I don’t know what I am looking for, but I know where to find it | November, 2012
A River, a Reverie
Now where do I begin?
I could begin with that breathtaking rouge-cheeked belle who ran a roadside café in Shillong or with Mrs Zeliang who giggled while she summarily disembowelled a bucketful of frogs in Kohima.
I could begin with the one-horned rhino in Kaziranga who refused to show me anything but his imposing backside or with that endangered golden primate who the cake-seller described as ‘very polite’.
Or with the hazel-haired Sunanda Tiwari whose words still tug at my heart.
It has never taken me this long to begin a story. Good or bad, they have begun on their own and then hurtled all the way to the end like a mighty Brahmaputra in the monsoon. But this one has been stubborn, it has defied articulation. It has dared me, taunted me: You think you can express all that you saw, all that you felt? Is there that much of a writer in you?
Perhaps there isn’t, I submit. Yes, I am in awe of my own experiences.
In those ten days when I dashed across the North-East, from the plains to the rivers to the valleys to the mountains, I was Alice. I went through uncharted territory gaping at almost everything I saw, everyone I met.
Many months after I stepped out of that reverie, I have come to accept that I never really did, I never really can. Every now and then, I see myself among those hilltops and rivers, floating in a stream of semi- consciousness.
Bora’s Foundation School
To the residents of Noonmati in Guwahati, the Bora’s Foundation School is a redoubtable landmark that was created by a man who wouldn’t change with the times. He held on to the belief that schooling was about good education, not good money, whatever the price he had to pay for his belief.
To me, Bora’s Foundation School is his son, my friend Pranab.
He gave me all my foundation classes on the North-East as we drove across Assam, Meghalaya and Nagaland for ten days. Our day would begin with chilled Tuborg, and then get filled with warm chatter, sometimes profound and sometimes profane, wondrous landscape, pretty pretty people, and all kinds of music.
Among our old media gang, Pranab is quite the authority on the seven snuggly sisters, four of whom I hope to visit when I go next. The eighth sibling, Sikkim, lies across a strip of West Bengal. Much of what I shall tell you was told by Pranab, and with that sharp wit and disarming laugh that make women half his age fall in love with him. Worse, he is a gifted singer and can play the guitar.
What makes Pranab, a journalist and restaurateur, even more rare and charming is the fact that he drives a Maruti 800 and calls his father Deuta, Assamese for deity.
When I landed in Guwahati, I felt I had been flown back in time to my first home, Patna, where I was born and where I had lived till I was 18. Since then, as I settled and unsettled in one place after another – Delhi, Mumbai, Cleveland, California, Delhi, Kathmandu, Port Louis, Delhi, Chennai – I have had many homes. But none felt like Guwahati. In those two and half hours that I flew east across the northern breadth of India, my life was rewound by 26 years.
The airport was unpretentious, just like Patna’s. The first cart I tried to retrieve refused to come off the stack. The second neither. I finally found a stray, but it would go in an arc, wobbling like an old wooden horse, and with a penchant for people’s posteriors. I managed to navigate our way out, all bottoms intact, after a lot of careful manoeuvring.
Pranab, who I call Bora, was never known to be a man in a hurry. This gave me time to skitter all over for a matchbox. Bora arrived when I was still seeking. It took both of us a couple of quick minutes to adjust our optics: In the seven years since we had met last, I had acquired considerable more grey, and he considerable more girth. Both of us, a lot of middle-aged mirth.
Over the next hour, as Bora drove his charming old Maruti, we took turns to give quantum updates on the things that mattered – jobs, bosses, parents and women. We were, as some of my friends would say, now ‘up to date’. We stopped to buy matches.
Bora took a detour in the dusk, up a little byway. He parked his car, got out, and smiled. ‘There you are, bro.’ There I was indeed!
I stood spellbound by what I saw deep in the distance – a swathe of dark silver shimmering in the moonlight. The Brahmaputra, a river with a rare male name, a river wider than my imagination.
‘It gets 10 km wide when in spate, you can’t see the other side.’ I don’t remember if I responded. I was too busy feeling.
He let me be. He always let me be.
I am not sure we had much of a conversation for the rest of the drive. I do remember stopping at a hospital lined with pharmacies and having chai at one. I also remember breaking into a guffaw when Bora pointed to ‘dressed’ chicken hanging in kebab shops and said: ‘They call these Helen here.’ I wondered if Helen Jairag Richardson knew that she had turned into this ridiculous metaphor not far away from where she was born in Bhutan. And I wondered if I’d now be able to listen to my favourite Hindi bouncy number, Mehbooba mehbooba of Sholay, without thinking of steamy, shiny poultry.
Once the laughter subsided, the Brahmaputra resurfaced. Can we go tomorrow?
Bora chortled with avuncular indulgence. ‘Sure bro. We shall do it all. These ten days are all ours. We shall go where we want, do what we want.’
I resolved to stop behaving like a restless child.
Mom, Dad, Nomita
My resolve did not last.
I took to Bora’s mom and dad, and I imagine that they took to me, instantly. I touched their feet, got their blessings, and was shown my room and bed. They asked me what I’d like to eat, and I told them chicken curry and roti would be nice. I was being spoilt silly.
Then there was Nomita, the lissome lady who was to be the caretaker for my stay in Guwahati. My clothes would be washed and ironed before I’d finish wondering if I could ask. The morning tea would be served as I’d step out into the porch for a stretch. Always unobtrusively, always with a smile.
At home already, I showered and slept in my corner bed in a room that opened to another house from where for the next few days would emerge like a recurring decimal Mr Krish Rao.
Krish decided to share his affection for Bora with me. He would dart into the room the first thing in the morning, wake me up gently, and chatter away in his broken toddler gurgling Bihari. Once in a while he would come clutching two biscuits and offer one to me. He lived with his father, a petty trader, his mother and an older brother who was as calm as Krish was clamorous.
Bora loved Krish, as he loved every kid. I have been told that about me too, but I am good with only the non- bawling type, and as long as they are fed and emptied by their parents. Bora is a born father who never married, but then every life has its own ironies. Some fathers, for instance, should never have been one.
I woke up early morning to something sunshiny in my face – Krish Rao, smiling inquisitively.
I smiled, he gurgled, and he led me out. Nomita was on her way with tea, Deuta was watering the plants, and Krish’s father was off on his bicycle. I settled groggily inside the indigenous thatched gazebo outside my room, soaking in my first morning in a land I had been fantasizing about for years, among people who had quickly folded me into their world. Aunty came up and asked me if I had slept well and what we were planning for the day. I want to go on the Brahmaputra, I said, visit Kamakhya, and look at beautiful girls.
‘Yes, girls here are very beautiful,’ she said. Please find me one, I said, and I shall settle here.
