[This is from my Sunday Guardian books column. Also in the latest issue: this fine review by Aishwarya Subramanian of a new Ramayana retelling]
Arupa Patangia Kalita’s The Story of Felanee (English translation by Deepika Phukan) is a novel about a woman who spends much of her life being buffeted by the winds of ethnic violence in Assam. This is promising material given the relative meagerness of English-language fiction from that state (and especially, the lack of writing about the sufferings of Bengali-speaking migrants in the 1970s and 80s), but I was disappointed by the dryness of the telling. Little thought is given to novelistic structure or flow, and the prose mainly follows the arrangement “This happened. Then this happened. And immediately after that, this happened.” (Sample: The boys departed. All was quiet. Suddenly she felt warm. There was a splitting sound. The dry heap right on top was on fire!)
In certain contexts this sort of writing can be very effective. It can, for instance, be used to convey horrors so profound that the only decent way to express them is through a deadpan narrative (or one that discerningly builds towards an emotional crescendo, as in William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice). But the inertia in the early chapters of Felanee doesn’t seem harnessed to a larger cause, it’s merely stultifying, and I’m not sure if this is a weakness in the original writing or in the translation. The story arc is odd too: the first, ten-page chapter is a static account of the lives of Felanee’s grandparents and then her parents; the chapter ends with the newborn baby girl being rescued, and before we know it Felanee is grown up and herself the mother of a seven-year-old boy. It’s at this point that the major action of the novel begins (with the agitations of the late 70s, which uproot Felanee and her family) but the meandering structure does little to create empathy for the book’s protagonist, or to even give us the impression that we know her.
I found these flaws instructive because they are reminders of the effort needed to create good fiction “based on real-life events” (and another reminder that story and storytelling are two different beasts). Many terrible things happen in Felanee: it contains descriptions of people being skinned alive, their fingers fed to dogs; of baby corpses split down the middle; of entire villages being massacred. There is no question that real people have had such horrors visited on them – in Assam, as elsewhere - but even the most responsive reader can become inured to a sequence of tragedies presented in the style of a textbook. Insensitive though this might sound, it isn’t always enough to know that ghastly things really happened - a good novel (and most good narrative non-fiction for that matter) has to make the reader invest in its characters. The more I read Felanee, the more I thought about an aphorism tossed off by Teju Cole at the Goa literary festival: “If it is well-written, it is true. If it is poorly written, it is a lie.”
In fairness, the narrative does pick up after the first 50 or 60 pages: as it becomes more conversation-driven, Felanee and the other characters – mainly women from the refugee camps who are in the same predicament as her – feel a little more fleshed out. There are some strong pen portraits – such as one of a shrunken old woman with a prolapsed uterus – along with sharp reminders of how removed these lives are from the mainstream Indian experience. (When Felanee hears about the killing of the Prime Minister – Indira Gandhi – she can only think about this distant, unfamiliar woman in terms of her own life and reference points: “Who could have killed her? And for what? Could she have had enemies? What would her children do now? Did she have a husband, or parents?”)
But the missteps in the book’s first few chapters cast a long shadow, and even as I list the strengths I feel like the faux-objective reviewer who is trying too hard to be “balanced”. Felanee may have something to offer a reader seeking a strictly functional account of Assamese insurgency and militancy. It might work – just about – as a non-fiction book where the main aim is to provide a glimpse of a historical moment. But it isn’t what I would call a good novel.