The termites hadn’t gotten to them yet — 17 diaries of varying sizes, yellowed, tattered and comprising entries between the years 1980 and 1993. Its author, one of Assam’s most elusive writers, had died that year, and his daughter knew the diaries, written one page to a day, could potentially hold many answers. But there was a hurdle: the handwriting was simply incomprehensible. And this is what got Meenaxi Barkotoki on a quest to decipher the many diaries of her late father, the iconoclast Munin Barkotoki (1915-1993), famous for his contribution to Assamese literature as for his indecipherable handwriting.
“We tried. We really tried. We got them magnified, we made photocopies. But there was just no way to read,” says Meenaxi, an anthropologist based in Germany, “While we lost a chunk of them to termites, those that were written in the later stages of his life, from the ’80s till his death in 1993, were equally important. He was never writing about his personal life but about the social history of what was happening in Assam at the time.”
Sometime in 2012, Meenaxi was referred to Shisir Basumatari, a 30-something who “likes to experiment” with the arts, be it photography or body painting. For a fee, Basumatari, based in Dudhnoi, in Assam’s Goalpara district, was tasked with transcribing the illegible diary entries of Barkotoki, written in English. A couple of years passed before the young man, too, realised that he couldn’t understand most of it. “Yet there was a lot of (fragmented) information that came to light about his (Barkotoki’s) thoughts, fears and impressions about life in the ’80s,” says Basumatari.
And that had him fascinated. “I invested years on it. From whatever I could read of the transcript, I realised I had a very interesting character, who spent his life reading, thinking and questioning,” says Basumatari, “Reading the handwriting became a story in itself. I started researching on kinds of handwriting online. I read how handwriting deteriorates with age and mental condition.”
The diaries initially inspired Basumatari to make a film, which then turned into a novel, and finally a graphic novel, almost seven years after Meenaxi had rung him up. The Real Mr Barkotoki (Speaking Tiger; Rs 499) is a 174-paged English noir novel that journeys across time and space to unearth the life of Barkotoki. In the book, part-fiction, part-biographical, a young man teams up with his shrink and a friend in search for the subject of his recurrent disturbing dreams: a mysterious author who has terrible handwriting. The English book has also been translated into Assamese by Sabita Lahkar and edited by Stuti Goswami, and is awaiting publication.
The book is primarily set in Guwahati of the ’80s and also weaves in characters and incidents from Basumatari’s life, thus making it not strictly biographical. “I find Shisir very similar to my father — and many times, I never thought this project would materialise,” says Meenaxi.
Born in Jorhat in 1915, Barkotoki spent most of his life in Guwahati working as a journalist, a theatre critic, while officially working with the state government, before retiring as the News Editor of All India Radio in 1970. “He kept to himself and his world of books and set unrealistically high standards for himself. He would write something, and then throw it into the bin, saying it wasn’t ‘good enough’,” says Meenaxi. Perhaps that is the reason his literary output was sparse, with only one book, Bismrita Byatikram, published during his lifetime. It went on to win him the Assam Publication Board Award in 1983.