This area falls in the territory of the militants. It is entirely covered by thick forest. Professor Mirajkar and I were returning after a visit to the Kaziranga National Park. Both of us work in Delhi University, in the Department of Modern Indian Languages and Literary Studies, and had to come to attend a conference organised by the students of Assam. We were anxious to reach Guwahati before dark. Mirajkar was not afraid of wild animals, he said, but he was definitely afraid of terrorists. One of his best friends had been killed by the extremists in Punjab. He kept asking me, ‘Have you been able to control terrorism in this beautiful land of yours?’
I really did not know what to tell him, especially since on our way we had crossed quite a few check-posts where we were examined and had torches shone on our faces.
I sat in the car, looking out of the window, trying to imagine myself back on the veranda of the Kaziranga tourist lodge, listening to the wind rustling the thick clumps of bijuli bamboo as if it were muga silk. I remembered the moon spotlight a huge owl that sat on a chatyan tree, its head disproportionately large, like that of a newborn baby. Mirajkar sat worrying about terrorists. Someone had told him that terrorists owing allegiance to Babbar Khalsa and the JKLF ( Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front) had managed to infiltrate the jungles of Assam to join local groups of extremists.
We were speeding along the National Highway. On either side were distant hills. The paddy fields were a riot of brilliant colours, flaunting gold; then they would grow modest and hide in Buddhist ochre, or shrink and fold into darkness. Every now and then Mirajkar would jump up, straining his ears for the sound of gunfire. Then he’d lapse into a reverie again, looking gloomily out of the window at the fields or at forests that teemed with cotton, khaira, sisoo, holong, poma, bogi poma, bokul, and teak trees. Evening wrapped the teak in shreds of silk that the stippling sun seemed to turn magically into deerskin.
The driver broke the silence. “Last year, this road was smeared with blood. There was always crossfire of machine guns, exploding grenades. Now it’s all quiet. No one is seen with a gun any more. Yes, no guns.” As if a soft carpet covered it all – the bloodstains, the dumps of arms and ammunitions, the smell of gunpowder.
Mirajkar said, “Maybe we can’t see firearms, but didn’t the officer of the forest department at Kaziranga, Mr Ahmed, say that the poachers were carrying foreign arms – .303s, 500 double-barrels and 470 US carbines; that some smugglers had been caught at Mori Diphu; that two poachers were shot dead?”
Mirajkar had made a serious study of firearms and now started telling us stories about the First World War. Ramakanta, the driver, also became eloquent with various tales of poachers from the bordering areas.
He was a middle-aged man with a Nepali cap to protect his balding head from the sun. He was sturdy and short with a neck that disappeared into his shirt collar. He had small eyes, like the other Bodos of the valley, and a thin moustache. He was a good driver; he rarely used the brake or the clutch.
But my mind was elsewhere and I did not pay any attention to the talks of guns and terrorists. I was watching the forest flit past outside the car window. I saw the grand veloe trees draped in moss that grew like the hair on the legs of long-tailed monkeys. There were many different trees, some with wild creepers twining themselves around trunks of muga silk. Some trees looked like majestic ruins dressed in shimmering gossamer. All around was monochromatic green, ranging from the richly succulent to those that reminded me of puthi, the tiny fish. Some leaves were round, like the heavy silver coins with Queen Victoria emblazoned on them. And the birina trees were smothered in white blossoms that looked like clouds flirting with the earth.
Mirajkar was still staring through the window. The sound of gunfire here? No, impossible! Compared to Delhi, this was heaven! Delhi, ah, who can live there any more? The bountiful Yamuna of the Afghan and Turk poets has turned into a stinking sewer. Sadar Bazar, with its teeming crowds, was a battlefield.
Gently, almost invisibly, the sun’s rays turned mild, as if a huge python had shed its glistening skin and was slipping away into the darkness.
...Hrr, hrr, kut, kut, krrr! The car jerked to a halt in front of a thatched shop by the wayside. Ramakanta jumped out of the car. He opened the bonnet and then came to tell us that the radiator was leaking and all the water in it had evaporated. Nothing to do but take the car to a garage.
Mirajkar and I got down from the car to walk towards two small dimly lit shops that sold tender coconuts and tea. Mirajkar said, “It’d have been terrible if the car had broken down in the forest. Look how dark it is already.” I nodded in agreement, while Ramakanta paced up and down and in and out of the small roadside shops, making enquiries about a garage.
