If you are at that stage in life where you are looking back and reminiscing about your journey called life so far, well then this collection of twenty translated stories is for you. Saikia’s stories are like a soft breeze wafting across you brushing away the cobwebs of forgetting and reveal emotions, long buried passions, and the whisper of dreams long forgotten. They are knit together with the leitmotif of the river coursing through the narratives. The river divides people and keeps them apart but also connects them with bridges made of wood or concrete that hold the promise of a meeting of souls. But those fragile structures are as liable to crumble as the relationships in the book or can be the metaphorical link spanning the great divide to reunite and bring people together.
The river is also an imagined entity as in the first eponymous story when the arid desert sands with children playing and drawing never-ever-seen rivers make the narrator remember that these deserts were once at the bottom of the oceans and had pulsated with life. History is washed away but can be retraced. ‘The river is like a bridge between the old and the new… […] You must understand that this desert is saying the same thing, silently, in a subtle way. I existed even when your world was without living beings […] and have preserved in my innards layers and layers of your forgotten history.’ (p. 12). This is echoed in the story ‘Well Wishers’, ‘the desert completely removed the signs of fighting that went on for four hours…’ (p. 35). Water brings back to life not only biological beings but nebulous memories buried deep in the recesses of the mind.
The river’s divisive role is played out in ‘The Bridge’ as the narrator remembers his lost love whom he could not meet as the bamboo bridge had not been able to sustain their relationship and things have not much changed since then, as ‘this river has divided the town, it has created divisions in minds, straining relationships’ (p. 16). It is thus with passion he urges the next generation to fight for the construction of a solid bridge so that their newly forged bonds do not go the way of his lost one. But, it is also a connector as in ‘In the Rain’, where the protagonist imagines in his conversation with his beloved that they would not wish for the river to dry up because, ‘the river doesn’t mean just a volume of water, … this river was a bridge that connected you and me’ (p. 75).
Much like the bridge another connector is the railway station and the trains that connect people. It is the site of ‘hopes, aspirations, wishes, desires—all derive energy from the green light emanating from the lamp in your hand (‘The Station’, p. 28). The stationmaster Photik’s longing for Aparna is beautifully etched in the metaphorical lines about the candle as he sighs, ‘We simply look at the flame that gives us light, the molten wax remains unseen to our eyes’ (p. 30). She too remains unaware of his love as she gets married to another.
Superstitions seep into the stories as in the tense ‘The Birthmark’. When the parents of a missing boy with a birthmark fear the worst, the sense of foreboding is reflected in: ‘Lots of people with such birthmarks on their forehead have been ruined, that one actually shapes one’s destiny’ (p. 47). There is no gore, no violence actually depicted but the story lets one imagine the worst and a chill runs down your spine!
Nostalgia is of course a constant in almost all the stories, but in ‘The Queue’ it brings home the fact that many of those memories are about a time that can never come back and that change is constant. As Sharma buys a train ticket instead of the quicker plane ticket, it is to recreate a time when he was young and spent time chatting away with Mitali whom he plans to meet at the college reunion. At the station he meets a student studying in the same college as his but who informs him that everything he remembers has given way to new structures, new classes, new hostels, new buildings… Youth is a place we can never revisit. The narrator informs us that, ‘all dreams should remain as dreams of unfulfilled desire’ (p. 59).
Waiting is also the time for thoughts that you never have time to articulate any other time. Internal musings of ‘ideas [that] are meaningless, mere loose words’ (p. 60) suffuse the story ‘Leopards in the City’. It highlights that thinking would lead to a philosophy that would not be in the binary mode of ‘yes’ or ‘no’, like the computer in all workplaces. Waiting at the bus stop or waiting at the station are all occasions for letting the mind wander and indulge in wool gathering.
Contemporary life makes its presence felt too as in ‘The Gift’. The omnipresent mobile phone that has taken over the roles of various other things is clearly presented with acceptance and resignation. Listening with headphones plugged into the phone, ‘Music has become the personal property of every listener—an intimate possession’ and that people forget to look at the watch too (pp. 115-117). All things considered useful at one time have all been compressed into one instrument and have now become part of happy memories.
But all memories come crashing down as Alzheimer’s strikes. ‘The Timeless Flavour’ is a sensitive narrative about a couple who cared intensely for each other but with the onset of the disease, the husband forgets slowly, as ‘matters, incidents, people have slipped out of the grip of Nikhil’s memory like a wriggling, live fish’ (pp. 127-128).
‘Morning Walk’ is one of several other stories either set abroad or about memories of people, incidents and places outside the country. It underscores the importance of expressing one’s feelings before it’s too late. Or that life is so different back home where people still queue up to buy tickets to go somewhere as in ‘One Last Time’! ‘The Football’ underlines the human touch even in situations of crises and war. Children and games make enemies human and accepting and acceptable.
While ‘The Game’ is the story about a famous retired cricket player, it is the only one that has a ‘filmy’ ending wherein the interviewer and the interviewee find a connection that one would not normally even suspect. ‘The Final Hour’ concludes the anthology with the prediction of an apocalypse as a meteor hurtles towards earth but is still tinged with romance as a line in an old autograph book reads, ‘The day the world comes to an end, at least think of me then’ (p. 198).
This is a collection of stories sensitively narrated with touches of literary style that light up the reading. It has only one major drawback—all the stories, even if set in the present, hark back to a past long gone. There comes a time to look back and many will identify a lot with these narratives but whether this would appeal to younger readers is a moot point. The translations though done by different people have a consistency that makes it the single voice of the author. It would have been interesting to know when and where these stories were first published in the original or even if the translations were published elsewhere before being put together in this collection, which would explain the choice of different translators. While the setting may be redolent of Assam, the stories appeal in their universality of relationships and people who struggle to connect, love, lose, and meet again. The river of life courses in many hearts in much the same way.
N Kamala is Professor in the Centre for French and Francophone Studies, School of Language Literature & Culture Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.