The genius of Homen Borgohain

Homen Borgohain was a journalist, a poet, a novelist, an essayist and above all a fearless intellectual. His life has been a bit of a masterpiece in itself, with a montage of various colors. Read more about this lesser-known but none the less interesting person.

The name Homen Borgohain may not be very well-known outside Assam, yet whoever has the opportunity to discover his genius is sure to hold him in very high regard. Borgohain was a poet, though not as great as some of the others of his era, he was a good one none the less. On the other hand, his novels like Pita Putra are devoid of interesting twists which you would usually expect in a novel. However, when it comes to original thinking and expressing those ideas fearlessly, nobody among the present batch of Assamese intellectuals can hold a candle to Borgohain.

A beginning to be noted

Borgohain was born in an interior village in the Dhakuakhana region of Assam. The young Borgohain was introduced to great writers of Assam and Bengal as well as the rest of the world through the medium of books and periodicals, which his father would collect despite great pains (back then collecting the latest periodicals while living in an interior village was a hard task indeed). He would later write about the great influence of reading on his childhood mind. He was never satisfied with the narrow scope of the school textbooks and constantly sought books outside the syllabus. This broadened his mind to a great extent.

After completing his tenth standard he entered the science stream despite having an interest in English literature. This was an interesting thing to note and the story behind that decision gives us a lot of information regarding Borgohain's psyche. He actually had a bet with his high school teacher. According to his teacher, since Borgohain scored less than average marks he won't make it in the Science stream and he should choose the easier option i.e. Humanities (the actual reason why Borgohain's marks were lower than average was that he read books from outside the syllabus more often than the prescribed textbooks). Borgohain's ego was hurt and in a bid to prove his teacher wrong, he enrolled himself in the science stream at the 10+2 stage. And after proving his critics wrong, Borgohain went back to his preferred subject – English literature at the Undergraduate stage.

He enrolled himself in the legendary Cotton College (currently the Cotton University) – the training ground of so many future Assamese intellectuals. During his college days, he wrote numerous poems and other works for various Assamese periodicals. But it was what happened after his graduation was completed which merits a special mention.

After completing his graduation, Borgohain taught for a few months at a local school. Then he decided to pursue his Masters and for that reason, he decided to venture to Kolkata. But incidentally, due to heavy floods in Eastern Assam, the trains to Kolkata were all stopped for the time being. Borgohain, therefore, decided to wait in Guwahati for a month or so. During that one month, Borgohain fell under the influence of an alcoholic. He picked up the habit of gambling and wasted away whatever money he had with him from home. When sanity finally returned, Borgohain found that he would be unable to venture to Kolkata or return to Dhakuakhana. What he decided at that point was to change his life forever. Instead of pursuing a Masters, Borgohain decided to prepare for the Assam Public Service Commission's Civil Service Exams. Remarkably, he cleared it at first attempt, with only a couple of months of preparation.

The taste of darkness

The experience of corruption that is almost an intrinsic part of a government job was to give the young Borgohain plenty of sleepless nights. He resisted in his own ways, but when he saw that even the higher-ups were unsympathetic to the cause, he decided to leave the job rather than be co-opted by the system. Think about it – a person who is not very rich, someone who does not have any additional source of income, he gets a government job with plenty of opportunities to get off with corrupt money in addition to a fat salary, yet he refuses to give in to the system and preserves his honor rather than getting lured by the baser passions. That this happened way back in the 1960s when there were very few job opportunities other than government jobs makes it even more remarkable. Instead of the blacker sphere of the government jobs, Borgohain went into the much riskier but mentally more peaceful job of the journalist.

Here I must be a bit critical of Borgohain. During his tenure as a journalist, Borgohain was never really impartial. Obviously, there was an ambition in him to influence the state's political scene through the weapon of the printer's ink. But I have always felt that a journalist's work is to present the facts, not pass judgments.

A fearless journalist

Be that as it may, Borgohain's tenure as a journalist also has plenty of room for appreciation. He was one of those who protested against the unjustifiable decision of imposing emergency. Since an open protest was not possible, he published articles written by Jorge Luis Borges and Thomas Mann against autocratic regimes. He also wrote an article called 'Napoleon and Madame de Stael' to register his protest against Indira's decision. Although the references could be understood only by a handful of educated people, still the effect of these cannot be completely discounted.

According to me, Borgohain's high-point as far as his career as a journalist is considered came during the Assam Agitation. While almost all intellectuals across the state were justifying the demand to make the year 1951 as the benchmark year of identifying illegal immigrants, Borgohain (and to some extent Hiren Gohain) was the only one to recognize what a blunder that would be. He realized that the Assam Agitation was founded on the basis of emotion rather than on the basis of logic. He went on to criticize extreme regionalism precisely at a time when regionalist feelings were the strongest in the state (although this may seem like an exaggeration it was somewhat similar to Tagore's criticism of extreme nationalism). This was the greatest possible proof of Borgohain's fearlessness, a quality every self-respecting journalist ought to have.

Why I admire Borgohain

It is amazing how the 86-year old Borgohain remains more active than most 50-year olds even now. If you watch his television show, Kotha Barta, an interview-based show on News Live channel, you would be amazed at the way Borgohain genuinely makes us feel that age is after all just a number. His discussions are not filled with vague idealism typical of the Assamese intellectual. He has got a clear-headedness and fearlessness which makes him stand apart from the rest of the lot.

Why do I admire Borgohain? His fearlessness is obviously the main reason. At a time when almost all mainstream journalists seem to have become a part of the PR team of one or the other party, Borgohain refuses to get co-opted by any of them. A good example can be his tenure at News Live. The channel, due to reasons of ownership, automatically comes under the influence of Himanta Biswa Sarma, the Assam BJP leader. Yet Borgohain in his political discussions has never been hesitant to question and even criticize the BJP!

If I were told to sum up Borgohain in as few words as possible then I would say this – He has only got a Bachelors degree, yet has more knowledge and thinking capacity than most Ph.D. holders. He is influenced by Marxism, yet cannot be called a fanatic. He loves Assam yet denounces Assamese extreme regionalism. He left a secure job to get an insecure one. He is not afraid to challenge social taboos on alcoholism. And his essays are not makeshift words of a hypocrite but only a reflection of his thoughts.


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