If there was anything, people agreed on, it was that the new government had built their roads.
Sultana felt a thrill each time she took the turn from the highway into Chapaguri, leaving behind the ragged traffic of scooters, trackers and the boisterous local autos of Bongaigaon to sail through the quiet rice fields along the newly paved road. With the exception of the occasional car, there were only a few cyclists and pedestrians on the road, loitering goats and market-goers peacefully sleeping off their extra drink by the roadside. She would ride down this road till the Bismuri market, then past villages with broad-shouldered trees lining the sides, to finally arrive at the immense open skies of the newly built bridge over the river Aie. Her husband’s village was across the river, while her mother’s fell a little short of the bridge.
Sultana has become so used to doing this route on her battered, faithful Kinetic, the walk feels truly endless. Then comes the ache of regret at having to leave her bike behind in office. It is the only thing of value she possesses. So perhaps it has been wise, it will be safer in the office shed.
She had largely ignored the developments of the last few weeks. It was like keeping score in a children’s game: one killed this side, followed by four on the other side, then three here, a whole family there. Sultana had no idea who had started it, what the original wound was, on whom it was made and by who. She had had other things to keep her busy.
Breathe, take your time to breathe. She has tucked the last of the tamul into her mouth and carefully spits into the grass, closes the gate behind her and walks. Then it comes back: a sharp pricking in the eyes as they well up. Oh lord, she pleads, not now, not here. (The tears are not of sadness or fear; it is anger she feels. But she is ashamed of them and, under these circumstances, they are bound to be misinterpreted.) It is dusk, though, and if she gives it some thought, she will know that no one can see the marks they leave on her face. Not that her companion notices, he is too busy grimacing, and trying to demonstrate his contempt and disapproval of her decision.
She registers with a slight shock that his manner is familiar; it reminds her of the other men in her life. The men she knows with far greater intimacy than she ever will the man by her side, the chance companion of this walk back home. It is his bearing, this sense of disapproval that his entire being exudes and an entitlement to this disapproval: what gives you the right, she wants to shout at him, just what, can you tell me, please. Her own anger at his behaviour completes the circle of intimacy; connects her to him, this man, and him to all the other men, the husband and father and brothers.
But her husband would have handled this situation better, if anything, and thank god for that, he was not a coward. And then, she cannot bear to think of her husband either, so she goes back to this man by her side. He opens his mouth again to say something, and she wonders if it is indeed better to have him talk than to listen to her own thoughts.
She lets him speak.
“You people try to save your money by not charging your phones or what? Your mother has a phone you say, and you can’t call her – you have to walk ten kilometres to reach her. All so unnecessary. This is not the first time. I have seen this often with your people. They come to the tea shop and ask, can we put the phone to charge while we drink tea? And then, of course, five people will come and one will drink tea, and the rest will charge their phones, so this way, they save money...”
She gives him a look, rolls her eyes. But the voice in her head has adopted his tone: Oh yes, we save our money, we save and save, sell our mothers so we can buy your tribal land cheap, and drive your people out, isn’t that it? If she had said it aloud, he would probably agree.
She was the only woman from her community who worked there, that’s true. She had never thought about it before. After finishing school, she had joined this organisation and learnt everything from the older women here. A large part of the community work she did was in Bodo villages. She spoke their languages, had stayed in their houses. Today, there was a training programme in the neighbouring district, and all her colleagues were there.
She had skipped the event, choosing to come in to office to settle her accounts instead. That’s how they came to be the two people in the office. The other accounts lady had left early but this man had stayed, waiting out the office hours dutifully till it was time to leave.
They were both old employees, but their interactions had never gone beyond the usual pleasantries and the monthly settling of accounts. Sultana didn’t have much work at the office today. She stepped out for a leisurely cup of tea at the market, then came back to her desk to look at photos from the training. She had to leave for the train station early next morning for a workshop in Nalbari, and thought it better to spend the night in office instead of going home. Somebody or the other was always there.
But the afternoon changed things. First, the phone calls. She had suddenly been inundated by phone calls, they came in wave after wave; she could barely finish a call, and there was another, and another. She should have hurled it into a pond – the mobile had served to ruin her day, and nothing else. The whole world had called her, the first calls were from her Bodo colleagues and friends inquiring about the violence, if it was true that her community had called for war that hundreds of people were arriving with weapons from Bangladesh, preparing to finish them all off.
She had no idea. Then she called her contacts in various organisations to inquire, only to be told that it was the Bodos who were out to massacre them. People from her community were shocked to hear that she sat phoning them from a Bodo village. They were going to cut her up, surely?
