Anurag Bhattacharyya | DUJES Volume 26 | March, 2018

Life in Fiction, and Fiction in Life: A Reading of Syed Abdul Malik’s Rup Tirthar Jatri as a Fictional Biography


Anurag Bhattacharyya
Assistant Professor, Department of English, Dibrugarh University, Dibrugarh, Assam, India.

Syed Abdul Malik (1919-2000) started his literary career in the early forties, his oeuvre of unforgettable short stories, novels and poetry spanned over five decades. Some of his notable novels include Chabi Ghar (1958), Surujmukhir Sapna (1960), Adharsila (1960), Anya Akash Anya Tara (1962), Aghari Atmar Kahini (1969), Agnigarbha (1971), and others. He enriched the Assamese biographical novel with his two fictional biographies Rup Tirthar Jatri (1963-65) based on the lives of Rupkonwar Jyoti Prasad Agarwalla, the architect of modern Assamese culture, and Dhanya Nara Tanu Bhal (1987), based on the life of Mahapurush Srimanta Sankardeva, the great sixteenth century Vaishnavite saint. His novel Aghari Atmar Kahini won the prestigious Sahitya Akademi award in 1972.The paper seeks to examine the novel Rup Tirthar Jatri in the genre of the fictional biography and show how far it is faithful to the life reflected. The paper will also attempt to provide an answer, as well as exploring the issue of the writer’s responsibility to the truth when presenting an imagined version of a real life.

Syed Abdul Malik, Assam, Assamese literature, Northeast Indian Writing, identity, storytelling, poetry

Syed Abdul Malik (1919-2000) was an eminent and well-known Assamese novelist, short story writer and poet who contributed immensely towards the growth of Assamese literature. Syed Abdul Malik was born on 15 January, 1919 at Naharani village of Golaghat district of Assam. He started his literary career in the early forties, his oeuvre of unforgettable short stories, novels and poetry spanned over five decades. Some of his notable novels include Chabi Ghar (1958), Surujmukhir Sapna (1960), Adharsila (1960), Anya Akash Anya Tara (1962), Aghari Atmar Kahini (1969), Agnigarbha (1971), and others. Syed Abdul Malik enriched the Assamese biographical novel with his two fictional biographies Rup Tirthar Jatri (1963-65) based on the lives of Rupkonwar Jyoti Prasad Agarwalla, the architect of modern Assamese culture, and Dhanya Nara Tanu Bhal (1987) based on the life of Mahapurush Srimanta Sankardeva, the great sixteenth century Vaishnavite saint. His novel Aghari Atmar Kahini won the prestigious Sahitya Akademi award in 1972.The paper seeks to examine the novel Rup Tirthar Jatri in the genre of the fictional biography and show how far it is faithful to the life reflected. The paper will also attempt to provide an answer, as well as exploring the issue of the writer’s responsibility to the truth when presenting an imagined version of a real life. This has subsequently resulted in the formation of a new literary sub-genre which may be called bio-fiction.  One of the most significant trends in literature has been the cross-fertilization between the literary and the artistic life.  In a kunstlerroman a particular life acts as the premise for the thematic pre-occupation where the narrative often features artists as central characters. It is an important subtype of the Bildungsroman “that deals with the youth and development of an individual who becomes-or in the threshold of becoming-a painter, musician or poet” (“Encyclopaedia Britannica”). It presents the development of an artist from childhood into the stage of maturity that signalizes the recognition of the protagonist’s artistic destiny and mastery of an artistic craft.   The paper also attempts to show how this novel is a kunstlerroman since it deals with the coming of age of an artist, and how deftly Malik recreates the artistic   process and the artist’s creative journey by referring to some of the significant episodes that took place in the life of Jyoti Prasad Agarwalla, popularly called the ‘Rupkonwar’ of Assamese culture.

Art has always acted as the catalyst for literature. Irving Stone’s Lust for Life (1934) based on the life of Vincent van Gogh, and Michelangelo’s compelling portrait in The Agony and the Ecstasy (1961), William Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence (1919) based on the life of Paul Gauguin, and Pierre la Mure’s Moulin Rouge (1950) based on the life of the French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec are examples of the ways in which art and artists have acted as material for literature. Fictional and non-fictional biographies thus represent the lives of historical persons by organizing as much factual evidence as possible within an interpretive content. While engaging imaginatively with the past, the writer creates an interlacing of fact and fiction; a space in which the feelings behind the ideas are brought to life. This evocation calls to mind Lisa Jardine’s views on biographical fiction. In an interview with the BBC she states:
Fiction has the power to fill in the imaginative gaps left by history… Sometimes it takes something other than perfect fidelity to sharpen our senses, to focus our attention sympathetically, in order to give us emotional access to the past. Silence comes between the historian and the truth he or she looks to the sources to reveal. Thank goodness for the creative imagination of fiction writers, who can reconnect us with the historical feelings, as well as the facts. (Treger)

