A mild excitement has arrived at this small place near the international border. For the past few weeks, people have been discussing an upcoming football match repeatedly as they shopped for vegetables, eggs, rice, and mustard oil. It hasn’t been long since I arrived here – not even a month!

At first, when I had reached this place, I felt as if I was not in India, but in some foreign landscape. Insurmountable hills, sky-kissing peaks where clouds and cascades embraced to create watery images. That’s Dawki – the place where I am, after travelling on snaking roads. This is India’s last town, near the Bangladesh border, in the state of Meghalaya.

For the past two years, I have been associated with an organisation, and I had to be here to conduct a demographic survey. I wonder how this survey will benefit anybody, but I enjoy my work and this place. But here, I realised afresh – nations are incapable of constraining human beings.

This town is more of a modern village. There’s a church, a football field, a school, and shops and stalls on the roadside that sell tea, rice, and many different kinds of items. “Made in Bangladesh” potato chips and packets of Khan Chanachur from Dhaka hang from the corner shops; cake and biscuits that are cheaper are available in the locality. Small bottles of fruit juice imported from Bangladesh quench the summer thirsts of people here.

Today, I am looking for an electronic goods shop to get my malfunctioning iron fixed. I find a shop right beside the football field. As he works on my iron, I observe the field with rapt attention – local boys are playing football with great excitement. The electrician takes ten minutes to fix the iron and tells me in Bengali, “There will be a big football match here. Bangladesh versus India! We are waiting eagerly for the game.”

I pay him, walk out to the streets, and decide to have some tea in one of the stalls near the road. Mostly local Khasi-Jaintia people live in this place, but Bengalis, Biharis, Hindus, and Muslims also live here. Most of the Christians are local tribes. Army convoys and coal-carrying trucks move to and fro on the main road most of the time. Newcomers like me get a strange sense – as though a war might break out soon; the anxious faces of the people seem to confirm this feeling, sinking us in worries and fears.

I go inside a shop that sells tea. I notice the fading touches of paint coming off the bench that tell me that once it was blue. Though they are mainly tea sellers, sometimes they serve rice, rotis, and curry. Three jawans are are standing in front of the food joint; they are with a huge truck transporting a large quantity of rations. They are speaking about the upcoming football match in Hindi amongst themselves. “Abbaz right in; I heard yesterday. I don’t know who the goalkeeper will be, but he can’t be like our Randhir – whoever they get!”

“Lekin forward thik nahin hua – Thapa thinks better on his feet. He is on duty near Rani Border. Can’t we get him for a day?”

As the jawans speak about the football match, another lanky, middle-aged soldier noiselessly eats pickles, rotis, vegetables, and cold jelepis. The jelepis are dry. The sugar syrup has formed a white crust on them. Yet, he seems satisfied with its taste, as he eats. Occasionally he looks at the slim, light skinned Jaintia girl and demands, “Mirchi dena! Roti Dena!” He isn’t taking part in the conversation.

The girl asks what I would like with my tea. The glass showcases store biscuits, the jelepis with white crusts, and cakes wrapped in paper, but nothing appeals to my taste buds. Yet, I crave for some snacks with my cup of tea. At last, the girl suggests, “Why not have a piece of cake? Fresh, they reached today.”

“From Bangladesh?”

“Yes, they are delicious.”

The piece of cake is cut into a triangle, like a sandwich. She places it in front of me on a plate and says, “There’ll be special samosas and kachoris prepared on the day of the match. Cooks will arrive from Shillong and Cherapunji. The main roads won’t have coal-loaded trucks that day.”

Every day, hundreds of trucks cross the Meghalaya border to go to Bangladesh, which is also the chief source of customers for these small tea stalls – the truck drivers, the handymen, drop in for a cup of tea. It is a rule for the handymen to get down from the truck at the border check post. The driver takes the truck full of coal to Bangladeshi land, empties the load at the required depot, and brings back the empty truck.

But the border jawans know the drivers and handymen well owing to frequent meetings, and hence the drivers get off for a cup of tea at one of these stalls, where they rest and make small talk with the girls and flirt with them, while the handymen take the truckload of coal ahead.

“Which country are you from?” The Jaintia girl asks me in Hindi.

“From this country. Why do you ask?”

