Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Conflict and Reconciliation: The Politics of Ethnicity in Assam


My book Conflict and Reconciliation: The Politics of Ethnicity in Assam has just been published by Routledge India.

It is a close study of the conflict situation in Assam in Northeast India, one of the most volatile zones in the region. Where it differs from most other studies in ethnic and ethno-national conflicts in the region is in the way it organically traces the development of these conflicts and links them to the armed insurgency movements on the one hand and the Indian State’s responses to these conflicts on the other. It also examines ethnic reconciliation as a means of coming out of the shadow of violence.


Goswami, Uddipana. 2013. Conflict and Reconciliation: The Politics of Ethnicity in Assam. New Delhi and London: Routledge.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Occupying Imagination, Affiliating to the Nation

[My translation of an excerpt from Benudhar Sharma's Kangrecar Kanciali Rodat (1971), published in Asymptote Journal, January 2011.]


Translator's Note:

The northeast of India has, since the inception of the Indian State, been constructed as the nation’s periphery. Much has been written on how it became one of the most conflict-ridden zones of the country as well as on the political engineering involved in incorporating this periphery into the larger Indian nation. Little scholarship, however, has gone into exploring how the periphery began to imagine itself as a part of the nation. The manipulation of popular imagination that went into creating a subnational consciousness where there was none needs to be studied in the context of current insurgent movements in the northeast, many of which claim to be ‘anti-colonial’ and not ‘secessionist’ vis-à-vis the Indian state. Some of the best sources for such study are the memoirs of early members of the Indian National Congress (INC) active in interior regions of the northeast. On the Indian mainland, the INC was constructing the notion of an Indian nation while also fighting the British colonisers. Meanwhile, the elite of the northeast came into contact with the INC’s ideology during its pursuit of higher education and other activities in neighbouring Bengal. I have had access to a few accounts written by Axamiyā writers who represented the INC in Assam, which at the time comprised most of the rest of the northeast. Attracted by the ideals of the Indian nation and its fight against colonialism, these writers were instrumental in spreading these ideas in their native lands.

But just as the British occupied Assam and other parts of the northeast nearly a century after annexing the Indian mainland, Indian nationalism also took a long time making inroads into the psyches of the Axamiyā and the northeast. The extract I have translated (Sharma 1971: 50-53) is an account from the early days of proselytising by INC workers in Axamiyā villages. The author, Benudhar Sharma, recalls that even in the 1920s, when Gandhi and his non-cooperation movement were whipping the Indian nation into an anti-colonial frenzy, Axamiyā villagers nursed antagonistic sentiments towards INC volunteers. For them, Gandhi was ‘like the paddy-devouring gandhi insect . . . out to devour the nation.’ By the 1940s, however, folk songs began to laud Congress workers; Gandhi became an avatar of god; anti-British sentiments were visible. Indian was now hailed as the motherland and ‘Bande Mataram,’ the clarion call of the Indian nationalist movement, was heard in folk performances.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Love has a way of happening

(My poem published in Focus on Indian Writing in English in Muse India 35. Jan-Feb 2011.)



[Read some other poems:Tejimolā ForeverMother Goddess KamakhyaManufacturing MemoriesFor Nilikesh da, Shot DeadEnd of EnnuiFrom Exile (1)After This SkyTrystWould I Be A Poet StillelegaicA History of ViolenceFearless, The Rains Come from Behind the Curtains, Love has a way of happening]


Love has a way of happening at the most unlikely places.
For Rajen ata and Banalata it happened on a wooden bridge 
Across the crazed Pagladia during turbulent times 
Over handfuls of sanasur sold outside school
Shared in silence from a soggy piece of newspaper
That perhaps brought news of anti-immigrant riots.
From where they sat, they could not hear
Annunciations made in new centres of power
The din of displaced memories across far away borders
Birth pangs of twin states, breaking of a sub-continent.
Bonds of race, language, native land were nothing
Before the brush of shy fingers against soft hands.

Love has a way of ending in the most likely ways.
For Rajen ata and Banalata it ended 
When indigenous livelihoods and cultural superiority clashed
Refugees are not to be trusted, his father said
Recounting how they had lost their all
To wily immigrants who exchanged a bag of salt for 10 acres
‘We will not concede another inch of our land’.
Her migrant father said these natives live
On culture borrowed from us 
We have lost our homeland, our dignity remains.
An individual is slave to history
So they left their love at that.



