me. So you can say that my formal training in TT began at Don Bosco High School in 1977.

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As part of the Indian Table Tennis team in an international tournament

Q. How do you look back at those days?

Ans: Those were very memorable and pretty intense days. We used to start practicing right from early morning after which we used to go to school. After our classes got over for the day, we used to get together again to practice. Our school had already produced two three good batches of table tennis players and we were constantly on the lookout to better ourselves. There was a very healthy sort of competition amongst the students and this helped me in my development.

In 1978, I made my debut at the National Sub Junior Singles Championship and created history by becoming the champion. That seems so surreal for me even now. I still remember the huge sea of people waiting to receive me at the Gauhati Railway Station. I was just overwhelmed with the love and response of the people; TT was such a popular game at that time.

I was then called to the National Institute of Sports in Patiala where I met the towering personalities of Indian Table Tennis of that time, like Manjit Dua, Indu Puri, V Chandrasekhar, et al. From the sub junior level, I was the only player at NIS at that point of time. It was a big inspiration for me to play alongside with those legends. After that, there was no looking back. I started winning sub-junior championships and then the national junior championships. I became the National Sub Junior Singles Champion in 1980. The same year, I went to Jakarta and then Bahrain. My career was progressing at a very rapid pace at that time.

Q. Who were your coaches at that times?

Ans: While at Guwahati, I trained under late Nihal Singh Thakur and SK Mishra. At the national level, there was a North Korean coach Pak Yu Hyun, who was visiting India and who helped me immensely. He was an aggressive player himself and loved my aggressive style of playing. In 1983, I managed to upset top seeds in the senior nationals in Delhi. By that time, I got my first break in the senior Indian Table Tennis Team. My career progressed very rapidly and in the next championship, I even upset India’s No 1 player V Chandrasekhar. In a period of about five years, I made it to the Indian national teams.

Q. What about your formal education?

Ans: My father supported my playing. But he always told me to maintain proper marks in my studies and I kept that in mind. I passed my matriculation from Don Bosco High School with pretty good marks. After that, I joined Modern School Barakhamba Road which was a very prestigious school in those days. In fact, there is a story behind how I landed up in Modern School. I had gone to the school to play a national-level TT match and after watching my game, the principal was so impressed that they offered me a seat in their school. At that time, I was planning to study in Cotton College but then this was a godsend opportunity and I took admission there. I stayed in the hostel of the school and my tryst with the game took another dimension there as I met a lot of stalwarts. For instance, Arjuna Awardee Indu Puri used to come to train there. I then did my B. Com (Honours) from Sri Ram College of Commerce, Under Delhi University.

Q. You had got the Best Commonwealth Games Ranking of No. 17 in the Commonwealth Games…

Ans: Yes, that was in 1991 during the Commonwealth Games held in Nairobi. I performed exceedingly well in that event. I got the silver medal in the Men’s Doubles and also the Bronze medal in the team category. I played till the quarterfinals in the Singles event. The same year, I went to Japan for the World Senior Table Tennis Championships. In that tournament, I got my career best ranking of World No 144.  Till now, I have played in three world championships, 3 Asian championships, 3 Commonwealth Games and 1 Asian Games.

Q. Do you regret missing out on the Olympics?

Ans: Yes, that is a big regret I have. I have achieved everything else apart from the Olympics. Participating in the Olympics Games adds an altogether different dimension to one’s career and life.

Q. Do you feel that the 70-80s was the Golden Era for Table Tennis in Assam?

Ans: Yes, definitely. Everyone was playing well at all the levels. While I was performing well at the sub-junior levels, I faced equally tough competition from Rahul Dutta. At the Junior level, the likes of Anupam Konwar were really playing well. For instance, during the Junior National Championship held in 1983, the Assam team won 12-13 of all the medals in the tournament. Assam was the undisputed champions of the country. Players from Assam dominated the game and that dominance was now been taken over by Bengal.

Q. Looking back, what do you attribute your success to? Talent or discipline?

Ans: I feel it was my good luck. I was playing as part of a beautiful system. I underwent rigorous training in Don Bosco, then in Modern School and then Sri Ram College of Commerce. See, if you want to be a player, you will find that most players usually come out from colleges and universities. If you get proper support at the university level, there is nothing like it. I was fortunate enough to receive that support.

Secondly, my family supported me a lot. Also, we were lucky to have stalwarts like Phani Sharma, Joynath Sharma, Bhowmik Sir and the like at the helm of sporting affairs in the State. They were huge motivating and inspiring personalities for me. Even at the national level, I was lucky to meet my coach Pak Yu Guhn.

Individual skill, talent, discipline and vision are very necessary for the emergence of a good player, but at the same time, getting the right opportunity is also equally important. I feel that we were lucky to have a beautiful system which complemented all these areas. Looking back, I was very disciplined and did well in both my game as well as my studies. I passed my B Com (Honours from Sriram College and then got a job in OIL India while I was still playing. After my graduation, I joined the National Institute of Personnel Management and then Xaviers Institute of Management in Bhubaneshwar from where I got a dual MBA degree. Because of my additional degrees, the Company recognised me and helped me reach my present position today.

Q. What do you have to say about the support of OIL India in your sporting career?

Ans: OIL India truly supports sportspersons. I have simply no words to express how much they have supported me.

(First published in melange, The Sentinel on July 15, 2018)

Golden Boots

In conversation with former Indian team footballer and legendary striker Gilbertson Sangma.

 

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Gilbertson Sangma

By Aiyushman Dutta

The FIFA World Cup Football Tournament 2018 in Russia might have finally gotten over but the enthusiasm that has been created amongst football fans continues to soar greater heights. As we celebrate France’s victory in the World Cup and also the surprising rise of Croatia in the global football stage, we would like to go back in history and celebrate the exploits of one of our own sons of the soil.

We are talking about international-level football player and former Indian football team striker Gilbertson Sangma who has many exploits on the international football ground to his credit. The melange team recently met the star player at his residence in Guwahati to know more about his life and his journey in the world of football. Following are excerpts.

Q. The football World Cup finally got over and it seems you are a bit free from your hectic schedule over the past few days? How was the World Cup for you this year?

 Ans: This year’s World cup was more or less very much similar to the previous years for me. People had different views on who would be the winners of the cup and in the end, some other country became the winner. Many peoples supported teams based on their individual choices and wanted them to win; while for some their chosen team won, for others they had to come back disappointed. For me, it is not different than what it was in the previous years.

For me, yes, this world cup was quite hectic because a number of news channels have come up in the State now. I had to go as a panellist for all their World Cup specials shows a number of times and this took up a lot of my time.

I had also gone to Karbi Anglong at the insistence of Mr. Putul Bora who had created a German stadium there. I am sure you must have heard of the news. Even though I supported his initiative, I did offer him some words of advice while coming back. I told him that while what he did was really commendable, he would have done better if he spent Rupees 5-6 lakhs of the total money he spent in building the stadium towards the cause of Karbi Anglong players. He could have created a football team out of local players since there are so many good football players in Karbi Anglong. This would have gone a long way in the future development of football in Karbi Anglong as well as the State.

