Sons of Brahma
A Bowstring Winter
Dhurba Hazarika is a founder-member of the North-East Writers’ Forum.He has published two novels, A Bowstring Winter (2006) and Sons of Brahma (2014) and a collection of short stories, Luck (2009). All his books have received critical acclaim. In 1996 he won the Katha Award for Creative Fiction. He has held important positions in the government. He was the director of Sports and Youth Welfare, Assam, when the National Games were held inthat state. Next he was made the Deputy Commissioner of Darrang. In 2012 he joined the Tourism Department, Government of Assam, as Joint Secretary. He has also served as the Joint Secretary to the Government of Assam, Transport Department, and the Director, Inland Water Transport, Assam.
Summary: Sons of Brahma. By Dhruba Hazarika. Penguin.
Review: Janice Pariat, Hindustan TimesIn
In Dhruba Hazarika’s novel, Assam comes alive beneath his fingertips. This, we see from the first few pages, is written by someone firmly entrenched in a place, and its history.Set in the ‘troubled times’, when clashes between militant separatist groups and the state were at their height in the 1990s, Sons of Brahma is that rarest of ‘action’ novels — a page-turner thriller that harbours a wealth of nuance. At the heart of the story is the quiet academic, Jongom Hanse, catapulted, unwillingly, into the action when he is singled out by a rebel leader, Anjan Phukan, who on their second meeting, is shot dead.
The bulk of the book is a race against the odds for young Hanse and his best friend, Pranab, fleeing both the rebels and the police. Along the way, the reader is informed about the contemporary political and social landscape of Assam — corrupt politicians, illegal rhino poaching, ‘secret killings’, the threats and kidnappings of tea estate managers, the issue of ‘illegal’ migrants from across the border. Yet Hazarika skilfully avoids the puppeteering of characters, from temple priest to Bangladeshi boatman, ex-rebel elephant mahut to honest police officer.
He endows his novel with convincingly real people, as opposed to walking-talking ‘points of view.’ Hanse imbibes the ideology of the pacifist and this turns out to be his undoing. His nuanced view of the world clashes with the blinkered, black-and-white hysteria of both the rebels and the state.
On their flight, the young men take shelter at some of Assam’s most atmospheric places — first at the Kamakhya temple, where the blood of the sacrificed buffalo becomes a metaphor for all the killings that follow. Then they journey along the Brahmaputra — inarguably my favourite section in the book — with a gentle boatman and his young apprentice. The river though serving as poetic muse, the ‘red river’ also acts as a symbol of the violent turbulence in the land through which it flows.
It lends its name to the title of the book, the main characters, and drenches its pages. Here, we see it as gentle and calm, life-giving and nurturing, as well as mighty and threatening, thirsting for blood. All the while, pressing against them like the intense humid heat, is the fear of being caught, and the constant blade of suspicion — who could they really trust? While the story is propelled by political events, it’s the actions of characters in the past — Hanse and Pranab’s parents, intertwined, we find, in the most surprising ways — as well as the decisions of the young men themselves, that truly shape the narrative.
Personal histories are revealed in small, seemingly disconnected ways, interweaving surreptitiously at the end, before a riveting sequence at Majuli island. As with his previous works, A Bow String Winter and Luck, Hazarika reveals yet again his ability to intricately re-imagine a world. What could have been improved, however, was the sketch of Harry, the tea estate manage, who besides the other more carefully delineated characters emerges, in his mannerisms, as a caricature. And perhaps, amidst the intense discussions, a more insistent and in-depth questioning of the idea of a state or nation itself, alluded to tantalisingly just once while Hanse is sheltered in the Orang National Park—“The whole world’s a home for those who do not seek boundaries.”
Review by Jai Arjun Singh
Penguin India has a new eight-book series titled “Jewels from the North-East”, and there are some interesting titles in it. I’ve started Mamang Dai’s Stupid Cupid and look forward to reading A Game of Chess: Classic Assamese Stories, edited by Dhirendra Nath Bezboruah, but the book I’ve just finished is Dhruba Hazarika’s Luck, an elegant and moving collection of stories about unlikely encounters between human beings and animals.
My approach to a book of short fiction by a writer I’m not familiar with is to test the waters by starting with the shortest pieces. “The Hunt”, “The Leopard” and “Soul Egret” are only between 4 to 5 pages each, and when I finished them I knew I wanted to read the whole book – even though, on the face of it, not very much “happens” in these three stories. A recently bereaved doctor joins a group of men on a jungle hunt and is filled with a powerful grief after the shoot. Three boys in search of a missing cow fleetingly come face to face with a predatory leopard. And “Soul Egret” in particular doesn’t have anything like a conventional plot – it’s a first-person narrative by a clerk whose troubled mind is soothed by brief physical contact with an egret late one night.
