I had never thought I would become friends with Nilanjana, my colleague at the new job. Just a few days after I had joined the school, I found out that her husband worked for the publicity cell of the ruling political party. I wasn’t happy. It wasn’t because it was fashionable to be anti-establishment during those days in Assam, but there was a major peoples’ movement going on against the party across the state – spearheaded by a whistleblower and farmers’ leader, whom I admired. It is possible that my initial discomfort with Nilanjana was because of this dual life of mine – the life that I didn’t want her or my employers to know about.
But soon we started discussing politics like jobless youth, enthusiastically making suggestions to each other on how to improve the situation in Assam over cups of tea. One day, while we were out buying books for a short story competition in school, she told me, ‘I’m so glad you joined our school. After Mohfisa resigned, I didn’t have anyone to talk to about serious issues.’ We were in Pan Bazar, the exclusive book market in the city. It was a hot day. We were both weary, eager for fresh fruit juice.
When I asked her what she meant by that, she laughed out loud and asked me if I thought she looked like the other teachers whose moods swung directly in proportion to the price of Oriflame beauty products. She came to school in simple cotton saris, mekhla-sadors and salwar-kameezes. I guess the hearty laugh we had just after that sealed our friendship. It vindicated my belief that she was different from the others. I could not bring myself to dislike her because of her association with the party. I failed whenever I tried.
I didn’t mind the other teachers. My new colleagues were not at all like the books editor of the daily I had earlier worked with. That woman couldn’t stop obsessing about American writers. My new colleagues in Assam were different – they were happy people and instead of their lives revolving around Obama, they were deeply concerned with the state of affairs in Assam.
‘Did you see the news yesterday? 13 billion rupees were recovered from that minister’s garage! I was telling my daughter, why can’t they give me at least one of those bundles? I mean, that is our money, we are the ones who pay taxes!’
‘Oh, I wouldn’t mind some either! I told my husband yesterday that what was the point of his being an engineer in the Assam when he has to take a loan to buy something as insignificant as a sixty acre farm!’
The teachers made me laugh but they never exasperated me. The exasperation was why I had decided to quit Delhi. Nilanjana was different. She had other pressing issues to think about – her husband’s tea business or who would come to power in the forthcoming elections or were the peace talks with the rebels an election-card that was being exploited by the ruling party to divert attention from the anti-incumbency movement. She discussed these things with me. It was her candid criticism of the ruling party that her husband, brother-in-law and father-in-law passionately worked for, that drew me to her.
I didn’t know anything about her husband. In the same way that a lot of us hated the national party that ruled the state during those days, I hated anyone who was affiliated to it. I didn’t want to think about her husband because I was worried that I might end up liking him as well. When she mentioned how he brought gifts for her when he went to meet the top national leaders in Delhi, I tried not to pay attention. The corruption charges against them brought on by the whistleblower, who had filed RTI applications against them, would sound like sub-plots in a fantasy novel.
We never spoke about the whistleblower. I wanted to protect my political life from the school’s apolitical atmosphere – where I went to work to earn my bread but didn’t let my idealist side be exposed. They should be kept separate like water and oil.
But one day, she did find out about my other life – the dual life I had been trying to hide by being discreet in the staffroom. I had taken leave on medical grounds, but had actually gone to participate in the ‘All Assam Hatred Day’ rally at the Secretariat. Twenty thousand farmers had assembled there from all over Assam. She was passing by in her Innova, wearing one of her Fabindia saris. When our eyes met, she waved but I pretended not to notice. I was standing with the farmers who had gone there to support the whistleblower’s campaign against corruption that had crippled the state. She saw me. She was a senior teacher, often serving as the acting Principal during the Principal-cum-proprietor’s multiple overseas trips, ostensibly to spend time with her relatives in New York and Manchester.
Would she complain to the office and have me fired?
After all, I had only been at the school for five months, the junior-most teacher in the faculty.
It started to drizzle.
