“The elements are rulers…The elements are human.” In Latitudes of Longing, a fantastic geological exploration of earthly elements in fiction, Shubhangi Swarup adopts a categorical approach of abstaining from any pursuit of sacred geography, a trap easy to fall into, on a planet of humans and in fictions of the long past. The sacred, as it is often seen, gives in to secularised ways of human expansion in a globalised sphere.
When the British empire took root in India and Indian mythological texts came into the hands of foreign scholars, new inter-faith connections were calculated and a global reconnection emerged. As a result, the sacred came to be more accommodating, amenable and accessible. It then gradually tailed off in the 18th and 19th centuries to birth a “secular” historical consciousness in an emerging global human order. Time and history, in this secular order, turned out to be linear and exclusively human. It did not bend enough nor allowed for putting up alongside other elements that are non-human by nature.
Swarup’s work has a crucial stance, however, that reorients our attention from a human globe of individuals longing to connect to a planet of entities already connected and ruled by elements from deep time, which get duly overlooked in the rigorous process of constitution of the modern human. Her novel, divided into four sections or landscapes, begins quite interestingly with the silence of the Andaman Islands and ends in an imaginary emptiness that exists outside the grip of time yet is full of possibilities.
In between these meditative bookends, as we leaf through the landscapes, the book keeps haunting and reminding the reader about the drawing proximity and overwhelming force of water, the mother element on earth, that can potentially splinter apart and mould the planet anew any time. Even though one may live in the mountains far from the seas, the novel seems to claim that the sway of water apparently is not that far. This makes us realise that time is no longer a linear and comfortable human idea for us to just take for granted.
There are layers of geological activities that we now share our agencies and intimacies with, and therefore, humans can no longer live unfazed and impassive regarding these “other” realms of time. Swarup’s fiction questions the idea of “human” itself by depicting no two humans as similar and intelligible to each other. Rather, the novel constantly employs comparisons of human individuals with elements of nature that are equally complex as far as interactions are concerned.
Swarup’s work might as well serve as a kind of template for fictions that are appealing to readers in recent times to come home to the elemental, to recognize its different scales of entwinement with the human species and to observe ways of living in zones of calamities close to elemental nature. Two Assamese novels, Maajher Char (Bandhav, 2023) by Sanam Sanki Das and Jalajaah (trans. “Submerged,” Banalata, 2022) by Rajib Borah (2022), pay close attention to the precarity of living in the outlying waterborne lands of Assam.
The former, written partly in Assamese and East Bengali dialects, is set in a char (riverine sand bars or islands) landscape inhabited by East-Bengali Muslim populations. The latter is set on the flood-prone Majuli island of Assam. Maajher depicts the ethical tensions of a char boatman who gets lured by neoliberal elements only to realise, at the end, that he has walked up the wrong alley. Jalajaah spotlights the lives of a fishing community in Majuli, the persistent adversities of enduring heavy monsoonal floods, and cultural ways to make sense of their watery surroundings.
Haider Ali, a boatman, is a resident of Maajher Char, the fictitious riverine island landscape located somewhere in the Tipkai River of Dhubri district in Assam for which Sanam Sanki Das’s novel is named. Every day he takes passengers in his boat from the char to the mainland and back. He lives an ordinary, nondescript life with his family – consisting of his wife, son, brother and sister-in-law – until the Dewan (feudal lord), Abdul Mannan, makes inroads into his life.
Abdul taps into Haider’s inmost wish to install a motor on his country boat. The motor, in fact, is not even Haider’s wish. He gets swayed by commuters who try to persuade him to install one and add some pace to their slow rides. Interestingly, for the regular commuters Haider’s boat is also a social space where they get to talk and gossip about everything from village affairs and news from the district and the state headquarters to matters happening abroad. Often during the daily rides when they pester Haider about the motor, he tells them that he has neither the money nor the strength to purchase one. The desire to have one, however, takes hold of him slowly.
Dewani Mannan, on the other hand, is an avid animal lover, which is strange given his feudal and slimy behaviour in the novel. His kinship with the dogs and flawless care for horses is well known to the village folks. It’s a peculiar relationship with creatures other than humans that perhaps highlights his own estrangement as a feudal master from his social vicinity. Not only does he bet his horses in annual races held after floods recede on the char, but he also engages in a flourishing cow trade that transports bovines from the marginal Maajher Char across the border to Bangladesh.