Q, You have represented the Indian team and played outside the country and been part of so many prestigious formats of the game. Do you have any feelings of sadness for not being able to be part of the World Cup in your life?

Ans: A bit of sadness will obviously be there because as sportsperson, we always want to develop along with the best in the sport. In our case, we drastically needed a good team which could qualify for the world cup and unfortunately, that did not happen.

Q. The seventies were the prime time in your sporting career. Can you recount those days a bit for us?

 Ans: I started playing Class 1 football tournaments during 1971-1972. Assam and its players were really at the top of the game during that point of time. I was also performing really well and was at the peak of my career. I got many offers from clubs like Mohan Bagan, Tata Sporting Club, Demco Club in Goa and even from Punjab and Bangkok. However, I did not take up any of those offers. I chose to remain back in Assam.

Q. Was there any specific reason why you chose not to take up those offers?

 Ans: Well, since I was playing for Assam I did not want to move outside the State and represent another club. Also in those days, opportunities were not the same as it is today. Sportspersons or footballers nowadays get a lot of opportunities which we did not get. Suppose I had even taken up one of the offers of those club, the money offered was very less. For instance, most clubs would pay just around Rd 20,000 or so for an entire season. The scenario has changed for the better now and most players get much more lucrative deals.

Q. Coming back to our previous question, you played the Santosh trophy for many years…

 Ans: It was in 1973 that I was selected in the final 11 team in the Santosh Trophy that was held in Goa. In that tournament, our first match was against Rajasthan which we won. It was really a memorable experience to be part of the team that defeated Rajasthan, which was as its peak during that time. We lost the second match against Bengal in that tournament and won the last match against Gujarat by a huge margin.

In 1974, I was selected for the Indian team which went to Tehran for the Asian Games. Accordingly, we went to Patiala, which was the hub of international-level sports training in the country, and spent around two months practicing for the tournament. However, I was placed as the 21st players of the team, which meant I was an extra. So while the team left, I had to stay back in the country.

Nonetheless, the same year, the Santosh Trophy was held at Jalandhar and we played against Kerala, who were the champions in that edition. We won our first game against Kerala and much have reached the quarterfinals stage of that trophy. Soon after that, I went to Mumbai to play in the Rover’s Cup. As to your question, I must have played in around 7-8 editions of the Santosh Trophy consecutively.

In 1975-76, I was selected to play for the Indian team and went for a tour of Indonesia and Malaysia as part of the team.

In 1976, there was a turning point in my life as I received an ankle injury. That was a turning point because the national team does not call injured players for trial matches of the team for a second time. Although I did not play for the Indian team, I still played in all the other major tournaments and league matches.

Q. Although you played a number of matches in the 80s, your ankle injury prevented you from getting another place in the Indian team. Do you have any regrets about that?

Ans: Yes, there is definitely a lot of regret. As strikers, whenever we go to play any tournament, the entire team depends on us. We are the gamemakers – we have to play and at the same time make others play as well. So for sportsmen like us, injuries are inevitable; they are bound to happen. The injury was really unlucky but I kept playing. However, nowadays I increasingly think as to why tournaments like the ISL was not held during our time? I seriously regret missing the ISL. Anyway, in 1986 I hung up my boots after playing professional football continuously for 15 years.

Q. Where were you born? How did you develop an interest in football?

Ans: I was born in Dibrugarh. My father late S Momin was an Inspector in the Assam Police. I have four other brothers and two siblings. I guess the love for football was ingrained in our beings. From my childhood, I had a deep passion for football and other sporting activities although I could never really make it in academics.

Q. You have played for Assam Police your entire life. We heard that you joined Assam Police only to play football. Can you please recount the journey for us?

Ans: As I said, I loved playing football right from my childhood. Growing up in Dibrugarh, I used to see many Assam police personnel like Kamala Nath, Anil Rai, etc who used to come and play in tournaments. I was so inspired by them and wanted to play alongside with them. But in order to that, I needed to join the Assam Police. So in 1971, I packed my bags and landed up at the Dergaon Police Train Centre. I was very young then but somehow I managed to pass all the tests and joined the 1st APBN. I enjoyed my stint in Dergaon as there was no shortage of either playgrounds or sporting equipment. In 1972, I completed my training and passed out as a constable. That very year, I represented Assam Police at the All India East Zone Football Tournament held in Bengal. That was my first professional tournament as part of Assam Police. Since then, there has been no looking back for me.

Q. We have already discussed about your sporting career. Did your professional life as a policeman affect your career in any way?

Ans: No, it did not. In fact, after I returned from training in Patiala, I was promoted to the post of Havildar. Then in 1975, when I went to Indonesia as part of the Indian football team, I was rewarded in the form of a promotion to post of Sub Inspector. In 81, I was made an Inspector after the Assam Police won the Bordoloi Trophy.

After I stopped playing professional football, I devoted my entire time and energy into my job. I got involved in all the anti-insurgency operations which was on at that time – Operation Bajrang, Operation Rhino, operations in border areas, etc. Those operations were also memorable for me because many people in interior places recognised me as the football player whom they had heard about. In 1990, I was appointed to the rank of DSP in the 10th APBN.

Q. When did you get married?

Ans: I got married while I was playing itself. I met my wife, who belongs to the Ao Naga tribe, in Dergaon. We fell in love and got married. We have two daughters.

(First published in melange, The Sentinel on June 22, 2018)

Criminally Captivating

In conversation with Shillong-based novelist Ankush Saikia

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Ankush Saikia. Photo by Embor Sayo

By Aiyushman Dutta

In the field of English writing in the Northeast, a number of new voices have emerged in recent times who have managed to earn critical acclaim for their brilliant depiction of the hitherto hidden life of people living in the north-eastern periphery of India. One such powerful voice, who has earned immense popularity across the entire country within a relatively short period of time, is Shillong-based novelist Ankush Saikia who has, for the first time, successfully introduced and worked on the genre of crime and detective thrillers set in the Northeast, and elsewhere in India. Right from his first novel, Jet City Women, published by Rupa & Co in 2007, where he talks about life of north-easterners in Delhi, he has continued to write about people and places in this remote land.

From the time his first book published in 2007, he has continued to explore this new genre with a lot of success, and has over the years, published 6 critically acclaimed novels and a collection of short stories as well.

A former journalist who has travelled widely across the Northeast as well as the country, Saikia has emerged as one of the top-ranking English writers to have been produced from the region.As a writer and novelist, Saikia rose to instant fame with his 2013 novel, The Girl from Nongrim Hills – a crime thriller published by Penguin India and which is set in the locales of Shillong. Two years earlier, his collection of short stories, Spotting Veron and Other Stories, had been published by Rupa & Co. After that, he has earned a sort of fan following amongst the north-eastern youths once he wrote the detective Arjun Arora trilogy, comprising Dead Meat (Penguin India, 2015), Remember Death (Penguin India, 2016), and More Bodies Will Fall (Penguin India, 2018).

The detective Arjun Arora trilogy is a first of sorts as no one had previously worked on the genre of crime and thrillers with so much details about life in the Northeast that Ankush has put into his books. All of Saikia’s novels are either based in the Northeast or brings to life the varied colourful characters and locales of the region, which till now have not been adequately represented in popular commercial novels in the country.

