I suppose it is a dream of any writer to weave a story with three key ingredients, first, the relationship between the protagonist and his/her family, second, the political scenario prevalent in the geography(which can be a city, region or a country) and lastly, to leave behind with the help of events, transformations(of characters and situations) a message for the common man, something which s/he can incorporate as a life lesson. If there be, any such trioka for the success of a novel, I think Mitra Phukan has surely made it to the list. If Upamanyu Chatterjee made public how it pans out being an IAS officer, Mitra Phukan has perhaps carried forward the similar sphere of lower Indian bureaucracy by mirroring it with the life of an IAS's spouse.
The novel which got better as it moved and specially towards the end, culminated into a great work by any standards. It explores the world of Rukmini and her husband Siddharth, posted in a (fictional) town of Parbatpuri in Assam in 70s and 80s. Various other characters were given ample space in terms of what work they did and how their life interspersed with the couple. In fact, I noticed that any character, if, was given a special mention in initial parts of the book, there was going to be a good reason for it, to be told later. As an author it is easier to create characters but very difficult to give them meaning in the story while not letting the protagonist lose prominence. With the creation of Bangladesh, the slew of illegal migrants poured from the border towards Assam. This was to create tensions between the locals who were finding it tough to keep a grip on their resources, primarily Land and Forests. This slowly took the shape of protests, movements and finally Insurgency. However, it also costed the entire region with a permanent presence of Indian Army. The economy of the region shattered. Another thing which the novel highlighted is the plight of regional or local media of towns and cities. How there is no accountability to what they print and whom they find as victim or culprit. Administration is resource-stricken, over-burdened and highly-backward to deal with the problems of our cities in any substantial manner. Sometimes which appears from outside just as an Administrative Problem is actually a result of decades of inequalities, which the society itself has created and foments but in the world of quick fixes it becomes easier to blame the Administration for any lapses.
Above all it explores the world of a woman and a woman teacher. How difficult it is to confide your true feelings into someone, sometimes even with your spouse. How difficult it is to transform students in towns(as against cities) of India. How difficult is Development in smaller towns of India.
I kept thinking of the movie, Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, with its similar portrayal of the India of 70s, Emergency, Naxalism with a bunch of Educated protagonists as the center. I hope and wish this book could be converted into a movie(Sudhir Mishra you listening?) as it promises to give a historical plot and luckily with an Indian charisma of being centered around a couple.
A word on Zubaan Books:
Zubaan, which is a boutique publishing house based at Delhi, focuses on Women writings from India. Its difficult to get this book on Amazon/Flipkart, so one can directly order from their website, http://zubaanbooks.com/.