‘I am an Assamese, A Bengali and a Sylheti. What exactly am I?’


By Anurag Rudra

I COME FROM a small town, Karimganj, tucked away like an inconvenient problem on the southernmost fringes of the Indo-Bangladesh border. The widely-spoken languages here are Bengali and Sylheti — I never spoke Assamese until I joined Cotton College in Guwahati. My mother, for instance, spoke Sylheti at home, to haggle with the vendors in her tongue. She taught Bengali at the neighbourhood school in town.

Illustration: Samia Singh

As a young child, I had asked my mother if we were Sylhetis or Bengalis. She had told me a story — my grandmother’s extended family’s roots originated in Sylhet, in what is now Bangladesh. As communal unrest grew in the pro vinces, they fled to the relative safety of Karimganj. Many Bengali Hindus who had fled their erstwhile homes sought refuge in this land. In course of time, they made it their own little paradise, picking up the pieces of their erstwhile memories. Nostalgia pervaded every aspect of their daily existence. I understood while growing up that Barak Valley was never going to be a part of Assam as was being demanded.

Assam was from where my parents’ salary deposits were made, Assam was where you ran to in order to get an error in your matriculation certificate corrected or for that matter, Assam was against whom you competed in the board exams, conducted by the very same Secondary Education Board of Assam. We were Sylheti Bengalis, not Bangladeshis and, of course, not Assamese.

Once when I was in Class IX, I went to attend a seminar in the local college. The speaker, a professor, had talked in a fiery tongue, asking us to remember the sacrifice of our martyrs. He recounted, how he was beaten up at Guwahati University. As a student, he was robbed and thrown outside — for not being Assamese. Growing up, I realised we were a people unsure of our roots, not knowing where we belonged to and caught in the crossfire of nationalism and language that tore us apart. We had no place we could call our own, and only a language, a dialect, we desperately clung on to.

When I came to Guwahati in 2007 to study at Cotton College, I was vaguely prepared about what to expect. Two months after my first class, I was sitting with my friends in the canteen. They feigned mock alarm about how the number of illegal migrants, or miyahs as they were derisively referred to, was on the rise. One thing led to another, and a friend of mine playfully remarked, “You don’t even belong here, what do you know about us, and what right do you have to comment?”

When the serial blasts rocked Guwahati, we cried together. That day, we were all Assamese

But that seems a distant memory. I’ve been in Guwahati for two and a half years. Almost all of my friends are Assamese, and some say, I have a better repertoire of Assamese expletives than my entire class put together. I read Mamoni Raisom Goswami, listen to Bhupen Hazarika and look up gory news in Asomiya Protidin. Every day, I wake up to the sound of a language that was alien, and which I believe, has embraced me. I no longer feel strange or funny when the foreign words roll off my tongue. (My friends, who first initiated me into the tongue, would quip, “You learn fast, you bongo Bangladeshi… no doubt you guys have taken over everything!” and we would laugh.) And when the serial blasts rocked Guwahati, we had panicked, screamed and cried together. Nobody asked me what I was that day, we were all Assamese.

Today, I speak Assamese with dignity, and I feel proud to be called Asomiya, an Assamese. But when I ask myself what I am, what language makes me, I never reply. Caught in the crossfire of la nguage and domicile, of my roots and memory, I vaguely reconcile myself to my homeless state. I am an Assamese, a Bengali, and a Sylheti. What exactly am I, this dilemma of roots and languages? I have not been able to figure out even the smallest of answers.

Anurag Rudra is 20. He studies literature at Cotton College in Guwahati


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