Review: The Sleepwalker’s Dream by Dhrubjyoti Borah

By Imteyaz Alam


“I’ve begun moving mechanically like a zombie, like a sleepwalker. And everything appears to be like a bad dream . . . nothing but a sleepwalker’s dream.”

The Sleepwalker’s Dream is the first novel in English by prolific Assamese writer Dhrubjyoti Borah. He is one of the eminent writers in Assamese, and has received several awards, most notably the Sahitya Akademi, a prestigious literary award of India. Being a practicing medical doctor, Borah deftly deals with the psychology of individuals and groups. The many shades of human persona are finely depicted by the author. Loyalty and treachery, cooperation and suspicion, discipline and defiance, love and lust are in the nature of human beings, and the same is displayed in this remarkable work of fiction.

Through the novel, the readers peep into Bhutan’s beautiful valley of lush green forests. The readers travel through tortuous terrains, the inclement weather and high mountains and deep gorges. One gets acquainted with the climate and topography of the region. The novel also showcases birds and animals of this Himalayan country.

The Sleepwalker’s Dream is a political novel. It is a story of a group of insurgents brought together by a quirk of fate. Most of the members fall into the trap as the raging fire swallows up combustible materials in its vicinity. A little strip of silicon – a SIM card issued in the name of June, the lone member of the rebel group, lands her in the underground movement. Similar is the story of other members of the contraband group.

The Assamese insurgents’ camp in Bhutan comes under attack.  Some members of the group flee for safety, carrying their injured leader along with them. Their only aim is to survive. Miraculously, guided by the leader, they reach a cave where they find food and other items stored for such contingencies.

Once the group reaches the cave and are cut off from the rest of the world, there comes the challenge for survival. The psychological and philosophical question of life and death emerges. Human desire and emotions comes to the fore. Maintaining sanity at a time of uncertainty and hardship is a big challenge. The novel brilliantly depicts the character of June, the lone woman in the group. Her endurance and spirit stands apart. She asserts for equality among genders even at a time of crisis. She works on sentry duty and goes out of the cave to do hard work like other male members. She however, is trapped in this quagmire by just a quirk of fate, and yet she remains spirited and helps others to survive. Her nursing helps the leader improve his health. June also acts as a bridge between informal groups that emerge in the main group. The human being’s ability to innovate and survive is brilliantly illustrated. This novel is a remarkable piece on role of leadership in creating discipline and integrity in a team even at the height of crisis. The leader dispels the gloom and hopelessness prevailing over the group. The leader plays the role of saviour, though heavily injured.

The novel portrays the underground movement’s failure to resolve the political issue through armed struggle. The misery and hardship that the underground movement brings are vividly depicted in this work of fiction. “Probably the time has come when we have to work openly within the democratic set-up of the country . . . it possibly cannot be avoided. We now have to find out how to do this.” — the leader of the underground movement concedes before his death. The disillusioned insurgent group finally disbands to join the mainstream.

The language of the novel is lucid and easy to read and can be finished in two or three sessions. This is a must read for those interested in the armed struggle and insurgency going on around the world. The novel will be useful to understand the psychology of insurgents and underground movements.

The reviewer works with the Ministry of Railways, Government of India.