Prateeti Barman

Assistant Professor, Dept. of Social Work, Royal Global University
([email protected])


Trauma is a mental condition caused by severe shock, especially when the harmful effects last for a long time. Freud’s writings in the 1890s are important for tracing how trauma accrued new physical meanings. An important theme in the novel Jangam, which depicts the colossal wrack and tragedy caused by the second World War in South East Asia, is trauma.The Novel Jangam by DebendranathAcharya depicts a story of mass exodus on the backdrop of a war and civil unrest that is unparallel in its style of narrative and characterization. The usual element of trauma theory is utilized to see the core drive of the novel. The author has sampled sections of the story which tells the human sufferings and trauma on an individual and on a community of people under such a mass exodus. A key element of the trauma theory is the cultural trauma that has a silent footprint on the collective loss of identity which the writer has successively constructed and carried forward in the novel. The paper tries to understand the different aspects of trauma in the novel, their establishment through the events and the extent to which the existing trauma theory complies.

Keywords : Trauma, survival,exodus, literature, journey, history.

Literature creates an impact on the minds of the readers as it gives both textual and imaginary world to dwell upon. When trauma is narrated in literature it verbalizes the incidents and memories which are usually resisted.Stressing the contributions of the trauma writers,Vickroy statedit is“witnessing or testifying for the history and experience of historically marginalized people” (Schönfelder, 29). In this background the novel Jangam (The Movement) it has been extensively explored.The novel Jangam is an Assamese novel which is based on the backdrop of Indian Exodus from Burma in 1942. Itstarted from February 1942 and lasted till June and Julyof 1942. The refugees struggled alone in this land route, there was no help coming either from the Burmese or Indian sides. The air and sea exit routes were controlled by the British and Indian owned steamship company. The trek by land was undertaken by at least 400,000 refugees; the figure might have been 450,000, or more (Tinker, 2). War trauma has been a part of cultural history, psychology and psychoanalytical theory, gender studies, trauma studies and literary theory (Mackinnon, 2). It has been an integral part of medicine and psychiatry, in fact it originally belonged to these two domains. However, over the past decades, trauma became a part of literature and cultural studies. It became an emerging field in humanities. Trauma has crossed boundaries between various fields and discourses, and it has become extremely complex (Schönfelder, 28). Literature can perform therapeutic function for writers as well as readers (Eyerman, 49) and in this context through this novel,writer Debendranath Acharya takes up the fictional depiction about a ‘historical exodus (event)’ which took place. In any trauma, the ‘event’ is the central focus whether it is ‘psychological trauma’ or ‘cultural trauma’. This novel takes into a historical event and portrays a trauma a group of people experienced. In this paper I have tried to explore and understand trauma experienced in collective and individual forms in the context of Ron Eyerman, Kai Erikson and Cathy Caruth. The term ‘trauma theory’ first appeared in Cathy Caruth’s Unclaimed Experience:Trauma, Narrative and History in 1996 (Radstone,10). Ron Eyerman has spoken about cultural trauma experienced by individuals. Whereas Kai Erikson has spoken about trauma and how it disrupted and damaged a community at the same time bringing the community together. He talks about a collective trauma from sociological as well as historical perspectives.

There are many novels which have depicted war trauma of both the World Wars. Some of them are based on true stories and some fictional. They have talked about love, loss, devastation and horror of war and the after effects experienced by the survivors which can be termed as post-traumatic stress disorder.The novel Jangam is explored in the context of a trauma text through the themes and narratives with the help of the work of Caruth, Erikson and Eyerman.

