Maitreyee B Chowdhury
February, 2019. The Das family home in Majuli, Assam lost a ceiling fan. Bibhash Das, a father of two children had killed himself by hanging from that ceiling fan. He was apprehensive that his name wouldn’t be on the NRC (National Register of Citizens) list about to be published in a few months’ time.
Apu, sat quietly near the water tank at home, his eight-year-old legs waging a silent war with the waters. He had not moved since last night and now he parted his longish hair like the rain clouds on a monsoon day- wiped away some of the rain water from his cheeks and threw angry stones at an unknown God. Apu had not spoken since the last evening- he seemed to be in a state of shock. Soon his mother would come by and ask him, ‘why haven’t you eaten Apu?’ and he would have to lie to her saying he wasn’t hungry.
But as he looked at the waters, Apu’s anger evaporated and tears appeared. He could smell the river beyond- that strange smell of the carcass of weeds, the waters carry when in spate. He stood up suddenly and started an angry, maniac-like dance. He noticed that Ma had laid out the quilts in the sun this morning too. There’s something ugly about the leaves in winter, he thought. The grass hadn’t yellowed yet, but soon it would. Apu felt that everything around him that he knew as ‘normal’ was fast vanishing. In his mind he could see the grass dying, the garden and somehow his father too. Perhaps it would be good for all of them to meet, he thought – the grass, the leaves, the sky and his father? He shifted then, discomforted at his own thought. Idly he counted the marbles in his pocket. The kids nearby had robbed him of ten of them. As soon as he remembered his loss, he stood up forgetting his anger. But soon the thought passed away, he rebuked himself for thinking about marbles while there were bigger problems at hand.
Apu’s mother watched him from a distance. Everyone had already eaten but she knew Apu would need coaxing. Ma noticed that the stones he threw, were directed at the small prayer room in the centre of the water tank, she felt a sharp pain run through her. The place had always been special and she loved the quiet serenity here. The soft waters lapping around, never failed to remind her of the stories her father-in law had shared about Baul Krishna Rabha who lay buried beneath these very waters. The story went that whenever the Baul saint visited them, he would sit here, singing out the prayers each morning while the mist still clung to the paddy fields, a little beyond the house. When he died, the family dug out a grave for him right there. To their surprise, the more they dug, the more water sprung from beneath. At last, tired of it all and considering the water as a good omen of sorts, they had buried the saint’s body in the same water itself.
A few years ago, Ma introduced some Magur fish into the tank, the fish thrived, laid eggs and built a family. As a mark of respect to the sacred waters, the fish were never eaten. Till a few years ago, there would be jamaats held in the prayer room, musicians would be invited from nearby villages, the edge of the water lit with candles while the reflection of the stars fell on them. Almost ten feet high, the prayer room had been a part of the property since the last three generations. As she looked at the facade now, Ma knew it would be pulled down as soon as they left.
She called out to Apu,
“Apu, why don’t you go to the market these days?”
“The Bali ducks, aren’t they being sold in the market anymore?”
‘’I’m not sure Ma’’
“Why don’t you go to the market and check. If possible, get me one?”
Apparently, Abba wanted a Bali duck. Those ducks were strong birds, they visited Majuli around this time every year. Apu looked up at the dull skies, wondering whether he might spot a Bali duck. He couldn’t understand his father anymore. Abba had mostly kept to himself the past few days, and suddenly now he wanted a Bali duck?
Since the past few months, Borda, the eldest son of the family had been traveling to Guwahati, the capital city almost every week trying to ensure that duplicate copies of their flood-washed land papers could be arranged for, before the NRC list was announced. Like lakhs of others, theirs was a case that would probably end up in the court of law, but before that they had to survive the fear of detention camps and rumours suggesting that non- Hindus were deliberately left out of the list. The Bramhaputra had suddenly become a busy river in these parts. On most mornings, Apu would run out to the waterfront with Chand Kopali- their newly born calf, to watch the boats. Chand Kopali was barely two months old and was already a favourite with the entire household, but it was Apu who had taken a special fascination for her. Named after the moon like white mark on the forehead, Chand kopali and Apu were practically inseparable.
Business was good for the boatmen. People carrying important looking documents, fisher-women who smelt of fish, or young boys selling toys filled the boats. On most days, Apu found himself a small boulder facing the waters, made Chand Kopali sit next to him and plonked himself down too. From time to time, a known face called out or waved in enthusiasm. On days when he noticed Borda walking back from the boat, Apu would try to scrutinize his face for sign of any good news and mostly finding none, ran back home ahead with Chand Kopali, crying out to his mother, ‘’Borda’s back, Ma. Borda’s back.’’
