Cover photo of 'An Unfinished Search' by Rashmi Narzary. (Photo by arrangement)
Deep in the winter of 1857, a group of about 200 sepoys belonging to the 34th Native Infantry took up arms against British colonial rule. They fought the British forces in the Battle of Malegarh Tila which now falls in the Indo-Bangladesh border in upper Assam. Twenty-six sepoys would die that day, martyrs to the cause of freedom. Till recently, it remained a forgotten episode in India’s First War of Independence.
This battle, though not part of the novel, provides the central core of Narzary’s book because that graveyard of the 26 martyrs holds a secret for a family searching to find its identity. The narration is propelled by this search.
In that same winter, a childless couple, Najma and Habib Rahman, in a small village of Hazratkandi in Sylhet province, East Bengal, saves an unknown young woman from imminent suicide. She gives birth to a male child but does not survive the childbirth. All that Najma and Habib discover from the dying woman is her name, Karishma, and as she passes away, she utters another name, Aryaan, one of 26 sepoys killed in the battle of Malegarh Tila.
The child is named Anjaan by his foster parents and grows up according to the Muslim faith loved dearly by Najma and Habib. By the time Anjaan is 10 years old, Habib Rahman dies and feeble Najma can no longer protect Anjaan. Matters come to a head when Rafiq, his cousin, in a fit of jealousy reveals the truth about his birth. Anjaan, unable to cope with the truth, runs away. By a stroke of fortune, he is found by a group of sepoys in a camp nearby. It is among the sepoys that Anjaan grows to manhood, receives some education and, most importantly, life skills.
But Anjaan longs to return to his village and to Malegarh Tila in search of his identity. Anjaan does return to his village, and marries his childhood sweetheart, Laila.
From here on the pace of the narrative slows down in keeping with life in the little village of Hazratkandi. As the years pass Laila gives birth to a son who is named Baadal. Father and son continue their quest, tending the graveyard at Malegarh Tila and their futile search for the identity of Aryaan.
And time marches on. Wars, famine, birth of new nations take their toll on the villagers, but there is a certain quiet acceptance and, with that comes regeneration, a lesson that these simple folk learn from nature.
Finally the baton passes on to the third generation and Badaal’s son Asman continues the quest. Malegarh Tila belongs to India and Asman Hazratkandi is a Bangladeshi. This, Asman cannot comprehend. He has grown old tending the War Memorial but the secret of his identity lies buried in that grassy hillock belonging to another country.
The author has dedicated the book to the rootless, separated, identity-less people, victims of war and Partition. An Unfinished Search is a moving work of fiction rooted in universal human experience. The narrative lingers to capture the unhurried life of these villagers and nature: the hills, the sky, the rain-washed earth and the ever-changing seasons. These, the author loves, including the pink and white periwinkles and the yellow oleander planted so lovingly by three generations of men in remembrance of a dead forefather.
An Unfinished Search
By Rashmi Narzary
pp. 318; Rs 499