***
Love has a way of happening in the most unlikely times.
For Dulu mama and Shipra it happened amidst
The most troubled circumstances, during volatile days
When the uneasy camaraderie of prolonged coexistence
Between communities was broken by a confused logic 
Of entitlements, a climate of coercion.
He could not tear himself away from 
Either the romance of jingoism or the love 
That lingered from a childhood spent 
Swimming together, cycling to school, climbing trees, 
Stealing robab tenga from his father’s backyard
Peeling the fruit, popping into her mother’s kitchen for mustard oil
And green chillies, mixing it all and feeding each other 
In the shade of the bakul tree.

Love has a way of enduring despite political turmoil.
For Dulu mama and Shipra it endured despite his leanings
Towards an ideology of hate, clothed in a glamorous pat xaj 
Of nationalistic fervour, a greater love. It takes a while
To remove the veil from the face of evil
But love finds its way back home. They pulled him back,
The years of togetherness, even though the glamour wore off
From ultra-nationalism and youthful love.
His mother would not take her in – it was the climate –
They eloped, had children and reunited with the family.
A new politics was born.

***



Love has a way of happening quite naturally.
For Sumon and me it happened on the telephone
Over conversations that veered dangerously close 
To intellectual discourse about intertwining histories, 
Divisive politics and reshaped identities.
History no longer had a hold on us, we need not forfeit
Like Rajen ata and Banalata. Our politics wasn’t muddled, 
We did not vacillate like Dulu mama and Shipra. 
Lost love, redefined politics came to fruition 
In a confident generation, globalised as far as suited us
Localised as much as was enough
To hold on to our ethnic identities over smoking cups
Of cappuccino and latte, feeding on pizzas
While in the background played
Rabindra Sangeet and Bihu songs.

***

[Notes: ata: grandfather; sanasur: mixed savouries; mama: maternal uncle; pat xaj: silk dress of Assamese women; Rabindra Sangeet: songs of Rabindranath Tagore, a Bengali treasure; Bihu: the cultural marker of Assamese identity.]


I Thought I Knew My Ma


(My short story published in Focus on Indian Writing in English in Muse India 35. Jan-Feb 2011.)


Read my other short stories: Virginia Mahi, Colors


I thought I could see my ma in a green and white polka dotted frock sitting on her bed beside the window, looking out at the night sky, trying to capture the full moon between two pink wild roses blooming on the old creeper that curled itself around the bars of the window. I thought I could almost hear her sigh as she smiled to herself dreaming of a tall dark-haired man, clutching a microphone and singing in a gravelly voice on the Bihu stage, under another full moon. She was thinking that she will marry him when she grows up, and koka should have no opposition to that because although he was a Muslim, he was an artiste, and koka was an artiste, and he always said that literature and art should be the only religions people were ever allowed to practice. They were her religions too, although she also toldkoka that loving flowers should be another religion. She was practicing her religion now, loving the flowers, letting them hold the moon in their bosom. The flowers shifted slightly in the breeze, and the moon was hidden for a moment. At that same moment, a shadow passed over her face. She was wishing he had not been a Muslim, because although art, literature and loving flowers should be the only religions, in Barbari where they lived, Hindu and Muslim were the only religions. The Muslims there were mostly immigrants, and Aita said they fought over land and cut each other up at the slightest provocation and gave birth to lots and lots of children “so that they can grab some more of our land.” Of course, aita had eleven children, of whom my Ma was the youngest. But she reasoned koka was very rich, and they could afford to have as many children as aita could bear. Aita was proud she could bear her husband so many children.Koka of course never knew how they were raised because aita kept them under her control and also, he was hardly ever home. If he was not supervising his vast land holding, he was settling some dispute in the village of which he was the undisputed patriarch because he had set it up by clearing the forests and settling people from his old village, and bringing Muslim agriculturists to work on their fields. In the evenings, koka would be rehearsing for the next play the Rangmahal club would stage – he was their chief patron and often, the lead actor. When there was no play, Choudhury koka, Sirajuddin koka, Dambaru mama and everybody else would get together and discuss poetry or music. Sometimes, if the artiste was not travelling with his troupe, he would come and sing in their batghar which koka had transformed into a natghar, aita often complained. When the sounds of the rehearsals started reaching the main house, and aita retreated into the kitchen, my Ma would sneak away from her study table and run to the batghar. It was through these rehearsals that Ma had become close to koka, who liked that one of his children was interested in the arts. And koka forever for her remained the artiste, the lover of literature, and the man who always quoted Chandraprasad: Xundarar Aradhanai Jibanar Khel: the sport of life is in the worship of the Beautiful. Sometimes, the image of the Beautiful conjured up in her mind would be that of her father, sometimes of the artiste. She only ever wanted to be the silent worshipper.