She went into deep thought for a while. ‘It is possible,’ she uttered slowly. She didn’t sound convinced either of my eligibility or my earnestness. Aunty is a published short-story writer, and writers come with a perspicacity you can’t hide from.
‘Your friend and you are mad,’ she added. But we are cute mad, aunty.
She shook her head and laughed the amused laugh of a doting parent. I felt like asking her if she would let me stay there forever, close to all her warmth and wisdom. Nothing seemed to ruffle her, not even the madness of the two wayward wards that she was now dealing with.
Bora meandered in. ‘Get ready bro. There’s a bucket of hot water for you in the bath.’ Nomita, of course.
‘What will you have for breakfast?’ aunty asked, ‘I shall tell Nomita.’
Anything aunty, anything that’s being made. Paratha and omelette would be nice.
As I walked to my hot bucket, I was surprised by my extemporaneous sense of unabashed rightfulness, and in just about 12 hours. I had not made such demands from anyone but Kaku. This was not about the world. I guess the world was fine. It was me with some residual juvenile issues of general alienation with the world. Not all men grow up at 40. Some never do.
This was new, to feel readily assimilated, and no one was having to make an effort. I told myself that I needed to be a bit proper, that I was beginning to take everyone for granted.
I saw two sparrows on the ledge. They used to be everywhere when I was growing up in Patna, I remember Kaku sprinkling grains for them on the kitchen verandah. The daring ones would sometimes flutter into the house. We would run to switch off the ceiling fans to avoid casualties.
Soon we set out with our cameras, my Nikon and Bora’s Canon.
Kamakhya was calling, and we went.
I am not an inveterate temple-goer, but the Shiva-Sati story of passion and rage had made me curious. This is how it goes. An outraged Sati immolated herself when her father refused to invite her husband Shiva to a celestial function. A distraught Shiva did the tandav, a furious unchoreographed dance of cosmic consequences, Sati’s body slung on his shoulders. A worried Vishnu, fearing total annihilation, made Sati’s body disintegrate into 51 pieces.
Thus emerged 51 Shakti Peeths in the Indian subcontinent, one of them being the 16th century Kamakhya temple in the Kamrup district of Assam. That is where Sati’s genitals fell. Kamakhya means ‘goddess of desire’.
Every summer, the temple hosts the Ambubachi Mela where hundreds of thousands congregate to celebrate the divine menstruation, the cyclical purification of Mother Earth.
The temple was closing. An eager pujari, in the hope of handsome compensation for showing me divinity, herded me in. I went down the narrow alley into what felt like a dark wet womb. Perhaps it was the story I had read. There was vermillion everywhere, trickling from walls, splashed on the floor, smeared on the godmen’s foreheads. This felt surreal, somewhat eerie, the sombre wet darkness and the brilliant red of the vermillion.
I prayed quickly for a life full of desire, requested her to either fulfill it or let me know if it was not good for me, and then tried to exit quickly.
Not to be. They don’t make the pathways inside temples narrow for no reason.
I had to first queue up to cleft one – water and heaps of flowers. I was asked to touch the water, touch my head, and then was pointed towards a pile of notes. I reluctantly donated a tenner. I was led to another cleft, a smaller one, another stone tub of water heaped with flowers. Same routine, another ten rupees.
The next stop was a big lamp which threw large spectral shadows on the stone walls and ceiling. A portly priest blocked my way and instructed me to do arti. I refused. He said I couldn’t. I put my hand over the flame, and added to my prayer: Desire yes, and a lot of patience with pujaris, Mother.
With that, and a mulish refusal to part with any more cash, I looked the fat pujari in the eye and exited. I imagined that Shiva would be proud of my act of defiance.
Bora was with his beautiful young friend, his camera on the tripod. I gave him a quick summary of the inside interlude, and we got busy scouting for scenes. Out in the open, among the bearded godmen and goats, among the wandering devotees and tourists, I couldn’t stop thinking of the Sati story, of excessive emotions, of desire and devotion, of myth and iconography.
Mythology inspires a whole lot of art, from the kitschy to the classy, and where there is Shiva there is a great story.
We stopped to listen to a group of folk singers, one of them blind. We contributed some money, and stopped again a few steps later to watch a solitary true-blue Baul singer, the archetypal one with a flowing beard, kindly eyes, and no belongings. An old woman in a white sari sat bundled near him, trying to sing along.
We said our good-byes to the goddess, and drove out to meet the godson, the one that had held me in his grasp a few hours ago.
It starts with the name. If you close your eyes and say it slowly, you will invoke a substantial entity, feel it rise inside your head, an inexorable, indomitable force.
You will know how I felt when I stood on its bank in awe.
I barely noticed Bora doing some quick bargaining before renting a boat. He called out and we set sail towards Umananda, a Shiva temple sitting on the world’s smallest inhabited riverine island, the Peacock Island. As we drew close, we saw a bunch of old women in white saris perched on the rocks like albatrosses.
The rock stairs led to a levelled top where the temple sat on one side and a few small shops on the other. One shopkeeper offered us cakes for the monkeys. ‘Don’t worry, they are very polite.’
Bora’s friend decided to try. What quickly swung down the trees and turned up for the cakes did not look so much monkey as a scene from rural theatre – acrobatic men in black face paint and furry golden costume. Bora told me these were golden-tailed langurs, highly endangered and found only in Assam and Bhutan.
They had the abstract eyes of a petulant philosopher.
Overcome with affection, Bora’s friend decided that she wanted to stroke the langur’s furry golden back. Without as much a glance, without the slightest token of appreciation, it swept her left hand off its back, yanked the entire cake off her right hand, and traipsed away. It wanted good food, not affection. Must have been male. Philosophers mostly are.
Watching the langur consume large quantities of cake with relish had begun to make us hungry. We decided to sail back in the mellowing sun. I knew I had not had enough of this massive meandering river which starts its 2900-km journey in Tibet, flows through Arunachal Pradesh, and ends in Bangladesh. Much of agriculture in these regions depends on its abundant benefaction.
But even the most magnanimous have their moments. When in spate, the river can do its own tandav. It floods almost every year, destroying fields and making life precarious for the one-horned rhino in Kaziranga.
We sat at Bora’s favourite dhaba where he was a household name among staff. We then stopped at Bora’s office where he is king, met some of his colleagues, had coffee, and called it a day. The day of a goddess and a godson, both of whom overflowed almost at the same time every year.
Sleep comes quick if your mind is as tired as your body, even if the man next door snores in deafening bursts. In between the explosions, a medley of sonorous sounds.
If you can survive Bora’s snoring, you can sleep in the middle of fireworks. The good thing was that Bora knew, and he tried everything he could to make my nights less boisterous. He tried homeopathy, warm water, even some exotic cream. What worked for me finally was my exhaustion, and a soothing sense of being among your own.
I woke up to my curious little sunshine, humoured him for a bit, and then got ready. We were off to Amlarem to judge a rock concert.