In the Preface to the novel Rup Tirthar Jatri, Malik states that while rendering a life into fiction, the authenticity of the protagonist with the story should be preserved to a great extent under the guise of a literary form. He further reiterates that the kings and the nobles in the past used to take the help of creative writers to translate life into fiction. The subject of the fiction can be the life of a person as it has been reshaped and coloured by myth. Syed Abdul Malik is extremely self-conscious about his use of the fictional genre for the purpose of biography, and he has explained its specific aim in the preface of the novel. Malik’s practice is closer to that of a biographer, and he writes in the preface:
I have made an attempt to reconstruct the life of Rupkonwar Jyotiprasad who is a great poet, gifted artist, singer, actor, a noted dramatist, a true patriot and a rebel into fiction… (Rup Tirthar Jatri, Translation mine)
Many episodes from Jyotiprasad’s life have been used while narrating the story of the novel. Here Malik was keen on representing a realistic portraiture of Rupkonwar in the form of a fictional character called Jyotirmoy.  Malik believes that the readers would identify the character of Jyotirmoy with the real Rup Konwar and that the novel would succeed in capturing the versatility of the great artist.

The timeline of Rup Tirthar Jatri is divided into three sections and is crucial to the development of the narrative. The criterion of poetic essentiality demands a creative use of the evidence. According to Ina Schabert the selection of the material is controlled by the “author’s idea of what is characteristic of the person whose life he writes” (Schabert 6). The historical facts which Malik includes in the fiction as being representative are thereby transferred to metonymic or even symbolic status. They stand as details illustrating a whole way of life; they are taken as indications of an inner reality. The first part of the novel is called Yatri (The Traveller) the second is called Poth (The Way) and the concluding section has been titled Yatra Sesh (The Last Journey). The narrative is non-linear which not only allows space for the development of the story but also complements the process of artistic creation. The first-person narration allows the writer to observe and comment on the lives, trials and trivialities of those belonging to the society, but also explicate on the process of artistic creation. The author adopts the structural techniques of contemporary fiction in his attempt to convey human reality. The novel uses the form of the stream of consciousness technique in order to imagine a complex inner life for the historical individual who is the subject, to suggest the plurality of the selves, the interplay of social roles, the internalization of the external world, and the potentialities lived out only in the mind, which made up the full reality of a life. Malik describes the various events that led to the development of Jyotirmoy’s creative consciousness by emotions that he encounters in the world. The integration of these emotions constitutes the mind of the artist. Jyotirmoy says:
I am fully drenched, but I am enjoying it. My heart leaps up in ecstasy. The atmosphere is filled up with the fragrance of thousands wild flowers. This light drizzle reiterates the pain and agony that have been preserved for thousands of years. The bosom of the earth articulates a resonance which gives forth sounds that creates a lyric. (Rup Tirthar Jatri 11, Translation mine)

The harmonious relationship between life, art and fiction is maintained through Syed Abdul Malik’s deft use of allusion, symbolism, allegory and representation. The narrative fills up the gaps left blank by biography and comments on the process of artistic creation. Malik is of the opinion that the fictional biography might be regarded as the highly sophisticated version of the anecdote which is known to be fictitious but which brings out a truth about a real person in a more poignant way than would a factual account. He reveals that as soon as Jyotirmoy experienced an idealistic vision, his essentially artistic activity thrived on extolling the sensuous experience. Malik’s depiction has been extremely poetical and lively creating the appropriate atmosphere for the plot to develop. The first part of the novel entitled Yatri (The Traveller) presents Jyotirmoy as a sensitive and creative person in his late twenties who had returned from Europe. For him, the beauty that contained in art was the product originated in the mind through the process of imagination. He perceived the world as something unfamiliar, like the “luminous imagination” (Roy 1) acting on him to give expression to beauty and art. The section begins with the phrase ‘dreams descend” (Rup Trithar Jatri 1). He was fully excited about his long cherished dream of making a film. But he soon realized that making a film and that too in the early part of the twentieth century in Assam which lacked proper infrastructure was a herculean task.  Malik’s remarkable representation of the personality of Jyotirmoy is not a real depiction of reality as it has been reshaped and coloured by myth. Moreover, it is a personality revealed through an artistic medium and language therefore it goes on a continual adaptation and transformation.