I thought I could sense my Ma’s bewilderment when she was forced to come and live in Guwahati. I thought I could measure her reluctance. She had not wanted to come, but koka had insisted she get a better education than he ever did: “Study English literature, because it will teach you to appreciate how beautiful life is.” She had heard from him that pain could be beautiful, and after the death of the artiste – some said from drinking too much, but she never believed them – she had often felt loss could be as precious as love. Without anybody knowing it, she had stolen the teacup kept aside for him – aita insisted that no Muslim could drink from the same cup as they did – and hidden it in her trunk under her bed. Although she hardly ever took it out of there, she liked to think: “this is the cup that ‘runneth over’ with my grief”. She left behind the cup when she went to Guwahati and once when she came home for the holidays, she didn’t notice that it was gone from her trunk. Just like the artiste’s cup, many things had slowly slipped away from her unnoticed, but not her shyness, her solitude, and her love of Beauty, reinforced now by the English Romantic poets.

***

The silken slender threads of a mournful flute found her one day at her hostel window when she was once again toying with the moon. They were floating in from the direction of the boys’ hostel, and she was immediately in love once again. Her artiste was back to life and she had found something to hold dear in this city where everything seemed daunting, everybody intimidating. Majnixa xar pai xunisane ketiyaba ketekir hiya bhaga mat? She felt the bird’s wailing that the poet heard in the middle of the night must have aroused the same pain, the same desire as the music of the flute now did in her. Sometimes she wondered who it was that could weave such sorrowful magic; often she told herself the magic was enough, the magician incidental. And she would not have known if he had not played the same melancholy notes on College Day, and as she sat there in the auditorium with her friends, she suddenly, for a moment, went back to her old bed at home and could smell the wild roses at her window. But she was grown up now, and knew she could not dream of getting married to somebody just because they pierced your heart with so much pain. Because she knew now what marriage entailed and she could foretell how aita and koka would both react if they only knew she was in love with a tribal boy. Koka would perhaps understand the love and devotion, but she knew well enough now that abstract religions of the heart had nothing to do with institutional religions people practised in everyday life, and even koka would not accept such a social ignominy as his daughter marrying a tribal boy. Oh, the tribals are Hindu alright, but they do still eat pork and drink alcohol. And although her elder brothers often went hunting in the reserved forest nearby and brought home deer meat almost every time, and maybe even ate wild pigs and buffaloes on the sly, pork – and of course beef – were taboo at home. And all the men of the house, including koka, only drank alcohol in secret, never socially like the tribals did. She had been shocked the day she found a bottle of rum in her father’s safe which he had accidentally left open. She had never told anybody about it, and had later accepted that although drinking alcohol was bad, it is a weakness even the strongest of men must sometimes give in to. And then, they say artistes need alcohol. Was he drunk now? Suddenly she came back to herself and found herself sitting in the auditorium surrounded by an applauding audience and blushed. The performance had ended, and she wished she could look at him sometime longer. Since she couldn’t do that now, she started sitting towards the end of the classroom and watching shyly, guiltily, his profile on the boys’ side of the room. And waiting for the evenings when she could listen to him playing the flute. She made believe that he played only for her, because she listened. One day instead of the music, she heard a huge commotion from the direction of the boys’ hostel. Some of the more adventurous girls in the hostel went over to the warden’s and brought back the news that the tribal boys had started a rebellion of sorts. They would no longer eat in the Second Dining Hall, they wanted to eat with the upper caste Hindu boys in the First Dining Hall. There was a little violence, and some of the boys on both sides had been injured. From the next day, she did not hear him playing the flute anymore. News was some of the boys in the hostel had been rusticated for indiscipline, he was one of them. Some of the other girls who had taken to openly declaring their adoration of him ever since the College Day, proudly proclaimed that at least his sacrifice had set in motion a change that would be good for the society. She wanted to cry because she hated it when they spoke about him as though he could ever belong to anybody but her.

