Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty’s exploration of the Assamese heritage goes beyond geography, language, and cuisine

‘Aami kun?’ (Who are we?) is a question that has kept us humans perplexed since time immemorial. To trace and explore who exactly we are and what it means to belong to a certain community is a difficult task. Does living in a certain region define our being or just speaking a specific language or is it something much bigger? Journalist Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty embarked upon a journey to find an answer regarding her own Assamese heritage and penned down whatever she came across while doing her research in The Assamese: A Portrait of a Community (Aleph).

Divided into several chapters around specific components of what constitutes one’s identity, The Assamese begins by digging deeper into how that specific region, which used to be connected with different communities for several purposes, embarks on a journey towards understanding the identity by first exploring the historical and etymological roots for the word ‘Assam’ or ‘Axom’.

In the following chapters, the author displays brilliant journalistic research by taking us on a historical voyage where we are introduced to different kings and kingdoms that left a lasting impression on the region’s collective culture. Apart from the rich mythological stories, we also come across different dynasties such as Bhauma, Varman, Mlechchha, Pala and Tungkhungia, along with kings and the mechanisms that defined their governance.

The exploration culminates with the takeover by the British forces, leading to the treaty of Yandabo, which formally ended the First Anglo-Burmese War, and shaped the course of the region’s history. One of its terms included the renunciation of all Myanmar claims in Assam, and Manipur — the new British protectorates.

Assamese language and its evolution

No discussion around culture can be complete without the mention of language and its evolution. Personally, the chapter around Assamese language fascinated this reviewer the most as linguistics is one such subject that presents several truths than just one. It mentions how the word Assam is ‘Axom’ or ‘Oxom’ in Assamese language/script and underlines the uniqueness of such pronunciation. It also explores the influence of several other languages like Paishachi as well as the Tibeto-Burman and Austric groups had on the Assamese language. The subtle reference to linguistic hegemony deserves special attention, which the author carefully incorporates in the chapter.

In a different but related chapter, the conversation around Assamese literature is especially riveting as it is divided into different eras and talks about the themes the authors were experimenting with in that specific period. The Ramdhenu era, widely recognized as the golden age of Assamese modern literature, witnessed a diversification of social realism in writing from the mid-twentieth century onwards. This period featured works by literary stalwarts such as Mahim Bora, Syed Abdul Malik, Indira Goswami, Prabina Saikia, and numerous other writers and poets. Similarly, Orunudoi, Jonaki, Banhi, Avahan, Jayanti eras played their significant role in enriching Assamese literature and making it what it is today.

The culinary culture

Pisharoty brilliantly captures the different flavours of Assam, depicting its indifference towards the pure/impure discourse that generally exists in India around the usage of meat, especially in religious ceremonies. At the Ugra Tara temple in Guwahati, fish curry with rice is a staple Prasad for devotees. The tradition of including meat in the diet has long been an integral part of Assamese identity, cutting across caste and religion. However, with the advent of Vaishnavism in the region, there have been notable changes. Vaishnavism has brought about certain changes in culinary culture, particularly among upper-caste Hindus, and has played a vital role in altering eating practices on a larger scale.

Recently, a video went viral of Chef Vikas Khanna, who stated that Assamese food is probably one of the most underrated cuisines of India. The author discusses something on similar lines while examining the politics of food hegemony. She writes how people from the Northeast are stigmatized and often referred to as ‘tribals,’ a term carrying a negative connotation. It is frequently suggested that individuals from the region would eat anything.

The fact that for far too long Assamese food has been criticised for being ‘too simple’ or ‘plain’ reflects a particular hegemonic perspective on food. This viewpoint tends to focus on the amount of spice in a dish. However, as seen in many other cultures where subtle flavour notes are relished and appreciated, American food studies scholar Zilkia Janer suggests that one day, food connoisseurs may become intrigued by the Khaar (alkaline) taste of Assamese cuisine.

‘Communities are people not rhetoric’

When someone asks Pisharoty, ‘Are you Assam-i?’, her response is: ‘No, I’m Assamese. Assam-i in my language means somebody accused of a crime.’ Besides language and literature, and food, she also reflects on Bhupen Hazarika’s soulful songs, in which he ponders over the anonymous boatman preparing his meal on the sandy banks of the Luit; she also shines light on the harsh annual ordeal faced by the riverine communities at the hands of the mighty Brahmaputra. Her keen observations underscore a poignant truth, ‘‘Communities are people. They are not abstractions. They are not rhetoric. They are human beings.”

In 2019, the Government of India thought it would be a great idea to define who exactly could be called an Assamese citizen and declare everyone else residing in the state as illegal immigrants. Unfortunately pushed by the Supreme Court, the exercise was initiated, resulting in the creation of a National Register of Citizens for the state. This futile exercise caused the death of several individuals, while many were excluded, leaving them in limbo.

Through this book, the author creates a historical and cultural path that the region has covered across time and resulted into the present state that it is today. In the process, she gives a definite description of being an ‘Axomiya’. The Assamese demolishes the wishful quest for creating ‘pure’ races amongst people of India and focuses on what exactly makes us human beings. Books like these help to demystify cultures and regions that are often ignored by the mainstream and foster a more comprehensive understanding of the nation as a unified entity.

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