Moreover, Jyotirmoy assimilated the beauty and magnificence of the physical landscape around him. The fascinating beauty of nature that he witnessed in the tea gardens and the mighty River Brahmaputra inspired him to become an artist. Malik fully utilized Jyotirmoy’s realization of beauty through the means of his imagination. Malik could trace how Jyotirmoy’s instinctive and intuitive capability which was full of uncertainties perceived not only the external aspects of beauty, but also its essence. The amalgamation of diverse feelings originated in his mind created an upsurge and searching for the right kind of medium for expression:
There is a sense of uneasiness within me, not because of my inadequacy, but because of the inability to express my emotions. My mind is filled with anguish and weariness. This solitariness that gives rise to new thoughts in my dreams; the same quietness turns into an alien companion, for whom I have nothing to offer… (Rup Tirthar Jatri 5, Translation mine)
The heterogeneous nature of his creative world gets manifested in the cluster of ideas, images that find expression in his art. Jyotirmoy’s relentless spirit motivates him to lead the masses against all the evil practices prevalent in the society and fought for its eradication.  Jyotirmoy’s state of mind   echoes Tagore’s views on humanity that “by nature man is an artist; he never receives passively a physical representation of things around him. There goes on a continual adaptation” (Tagore 23). As Jyotirmoy reiterates:
My soul seeks an ever-increasing horizon.  For the last thousand years human soul had sought and worshipped beauty; and in the next thousands years this soul would seek and worship the same beauty.  I want to become one with that humanity in their search for beauty and truth. (Rup Tirthar Jatri 5, Translation mine)

It is quite evident that Jyotiprasad Agarwalla’s family background significantly influenced his outlook and contributed immensely towards shaping his personality. Following the tradition of kunstlerroman, Malik’s depicted the family lineage of the protagonist which is similar to that of Jyotiprasad Agarwalla.  Arup Kumar Dutta recounts how the great grandfather of Jyotiprasad came to Assam from Rajasthan in the early part of the nineteenth century. Then he landed on the western frontier of Goalpara but later shifted to Bishwanath near Tezpur on the northern side of the Brahmaputra. Jyotiprasad’s grandfather Haribilash Agarwalla made a commendable contribution towards the enrichment of Assamese culture by publishing the Kirtanghosha in the form of a book for the first time thus making it easily accessible to the Assamese readers. Perhaps it was the atmosphere of the time, an ambience of ferment, when one could not help but feel that one was part of stirring times. Indeed it played the role of a catalyst that gave rise to creative power, not just in one genre, but in different genres at the same time, turning Jyotiprasad into a multifaceted genius.

In Rup Tirthar Jatri Jyotirmoy meets Miranda in Italy. Jyotirmoy was a student of European music when he came in contact with Miranda who was a skilled pianist. Jyotirmoy believed that the growth of the artist lies in the creation of beauty, and he recalled how both the artists in Europe were planning to create a “grand human orchestra” (Rup Tirthar Jatri  17) in which entire humanity would dance to the same rhythm. Malik introduced the character of Miranda as a tool to reveal the inner thoughts and philosophy of Jyotirmoy and his views on aesthetics. Miranda’s responses to query showcase her acute sensitivity and her own reactions to them. By establishing her artistic streak Malik relocates her as the observer and instructor. Miranda in her letters to Jyotirmoy used to reveal a variety of experiences in detail like the formation of the artistic consciousness. Whenever he came across these letters he was reminded of the wonderful times in Europe walking hand in hand with her by the Mediterranean. Jyotirmoy reminiscences:
Miranda is not just a figment of imagination, nor just an image. Miranda for me is like a familiar tune coming from far off lands; as if she is very close to my heart. This is exactly what I feel about her. (Rup Tirthar Jatri 72, Translation mine)
Bio- fiction enables an escape from the closed ground of inter textual play and the aesthetic dimensions of fiction towards the historical, socio-cultural and anthropological, observing that biography has become the focalizing literature for various politically engaged areas of study. For some people reveal their lives only when consciously revealing the life of another:
It is a fascination with the self and its profound and endless mysteries, as much as an anxiety about the dimness and vulnerability of that entity, about its shadowy existence or non-existence in the text and in life. (Olney 23)