Where is Amlarem, bro? I had picked up the bro-ing from Bora.
‘I have no clue, bro. We shall find out today,’ he chuckled with boyish insouciance. Neither of us had grown up. I suppose we didn’t really want to.
We met Bora’s friends at a liquor shop as we turned into the narrow, winding highway to Shillong. All three of them were consummate musicians who could sing in English, Hindi and Assamese with equal fervour.
Sufficient quantities of alcohol were stocked, and for the first time in my life I began a day with chilled beer. JP da, Dileep da and Baba went ahead in their car, Bora and I followed in our Indica.
We stopped at a dhaba midway to have chholey bhaturey, then at Shillong briefly to pee, and rolled on before I had half a chance to figure out why Shillong was called the Scotland of the East. Bora assured me that we’d linger some on the way back.
None of us knew yet where Amlarem ultimately was but we were certain that we were heading towards it. I spotted a large crystal lake called Barapani and got down to take pictures. After a couple of hours, at another dhaba to have lunch. I had never seen a dhaba so spotless. ‘Wait till you see this, bro.’ Bora led me to the kitchen. Every vessel coruscated, perhaps more than when it was new. ‘They clean so much here bro, they make holes in pressure cookers.’
Morning came and went, we ate and dozed and chattered. Afternoon came and went, we ate and chattered and drifted some more. We woke up in the middle of white smoke. ‘Clouds, bro.’
This was Meghalaya after all, the abode of the clouds. ‘If you live here bro, you gotta keep the windows shut else all your paper will get wet.’ We spent some time at a spot called Jingmana which overlooked a valley filled with white cottony vapour, everyone posed with the guitar against the clouds and sang a few lines to weather and women.
Evening came and went. No Amlarem yet.
Someone called someone, we were led to a village somewhere, and everyone got down. Bora called me over and introduced me to Dr Follow, whose uncle had organized the rockathon of 21 bands. Needless to add, we followed Dr Follow the rest of the way. If we hadn’t, we might have landed up in Bangladesh.
As far as Dr Follow goes, in some parts of the North-East names are known to pop right out of the English dictionary. The meaning was superfluous, only the sound mattered. Bora said he had a friend called Pleasure.
I’d like one too, I told him.
We were first led to the hilltop where the music would happen the next day, and then to the inspection bungalow where we would be put up. It had been a long winding day on the road, we were bone-tired. The bungalow looked inviting, perched up high with a lovely view of the highway. The ground all around was hard black.
‘Coal, bro,’ Bora told me. ‘You are standing on a huge coal belt.’ Millions of metric tonnes, I learned later.
The bungalow was spacious, but two things were scarce: rooms for all of us, and water. Rooms we could manage without, but water? We requested the caretaker to get us some to drink and some for the morning. I am not sure if any of us was adequately trained in the use of toilet paper, not that we had brought any along. I once had to experiment in the US, but I shall skip the details. All I can share is that I resolved never to try paper again, even if it meant smuggling bottles into public restrooms.
No one was unduly disturbed by the absence of anything. All the amber that had been procured in the morning was brought out. Everyone drank and everyone sang, and for my sake a few Kishore Kumar hits. I didn’t dare sing along because I was with accomplished musicians.
Bora insisted I take the bed while he slept on the floor. It was biting cold.
We drove next morning to a nearby dhaba to have breakfast. The betel-chewing lady there wasn’t in the best of moods, so we had to make do with whatever was served. It was delicious. Next door was a small shop that had a large banner which promised indigenous Khasi cure for everything including ‘cancar’.
The rock concert was to begin in the afternoon, so we decided to meander. Bora disappeared inside a ‘saloon’, Indian for barber’s shop. I decided to sit outside on the wooden bench and watch the world go by in a town I seem to have magically fallen into in my sleep, a town so far east that it was a cycle ride away from Bangladesh. Busloads of young men alighted, chattered and scattered, women set up their little roadside shops, kids skipped towards school, and a shop neatly laid out plastic bags full of dried fish of all denominations. I took pictures at leisure.
I thought I’d check back on the status of Bora’s shave. After all, half an hour is a long time. I was profoundly amused at what I saw – Bora deep in slumber, his head tilted to one side, the barber ploughing through the lather with half a blade. I had never before seen a man doze off during the act.
We had chai and drove back to the bungalow to get ready.
The rock venue looked breathtaking: a patch of green surrounded by rolling hills. The event looked unpromising: a canvas tent, a couple of hundred cheap plastic chairs, and a drab stage with a large indifferent banner which said, The Sokhna Shnong Music Club, Rockathon 2011 (Battle of the Bands).
A few restless young people sat clustered in front, toying with their guitars. A few restless mid-aged soldiers stood clustered at the back, toying with their guns. Clouds gathered above for a view. A few local people floated in and out.
That was it?
No, that was not it. I realized that very soon.
The deputy chief minister of Meghalaya inaugurated the function with a speech so impressive, we sat up. And when the first band took the stage with their electric and bass guitars and the drum set, we sat wide-eyed. This was a throbbing, pulsating, professional performance, and this was just the beginning!
Bora had earlier told me that this was rock, and I had told him I had no taste for it. He had said I could go back to the bungalow whenever I wished to. I had told him I was very likely to. He would have to stay put because he was one of the judges.
I love music, sometimes I live for it, but rock? No way, Bora bro. That’s noise. Just loud, guttural, indecipherable, angry noise.
This evening, under a sky that looked entertained, a sky that looked festive with a happy half-moon and a million luculent stars, rock didn’t sound so raucous, so meaningless. My baptism had been dramatic.
Though I was finding it difficult to admit to myself that I enjoyed the first performance, the truth was that I was feeling electrified by the explosive energy of the musicians, their total immersion in their art. They were all striking to look at, stylish and sinewy.
I asked Bora why one singer had his hands stuck on either side of his forehead, first fingers out. ‘The devil, bro.’
Only later did I understand that my baptism was just that – a baptism. Wikipedia lists about 200 sub-genres of rock. Apart from punk, death metal, grunge and acid rock, all of which sound the same to me, I had not heard of the others. I had no idea if the rest of the 20 bands that played that day were any of those or any of these: Chicano, Taqwacore, Nardcore, Riot Grrl, Tulsa, Zheul or Oi. What I did know was that I sat glued all through for 10 freezing hours that concluded at midnight.
‘Many of these guys are from villages,’ Bora told me, ‘they are not trained.’ They listen to CDs and replay them to perfection. They invest all their money in music, and they practice their music like hell. Some of them might not be able to carry half a conversation in English, but they don’t miss the slightest inflection when they sing. Their diction is so exact, even the guttural beastly growls they emit, the growl that’s so integral to some rock, sound impeccable.
