Rahmat Ali offered me a plateful of sweets –muri laddoos (balls of puffed rice stuck together with sticky jaggery). As I leaned forward to pick up the cup of tea from the table, my eyes strayed to land on a few old issues of the Assamese magazine, Prantik, lying underneath, along with a bunch of letters bearing the letterhead of the local branch of the Asom Sahitya Sabha (A literary body of Assam). Those letters too seemed dated and quite old. The wall in front was held together by wooden battens and a number of pictures were seen hanging on it. There was an old black and white photograph of the iconic Assamese singer Bhupen Hazarika, singing with his hands on a harmonium, a nicely framed map of Assam, chain-stitched on a piece of cloth and close to that was a framed photograph of Mecca. A plastic flower vase, lustreless with age, was standing on a table in the corner. The glass panes on the book case were broken and one could see through them a collection of books – Malik’s novels, the complete works of Borgohain, a couple of booklets on Assamese spelling and so on.
While I was thus busy gazing at various articles in the room, Rahmat Ali kept his eyes fixed on the distant horizon through the open window. He maintained a deadpan face and remained silent. And I too had nothing to ask.
I was biting into the crisp laddoo and the crunching sound shattered the stillness of the room. It shattered not just the stillness of the room but provided a pretext for a number of unasked questions. Phantoms of dormant fear come rushing into the room from the world outside.
“I’ve sold the TV. How long can one keep watching all that muck? My sons keep asking me to come over to Guwahati. But, the spirit isn’t willing. The room you’re sitting in is in India. The other room is in Bangladesh,” Rahmat Ali said with a wry smile. Was it possible that even a smile can be so sad? Or so challenging? It seemed even capable of cocking a snook at all that treachery.
The sticky jaggery from the laddoos got stuck on my fingertips. Rahmat Ali’s eyes were still fixed on the barbed wire fencing seen in the distance through the open window.
“Your house with its compound looks as if it has been there for ages,” I was on the verge of saying but held myself.
Who knows, Rahmat Ali might get irritated and blurt in anger – “Aren’t we original inhabitants of this country”?
No, Rahmat Ali will not ask any such question. There is still time for that. Everybody is asking questions – the common man is asking questions to the grass root level leaders, the grass root level functionaries are in turn posing questions to the top leaders and the top-level leaders are hurling questions at ‘chaiwala’. Doesn’t Rahmat Ali want to question anybody? About the barbed wire fences, about the commotion, about the songs of Bhupen Hazarika, or about the tea and the rasgollah consumed after a meeting of the local branch of Sahitya Sabha? Doesn’t Rahmat Ali want to ask a single question to anybody?
Rahmat Ali just tells me one sentence before I am about to leave – “If you have any problem regarding food in the guest house, come to our place without any hesitation.”
After that, I have never got in touch with Rahmat Ali again till date. Maybe, he too has forgotten me. Maybe, by now, his house has already been uprooted from the newly demarcated boundaries. Does his new house still boast of the black and white photograph of Bhupen Hazarika? Does his new house still boast of the map of Assam which his mother had stitched (chain stitch) and which used to hang near the photo of Mecca? Does his new drawing room boast of a window from where one can view the barbed wire fences of the border? His memories might have got frozen. Maybe he can’t face the prospect of reviving those memories and has, therefore, kept a TV in his drawing room so that the jarring contents of today’s TV can help those dormant memories remain undisturbed. Surfing channels with the help of the TV remote, he can only hear commotion…Journalists repeating meaningless sentences at the top of their voices…Torchlight processions, blobs of fire advancing haltingly on top of bamboo torches. Behind those long processions one can hear muffled voices, sounding like the hissing of snakes… Refugees, Miyans, Muslims of East Bengal origin.
I too had switched off the TV. Even after that, the erratic blobs of fire from the torches raged on for a long time, enveloped by a babble of incoherent words, and the trail of smoke kept advancing ceaselessly towards the distant horizon.
Fire, by nature, is inherently inconsistent and erratic but its light serves as a beacon. The reach of light is immense and unwavering. Man has been imparting this lesson to each other down ages and fire has been the only tool that helps an errant individual to come out of the path into which he has strayed and look at himself critically in its stark, unforgiving light. Even after grasping the inherent characteristics of fire, Men haven’t learnt a lesson from it – that beyond its irregular outlines, with flames leaping every which way, a fire always burns with an essential consistency. What keeps changing is the amount of heat it emits.
This is what I wanted to tell to Rahmat Ali that day all those years ago. I had a feeling that I failed to explain even this simple truth to him that day as I accepted the jug of water he offered me to wash away the stickiness of the muri laddoo from my hands. That was how I consoled myself that night while sitting in the huge room of the guest house, as the matchstick I struck with shivering hands was extinguished by a gust of wind blowing through the room’s long window.