A recipient of the Shanghai Writers’ Association’s international writers’ fellowship for the year 2018, Saikia was also shortlisted for the Outlook / Picador-India non-fiction writing competition in 2005. At present, he lives in Shillong where he helps out at his mother’s bakery in the Laitumukrah area of Shillong when he is not writing. Married to a lovely lady and the father of a six-year old son, Ankush Saikia is presently working on a book set in the north bank region of Assam and the foothills of Arunachal Pradesh.

I recently entered into an absorbing discussion with the writer to know more about his journey in the field of writing, how he decided to work on the genre of crime and detective thrillers set in the Northeast, and his future plans. Following are excerpts.

Q. At the outset, please tell us about your childhood, family and growing up days?

 Ans: I was born in Tezpur, Assam in 1975.After a year in Assam, we left for America, where my father was doing his PhD in mathematics (and then teaching) at the University of Madison, Wisconsin. A few years later we returned to the North East, to Shillong, where my father joined the North Eastern Hill University (NEHU). So I grew up in Shillong, and Tezpur and BiswanathChariali, where I would go during the winter holidays, and which were my mother’s and father’s places respectively. This was during the 1980s. It seems recent when I think about it, but there has been such a great change in all of these places: mostly more people, cars, buildings. And why not, almost 30 years have gone by. Shillong and Tezpur and Chariali were small towns then, something you can’t say about the first two places now. Life in those pre-liberalisation days was much slower than today, people had more time, and modest ambitions.

Q. Please tell us a bit about your education and your present work profile.

 Ans: Nearly all of my education was done in Shillong—10 years at St Edmund’s School and then 5 more years at St Edmund’s College. In 1997 I moved to Delhi, where I did a couple of courses, advertising and then computers I think, while I tried to clear the CAT—which I didn’t—and neither did I get into Delhi University (in Economics, which I had as a honours subject), nor Jawaharlal Nehru University (in English). I had already written my first novel by then, which thankfully has never been published! A late collegefriend of my father’s (they were together at Ramjas College in Delhi) helped me get into a job, and that was how I managed to stay on in Delhi. In 2011 I returned to the North East. At present I help out with the bakery my mother runs in Shillong,

Q. How did you get interested in the world of literature?

 Ans:I always read a lot, since I was a child. Some of my uncles and aunts from both sides of the family read quite a bit, and I grew up seeing books in our house as well. One of the first things my parents did when they returned from America was to enrol me in the State Central Library in Shillong—over the years (I still borrow books from them) I have never seen more than a handful of people there, except if there was maybe a concert going in the auditorium or some festival being held in the library grounds. I think I was around 16 when the idea came to me that I should try writing a book. Little did I know that it would take me 15 more years just to get published!

Q. You have made quite an impact in the genre of thrillers and detective novels. Were you apprehensive of setting the regional locales in your book? 

 Ans: I set out to write novels in English, as that was my strongest language (we only had Assamese as a 2nd language in school in Shillong, though I speak it fluently), and I had never planned to write crime novels or thrillers, it just happened to work out that way, maybe something to do with an interest in the darker side of human existence. Among the authors I read in school and college were several writers of Westerns (Louis L’amour) and then people like Hemingway, Graham Greene, Naipaul and RK Narayan, and I suppose they left me with an interest in places and people more than abstract ideas, and so when I started writing I suppose it was only natural that I turned to places I knew well—Shillong and Delhi, also Assam. As for the settings elsewhere in the North East—Arunachal, Nagaland, Manipur—I had to go and do some research there, as I had never visited those places (apart from the Kameng region of Arunachal) while growing up.I would be more apprehensive writing about places I didn’t know.

During the book launch of More Bodies will fall in a cafe in Shillong. Photo by Farah Nongkhlaw.jpg

During the book launch of More Bodies will fall in a cafe in Shillong. Photo by Farah Nongkhlaw

Q. You are credited for ushering in a new wave in popular English writing in the Northeast. How would you like to define your style of writing?

 Ans: It’s kind of you to mention it that way, but right from the beginning, and even now, I’ve always felt alone in the work I was doing, in the sort of books I was writing. I don’t wish to sound arrogant in any way, but I don’t think anyone has written something like Jet City Woman (students from the North East in Delhi), The Girl From Nongrim Hills (a crime thriller set in Shillong), or More Bodies Will Fall (a detective investigates the death of a girl from the North East in Delhi). And these books are extremely realistic, the only thing “invented” in them is the plot. As far as my style goes, I would say it comprises of a realistic and somewhat cynical look at the society around me.

Q. Do you feel that the unique NE locales and characters of your book have affected their commercial popularity or the way they are accepted by your reader? 

 Ans:If I had written crime novels set solely in “mainland” India, I think they might have done better than my books set in the North East or with a North East connection. But my style of writing is such that I usually need to know a place well before writing about it—so now that basically means only Delhi from “mainland” India (and even there, I’ve only made two trips since leaving the city in 2011, so I already feel like my knowledge of it is slightly dated). I would love to write about, for instance, the mining operations in tribal areas in central India, the hidden economy of the conflict in Kashmir, the history of Kolkata, to give a few examples, but that would mean time and effort and expenses—without a guaranteed payoff at the end. Maybe sometime in the future!

Q. Tell us a bit about The Girl from Nongrim Hills.

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Ans:Many people assume the “girl” in question is a real-life person, with some even suggesting that the person on the cover is the girl herself! (It is a stock photo from Getty Images, shot somewhere in Europe I think). In fact, the editor and publisher found this image online and loved it, and told me they wanted to use it—the only problem was the girl had long hair in the manuscript. But once we’d agreed that it would make for a good cover, I went back to the manuscript and changed the few references to the girl’s hair. So another title could well be “The Girl who used to have Long Hair”! The book was really born out of a desire to write something set in Shillong that captured the grime and gritty locations, among others, of the city, a desire to write a noir crime story rooted in Shillong. The guitarist came first, then the standard noir ingredients: a mystery girl, money in a bag, guns. Here again, leaving the plot aside, I think I managed to recreate a very different Shillong, a truer Shillong, than what is conjured up by tourist pieces about the city.

Q. Is your character detective Arjun Arora an entirely fictitious character or has he been inspired by people you met in real life?

 Ans:He is a fictitious character, yes. In many ways he is a typical noir protagonist: a loner, fond of the bottle, with a tormented past, sensitive in his own way. Then there are a few aspects from within me as well: the insider/outsider situation that comes about for many people in our country, the nostalgia for a simpler past, a dissatisfaction with the big city (Delhi)—I took these things and then increased them in intensity for the character, so that he is wrestling with very strong personal demons even as he delves into his cases. Another thing I realised only recently, after having written 3 books with the character: he goes deep into the lives of people who have disappeared—the accountant in Dead Meat, the actress from Lucknow in Remember Death, and the girl from Nagaland in More Bodies Will Fall—and almost seems to prefer their company to that of living people.