Unlike most others, the Chowdhury’s, did not worry too much about the outpouring news of unrest. They had good neighbours’, fish from their own pond and Abba was respected as a homeopath. Like most other children, Apu was in awe of his father. He knew that some problem had been brewing, and often heard the word NRC being mentioned in a hushed manner, but he wasn’t bothered enough to find out. Apu hated being the youngest in the family. Borda was older by ten years and as was the custom in these parts, he dared not speak in front of him. Abba would sometimes call out to him, pull him onto his lap and tell him stories about the farmers and boatmen who stopped by their house. His parents were well known for keeping an open house and many a times, Abba would call Ma to one side, smile and say, “cook a little extra will you, you never know who might just drop by.’’ Lunch was mostly freshly caught fish and vegetables from the garden, with coconut from their own trees. Ma would serve each one of them as they sat down together in the verandah in the small wooden pidis. Apu asked Abba once-
‘’Abba, are all these people your friends?’’
‘’There are friends, other than one’s friends Apu, and one must not forget them.’’
Apu hadn’t quite understood what Abba had meant, but was content listening to the far-fetched stories that surrounded him. The story of Somnath was his favourite though. Somnath chacha had walked into the Chowdhury house one day and asked to rest before he resumed his journey to the next village by foot. He was searching for his cow and it would take him ten hours to cover the distance.
Abba said to Apu,
‘’Somnath chacha (uncle) has lost his cow. He is very poor and in great pain. He has been walking around searching for the animal for so many days now. I pray that he finds it soon.’’
‘’Abba, what if chacha was not poor- would he still be in pain?’’
Abba smiled, ‘’Yes, he would. The love of an animal is strange, not everyone is blessed with it.’’
The past one month had been different though; in terms of both the nature of travellers and the stories that they narrated. News filtered in about skirmishes between the Hindus and the Muslims in the adjacent districts of Lakhimpur, Golaghat and Sivasagar. Apu wasn’t bothered about the riots, but his mask making classes had stopped and that made him sad. All the children of the Chowdhury household were involved in the ritual of mask making, a tradition that was part of the cultural heritage of the island of Majuli. Abba made sure, they painted their own masks and dried them before the Krishna Jayanti processions every year. But amidst stray incidents of violence, the houses that taught the children this craft, now rapidly closed down.
A few days ago, late in the evening as they lay in their bedroom, Rupu and Apu heard strains of the Sitar float down. ‘’Is it Abba?’’ Apu asked his sister. ‘’Who else would it be?’’ she replied. Both of them strained to listen. Abba rarely played these days, and on the days when he did, the household went quiet, letting the music wash over them. Ma climbed the stairs to the terrace, where Abba sat on the floor. She merged with the shadows, not wishing to distract her husband. The music seemed to have a life of its own tonight, pleading, even crying. The wind was so still tonight; they could hear the sound of date palm juice collecting on the small pot attached to the tree- it would be full by morning. The strains of the sitar seemed to circle around the walls of the terrace and float around them. Later, it would silently cross the threshold, waft down the stairs beyond the sleeping pigeons and smoke-like, enter the open windows into Apu’s room, lulling him to sleep finally. Abba’s practice of homeopathy and the general state of affairs, left him with little time to play. Ma had often regaled them with stories of how beautifully he used to play before- of days when the house would resonate with music from the previous night.
“Why did you let go of your music? Ma asked of Abba. “Your music has the power to heal people, mad men too. Don’t you feel like coming back to it?’’
Abba rested the sitar quietly on his lap, he looked irritated.
“You of all people know how things are, don’t you? The land we had is gone. I don’t know how long we can keep this house, how will our lives and that of our children’s go on? I had to do other things. Homeopathy doesn’t do anything anymore; people have lost faith in it.”
“Why can’t you start teaching? Ma said then. ‘’Your father was a famous teacher, everyone respected him, teaching is a family tradition, you know it. This homeopathy hasn’t given you anything.’’
‘’What can I do? We devoted our lives to being good people, good citizens. Today, I cannot call this country mine anymore? Which country will my children call their own? Do you have any answers to those questions?’’