I was compelled to maintain that dual identity. I didn’t want my employers to find out about it. It would alarm them: what if I got arrested for ‘waging war against the Indian state’ and ruin the school’s reputation?
The drizzle had drenched me.
My sari clung to me and the early winter-air was heavy with the smell of sweat and crushed leaves.
I was in two minds at the time – I wanted to join the whistleblower’s organization but I wasn’t sure if I would I hang around in Assam for that long? I had just finished my graduation and wanted to continue my doctoral studies somewhere outside Assam. I wanted to write my thesis on the armed separatist movement, about those people who went to the forests of Burma and Bhutan to take training in the hope of overthrowing Indian rule in Assam one day. As a historian, I couldn’t do anything better than write a thesis to revisit those bloody days that had shaped my generation. To my mind, this man, who loved his people so much and had received so many death threats, was a hero. And during those days there were no heroes in Assam. People didn’t have the guts to take on the government singlehandedly. So I lived that dual life – of appreciating the talk of rising sari prices and discreetly admiring the peasants’ movement in the state; of talking about insignificant things all day in the staff-room, and worrying about my beloved Assam at night.
Later, I was told by Nilanjana that I was a matter of great debate among the other teachers – they couldn’t quite place me. The fact that I came to school in salwars that weren’t even ironed horrified them. But they liked me, and some of them even found excuses for the way I was – ‘She is just too busy with her Thapa books.’
‘No, I think it’s Thapar, not Thapa.’
‘Whatever, that Nepali author!’
Nilanjana reported these things to me regularly, over the phone, after class, just before dinner. And how much we laughed.
The school was sprawled on a hilltop, on the banks of the Brahmaputra River, surrounded by brooding trees that bloomed during spring and summer. The river was probably two and a half kilometers wide in this part of the city. The campus was woody. Red gulmohurs bloomed during the summers and their petals were strewn on our paths, like delicate flakes of freshly cut beef. There were too many things that kept us busy there.
At regular intervals a horrified watchman would come to report that such-and-such a boy and so-and-so girl had wandered off into the woods, towards a lonely stream lined by peepal trees that joined the river a little ahead. This would send a ripple across the entire staff. The women teachers would be outraged, their brows creasing with expressions like – ‘how dare they’ and ‘we never did such things during our days’. The paunchy male watchman would then proceed to arrest the offending lovers to set an example.
In course of time, I became an offender of sorts too. I started to support these students. I was amused. But soon I found an ally.
This is what happened – two students from the eleventh grade were found holding hands in the woods, hiding behind a large stone. The watchman Gojen had successfully caught them red-handed. The girl’s mother was howling when she came to know and the boy’s father had hung his head low while listening to the watchman’s narration. The watchman refused to give the exact details of what he had seen. ‘I would be too ashamed to narrate what I saw,’ he had said.
That unfinished story must have led the offenders’ parents to imagine the worst.
I pitied them.
I went to the admissions office and took their phone numbers. When asked why I wanted these details, I said that I had to discuss their wards’ conduct in class.
I met both the parents at a Café Coffee Day close to where I lived.
‘Mr Barua, Mr Saikia, don’t you think it’s absolutely normal for young people to seek a private place to hold hands? What did you do when you were teenagers?’
One of the mothers wiped her tears, ‘We thought they were actually having…’
She didn’t complete her sentence.
‘They are seventeen year olds, even if they wanted to, do you think you can stop them?’
One of the mothers had held my hand and said, ‘Will you please talk to them?’
I said that I could at the most ask them to be responsible, I couldn’t stop them from falling in love or having crushes, also I wouldn’t be able to change the attitude of other people. It was during this meeting that I found out I wasn’t alone in my crusade. Before leaving, they said, ‘Nilanjana Dutta also said similar things last night. She told us not to be too harsh on them.’
I am not sure if they read the excitement in my un-outlined, un-threaded eyebrows.