“Seems you are a newcomer. There’s a lot of checking these days. Last month a guy came to have rice here. After that incident, the army harassed us a lot. He was living in the dak-bungalow. The army caught him the same day itself and found a lot of gooli-barood-hathiyar with him! He had crossed the border hiding in a truck full of coal. Usually nobody is caught. But if there is some kind of dispute regarding payment, then people from the party inform the army as revenge. I hope the match goes well. My relatives will also come for it.”

“Your relatives? How will they come?” I was surprised.

“My Baba is from Sylhet. He married my mother and stayed back here. But he passed away two years ago.” She shares her story briefly, goes up to the hearth and starts pouring more tea.

I have heard many Bangladeshi people have settled down in India after marrying Khasi and Jaintia women. But nowadays, the villages are guarded, so that no more women can be “persuaded” to marry outside the community. There are no other means through which foreign citizens can come and settle here. On the other hand, I have heard so many different stories and legends that show us the meaninglessness of national borders.

Vendors from Bangladesh cross the Tamabil borders easily, sell roshogolla and return to their country.

Sometimes they stay back if required. Formalities such as furnishing of passports or making tax payments are followed only when crossing No Man’s Land. Otherwise, people cross borders without problems: families exchange gourds and fruits and bowls with curries each day. They even talk to their families across the border, standing on their verandas.

Lily Marbaniang is sitting with three hilsa fishes brought from Bangladesh. There are a few katla fishes, too, in front of her. Her cheeks have turned pink like the fish-gills due to the hot sun overhead; large, black flies hover around, sit on the fishes, on her cheeks, and disturb her. She is wearing a jainsem where many flies sit. She doesn’t try to swat them off. But for the flies that sit on her face – she as if has a fit of ferocious anger in store for them.

Sylvia is sitting beside her. She looks at Lily and yawns. “What’s up with the Major General from the border? Haven’t seen him for a couple of days? Your fishes wouldn’t have kept lying unsold had he come over to this side. Two of your fishes are already sold to Ghosh’s Hotel this morning. Look at mine – still waiting for customers! Maybe I might have to sell them to those Biharis who buy stale fishes; I’ll lose money,” Sylvia says.

Lily usually remains silent and listens, but it is hot that day, and she is hungry. Robin has asked her twice from his wheeled-tea-stall if she wants a cup of tea or a piece of cake, but it seems half the day is almost gone while she waits for the long queue of trucks that bring coal. She drops the thick sheet of paper with which she is fanning away the flies and tells Sylvia, “Wretched old woman! Couldn’t you wait for those Bihari fish sellers to satisfy yourself? Why do you have to slice me like a fish with your words?”

Sylvia’s thick lips are red with kwai stains. She reveals her tobacco-stained black teeth and says, “Oi, this angry look doesn’t go with you, you know? Should I tell Simon about your tricks? We pay twenty percent tax, but how do you manage to bring fishes every day without paying tax?’

Lily shuts up immediately. Sylvia has attacked a fragile part of her body. Lily covers her fishes with a sheet of black plastic, places two bricks at the edges so that the wind doesn’t blow it away and stands up. She walks to the wheeled-tea-stall of Robin and demands, “Gimme! Gimme me a nice cup of tea. And don’t give me those cakes, what else do you have? Oh, piyaji? Give me the two piyajis that you have.”

“They’re stale; they were fried in the morning. Have a bun instead – you will not be hungry.”

I had heard of Robin’s tea stall and his tea on the day I landed here. With a cup of tea and a packet of Khan Sahab’s chanachur from Dhaka, I sit on the bench kept under the banyan tree with my notebook and diary and scan my to-do list for the day. Suddenly Lily sits beside me on the same bench. She doesn’t look anywhere but munches on the bun with a strange ferocity.

I had been observing and enjoying Lily’s and Sylvia’s argument from a distance.

Lily has strong body odour. Her cheeks are red like rohdhora-mangoes. Her legs are pink like large, skinless, snakehead-fishes; she is wearing a banana-leaf-green plastic sandal. She shakes her well-formed thighs as she eats – like fresh bhim-banana saplings.

This is dry land, at times rugged. And Lily is a wildflower in this dry and rugged land. No wonder people are jealous of her.

