Indira Goswami’s "Jaatra" (The Journey) is usually classed as a story set against the backdrop of terrorism and militancy in Assam. This remarkably complex story, however, resists easy pigeonholing and can be read through multiple perspectives. If we adopt the lens of “violence” to read this story, we notice that "Jaatra" shows how different types and textures of violence are mutually imbricated with each other. For analytical clarity, let me distinguish three forms of violence depicted in the story. First, there is the sheer contingency and unexpectedness of terroristic violence, epitomized by the sudden appearance of Konbap towards the end. Then there is a critique of gendered violence sublimated in the figure of Nirmali whose legs are broken because she dares to fall in love with the “enemy.” These two elements are woven in with a subtle exploration of the banal, invisible nature of what I refer to as “slow violence”—the recurring degradation of lifeworlds and ecosystems, and the attendant public and governmental indifference towards such destruction. Goswami’s greatness as a literary artist is illustrated by the fact that she does not reduce one form of violence into a simplistic, causal explanation of the other; instead, in the space of a few, haunting pages, she manages to capture the totality of the devastation and decrepitude wrought on a specific lifeworld by the coalescence of these different forms of violence.
"Jaatra" opens with the unnamed female narrator and the “mainlander” Prof. Mirajkar returning to Guwahati from a trip to Kaziranga. Mirajkar is not afraid of wild animals, but is terrified of terrorists (To be sure, a personal reason is also adduced for this fear). Interestingly, the narrator says that he has a “hereditary curiosity” about guns and ammunition. On the other hand, the narrator is spellbound by th
e natural beauty on offer during the return journey. She describes the stunning natural vistas unfolding in front of them in lyrical passages like the following:
We sped on the highway cutting through forests full of simolu, khairaa, sisu, hollong, pomaa, bogi pomaa, bokul, jamun and teak trees. The last rays of the setting sun disappeared in the forests. The patches of light were like a silken drape. It was as though this drape had got shredded, and the bits had wriggled into the forests between the trees. The teak trees that seemed to have taken the bits of silk looked speckled like the skin of a deer in the fading sun.
Far from functioning simply as a passage that conveys an impression of sheer lyrical beauty, picture-postcard descriptions like the above introduce a thematic that is slowly deconstructed during the course of the plot. Time is on the move, but its passage is experienced as something the viewing subject can control and contemplate from a safe distance. This sense of safety offered by distance and the attendant felt experience of the slow passage of time ushers in a recognizable romantic trope: the narrating subject, for a brief instant, seems to be able to bridge the gap with the external, natural world. We should also consider the space from where the narrator and Mirajkar are returning. Like the zoo, the museum or the exhibition, the national reserve park is also a managed space. Both Mirajkar and the narrator can contemplate the natural world from a distance in this managed space. Maybe Mirajkar is not afraid of wild animals because of this safety offered by such “touristic” distance. The terrorist’s bullet, on the other hand, cuts a swathe through this “safe” space and promises a gruesome intimacy.
Time, to paraphrase Hamlet, is soon thrown out of joint. The car stalls midway and the two passengers have to get out before a row of small shops. As the driver, Ramakanta, makes inquiries about repairs, the narrator suddenly sees a figure approaching them. At this point, the Assamese text goes—“Rashtriyo pothor olopman bhitorolei thoka dukan ekhonor pora hothat (suddenly) dekhilu eti manavmurti amar garikhonoloi uddesyo kori aaguai aahise” (italics mine). M. Asaduddin’s translation (in cooperation with Goswami herself) renders “manavmurti” as “a scrawny figure” while Dhirendra Nath Bezboruah translates it as “a human figure.” Both translations skirt around a crucial facet in “manavmurti” though—the approaching figure is like a representation of a human; a statuesque figure almost from another time. The approaching “manavmurti” introduces an element of temporal non-synchronicity with the narrator’s present—a point of disjuncture which is further accentuated when she looks at him closely (I follow Dhiren Bezborua’s translation here): “I observed him closely and noticed that he had tied up his long hair in a bun. He was an elderly man very likely in his seventies.” Further on: “The bun on his head came undone and his long hair fell to his shoulders. With his long hair and his stopping short of his knees, he looked like an oja from our oja-pali.” There is something distinct, otherworldly and ancient about this “manavmurti.” He seems to emerge almost as a figure from a tableau. In contrast to the immediacy of the narrator’s response to this “manavmurti” (whom she soon begins to address by the honorific Aatoi), the description of his wife’s physical appearance is slightly delayed in the narrative. As soon as the narrator and Mirajkar sit in Aatoi’s decrepit shop, she makes her entrance with a kerosene lamp. Gradually, as she struggles to make tea, the narrator notices her “blouse full of patches” and her “withered flesh.” While Aatoi is difficult to classify, his wife is presented as a victim of poverty.
