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Fluid Geography / Fluid Memories

Arupjyoti Saikia

By Indrani Chatterjee
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2013, pp. 451, Rs. 1025.00


As I began to read Forgotten Friends: Monks, Marriages, and Memories of Northeast India a fresh bout of political mobilization demanding separate statehood had already spiralled up in Assam. These competing political claims had overlapping geographies and try to transcend the limits of modern political boundaries.At the same time, the politically contested space that such mobilization lays claim to, belongs to the fertile plains only. Elsewhere there are reports of increasing conflicts in the foothills of Assam and its neighbouring hilly States. There is little doubt that these competing claims are essentially over sharing of natural resources, claims over land for rice and tea cultivation.   The world of political boundaries, social relations and political fraternity which this political mobilization seek to answer could be found in the pages of Forgotten Friends. Its reading also tempted me to reread Katha Guru Charit, a master narrative which describes the fifteenth and sixteenth century Assam. KGC was probably composed in a later period and there are several editions. For any modern reader, KGC’s geographical breadth, which has been so thickly embedded into it, will appear deceptive. It does not symbolize the modern map of Assam which I am familiar with. I also looked for Sankardev—the chief protagonist here—and his methods of initiations into his domain. They all appear puzzling. Dense layers of polity and governance that KGC comfortably narrates, conversations of the Vaishnavite monks, secrecy and social lives of their disciples, places generally frequented by them or frequency and ease of the human mobility all appear intriguing. I understand that this mysterious world (and also social boundaries therein) was not deceptive as it appears today.   Indrani Chatteejee’s Forgotten Friends takes us to this complex world where present political boundaries, social images and cultural practices appear so untenable. Chatterjee’s is a history of a space and time interchanging in difficult ways and through difficult terrains. The book asks questions about how the people, communities and religious fraternities interacted and exchanged commodities and ideas and built friendships. What were the sources of political as well as social authorities? What role did marriage play in the making of political authority? What was the destiny of these social institutions in the later times that played a crucial role in creating bonds and friendship across plains, hills and distances? If there were dynamic social and political relationships across hills and plains, how ...

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