Q. What are you presently working on?

 Ans: It’s something I’ve been researching and trying to write for the past 5 years (when I started writing the Arjun Arora series), and for which I only settled upon the writing approach just a few months ago. It’s a short book, under 250 pages, and I should finish the first draft soon, but it might change quite a bit while being revised. It is set in and around Tezpur, taking in the geographical stretch from the Brahmaputra to the foothills and up into the Kameng region of Arunachal. The backdrop is the near-total disappearance of the Chariduar reserve forest to the north-west of Tezpur, which at 460 sq km was one of the largest patches of forest in Asia, and of which only about 80 to 90 sq km remains today, while the story takes in a forest beat officer’s relationship with his son, the Bodoland movement, security operations targeting insurgents, and bits of family history and the larger history of the region. There are elements of a crime novel in it, but it is also an attempt to incorporate reportage and history into a crime story, and thus trying to rise above the plot-centric limitations of that genre.

Q. How do you find out time for writing from your professional workloads?

 Ans:I help out with the bakery my mother runs in Shillong (Moinee’s Bakes in Laitumkhrah), and am lucky to be doing something that leaves me with quite a lot of free time for my writing.

(First published in melange, The Sentinel on July 29, 2018)

 

NRL felicitates noted Sattriya Dance Exponent Sri Jatin Goswami  

Sattriya Dance Exponent Jatin Goswami being felicitated by NRL MD Mr. S.K. Barua at NRL Corporate Office, Guwahati on 03-04-18

Sattriya Dance Exponent Jatin Goswami being felicitated by NRL MD Mr. S.K. Barua at NRL Corporate Office, Guwahati on 03-04-18

Numaligarh Refinery Limited (NRL) today felicitated Padma Shri and Sangeet Natak Academi Award winner Nrityacharya Sri Jatin Goswami at a function held in  its Corporate Office at Guwahati. This was informed through a press release.

MD NRL Mr. S.K Barua conferred a citation, a memento  and a cash reward of Rs. 1 lakh to the cultural doyen of Assam, who has with his whole hearted dedication and efforts brought Sattriya Dance to its present state of glory and reverence in the national and global stage.

 Shri Goswami in his speech expressed his gratitude for the noble gesture on the part of NRL in honouring him and the dance form which is a manifestation of Assamese culture for centuries.

 The above initiative is in line with NRL’s Corporate Social Responsibility(CSR) policy which amongst others focusses on promoting Art, Literature, Culture and sports. NRL has been honouring  eminent personalities in the field of art, literature and culture in the past including cultural icons of the stature of  Late Dr. Bhupen Hazarika, Late Shri Rameshwar Pathak; Dr. Birendra Nath Dutta; Dipali Borthakur and Neelpawan Barua.

The Doyen of Theatre in Assam

By Aiyushman Dutta

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Kulada Kumar Bhattacharjee

In the cultural world of Assam, his is a name which hardly needs an introduction. A man who is credited with ushering in a new wave in the world of theatre through incorporation of professional and modern techniques, he can rightfully be considered as a doyen as far as Assamese theatre is concerned. One of the first artists to have taken professional training in stage, film and television abroad in London, he is hugely responsible for the development of Assamese theatre as a whole. His immense contributions can be gauged from the fact that he had spearheaded Assamese theatre into a national movement when he launched the Asom Jatiya Natyasala Andolan Samiti in the mid-sixties.

But this soft-spoken and unassuming man, who has his feet firmly set on the ground, shies away from such lofty titles and epitaphs. Although in his eighties, he continues to pursue his passion for theatre and the arts, away from all the limelight and media-crazy crowd. You have guessed it right. We are talking about none other than Kulada Kumar Bhattacharjee – a cultural institution in himself. For over five decades now, Kulada Kumar Bhattacharjee has been silently working behind the scenes, shying away from all possible limelight, for the proper and successful propagation of histrionics in this region. Not just theatre, he has also established his name as one of Assam’s most successful directors, columnists and essayists.

Kulada Kumar Bhattacharjee’s immense contributions to the world of culture have been recognised in the form of numerous awards and citations. Prominent amongst them are the Tarun Duwarah Memorial Oil India Award, Nirode Chouhury Lifetime Achievement Award, token of appreciation by Jeewan Ram Mungi Devi Goenka Public Charitable Trust, Apsara Award, besides others.

I recently met him at his residence in Guwahati for a tete-a-tete where he talked about his life and journey in the world of theatre. Following are excerpts.

  1. At the beginning, please tell us about your childhood and your memories of growing up in Guwahati.

 Ans: My father late Kali Prassanna Bhattacharjee was a lawyer by profession while my mother was a housewife. If he had been alive today, he would have been around 122 years old. I have two elder brothers and two younger sisters.

I have fond memories of growing up in Guwahati. The Guwahati of those days was totally different from what it is today. It was a very small town with a very small population. We stayed in Jaswanta Road of Panbazar. Although now that area has become famous for book stores, in those days there was only one book store i.e. Lawyers Book Store. On the other end of the area, there was a small school where I studied upto Class 2. But after the war broke out, we moved back to our native place in Sylhet. At that time, Sylhet was part of India and it was a district of Assam.

In 1946, we came back and matriculated from Paltan Bazar Bengali Girls High School. I did my BA from Cotton College and then took admission in Gauhati Universe for the MA course with honours in history. But frankly speaking, I took admission in GU only for the sake of it. I spent most of the time performing plays. I used to do plays in GU, for the ITPA and All India Radio. After that, I joined AIR as an English announcer.

Nirode-Chaudhury-Lifetime-Achievement-Award-conferred-on-noted-artiste-Kulada-Kumar-Bhattacharjee

Receiving the Nirode Choudhury Lifetime Achievement Award from late Biju Phukan

2. You are among the very few from the State to take professional training in theatre abroad. Please tell us about your decision to go to London.

 Ans: I had initially gone to Leeds to pursue a course in Business Managaement, which is called MBA nowadays. At first, my father was against my decision but I was insistent and he gave his support. But once I reached Leeds, I found that the course required high levels of proficiency in Mathematics. Since I was weak in the subject, I wrote to my father about my dilemma. He wrote back to me saying that since I have already gone, I should take up training in theatre. That was like a godsend opportunity and I immediately took admission in a theatre course for a diploma in stage technique course. After completing the course, I did a three weeks intensive training course in production design at the British Drama League.

I met some really good acquaintances during the course. At the same time, I worked as a salesman in a bookstore. During the same period, I got the opportunity to assist the professional in charge of the Bengali section of BBC. I would assist him for the Friday broadcast in Bengali and that way, I did not face any shortage of money and also gained experience.

During that period, I got the news that the Indian government was about to start television and were on the lookout for announcers. I applied for the same but did not get any response. I then decided to take training in television production so that I could get a job back home in India. A German family with whom I was close suggested I go to Hamburg where their relative worked in a television centre. So in 1960, I went to Hamburg in Germany and started my training in a television centre. During that period, I learnt a lot about television production. In January, 1961, I came back to India. 

3. You worked in Delhi for a short while.

 Ans: Once I was back, I found that television had limited reach. I worked with an English theatre group in Delhi. One of my friends whom I had met in London introduced me to the assistant station director of All India Radio. So I got assignments there as well. I also did the Bengali recording for the Voice of America broadcasts during that period.