All of a sudden a scrawny figure came out of a shop a little further down the National Highway. He held a kerosene lamp in his hand and wore a loose kurta and a dhoti that stopped at his knee. I couldn’t make out if he wore slippers. He came up to our car and stopped. He looked old and feeble. Raising his lantern, he said, “You have had a breakdown? The workshop is seven miles away. Wait, I’ll stop a car for you. The driver can go and fetch a mechanic, while you will sit in my shop and have a cup of hot tea – maybe some betelnuts, too?”
He stood right in the middle of the road, swinging his lantern, his hair-knot loose on his shoulders. In the flickering light he looked spectral.
Mirajkar and I walked into his shop. One hurricane lamp hung from a bamboo pole. Its chimney was cracked and dirty. Under a wooden bench we could see an old stove, some rusted tins. On the mud wall was a calendar with a picture of a white woman smoking a cigarette.
We sat on the bench. An old woman emerged from the room inside, holding a lamp. She said, “The whole of today went by as if we were fishing at sea...not a soul in sight.”
“No customers?” I asked, surprised.
She said, “There are many shops now on either side of the road. They know how to attract customers. They even play music!” She sidled up to me and whispered, “They sell evil stuff. But we are Bhakats. Even that picture there. My husband and I had a bitter quarrel with our children about it.”
She then took a kettle and shuffled out of the room to fetch water for our tea. In the light of her lantern we could see her torn blouse. She was wearing a cotton mekhala and an old embroidered chaddar stained with betel juice. She came back and lit the stove. Perhaps it had no kerosene and soon a pungent smell filled the room.
I felt bad when I saw the old woman arranging the glasses and pouring the tea and the milk with quivering hands. “Grandma,” I said, “is there no one to help you?”
“My daughter-in-law used to, my elder son’s wife. He died during the floods last year, of some unknown disease. We couldn’t get any medicine for him. The doctors have turned dacoits. She was pregnant when he died and now she has a son. She’s very weak...can’t even stand on her own feet!”
“Is there no one else?”
“I have two sons and a daughter. They used to go to school. Once. Ah, things are different now. The girl fell in love with a soldier in the Indian army which had to come here to flush out the terrorists. The local boys beat her up. She’s limping back to normal health. The last seven years have been hell, daughter! The treacherous river had eaten our land. Now there is no rice to...”
The old man returned, still holding on to his lantern. Perhaps he had been successful in stopping a car and sending the driver to fetch a mechanic. He called out to his wife from where he stood.
“Ai, mother of Nirmali, don’t bore the guests with your sad tales. They’re tired. Get some tea...”
The old woman got up abruptly on seeing him. She went to him and whispered, “Manohar and some others have seen him near the railway tracks today.”
The old man froze for a second. Then, “Last time too, some people said they’d seen him near the railway tracks. Don’t listen to such rubbish!” he said. “Go and get the tea for our customers. They’re returning from Kaziranga and must be very tired. Are there some biscuits?”
“Biscuits? All the money went into buying sugar and tea leaves last week.”
Mirajkar and I cried out together, “No, no don’t bother. Even black tea will do.”
The old woman mumbled to herself as she prepared the tea, “God alone knows how I run this shop. Over the last seven years, the river has swallowed up so much land. That Flood Relief Committee set up their office by the roadside and stopped the mouths of us people with a mere one hundred rupees.”
The old man shouted, “Hold your tongue, you old woman!”
She continued as if he had not spoken, “This old man feels ashamed to touch the feet of those officials who have gobbled up the money sanctioned by the government for flood relief. Oh! What hasn’t happened to this family in the last seven years and this man struts around, his head stuffed with past glories. So what if there was a Borbarua in the family who went about with a gold- tipped walking stick and an umbrella with a silver handle, who sat on a magnificent couch...so what? I prod him constantly, yet can’t get him to go see the government officials...and so we’ve been suffering for seven years...Please tell the government about our pitiable condition. When you...”
The old man looked angrily at her. Turning to us, he said, “Please ignore her. She starts babbling whenever she sees customers. She’d rather have tourists go see the wretched flood-affected people who live like animals than go to Kaziranga.” He glared at her. “Go, get the tea, fast. Don’t forget to add crushed ginger. If there’s no ginger, put in one or two cassia leaves.”
It was at that moment that I caught sight of a dotara, hanging from the wall. I had not noticed it till then because it was behind the bench on which we sat. I was surprised to see it in the midst of other odds and ends like sacks, tins, and coconut shells. The traditional two-stringed instrument had carvings on it and looked well cared for. “Who plays this dotara, dada?”
