‘Cyclists no longer overtake cars, but their humour is intact’

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By Bhaskar Phukan

Illustration: Rishabh Arora
Illustration: Rishabh Arora

IT SEEMS like yesterday. I was a callow 27-year-old, nervous and unsure about the future as I joined the premier service of the state. That was in 1992. Now in my 20th year as a civil servant in Assam, I look back at the mixed memories. A montage of images burst forth and people, places and events all mingle into a smorgasbord of experiences, leaving me with unforgettable lessons for life; experiences that unravelled how the real Assam, far from the national highways and towns, lives.

I realised how city-breds like me take so much for granted. Back in 1992, at my first posting in a small township called Mushalpur — then part of Nalbari district, now in Baksa district — we often had to endure continuous power shutdowns lasting several days at a stretch. Once after a severe storm, there was no electricity for more than two weeks. It was a surreal experience for me. The people burst crackers when power was restored.

There were times when I got more than what I could possibly take. My hair still stands up whenever one such incident comes to mind. One day, the officer in-charge of the local police outpost informed me that an old lady, grandmother of a surrendered militant, had gone missing for several days. A few days later, the police officer informed me about finding something unusual in the old woman’s backyard. I rushed to the spot about 2 km from my office. The militant was squatting on the floor, looking dazed. The police officer took me to the backyard and there in a small clearing, I saw what appeared to be dry grass but was human hair. The old woman had been murdered and buried in her backyard. As the body was disinterred in my presence, the surrendered militant could not control himself. He wept like a child. Later it transpired that the old woman had been murdered by her neighbours on suspicion of practicing witchcraft.

My tenure in Mushalpur also brought me face to face with that tragic facet of life in Assam — terrorism. Mushalpur, not far from the Indo-Bhutanese border, was at that time a hotbed of insurgent activity. Violence and strife were the order of the day. People rarely moved out of their houses after dark. Every evening, a group of us — a few government officials and local people — kept ourselves busy by playing Rummy at my quarters. Among the regulars was a young businessman of my age, KS. One evening, as we waited for him to join us, someone rushed to my house and blurted out, “KS has been shot.” All of us rushed to his departmental store where the incident had taken place. It was barely 200 m from my quarters. We saw KS on the floor, writhing in agony and gasping for breath. The police also arrived at the same time. As there was no vehicle around — I didn’t have an official vehicle —we arranged for a hand cart to take KS to the hospital nearby. He had been shot in the back. The injury left him permanently paralysed from the waist down.

I have now come to know Assam better, realising how simple people are, despite the sheer complexity of the problems that surround them. More than that, they are blessed with a wondrous sense of humour that makes them smile even while living through such difficult times.

One enduring image of my first posting at Mushalpur still remains fresh in my mind. I had always noticed cyclists on the road to Mushalpur, gleefully waving at us every time they overtook our vehicles travelling on the same road. They looked so happy, moving ahead of us on their bicycles in that apology for a road. Twenty years later, much has changed in Assam. The road to Mushalpur is now a paved one. Cycles can no longer overtake motorcars. People too have changed. But their sense of humour has been left untouched.

Bhaskar Phukan is 47. He is Deputy Secretary in the Home Department, Assam.

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