As the days went by, the travellers that the house accommodated gradually increased. Most of them would stay only for a couple of hours- always carrying with them small amounts of luggage, sometimes a plant. They usually arrived during the evening and parked their rickshaws in the shadows of the trees, as if afraid of being seen. Ma offered each of them food and water which they gratefully accepted, saving the dry food for the long unknown journey ahead. Apu remembered one woman in particular. The family had stopped by with a two-year-old child. Once they finished the evening meal, the woman huddled up with Ma in the kitchen and showed her the bulging bundle of jewellery that she had managed to stash in a pocket sewed into her petticoat. The two women gushed over the jewellery design as if it was a perfectly normal thing to do, given the circumstances. Later that night Apu saw Ma sitting down with Rupu, asking her to segregate her jewellery into small and large pieces. Some of the travellers asked Abba why he had not left yet. Others talked about the detention centre built at Matia in Goalpara- they had heard of people being put in those detention centres without intimation.
Apu had been drawing circles on the verandah one evening, when he overheard Abba and Ma speaking inside their room. As Apu peeped in, he could see Ma place her hands on the table, leaning towards Abba. She looked like a frightened animal- her wide eyes seeking some form of assurance.
“There are mountains on the other side of the Bramhaputra isn’t it? You talked about the Patkai and the Himalayas, can’t we go live there?”
“There are mountains all over this land, my father used to take me there when I was a child.” Abba replied. “If you cross the border to Arunachal Pradesh, you can see the blue mountains, the Patkai, they are beautiful.”
“Can’t we go there?” said Ma, suddenly excited.
“That’s very far away. Moreover, that place is inhabited by the tribes, we know nothing about their culture.”
“Then why tell me about those places? Leaving the land is painful enough, I can’t keep changing places after that too.’’
“We can think of that later, we haven’t decided to move as yet. What’s the hurry for a decision anyway?’’
“Everyone is leaving, why should we stay behind? Eventually if we have to go, then it’s better to leave early, isn’t it?’’
‘’Leave. Leave your land -seems to have become a constant refrain’’, Abba said in an agitated voice. ‘’Our lives are not only about survival. What about other aspects, like our memories here, our garden, the neighbours, our friends, the river, the animals? Aren’t they part of us? Our life has meaning because these things exist. What will we do in a new place, where we don’t belong?’’
Abba now paced around the room in agitation, Apu could make out he was upset. Ma walked behind him, trying to reassure him.
“What if we go someplace that looks just like here? Somewhere where there is a river, fish and greenery too?” Ma murmured.
“No matter where we go, without these waters we’ll run dry. I have turned to this river in sickness and in good health, how can I abandon these waters now?”
“Where will we go then, to Bangladesh?”
“Who knows. We might as well, since they’re calling us Bangladeshis anyway.”
Apu had heard enough, he melted into the night. He didn’t want to go anywhere; his life was here, with Chand Kopali.
They had just settled into a new week, but by Tuesday a whole new dimension was added to their lives. It was quiet around the afternoon when Apu suddenly heard someone banging at the front gate. As he peeped out, he saw a flustered looking man, fling open the gate. Borda rushed out, even as the man threw himself on the verandah. No one knew who he was, but once he was steady enough to speak, the mysterious man addressed Borda-
‘’Where is Kaka’’ (form of addressing an elderly gentleman)
‘’Abba has gone out to see his patients.’’
‘’I have run all the way from the next village. This is very urgent, it cannot wait.’’
‘’I can send someone to call him. Why don’t you rest here till then?’’
Borda called out to the odd- job-boy and send him out with instructions to find and bring back Abba. There had been no response on Abba’s phone and Borda knew that it might just be faster for someone to search him out. Abba visited his patients at their homes on some days. He treated problems of acidity, bile, dysentery, gas and other such diseases that seem to typically effect people from Eastern India.
After some rest, the man recovered sufficiently enough to sit up. He divulged that his name was Suhail. He now sat hunched on his knees, keeping a keen watch on the gate through which Abba was expected. Apu looked at the skies, it was nearing godhuli- the time of the day when the birds fly back home. He suddenly noticed a herd of Bali ducks flying by, their legs tucked behind them and their wings spread out to the sun, grey coloured, dull necks shining- there were at least ten of them. The sight of the birds made Apu immensely happy. He clapped his hands in childish delight and spoke to them, ‘’where were you all these days- where you’re headed must be my homeland. Why don’t you come down for a bit, my Abba wants to see you. Don’t be afraid though, we won’t eat you, come please.”
