ON OUR way back from our chat at the Brahmaputra banks, I and my cousin Mridul went to visit the house of his friend Brikodar in Hatimuria village.. I remembered I had smirked when I heard that name for the first time, which had left Mridul annoyed. When I was young, the Assamese TV Channel used to show a comedy serial called Brikodar Baruar Biya — Brikodar Barua’s Wedding. I laughed again when I first saw him, since Brikodar was another name of the large, fat, huge, powerful, Bhim — a character from the Mahabharata. The Brikodar in Hatimuria was far from a tall and large man. When I saw him then, for the second time, he was thinner, emaciated, tanned and had stubble. I didn’t find the same eagerness in him to groom himself with regular shaving (after which he used to rub a small piece of alum over his face) as I had the last time I’d seen him, four years ago. Mridul, Brikodar and the many others who I was introduced to during my previous visit were young men then. In those days they only thought of buying the best clothes, fancy jackets, learning how to play the dhool properly so that girls would have crushes on them, and would shave very often to have clean, kissable faces with gleaming cheeks.
Circumstances. It had aged them sooner. He was telling us how he had started accompanying his father to the fields since he had “grown up”. There was no point studying further than his secondary school degree — which he had barely passed — since, though Prasanta Da had established that college, he could only do so if he studied in Guwahati. And even after studying in Guwahati, if he had to live with a salary of seven-hundred rupees, Brikodar asked, what was the need to study? He went back to do what his forefathers had done so that their families wouldn’t have to go hungry. He was so thin. I couldn’t even smile when I remembered how I had laughed with Mridul, saying what a travesty of the huge, powerful, Bhima’s namesake the Brikodar in Hatimuria was.
Mridul, my friend, told me how life had changed in the village after people with guns started to roam around like rabid dogs
I didn’t laugh. Perhaps because Mridul was also in the same situation. Mridul, my friend who told me how life had changed in the village after people with guns had started to roam around like rabid dogs. He had long hair that hung carefree around his face. His skin was no longer fair and he had a strong tan, as he had been working in the fields and would often be running back to Guwahati in hopes of getting an appointment letter that would let him teach in the village’s primary school. His father was posted as the headmaster in that school.
He had passed his BA, but his marks were not spectacular and he didn’t have an honours degree since he had no time to study for one. He had started going to the fields along with Mukut Khura, who taught at the village school. After his BA, he had applied for a post at the school where his father worked on compensatory grounds, but nothing was working out. They had already spent around fiftythousand rupees in bribing various officers in Guwahati, as well as their local MLA — who always spoke to Mukut Khura when he visited Hatimuria, since they used to go to watch Yaatra plays together during Lakshmi Puja and run away from school together to eat sour raw mangoes when they were young. Mukut Khura spoke proudly of those shared memories with Bikas Gogoi. When Bikas Gogoi said that they would have to spend some money, he was surprised, but said afterwards that there were people in higher posts above him too, after all.
Even then, Brikodar’s courtyard had not yet been invaded by the sound of boots. I stole glances at the patch of golden sunaru flowers in front of his bamboo gate. Bright yellow. The tree near the gate had faint strokes of green. It was covered with a rebellious yellow, bursting yellow. Youthful.
Brikodar’s short, thin, dark-skinned mother came out with diced betel nuts dried in the sun, yellow dry betel leaves and molten limestone on a bota. She must have noticed that I was looking at the flowers, “We sweep it away twice a day but within minutes we have that yellow carpet ready to be walked over! Who can fight with nature?”
I was amused with that philosophical bent in her conjecture. I smiled and added, “It looks lovely. Seems as if they are made of gold.”
She didn’t respond to my compliment. Instead, she apologised for not being able to serve green betel leaves. “We sold most of them in the market. That’s how we manage to get some money flowing into the house, now.”
There were two other women present, pounding rice into a fine powder in the wooden grinder, the dheki. They laughed at my compliment. “Oi, the townia boy is very amazed with the beauty of the village! My dear, we are used to all these things. I have never been to the city, but perhaps I will be amazed with things in it that you would not call ‘beauty’ at all. But I have heard that the city air is full of smoke from the cars. I feel like throwing-up whenever I hop into a bus to go to the Sunday-market in Sonapur. I don’t know how people live in the city.”