But Lily doesn’t have time to look after herself, and with that same attitude, she looks at something, scratching her butt unconsciously.

Robin conjectured, “I guess the Major is coming today! I saw him going somewhere a few days ago.”

Lily stares at Robin with a sharp expression, ‘You men are not trustworthy! He does buy a fish or two from me, but doesn’t he drink tea from your stall as well? Everyone notices that he buys fishes from me, but nobody notices that he buys tea from you, too! Not even you, Robin!’ She is angry now. She put the cup of tea down with anger on his counter and says, “Add it to my account.”

“Why? Haven’t you already sold two fishes to Ghosh’s son for their hotel today? Fish smuggled in without paying tax! You are just making profit on profit!! Why can’t you pay for a cup of tea?” He looks straight at her. Her eyes are now red like bilati-boogori: small, oval, red, and now, in anger, they almost shut.

She pulls out a small bag of currency from some secret place inside her blouse, takes out a hundred rupee note, and puts it in front of Robin. When Robin is about to turn with the hundred rupees note, she asks him with a shrill voice, “How much left to settle?”

“Seventy rupees and sixty paise. You will get some money back.”

“Beggar! You made me listen to such things for seventy rupees?”

“No, I keep pulling your leg only because I am fond of you. I know you don’t like the Major at all. It’s he who comes to make small talk with you, and Sylvia burns in jealousy, doesn’t she? That old hag thinks you are her rival – as if we don’t know of her escapades. Don’t you and I know of them?” He speaks in a low voice lest Sylvia overhears but I can hear as well. Lily goes back to her place and sits down.

I get up to pay Robin.

“Will you watch the match?” – We have become slightly friendly these days.

“I will. Why won’t I?”

“They have some good players. I have heard many high-ranking army officers are coming from both countries. But they are nice to our people even without the match. We buy cake, biscuits and muri on credit. Even they buy rice, kerosene, and mustard oil from us. This border exists for no reason; it has no function. If the rules are so strict, they should stop the bicycles moving between the two countries, stop the cows and goats and dogs from crossing the border. As the animals move in and out of Bangladesh and India, so do people, every day. These armies do sometimes harass people, but most of the time, they pretend not to see.”

I don’t understand at all what’s going on! He brings his mouth a little closer, “Lily brings her fishes from Tamabeel. But she takes a different route. The Major knows about it. Yet he doesn’t harass her. Do you know why? She is beautiful, that’s why. He would never harass her; on the other hand, he is her main customer. Her husband was imprisoned twice – he’s a ganja seller! But he doesn’t stay in jail long. He comes out, nobody can prove anything! I haven’t seen him for two months now. Lily didn’t want to depend on Simon, her husband, any more and took up fishselling. She has earned a bad name, of course.”

I pay Robin and wait for the bus at the stop. He seemed to be most eager to speak about the “bad reputation” that Lily has earned for herself. This is how ill-repute spreads, swelling in volume like the waters in the rainy season.

I glance at Lily. She is busy protecting her fish from the flies, engrossed in her work; and since she is not careful while sitting, she is exposed up to her thighs. Her eyes are those of a dead fish – pale, sad. Is it because her husband isn’t around?

The bus doesn’t have enough space even to hang from the window bars with the feet on the footboard. I hold the handle near the door. The handyman screams, “Empty bus! Empty Bus!! Tamabeel! Tamabeel!” A jeep halts near it. A few Assamese speaking people get down and go near the roadside drain to piss. I know of a good paid public urinal nearby; perhaps these men don’t know. Perhaps they are newcomers. When they return, I ask the person who got down from the jeep and is busy straightening his hands and legs, “Where have you come from?”

One question solves a lot of problems. This has happened to me as well. They are engineers and geologists who are here for a study on the possibilities of a potential hydroelectric power plant – the current of the rivers and studying their course are their concerns. They are smart and friendly. They offer to take me to Tamabeel, and I go along with them to the border.

The middle-aged engineer is wearing a green T-shirt, old corduroy trousers, and a beret. He stands in No Man’s Land while speaking to the jawan and calls out to me. When I stand near him, he says in an ecstatic tone, “Do you know this No Man’s Land is the most pious land on earth? This is the place where land is free; no one owns it. Get it?”