The guys who won, the crotch-holding ones who sang Colo-Rado Booldog, were exceptional. I got so carried away, I tried to sing it myself when I went out of the tent for a pee. I made sure the soldiers were nowhere around, I wasn’t sure how they would interpret this maiden vocal endeavour of mine. I had no idea what sound would eventually emerge. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and sang.
I gagged, felt dizzy and had a coughing fit. If you think I am a wimp, try singing rock. Try the milder ones like Death Metal for starters. I mean, really sing it, with the complete involvement of all body parts the navel up, specially the diaphragm, the oesophagus, the larynx and the pharynx.
I have held all rock musicians in great regard since. That night, I began to not only appreciate but even comprehend rock. From first-hand experience outside that tent that night, I can now tell you why some need to hold their crotch when they sing. I mean, if you are going to scream your lungs out, you better hold on to your balls. It’s basic biology.
When I go to Amlarem next, I’d like to understand what women rockers hold on to.
Why Elephant Falls?
Bora and I headed to Sohra early next morning. Early because we wanted to drive around before nightfall: It was dangerous terrain; our driver made it look even more dangerous after the nine times he had jinked so far; and we were going to the second wettest place on the planet. Chances of being caught in rain were high. The wettest is neighbouring Mawsynram, but Sohra likes to disagree.
Sohra is the local name for Cherrapunjee, which means ‘land of oranges’. I didn’t see any, perhaps I had gone at the wrong time of the year. I did see many waterfalls though, my favourite being Kynrem.
That’s where, on a stone platform not far from where the water fell, I lay down looking at the sky, then shut my eyes, and experienced two nanoseconds of nothingness. Kynrem shall one day be my Bodhi Tree. When we went back to the Circuit House, I saw that our room was called Kynrem.
We had reached Sohra around noon, we had made a dash for the Circuit House where Bora had hoped to find accommodation for the night. The gentleman in charge hadn’t been there so we had made friends with the cook and caretaker, his two little daughters, and told them we’d be back in a while.
You’d imagine that the second wettest place on the planet would be a tourist spot dotted with restaurants and resorts. Sohra was nothing of the sort. The only other place we could stay was a triangular little street corner hotel called Halari. We had gone there for lunch when the genial Marie said they had rooms too. We took a peek. Their food was entirely appetizing, their rooms entirely weren’t.
We drove around town, watched women washing clothes in the rain, saw a whole lot of waterfalls, some of them steady trickles, and drove into the famous Thankharang Park from where you can see the massive Khoh Ramhah rock which looked like a giant mammary gland pointing skyward, and get a panoramic view of Bangladesh. The most noteworthy experience was the Mawsmai caves.
I announced to Bora, and not without some gravitas, that I knew a stalactite from a stalagmite. ‘How, bro?’ he asked while fixing the camera onto his tripod. I offered to edify: ‘c’ for ceiling bro, ‘g’ for ground.
‘Is it?’ He continued testing the tripod.
I decided to offer him no more of my esoteric knowledge of limestone caves.
The cave was not long but dark, dank, low and narrow. It took me a few minutes of deep meditative breathing to get rid of my claustrophobia and focus on my photography. Every inch of the cave offered an intriguing piece of limestone art. You could discern faces, trees, barks, skulls, bones and tumours. From a particular angle, in one corner of the cave, I saw a laughing Buddha with a large nose.
This might sound too much of a coincidence, but that’s exactly when I heard Bora laugh.
He called me over, pointed ahead, and resumed laughing. Halfway inside the cave, which means now it was too late to try to turn back, was a tiny passage. One had to crawl to get to the other side. That part was frightening. Blocking the passage was a woman with a generous circumference.
She was exhorting her husband to go first, telling him again and again in a musical chant: ‘Hari ka naam le ke chalo, Hari ka naam le ke chalo …’ We don’t know if the husband took Hari ka naam or not because we were too busy muffling our mirth, making sure we didn’t look rude, and praying that she didn’t get stuck. If she did, we would too.
Once the couple passed through, we decided we would too before another imposing behind threatened our existence that day. It took substantial amount of squirming, squeezing and crawling to get to the other side. I might have taken Hari ka naam too midway. There are moments in life when agnostics have to take sides, there isn’t much room to reflect on the existence of god. If they are there, you want them on your side.
The passage opened to a surprise, a small space soaked in sunlight. I paused for some fresh air and then carried on. I wanted out soon.
I walked over to a shop which had ‘Chills available here’ painted on its windows. Apt for the experience. I sat for a smoke and a coffee. Bora surfaced a few minutes later. Somewhere inside, a radio was playing rock sans music. The voice had timbre. The song got louder and closer. It was the boy who was serving us! He was as masterful as any of the bands night before. The North-East rocks.
At our next stop, the first thing we noticed was a green signboard which said, ‘Using camera without pay is strickly prohibited.’ The second thing we noticed was the lady singing a pineapple promo, ‘sweet sweet pineapple, come come everyone, sweet sweet pineapple…’ We decided we would get some after we had seen the Noh Kah Likai Falls, as famous for its green pool as the legend that looms over it.
Skip this paragraph if you can’t easily digest the macabre, pun apt but unfortunate. A woman called Ka Likai, who had a daughter, decided to remarry. Her new husband was jealous of the daughter. One day when Ka Likai was out, the husband killed the daughter, cooked her meat, and fed it to his wife when she returned.
When she asked her husband where the daughter was, the husband said he didn’t know. And then she saw her daughter’s fingers in a basket. She jumped off a cliff. Noh Ka Likai is Khasi for ‘jump of Ka Likai’.
This was more chills than was offered in Mawsmai. I can’t wait to roam the North-East again, and with my dear old Bora, but next time I might decide to skip Sohra. It was too sodden for my taste. Continual rain does things to you.
Not to roosters though. There was this big white character standing cockily on the rails overlooking the falls, calling out to his harem. They came, all seven of his beautiful dutiful hens.
A small barefoot child wrapped in a shawl came to sell us some spices. We bought a couple of packets. There is poverty in the North-East, but I did not see any begging. The lady outside was still singing her pineapple song, and selling with great success. They really were sweet, Bora and I had two helpings.
The sun was beginning to fall. We drove back to the Circuit House, found the man in charge, a man of few words who gave us a room without much ado. The room was massive with a large attached bathroom. We settled in and asked for dinner. ‘Too late, the kitchen is closed,’ the caretaker said. Our rapport-building skills needed some work. We decided to go to Marie.
Bora’s phone rang and I decided to wait outside. I ambled around, had a smoke, admired the Circuit House, and chatted with our driver. I waited some more but Bora didn’t come out.
I went in to check. He was sitting on the bed, staring at his phone. When he looked up at me, his eyes welling up, I knew.
Bhupen Hazarika had died.