A beatific smile spread on the face of the old man. I couldn’t have imagined a little while ago that he could smile like that. He said, “All the people visiting the Namghars on the bank of the Dipholu were familiar with this instrument of mine. Alas, the river has swallowed up many of the Namghars on its bank – Arimrah, Holapar, Kohara, Mihimukh...people in all these places knew my dotara. Why, even the people of Behali, beyond the Brahmaputra, appreciated my songs.”
The old woman had finished crushing the ginger. She said peevishly, “The old man will now start bragging about the carved and mirror-studded palanquin...The lad has been gone for two months now and might be waiting near the railway tracks, hungry and emaciated. This fossil doesn’t want to hear about that!”
The old man snarled, “Shut up, you old hag. Taking aeons to make two cups of tea!”
Professor Mirajkar spoke up. “I’d like to hear you play the dotara.”
“Sure,” said the old man, as if he’d been waiting for such a request. “Your mechanic will take some time to some. All those who come here for tea listen to my songs.”
“Customers? No one’s come here for the last many days, though so many cars went past,” grumbled his wife. She turned to the old man and said, “While I give tea to the customers, go to the railway tracks with the lamp for a look. God knows you won’t get up if you sit down to gossip and sing.”
“I’ve heard this story before. Some months back, didn’t we hear the same rumour?” the old man mumbled as he took the two glasses from his wife and handed them over to us respectfully. Then he said in a relaxed tone, “Have your tea, please. I’ll sing now.”
Suddenly a young girl entered the room, limping; she could walk only with the help of a stick. She had long silky hair. It was left loose. Seeing her the old couple shouted, “Why have you come here, you bitch!” We could guess at once that this was the girl who had had an affair with the soldier from the Indian army who had come to flush out the militants from this area.
The tea was excellent. The old man brought the dotara. As he started turning it, he said, “Did you have a chance to see tigers in Kaziranga? People say there were only twenty tigers there in 1966. Now there are about sixty. Rhinos have grown in number from 300 to 1,500. There are some 500 elephants too.”
“We saw some elephants,” I said. “Do they come here, ever?”
“Not these days, because of the traffic. Earlier, before the floods, they would descend on our paddy fields and all of us farmers would work together to drive them away. But tigers do come. Do you know what happened just the other day? Dimuiguria Mahanta’s elephant was tied to a tree beside a roadside pond. The elephant is very gentle. Whenever he’s taken for a bath in the Diphlu, he plays with the boys and girls there. He was lying by the pond that day when a tiger jumped on him and tore away a whole chunk of flesh from his back”
“Oh God!” we cried out in horror. “And then?”
“Elephants are omniscient creatures. Did you know that the Moamaria revolution, where the Vaishnavites fought against the Ahorn kings, started because of an elephant?”
“Yes. A thin and tottering elephant. It happened during the time of King Lakshminath Singha who came to the throne only in his old age. He was very friendly with his minister, Kirtinath Borbarua. Two friends. Now, among the Ahom kings, Lakshminath and Gaurinath Singha were the ugliest. Opium eaters, they could barely keep their eyes open. Gaurinath fancied a fisherwoman who lived on the banks of the Dipholu. His palanquin would wait and wait outside her place while...”
“What about the elephant?” I asked.
“Kirtinath Borbarua had a tussle with the Moamaria mahantas. There was this law that said that the mahantas must make a present of elephants to the royal court as tribute every year. Once these mahantas gave an old, sick elephant to Borbarua. A mahanta went with this tottering elephant to the Borbarua. When he saw the rickety old animal, the minister was wild with rage. He cut off the mahanta leader’s ear.”
The old woman interrupted him impatiently. “Lopping off ears indeed! Old man, for God’s sake, take the lamp and have a look around. The boy might be lying somewhere, hit by military bullets.”
The old man continued as if she had not spoken. “In this month of Aghon, 9,000 Moamaria soldiers made Kirtinath a prisoner while he was on his way to Rongpur. And all because of a deformed elephant, as I said!”
We sat there sipping tea and listening to the old man. Ramakanta dropped in for a while, had his tea and left. He said, “It’ll take at least one-and-a-half hours to finish the work. The mechanic has taken the radiator to the workshop.”
The old woman approached me. “Only a couple of customers have come today. Daughter, take one more glass of tea each. There’s sugar and tea leaves.”
We asked for two more cups of tea. Meanwhile the old man was tightening the two strings of the dotara. “I barely managed to save this dotara from the flood. There’s no one in this area who can make a dotara like this any more.”
The old woman prodded him once more. “I’ll look after the customers. Take the lamp. Go to the railway tracks. Who knows...who knows.”