In Jangam, Acharya had spoken of a group of people, keeping the story simply revolving around the long march carried out by Ramgobinda, a peasant, his wife Lachmi heavy with their second child, their first born Thanu and Ramgobinda’s mother along with few a more characters. The novel eventually gives a picture of an entire group of people who took this journey from Burma to India without any help from any of these two countries. There were many Indians who went to Burma with their free will and many were taken by the Britishers as contractual cheap labourers. Ramgobinda’s father migrated to Burma like many otherIndians for a better future to get away from his poverty. Besides the labourers there were chetiers from India who started business of moneylending and they were despised by the Burmese. The journey of this group of people started from ‘Manku’a small village situated near Mandalaya. Somehow these Indian origin population represented the colonial British hegemony in the eyes of the Burmese people. This group of people decided to take this challenging journey to save themselves from the Japanese invasion and growing dislike and unwanted feeling from the Burmese community. The novel very subtly shows that Indians were not wanted by the angry Burmese, as they viewed them as a replica of Britishers who were there to exploit them. This narration of exodus of the group in the novel can be termed as cultural trauma which isrelated to collective identity consisting religious and national identity as discussed by Ron Eyerman. According to Neil Smelser (2004)cultural traumas are made not born, and the hatred the Indian origin Burmese people felt can be experienced in the novel in instances like whenNungnao a Burmese youth involved in freedom fighter group of Burma  was killed as for his act he showered onto Ramgobinda and his group members to cross Irrawaddy River so that they could reach Hukong valley. Cultural trauma refers to a dramatic loss of identity and meaning, a tear in the social fabric, affecting a group of people who have achieved some degree of cohesion (Eyerman, 160). This cultural trauma can be experienced in the novel where the Indian origin Burmese were living like a family with the people of Burma. However, with Japanese invasion and the hostility of the Burmese people towards Indians made Ramgobinda question his own identity and existence when he was about to become a refugee. The shock and sadness Ramgobinda felt looking at his home in ‘Manku’ one can feel the crisis of identity and meaning of life as talked by Ron Eyerman.  In the novel, Ramgobinda questions one of his fellow Burmese“are you asking us to run away, where should we go? We are the citizens of Burma, we were born here, we have our property here the way you people have. Is there no one to make the rebellious Burmese understand that we are from here?” (Acharya, 25). Cultural trauma questions and shakes a collective identity and this can be seen in Ramgobinda and his fellow Indians as his family prepares to leave their home with barely enough food for the long journey. This group of people were going to a country which would be alien to them.For Ramgobinda,Burma was his country not India, losing his home in Manku was the first straw of trauma for him and his fellow group members.

The journey they carried out was full of sufferings and loss as they had to take the jungle and mountain routeinfested with ferocious animals, insects, and ravines to be safe from the Japanese and looters. They simply kept on walking and during that Ramgobinda lost his mother, his wife went into labour, gave birth to a child, and had to be separated from the rest of the group and her health deteriorated. He was about to lose Thanu, who was half dead due to lack of food and infectious fever.In the works of Caruth, trauma has been defined as an experience so intensely painful that the mind is unable to process it normally. In the immediate aftermath, the victim may totally forget the event. And if memories of the trauma return, they are often nonverbal, and the victim may be unable to describe them with words. Caruth claims that trauma is amnesic and unspeakable. This was experienced by Ramgobinda, as he felt a sense of grief and guiltof not being able to give a proper cremation to his mother after her untimely death. In fact, he could not even look after ‘Thanu’, his first child who was suffering from high fever as he was too numb with pain of his mother’s loss. It was Ma-Pu an Anglo Burmese girl and Father Berry, a missionarywho took care of Thanu and managed to bring him back to life. These two people joined the groupwith a third character on the way to Hukong valley and played a pivotal role in the narratives. Their companionship on the journey was a testimony of Kai Erickson’s claim that “otherwise unconnected individuals who share a traumatic experience can seek one another out and develop a form of communality on that”. The novel beautifully depicts this shared communality till the end. Cathy Caruth also talks about ‘shattering of prior forms’ and ‘psychic numbing’ which can be seen in Jangam when Ramgobinda could not take care of Thanu and at last he lost his mental balance as he could not find his wife and the newborn child once they reached Nampong. It happened with Lachmi too, his wife who could not remember or recognise anything when she was found by Father Berry. Ramgobinda kept on moving with his ailing son along with the group but he could not take care of Thanu and felt miserable when he saw Ma-Pu nursing him with the help of Father Berry due to the shock and prolonged exposure to the hostile situation.

