Yaruingam (1960): Revisiting the Assamese Literary Classic and its Idea of People’s Rule

Manjeet Baruah (manjeetbaruah@gmail.com) is Assistant Professor at Special Centre for the Study of North East India, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
4 February 2020

Birendra Kumar Bhattacharyya’s novel Yaruingam, written in the 1950s and finally published in 1960, was centred on the Naga movement for self-determination. In the post-colonial period, the novel has often been considered a landmark literary moment of Assamese literature, especially in the writing of political novels. Though focusing on the Naga movement, the novel was also as much about an early postcolonial Assamese literary imagination of “people’s rule.” Today, when questions of identity, democracy, and of the place of people in shaping the sociocultural and political future of North East India have become critical, this article examines how this early postcolonial novel dealt with some of these questions.  

“Phanitphang took out a bidi from the pocket of his khaki shirt and lit it. He was troubled by his thoughts ... The (Second World) War had changed his views. He began to wonder why God created some as the powerful (British) sahabs, while the same God created others as the Nagas who were placed at the feet of the sahabs as coolie labour ... He had faith in two people (Khating and Rishang). But one of them had left for the army, while the other was preparing to leave for Calcutta. So something had to be done ... The artillery had destroyed their agriculture. There was now no urge among the people to clear new land. On the other hand, he himself had no desire to farm. He wanted to trade, and with the money earned, to live an independent life. But the war had destroyed his chances of setting up his own shop and running his own trade.” (Bhattacharyya 1960: 83–85; translation mine) 

“The steep incline of the road was like a buffalo that tries to obstruct the movement of the bus, but cannot. And the very next moment, as if the buffalo gives the bus a push and it travels down the downhill road with more speed. The road itself was the sign of the immense mysteries of creation … He (Rishang) was impatient to give shape to all the dreams he loved. This great urge reflected in the name Yaruingam that he had thought of for his imagined son. Yes, one day, Yaruingam will truly happen.” (Bhattacharyya 1960: 85; translation mine)   

The word "yaruingam" means people’s rule. The novel, Yaruingam, was based on the Nagas, Tangkhul Nagas in particular, and dealt with the historical moment between the middle of the 1940s and the 1950s. But, the novel was as much about an early postcolonial Assamese literary imagination of “people’s rule.” This was possibly the earliest novel in any language that addressed the Naga political struggle for sovereign self-determination vis-à-vis the Indian state. The novel won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1961 and Birendra Kumar became an important figure of Indian literature, including of the institution of Sahitya Akademi (National Academy of Letters). Though this was not his first novel, Yaruingam was the work which gave him recognition in the national literary scene. Considered an Assamese classic, the novel has also been widely appreciated as one of the most defining moments in the genre of political novels in modern Assamese literature.

Yaruingam primarily tells the story of how three friends, Rishang, Khating and Phanitphang, take three different political paths in the context of sociopolitical transformations in the Tangkhul Naga society, in the late 1940s and 1950s. The central characters of the novel are mainly Nagas, with the exception of Jivan who was an Assamese who had settled among the Nagas. Rishang, though critical of the Indian state, explored the idea of people’s rule within Indian constitutional parameters. Khating became a military bureaucrat of the Indian state. Phanitphang joined the Naga nationalists and their struggle for Naga self-determination vis-à-vis the Indian state. The three different paths were contextualised in terms of how the Tangkhul society was responding to trends of social and cultural change among the Nagas as well as globally during the period, and its articulation of political identity in the process. However, Yaruingam was not merely about representing multiple politics of the Nagas. Through its empathy for Rishang, it clearly argued for a certain political path. But, in Yaruingam, was that path ideologically articulate? In fact, in this regard, did the location of the character Jivan in the plot construction also become symptomatic of Yaruingam’s textual rupture over the question?  