It was way back in 1975 during the Bihar floods that I had first seen him on TV. He had done a fund-raising song called Bistirno Parore, a song that never left me for its words and his voice. He had chided Ganga for flowing so fiercely, for causing such havoc. He had chided her like a father. He had sounded disapprovingly grand, almost godly.
Many years later, when I heard Dil hoom hoom kare, he became my favourite living male voice. When I met Bora first in Delhi in 1997, I was hugely impressed by the fact that he knew Bhupen Hazarika personally. He is a great singer, bro, I had told Bora.
‘Much more than that bro, much more than that.’ In a land deeply divided by tribe, region, and caste, in that far corner of India which most Indians know only in maps, there was only one man who almost everyone worshipped.
‘Bhupen da wrote his own lyrics, composed his own music, bro.’ Bora loved Bhupen. This evening in Sohra, a land of too much rain, I could feel all his pain.
The first thing he did was call home. Mom was holding up, but Deuta was sobbing. ‘I am concerned for him bro, he adored Bhupen da.’ Then he called his office and dictated a story – just like that.
‘You know bro, that song you love about the Ganga, that was inspired by Paul Robeson’s Ol’ Man River. He met Paul while doing his Ph.D in New York.’
What about his personal life? He is married to Kalpana Lajmi, right? Does he have kids?
‘He isn’t bro. He married a lady called Priyamvada Patel, has a child who is called Tez. The Patel lady left him. He met Kalpana Lajmi later and she started staying with him. No one knows if they got married. No one seems to like Kalpana Lajmi here bro, they feel she kept him away from them.’
He switched on the TV to get the latest, saw Ms Lajmi saying something to the cameras, and shook his head in disgust. I told him I would go get dinner for us. He didn’t say anything. Over dinner, I listened to his silence. He got up to make more calls and coordinate stories for his newspaper. I took a hot shower and slept.
Bora was up before me. ‘You ok?’ I asked. ‘Sleep well?’
One reason Bora and I bore each other without effort was that we had three things in common: We were both emotional, we were both adrift, and we had both resolved to make the most of life. He had found music and writing, I had found photography and writing. In between, a lot of flirting.
We both loved women. I mean seriously, spiritually, philosophically loved women.
‘Slept ok, bro. Let’s make the plan for today. Let me show you Shillong.’ We don’t have to do this bro. Let’s go home to Guwahati. Mom and dad will be waiting for you.
‘We will go to Guwahati bro. We shall stop in Shillong for a while, that’s all.’ I knew he would not allow himself to grieve for too long. I wouldn’t have either. Too deep but not too long.
After a nice breakfast of eggs and toast and coffee, we started for Shillong, a name that had been conjuring up fantastical images in my head. The way Xanadu did. We listened to Bhupen Hazarika’s Assamese songs on the way.
We stopped at a board which asked in large white letters ‘Why Elephant Falls?’
It went on to explain that the Khasi people had called it Ka Kshaid Lai Pateng Khohsiew but the Brits rechristened it because they saw elephant legs in the falls somewhere. I suspect the Brits just couldn’t pronounce the Khasi name.
Before we went in to see the falls, I had seen this bewitching lady selling coffee by the roadside and I had felt a sudden spasm of caffeine deprivation. One thing quickly led to another, and she decided to teach me the Khasi alphabet. I was making good progress when Bora appeared on the scene and interrupted my academic pursuit. I took her picture, paid her 20 rupees for the coffee, bid an emotional adieu, and went with Bora.
‘Did you actually pay 20 rupees for a cup of coffee?’ That was not coffee, that was love. What’s 20 rupees for a little love? ‘Sudhrega nahi, bro.’ That was Bora’s way of reminding us that we were beyond redemption.
There was a staircase going along the sides all the way up to where the water gushed from. At the bottom was a pool where bathing and swimming were, for once, ‘strictly’ prohibited. We took pictures, dipped our toes in water, and started for Shillong Peak.
It was dusk, Bora said we needed to hurry. The Peak had been taken over by the Air Force and they shut it down at sundown. Tourists were shooed away. The army is ubiquitous all across the North-East, partly because the region shares semi-porous international borders with Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and China, and partly because of insurgency.
We made it in the nick of time all the way to the top of the towering look-out, watched the town spread out below and dark grey clouds chase each other. High is not high unless you can see a cloud in the eye.
My teeth had begun chattering from the cold. As we got into our car, a man in fatigues came up and asked us to leave immediately. ‘This place is special to the local people, it belongs to them,’ Bora said disapprovingly.
We stopped at Bora’s sister’s, a charming old-world house with a lot of teak. ‘They don’t make houses like these anymore, bro. My dad constructed it a long time ago.’ We discussed my prospects over an early dinner there. I proclaimed my unbounded adoration for Khasi women, and the family collectively sympathized.
‘I hope you know what it is like to marry a Khasi woman,’ Bora’s sister said. She then told me a story about a neighbour.
One day, the man of the house had found his chappals missing. It had been placed outside the house, across the threshold. That was the woman’s way of unequivocally telling him that he needed to exit. For his convenience, all his stuff had been packed into suitcases and arranged outside.
As simple as that?
Yes, I was told. Khasi women rule the house. The man has to clean, cook when he is back from work. Many men take to the bottle and pass out frequently. Some ultimately pass on, and the woman remarries. I found this gender equation impressive. All women should be like this, I proclaimed, with the possible exception of that one Khasi beauty who decides to marry me.
I didn’t want to be waking up nervously every morning to see if my chappals were missing.
Crickets and cicadas chirped and droned in the inky woods. For some reason, at every turn their collective melody sounded like the tinkling of a hundred little temple bells. I could see the coffee lady still standing in one corner, leaning against the wooden pillar in her shop. I told myself I would go back some day.
Dusk was giving way to darkness. This was the twilight zone, mixing memory and desire. Very Eliotian. We had experienced a world of timelessness and transience, tragedy and beauty.
All of it in the course of a day and a half.
Beyond the Backside
We woke up next morning in Guwahati to loud music and stifled mourning. I tried to imagine what it would have been like when Kishore Kumar and Md Rafi had died.
Not like this perhaps.
They were great artists, the kind you look at in awe, but Bhupen Hazarika was this and more. To many in the North-East, he was one of them, a son of the soil who had risen to be demi-god. He sang for peace, he sang
for love, he sang for his own. He was a prominent presence at the 1972 Berlin Festival of Political Songs. Half a million people are said to have turned up at the funeral of the bard of the Brahmaputra.
I joined mom and dad for breakfast. Deuta was disconsolate. ‘Only people here understand what they have lost. He was an era. He had no meanness.’ He was afraid there would be disturbance. All of Assam was feeling unstrung, untethered. He asked us to stay in Guwahati that day. Bora tried to comfort him.
After a while, Bora left for work. He needed to speak to his team, put in place the coverage for Hazarika’s funeral, do some writing himself – beautiful writing, as I discovered later that night. He sent me the car and advised that I pick up a sweater or two. We were off to Kohima in the evening.
