One summer evening a couple of years ago, a slender man in his early thirties got down from an inter-state bus at the Mission Chariali crossroads on the outskirts of Tezpur.
He stood there for a while with his duffel bag, looking around. He remembered it as a nondescript crossing with a few dusty wood-plank shops; now there were brightly-lit stores with rubbish scattered before them, a traffic circle, and people all around waiting for buses and autos, walking this way and that. The heat seemed to be magnified by the roar of the goods and army trucks, which dwarfed the cars and autos and small buses.
At the corner of the old mill was a large new hotel and departmental store. A woman in a burkha followed by several children hurried behind a small man carrying two large bags. The crush of people, the exhaust fumes mixed in the hot, gritty air: it seemed like just any other part of the country. Abhijit Saikia watched the bus drive off toward Itanagar. Not for the first time, he felt a sense of apprehension. Twenty-five years was a long time.
His return was connected to his mother’s death in Guwahati several weeks ago, from a stroke she suffered in her sleep. She had been only fifty-seven years old. After the rituals and formalities had all been completed, Abhijit went with his uncle one day to the ghat from where the ferries left for Umananda island and scattered his mother’s ashes in the Brahmaputra, and then went back to Delhi. He was still numb with grief, and on the flight to Delhi one thing kept playing on his mind: the remark made by his uncle, his mother’s elder brother, late one night when he thought Abhijit was asleep.
He had retired to her room, and then, unable to sleep, had pulled the curtains and sat beside the windows looking out at the deserted lane lit by a streetlight. Without meaning to, he had started following the conversation between his uncle, who was drinking, and his aunt in their drawing room.
“She died because of Khagen,” he had said, after a few drinks. “When he killed himself, I knew it would affect her badly, even though she never showed it. He broke her heart.”
His wife had told him to keep quiet, saying Abhijit might hear him.
He couldn’t sleep that night. What he had been told as a child was that his father, a forest beat officer, had gone alone into the reserve forest in his departmental jeep, where he had been shot by insurgents near the Assam–Arunachal border. That was what he had believed for twenty-five years. This other explanation was too monstrous for him to even consider. Why would his father abandon him and his mother?
Asking his uncle would have been of no help; Abhijit noticed he seemed to be on tenterhooks around him, possibly on account of the share he had been given from the sale of the family house in Shillong. Abhijit had quietly accepted whatever he had received, not wishing to make a fuss after his mother’s death. In the morning he checked everything in the room his mother had used, in the hope of finding a note or a letter, but to no avail: she had removed all traces of Abhijit’s father from her life. This lack of remembrance he had always taken for granted; now however, in light of what he had heard his uncle say, it roused his suspicions.
Back in Delhi, he felt a growing disassociation with the city, with his job as an editor, and even from his girlfriend Debolina, who was from Kolkata. Things had already been strained between them, even before he went to Guwahati. She had started talking about getting married, something he felt he didn’t want to get into yet, but couldn’t bring himself to tell her directly. Then they had gone on a holiday to Himachal, with a detour in the hills which had seen them losing their phone network for a couple of days.
It was only when they were headed back to Delhi that Abhijit found out about his mother’s sudden death, after which he could only make it to Guwahati in time for the shradh on the eleventh day: the holiday, and the detour, had been her idea, and it served to further sour things between them.
Slowly the question took hold of his mind, until in time it was all he could think about. What had really happened to his father? He stopped going to work, and spent a lot of time on his laptop in his barsati room in Lajpat Nagar looking up maps and reading whatever he could find about the area where his father had passed away.
At night, when it was a bit cooler, Abhijit would pace up and down the terrace, trapped in a forest of shoddy concrete buildings, and when he slept he would often dream of that immense wilderness which his father had patrolled as a beat officer. He stopped meeting his girlfriend: both of them agreed it was better if they took a break.
A few weeks later, he sold most of his meagre possessions, parcelled two cartons of books to his uncle’s address in Guwahati, and bought a train ticket back to Assam, travelling the way he had on his first journey to Delhi several years back. On reaching Guwahati, he didn’t go to his uncle’s place, but stayed in a cheap hotel in Paltan Bazar near the railway station.
Early the next morning he walked across to the ghat where he had scattered his mother’s ashes in the river. His father’s ashes had been scattered in the same river, but further upstream. Then he caught a bus to Tezpur.
