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Review: The Sleepwalker’s Dream by Dhrubajyoti Borah

A novel that follows a group of Assamese insurgents as they hide out in the forest

books Updated: Oct 06, 2017 19:46 IST
Pradhuman Sodha
Pradhuman Sodha
Hindustan Times
Dhrubajyoti Borah,Assam,insurgency
Life in a Bodo camp in Assam, July 1989.(Saibal Das/India Today Group/Getty Images)

One of the few works fictionalising the Assam insurgency, The Sleepwalker’s Dream is Assmese Sahitya Akademi Award winner (for Katha Ratnakar, 2009) Dhrubajyoti Borah’s first book in English. In a literary career spanning over three decades, Borah, who is also a medical doctor, has published works of fiction and non-fiction including novels, monographs on history, travelogues and collections of articles.

A dreamy book laced with a certain lethargy and heaviness of movement, it advances towards an unknown and unyielding target for a purpose that is not quite clear. After an attack on their hideout/camp, a group of young insurgents finds themselves fleeing the authorities in the Himalayan forest that lie between Bhutan and Assam. They are in search for a safe haven to rest and recuperate and plan their strategy. The book, for the most part, is a narration of how this group makes ends meet in the forest.

The narrator of the story is June, a young orphaned girl, who has been recruited by the organisation. After losing both her parents tragically, June is taken in by an aunt. The aunt and her respected government servant husband run an open house for young people, who wander about seeking jobs from acquaintances. One such youth, an argumentative one, gets June involved in the “movement” without any consent or protest from the girl herself.

Despite their stated ages, the characters all seem half grown. The crippled leader, who is carried around on a stretcher, seems to symbolise the cause itself, which needs support to remain standing. The reader gathers that, without its stretcher bearers, the cause would fall and crumble and, indeed, would hardly be missed. The shelling, that extricated this batch of insurgents from their camp, rendered the leader paralysed below the waist. He is introduced to the reader in a senile state, ranting about the loss of his legs and about how he was endangering the group by slowing them down.

Author Dhrubojyoti Borah (Picture courtesy Speaking Tiger)

The events in the book are happening a few years after June’s recruitment and so the story is almost like a delayed ending. The insurgents’ enthusiasm is dwindles like a flame in the wind as it dawns on them that they would perhaps be able to do much more good and reach their goals in a more definitive manner if they worked within the democratic system.

For a book with a female protagonist written by a man, The Sleepwalker’s Dream doesn’t follow the prevalent fictional trend of giving power to the women. But then again not everything has to conform. Still, June might seem a little boring to some. Caught in the middle of a group of insurgents with whom she has no affiliations even on an ideological level, she seems to adopt their thought process wordlessly and just as easily is found nursing them (in varied ways) and playing the mother to this group of boys. The writer’s projection of a woman in a group of men as the caregiver is one that fits too easily. Most young women of today would have a hard time relating to June.

Read more: BOOK REVIEW | THE HOUSE WITH A THOUSAND STORIES

Perhaps the author is trying to show that though men might be divided on issues such as governance and national identity, they are all -- on the left, right or the centre -- clueless when it comes to women. June, though armed and trained at the camp like the boys, is the one who takes care of the crippled leader’s needs without question when the proxy leader asks her to.

The book ends on an unceremonious note with the group leaving the forest and making its way to the plains of Assam, leaving later meetings to chance.

First Published: Oct 06, 2017 19:45 IST