A few people had come out of the serpentine queue to go back where they came from – they were totally at sea about this whole thing called ‘Legacy Data’. They were all heading towards Rahmat Ali’s house. Rahmat Ali heard them out. He also tried giving some solutions but refrained from becoming their saviour. He was certain that nobody in this country would accept these women as one of their own. They had left their fathers’ home ages ago. The documents of their paternal home will not come to their rescue. Does a woman have any legacy data in her husband’s house? “My husband belongs to this nation. Will this country not be mine?” Even after hearing this, Rahmat Ali did not make any comment. Though he remained silent, he knew it very well that the country does not protect the interests of the labourer but only stands for the rights of the ruler. These people consider every place where they settle for the time being, to be their country. They have been living in the char areas throughout their lives and do not have any idea about the concept of a nation or how big can a nation be. On noticing me waiting in front of the gate, Rahmat Ali beckoned me in with a nod of his head. I saw a lot of women in dirty, dust-encrusted saris just vanishing without a trace down the dusty road their identity becoming one with the dust on the road. These toil-hardened laborious women get shattered at the very thought – “Husbands are from this country, wives are not”.
That day Rahmat Ali mentioned Mankachar. Talked about Mir Jumla’s kala-azar. The burial site of Mir Jumla is famous in Mankachar as Mir Jumla’s tomb.
Names of only two types of men survive within the annals of history –the hero and the villain. Just as history remembers Mir Jumla as a villain, do people living in distant parts remember Mankachar too? This thought repeatedly comes to Rahmat Ali’s mind. Every day he looks at the wall where the map of Assam, which his mother had infused life into with her beautiful chain stitch, hangs like an enchanted charm protecting the memory of bygone days.
I too had continued looking for fire –for the fire of torches on an oarsman’s hands as he tries to steer his boat away from the traps of treacherous pools of still water; or the sparkling crimson flames of burning kohua grass floating up into one’s vision from some drifting sand-bar in the river; or the fire that gets extinguished within the malnourished bosom of a toiling woman labourer whose eyes burn with the ferocity of the fire seen in the leaping flames under the pan in the oven.
In Rahmat Ali’s eyes, however, I don’t see any trace of the fire I was looking for. His eyes are cool and placid like the flowers on a winter morning catching the first rays of winter sun piercing feebly through the thick veil of fog hanging over the river.
“The day I was born, this whole area was under flood. The day my eldest son was born, a curfew was clamped. On top of it, many stories of Partition were spreading through word of mouth. My grandma too had a few stories of her own, passed on to us as part of family saga. Our father also narrated a few, as warnings to us, for the sake of our security. Rahmat Ali would then pause for a while and would look back on those days, now part of the not-too-distant past. Days are not just the history of heroes and villains. Those days are replete with so many untold stories remaining hidden within their folds. History always disregards the untold, ignoring them with disdain as unfit for record. Everyone of those living on the chars– those transient sand-bars on the river– their futile travels back and forth, carrying their IDs carefully wrapped in plastic bags, have succeeded only in raising clouds of dust on the dusty trails; transient testimony to their predicament.
“During my father’s funeral procession, I suddenly realised that so many questions had remained unasked while he was still alive. During that time, the borders were open. The chars too were fleeting, frequently shifting locations. The government of the time also hardly attached any significance to the fact the line of demarcation between the two countries lay between the ever-shifting chars, those innumerable sand-bars whose locations within the river keep changing from year to year, sometimes even from day to day. The people who had settled on those chars were also blissfully unaware of this. In some char areas, both the dates, October 2, the birthday of Gandhiji and March 17, the birthday of Shekh Mujibur Rahman, are observed with equal solemnity. People talk admiringly about both Gandhi and Sheikh Mujibur. Some of those chars would one day get submerged within the river only to resurface sometime later in another location close by.
Rahmat Ali looked sharply towards me. I got a jolt. His gaze was sharp and clear. It was no longer hesitant or apologetic like his smile. It was intense, much more intense than before.
“Even during those days, the Country wanted to know and posed a question to our father – ‘Tell us, which side you want to make yours.’ Huge stretches of our land had already become a part of Bangladesh. My father, while looking wistfully at lost land, had told us one day – ‘We stayed with Gandhi. Gandhi never bothered about anybody’s religion.’”
That evening, Rahmat Ali was not emotional at all. As he was reliving his past and narrating it in his matter of fact tone, his words were raising visions of the future in my mind. In an effort to convince himself he was muttering, more to himself than to anyone else,–“But, everybody is not Gandhi. They can’t be. Who cares for Gandhi today, anyway? When the people here started developing a change of heart, nobody knew what spiked fences were. The huge floodlights had not got the better of night’s darkness. People never wanted Bengali-medium schools; they rooted only for Assamese-medium.”