The sun usually set by four thirty in these parts, soon the lights would be lit one by one. Apu lounged at one end of the verandah, caressing the small Jasmine plant that had been planted a year ago. The small star like white blooms lay spread over the evening now. Apu fingered them, while unconsciously smelling the firewood that Ma lighted around this time to keep the insects away. Rupu brought out Abba’s hukkah in the meantime, he had just reached and hastened to freshen up before meeting Suhail. By the time Abba re- appeared, there was palpable tension in the air. On seeing Abba approach, Suhail stood up nervously and then sat down again, as if unsure about what to do. Abba sat down and pulled at his pipe with a ghar-ghar noise. Suhail folded his hands and stared at all of them in a moment of utter quiet, while tears ran down his face.
“Kaka, as you know, the rain waters have made the waters of the Bramhaputra rise to dangerous levels. In our parts we get many snakes that usually swim in when the river swells. At night most of us take turns to keep watch. Every other day, prayers are offered to the goddess Manasa to ward off the snakes. If our cattle are bitten, we won’t be able to plough our lands next year. It was my turn to be on guard last night. It had rained all evening and towards midnight, I heard the waters lapping furiously. I walked out in the rain, with the intention of bringing the cows inside the house. But just as I walked out, a strange sight greeted me!”
It was pitch dark, but I could see the waters dance in the moonlight. Just as I was about to walk ahead, I noticed three heads bobbing up and down in the waters. At first glance, they seemed like coconuts. But when I went closer, I realised that they were decapitated heads! Quietly bobbing up and down with a trail of blood following them. Kaka, I have never seen anything more sinister in my life. It was surreal, I immediately called out to my wife and neighbours. In the faded light, we could make out that two of them were men, and one, a woman. Where had these beheaded heads come from and were there others to follow?
None of us could sleep last night. By the time it was morning five families had packed their belongings. My father thought I should talk to you before we took a decision. We cannot delay anymore, please guide us, Kaka.’’
Apu did not know what Abba said to Suhail. Ma had called them all in, as Abba wanted to speak to Suhail alone. None of them slept that night, Rupu who usually slept with Apu, swore that she saw the skies burning. Till the last evening none of them had been afraid, but now there was a new emotion in their lives. At dawn, Apu lay shrouded in the mist, hearing the animals stomping around. It is said that animals have a sixth sense and uncannily pick up vibes running within the house. Apu thought he heard Chand Kopali fidget around in the shed. He imagined the little calf lifting her legs, seeking shelter in her mother’s belly. Apu wanted to rush to his own mother too.
They woke up late the next day, Abba asked Rupu not to go to school. Watching her dejected face, Apu said-
‘’Rupu, you can go to school in a few days again, I’ll go with you too.’’
‘’What if Abba doesn’t let me go later too? We had a class debate today and I wanted to join, I have been preparing for it.’’
‘’Let’s do a debate in the house then, what do you think?’’
‘’Go away Apu. I don’t want to talk about it.’’
Apu knew there wasn’t much he could do to cheer Rupu. In his own class too, he had been feeling more Muslim than he ever had. No one needed to point out the obvious, but he had intuitively stopped wearing the skull cap within school premises.
Abba did not go out at all that day, in fact the whole day; all of them noticed him walking alone near the pond. By evening they were all restless, so when Ma suggested that they play some music, it seemed like a good idea. Everyone but Abba collected in the verandah- but once Ma began singing, he joined in too. Just then, they heard the familiar creak of the front gate being opened. As if on cue, Borda and Abba stood up. Ten men had entered the compound. They carried fire torches and one of them carried a heavy stick too. Instinctively, Ma pushed Rupu behind her, but Abba raised his hand. He had recognized the men; they were farmers from his land. Every year the farmers invited the family for the Janmashtami processions in the village- celebrating the birth of the Hindu God. Abba had always ensured that the entire family attended. Today as they stood near the gate, somewhat hesitant to come in, Abba motioned at them.
Apu spied Sibu Chacha in the group. Chacha, was of their oldest farmers, his daughter Heer suffered from epilepsy and Abba’s medicines had had a good effect on her so far. Intuition told Apu however, that this visit was different. Chacha was the first to speak,
‘’The situation is not good Sir. Me or my friends will not be able to tolerate it if anything happens to you or your family, we are indebted to you in various ways. There are those who have ordered me to torch your house. I have been able to stop them successfully till now. But I can no longer do that. I am pleading you to leave Sir. If possible, leave tonight.’’