Society as Dialectical Process

Birendra Kumar’s earlier novels were based on how class relations had come to constitute the social world of Assam. That is, one of the central theses he had deployed to construct the plot or characters of his novels was that society, and in that sense, reality, was a discontinuous process, marked in relations. Therefore, society or reality could not be understood in essentialist frameworks. Such an understanding allowed the author to historically locate the society as dialectically constituted. In Yaruingam, the same approach was applied to the study of the Naga world, namely that if society was a complex dialectical process, one of the methods through which this could be demonstrated was by showing that the Naga society in the novel did not comprise an ahistorical entity. For example, the discontinuities were shown as being both ideological and socio-economic—Christianity vis-à-vis nativists (religion), patriarchy vis-à-vis its critique (gender), emerging differential status based on wealth or new forms of occupations in the society, the idea of India (that Rishang experienced in the Calcutta social milieu) vis-à-vis a frontier, and importantly, the different approaches emerging within society on the nature of political change necessary to envision the future of the Nagas (for example, the different paths of the three friends, as mentioned above).

It is notable that the characters in the novel were not essentialised, but were constituted dialectically. Therefore, though old Ngazek was a nativist, the only person he thought who could be the bearer of his legacy was the revolutionary leader Videselie, an Angami Naga, who was a Christian and one who also stood for modern politics. Moving among the different Naga communities, Videselie was trying to explain the importance of Naga nationalist politics of self-determination and was trying to organise the different Nagas into a national organisation. Similarly, Videselie also acknowledged that the spirit that epitomised his struggle was that of old Ngazek, that is, a nativist spirit. Another example was the character Sharengla. Her social condition was due to her capture by the Japanese soldiers (in World War II) and because she fell in (or had no choice but to be in) love with one of them, Ishiwera. She began to live with him until he left along with the departing Japanese soldiers, and the patriarchal order of the society did not have the scope for her normative social location at that time. On the one hand, the spaces that she gradually began to inhabit were liminal in nature. The spaces were those of the hospital (as a nurse) and in Phanitphang’s abandoned house, once he had joined Videselie’s nationalist struggle. Whenever Phanitphang returned to his house from the hideouts in the forests, he would feel like a social being in her company and not only a political being. On the other hand, Sharengla’s liminal spaces also became sites of social or political regeneration. For example, if the hospital was a site of regeneration of the body (healing), her association with Phanitphang became the link between the social world of the village and the armed nationalist world of Phanitphang. Thereby, in the plot of the novel, rather than being liminal, she began to exist as one of the critical factors in the social and political re-making of the village world.     

Perhaps, the point where the above method of text construction acquired a dynamic turn was in the three different paths which the three friends—Rishang, Khating and Phanitphang—undertook in engaging with their sociopolitical future in the last days of British colonialism and the early days of its aftermath, the Indian state. While Rishang took to living the life of a leader in search of a concrete form of people’s politics, Khating joined the army (colonial and then Indian after Independence, becoming a military bureaucrat in both the governments), and Phanitphang joined the Naga nationalists. At its core, the three choices were shown to be historical choices based on the differential social life that each of them had lived in their village and the exposure they had experienced to the wider world. 

One of the premises that produced the scope for such a dialectical understanding of society and social change in the text was the conceptual choice of “people” (the Enlightenment ideal of the universal human) over other categories of legibility. For example, it was this choice that allowed for the creation of characters that were not merely about kinship or clan relations. The characters in Yaruingam were aware of their historical locations and acted in accordance with their understandings of historical role playing. As a result, events such as the devastating impact of World War II or the end of British colonialism or the idea/ideology of political identity did not stand outside the critical grasp of the characters. The characters were conscious of the place of these factors in their everyday and larger historical life. In turn, this critical awareness produced discontinuities in them as part of their engagement with these factors. This historicisation was also the basis of their dialectical constitution. In the process, the dynamic that kept the plot moving was the relation among the different, often contradictory, factors and tendencies. Importantly, these factors and tendencies were not merely an outcome of the objective historical context, such as the war, colonialism, or independence, etc. They were the outcome of the engagement of the society or even the individual characters with the objective historical context, but based on their own respective understandings of time and place.  