By that time, I had got a job in All India Radio where I had applied. So I decided to come back. My elder brother told me to stay back in Delhi since I would get more opportunities there. But I insisted saying that whatever I do back home will be my contribution to my State and my people.

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4. So when did you join All India Radio, Guwahati? You brought about a revolution in radio production during your stint.

 Ans: I joined AIR as Producer-in-Charge (Drama) in December, 1962. During my tenure, I developed very close rapport with three friends – Durgeswar Borthakur, late Arun Sarma and late Bhabendranath Saikia. Since I was in charge of the plays department and they would bring in plays, we became very close with each and developed a strong sense of bonding.

In fact, it was a play written by Arun Sarma, in which I had acted and produced, that revolutionised the functioning of AIR. That particular play, Parsuram, brought in a revolution in the manner in which radio plays are produced. That new trend is still continuing today. I am happy that during my tenure I was able to rope in a lot of new playwrights and start new shows in attractive formats. In addition to plays suitable for the medium, I revived a number of classic Assamese stage plays and introduced a regular forum for world classics in their stage format called the ‘Naat Chora’. I produced the translations of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Sudraka’s Mrichchhakatikam in their entirety for the Guwahati station of AIR.

I could not continue my contract with AIR as the work system interfered with my principles. After I left, I once again joined Arun Sarma and other friends to form the Asom Jatiya Natyasala Andolan Samiti. Lakshyadhar Choudhury was elected as the president while I was the general secretary. We would travel across the entire State garnering support for the cause of regional theatre.

5 You have created a special corner in the hearts of the people through some fantastic performances in television and films. Can you please recount the popular serials and films that you have been part of?

Ans: The films I have acted in include Shakuntala, Latighati, Chikmik Bijulee, Prabhati Pakhir Gaan, Bhagya, Ramdhenu, Surjasta, Dickchow Bonot Palas and Maj Rati Keteki. Some of the popular serials are Deuta, Jeevanar Batat, Aei Saharate, Papu Niku Sangbad, Tejal Ghora and Trikaal.

6. What are your views on the current trend of theatre and films in the State?

Ans: A lot of new directors have come up who holds a lot of promise. I find Reema Das to be very promising. I acted in her film, Village Rockstars, which is currently earning a lot of acclaim in film festivals. Then I would like to mention about Reema Borah. Her film, Bokul, is also very encouraging. So overall, I find the scenario to be very positive and promising.

(First published in melange on January 28, 2018)

Release of Rajabasa – a collaborative album between Jambili and Rajlaxmi Bora

A unique folk fusion album, Rajabasa, was recently released at the Guwahati Press Club. The album is a collaborative effort of Karbi folk fusion band Jambili and singer Rajlakshi Bora. The album features a beautiful fusion of Dimasa folk songs with Karbi folk tunes.

Photo courtesy: Hafiz AhmedRelease of Rajabasa - a collaborative album between Jambili and Rajlaxmi Bora

“Ishu” going to Bangladesh and France, “Memories of a Forgotten War” to MIFF

Children’s Film Society, India (CFSI)-produced Assamese feature film “ishu” and Subimal Bhattacharjee-produced 2nd World War documentary “Memories of a Forgotten War”, both directed by Utpal Borpujari, continue to make Assam’s film industry proud.

“Ishu”, the debut fiction feature by National Award-winning film critic-filmkaer Borpujari, has been selected in competition sections of 11th International Children’s Film Festival Bangladesh to be held from January 27 and the 6th Toulouse Indian Film Festival, France, to be held in April.

On the other hand, “Memories of a Forgotten War” will have a special screening at the 15th Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF), India’s biggest festival for Documentary, Short and Animation Films.

Adapted from Manikuntala Bhattacharjya’s novel of the same name, “Ishu” has earned wholesome praise from viewers at Canada Kids Film Festival, 23rd Kolkata International Film Festival (where it received Best Film and Best Director nominations in the Indian Languages competition), 3rd Smile International Film Festival for Children and Youth (SIFFCY) New Delhi and 3rd Eye Asian Film Festival Mumbai. It was also screened at the 10th International Guwahati Film Festival organised by the Gauhati Cine Club.

“Memories of a Forgotten War” too has been appreciated for its in-depth research and depiction of the lesser-known events during the battles of 2nd World War in Manipur and Nagaland by viewers at the prestigious Indian Panorama sections of the 47th International Film Festival of India (IFFI) Goa, the Normandie 2nd World War Film Festival in France, the Fragrances of the North East Film Festival in Pune and the 5th Woodpecker International Film Festival in New Delhi where it won the Best Film on North East India award.

“it’s a great honour that both the films are simultaneously travellng to prestigious film festivals. As someone who strongly believes in depicting untold stories from North East India cinematically, I feel highly encouraged about it,” says Borpujari.

Noted defence analyst and cyber security expert Subimal Bhattacharjee, the producer of “Memories of a Forgotten War” too is elated at the selection of the film in MIFF.  “It’s great that the two major reasons we made the film for are getting appreciated: one,  it’s an important part of the history of Northeastern India that needed to be looked at  from humanistic point of view before it faded away and  too late, and two, that as someone hailing from the region, I feel strongly about bringing out positive narratives from Northeastern India that is often in the news for the wrong reasons,” he says.

Incidentally, “Ishu” marks the screen debut of Kapil Garo from Sonapur Baroghoria village on the outskirts of Guwahati in the title role, and also stars Bishnu Kharghoria, Tonthoingambi Leishangthem Devi, Chetana Das, Pratibha Choudhury, Monuj Borkotoky, Dipika Deka and Nibedita Bharali. Others in the cast include Mahendra Das, Rajesh Bhuyan, Naba Kumar Baruah, Monuj Gogoi, etc. Other child actors in the film include Mahendra Rabha, Srabanta Rabha and Uday Rabha.

Several actors from the Badungduppa Kala Kendra of famed theatre personality Sukracharjya Rabha have also acted in the film, including Dhananjay Rabha and Basanta Rabha. Sukracharjya Rabha has penned the dialogues along with Borpujari.

The film has been edited by A Sreekar Prasad, while its sound design is by Amrit Pritam Dutta and music is by Anurag Saikia. The cinematographer is Sumon Dowerah, while other prominent crew members are JItendra Mishra (executive producer), Hengul Medhi (final sound mixing), Monjul Baruah (associate director), Homen Borah (production manager), Golok Saha (art director), Rani Dutta Baruah (costumes) and Achitabh (Shanku) Baruah (make up). The assistant directors of the film were Ghanshyam Kalita, Ronal Hussain and Monuj Borkotoky.

The film takes a look at the inhuman practice of ‘witch hunting’ that is prevalent in parts of Assam as well as some other parts of India, through they eyes of an innocent child whose favourite aunt is branded as a ‘witch’ by the evil village “Bej” (quack) who conspires with another aunt to do so.

On the other hand, “Memorie of a Forgotten War” depicts the extreme valour, sacrifice and sufferings of thousands of soldiers and local people in the Northeast Indian theatre of World War II. The film brings the story alive through reminiscences of a number of war veterans from Japan, Britain and India as well as war witnesses from Manipur and Nagaland, where some of the most ferocious battles of World War II took place during 1944 climaxing with the famous Battle of Kohima.

