I took an interest in this book called “Collectors Wife” solely to read something about conflict, an insurgency, or civil war. I say this at the cost of sounding elitist; I wanted to know – how violence and political instability ravaged the lives of people – with a childish sense of curiosity – also to understand how they must be feeling – all while sitting comfortably on my bed in Mumbai. Indeed, there is nothing else I can do either, other than reading and staying informed about something that is happening so far away from me. Nothing else – other than helping myself in forming an opinion and being more sympathetic for people whose lives had nothing in common with mine, such that if ever a conflict closer home I would expect others to show towards me.
“The Collector’s Wife” is written by an Assamese writer Mitra Phukan (well known, as I soon discovered), and is set in Parbatpuri, a small town in a conflict-ridden region of Assam. It introduces us to the strife in Assam through the married and settled wife (Rukmini) of the district collector of Parbatpuri, a lens which is objective and yet rooted in real-time and space.
Residing in the officer’s bungalow situated literally and figuratively on a hill overlooking the small town, Rukhmini lived a sheltered life and protected from the raging insurgency in the region where kidnappings, extortion and killings are a part of the daily news. The privilege of being the collector’s wife in a small town where the state authorities yield enormous power is lost. Her childlessness, even after ten years of marriage, the monotony of her routine as an English teacher in a place where few cares for literature, the politically constrained and somewhat detached social circle that she is a part of, makes her life lonely and unexciting.
A chance encounter of a handsome young tyre agent Manoj Mahanta sets her life in motion again, and very soon, she falls for his charms and oversteps her boundaries as the “loyal wife”. The book moves quite predictably at this point, as the readers know that Rukhmini and Manoj, with their shared interests and loneliness, would surely get together. We are, however, unprepared for the events that start shaping up soon after, when the political conflict that the Rukhmini stood so aloof and unaffected from inevitably starts inching closer to her life.
For anybody who expects a closer account of the self-determination movement in Assam and the youth-led militant groups that proliferated with the issue of illegal migration, the book will not provide any great insight. What it offers instead is a civilian point of view to the violence and the political instability in the region.
The book explores the division that exists between ‘us’ with the privilege of remaining politically neutral and socially above ‘them’; Those are irrevocably drawn in the conflict (whether out of choice or necessity), until a point where the two merge in a devastating climax. More than once, the novel raises questions over the meaninglessness of the conflict and the helpless situations which drive the youth to violence and militancy, for several reasons far placed from the actual cause they claim to espouse.
The students in Rukmini’s college periodically engage in peaceful demonstrations against the state authorities neglecting their studies and even risking their future. None of the professors, Rukmini often muses, wants to have a conversation with them on the real issue. Rukmini is perhaps herself unable to comprehend the politics, but sensitive as she is, she is at least able to perceive the misguided ideals that the youth blindly follow and that the poverty, suppression and exploitation of the poor tribal communities lie at the root of the conflict.
The book is the glimpse of fear and insecurity that envelops the people during conflict zones, and harassment that is meted out from the militants on the one hand; At the same time, the state authorities claim to guard the interests of the people. Mira’s descriptions of the famous Assamese monsoon and pre-monsoon thunderstorms, the jungles, the rivers, the craggy hills that surround the town, and a graveyard located just below the mountains where the family resides adds to the feeling of fear and looming danger.
Parbatpuri’s middle class talk ceaselessly about the kidnappings and the killings, in gory and exaggerated details as a way to vent out their fears, but stop short of taking sides. The entire novel, in fact, restrains from taking a political opinion, and indeed everything seems meaningless and unjustified in the face of death and destruction that both the sides unleash.
However, while the insurgency offers a background in which the story remains rooted, it is the portrayal of its characters trying to search for love and companionship that makes it an interesting read. Just the same as her unbiased account of the conflict in the region, Mitra Phukan steers away from getting into the ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ in human relationships. Were Rukhmani’s transgressions justified in the face of a loveless marriage? Or is it unfair on the husband whose indifferent and cold exterior is a result of working under extreme pressure in a hapless situation? What was the base of the affair between Rukhmani and Manoj? Physical attraction, a genuine fondness for each other, rekindling a dead romance, curiosity of exploring an uncharted terrain or finding a way out of sheer boredom? Or was it something of everything?
We are left with these questions and many more.
Into somewhat dispassionate narration of the lives of the three protagonists, it was shaped by their surroundings as well as their misgivings and faults. Mitra Phukan allows us the readers a multidimensional approach to the conflict and relationships and conflict in relationships. For someone like me who thrives on love stories in classic romantic novels, such a pragmatic take on intimate relationships was little of a reality check!
I yet recommend ‘”Collector’s Wife” wholeheartedly, for readers who like drama as well as those who prefer fiction based on facts. More so, to the readers like me who prefer fiction to understand society and politics, over academic non-fiction books on theories and statistics.