A glimpse of vanishing environs through fiction | Sunday Observer

A glimpse of vanishing environs through fiction

14 May, 2021

Born in 1975 in Tezpur Assam, in the Northeast of India, fiction author Ankush Saikia is a former journalist of India Today and Express India. A fiction writer whose themes have focused on urban life as well as crime noir, Anksush is the author of 8 books. His first book was ‘Jet city woman’ published in 2007. Recently Ankush’s latest novel was released. Titled ‘The forest beneath the mountains’, it is a work of environmental fiction and surely will resonate with many readers who are growing increasingly aware of the need for greater focus on forest conservation.

In this Q & A feature, Ankush gives insight to the readers of Sunday Observer about his work as a fiction writer and a glimpse about the story behind his latest book ‘The Forest Beneath the Mountains’,

Q: You were born in Asaam, in Northeast India. Looking back at your works of fiction published since 2007, how much has the political and social landscape in Assam and the Northeast of India in general, impacted your work as a fiction writer?

A: I would say considerably, from using Shillong (in Meghalaya), where I went to school and now stay, as the setting for my crime novel The girl from Nongrim hills; to Nagaland and Manipur being the locales for my detective series novel More bodies will fall; and to having Tezpur (in Assam), where I was born, and its surrounding areas in my latest book The forest beneath the mountains, I have used and tried to understand and explored certain aspects of Northeast India. At the same time, much of my writing even within the boundaries of some of my genre novels—has been in the nature of trying to get to know my own surroundings or immediate environment better, which is why I’ve written about Delhi as well (where I stayed for 14 years), especially in my detective series.

Q: Your most recent novel, ‘The forest beneath the mountains’ presents a man who is trying to rediscover or perhaps even nostalgically, ‘regain’ his past. It sounds like an attempt by the character to retrace his own ‘former self’ through learning more about his departed parents after returning places that marked his childhood. That is quiet an emotional premise from which to view a story. How emotionally driven were you in crafting the overall story line for this novel?

A: Following on from the earlier answer, The forest is an attempt to better understand aspects of my childhood, including the almost near disappearance of the immense Chariduar reserve forest in the district of Sonitpur in Assam, and located to the north-west of Tezpur, a forest which I had seen as a child. How this forest had shrunk from a size of 460 sq km to less than 100 sq km today has lessons for all of us, I feel.

Added to that was also an exploration of people and ways of life which even in the late 1980s when I was a child were vanishing. So there are a lot of emotions there, which I transferred onto my protagonist Abhijit.

Q: ‘The forest beneath the mountains’ is called an ‘environmental novel’. What is at the heart of this story to classify it in such terms? What are the main themes and facets that form the identity of this new novel?

A: Well I used the term ‘environmental novel’ simply because the book is concerned with the environment.

Deforestation, linked to socio-political factors, has had an impact on wildlife as well, especially on wild elephant herds, leading to a rising incidence of human-elephant conflict. The need to preserve whatever is left of our wilderness because it is an intangible asset that benefits all humanity is a universal issue, and one that I hope to have touched through an exploration of a local situation.

Q: How long did it take you to write ‘The forest beneath the mountains’ and what were the sources of inspiration and information at the root of this work?

A: It took me about five years to research, and then a further two years to find a publisher and get the book published. However, I have been aware of things connected to this book since childhood, and so in that sense it is the culmination of a very long journey.

Q: How has the response been so far to this new novel? How have the Indian critics responded?

A: It’s still early days and reviews haven’t appeared in the media as yet.

However, reactions online have been overwhelmingly positive, and what has been most heartening is the acknowledgement the book has received from conservation workers who know the particular area and landscape of the book.

Q: Do you see this novel as a possible ‘literary window’ into socio-political aspects of Assam for readers in Sri Lanka far removed from the geography where the story unfolds?

A: I feel the larger themes of the book, the environment, human-animal conflict, the quest to understand one’s parents, are universal, but arise out of specific, local contexts, which is why I think it should strike a chord with people in Sri Lanka, or other places too hopefully.