***

I thought I felt my Ma’s trepidation the day she got married. I thought I knew how her tears were both of sorrow at leaving her parents’ home and of fear of the unknown life she was about to start by marrying deuta. Her only consolation was that koka had himself chosen deuta to be her husband, and she knew he would never make a wrong choice for her. She had barely met him a few times before the wedding but she had read his novel and imagined he would be like Pramathes, the protagonist, who was a social activist and stood for all that was true, right and good. She was also a bit worried that if he was as good as Pramathes, she might not live up to his expectations. But her sense of inadequacy began to disappear as she started learning a few lessons about life in the daily grind of married life. The first of these lessons was that a man who was too good to be true should not get married. Unaware of his duties to his family, deuta indeed turned out to be like Pramathes, consumed with a desire for cleansing the society of its evils and injustices. Perhaps it was something in the air in those days, but many other people like deuta also thought they could do this, and very naively they all joined the Asom Andolan – that massive civil unrest that turned our society upside down for nearly six decades – a well-intentioned movement which a few self serving people hijacked and turned into one that polarized our society, alienating all Muslims and as well as tribals. People like my deuta who had joined the movement because they wanted to fight for the rights of the “sons of the soil” did not realise this until it was too late. And then when they did, they ended up as bitter defeated crusaders who remained forever afterwards cynical about any change in society. Deuta could never get over it, and he changed, kept strictly to his textbooks and teachings and pretty much banished whatever was left of Pramathes from his person. Meanwhile, my Ma had already given up two of her favourite preoccupations, because early in the marriage, she had realized that it would not do for both partners to immerse themselves in art and literature, or there would be nobody to run the house, what withdeuta also possessing at the same time an unbending social conscience. Since the same realization had not come todeuta, it was my Ma who had to relinquish.

She did however keep her third religion alive, that of loving flowers. She had a huge garden with many different kinds of flowers to which she was more attached than to deuta. When I was born, she named me Pahi – flower petal – although she must have been disappointed that I did not turn out to be as delicate, as pliant, or as attached to her as her flowers. I was more attached to deuta who would sometimes, only for me, come out of his cynical shell and recount the fervour with which his generation had wanted to “save our nation and identity”. Another generation was at that moment in history trying to do the same with guns and explosives and failing miserably, defeated by ideological poverty. Growing up amidst all this and knowing what had gone before, I started believing that mass movements and armed insurgencies led nowhere. Revolution had to begin at the individual level, and I started my little rebellions. I began by renouncing the Brahminism I was born into. I took to eating beef and pork with friends, and later, travelling to places my mother would only have heard of, or my one-time social activist father would never have been acquainted with, where the people who he had once thought he was fighting for really lived. There, getting drunk on rice beer, we discussed ethnic reconciliation and religious tolerance, deliberated on blueprints of a future society without conflicts. And I thought I was in love, with an indigenous Muslim boy who spoke with the same passion about the same things I believed in.

I thought my Ma would be my worst enemy at this juncture. I thought deuta was the one who would understand. But it was deuta who very subtly blackmailed me into agreeing to marry Bordoloi khura’s son who lives in Bangalore. He stopped eating, and sat on his easy chair in the veranda for hours with a wounded look, the book on his lap open at the same page for a week. I gave in, but not before I realized my mother was on my side. She said nothing the day I broke the news, and I would have thought she was silent only because deuta had said what she would have wanted to say, had she not come and sat beside me on my bed and run her fingers through my hair the day the love of my life heaped accusations of hypocrisy and elitism on me and Bandini seeing that I was well rid of him, came up to me and told me how he had been sleeping with another woman all along. My world and my rebellion and my beliefs had all come crushing down, but in the midst of it all, I suddenly saw my Ma, I saw that my Ma felt my pain, that she was indeed made of pain. And it was then, for the first time in my life, that I thought I should get to know her the way she must have been.


***

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Colors 

(My short story published in the South Asian Literary Association's journal South Asian Review 30:3)

Read my other short stories: Virginia Mahi, I  Thought I Knew My Ma

Blue
Mur ee antar khani xagarar dare nila bedanare ...
—Debakanta Baruah

T
his my heart is blue like the sea, with pain. I always thought I could feel this pain, this intense agony, deep down in my heart. I always feared this pain will be with me till the end, refusing to go away, which is why I decided I should do something about it, maybe leave it all and go away, far far away, from my parents, from all acquaintances, and from the familiar places that had shaped my life and given me this pain.