Peak summer, and it was hot and stuffy inside the bus. The conductor kept picking up more passengers on the highway, while the sun beat down outside on the green rice fields. The bus took the south bank road, using the new Nagaon bypass, and crossed over to the north bank by the 3-km-long Koliabhomora bridge over the Brahmaputra.
Abhijit tried to get used to it – the heat, the dusty seats, the different communities, the gentleness of the language compared to north India. It was evening when the bus dropped him off at the crossroads outside Tezpur.
On the road that led to the army’s 4 Corps headquarters, conductors outside their buses beyond the old railway line were shouting “Dhekiajuli, Dhekiajuli!,” even as a couple of men were pissing by the railway line. Abhijit walked around the traffic point toward the large autos waiting by the wall of the old mill and got into the back of one of them, stuffing the bag among the other passengers’ feet.
Once there were enough people on board it moved forward with a jerk, headed for Tezpur town. The auto went past the market, the Mission Hospital opposite, and new showrooms and a petrol pump. He got down near the old aahot or ficus tree at Ketekibari, and walked down the gravelled road next to the large tree.
It was the first house to the right after turning left on the inside road: he recognised its silhouette beyond the brick wall. The rusted iron gate, the grassy patch where he played cricket with a couple of the village boys, the guava tree beside the house which he used to climb, the tops of the betel nut trees in the backyard rising above the sloping tin roof: it was still the same.
He opened the gate and walked in. By the dim light in the veranda he saw the old wooden bench, now painted blue like the closed front doors. An equally dim light came from the bedroom through its open wood-frame windows. The left side of the house was in darkness. Stepping up to the veranda he pressed the calling bell fixed to one of the columns and heard what sounded like a lizard’s chik chik from inside the house.
The door was opened by a balding, elderly man wearing glasses and a worn grey long-sleeved shirt. His father’s younger brother, Hiren, who nodded at his introduction and stepped aside to let Abhijit enter, as though people regularly showed up at the house after an interval of a quarter century.
The yellow light from the 60-watt bulb, the cane sofa set with the embroidered green and red cushions, the faded whitewashed walls – nothing had changed inside as well. The same number of framed black and white photos hanging on one wall, no additions or removals, including the one that showed his grandfather in a dhoti and a coat standing with a few other men, all looking straight at the camera without smiling, one man with a rifle in his hands and one foot on a dead tiger spread out on the ground.
As a child the sight of this photo had always given him a vague feeling of having been born too late; he was surprised to feel the same emotion in himself as a grown man—if anything it was even stronger now, the feeling that he had missed something important by not being born forty or fifty years earlier.
The rest of the house too seemed the same. At the end of the corridor his grandmother was in her usual place, in a heavy wooden chair by the table in the rear veranda, keeping an eye on the helper in the half-open kitchen just behind the house, a middle-aged woman tending to the fire in an earthen souka or fireplace. The table was overflowing with newspapers, pickle bottles, old batteries, and other household odds and ends which he had found so fascinating years ago, when he and his mother had still lived here.
His grandmother was dressed in an old white sari, her grey hair oiled and pulled back, a lifetime’s fine wrinkles on her nut-brown face. She looked up at him and held his hands when his uncle said it was Khagen’s son, Abhijit, but he could see there was no recognition in those eyes. She smiled and asked him to sit and kept smiling at him.
The dheki under the kitchen roof that had been used for pounding grain looked unused. Perhaps it had been a while since the ripe paddy had been brought to the house from the fields and placed in a circle near the well to be threshed by a pair of cows. A bamboo pole on a frame, with a rope tied to it for the tin bucket, still hung at an angle over the well.
At the other end of the rear veranda, under the eaves, was his uncle’s old Bajaj scooter. His uncle nodded when Abhijit mentioned the scooter; he said it was still in good condition. They had black tea with Krackjack biscuits, his grandmother looking at Abhijit all the while with her sad, confused smile.
“What actually happened to my father?” he asked his uncle. “Who pulled the trigger?”
His uncle looked out into the darkness of the backyard for a long time before replying.
“The insurgents fighting for Bodoland had their hideouts in that forest then. They killed him. And now that forest has almost disappeared.”
“I’m thinking of returning to those areas,” Abhijit said. “To find out more.”
Excerpted with permission from The Forest Beneath the Mountains, Ankush Saikia, Speaking Tiger.
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