Vishal, the non-resident Jeeves of the house, was a personable young man who chewed areca nut all the time. Well, everyone in that part of the world did. Guwa is Assamese for areca nut, hati means market.
Vishal took me around town, refused to enter shops, preferring rather to stand outside and chew, showed me a ‘haunted’ house which looked quite inhabited and green to me, and then went to pick Bora from his office. I didn’t mind, he had some pretty, smart colleagues. Plus there were those journalistic reverberations.
He announced that we were leaving soon, I should pack quickly. ‘Kohima and Kaziranga, bro.’
If it was difficult for him emotionally and professionally, he didn’t let it show. I tried to argue, but when Bora has made up his mind, he gets as stubborn as a Saggi. He becomes me. Most of the time, thankfully, he is a much better entity. Very well-rounded, figuratively.
Deuta tried one last time to contain us, but gave in when Bora reassured him, very softly and with a peck on the cheek, that we would take care, we would be fine. Mom smiled the smile of a resilient mother, and said, ‘Take good care, it will be cold.’
Vishal helped us arrange our bags in the spacious Innova. For this round of our North-Eastern peregrinations, we had decided to indulge. I am not a huge admirer of that car, it looks ungainly, but I have to admit that it can feel like a stretch limo when you are a lazy mid-aged man drinking and lounging in the beige leather backseat, and when your chauffeur looks nattier than you.
Bora told me some more about how Bhupen Hazarika would remember people’s names, would ask about their children, and not care about money. ‘He was huge, bro. Huge.’
We stopped at Dimapur to get an inner-line permit, a reminder that this was still a sensitive border state. Bora spotted a lawyer-looking attractive young lady, turned up his charm, and asked how and where we could get the permit. She asked us to follow her, and we complied cheerfully.
Some corridors are way too short.
She led us to a man who asked us for our details and gave us some directions. We would have to wait some.
We felt a spontaneous surge of chivalry, saw the young lady out, shook her hands, and thanked her profusely. We stopped short of offering to chaperone her all the way to her home.
‘Sudhrega nahi, bro?’
We located a small dhaba, and Bora gobbled his noodles. On the bench behind us were sitting three petite women. We didn’t more than glance– they were in khaki and armed to the teeth. Their machine guns were almost as tall as them.
Can we ask them if I can take a picture? ‘Sure bro, you can ask, and after I leave.’
He left to procure the permit, I ordered vegetarian noodles which came laden with several chunks of meat, and waited. The place was deserted, the one shop that was open had iron grills. This was obviously fragile country, and hugely Protestant. The Nagaland Baptist Church Council has 600,000 members.
Bora returned with the permit, saw that I was intact, and we immediately proceeded to Kohima. On the way, he told me about the 16 main tribes of Nagaland, of insurgency and the ‘tax’ levied by the ‘federal government of Nagaland’, and their love for dog meat. The ‘tax’ was apparently fixed, a percentage of salary if you were a government employee.
The drive was slow in the face of the army convoys that came growling. This was routine, I was told. There were stretches where civilians had to wait in their cars before they could be escorted by an army jeep. This place was edgy – and engaging.
If you had grown up in a lawless place like Bihar, if you had combed the chaotic countryside for compelling stories, you too were likely to acquire a somewhat perverse perspective on life.
We were stopped at a checkpoint, a soldier peered inside, and asked us to go on. No one asked for a permit. It was about 6 pm now, dark and cold, barely anyone in sight. The few people who we saw on the road were scurrying home. We got down to ask a vendor for the directions to the Circuit House.
He spoke in Hindi, in an accent that felt like back home.
Are you a Bihari? He said he was, and so were almost all the vegetable vendors here. ‘We even celebrate Chhath Puja here.’
In his statement was a touch of defiance, of clannishness redolent of cultural insularity – not always the best thing in a geography that didn’t belong to you. Bora picked up some lime and a handful of green chillis to spike his evening vodka. If the chillis weren’t sufficiently fiery, then a few drops of crimson Tabasco. I envied his constitution.
The Circuit House was found thrust in a corner, its compound heaped with old Maruti Gypsies. I learned very soon that several Nagas were fairly well-heeled, and some of them because of the grants that flowed from the central government. Delhi didn’t quite understand the North-East, so it did something that was easier: pamper and placate.
We were shown our rooms, handed the menu, and provided extra blankets. Bora settled to write a tribute to Bhupen Hazarika. He called me over to look at his piece. ‘The first line doesn’t sound right, bro.’
I took the laptop and read his piece. Brilliant, as always. Much of what Bora wrote, he wrote with enviable ease. Every piece was personal, passionate, and this one even more so. I attempted to do an intelligent edit but didn’t find much that could be changed. A lot of people have language, a few people have either wisdom or wit. Bora had all three.
I let him finish his piece over his toxic drink while I listened to music and waited for dinner. Our butler of the evening was Amit. For the hundredth time in my 43 years, I wondered why my parents hadn’t spent more time finding me a more distinctive, less pedestrian name. Even in a place like Cleveland, a place no one outside the US had heard of, when the professor had asked Amit to raise his hand, three of us had.
Dinner and article over, we went to bed. Bora cautioned that I shouldn’t open my door if anyone knocked. I wore my sweater, wrapped myself in two blankets, and snored through the night.
I got up early and ran out with my camera. The sun was just about stirring. The hills, many layers of them, lay like sleeping phantoms. Light wafted like white smoke. A red cross manifesting from a church shone like a little lighthouse.
Kohima was a medieval ship floating in extraterrestrial space, emerging from the mist like a transcendental Ossola painting.
The name was yet another rechristening by the Brits. They found it difficult to pronounce the original name of Kewhima – the land of the Kewhi flower – given by the Angami Naga tribe.
In an hour we were 12 km away in Kisama, at the Naga Heritage Village which hosts the Hornbill Festival every year in the first week of December. We were a month too early for this famous international event, but in time to watch the tribal craftsmen beginning their work at the venue.
This artistry was instinctual.
A man chiselled nonchalantly at large wooden figures of a tribal man and a woman. Every sinew, every fold of their dress, was carved exquisitely. I am no connoisseur of art but I remembered some of the modern pieces I had seen displayed in art galleries and public parks, pieces that had abstract titles and looked fatuous from any angle you tried. They also had a touch of arrogance and aloofness.
To me, the callow aesthete, what this man with the chisel was creating was artwork so natural, so indigenous, it defied genres and galleries. Pablo Picasso had once stated, ‘primitive sculpture has never been surpassed.’ And this was living, breathing, postmodern primitive. It was grand in the fact that it wasn’t.
I continued to watch different craftsmen, not one of them working with anything but a block of wood and a chisel. Some of them looked up, smiled into my camera for a moment, and then continued with their work.