I was born in Guwahati, a city I called home but never really felt at home in. Many like my parents had come to this city from mofussil towns and villages to build a new life, and in the process, had started imparting to the city, just as the city had imparted to them, hypocritical middle class values. These were also the values that have always repulsed me so much, and instilled in me the desire to run away, be in some other place, assume some other persona. I always blamed these values for my parents’ lack of courage, the kind of courage one needs to be able to match up to one’s ambitions. True, they capped their ambition at a stable job with a secure income, but it was a lot for them to achieve in a new city with a new way of life, and they were willing to do anything to achieve that ambition—provided it could be done without any kind of confrontation with anybody.


My mother was the more ambitious of the two; my father just sort of went along. He came from a very poor family that did not have enough agricultural land to be shared among the five sons of which my father was the fourth. So he had to come to the city to look for a job. My mother’s father was a fourth-grade officer in the district magistrate’s office, and he earned enough—very little of it by way of government salary of course—to keep his sizeable family of six daughters and two sons in relative comfort. She moved to the city when she married my father.


At first my mother was appalled by how little my father made at his job as an officer at the State Bank. What was more, he seemed content with his job and salary. But my mother had enough ambition for the two of them, and she forced him to sit for all the exams that would ensure him promotions, sitting up nights to ensure that he did the same, till he became a branch manager with a decent salary and the scope to earn some more on the side. After that, she used the influence of one of her father’s acquaintances to join a government school as a subject teacher, and turned her attention to making something out of me. I was admitted to one of the three elite English medium schools in Guwahati at the time, a school that had a Catholic management and hence was sure to instill the kind of discipline she thought would take me far in life.


I was not an extremely bright student but good enough to keep her ambitions for me alive. Although I came to know early in life that she planned for me to be a doctor—because doctors are never without a job and make lots of money besides—I always wanted to be a writer. Even when I grew up and got to know that writers, especially in Assam, make almost nothing from their writings, I thought my parents had made enough for me to live on for the rest of my life—and then some—so that I could easily indulge myself and my passion for poetry and literature, which I had developed while still in school. But my mother would have none of that and she made me sit for the medical entrance test, which I cleared in the second attempt, thus falling behind my classmates and losing what little I had in the way of friends and companions. But my mother persisted and when I did get through I was so bad at studying medicine that I kept falling more and more behind in class. However, I did finally emerge an MBBS doctor and in the absence of any desire to pursue a specialization, started looking around for a job, any job that would take me away from Guwahati and my parents and the ignominy of being the only one among my contemporaries who was not yet a specialist, gainfully employed, and married.


Finally one day, I got a call from the Kalguri Tea Estate authorities for an interview, and when I reached the tea garden and saw the bungalow set aside for the doctor and took a walk among the tea bushes for the first time in my life, I knew I had to get this job and come and live here. I did not care that in a tea estate, the frequently changing doctors are mostly retained for ornamental purposes, with the local compounder being the one the laborers all came to for his reassuringly familiar, high-handed, bumbling system of medication that he had acquired through years of trial and error. After all, I never did perceive of myself as a qualified enough doctor, having been always behind in class, and was only too eager to come to Kalguri to unlearn all that I had learned. For the first time in my life, on the night before the interview at the tea estate guest house where I was given accommodation, I felt a kind of peace trying to make its way into my heart, nudging at the precious pain I had nurtured all these years. As I stood in the huge lawn and bathed in naked moonlight, I knew if I came here, I would have all the time in the world to indulge my passion for literature, and read and write to my heart’s content. As I looked out at the rows and rows of tea shrubs in front of me, I could feel every novel, every poem, every word I had read about lives hitherto unknown to me come alive and call out to me, entice me, irresistibly pull at every molecule in my being.


I did not waste any time setting out on my way to Kalguri after the appointment letter reached me next month. My mother said she would not let me go so far away to Delhi or Bangalore to study like many of my friends and cousins because she could never be sure whether I was applying myself enough, but I knew it was really because she could not bear to have me slipping out of her control. However I was almost twenty-eight now, and could not bear to be near her anymore. I needed to break away and even if it meant being only 400 kilometers away from her and lying to her that I wanted the effortless tea estate job so that I could prepare for my postgraduate exams and would be back in time for the exams in six months, I managed to get her to agree in the end. The fact that the tea company was paying me a very handsome salary must also have had something to do with her acquiescence.