But as soon as the state elections approached, Nilanjana began taking too many leaves of absence from school. The ruling party’s workers were being targeted by separatist rebels across the state, causing a lot of bloodshed. She was busy helping her husband draft his press-releases – exhorting their workers not to panic, condemning those attacks as ‘anti-democratic’. During coffee breaks, I often sat with her. I referred to those press-releases as ‘lie lit’. She found it funny. That made me like her even more. But she was busy worrying, always on the phone, calling her husband every hour – even during school hours – after the attacks started, and often remained absent from work. Her excuse: the school was in the outskirts, she wouldn’t be able to leave immediately ‘if something happened’. She didn’t even submit a leave application.
Such phrases as ‘if something happened’ carried a lot of weight in Assam. School authorities understood that. Office staff who dealt with leave applications paid more importance to those than medical leave applications.
Nilanjana had been around since the school was established way back in the 1970s. Her only son was married. He lived in Manchester with his wife – who was from a British-Indian family, and co-incidentally was also a Bengali Brahmin. Nilanjana was a Bengali but she had grown up in Assam. Her father had been posted at Guwahati University. She spoke better Assamese than Bengali. Even her Hindi was better than her Bengali – she had studied in Delhi’s Miranda House and earned an MBA from Hull. Now, she looked after her husband’s business because he had no time. They owned many tea-gardens and she often got free packets of tea for all of us. A month before that sinister ‘something’ actually ‘happened’ she had given me a packet to taste. It was good, had a strong aroma – ‘Real Assam-tea, you know. Export quality.’
I was watching the local news that day on an Assamese channel when the anchor broke the news of a bomb blast in the city. My first instinct was to call up my parents who usually took their evening walks at this time. It was their time to shop for dinner, buying chicken or spinach or paneer. Text messages had started to arrive from friends by the time I finished alerting them.
It was then that I realized that the blast had taken place at the ruling party’s head office, in the publicity wing. One news anchor announced that ten people – all major leaders – had been seriously injured. Two persons had died because of a wall collapse. One of the channels said it was a hand-grenade while another said it was an IED. I dialed Nilanjana’s number and just then the channels started to flash the face of a man screaming in pain, his whole body covered in blood. It was her husband being taken to the nearest government hospital.
I couldn’t reach her on phone. Is she fine? I took my car keys, changed into a pair of jeans and a top. Mom had just come back with a bag of groceries. When she heard I wanted to go and meet Nilanjana at the hospital, she screamed at me asking me if I wanted to die. She said the roads were deserted and there were rumours that several other government establishments had been targeted. ‘I won’t let you go.’ I hope she is fine.
A friend called at that point, not to fill me in on what was happening but to say that he was happy – these people should learn a lesson, you know, he said, people associated with that party must die. I disconnected the phone suddenly. A cold wind had started to blow. On the mango tree in front of our house a white owl hopped from one branch to the other, before flying to the next. I was suddenly shrouded in a heavy hood of embarrassment. I didn’t exactly know why.
I lay in bed surfing channels, my mind wavering on random things. The newly washed bed sheet gave off a mild fragrance. Why was I feeling so sad? Would her husband die? How would my days be if she left her job? But is she fine?
I switched off the TV; I switched on the TV... I was looking for the local news channel but I seemed to have forgotten what number it was on. Oh, how could I forget the channel I watched everyday? There was no need for me to have become friends with the relative of a person who worked for the ruling party – a person who took orders from Delhi, orders that didn’t represent the aspirations of the people in my state.
What was the name of the channel?
What was its logo like?
I sat up in bed, determined to find the channel. I wished I hadn’t got to know her. I wished she hadn’t seen me in that rally celebrating ‘All Assam Hatred day’. How I wish she hadn’t hidden the fact that I was at the rally from the school authorities – that I wasn’t actually sick but at the rally spiting the Government, hurling choric curses at the ruling party and its members, standing among the thousands of farmers whose sweat had drenched the streets of Guwahati that day…
The drizzle had turned to a rain and the rain had burnt down on us and my sari had clung to me like a lover. I was shy. It was a synthetic sari after all.