Since when have men started controlling land?

This earth is four and a half billion years old. Since when did animals start accepting a life of slavery under men? Do these trees know to which Indian village they belong? Do they know their address? The river which tumbles down, cracking open the breasts of the Meghalayan rocks, hills, and soil – does she know how much of hers is owned by India and how much by Bangladesh?

The beauty of this river, its depth, its sweet tranquillity has rendered the Indo-Bangladesh border uniquely beautiful. Such natural beauty makes the beauty of human imagined heaven pale and insignificant.

The road to Tamabeel passes through steep hills; their foothills are within the borders of Bangladesh. And these trees, whose roots are in Bangladesh, their leaves and branches and boughs are in India. The creepers, too, crawl across the border. The betel nut trees are standing, staring at Meghalaya’s skies. The rocks carried by the Umgot River from Meghalaya are buried in Bangladeshi sand, and thousands of Bangladeshi workers dig them up.

The river is almost black – a part of it covered by small boats. The Umgot river donated the stones to Bangladesh, but boats and trucks are loaded with river-gifts and returned by Bangladesh to India. Do the rocks of Meghalaya know where they are sold? Or where they come from and where they are buried?

“Nothing will happen. Come over.” The Bangladeshi border security force soldier hollers in Hindi.

The badge on his chest says Riyaz Ahmed.

I like his smile at first glance. We still hesitate to step on Bangladeshi soil. Perhaps Riyaz and his colleagues notice this.

They say, “Amra jachchi football khelte dudin porei, janen na?” Don’t you know we are going to India in two days to play football?

As if this one football match will iron out all the political, diplomatic creases between the two countries! No more will anyone indulge in border disputes. Only two more days to go. India and Bangladesh will become one in a football match! Riyaz, who smiles so much, tells us, “Your Colonel Sahab came here yesterday. Chah khee geche. Amader deshe pa rakte eto bhoy keno?” He drank tea here. Why are you all so afraid of stepping into our country?

Riyaz points to something. “Look what’s written here.’ A signboard: ‘Sushagotom Bangladesh, aapni jekhane achen, otai swodesh.” Welcome to Bangladesh. Wherever you are, it’s your own country.

What a lovely line! Just then, the Indian army man says in an angry tone, “Come back! Enough!”

I look at Riyaz, “Play well. Someday I will come to your country with a passport and visa. I will go to watch you play. Best of luck.”

He seems very encouraged. He walks up to No Man’s Land and shakes hands with the Indian Colonel and speaks with that natural smile, “Whatever you say standing on this land will come true. People should always start from zero. Then you won’t be biased ever. Everything becomes one – religion, community, country, border and turns into one whole football. Like the photographs of the earth taken by astronauts.”

His eyes are so bright! He wears camouflaged clothes, and his eyes are shadowed by the cap he wears.

This short encounter with the Bangladeshi security officer makes me feel like I’m flying into an enormous sky. The engineer shakes hands with Riyaz and tells him, “Take shots at my country, Riyaz, you are my brother!” While we walk back, we wave our hands repeatedly, looking over our shoulders often. The engineer tells me, “Had Bergman or Michelangelo Antonioni seen this moment, from which angle would he shot the scene?” He was trying to show off his knowledge of cinema.

“I can speak of Ritwik Ghatak. He was a refugee. That’s why he captured the trauma of partition in his films.” I say.

Suddenly I see Lily. She isn’t looking anywhere, towards no one, but continues to walk alongside the international border. I wonder where she is off to. It is a lonely road.

I saw her two hours ago in Dawki; what is she doing here instead of selling her fish? Is she looking for the Major? I hear he has gone somewhere. She is walking briskly beside the border along that deserted red path. Where? The Border Security Force jawans can see her but don’t ask her any questions.

These are familiar scenes. They know the people who live near the borders. They share bidis and tobacco. Sometimes, if vendors from across the border get free before 4 pm, they come and sit under the large jori tree and talk about happy and sad times. Then they go on to their own countries.

