In Dhruba Hazarika’s novel, Assam comes alive beneath his fingertips. This, we see from the first few pages, is written by someone firmly entrenched in a place, and its history.
Set in the ‘troubled times’, when clashes between militant separatist groups and the state were at their height in the 1990s, Sons of Brahma is that rarest of ‘action’ novels — a page-turner thriller that harbours a wealth of nuance. At the heart of the story is the quiet academic, Jongom Hanse, catapulted, unwillingly, into the action when he is singled out by a rebel leader, Anjan Phukan, who on their second meeting, is shot dead.
The bulk of the book is a race against the odds for young Hanse and his best friend, Pranab, fleeing both the rebels and the police. Along the way, the reader is informed about the contemporary political and social landscape of Assam — corrupt politicians, illegal rhino poaching, ‘secret killings’, the threats and kidnappings of tea estate managers, the issue of ‘illegal’ migrants from across the border. Yet Hazarika skilfully avoids the puppeteering of characters, from temple priest to Bangladeshi boatman, ex-rebel elephant mahut to honest police officer.
He endows his novel with convincingly real people, as opposed to walking-talking ‘points of view.’ Hanse imbibes the ideology of the pacifist and this turns out to be his undoing. His nuanced view of the world clashes with the blinkered, black-and-white hysteria of both the rebels and the state.
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On their flight, the young men take shelter at some of Assam’s most atmospheric places — first at the Kamakhya temple, where the blood of the sacrificed buffalo becomes a metaphor for all the killings that follow. Then they journey along the Brahmaputra — inarguably my favourite section in the book — with a gentle boatman and his young apprentice. The river though serving as poetic muse, the ‘red river’ also acts as a symbol of the violent turbulence in the land through which it flows.
It lends its name to the title of the book, the main characters, and drenches its pages. Here, we see it as gentle and calm, life-giving and nurturing, as well as mighty and threatening, thirsting for blood. All the while, pressing against them like the intense humid heat, is the fear of being caught, and the constant blade of suspicion — who could they really trust? While the story is propelled by political events, it’s the actions of characters in the past — Hanse and Pranab’s parents, intertwined, we find, in the most surprising ways — as well as the decisions of the young men themselves, that truly shape the narrative.
Personal histories are revealed in small, seemingly disconnected ways, interweaving surreptitiously at the end, before a riveting sequence at Majuli island. As with his previous works, A Bow String Winter and Luck, Hazarika reveals yet again his ability to intricately re-imagine a world. What could have been improved, however, was the sketch of Harry, the tea estate manage, who besides the other more carefully delineated characters emerges, in his mannerisms, as a caricature. And perhaps, amidst the intense discussions, a more insistent and in-depth questioning of the idea of a state or nation itself, alluded to tantalisingly just once while Hanse is sheltered in the Orang National Park—“The whole world’s a home for those who do not seek boundaries.”