When Mannan wishes to use Haider’s boat and asks him to be a part of the secretive business, the hefty returns and benefits make Haider give in eventually. He does realise that moving cows across the river might be a grave offence. With money earned from his new side business, Haider installs a motor in his boat. The story reaches its climax when, during one of his cow-transporting sprees, Haider gets caught red-handed by the police and is sent to jail. In a back-to-the-roots move, Haider decides to take the motor off his boat when he’s free again, and gives away all the money earned through his crimes to the local mosque.
What lies at the heart of Das’s novel, besides bovine smuggling and politics rending apart the purportedly stiff borders of a nation-state is the journey of an object – the boat – from an egalitarian space for fellow commuters and Haider sharing news with one another to becoming an engine of capitalism stirred by the global neoliberal spirit on the margins of the nation. Haider firmly believes in the end that his country boat with plain hand-cut oars can help him retrieve all the honour and respect he has lost after installing the motor.
Das’s novel also touches on issues of significance like the ill effects of child marriage, the troubled health situation of women, the prominent absence of resources and child education and rampant corruption besetting the flood-afflicted Maajher Char. Above all, what rules and always remains in these lived spaces, testifying to an ongoing human association with an excruciating range of difficulties and inhuman catastrophes, is the elemental touch with water that the country boat provides with the help of human endurance.
Jalajaah (Submerged) by Rajib Borah reads like a novel drenched in flood waters. Borah recreates a wet and apocalyptic atmosphere of relentless monsoon in the Majuli island of Assam, where the accursed inhabitants of a hamlet called Erabari grapple constantly with the waters of the Brahmaputra River to secure their precarious lives. From what looks like a non-modern approach to a world engulfed and shaped by late modernity and semblances of individual freedom, the novel calls our attention to community living and the non-optional cohabitation of species in the tussle for survival amid surrounding floods.
It seamlessly combines the reality of struggles during floods with elements of horror and superstitions wrapped within the folder of local cultural beliefs. Although there is a ubiquitous fear of floods and displacement, the relationship of the villagers with water is portrayed as a symbiotic one that involves associations with non-human species living submerged (jalajah) lives like the human inhabitants in the watery ecology. Amongst a variety of species – including rats, snakes and birds – what stands out is the novel’s depiction of village folk regularly fishing in the flood waters for survival.
In a village of fishermen, Damodar, the central character, is a skilled fisherman. He takes pride in his profession, showing off sometimes in the novel. In what can be considered poor man’s environmentalism, the fishing profession is an organic and endemic way of living in Majuli island, closely attached to land holdings.
There is also a political and climatological angle to the fishing business in the novel. The descriptions of numerous instances of fishing by Damodar and his village folks and the depictions of the fish that is caught often show up in the form of jaladevata (water deity), matsya avatar (the fish manifestation), kalika-loga maas (the evil fish) and fish bones. Used by residents to ward off evil, they characterise the role of fish in the cultural sphere of the island.
The fish embodiments in the novel lead us to a graver aspect of the island living in Majuli. As Mitul Baruah has shown us in his book, Slow Disaster: Political Ecology of Hazards and Everyday Life in the Brahmaputra Valley, Assam, with the gradual depletion of the island’s beels and other water bodies owing to the extremities of the ongoing climate crisis, “many fish species that were once integral to the local cuisine in Majuli have now become extremely rare.” Readers, therefore, can also read this novel through the prism of ichthyology, which focuses on a declining fishing culture and rapidly diminishing native fish species in the face of a global environmental emergency.
Jalajah the novel becomes a participant in our continuing climate conversations by calling on us to look around and check on the elemental existences that we often do not consider worthy of our attention. The most striking takeaway that the reader might expect from these regional island novels is that both of them render the term “island” an obvious misnomer by delineating humans as already entangled with multiple non-human worlds that lie hidden underneath the visible surface of the earth. The novels only throw light on the art of noticing these submerged frames by making them more real and less sacred.
Dhrijyoti Kalita is a doctoral candidate in South Asian Literature at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, US.