It was then that the army jeep stopped in front of the bamboo gate. They came in crushing the sunaru flowers with their boots
The other woman, who was sitting on her haunches and sieving the pounded rice, said, “They don’t get to see all this, after all. Why are you laughing?”
Some other guys had gathered when they found out that I had come.
When did you reach Pablu?
How is Guwahati?
Is this movie released in Guwahati?”
For how long you are staying?
Did you come for Moina’s wedding?
I had walked around the village with them when I was there the last time. I don’t think they were intensely fond of me. They just liked to ask me about the city. During my last visit, they had asked me about television serials that they had heard of from friends in other villages. Had read about in the newspapers. Watched an episode or two in friends’ houses in other villages. Lokhimai Pehi’s family was the only family that owned a television set in the whole village. The only other house that could afford to buy a TV and add to the number of television sets in the village, bringing the total to two, was Mridul’s. But they hadn’t. Onima Khuri continued to hold firmly to her view of the ‘corrupting influence’ of Hindi movies that showed semi-clad women. But then, I didn’t have satisfactory answers to the questions of flat-nosed Gogon who sang the most wonderful Bihu songs unheard even in the cassettes available in the market. I used to think that if I recorded his songs and sold them in the market, I could become a millionaire in a day.
THE ARMY jeep arrived when Gogon was telling us about Diganta and Tapan. Sulfa members. They had fled, leaving their dairy and vegetable businesses for good. Several masked gunmen had come twice already to ask where they were. By then, I could take part in those discussions. When I went back home, I started reading the two local Assamese newspapers regularly and realised the great disparity between the news published in English and Assamese papers. There was no space for hard news. I was telling Gogon, who was not singing Bihu songs, but excitedly telling me of how the peace of the village had been shattered since the army camp was built in Mayong.
“It is perhaps the government that is doing all this.” I almost dropped a bomb. It exploded and spread a thick blanket of silence for some time.
Brikodar’s mother raised her voice, “What are you saying! Please don’t say such things. There are ears everywhere in this village nowadays. You will be in trouble. It’s not the same village where we grew up fearlessly.”
I was startled. “Why are you feeling so scared Khuri? I’m not saying the government is doing this, but it is a very strong possibility.”
Mridul patted my shoulder with his right hand and said, “Hey, let’s not talk about all these things.”
“Why? Why shouldn’t I? Don’t you think it’s the government that will benefit the most if the Sulfas and the Ulfas keep fighting amongst themselves? I’m very sure they had started the secret killings. They sparked this fratricidal conflict. There is not much difference between the colonial British and our own government, which is nothing more than an agent of the Delhi government. Their policy is to divide and rule.”
Only Mridul and Gogon and Brikodar understood what I was saying, perhaps. But it was evident that they didn’t want to take part in the conversation. They looked petrified. And it was then that the army jeep stopped in front of the bamboo gate. They came in, crushing the sunaru flowers with their boots. Flowers which were bright like gold.
“Kya ho raha hai? Meeting?” All of them were tall. Suntanned. Broad-shouldered. Like men who were stripped naked in Moina Pehi’s imaginations when she used to go to dance Bihu with her girlfriends.
Immediately, there was a sense of urgency among the women. They stood up, as if ready to run. But they were scared to run. They must have thought that if they ran, they would be shot down like Dhoroni, who didn’t stop since he was scared. They stood near the dheki. Brikodar’s mother stood up where she sat and stared. I noticed Mamoni, Brikodar’s younger sister, was the only one who didn’t stand. I looked at her and thought her eyes would fall out right then and there. I had never seen so much terror in anyone’s eyes before.
“Kya meeting ho raha hai?”
What kind of meeting is going on here?
All of the men were too scared. I felt Mridul’s hand on my right shoulder. He was trying to push me back behind the human curtain. It puzzled me. I resisted his mild moves to shield me since I didn’t know what he was trying to protect me from. Perhaps I was too busy trying to fathom what it was that made the young men feel so guilty and frightened. All of them were looking at the ground as if the answer that they had forgotten was written on it.
“Batao! Batao!” Tell us! Tell us!