But what Hazarika does here and in the other, longer stories is suggest an almost mystical connection between humans and other species; in some cases through a flickering, twilight moment when even the most self-absorbed people become aware of the deep relationship between themselves and other denizens of the natural world.
They respond in different ways to this knowledge. They might be humbled, or enlightened, or comforted. It might make them more aware of their own feral natures. (“There was the putrid smell of blood and excreta, and of something else that only the night and sudden death can bring.”) Or it might even bring them luck. One of the most satisfying stories here, “Chicken Fever”, is about a young, melancholy magistrate out on a police raid. His mood is altered by the sight of a fat black hen in a haystack and this affects a crucial decision he makes a few moments later.
In another sense, these are coming-of-age tales. The title story is about a solitary man learning a thing or two about patience and caring in the company of a stubborn pigeon. In “Ghostie”, an unusual, ghostlike dog becomes a test of the limits of human cruelty, and perhaps, a catalyst to understand what growing up really means. (“Young boys, someone has said, are condemned to walk the ragged line between innocence and evil, occasionally being casually cruel as only children can be. It’s a rite of passage.”)
Hazarika’s writing is unfussy but vivid, and when he does reach for a more dramatic style or a change of course he does it judiciously – as in the two stories here that are slightly different from the others in tone and effect. There are no animals in “The Gunrunner of Jorabat” (written in the informal, rustic voice of a partly drunken narrator) but there IS a man with a distinctly feline quality, and like “Chicken Fever” the story touches on insurgency and the mysterious workings of fate. And “Asylum” is a nicely playful yarn about a vet-cum-psychiatrist who might possibly be experiencing some very strange hallucinations. I thought these two stories slightly diluted the book’s standing as a thematic collection, but they are fine pieces in their own right. Luck didn’t come with a lot of fanfare – it’s what you’d call a “small book”, not just because of its slimness – but it’s a rewarding read about people discovering something familiar in other creatures at the same time that they discover something unfamiliar in themselves.
Jai Arjun Singh is an independent writer and critic. He is the author of the cinema books Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro: Seriously Funny Since 1983 and The Popcorn Essayists: What Movies do to Writers. His blog Jabberwock is one of the most widely read culture sites in India.
Review:by Kenny DB
Dhruba Hazarika’s A Bowstring Winter has seven major characters. Five are people, one is the beautiful city of Shillong, and one is pork! There are at least four or five majordescriptions of pork being cut, marinated, roasted, etc along with chillies, ginger, garlic, onions, pepper etc and the accompanying smells and tastes. That’s apart from the descriptions of momos. I had a really terrible time reading these portions of the book because every inch of my body was screaming at me “Go and and buy the damn meat, you nincompoop!” But the darned weather had conspired otherwise. As the imaginary taste of various kinds of pork and momos swirled around in my mouth, it bloody continued raining outside! In addition to that, I’d been running around all day and just couldn’t muster the will power to get wet in the rain again. In an anticlimax as anticlimactic as possible, various extenuating circumstances led me to have Wai-Wai noodles for dinner. Wai-Wai! Imagine! After all those stories of pork with secret Chinese herbs and stuff!
It’s to the credit of the book that in spite of being too tired to even cook, I finished it in one helping – I mean, sitting, or rather – lying down. It’s not exactly a thriller, although it seems to start out as one, but its characters are such that I kept gobbling up the pages to find out what was going to happen next.
It’s not easy to criticize the work of someone you’ve met personally. I met Mr Dhruba Hazarika when I was announcing at the athletics stadium during the 2007 National Games in Guwahati. He’s the Director of Sports and Youth Welfare, government of Assam. I was shocked to read that he was born in 1956. My guess when I met him was that he was in his early forties. He was very nice and didn’t have any ‘I am a senior government officer’ attitude about him. So I’m actually happy to say that I quite liked A Bowstring Winter. It’s fast, the drama is rock solid, the characters are very interesting, their stories are remarkable, the depictions of Shillong border on poetry, and the descriptions of food are such that I bought some pork for dinner tonight. In fact, I wouldn’t have survived this review without the comforting knowledge that all the saliva that memories of the book generate would be satisfied after this.
I won’t bother writing out my own version of the premise.
Here’s a copy/paste from the back cover:
‘It was the code of friendship. Like a bowstring: tight. Like an arrow: straight.’
When John Dkhar arrives at Kaizang Restaurant, Shillong, one cold November evening, he has no premonition that his life is about to change forever. A loner by nature, and the very epitome of culture and refinement, John comes across people he will soon be involved with in a deadly game of passion and hatred, trust and treachery: James Kharlukhi, tough and uncompromising, a leader born with a lust for danger; Jennifer D’Santos, companion to James, whose love for John can only lead to tragedy; Charlie, aloof, enigmatic, hounded by an ugly face which will lead him to murder; and Dor Kharkongor, ace archer, the spirit of the hills, caught between single-minded loyalty to James and paternal affection for John.