Rahmat Ali did not want to hear any concluding comment from me. He got up from the reclining chair on the verandah. The dents left by the contours of his body were still visible, pressed on the chair’s cushion. They reminded me somehow of the illusory sense of falling flat on one’s face that comes to the mind whenever one sees his own shadow lying headlong over the ground. The rest of the story has been narrated in history, we try to define that part as regional, controversial and border-related and justify holding on to our torches. Generation after generation has witnessed how the fire has turned into smoke and got blended with the air and they have woven a myth around that black smoke, calling it symbolic of the anger, the resentment and the voices of revolt. Rahmat Ali did not remind me of all these. Rahmat Ali, after all, is not a story that he would keep justifying his existence on the basis of words and events.
Even after that Mankachar could not escape the tyranny of the border. The Meghalaya border moved Mankachar even further away from Assam. “Mankachar inched closer to a foreign land, got alienated from its own people”. These words of Rahmat Ali kept ringing in my ears ever afterwards.
Time is changing the context of these issues according to its own needs. Even after that, I failed to find words with which I could assure Rahmat Ali. Explanation can only give self-satisfaction to a person. There is nothing like wrong or right about an explanation. It only gives, relatively speaking, a sense of justification for the stand one takes at a given point of time. Rahmat Ali is just a witness to this series of explanations, not an enabler who would hand out solutions.
As the fire engulfed one after the other, this town with its arrogance, and its alleys and bye-lanes suffering from a sense of inferiority on getting detached from the town’s central architectural splendour, it seemed that this town too was emphasising in its own way the same border issues all over again. The same issues that Rahmat Ali had raised all those years ago. As I was taking photographs of the faces lit up by the torchlight procession, I remembered Rahmat Ali once more.
“Is Rahmat Ali still pressing the TV remote or not!” Prabhat blurted out somewhat dramatically, while poking the fire in front of us. Prabhat was not a witness to the time that Rahmat Ali, with his body leaning against the barbed-wire fence, had to go through. Nobody, neither I nor Prabhat nor anybody else for that matter, has the patience of a Rahmat Ali to keep listening to repeated narrations of events from the past while following at the same time the present course of events. Maybe that is the reason we are deluding ourselves with the presumption that the heat from the burning fire is the precursor of the events which will unfold in the future.
After deluding myself like this, I wanted to meet Rahmat Ali one more time. If I meet Rahmat Ali again, would he still offer me muri laddoos, I wondered. Rahmat Ali had told me about people who were staying in a ‘nation’ but were still ‘nation-less’. Rahmat Ali was a practical person. He was not among those heroes who changed colours like a chameleon – patriots at times and advocates of religious bigotry in the name of patriotism at others.
Prabhat was totally engrossed in the work of splitting the bamboos and making thin strips out of them. Whenever necessary, he scraped and trimmed the ragged edges to smoothen the strips. The trimmer the strips, the better they grip the soil. After tying a black flag to one of the bamboo strips, Prabhat says – “This is what will keep flying from now, is that understood?”
Like Prabhat, I too was not a witness to the moment when events had first started unfolding nor did any of us wait till the end. Though we had read poems on ‘patriotism’, in Grade VI none of us understood its inherent meaning. Our Assamese teacher appeared more comfortable spending time in the office of a Regional Party than explaining to us what ‘patriotism’ really meant. Sometimes, he would tell us about the just concluded Agitation which had continued for a long time. Sometimes he would talk about the human chain. Apart from these, I and Prabhat never heard our teacher talking about the country or its people. Once, while urinating on the wall of his huge building that he had built in his capacity as a high school teacher, I and Prabhat got caught virtually red-handed. He had switched on the light of his balcony and had shouted – “Who are there?”
Prabhat suddenly got bit by the journalism bug. He immediately replied, “We are journalists”.
“Oh, Okay. It’s alright.”
After zipping up his trousers, Prabhat looked at me and said, “It is these rascals who had formed those human chains”!
The stain which our urine left behind on our teacher’s wall that night reminded us about many other stains. Maybe, Prabhat too is reminiscing today like me and recalling those incidents. I thought of Rahmat Ali too. A lot of events which are best forgotten also came to my mind, events which Prabhat’s widowed sister keeps close to her chest at all times and regurgitates once in a while when she sits in her backyard going through the motions of cleaning the blackened utensils. She would then recall how her husband had become a martyr on the cause of the organisation.
Prabhat threw the bamboo scrapings into the fire. But how long could the thin scrapings last before the fire consumed them?
(English translation Mahesh Deka)
Mahesh Deka is Senior Copy Editor of Northeast Now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org