The whistleblower had stood on a bamboo stool, using a voice amplifier, he had said, ‘Now, we shall curse this government? Shall We?’
Twenty thousand people had shouted back, saying, ‘Yes, we shall.’
‘Now, we will hurl tomatoes at them!’
‘Yes we will!’
‘Yes we will!!’
The army stationed there immediately positioned themselves.
Bullets for tomatoes.
We weren’t surprised.
I wish she hadn’t asked me the next day to list out those typical Assamese curses. After a long discussion, she had said that one day, may be in ten years, ‘your hero might be the Chief Minister of Assam and if he doesn’t, he’ll surely win a Nobel Prize for Peace thirty years later.’
She uttered the word ‘your hero’ in the same mocking way she always did but she wasn’t being dismissive of him. I couldn’t decide if she was serious or not, but I could sense the muffled admiration in her tone.
‘He has to live that long Nila Baideo. So many people have been assassinated for telling the truth.’
Overwhelmed, I had forgotten to ask the most important question that day, which I asked her three days later, ‘Why did you praise him when your husband…’
‘Oh, can’t I have my own opinion? Do you think I am illiterate?’
‘Of course, of course – don’t you like the wonderful ways of protest he has devised?’
‘Your hero is well read; my husband praised him for the speech he made last evening at the city centre.’
I didn’t mind the way she mocked my nearly-blind worship of the whistleblower.
‘Something will happen, don’t you think?’
‘Who were the writers-sriters that were present there?’
She wanted to change the topic.
After the rally, that night, I was sitting on the lawns with the workers of the organization and wondering if their curses would come to bear upon the government; if the ruling party workers had any conscience left; if their wives, husbands and children were ashamed of their fathers and mothers; and if the children who studied in expensive private institutions funded by their parents ill-gotten wealth, thought even once before spending a dollar or a pound on a burger. One of the ministers’ daughters studied in NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service and wrote passionate articles in The Washington Post about social justice; did she think even once how her education was funded? She plans to return and ‘serve Assam’.
That night, as we sat with the tired farmers who couldn’t return home because the government had stopped all trains – ironically, they had done this to prevent farmers from entering the city to protest – we sipped tea boiled without milk, served not with sugar but with salt.
That night there were no stars in the sky. We were worried it might rain again and there wasn’t enough room to accommodate the farmers indoor; most of them were lying on gunny sacks in the courtyard, waiting for the trains to resume. Some of them had walked fifty-five kilometers and reached Guwahati with baton marks on their backs; bleeding heads bandaged in dirty gamusas.
Ah, wasn’t there a faint smell of drying blood at the protest too? Like the smell of wet-iron?
So worried we were of the clouds bursting upon us that night; clouds that had been obscuring the moon.
But this evening, lying in bed, while my parents talked excitedly about the news that was pouring in, I wasn’t thinking about the revolution that might or might not happen; nor was I thinking of the people who would be pushed to the corner until they were forced to take up arms… I was thinking if I really had any right to go and stand beside Nilanjana and ask her not to worry, place my hand on her shoulder, help her pour a glass of mineral water, stir Horlicks into hot water, sit with her at the hospital where the wails of relatives who had lost loved ones floated in the air like fireflies in a winter village. But her phone’s still not reachable. Is she fine? Is she?
Somewhere in my mind, wasn’t I happy that the establishment had been shaken up? I would have been smiling if I hadn’t known her.
I tucked the car keys under the pillow and switched off the lights. I needed some sleep though I wasn’t sure if it would help because I really wanted to feel happy. Niu-niu-niu. An owl hooted incessantly, like monsoon rain that stays adamantly for days. People say owls hoot like that when someone dear to you passes away.
~ Aruni Kashyap is the author of The House With a Thousand Novels (forthcoming) and the translator of Indira Goswami’s The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Revenue Collector (forthcoming).
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
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