Apu looked at Abba. Chacha hung his head, his hands folded, his white beard glowing in the light of the torch. For a wild moment Apu imagined his beard on fire, his head and hair on fire too, the fields behind him, the trees that gave it their shade, the yellow of the mustard ablaze too- but nothing happened, no one moved except the stillness and embarrassment. Apu tried to imagine how his father would feel- his own farm hands asking him to leave. Abba raised his folded palms and said in a tired voice, ‘’thank you Sibu, yes perhaps it is time to go. I shall leave by tomorrow.’’ Quietly the visitors left, no one moved, while the moon sank into the horizon.
Borda stood guard all night, Rupu and Apu slept in bits while Ma and Abba sat staring at the dark. It had been decided that almost nothing would be taken. Others travellers had revealed that carrying too much of luggage invariably drew attention and often put one at risk of being looted while on the road. Few essential items, four heirloom copper plates, a few clothes and a handful of seeds for planting- were all that was packed. As the sun rose over the fields that morning, Apu found Abba staring at the land in the distance. The Krishnachura trees had just begun bursting into flames with the brilliantly red flowers- wherever you looked, you saw a bit of yourself. How could you pack the tree you had planted last summer, or the sound of the Bramhaputra as it gurgled past the house? Their universe since the time they had opened their eyes would remain here, what they took with them, strangely of so little value. No one asked Apu to help with the packing, nor did he volunteer. He had other things on his mind. All morning he sat with Chand Kopali. It was decided that they would leave in the afternoon. The bus stand was a ten-minute walk from their home. The bus would take them to the city of Guwahati, where they had relatives. From there, they would decide what was to be done. Come afternoon, as the last person exited the small gate, none of them looked back. A few people gathered around the house, some cried, others had an astonished look about them. Some of the farmers on Abba’s land asked him what they were supposed to do, Abba had no answers, he continued walking silently.
A few minutes after the little procession made their way out of their house, Rupu suddenly noticed that Apu wasn’t with them. When she alerted Borda to the fact, everyone turned around. Apu stood at a distance, holding a rope by which he had tagged along Chand Kopali. The entire family stopped now- Borda ran up to Apu and said,
‘’What are you doing Apu?’’
‘’Chand Kopali will go with me.’’
‘’That cannot be Apu. We cannot take a calf on the bus with us.’’
Apu hung his head and stubbornly walked ahead. Suddenly he broke into a run and this time ran ahead of all of them. Startled and not knowing how to react, they simply followed Apu. Soon they reached the bus stand, it was chaotic there. Men in uniforms took turns interrogating people or just monitoring the movement of the hundreds gathered there. Luggage packs were being thrown around and people screamed at each other. The family walked into this turmoil, a cow in tow. When at last it was their turn at the ticket office, Borda craned his neck and talked to the security there-
‘’Sir is it possible- I mean, could you tell me if we could take our cow with us? It is only two months old and will die if not cared for.’’
‘’You want to take a cow on the bus? Have you lost your mind?’’ said the officer. ‘’You’re wasting my time. Please buy the tickets for your family and leave.’’
‘’But sir, my brother is very attached to this cow, he simply cannot think of parting with it. Please try and understand.’’
‘’Move aside, don’t waste my time. Someone please take this man away.’’
There was some loud jeering around as some of the security men pulled at their luggage. One of them opened the bag containing the copper plates, looked at them and laughed loudly.
‘’Are these stolen? I’ve never seen copper plates like these, where did you get them?’’
‘’Sir they are a part of our family heirloom’’ said Borda, trying to retrieve the bag.
‘’Family heirloom? Aren’t you a family without papers, what heirloom are you talking about? You can’t take all this; we’ll have to check their authenticity. Leave them with us.’’
‘’But sir, these belong to the family, how can we leave them here?’’
‘’ Do we look like thieves? You don’t have the required papers and you dare call us thieves?’’
One of the officers craned his head and looked straight at Abba who had not spoken all along,
‘’Stealing a cow from our country, do you want to visit jail?’’
In his entire lifetime, Abba had never been spoken to in that manner. Apu who stood close to his father, looked shocked. His small fingers suddenly reached out for his father’s, as Abba’s head hung in defeat. One of the guards threw the copper plates on the floor. The rope that held Chand Kopali slipped from Apu’s fingers.
Borda ran towards the bus now and secured seats for all of them. One by one they boarded the bus; Apu was the last to get in. In the far distance, stood the Indian cow- Chand Kopali. As the bus moved, the calf ran after it, crying out, as if looking for its mother. Apu didn’t look back.
Pidi- Flat, wooden base used for sitting.
Namaskar- Traditional Indian greeting
Jamaat-social gathering involving songs and poetry
Godhuli- Known as the auspicious hour, between day and night