The film was shot in Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Delhi as well Japan and the UK by a multinational crew. Its background score is by Anurag Saikia.

“Ishu” trailer link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_mf7gLpg9qc

“Memories of a Forgotten War” trailer link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mw78ftewbmQ

The Determination to Succeed

Arvind Picture

Arvind Phukan

Interview by Aiyshman Dutta

(aiyushmandutta@gmail.com)

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First published in melange, The Sentinel (www.sentinelassam,com) on January 21, 2018

Is it luck that shapes a person’s destiny or is it hard work, dedication and perseverance that ultimately count? While luck and divine grace all have their roles to play, the fact remains that success comes to only those who believe in themselves and their dreams. And who proves this better than eminent Assamese engineer Arvind Phukan? An unassuming visionary person, he has travelled across the seven seas to today be counted as an authority in frozen ground engineering.

Arvind Phukan is an author and co-author of five Engineering books in the field of Geotechnical Engineering in Cold Regions, including the first text book of its kind, ‘Frozen Ground Engineering’, published by Prentice Hall Inc. in 1985. He had published 60+ technical publications and 100+ presentations at International and National Engineering Society’s meetings. He was consultant to many countries including USA, Canada, Norway, Japan, Russia, Lithuania and India.

Phukan was one of the main design engineers hired by Woodward Clyde Consultant, California (USA) to design the Alyeska 800 miles-long Oil pipe line in Alaska, which was the largest privately owned project (7 Billion Dollars) in the world. A legend in the field of frozen engineering, Phukan has also developed a portable machine for soil drilling and sampling that helps engineers create cost effective specific design for arctic foundations and water and sewer system etc.

The recipient of many awards and recognitions, Phukan was a member of the US Delegation to Leningrad, USSR for the joint USA/USSR seminar, “Building under Cold Climate” (1979)”, Scientific Fellow Scholarship, Norwegian Geotechnical Institute (1981), Fulbright Scholarship to India (1988-89), amongst others. He received the title of Doctor of Science and Technology, D.Sc (Honorary) by Down Town University, Guwahati in September, 2015. A dedicated Rotarian, he received its highest honour, the Service Above Self Award, in 2015.

DSC_2194Receiving the title of Doctor of Science and Technology, D.Sc (Honorary) by Down Town University, Guwahati in September, 2015 from the Governor of Assam

I recently entered into a conversation with him. Following are excerpts.

Q. Please tell us about your childhood and education.

Ans: I was born in Gauhati but after one year of my birth, my father late Hari Prasanna Tamuly Phukan was transferred to Jorhat where we lived for two years. He was well known educationist at that time, having authored nine books on different subjects. After Jorhat, we moved to Dhubri where I went to both elementary and high schools (up to 7th grade) as we lived there for five years. We moved to Tezpur City when I was in eighth grade in the Dhubri High School. As dad was promoted as Inspector of Schools, Upper Assam, we moved to Jorhat after a year stay at Tezpur. So, I did my ninth and tenth grades at Jorhat high school.

All my classmates and teachers expected that I would achieve a high position, “Rank” (Top Ten), at the matriculation examination in 1954. The most disappointing result came as I didn’t get the expected position. I got the first division with letters and missed the rank by a few marks. My father was not happy with my result and he allowed me to study further in Cotton College only on the condition that I give up playing both cricket and football games.

I was admitted to the Cotton College and second Mess hostel in 1954. I completed my college life from Cotton College in 1956 and passed the I.Sc. with distinctions which helped me to get the admission for the Bachelor of Civil Engineering degree at Banaras Engineering College (BENCO), Banaras Hindu University (BHU), Banaras (UP).

Q. Do you remember your life at BENCO?

Ans: Life in BENCO was very busy from the beginning, as I had to study hard for the freshman year to get acquainted with various subjects. I was told that most of the past Assamese students (90%) failed in the freshman year. After a successful freshman year, I took “table tennis” and tennis as my prime sports for the second year.  I played for the BENCO tennis team and did participate in tournaments with various colleges. In April, 1960, I successfully completed the Bachelor of Science (B.Sc) in Civil Engineering at BENCO.

Q. You are a legend when it comes to engineering. How did you get interested in frozen or geotechnical engineering given the fact that you hail from Assam where there is no snowfall?

Ans: After graduation, I joined the Assam State Electricity Board (ASEB), Shillong as Assistant Engineer position to work on the Dam Construction project located in Barapani, about 30 miles from Shillong). I did the feasibility study to build a concrete gravity dam in three different sites with topographic survey as well as drilling and sampling of soils and rocks. Based on this study, the most suitable site was selected and a preliminary design was produced which was approved by the Central Water Power Commission. In January, 1962, I was selected by the Chief Engineer of ASEB to join a team of 22 experienced Engineers selected from other States for the training in Bhakra Dam, Punjab and Nagarjunsagar Dam, Hyderabad for two months. This training and knowledge helped me to place consolidation grouting of the Barapani dam foundation through a contractor. The dam was completed on time in January 1964.

I got interested in the foundation engineering or Geotechnical Engineering after my design and construction experience on the Barapani dam for about 4 years. After the dam was completed, I was selected by the Chief Engineer, ASEB to do my Post-graduate study in Hydro-Power and River Structure in U.K with one-year scholarship (Full pay as SDO). I applied to the Imperial College of Science and Technology after I was selected for the scholarship in August, 1964.

Q. When did you go to London?

Ans: I traveled to London in September, 1964 to study the Hydro-power and River Structure course to obtain a Diploma of Imperial College (D.I.C), Imperial College of Science and Technology, University of London, U.K. After six months of classes, I was part of a group of 20 post-graduate students sent to Scotland under Prof. Charles Jaeger to study various low head hydro-electric projects. We had three months to submit our report/thesis on the project site’s visit to get our D,I.C Degree. Prof. Charles Jaeger reviewed all our theses after one month of our submission and called me to say that I wrote the best theses. Then, he offered me an Imperial College scholarship for three years to go for Ph.D in Rock Mechanics. That was a major turning point in my life.

After a long discussion regarding my research works related to the behavior of rock under stress (Rock Mechanics/Geotechnical Engineering which was a new field of Civil Engineering at that time) with Prof. Jaeger, I started my laboratory testing of rock samples received from the Kapilly Project, ASEB and the London consulting firm for a period of six months. Suddenly, I had to stop my laboratory work as Prof. Jaeger became very sick and he died of heart attack. That was one of my greatest sadness in my life. Immediately, the Head of the Civil Engineering Department of Imperial College appointed Prof. Norman Morgenstern to replace Prof. Jaeger as my supervisor.

After a long meeting, Prof Morgenstern changed my research program to numerical analysis in place of laboratory study so that I could complete the Degree within three years period of my scholarship. On June 5, 1967, he asked me to prepare the thesis and we decided the title of my thesis would be “Non-linear Deformation of Rocks”. After two drafts reviewed by Prof. Morgenstern, I submitted my thesis on Dec. 15, 1967. Then, I successfully defended my thesis to receive approval from the external examiner as well as the internal examiner on December 22, 1967.