The old man explained, “I’ve gone almost blind and this woman wants me to go in the dark looking for the boy. The other day I fell down near the railway tracks when I went searching for him and, my knees are still aching and bruised. My chest hurts too...Listen daughter, we weren’t always like this. It’s the floods. It’s a pity that we have had to take shelter by the highway and wait for customers day after day! We were respectable people. We had two granaries, full of paddy. Even strangers were sure of a meal with scented rice and kaoi fish. We come from a Borbarua family who had the power to punish criminals by crushing their kneecaps. But my father was kind-hearted. If this had been daytime, I could have taken you to my house and shown you the ceremonial hat which I have managed to hold on to, his umbrella, and silver vessel; a decorated couch, the silver betelnut holder. But our paddy fields, which were as dear to me as my own flesh and blood, producing gold and pearls, and no more.”
The old woman was furious. “Why are you digging up those old graves? I’ll myself go to the railway tracks to see...”
“Shut up, old woman. How many times have we heard this talk of his coming back? But nothing! He didn’t come back or show his face to us. These two good people have come to my shop today. I must serve them well, make them feel comfortable.” The old man started to sing a song composed by Padmapriya the Vaishnavee:
This world is futile
Like drops of water on a lotus leaf
Fate will make us
a heap of ashes...
This life, this youth
is all a fleeting dream...
I could see the crisscrossing lines under his eyes. His teeth were missing, his cheeks sunken, making his nose look longer than it actually was. He sang as if the songs would never come to an end. After Padmapriya’s composition, he sang several other songs composed by the Vaishnava saints. I felt as if I was sitting on the bank of the Dipholu, watching the moon playing in the waters.
We listened to his song for about an hour, punctuated by his wife’s restlessness. She sat muttering, “People came to say that he was seen near the railway tracks...Even if the lad falls prey to army bullets, he won’t care.”
Suddenly the old man stopped singing. Mirajkar hastily pulled out some money from the pocket of this coat and placed it in the betelnut tray in front of the old man. “Oh mother of Nirmali,” the old man called out. “Keep what you charge for the tea and return the rest.”
Turning to Mirajkar he said, “Why did you give so much money, my dear sir? My songs are an echo of the songs of the saints. It hurts me if anyone pays me money for it. No one understands my feelings! No one!”
The old woman was staring at the money. She didn’t touch it. She didn’t speak.
At that moment, we heard a big bang from outside, as if a bomb had exploded. We felt as if we were being thrown violently to the ground. From the shadow of a tree nearby, someone emerged and walked slowly towards the shop to stand before us. Everything had happened in a fraction of a second and seeing his face now my throat went suddenly dry.
He was a young boy. Across his cheek ran a deep gash, from eye to lip – made by a bullet or a sharp knife. There was blood and pus in it. The flesh under his lip looked as if it been ripped open and we could see his teeth in the quavering light.
I went to the old woman and took her hand in mine, gripping it tightly. We were both shivering. The boy was wearing black jeans and a khaki jacket. And what was that in his hand? A revolver? Even in the smoky light of the kerosene lamp the barrel shone. The old woman burst into a hysterical cry.
“Oh my Kanbap, my son! I told your father a thousand times to bring you from the railway track. Oh my son, what has happened to you? Why are you bleeding like this?”
Suddenly the boy’s eye fell on the girl, sitting in the corner and trembling with fear. He sped like a bullet towards the girl and grabbing her hair, rained blows and kicks on her stomach, shouting: “I will smash your womb! I will kill the bastard child of that soldier you are carrying...Making love with an Indian soldier, dirty bitch! Phooh! Phooh!”
He kicked her viciously in the stomach. “Oh my, oh my! He will kill the girl...” The old parents tried to pull away the enraged youth. The boy didn’t even look at his mother. He stared at the money lying before the old man. He pounced on it like a vulture.
The old man shouted. “This is not my money, son. Give it back to our revered customers...” The boy ignored his father’s words. He spoke as if to himself. “Those poachers are selling a US carbine. It’s an old gun, but sturdy. With this money.”
He had come like a cyclone. He disappeared as swiftly, like a flash of lightning in a dark, still night. While wiping the blood running out of the wounds of the girl, something like a smile hovered on the lips of the old man. I had never seen such a painful smile in my life...
Mirajkar and I resumed our journey towards Guwahati. Neither of us spoke. It was as if we were travelling through a dark tunnel, endlessly.
Excerpted with permission from ‘The Journey’, by Indira Goswami, translated from Assamese by the author and M Asaddudin, from The Himalayan Arc: Journeys East of South-East, edited by Namita Gokhale.