Title: If A River and Other Stories
Author: Kula Saikia
Publisher: Ratna Publication
Price: Rs 299
If A River and Other Short Stories by Sahitya Academy award winner author Kula Saikia is a simple narrative that touches upon the complexities of urban life told through day-to-day situations arising out of ordinary, but intriguing happenings. Since the author had held several positions in North-Eastern states of India, the stories obviously take readers to a beautiful terrain, through spontaneous innovative narrative introducing one to cultural ethos of Assam and other parts of the region.
Kula Saikia is an accomplished author, apart from the fact that he is decorated by authorities for his excellent and exemplary service in police force, for dealing with the troubled legacy of area since Independence. As a keen observer of human nature and socio-political aspects, he has been writing short stories for a long time and has published several collections of short stories, a form which suites his kind of expression.
During my recent visit to North-East, I was literally searching for characters Saikia depicted in his stories from If A River and Other Stories since I had just completed reading it. The book is remarkable in the way the author delves deeper into the mindsets of his characters and tries to analyse them without using clichés or becoming verbose. He does it in indirect ways but goes with the flow of his storytelling. This appears to be the real strength of his writing which has a whip of freshness.
His characters are simple folks from Assam and neighbouring areas, working on tea gardens, in villages, cities facing identity issues, surviving violence for decades, and the author tries to delve deeper into their minds to understand their anxieties, pleasures, desires, pain and aspirations. Some of the characters are vocal and vent out their frustrations on society and people dear to them, while some are introvert and maintain stoic silence, hiding their joys, as well as tears.
While touching upon the beauty of surroundings, interactions between his characters, his prose sometimes takes a poetic turn. For example, the last sentence of the story, The Timeless flavour: “Smiles sweep across their faces like barges on a river and Nikhil stands on its side, unmoved as a rock.”
Translated from Assamese, 20 of these short stories revolve round common people, mundane situations, sensitive interactions, prolonged tensions and muted silences make interactions multi-layered. Though it sounds simple and common, they actually delicately touch deep-rooted human tendencies and responses to the ever-changing environment of uncertainty and modernity. These stories are translated by six different translators Rupanjali Baruah, Prabina Rashid, Rhinumita Kakoty Lahkar, Stuti Goswamy, Meenaxi Barkotoki and Neeta Sharma.
Too much of silence and closeness to nature which speaks in its own language creates different responses. In the story, Leopards in the city, one always feels that in no man’s land, bells of danger toll all the time. This kind of isolation also creates illusion and fear of the unknown.
Some of the stories like The Leopard in the city, Queue, The Will, The Reunion, Whispers, The Timeless Flavour, One Last Time, A Slip of Paper, are a mix of reality and illusion mixed with different flavours of life in and around Assam. The author uses characters to create his own world with delicate sensitivity depicting Assamese life in a subtle way by encompassing solitude, loneliness, alienation, strife violence and beautiful nature.
The author has succeeded in brining out complexities of life in the remote North-Eastern part through his sensitive narration with precision. River represents life and changes it makes while flowing.