I was fortunate to receive an offer for the Post-Doctorate fellowship from the School of Engineering, Laval University Quebec (Canada) through my Professor. That was another big decision for me. I moved to Quebec City on January 3, 1968 to work on the Post-doctorate research for one year which was further extension of my Ph.D work on the application of the numerical analysis on the study of slope stability of natural slopes for various soil conditions. After completion of the post-doctorate research, I had published two papers at the Geotechnical Conferences held in Berkly, CA (USA) and Montreal, Canada in 1969.

I met Dr. Golder, Owner and Principal of Golder & Associates, Toronto at the Montreal conference in January1969 and he was very pleased with my presentation. He verbally offered me a Consulting Engineering position with his Company in Toronto. I replied that I could accept his offer provided he allows me to join them in the month of February after my visit to Assam to see my parents. He agreed and I end up working directly with Dr. Golder on various projects involving design of foundations of structures, slope Stability analysis, water and sewer pipeline etc. on unfrozen and frozen soils (Permafrost) conditions. Prof. Morgenstern also moved back to Canada as Professor of Civil Engineering, University of Edingburg, Alberta. We formed a team of experts with Dr.Golder, Prof. Morgenstern and myself in the field of Geotechnical Engineering on cold regions and Permafrost Engineering and we worked together on various projects located in the northern regions of Canada. This Canadian experience (for about six years) made me an expert in the field of Permafrost Engineering (Frozen) as well as unfrozen sub-soil conditions. I never thought that a guy coming from Assam where there is no frozen soils and snow fall will become an expert in the field of Cold Regions Engineering,

Q. What do you feel is needed for the development of scientific temperament amongst the young people of Assam?

Ans: We have a major problem in terms of “Theory to Practice” in the field of science and Engineering educational system in Assam. All educational Institutions are geared for mainly “teaching” for teaching sake. There are hardly any practical research initiated by the Professors or the Colleges which will bring new dimensions in the student’s mind for new innovations in their field of learning or better design and construction of infrastructures. In addition, all young people need to concentrate on their “strength” on a particular knowledge or field and they should not waste time with their weakness.

Q: As an engineer, do you feel that the erosion problem of Majuli can be solved?

Ans: Being a civil engineer with 50+ years of experience, I strongly feel that the erosion problem of Majuli can be solved with the design and construction of appropriate sustainable measures that include best technology.

family1

With his wife

Q. As a Rotarian, you have showed the importance of serving others. Please tell us about your journey through Rotary:

Ans: My journey with Rotary started in January, 1981 when I became a Rotarian at the Rotary Club of University of Alaska, Fairbanks. But I failed to keep my membership in the club as we went to Oslo. In August, 1982, we moved back to Anchorage when I joined as a Full Professor of Civil Engineering, University of Alaska, Anchorage. Due to new position and very teaching loads, I could not join any Rotary club in Anchorage. All clubs in Anchorage met during Breakfast and lunch time. To make it more convenient, we (20 of us with different professional jobs) started a new evening Rotary Club, named Anchorage Mid-Town Rotary Club in August, 1986. Initially, I was the Director of International services and Foundation chair. Then, I became President of the Club in 2093-94. Though our club was small (30 members), we were very active in various projects including construction of rams for the poor disable people and adopted a road to maintain clean etc.

In 2002, I became the District 5010 Governor. Our District included Alaska, USA; Yukon Territory, Canada and Siberia and far East, Russia with eleven time Zones. It was largest District in the Rotary World. It took me six months to visit all 73 clubs included in the District. I was very active in raising funds from each Rotary club and encouraging each club to do community as well as international project. During my term as a District Governor, I did a check dam project to supply water to 30,000 people in Jowai, Meghalaya State and an eye operation theater project at Gauhati Medical College. I was recognized for surpassing annual fundraising goals from the Rotary Foundation.

After completion of my term as District Governor (DG), I became Past District Governor (PDG) in 2003 and I was appointed by the President of Rotary International as Zone 22 water Resources Coordinator 2004-05. I helped various Rotary clubs to do water and sanitation projects in the rural poor communities in India, Thailand and Africa. I received the District award in 2004-05 for my services.

After retirement in 2007, we moved to Tacoma, Washington State and I joined the Rotary Club of Tacoma. I also became a chartered member of Water and Sanitation, Rotary action Group (Wasrag) in 2008 and I was elected from North America as Director for two terms from 2008 to 2014. I was instrumental in helping many Rotary clubs to do water and sanitation projects in schools in Africa and India, including Nalbari, Assam where arsenic free clean and safe water was supplied to 17 schools with a population of 17,000 students. I received many awards from various Districts and clubs including “Rotarian of the Year” in our Tacoma Club. In 2015, I received the “Service Above Self” award from the Rotary International Board of Directors.

Q. Do you feel that the present generation of Assamese is at par with their counterparts in other parts of the world?

Ans: The present generation of Assamese is slowly coming at par with their counterparts in other parts of the world in the field of Internet technology. As there are no major industries in Assam, the younger educated generation are living outside the State. So Assam has a brain drain of educated young generation. The only way you can stop the migration of the younger generation is improvements in the economic condition of Assam – be it through industry, foreign investment and opportunity to create business, etc. The Government of Assam does not have a blue print as to how they can generate sufficient electricity for major industries in Assam. Even chronic flood and erosion of the Brahmaputra are causing major disaster in the agricultural land and rural communities. The Government has to produce comprehensive plans phase-wise so that the young generation of Assam will not migrate to other place outside of Assam.

Q. What are you presently working on?

Ans: I am writing my autobiography which will be completed by July, 2018.

MUSIC FOR THE SOUL: UMAKANTA BAIRAGI

Umakanta Bairagi11

In conversation with eminent Assamese Tokari and Dehabisar Geet exponent Umakanta Bairagi

By Aiyushman Dutta

(First published in melange, Nov 27, 2017)

Whenever we talk of Tokari Geet or Dehabisar Geet, the first name which comes to mind is none other than Umakanta Bairagi. In a career that spans around fifty long years, Umakanta Bairagi has achieved eminence as the foremost performer of Tokari and Dehabichar Geet. A man who has performed throughout the country, he has spent an entire lifetime striving to popularise this ancient oral folk tradition of Assam through his performances, books and recordings.

Umakanta Bairagi was groomed in the traditional Tokari Geet and Dehabichar Geet tradition of Assam by his father Kanakeswar Gogoi. He began presenting the art initially on religious occasions and then on public stages. An institution in himself, he has been performing on All India Radio, Dibrugarh station regularly since 1969, and has later sung from the Dibrugarh and Guwahati stations of Doordarshan.

Not just performances, Umakanta Bairagi has also taken on the responsibility of documenting this centuries-old tradition for posterity. He has to his credit a large number of audio recordings of Tokari and Dehabichar Geet besides compiling two books on the same. He has also trained a number of students over the years and has established an institution for that purpose in Guwahati, ‘Kanakeswar Gogoi Memorial Dehabichar/Tokari Geet Prashikshan Kendra’, which has been named after his father.