The six-hour journey to Kalguri may not have seemed momentous in any way to anybody else; after all there were so many people who travelled back home to Guwahati every weekend from what they thought of as punishment postings in the Kalguri village, which had grown up around the tea garden, or in the Barbari town nearby. For me, however, it was a remarkable journey, because for the first time I felt free, on my own and on my way to shedding the agonizing blue that had housed itself in me all these years, so tenaciously, and it suddenly seemed to me, in hindsight, so melodramatically. And strangely, as the bus began crawling its way out of Guwahati, I saw the evening sun reflected in the waters of the vast Brahmaputra, and the fantastic blue of the sea neither I nor my poet had ever seen seemed already to be shedding its sadness. Instead, seeping into my heart now was the satiny blue of the Brahmaputra tinged with the red of the setting sun.


Black
Tourou thakiba pare janu bhem
Naharani baganar koli mem...
—Pranab Barman

C
an you too be so arrogant/Black memsahib of Naharani garden? I had come to Kalguri wondering whether it would turn out to be my Naharani, where I would find my black memsahib and a tragic love affair. I had been in love once, earlier, at medical college, but she had left me because of my lack of ambition as she perceived it. How would she know that I did have a lot of ambition—only they weren’t the kind she or my mother would understand? My ambitions were not limited to jobs or money; they had more to do with finding people, discovering places, and getting rid of all that blue. During my initial days at Kalguri, every time I saw a pair of muscular black calves below the undulating folds of a grimy sari walking away from me, I would wonder if she could have been my Chameli memsahib, and I—though not a white man—could be George Baker, shedding sweet tears of sorrow while in the background Bhupen Hazarika sang his heart wrenching, “O Bidexi Bandhu….”


But I did not fall in love in Kalguri, and all the black memsahibs gradually lost the romantic sheen I had draped them in. They became everyday people like their brothers or fathers or lovers or uncles, all of whom warmed up to me enough to soon start offering me their haria to drink and allowing me to participate in their evenings of jhumur dance once in a while. Alcohol had been taboo in our house, but now, having left behind the Hindu traditional universe I had been confined to, I got more and more attached to the drink. The more I drank, the more I rose in their estimation as somebody who was “not like the rest of them.” Often I would get too drunk to walk back to my quarters on my own and a few of them would carry me and put me in bed. They felt good that the doctor sahib was fraternizing with them, and no doctor at the tea garden had ever done that before. And I felt good that they were accepting me more and more into their lives, and often congratulated myself that I could shed my ingrained elitist education and upbringing to mingle with the workers and laborers.


I stopped going back to Guwahati every weekend like I initially used to under pressure from my mother. I also stopped calling as often as she would have me call her. My mother kept threatening to come down and stay with me, but I kept putting her off. My father made the appropriate amount of fuss, then gave up. My mother persisted, but I learned that it was easier to handle her long distance and mastered the art within a short time. All in all, my life at Kalguri was going quite well. I was leading the kind of idyllic idle life I had always dreamed was necessary for any kind of literary pursuit, whether reading or writing. Unlike many other tea gardens, this one had an excellent library, which had been built up over the years by the erstwhile white masters of the plantation, and I was catching up with all the reading I had missed out on in the years wasted in medical school.


When I wanted my dose of Axamiya literature, all I had to do was send one of my orderlies, Dambaru, on his cycle to the village headmaster Praphulla Narzary’s house and I could have the learned man’s handpicked selection of the literary masters. Whenever I was at the village, I would always visit him and discuss all that I had read with him, over cups of steaming tea or glassfuls of jou that his daughter, Deepti, had brewed. I would often cycle back to my quarters late in the night, despite Narzary saar’s repeated warnings about gunmen on the prowl at that time. Every time I was late, he would apologize for not having kept track of the time, and plead with me to stay back at his house for the night rather than get shot by the militants or the army, whoever happened to be around. But the jou would have made me fearless, and happy like I had never been before, and I would ignore his pleas. Besides, as I always reasoned with him, it would not look nice if I stayed the night given that he had a young daughter at home, and nobody else.


