Dhruba Hazarika’s Luck offers moving look at human-animal relations, and a counter to ideas of man as 'civilised'
There’s an old-school charm in Hazarika’s writing that is strengthened by an emotional pacing that keeps the reader engaged.
In this fortnightly column, Pages From The Wild, Urvashi Bahuguna looks at accessible, engaging books from around the world, on the environment and ecology.
When my book club discussed Easterine Kire’s novel A Naga Village Remembered (2003) last weekend, some of us struggled to articulate why the tales of spirits in the forest surrounding the agrarian society didn’t evoke uncomplicated disbelief in us. One club member had visited Khonoma, the Naga village in question and shared that the fiction she had written during her time there almost always featured a spirit. It sounded odd to stay it out loud, especially on a video conference, but I told them that whenever I stayed far enough from a busy road or tucked out of sight from the next settlement, the hills, the woods, and the wind appeared sentient. Caught in their midst, without the distraction of crowd and clamor, the silence became a site to project fears onto or perhaps the silence had a clarifying consequence which allowed stories and legends — traditional and communal, associated with the land, unspoiled and removed — to emerge.
The very next book I read, Dhruba Hazarika’s Luck (2013), left me with a similar feeling – our beliefs and bonds with animals may morph depending on where we are, depending on how proximate and intertwined (and equally or unequally balanced) humans and the ecosystem are in our locale. Simply told but often masterfully plotted, Luck showed me a form of nature writing I hadn’t encountered since childhood – an unadorned documentation of the inevitable clashes and communion between humans and animals such as I had heard in the stories of my grandmother, who lived most of her life in the Kumaon and Garhwal mountains and the Dehradun-and-Mussourie-centric prose of Ruskin Bond.
Set in semi-rural Assam, with some stories taking place along the Brahmaputra, Luck features 10 short stories that explore a gamut of possibilities in human-animal relationships and encounters. The protagonists in these stories live beside poultry markets, motor-boats on the river, and hills thick with trees, wildlife and birds. Some hunt for sport and sustenance. Some burn forests to drive out immigrants living in makeshift shelters. One is a vet-cum-psychiatrist; others are young boys driven by curiosity to search for missing cattle, to explore the spot circled by a group of vultures, and to test the limits of a dog’s threshold for pain. The stories can be disturbing – in particular Ghostie, Asylum and The Gunrunner of Jorabat – and explore a brutality, sometimes paradoxically referred to as inhumane, that runs in certain people. But most of them focus on the comfort characters derive from pets, the inexplicable affinity and concern they feel for the animals and birds that cross their path, and the sense of adventure and terrifying exhilaration they derive from close encounters with beings stronger, wilder and faster than they are.
The titular story is about a man who adopts pigeons, one of whom he names Luck. I was surprised by how moved I was by the man’s devotion to his pigeons. The attention he paid to their crate, food and water, whereabouts and routines reminded me of the way pets become an inextricable part of one’s schedule, thoughts, and orientation. His hesitation to take trips reminded me of the strange longing I have to be home on a day when I have been out too long so that I can see my dogs. The men in these stories are often widowed, single or unsatisfactorily married and their care and attention is concentrated on animals.
There’s a recurring tenderness towards animals exhibited by the men in these stories that felt almost unfamiliar in how little I have encountered that in fiction.
The stories are successful in part because they’re brief. One steps in and out of most of these vignettes in a matter of minutes. The stories of the boys chancing upon vultures feeding on a corpse or the man who seeks desperate refuge with an egret are compelling because they’re striking episodes which stand on their own and which the reader recognizes will stay with these characters for the rest of their lives – much as the time a group of monkeys, who felt threatened by our presence, attacked my friend and me, sticks with me in visceral detail.
There’s an old-school charm in Hazarika’s writing that is strengthened by an emotional pacing that keeps the reader engaged – not many writers could make a reader feel invested in the fortunes of a pigeon. Luck is largely a moving glimpse into ordinary aspects of life in the region, though it occasionally takes on more dramatic material that probes the depraved and the cruel in men as a rebuttal to widespread conceptions of man as 'civilised'. There’s a universality to some of the emotions in these stories that readers from anywhere in India who have experienced or absorbed stories of human-animal relations far away from urban centers will respond to.
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