The army officer came down from the jeep and demanded. Roared. Threatened. He had a moustache and looked like a high-ranking officer. I tried to read his name. Count the number of stars. But I couldn’t. “Kya kar rahe ho? What are so many guys doing here?” Their sonorous voice boomed in the yard. I could see another handful of sunaru petals falling down. Jhup-jhup. I listened to the sound of falling flowers. But I couldn’t stop wondering if it was because of the booming, sonorous voice of the army that startled us and broke down the churning of nostalgia. It was then I had noticed. There were around 12 of us.
I knew that none of them could speak Hindi well. Where would they learn it? Hindi came to them through Doordarshan or through Hindi movies played in video-cassettes during weddings. And after all, in a village inundated by sunaru flowers and dust during winters, a village with only one TV set in a poor woman’s house. They were a very private family. Unlike the others, they didn’t allow people to go with mats to their houses and watch TV on Sundays.
He asked me in Bangla, and I replied in Bengali saying, ‘It’s Asomiya, not Assami. In our language, Assami means criminal’
I ASSUMED THE army officer would know English. “I’m here after a very long time. They just came to meet me.” I knew Mridul was alarmed but he could do nothing. In front of the army, he couldn’t forcibly stop me; he couldn’t make it obvious that he didn’t want me to talk to them, that he thought it was his duty to protect me from becoming a second Dhoroni. What will I tell Prodip Khura? He must have thought — like Oholya Jethai, who hadn’t let us leave the house and who he must have thought he should have listened to. Don’t you know Mrigen’s son drowned in the Brahmaputra river? How much tension would this old woman take?
The army officer was examining me. I was wondering if he spoke English or not. I knew Hindi, but not as well as I could speak English or Bangla. I had a very funny accent at which all my north Indian friends laughed. Most of the time, I confused the gender since in Hindi everything had a gender, as in Spanish. “Then why can’t they speak up? It’s all too suspicious young man.”
I smiled warmly. It must have sent tense ripples among the people who couldn’t speak Hindi, who didn’t have a TV set in their houses. “That’s because they can’t speak either Hindi or English. They are petrified of you all.” I had moved closer, and later, Mridul was telling me that I shouldn’t have, since they didn’t like men acting smart. Paritosh Shome. A Bengali. “Aapni ki Bangali?” I smiled warmly. He smiled back at me. I knew it had impressed him more, though it had already impressed him that I spoke British accented English — with a deliberate slur — which I hated doing. When I spoke English in other places, I spoke without an accent but I knew that a pretentious British or American accent would help me impress him. Perhaps, he’d be scared to touch me then, thinking I was too educated and since I was too educated I could have higher connections.
I switched to my pretentious accented English to suggest that he shouldn’t harm me. If he did, my laboured, accented, English — that sounded so funny in my own ears — would go a long way in harming him back, “And I’m not a Bengali. I have a lot of Bengali friends. I’m here to attend a wedding after four years. My father grew up here.”
He shook hands with me and soon left, leaving 24 pairs of eyes admiring me. It was then that we heard the scream. Mamoni was screaming and she wouldn’t stop. I saw the white in her eyes and it was just white; the black in her eyes had disappeared, as if vanished. She was still sitting. I saw the pale yellow trail of urine sliding down from the soil-verandah to the courtyard from where she sat. I had never seen anyone so scared. Later, that night, when Mridul told me that she had been raped by four military men as she went to wash clothes in the Pokoria river, I didn’t want to think about those white eyes, but those golden sunaru flowers that I loved so much. The more I tried to think about the golden flowers, the more they reminded me of the yellow urine. As the army jeep was speeding away, the image of the dry leaves chasing the car came to my mind again and again. I thought about the white of her eyes and I thought if those leaves were like the dust that chased our Maruti Esteem — flat, almost black — when we came to visit Mridul’s family when Bolen Khura died. I decided they were not like angry bees and the chase was not angry and consistent — the leaves chased the jeep like little children running after a car in a village since they didn’t see cars too often. “Mridul! Mridul!” I was not sleeping. I sat down on the bed suddenly at midnight and started shaking him, trying to wake him up. He must have thought something terrible must have happened, but I just asked him when was Mamoni raped. He just kept staring at me. I wanted to slap him for being so dull. I wanted to slap him hard.