In this section Malik’s preoccupation is human love. But the love is largely born out of romance finding expression in a variety of form and colour. The writer’s social consciousness and his revolutionary zeal can be seen clearly in his novels. In the novel, reference has been made to the episode of making the film called Joymoti based on a play by Lakshminath Bezbaroa. Joymoti was a director’s film, a total creation that combined visual, auditory and musical elements. In reality Jyotiprasad found it hard to find a suitable heroine for his film who would do justice to this historical figure. He had to take a lot of trouble to find out the right actor in the form of Aideu Handique. There are ample references in the novel when Jyotirmoy reveals his frustration and anxiety for not been able to find a proper heroine for the role of Dalimi. Jayanta Barua, a character from the novel, helped him in his search but Jyotirmoy had been constantly worried about the conservative values of the Assamese society of that period who did not consider acting as a respectable profession. The search ended with the finding of Rachana, a very talented artist who finally won a lot of laurels for her acting in the film. The Dalimi episode has been artistically portrayed by the film maker to intensify the element of tragedy in the play. U C Baruwa had commented that the best female role in the film was played by Swargajyoti in the role of Dalimi who portrayed this role almost to perfection and further reiterated that she would remain a darling of the Assamese film fans for all the time to come.

Abdul Malik has done extensive research to recreate the life of Jyotiprasad, albeit in the fictional genre.  The character called Rachana in the novel was conceived from reading about the character of Dalimi in the play Joymoti. All the description and physical attributes of this character finds a close resemblance with the lively Rachana. The spirited Rachana was closely attached to Jyotirmoy throughout the making of the film. Moreover, Rachana’s unrequited love in the novel reminded us about one of the characters from the play. In the last part of the novel Jyotirmoy encounters Rachana who was struggling with her destiny to find a respectable position in the society. Syed Abdul Malik extensively uses symbols and metaphors to illustrate Jyotirmoy’s celebration of beauty and art. His characters like Miranda, Rachana and Sheeli, a simple girl from the tea tribe, reveal various shades of his artistic temper and growth. Jyotirmoy places his artistic creations as a kind of offering to the God of beauty. The production of Joymoti was in full swing and the whole unit had been shifted to the makeshift studio in Chitrabon. He introduced indigenous Assamese folk elements in the composition of songs of the film. After the completion of the project, Jyotimoy got married to the daughter of a family friend, Sabitri, as wished by his dying father. Rachana’s love for Jyotirmoy remained unfulfilled.

In the second section of Rup Tirthar Jatri titled Poth, (The Path), Malik enters into a complex dialogue with the fictional and the aesthetic universe to reveal the exchanges between the literary narrative and life. Both the fictional depiction and the actual life have been juxtaposed to produce an altogether new narrative. Here the novelist delineates the transformation and the coming of age of the artist. Jyotirmoy was restless and at unease over the ironies and gaps of actual life and the idealistic aesthetic embodiment of an alternate reality. He was feeling unhappy with the luxurious and monotonous life in the tea estate.  He understood that his attempt to bring about a change in the society through his writings was not enough so he decided to generate a mass movement to liberate the suffering humanity from hunger and slavery. He felt the urgent need for revolution to wake up the people of his countrymen from the deep slumber by raising their voice of protest against oppression, slavery and exploitation. The novel highlights the socio-economic status of the Assamese society which was afflicted with the terror of the World wars, and the freedom struggle reflecting upon the abject poverty that the laborers of the tea gardens and other marginalized groups had been pushed to.  The atmosphere was, indeed, thick with soul-stirring calls for freedom during that time. Jyotirmoy’s creative life bestirred him and worked towards it in the ways that best suited him.  He was an iconoclast who wished to destroy the existing order before creating a new world that would treat everyone as equal and by doing so he would turn this world into a beautiful one by means of his artistic endeavor.  In order to achieve this goal Jyotirmoy decided to follow the dictum – “the best way to realize your dream is to wake up and go to work” (Rup Tirthar Jatri 138).

The fusion of art and literature is extended beyond the narrative structure of the novel. The appearance of a historical figure in fiction communicates the plasticity of historical figures and unlocks the stories untold.  It is a well-known fact that Jyotiprasad was deeply influenced by Gandhi and his principle of non-violence. In the novel Jyotirmoy was also presented as an ardent follower of Gandhian principles. The launching of the Quit India movement sounded the death knell of the British Empire in India. Thousands of ‘Satyagrahi’ volunteers chanting the slogans “do or die” (Rup Tirthar Jatri 160) marched ahead to fulfill their goal of freeing India from the oppression and colonial domination. He was determined to reach the goal through nonviolent means. The political ideology of Jyotirmoy envisions Jyotiprasad’s view on colonial oppression and exploitation. Jyotirmoy says:
We are not demanding liberation of our country only for clothes and food. We want freedom to regain our lost dignity and self-respect and to establish and revive the past glory of our motherland in the world. (Rup Tirthar Jatri 165, Translation mine)