She wasn’t too bothered initially. The first few phone calls served to mildly irritate her, that she should have to spend her time talking to these hysterical people instead of finishing her report and watching a film on the computer with another cup of tea. Every day, people died, killed others. In this land, has it ever stopped? If it reaches the news and TV, people panic, otherwise they carry on. What did this have to do with her?
But the information from the phone calls was more specific now, reports coming in from here and there that the violence had spilled over into their district: villages were being burned, people killed, the Army had been called, that there would be curfew from tomorrow. People took the trouble to spell it out for her: if the Army was coming in tomorrow, there was a window of time, between now and dawn, when the violence would be at its fiercest. It would be advisable to not find yourself in the wrong place.
Sultana had worked in this area for years; she had a fine network of auto drivers and a bike to get her past bandhs and curfews. How else would she have gotten anything done at all? She sat with the bills spread out on the table. Her mother’s phone was unreachable. She waited for news from the village, a call from a neighbour’s phone, but there was nothing. And then it was too late – the decision was thrust upon her.
She smiles to herself at the thought of her mother saving money by not charging the phone battery. That woman, money went through her hands like water through a sieve. It was either the neighbour’s grandson who fell sick or some young man who needed a loan. The phone was another matter, though. It was Sultana who charged it each time she went home, so her mother could speak to her two sons who lived in the town. Other times, it lay on top of the TV with a crocheted doily protecting it.
Had they not heard anything in their village? Surely, her mother would have thought to bring out the mobile from the net cover, go to a neighbour and have them call someone, Sultana or one of her brothers. But none of them had heard from her.
And though she didn’t want to admit it, there was the niggling fear. What if this were to be the real thing, what the older people spoke of when they recalled the violence of the 1990s, if this was the moment when it tipped over and they capsized into a full-scale riot? That’s when she had stopped looking at the bills and decided to act.
She glances at the man pushing his cycle and walking with her. The narrative so far pitched each side evenly, and for a situation to be poised so delicately, precariously on the edge, is a frightening thing. Especially because she knows the guns, the power is on the other side. It will be easier to force her people to leave than convince them to stay. She cannot for a moment imagine a home elsewhere. They had tried; her husband had rented a place in the city, only to return a few months later. Neither spoke of it but it had been a lesson to them all, this was home, there was nowhere else to go.
But what if they did not descend into hell and the violence clung on in this current scoring format. Did that mean that, for a Bodo woman killed somewhere, she, her walk through these villages, would serve as a counterpoint?
This man, walking with her, she appraises his physique: the narrow wrists, the strength of his hands pushing the cycle, his balding head, the way his shoulders stooped, he was only about as tall as she was, maybe even a little shorter. No, she reckons he does not have the strength to pin her down in a struggle. But what if there are others? What if he is driving her to an agreed-upon point, giving her over to a gang? This is how it is sometimes done, she knows that.
The man...is it possible that all this while he has continued speaking? She has been so caught up in her own thoughts that she cannot tell. She decides a conversation may be the only way to escape her rising panic and softens her previous sharp demeanour. “Dada, do you have a family at home?”
“No, no, with this salary, how is it possible to bring home a wife? I’m taking these exams, even a clerical job in the government is better or a sepoy in the Army – anything! In the villages and towns, everywhere nowadays, it is all about the money,” he says. “You are a very smart lady. You are lucky your husband allows you to move about so much. In your community, it is rare.”
She sighs. No longer angry, she lets him speak.
“They talk about it in the market – look, look at Sultana, she has wisely caught her man. Anyone else and his love would have run dry the way she rides about on a bike, staying away from home so long!” He laughs, as if recounting an amusing anecdote. “But you have no children, it has been a few years, no? From what we see, mostly in your community...”
She lets him talk on. No wonder he can’t find himself a wife. Who will give their daughter to a balding man sniffing about in other people’s marriages?
She is slowly recovering her spirit and about to set him straight when she spots it. He must have too, because he stops talking. In the distance, from the blue-black smudge of vegetation, an angry plume of smoke is rising into the sky. She strains her ears. Was there any sound, of people, gun shots? She tries to discern the distance; it couldn’t be very far from where they are. So, the reports were right.
It should have propelled them into some kind of urgency: they could have turned back, or walked faster to their destination. But they do none of that; they simply walk on in silence, pace unchanged. The man stops chattering for some time, then whispers:
“I’ve heard the Muslims have guns now, that they can shoot from a distance, from behind a grove of trees or the top of a house.”
Excerpted with permission from the story ‘Sultana Walks Home’ from Peace Has Come, Parismita Singh, Context.
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