I proceeded to look at the houses of the 16 main tribes. They were different in their styles, but had a few carvings in common: there was always the hornbill and the spears at the entrance, there was always a large drum in the courtyard. Some had carvings of monkeys, a few had breasts. One had animals skulls hanging welcomingly in a row, like potted houseplants.
Bora told me about the head-hunters. Not the modern HR kind, the real ones that went for the real heads. In earlier days, warring tribes would hunt each other’s heads and preserve the skulls as trophies. Apparently, the biggest one of them all was the smallest – a baby’s. It meant that the valiant warrior had managed to penetrate into the deepest, most protected part of the enemy’s side where the babies had been kept.
We bought chilled beer, quickly previewed our photos, and went back to watching the craftsmen. Nothing in their demeanour suggested that their ancestors had used their knives and chisels for anything but carving wood with Buddha-like serenity, da Vinci-like dexterity.
On our way out, I spotted a bright yellow-and-black caterpillar out for a midday stroll. ‘These are from cherry trees bro,’ Bora told me. I took a close-up of a young acrobat playing in the sun before we headed back. We needed to be back before dark.
On the way, we saw the same middle-aged European couple that we had seen when we were coming. Now they were walking back, about 12 km from destination. We decided to ask them if they wanted a ride. They hopped in without hesitation. The lady was gregarious. They were Swedish and they trekked in India every year. They were off next morning to a remote part of Nagaland, a place most Indians would never dare to go. ‘We are told they still have the skulls there,’ she said.
We told them we were going to the Kohima War Cemetery and that they could join us. ‘Thank you so much, but we have seen that already.’ Of course. They would have seen things Bora and I never might. We saw them fade off the hillside in athletic strides. We ambled up the hill into the memorial.
In 1944, from April to June, the Japanese had made multiple incursions into India. They were halted at Kohima. The terraced Commonwealth cemetery is on Garrison Hill where fierce hand-to-hand fighting had occurred. I asked Bora why there was, of all things, a tennis court in the centre of the cemetery. ‘This is where
they fought the hardest, bro. This was the Deputy Commissioner’s bungalow. I guess the Japs learned that when it comes to hand-to-hand, you don’t take on a Naga, certainly not in the hills.’
Each of the 1400 memorials sits among flowers, some memorials have poignant lines inscribed by friends and family. The epitaph to one J H Anthony of the Royal Welch Fusiliers reads:
None but those who know can tell What is a parting without farewell
J H Anthony was 25 when he fell in The Battle of the Tennis Court.
Near the entrance to the cemetery, on a memorial to the 2nd Division, are etched these famous lines:
When you go home Tell them of us and say For your tomorrow
We gave our today
We decided to go back to the Circuit House, Bora needed to write. ‘Want to see the market here, bro?’ If you have the time, yes. Why not.
‘Be prepared then.’ Be prepared for?
We could not find parking anywhere. Like Shillong, like anywhere in this chaotic country now, there were cars everywhere. We asked our driver to stop so we could get off. A tiny lady in fatigues walked up and asked us to get off quickly and ask the car to go. We did.
The market was lined with makeshift shops selling chicken and vegetables. Happy, healthy chicken prancing in large wooden coops. There would be some dignity before death. A little ahead lay large honeycombs, some with bees still buzzing inside them, and a bowl of wriggling eels.
I saw a heap of fat red chilli peppers, the same that Bora had gifted me many years ago. You take four of them, pour some mustard oil, mix some salt, and wait for a few days. Then you have the oil, two drops a meal and no more. ‘Your bhoot jholakias, bro,’ Bora beamed. I picked up a handful. They would last me a year.
It was mostly normal till here.
Then they came, first the large aluminium bowls crawling with worms. ‘Silkworm, good for chutney,’ the lady said. Now I knew what Bora meant when he asked me to be prepared. Next came plastic bags with water and something in them – live frogs staring worriedly. Bora asked if I’d like to enter the corner where they sold dog meat. I said I was game. He asked around and was told we were too late. Dog meat is delicacy in these parts, they sell like hot cakes. Some clichés are way too tempting.
I thought of the two pet Poms I had seen in the house next to the Circuit House. I wished them well.
Finally came the part that still makes me feel a bit funny in the pit, a bit hollow. I do not recommend the next three paragraphs to anyone weak of stomach, for this is all about those of living breathing frogs.
When I ventured deeper into the marketplace, I saw this lady pick something from a bucket and, after about five quick seconds, throw something to the side. She’d dip her hand into the bucket again, pick something up and go on like this like with mechanical precision and indifference.
She smiled shyly at the camera, and crooned while she continued doing what she was doing: disembowelling frogs. She would pick one up, turn it on its back, press its stomach with her thumbs, and squeeze all the way up. The frog would spill out its own guts. She would then throw the innards to one side and pick up the next subject of her surgical procedure.
Bora sensed my discomfiture, said it was time to leave. I paused briefly at a shop to buy Naga shawls but they looked very heavy, I didn’t have that much room. I paused at another, an art shop, where hung the painting of a young woman bare north of navel. I needed to push the frogs out of my head.
As we were entering our rooms, a man in spotless white shirt and pleated trousers came up to us in the corridor. ‘Who are you?’ he asked. ‘A curious visitor who loves this land,’ I said.
He gazed at me for a few seconds, smiled, and then introduced himself. He was a politician. He invited us over to his village to catch fish. I promised him I would, but the next time. He looked harmless, we looked harmless, so it seemed worth the adventure, I told Bora. He didn’t sound excited.
Bora got out his handful of green chillis and the tiny bottle of Tabasco. I went off to my room to shower, to replay my day in every detail, to take notes, to put labels.
The Thailand part had been easy, I had been a tourist on vacation. The Goa part had been easy too, I had been a visitor on vacation. But who was I in the North-East? I was too far in to be an outsider but I was not inside enough to be an insider. I was standing at the threshold, one foot in.
See You, Sunanda
Amit was ready with our bill in the morning. I had to act quickly. So far, Bora had been insisting on paying for a lot of things. I had told him that the trip was on me, but he hadn’t agreed.
The morning was crisp. I saw a burly old Naga gentleman with an impressive beard cleaning his car. I asked him if I could take his picture. He readily gifted me a few magnanimous moments before continuing with his big shiny car.
We curled up inside our own limo and set off for the 200-km drive to Kaziranga. We wanted to be there in the afternoon, spend some quality time with the rhinos, and then reach Guwahati at night. As our car rolled out of
the gate, a taxi shot out from a byway and hit us on the side. The crash bruised our car a little, but the other cabbie a whole lot. The ramifications could be major: a non-Naga had hit a Naga. In Nagaland.