Shri Umakanta Bairagi has been honoured for his work by various institutions in Assam. He was bestowed the title Bairagi by All India Radio, Dibrugarh, in 1971. But the foremost honour was when he received the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for his contribution to the Tokari and Dehabichar Geet of Assam.

I recently met the veteran artist in his residence at Guwahati to talk about his journey with Tokari Geet/ Dehabichar Geet. Following are excerpts.

Q. Please tell us a bit about your childhood.

Ans: I was born in Chaulkhora village of Khowang subdivision in Dibrugarh district in 1954. Our house was in a deeply forested area and I was born and brought up there. My father Kanekeswar Gogoi used to do odd businesses for our livelihood. I grew up along with five other brothers and sisters.

Since we stayed in a very remote area, it was difficult for us to go to school. Somehow, with a lot of difficulty, we managed to complete our Lower Primary schooling and also two classes of MP School. That however was the end of my formal education.

Q. How did you get interested in Tokari and Dehabichar Geet?

 Ans: I have always been fascinated by the Tokari as an instrument. When I was a child, my father used to play the instrument but only after we slept. So on the pretext of sleeping, I used to listen to him play the Tokari instrument and sing Dehabichar geets. Dehabichar geet is a form of spiritual discourse carried out in the form of songs and which is accompanied by the Tokari. I used to love listening to these songs and also to the sound of the Tokari. I have never had a guru in life and I am an entirely self-taught artist.

When I was very young, a local MLA had come to visit our village and my grandfather had taught me two songs to sing in front of him. That was the first time I sang in public. But after that, nothing much happened as far as my singing career was concerned.

when I got married, I decided to learn the Tokari instrument on the sly. Once when my father left for a business trip, I used to play his instrument on the sly. You can say that just like Eklavya, I learnt the Tokari by stealing.  So once, during a 6 day stretch when I continuously played the Tokari, I learnt how to play the instrument.

After learning how to play the Tokari, I and my friends would roam around the villages in the evening, visiting different households and playing in front of them for some tea and til or tekeli pitha.

Q. How did your tryst with the radio start?

 Ans: In the year 1968, the Dibrugarh station of All India Radio had announced an audition for Tokari artists. One of my friends had applied for the audition and I had gone along with him. When his turn came, he could not play even a single song, out of the 15 songs that were asked to him, in front of the interview panel. I felt very bad because he should have been able to play at least one song.

I approached the station director and asked him if I could participate too. He made me fill up a form and accordingly after three months, a call letter came to my house. When I went for my audition, the interviewers did not let me finish even the first song, and said that I would definitely be hearing from them.

I did hear from them and they called me to record four songs. I cannot express my happiness at that moment. The four songs were aired at 4 pm in the month of January and I felt fortunate that I was able to sing my own composed songs in front of the people of the entire State. I counted my blessings and thanked god for making me, a person who sang for pithas, capable enough to sing in the radio.

From 1971 onwards, I become a regular artist of All India Radio and I continue to perform even today.

Q. You have been performing in different stages across the country. Do you remember how many songs you have composed and performed till now?

Ans: I have lost count of the number of performances but till now, I have composed around 775 Dehabichar Geets. All the songs are spiritual in nature or based on the story of Krishna or the Ram-Leela. In some of the songs, I question our own spiritual existence – why we were born, what is the purpose of our existence, and the like. They are sort of self-introspective in nature.

Q. Dehabichar Geet is an oral tradition which existed even before the time of Srimanta Sankardev. Please tell us about your efforts in documenting this centuries-old oral tradition.

 Umakanta Bairagi

Ans: Like you said, Dehabichar Geet is an oral tradition which existed even before the time of Sankardev. It did not exist in written form and the earlier practitioners did not think about writing it down. But although an oral tradition, a lot of changes has creeped into this tradition once we entered the Xankari era. In the songs of yesteryears, there used to be no mention of God but nowadays, it is mandatory to at least mention the name of one single God out of all the different gods we have.

I have taken the initiative to document and compile around 150-200 age-old songs and their meanings in the form of two books which I wrote in 2008. I was fortunate enough to receive the support of the central government under their “documentation/ preservation of cultural and traditional heritage” scheme. The government official was very supportive in my endeavour and I was able to record many ancient songs – right from my grandfathers’ times. Now there are around 400-500 songs of the present day period which I have not been able to record till now.

Q. Please tell us about your first audio cassette recording.

Ans: In 1985, I recorded an audio cassette, ‘Brindrabon’, in Jyoti Chitrabon. The recording was made possible with the support of Suresh Phukan, who was a folklorist and professor of Assamese in Joysagar College. ‘Brindabon’ was the first audio cassette of Tokari geets to be released in Assam. After ‘Brindabon’, I released another audio casette on Tokari geet, ‘Mathura’, and that was also produced by Suresh Phukan. Later on, Rubul Bora produced two of my other audio cassettes on Tokari geet like ‘Amiya Madhuri’ and ‘Porom Guru’.

Q. How many cassettes and recordings have you made till now?

Ans: Till now, I have produced around 6 audio cassettes and one audio CD. But I still have a lot of my songs which are yet to be recorded.

Q. Nowadays a lot of artistes are using the Tokari to create fusion songs. What are your views on this issue?

Ans: Nowadays, a lot of people are doing fusion music with the Tokari and Dehabisar geet. I personally believe that they should not do such kinds of fusion. Dehabichar geet is not for entertainment, it is not some kind of Bihugeet; it is more of a spiritual discourse that is needed for the wellbeing of the mind and body.

I feel this kind of fusion should stop because if it continues, the future generations will not be able to comprehend the real or true nature of Tokari and Dehabisar Geet. Many people are approaching me to accompany them on fusion tracks. But I have been refusing them all. I will not leave the Tokari to sing or play any other instrument or song.

Q. You have performed in a lot of places outside the Sate. How do people outside receive your songs and music?

Ans: Besides Assam and the Northeast, I have performed in various parts of the country, like Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, Kolkata, etc. I have felt that people outside really appreciate our songs and performances. I remember one show in Haryana, especially, where young women and girls broke out in dance after hearing our songs. They later came and felicitated us on stage. That was one memorable performance we did.

Q. Do you feel that the upcoming generations will continue to embrace the tradition of Tukari Geets?

Ans: From whatever I have learnt after years of teaching, I feel that the Tokari and Dehabisari tradition will continue in the days to come. I say this because nowadays I find a lot of young people interested in this tradition. In our days, only old people used to sing Dehabisar Geets but nowadays, I find even bachelors coming forward to learn and perform these songs. The Tokari and Dehabichar geets are presently being performed on stage as well as aired on the radio and television. As such, I feel that the new generation will indeed embrace Tokari geets in the days to come.

Q. You have been bestowed with one of India’s highest honours in the form of the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award. How do you feel at receiving such a big honour?

Ans: I received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 2013. It was like a surreal feeling for me. There is an interesting story as to how I received the news of the award. When they announced my name on the TV, I was in a nursing home in Guwahati for some minor illness. The nurse was about to serve me food when the news broke out on TV. I did not know whether the news was true or not. Only later on when my family also verified the news, I realised that it was true. I feel thankful for receiving such a big honour and it has given me the much-needed impetus to carry on with my work.