A Bowstring Winter straddles the genres of thriller, romance, drama, mystery and even travelogue! Mr Hazarika was born in Shillong, which he left only after his graduation. Even my mother and mamas grew up in Shillong, and so did some of my friends. Only those who’ve actually been there can comprehend the powerful beauty of the place, which draws one back to it again and again. Not for nothing is it called the Scotland of the East. The author’s love and intimate knowledge of the city where he grew up shows in the way he almost seems to take us on a guided tour along with the characters. If you’ve spent even a small part of your life in Shillong, you’re sure to love this book.
In some books, it’s the situations that sustain one’s interest. Espionage, terrorist thrillers, etc are of this ilk. In some others, it’s mystery. The prime driving forces in A Bowstring Winter are its characters. Dor Kharkongor the master archer, James Kharlukhi, his friend and powerful gang leader, Charley, his sworn enemy, John Dkhar, the protagonist, Jennifer D’Santos, James’ wife who falls in love with John, and Anita, Dor Kharkongor’s wife.
I’ve never read a romantic novel in my life, except for Love Story, but the romance thread in A Bowstring Winter is so full of rich detail and passion that I suspect Mr Hazarika himself has been in intense love at some time in his life (if I may be impudent enough to make such an assumption).
There’s only one thing that I found a little amiss in the book – a well-fleshed out hero. We don’t get to know John Dkhar very well – his history and motivations are a little sketchy, considering the fact that we move through the story along with him. That reminds me -since we see everything through John Dkhar’s eyes, I wonder why Mr Hazarika didn’t opt for a first-person narrative.
I probably might not have liked this book ten years ago. Having been through 26 years of various people, friends and relationships now, I’m in a better position for a more mature understanding of character-oriented stories – why people do the things they do, what they fear, what they’ve lacked and long for, etc.
As far as I know, A Bowstring Winter is the first English novel by an Assamese author to be brought out by a major publisher like Penguin. It cost Rs 295 and if you’re in Guwahati, you can buy it from Western Book Depot in Panbazar. Mr Dhruba Hazarika has done us proud once again, after the National Games. It was a pleasure going through his novel, which I’ll be sending to my mother tomorrow so that she can relive some of her Shillong years. The acknowledgement says that the first draft of the book was ready ten years ago. I hope I won’t have to wait that long for Mr Hazarika’s second book.
Dhruba Hazarika’s realistic novel is set against the lush-green hills and the mist-laden mountains of Shillong. The pristine silence of the valley suspended in time and space stands in direct contract with violence and bloodshed in the work. The story deals with one winter, the book itself being divided under the headings November, December and January.
John Dkhan, a teacher of political science at St Edmund’s College, enters into a dangerous friendship with James Kharlukhi and his gang. These gangsters had connections with the bookies and made money out of manipulating the number of arrows. These occasions never went unscathed without incidents of violence and killing.
Loneliness is inherent in each of the characters. Without family and friends, John Dkhan craves nostalgically for a world that now existed only in his mind. James Kharlukhi, an orphan and a philanderer, makes dirty money and spends his entire life playing with dangers. Dor Kharkonger, who finds poetry in the bow, fails to relate to a similar situation in his marriage.
Friendship is what knitted James and his companions together: “It was the code of friendship, like a bowstring: tight, like an arrow: straight.” The blind faith and loyalty to James lands all of them into trouble. John Dkhan walked tightrope between friendship and love, guilt and justification. He now finds himself a stealthy lover, a hypocrite friend and a coward with no guts to face the truth. Was it James’ personality that swamped his or was it Jemmifer, the woman he fell for?
The mysterious hands of destiny work their way unexpected on human beings. One can try to be what one can be and if one is pulled away from it by other things, then that is the way it was meant to be. John Dkhan had the least premonition when he first met James that instead of holding pen and paper, he would pick up a knife.
There is an unending yearning for love. John was looking for love, but instead enters a circle of violence over which he had no control. Life at the Kaizang was a feast all the way until love came in, but finally when it comes, it feasted on all of them. Almost all the characters are swayed by a ruling passion. James Kharlukhi has a passion for danger, Charles has it for hatred, Dor Kharkonger for friendship and John’s for his woman. Passion leads all of them into serious consequences. The book is on the whole an amalgam of human instincts and emotions. The context of the work makes the use of swear words necessary. The narrative is racy and the use of vernacular makes it even more charming to read
A long review of the book can be read at