The Problem of Action

If the dialectical understanding of society and social change, and “people,” were the two premises in constructing the text of Yaruingam, how did it envision action? If the novel tried to capture a historical moment of change, and if the above premise allowed it to lay out how a literary text would approach the context of such a moment, how was agency or action structured into the text? In a moment of historical transformation, if a subject is produced through interpellation, what explains action, but for change? This point can be illustrated through the example of the character Jivan. Jivan was of Assamese social origin, and went and settled among the Nagas, initially in Kohima and later in Ukhrul. He had married Videselie’s younger sister, but she died while giving birth to their son Konseng. The answer to why Jivan left his own society for that of the Nagas, lay in his quest for an escape from the individualism of a bourgeois society (his own) and relocating himself consciously in a society that was yet to be ripped apart by it. But, in the process of his relocation, he had started to inhabit a space which was more a perspective rather than being rooted within any social base. In other words, he lived neither as one from his own society nor as one of his adopted society. He existed as a factor that was trans-spatial, and which transformed him, in the novel, into primarily a universal perspective, namely that the idea of human was deeper and wider than temporal subjectivities. But, if temporality was more concrete and real, did such a location also make Jivan a paradoxical factor? Did he begin to exist as an agent of intuition and sensation rather than reason vis-à-vis the temporal realities of place, society, etc? For example, his thoughts would become reason only when Rishang accepted and implemented them, else they would remain intuition, sensation or ideas that were yet to acquire a cognisable form or efficacy in the material life of the people. 

“Jivan was truly a spark, now aglow, and then no more; and after that, lost in the silence of nature’s objects.” (Bhattacharyya 1960: 377; translation mine) 

In other words, the textual problem herein was the inability of the character to shift from representing trans-spatial relations, or an idea of the universal human, into a concrete agent of “action.” In the novel, it was impossible to gauge whether Jivan was real or imaginary, and his laughter, sardonic and satirical, was perhaps the expression of his own self-understanding of being a paradox.   
Jivan’s death in Yaruingam was notable too. One could argue that he died to save Rishang or the text’s plot in two ways. At the immediate level, the bullets that killed him were meant for Rishang, and thus, he saved Rishang’s life. But, the journey, which they had embarked on and which had endangered Rishang’s life, was guided by the spirit of Jivan. The journey was to build a politics of emancipation in which common villagers, that is, the people, could participate out of volition and without the fear of violence. It was Jivan who had been the firm spirit behind this journey. That firmness of spirit and conviction was shown to have come from his location that transcended subjectivities, and therefore being able to identify the blind spots of subjectivity. Rishang’s occasional doubt regarding the choice of the journey was produced by his inability, due to his location, to see the objective historical context that ought to be (that is, to realise a politics of emancipation based on universal human values). It was Jivan who was significant to Rishang’s journey of transcending his subjectivity. But, Jivan’s death to save Rishang’s life symbolised that change can be real and concrete only when it emerges from within the subjectivity so as to transcend its own mystifications and arrive at what is objective historical. Jivan was not suited to carry out this role because, in his choice of life, he was left without that location. He was part of the Nagas, but lacked their roots. Historical transformation would require a new concept of the human, including politically, and the dynamic of that transformation would need to come from the roots itself. In the novel, it was a role which Rishang or Videselie could perform (the novel empathised more with Rishang). Jivan, at best, could be a voice, not the concrete agent that could materialise the voice. Therefore, if Jivan died, it was to uphold this logic of social change; that change is meaningful only when its impulse and agency is from within and not externally orchestrated. 

The Ideological Subject

As evident from the above, a critical point about the text was how it separated the agency of action (Jivan) from the agent of action (Rishang). This also raises a few questions pertaining to the text. First, what was the nature of agency that the character Jivan represented? On the one hand, the character represented the idea that to be rational and progressive was an inherent universal embodiment of being a human subject. Thereby, what it also meant was that a human subject was not merely a bearer of particularities of place, society, etc. On the other hand, the death of the character also signified that in contrast to such an idea or philosophical assumption, the reality nevertheless was that a human subject was a product of one’s particularities. This then brings one to the second question: what was the abstraction that the character Rishang represented? Rishang represented the condition of a bearer of particularities that was being or was sought to be transformed (through the agency of Jivan). In the context of the novel, the transformative goal was to create an order premised on peace, non–violence, universal brotherhood and welfare of the common masses as the rational form of society. Rishang needed to become an agent towards such a change. These two questions raise a third, a point noted earlier too. Though the text shared its empathy for Rishang, could that empathy become ideologically articulate in the text? Notably, it was on this that the textual scheme appeared to have suffered a rupture. The rupture was that in a text which was about producing the change, neither of the two characters could be the ideological agents of such transformation. Then, the question is, what produced this rupture?