The engineers continue to their place of work. I don’t want to take any more favours. I decide to travel by bus to where I have been putting up; it is a short twenty-minute journey. I look at the path along which Lily was walking alone. She is not visible anymore. Does she live somewhere down that way? Perhaps. What has happened to her unsold hilsa? Did she give them to Sylvia to sell? But Sylvia had her own fish to dispose of, and she isn’t fond of Lily, why would she do that? Then where has Lily stored her fish?

And why do I think about all these things!

I must get back to work.

It’s good to be “nothing”. I must store the nothingness of No Man’s Land in my mind; it will be good for me. I miss Riyaz. He has a romantic mind, a philosophical bent to his thinking; I have met such a soldier for the first time in my life. I have heard a lot of soldiers in Bangladesh are highly educated. They join the army because of a lack of employment opportunities. The football match will be exciting – between the Bangladeshi and the Indian forces.

It’s as if Bharat and Bangladesh have become one today.

It’s as if it’s not a Dawki football field but a World Cup one. Excitement to its extreme. The ground vibrates in its intensity. Around two hundred supporters have come from Bangladesh. Strange – Riyaz has been let in! When Riyaz gets hold of the ball, I scream, “Riyaz! Riyaz!” Should I not support him? Is it anti-national to do so? It is a game. A game of harmony. A game to wash away the dirt in our minds. In such games, it’s expected that Bangladeshis support their countrymen, and Indians do the same for Indians in the team. Such things are supposed to be exemplary.

But for a moment, I am a bird, a tree, and the Umgot River. I am the fountain of happiness from No Man’s Land. India wins the game. Four goals by India, zero by Bangladesh. The people from Bangladesh go back. Impatient excitement that had been building up for a long time meet with silence.

I go to Shillong for a few days soon afterwards and report to the Head Office. When I return, the girl in the tea shop serves me tea once again, along with chocolate wafers.

“From Bangladesh?” I ask.

“A new vendor came on the day of the match. They brought it. If people like it they will provide more.”

I ask her if her relatives came to watch the game.

She looks sad, “No, they didn’t.”

The long line of coal trucks roars and moves towards the border. A lot of new faces have tea here daily. They exchange Bangladeshi takas for Indian rupees. The shopkeepers don’t ask any questions. They don’t even ask if they are here via the main entrance on the border. The shopkeepers here don’t have to bother about such things. The security forces are there to monitor those.

I go to the fish market. I want to buy fish from Lily: from the feisty woman with sad pale eyes.

Lily is not there. Sylvia looks very happy as a customer haggles with her. A lot of people are gathered around the wheeled tea stall of Robin. I wait for him to be slightly free, and wait longer, till I get a chance to ask, “Why isn’t Lily here today? I was thinking of buying hilsa.”

He is pouring water into a kettle and answers without looking at me, “How will she be here? She’s recovering from a gunshot. Don’t you know? Everybody here knows.”

Slightly embarrassed, I said, “No, I don’t know. I’d gone to Shillong for two days. How did it all happen?”

He starts to stir sugar and milk powder with a spoon. Curling his lips, he says, “Not all the supporters who came from Bangladeshi went back. One of them stayed. The next day, two people tried to sneak into Bangladesh in the early hours of the morning. The Indian army saw them and shot them down. They had covered themselves with a large piece of cloth. The bullet went into Lily’s arm. The Major who bought fish from her kept kicking an injured Lily with his boots. The other man had stayed with Lily that night. No one knows for sure whether she wanted to elope with him or whether he was trying to smuggle himself out of his country.”

“Everyone thought she used to go to Tamabeel for the Major General. But no one knew about this person. It seems she used to go to meet him, not the Major. The man was beaten up very badly by our army. We don’t know what will happen to Lily.”

“Where is she now?” I can’t help asking.

“Where do you suppose? In hospital. The border is tense because of this incident. Forces from both sides have quarrelled amongst themselves. Their Chief Commander was so furious that he wanted to shoot at Lily right then. The man who stayed back with Lily is called Riyaz Ahmed. He came to play. He was shot in the leg. After many meetings, he has been sent to his own country. But Lily will be punished badly. The Major is furious.”

I walk away slowly. Sylvia shouts, ‘Fish! Fish! Fresh fish! We’re almost out! Come quick!’

Poor Lily. She thought she could defy borders, like men do. She knew the meaning of nothingness; nobody had to teach her.

Translated from the Assamese by Aruni Kashyap.