Sometimes when I returned late at night from my trips to the village, which gradually became more and more frequent, I would find a potful of haria left at my door. No doubt by Dambaru who followed me around like a little lost black puppy most of the day, and at night missed me if I did not come to their basti to drink. Then I would drink some more of the haria or risk offending Dambaru and go off to sleep. No matter what time I rose, Dambaru would be ready with my breakfast. After breakfast, I would go off to the hospital. I would sit there as long as it took for the compounder, Biswas da, to have his paranoia come back and feel threatened by my presence and say kindly to me: “You must be tired, saar, why don’t you leave? I can handle it here.” Sometimes, the manager’s wife who was nothing less than a queen in the tea garden would summon me to administer her insulin and I would spend a couple of hours talking to her about nothing of any consequence. And as soon as I could, I would return to my books or cycle down to the village or walk around to the labor basti. Once in a while, the manager or the assistant manager would invite me to come along with them to the Planters Club where the management of about ten tea gardens in a radius of about two hundred kilometers would meet whenever they felt they needed the company of their peers instead of the illiterate uncivilized laborers they were forced to deal with day in and day out. I would accept the invitations at reasonable intervals but come back sick to my stomach with all their wives’ flirtatious advances.
All in all, I was packing in more experiences during my stay here than I had ever absorbed in my whole life before. And I should have been able to write like I had always planned to, but I was too busy soaking it all in to find time to reflect and recollect. I was not complaining however and was perfectly happy with the way things were—till one day, I killed Dambaru.


Yellow
Tumi mouk bhal pale/Sarimuthi halodhiya xuta kini dim ...
—Jiban Narah

I
f you love me, I shall buy you four lengths of yellow thread. These lines always now remind me of Deepti in her yellow dakhana, sitting at the loom, looking up and smiling at me every time I pushed aside the horizontal bamboo poles on their gate and walked in. How was I to know that Dambaru was in love with Deepti? How was I to know that Deepti—the college-going daughter of the village headmaster—could be in love with a boy from the tea tribes, an uneducated, quiet mild mannered boy, whom I sent to her house so often at all odd hours to collect books for me? Surely it was because of me that this could happen but other than Narzary saar, nobody in Kalguri village was willing to allow that fate also could have had something to do with the development of this socially unacceptable relationship. It was now a matter for consideration by the village elders, and though the Bodo community to which Narzary saar and Deepti belonged was largely detribalized, it did still retain a characteristically tribal distrust of outsiders. No Bodo could marry a harsha or outsider. And what is more, Dambaru’s tribe was not even indigenous, his grandparents had come from somewhere in the Indian mainland as bonded laborers to work in the tea garden and had settled here. It was to free their indigenous land from the occupation of outsiders that many Bodo youths had taken up arms today and if it should be known that a girl from their village had been involved with a tea tribal, the entire village would be in trouble.


I was present at the meeting and I could sense the fear as well as the anger. But because Narzary saar was well respected, they let me off with a small fine. Dambaru, however, was not so fortunate. He was found killed just outside the tea garden one morning. Nobody could or would say who did it. But everybody began to keep their valuables packed and ready in small pouches, ready to abandon the village at the first signs of trouble. Able-bodied men from the village started staying up nights on sentry duty. I was forbidden by the tea garden authorities to go to the village, and I could not also go to the labor basti anymore, because even though they did not openly accuse me of anything, I could sense that they felt betrayed somehow. Meanwhile the news of Dambaru’s death had made it to the newspaper as it had followed closely on the heels of ethnic clashes between Bodos and tea tribes in the adjoining district. The media predicted that ethnic clashes were imminent in the Kalguri area also. My mother read the news and decided I was to come back immediately. Two years was long enough to have wasted in a remote tea plantation and according to her, it was time I got out of this mess and came home to take stock of my life.