The cabbie stopped us, asked us where we were from, gave us a disdainful lecture on how the people from the plains did not know how to drive in the hills, called up his owner, collected a small gathering of sympathizers, and wouldn’t be bothered when we said we would like to call the police. Our driver was not the one to get cowed easily either, he stood his ground. After a protracted war of attrition, a deal was struck and off we went.
We stopped soon after because we were hungry, and because the place was called Seshu Zubza, a name more mystical than Xanadu. The coffee was insufferable but the poori-sabji was the kind you get in a Marwari restaurant. Next to it was a paan shop and a banner for a telecom company.
They should leave the Seshu Zubzas of the world alone.
We made a stopover at a hot spring called Garam Pani where bathing was ‘strickly prohibited.’ I was beginning to get fond of that consistent misspelling. It reminded me of the ‘penchur’ shops in Bihar and the omnipresent young apprentice called ‘teniya’. This was the affectionate Bihari name for a trainee. Strickly following the rules, we dipped only our toes and drove off.
Kaziranga arrived soon after noon. The next convoy of open jeeps, we were told, would leave in half an hour, enough time for lunch. When I am travelling, I am always hungry.
We put on our Indiana Jones-style fedoras that we had bought in Shillong and took out our longest lenses. Kaziranga, spread over more than 400 sq km, is host to about 2000 Great Indian one-horned rhinoceros.
There were rhinos right there as we entered, large grey ones, but beyond the reach of our lenses. We needed bazookas. We got excited when we saw a herd of elephants but were told by our driver that they were the tame ones used for safaris. We took pictures anyway. Who would know.
Jeeps crossing each other would pause briefly like ants to exchange updates – if they had spotted a rhino close enough to the tracks. After many such pauses, we were pointed to a patch where there was another herd of elephants, this time the genuinely wild ones. They didn’t look terribly different from the tame ones.
On either side was tall grass. ‘Elephant grass, bro, ten feet.’
Do you know that a group of rhinos is called a crash? I asked Bora. I had done my own research on rhinos before I had come.
‘Oh. Not a herd, bro?’ I didn’t see much admiration in his voice.
The jeep stopped and the driver asked us to stay quiet. A few feet away, in the middle of tall grass, we saw its wide grey behind. We wanted a full frontal shot, but the guy wouldn’t budge. ‘Watch this, bro’. Bora got out, cupped his hands over his mouth, and made snorting sounds. ‘Rhino kid sound,’ he explained.
The rhino turned and stared at us. It wasn’t evident whether it was peeved or attracted by Bora, glaring or gazing. A rhino can run at speeds topping 50 kmph and weigh 2000 kg. To students of physics, ours would go down as an elastic collision of unequal masses. By my unscholarly estimates, I would be thrown off at least 25 feet at a speed of 15 kmph. I didn’t manage to calculate the possible angles at which I would be propelled.
Words like momentum, momentous, momentary came to mind.
The rhino was disappointed in the fact that Bora did not look like its kid and disappeared among the grass. We entertained ourselves the rest of the evening with the maverick trees. One looked like an ivy-covered scarecrow, another was bending with balletic grace. Each tree stood out, each made a statement. Before the sun set, the moon rose. This was the time for silhouettes in the savannah.
After a nice cup of coffee, we began our last lap.
Two hours and a half later, in the middle of nowhere, Bora asked the driver to stop, asked me to get down. ‘Nellie, bro,’ he said heavily.
I had heard Bora talk of the Nellie massacre when we were both journalists in Delhi 12 years ago. He was our only link to the North-East. He had told us about the communal and tribal undercurrents in the region, of how many of the North-Eastern states were carved out of the Province of Assam, of Bangladeshi migrants, of insurgency, and most of all the Nellie massacre in 1983 which had claimed more than 2000 lives. ‘It was all over in six hours, bro. It was done with military precision.’
He said that now, in 2011, some regions had started bubbling again. ‘Something is about to erupt bro.’ Nine months later, in August 2012, Kokrajhar happened.
This didn’t feel right. This was Eden, lush and placid wherever you looked.
On the way, we learned that Nagaland had decided to cut off the highway to Manipur. ‘Happens all the time, bro. Now petrol will be 300 rupees a litre in Manipur.’
Two and a half hours later, listening to the crickets and the cicadas and wondering about the human condition, we were home.
A bucket of warm water and a cup of hot tea was made ready. On my bed lay neatly a heap of ironed clothes and a blanket. For some reason, I felt like a venturesome Tom of Jerry at the end of an dauntless day. Bora felt like Bugs Bunny. We slept and snored like comic-book characters.
The sun shone more radiant the next morning. Krish had arrived with company. She had hazel eyes and hazel hair, almost the same colour as Krish’s, and a winning smile. She was in her school uniform: white shirt, grey skirt and a maroon tie with BFS inscribed on it.
‘Hello,’ she said.
Good morning! What is your name?
‘My name is Sunanda Tiwari. I study here at Bora’s Foundation School. I am in the fifth standard. What is your name?’
My name is Amit. I too study at Bora’s Foundation School. Pranab da is my teacher. ‘I am from Bihar.’
I am too!
‘You are not a student,’ she smiled. ‘Are you a teacher?’ I can be, at times.
‘Really? Then please come teach us today. Our teacher hasn’t come yet. The students are all here.’ It was not a request, it was a gentle and firm instruction.
I sprang up, brushed my teeth, changed, and rushed out. ‘Let’s go.’ She led me to the classroom. I turned back to ask Bora if it was ok. ‘Of course bro, you don’t have to ask.’
We had begun to have fun with words when the real teacher arrived.
About an hour later, while Bora and I were planning the day, my last there, Sunanda gushed in. She saw that we were getting ready. ‘Are you going somewhere?’
Yes, we are going out in a while. ‘What time will you be back?’ Around three.
‘Oh, I will be gone by then. I will see you tomorrow then.’
I am leaving in the evening, Sunanda. I won’t be here tomorrow.
She went silent for a minute, stood there and looked around. She was frowning. She looked up and asked, ‘Why can’t you stay here?’
I live and work in Chennai, beta. I have to go. I had taken leave but now I have to go back to work. I smiled at her, put my hand on her head, and said I would be back.
She was tearful. ‘Aap nahi jaiyye. Aap yehan rahiye.’
I did not know how to react. I had barely spent an hour with her. Who did she see in me, a protective father, a trustworthy friend, an enthusiastic teacher?
She stood there looking at me, perhaps waiting for me to tell her that I had changed my mind. I stood there trying to decipher my feelings, trying to understand me.
I saw a grown-up man in a grey beard, a man emotionally cocky, a man who imagined that he had seen a lot of life, I saw him being completely humbled by this little girl.
It took me a few minutes to gather myself. I will be back Sunanda, I promise. She smiled a strange smile, turned, and walked away slowly. I stood there for a very long time.
It has been a year since. I guess she never really walked away, I never really left. Once in a while in life, there are no endings.