The rupture was produced because the agency of change and the agent of change were separated in the textual scheme. Did this have an impact on the text? Or, did the separation between agency and agent leave the field of action (interpreting and acting on reality) disrupted and incoherent? For example, if characters were historically conscious (due to their dialectical constitution, as discussed earlier), then the agency of change will also emanate from the fact of them being historically conscious. At the same time, given that the historical role-playing of the characters was towards a new political order, that agency will be structured through ideology too. But the point here is, how would a text produce such characters in the first place? A text can produce such characters when its scheme can work out with what history and historical agency human subjects of the text ought to be constructed with. This is because, after all, characters in a text are conceptual abstractions out of the reality in order to signify something, including change. But in Yaruingam, such a construction of characters was prevented due to the very textual scheme of separating agency and agent of change. Therefore, what it meant was that a historically conscious character would be ironically unable to interpret and act upon his own historical location. Though a character like Rishang was historically conscious, and this made him strive for change, he still lacked the agency of change. He could not coherently construct his field of action (what he will do, why he will do, how he will do it). Perhaps, one can argue that this was also where both the strength and weakness of the novel lay. The strength was that the relation between Jivan and Rishang explored a philosophical question, namely that such an idea of human was necessary for meaningfully constituting or transforming society. But because the text did not take an ideological position of what history and historical agency the human subject ought to be constructed with (that is, how the idea would be textually operationalised in the characters), it struggled to define the nature of the future based on the idea. In other words, Jivan was suspended between a philosophical assumption and the lack of its ideological instrumentalisation. At the same time, Rishang was only left with particularities and impulse, but without a rational-historical worldview that could make him ideological and transformative.    

Was the introduction of Jivan in plot construction an anomaly of the text? If his character represented universal assumptions, but those that could not fundamentally materialise in action, could the universal assumptions not have been located in the characters from within the society itself, such as Videselie or Rishang, that may have allowed the assumptions to acquire ideological concreteness? After all, both these characters were products of experiences, relations and materiality that transcended their local, societal context. Further, if this were true, then was a key problem of the text its inability to produce the ideological subject that was temporal, and which could, therefore, fashion the contours of the social, political or spatial re-making of the society? In fact, to extend the argument further, the text was perhaps faced with an instance of peculiar textual rupture. The instance of rupture was the inability to produce that ideological subject from within, but also requiring to eliminate the character that caused the textual rupture.   

Nevertheless, a text like Yaruingam is still relevant, especially given the transformative moment that Assam, or North East India, presently inhabits. Though thematised on the Naga movement, the novel is as much about an Assamese literary imagination of the “people’s rule.” An early post-colonial text like Yaruingam was centred on ideals which were universal and processes which were trans-spatial, while the location of these ideals and processes in the local context excluded the production of a transformative ideological subject from within in the text. The ideological subject here is one who can act to fashion the contours of the social, political or spatial remaking of the society. In the case of Yaruingam, the way out of the textual problem, produced by the plot itself, was through the symbolism in Jivan’s death. Even if the text recognised that the “local” or the microhistory of time and place was influenced by the universal or the trans-spatial, what it could not construct was the transformative ideological subject of the “local.” In the process, if a character like Jivan could not become ideological, those like Rishang were not bearers of the universal.  

This point perhaps also takes one to possibilities of creatively exploring a particular trend in contemporary knowledge production pertaining to Assam or North East India. If contemporary knowledge production has broken new grounds of trans-spatially mapping and locating the history and culture of the region, it is perhaps as much important to focus on the production of the ideological beings in or despite such a trans-spatial context. If the trans-spatial mapping has once again foregrounded the importance of materiality of life in the region, it is important to explore what subjects materiality produces in the specific context. Else, scholarship today will find itself in the same bind that once ruptured texts like Yaruingam in the early postcolonial moment. 

Manjeet Baruah (manjeetbaruah@gmail.com) is Assistant Professor at Special Centre for the Study of North East India, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
4 February 2020