I told her I could not come. For the first time in my life, I was straight with my mother. I told her that now more than ever, I could not and would not abandon the people who meant more to me than anybody else had ever done in my entire life. The city meant nothing to me, and though I did not directly tell her this, I am sure she also understood what I left unsaid—that she herself meant very little to me. She, who stood for all that I hated—a limited life, constricting values, and a self-centered universe. As I stood my ground for the first time in my life, I suddenly realized that I myself had epitomized the things that I had hated all my life. What had I done for the garden laborers who had welcomed me into their lives so uninhibitedly? I had taken their affection for granted and not even rendered them the service for which the garden management had hired me in the first place. On the contrary, I had jeopardized their very existence. It was not as though I was not aware of the tensions prevalent between the two communities—even though remote, news does travel to Kalguri. And there had been ethnic clashes in the neighboring districts only a month ago. Yet, I had sent Dambaru to the Bodo village over and over again, in order to satiate my own lust for literature. I had been blind to the growing affection between him and Deepti, because I had not paid attention to either of them. I was so engrossed in my discovery of Narzary saar’s treasure trove of knowledge that I had become insensitive to the boy who ungrudgingly acted as my go-between and the girl who quietly looked after my comfort while I was engaged with her father. Had I only acknowledged their existence and made an effort to know them as persons, I could perhaps have gauged the growing involvement between them, and helped them before things got out of hand. Who knows? And now I will never know because Dambaru is dead and Deepti cannot even mourn his death because if she showed any signs of mourning, the villagers will ostracize her father. As it is, they blame her and Narzary saar for the imminent attack on their village, although nobody says it openly.


The attack came one night. There were people with bows and arrows and some with guns. Two Bodo villages in the area were razed and twenty people killed. The same night, five tea tribe villages were also set on fire, and fifty people made to stand in line and riddled with bullets. Dambaru’s basti was inside the tea garden and the management had received prior information about the date of attack. So they had shut all entry points into the garden and tightened security. Some said they even paid the militants not to deplete their labor force. Cheap labor was hard to find and any untoward incident inside the plantation meant losses amounting to hundreds of thousands of rupees every day. So Dambaru’s basti was safe, but Deepti’s village was devastated. And Deepti had disappeared. The survivors had to go live in a relief camp twenty kilometers away in Kalibheta.


Two days later, when the tea garden management allowed me to take the official jeep, I went to the relief camp. Narzary saar sat under a tree and would not talk to me. The other villagers met me coldly and told me nobody knew anything about Deepti. As I was coming back to the garden, my driver stopped on the roadside to take a piss. There was a mustard field there, and it was all yellow with mustard blossoms. I thought I could see clotted black blood splattered over the yellow.


Red, Green, Grey
Issa hoi tar hatar ranga patakakhan
Jui huwar agate
Tat jen xeujiya xutare buta basi aki dim
Puwatit jak pata uranta maral ...
—Geeta Goswami

I
 want to snatch the red flag he carries/Before it flares up/And weave into it with green thread/A motif of a flock of maral/Spreading their wings in the morning light. Between file shots of the red and green flag of their organization, the local news channel was showing pictures of Deepti in handcuffs. That was when I discovered that she had joined the militants after that night. She told me later that she was carried away by the attackers, who dumped her in a mustard field not far away from the village. From there she was picked up by a group of men who did not seem to belong to either community, but were armed with guns. They had raped her, repeatedly, and dropped her off near the army camp at Barbari and she had crawled her way to a nearby village, which luckily for her turned out to be a Bodo village. There she was nursed back to health and indoctrinated in the militant ideology. Because she was well educated, she rose quickly in the ranks and they used her for writing press releases and demand notes and communicating with the media. She told me all this when I went to meet her at the jail in Guwahati five years later.


After watching the news, I had spent a sleepless night, wondering if I should go and see her. In the end I decided I should. It took me some amount of maneuvering of the jail officials to be allowed to meet her, but I managed in the end and I am glad that I did. She also seemed genuinely glad to see me. She told me how she had been away taking military training in the hills of Karbi Anglong when her father had died. She had gone to see him when she came back two years after the carnage, but he was no more. When I asked her why she had joined the militants, she said she did because she had been very angry. When I asked her why she had joined the militants whom everybody knew had killed Dambaru, she did not reply. Instead she asked me what I had been up to. I told her how I had taken the easy way out and escaped to the city. My mother had said nothing, but I knew she felt triumphant when I sat for the Assam public service exams and qualified and asked my father for money to pay for a post in the Guwahati Medical College. I had been leading a quiet life since then and next month, I was getting married to a girl my parents had found for me.


She said she was very happy for me. I asked her if she intended to surrender now that the government paid generous rehabilitation packages to surrendered militants.

“You mean get co-opted like you? Yeah, I might,” she said.