Here I would like to quote Kai Erikson who spoke of trauma as

“(…) trauma can result from a constellation of life’s experiences as well as from a discrete event—from a pro longed exposure to danger as well as from a sudden flash of terror, from a continuing pattern of abuse as well as from a single assault, from a period of attentuation and wearing away as well as from a moment of shock.”

This can be found throughout the narratives from the beginning to the end. Erikson also spoke of spiritual kinship, a sense of recognition, even when feelings of affection are deadened and the ability to care numbed. This is seen in the novel when Father Berry begged food  for Thanu by saying “we just need a morsel of rice to feed this dying child” again without luck as none of the group members offered except Ma-Pu, who offered few slices of stale bread she carried in her pouch. Ma-Pu was attacked by Harisaran, one of the group members for the bread but he was overpowered, and slices of bread were saved by Chinti, a peasant youth in the group (Acharya, 144. 145). The group members could not feel anything, even for the child who was suffering from high fever. Except few characters in the narratives most of them were numbed with trauma as on their waythey saw death and devastation from a close quarter. There were many dead bodies lying around, some of them were with expensive cloths, jade stones, bags full of money, and at the same time poor people’s bodies were there too with their ragged cloths and little belongings. None of the refugees even casually looked at those expensive things lying thereas they kept walking to their destination.


The novel has given a fictional account of a historical event which happened in 1942. Trauma is the ubiquitous part of Jangam. The trauma experienced by thisgroup of people was collective as well as individual. The narrative strategy of silence concerning the end of Ramgobinda in novel leaves the readers to imagine what could or might have happened after he lost his mental balance. Both Ramgobinda and Lachmi survive the journey with pain and loss. Jangam talks about trauma and enigma of survival (Caruth, 24). As the title of the novel suggests the lust for life continues however traumatic the experience might be. The survival instinct does not leave a man even when he faces devastation. It is the journey that matters. Man’s determination will neveraccept defeat. Amid trauma also there is a will to live. The presence ofThanu’s pet cat in the most unexpected places during the journey in the novel is the metaphorical representation of the human hope one can experience in the novel. Acharya narrates a tale of people who belonged to nowhere, unwanted and their lone journey against all odds and surviving with a cost of trauma which was only experienced and endured by them.

References :

Acharya, Debendranath. “Jangam (The Movement)”, Guwahati, Axom Prokaxon Porixod (1982)

Caruth, Cathy. “Violence and time: Traumatic survivals.” Assemblage 20 (1993): 24-25.

Erikson, Kai. “Notes on trauma and community.” American Imago 48.4 (1991): 455-472.

Eyerman, Ron. “Social Theory and Trauma.” Acta Sociologica 56.1 (2013): 41-53.

Eyerman, Ron. “The Past in the Present: Culture and the Transmission of Memory.” Acta Sociologica 47.2 (2004): 159-169.

Mackinnon, Jeremy E. Speaking the Unspeakable: War Trauma in Six Contemporary Novels. Diss. 2001.

Radstone, Susannah. “Trauma theory: Contexts, politics, ethics.” Paragraph 30.1 (2007): 9-29.

Schönfelder, Christa. “Theorizing Trauma: Romantic and Postmodern Perspectives on Mental Wounds.” Wounds and Words (2013): 27-86

Tinker, Hugh. “A Forgotten Long March: The Indian Exodus from Burma, 1942.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 6.1 (1975): 1-15.

About Drishti: the Sight

Drishti:the Sight is a National refereed Bi-annual Research Journal in the disciplines of Arts and Humanities founded in the year 2012 publishing articles in the subjects of English Literature, Assamese Literature, Folklore, Culture.The journal has been enlisted in the UGC-CARE list (Sr.No. 42) in Arts and Humanities section.The journal is dedicated to the cause of young upcoming scholars of the nation.The journal publishes only authentic research articles. It tries to follow the research ethics to the core.