Aatoi and his wife begin to assume two distinct roles in the ensuing conversation. The wife represents the harsh, insistent note of an impoverished and terror-scarred present. From her, we learn that one of her sons has joined the insurgents while one of her daughters had her leg broken as punishment for conducting an affair with an Indian soldier. She lives in constant fear that her son will fall prey to the bullets of the Indian military. She repeatedly keeps on haranguing her husband to go and see if Konbap, the son who has joined the insurgent group, has been seen near the railway tracks. Moreover, we also learn from her that the annually recurring floods have gobbled up most of their land and also killed their eldest son. The utter destitution caused by the slow violence of the floods and the consequent public and political apathy towards this problem is a constant thread running through the conversation and is mentioned by both Aatoi and his wife at different points of time. The wife’s criticism of this slow violence reaches its apogee in the following passage: “I have suffered for seven years. You should look at our plight once and tell the government about it. When you go to see the animals in Kaziranga, you should also see the plight of our villagers” (italics mine). This utterance signals the commencement of the process of a critique of distanced vision in the story. Recall that the narrator enjoys and contemplates the unfolding natural scene from a distance. The wife’s statement is a scathing indictment of this “touristic” gaze’s blindness. The beauty of the natural landscape is visible, but the destitution of the human inhabitants of this landscape remains invisible.
In contrast to his wife, Aatoi seems to exist almost entirely in the past and is even referred to as as a “fossil” by his spouse. Besides the descriptions of the physical appearance of this “manavmurti,” his tales about the past and his lineage, his songs, and even his behavior (he refuses to accept money after performing several songs composed by Vaishnavite saints) seem to indicate a gaze fixated on the past. But is he a relic who has no connection with current realities? Is he just a mournful chronicler of times past? Let us attend to his speech carefully. A little while after his wife’s scathing and direct critique of the distanced “touristic” gaze, Aatoi says:
But did you see any tigers in Kaziranga?...I hear that there were only twenty tigers there in 1966, but there are about sixty now. Even the number of rhinos are said to have gone up from 300 to about 1500, and I believe there are over 500 elephants…
Herds of elephants have stopped coming this way due to the bustle of the traffic. Earlier, we had to take turns at chasing them away from the fields of crops…but there are tigers sometimes. Only the other day, there was quite an incident. The elephant of the Dimouguri mahant was tethered near the roadside pond. It was a very docile elephant. Whenever they took it for a bath in the Difaloo, it would play with the children there. In the afternoon, the elephant was sleeping by the pond. No one knows from where the tiger emerged and scampered with a large chunk of the elephant’s behind between its teeth. (italics mine)
The crucial point about the initial half of this passage is that the distanced touristic gaze directed towards a managed space is subtly critiqued and simultaneously conjoined with a melancholic awareness of the violence wrought by the work of time on a rapidly disappearing lifeworld. If the wife critiques the blindness of the distanced gaze, Aatoi’s pronouncements ironically supplements these harsh, insistent notes emerging from the realm of necessity with a mournful comprehension of devastating historical change. The number of rhinos and tigers has gone up as a consequence of the conservation efforts made by the state and the public. But, the devastation wrought on existing human lifeworlds by slow violence remains unacknowledged. The increase in the number of tigers seemingly leads to unprecedented incidents like the one with the elephant above. Moreover, rapid modernization (“the bustle of the traffic,” the management of space) results in the gradual disruption of an existing collectivity. Earlier, “we” took turns chasing elephants away; now, “no one knows” when a predator comes and takes something away. Things fall apart, the centre does not hold.
Things come to a head after the narrator ruminates on what the wrinkles on Aatoi’s forehead signify—“Worries, a quest for answers, grief and…?” The sentence remains open-ended as the narrator realizes that Aatoi’s inscrutable face represents something elusive which words cannot capture. The narrator and Mirajkar offer the couple some money before they depart. Meanwhile, a limping young woman—Nirmali—slowly enters the shop. A “human tornado”—Konbap—suddenly jumps into the scene, kicks Nirmali on the stomach and rushes away with the money with the purpose of buying two U.S. carbines from poachers. Slow violence, gendered violence and contingent, terroristic violence coalesce in a single, chaotic scene. While the wife pleads with Konbap, a “hint of a smile” hovers on Aatoi’s face. “I,” the narrator says, “never knew that a human smile could so sear a heart.” With seared hearts, the two representatives from the bourgeois world travel in silence to Guwahati in the darkness. From conversation to silence, from light to darkness—what do these movements signify? I wager that what we are left with eventually is a holistic critique of the devastation wrought by the work of time on human lifeworlds, and a simultaneous ethical re-orientation of the way in which the two middle-class characters view and navigate their worlds.