Malik’s characters are drawn from all spheres of the society and all walks of life. Some of the characters in the novel are political activists who worked together with Jyotirmoy. These include Doctor Mehtab, Nabin Sarma, Soneswar Hazarika, Bhogaram Doley, Jayanti Patir, advocate Keshav Sarma and others. Malik experimented with the biographical genre and in a subtle manner juxtaposed the lyrical compositions of Jyotiprasad with that of the fictional character Jyotimoy. The freedom movement is delineated by Malik as a historic moment in Jyotirmoy’s struggle to liberate creative energy from all fossilized remnants of the past and rediscover his integrity in a new civilization whose passions for artistic expression and beauty becomes sovereign. A crucial feature of the novel is the development of the artist amidst socio-ideological bindings. The way in which the novelist plays with the word “artist” in the novel is very significant. Malik’s faithful presentation of the appearance of objects from specific viewpoints have been juxtaposed with greater intervention of the mind of the creator. Throughout the novel Malik included lines from the songs of Jyotiprasad. Hironya, a character from the novel wrote in her letters about the patriotic fervor contained in the lyrics of Jyotirmoy. These songs are presented as a part of the narrative.

The technique used in this novel is simply captivating; that attract the attention of the readers who are familiar with the artistic creations and writings of Jyotiprasad. It is most likely that Malik borrowed the character of Hironya from his understanding of the eponymous fictional figure Lovita. The episode of police atrocities that took place in Sonari village depicted in the novel where Hironya was badly injured bore close resemblance to the play Lovita. This is quite obvious from the fact that even in the preface of the play Lovita, Jyotiprasad states that all the characters and the incidents were based on a true story that actually took place near Saloni airport near Tezpur. Malik’s artistry is again evident in the manner in which he concludes a story. The curtain drops abruptly and unexpectedly but the story lingers in the mind of the readers. The final section Yatra Sesh is in retrospect where the question of the emotional part of memory in the protagonist is probed, allowing room for persuasive, creative, interpretations of experience. Life writing engages in what seems the most commonsensical and inescapable of narratives, the story predicated on the linear chronology of an individual life. In the novel, there are many elements of historiographic metafiction as there are references from the history like Nehru becoming the first prime minister of independent India, and the drafting of the constitution of India and the assassination of Gandhi. Jyotirmoy’s failing health showed no signs of improvement and his gradual decline in his creative power caused a sense inadequacy and loneliness that engulfed him. In the concluding section of the novel Malik depicts Jyotirmoy lying on his death bed and uttering these poignant words:
I could see the rays of a brilliantly coloured rainbow at a distance. In am also advancing in the same direction. Adieu… (Rup Tirthar Jatri 357, Translation mine)

In Rup Tirthar Jatri the outer world of biographical fact is seen in reference not to history but to an inner world which is the creation of the novelist: the eternal events find their counterparts in arts of expectation, planning, foreboding, of recollection and interpretation.  It predominantly depicts the life of an artist and his effort to cope up with the difficult political and socio-economic problems. The novel is not merely a collection of well-rehearsed anecdotes; but, intelligently written, it is the revelation, to the reader and the writer, of the writer’s conception of life of an artist. Malik has scanned the society, looked into it in minute details, picked up its many facets and projected them through his novel.  There are undoubtedly tensions between creativity and personal secrets, especially the interplay between self and the outer world. It links the personal voice with a public one in the genre of life writing to shape a distinctive social discourse. As for the question of truth versus fiction, it is clear that as a biofiction it is an artistic arrangement of facts, an imaginative organization of experience with an aesthetic, intellectual and moral aim .What is especially striking about writing biofiction, with its reliance on memory, is that it enables the recovery of self. Malik is more concerned about representing the essential nature of things depending more on ‘mental construction’- a process which highlights the role of the artist’s imagination rather than a merely passive recording of the appearance of natural forms. The fictional biographers create “lives” from the facts by working within the formal traditions of the novel. The narrator adopts a sophisticated technique of narrative perspective that presents the dynamics of a person’s changing views of himself and his world as well as the different aspects of his personality. Biographers differ in their objectivity, but those who consider themselves most objective are probably those who fail to see their own biases and assumptions. Fictionalized biography is not the story of a life; it is the recreation which simulates life, combining factual and fictionalized statements to capture the full, complex reality of a life or the discovery of one a two-person dialogue, it is the imposition of the writer’s perception upon the life of the subject. In Rup Tirthar Jatri, Malik has adopted a special “design” and “truth” in life writing; for truth may entail imagination and imagination may contain partial truth; that biographical truth is not a fixed and stable content, but a complicated process of discovery and creation, and that the self of some life narratives do necessarily entail a fictitious construct where the biographer “does allow some subjective imagination on his part to add colour to his narration, though he does not indulge in pure fiction” (Schabert 1).

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