Two journalists, Anil Yadav and Anhes Shashwat, decided to travel to the Northeast after the massacre of Hindi speakers in Assam just before the 2000 elections there. They had dreams of glory, of uncovering what was really happening, and travelled across Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura and Manipur by bus, tractor and any other transport they could find. Written in Hindi, and now translated into English, Is That Even a Country, Sir! is a view from down under.
There are no AC compartments, stipends or OB vans accompanying these two – just their curiosity and their reading leading them on.
The Wire reproduces extracts by Yadav that give the flavour of the uncertainty they started the journey with and the reality they faced.
I found that the imposing Mustachio who overbearingly encroached upon my berth in the daytime was from my district, Ghazipur. Virendra Singh of Gahmar village. After a furlough of fiteen days, he was going back to Bongaigaon in Lower Assam where he was part of a Border Security Force (BSF) battalion. It could be that Virendra belonged to the same district as mine, or that he wanted to legitimise his encroachment upon my space; he thrust a palmful of chewing tobacco towards me and counselled, ‘Now that you’re on your way, avoid the women and the mosquitoes there. Only then can you return to Ghazipur. Damn! Is that even a country, Sir?’ This was his catchphrase. He told me that in the BSF, personnel are made to line up, struck on their mouths and forced to swallow quinine tablets. There is also a standing order that they should sleep inside mosquito nets; there is a fine for defying that order. Life is always fragile, as if it were suspended upon a leaf, because who knows when the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and Bodo wallas will arrive and start shooting. Militants freely roam among crowds of people, he said, like fish in water. Their presence would be known only after a few people were gunned down.
Like fish in water – I was astonished by Mustachio’s simile. This was precisely the phrase written in the book by Sanjoy Hazarika, that same Sanjoy Hazarika who had studied English at St Edmund’s College in Shillong and journalism in London. The commander of the ULFA, Paresh Baruah, once mingled with a college football team in Tinsukia, participated in their match against the Assam police team, and made his escape. By the time the police came to know of this three days later, all the ULFA camps in the nearby jungles had been dismantled.
On the berth opposite me was a sahuain surrounded by about fifteen airbags, sacks and polythene packets. Her husband, the sahu, had a seat in some other coach. After every two hours, she would say, ‘Bhaiya, keep a lookout, my two girls are with me.’ The family had a grocery store in Moreh, the final outpost on Indian territory on the border with Burma.
‘How did you reach Moreh from Gorakhpur?’
Her two daughters, one eight, the other eleven, attended a government school and spoke a unique kind of English. They would call each other ‘man’. The sahuain would encourage her daughters in her wordless way and survey the impact they were having on the rest of the coach with satisfaction.
‘Mamma gave me only three taka to take jhalmuri. Why should I give that to you? Take from your money, man.’
The sahuain told Mustachio, ‘Small small boys without beards or moustaches come, in front of military, police, everyone. Ask for tax. We have to give. Or they will kill. Shot a schoolmaster in front of our store. He was a gentleman. He spoke nicely with everyone but hadn’t paid tax for three months. They have stopped us from speaking our language. They say speak any language but don’t speak Hindi. If we make mistake and our tongue slips they abuse.’ So this unique English was a language which had been innovated by the children of outsiders living on the Indo-Burma border so that they could stay alive.
‘Leave, then. Go back to Gorakhpur and run a grocery store there.’ Shashwat advised drowsily from inside his sleeping bag.
‘No, Bhaiya. The fun that is in Moreh cannot be found in aal-India.’
‘Damn! Is that even a country, Sir?’
Some five hundred steps from the hotel, on Rangora Road, lived Sanjay Khaitan, the hero of Tinsukia, and spokesman for the terrible, oppressive boredom of small towns. He was learning the ropes of the family business. His father owned a bungalow, a tea garden and many businesses. In between monitoring the gossip of his staff and idly turning the pages of the ledgers, he would often find time to invite me home for meals. He owned a big, long car, in which he used to roam the streets of Tinsukia, and when he was done roaming, he would go to either the district magistrate or the police superintendent and shake their hands. The toughest part of the exercise for me would be to answer the two questions which he would ask suddenly, and apropos nothing at all.
‘What did you think the first time you saw me?’
‘How do you find me?’
What a forest it was, flirting with terror!
A natural forest is a reaction, an alchemy in which flora, fauna and nature itself combine to evoke an ancient feeling of a shared life. We can understand only the effect it has upon us. It is impossible to grasp it in its entirety because it is a discrete, vast, impenetrable, forever-transforming life. The realisation that one has been unable to gather within one’s self even that slim glimmer of feeling puts such a stitch in the heart that everything becomes mysterious. The keening produced by two bamboo stems rubbing against each other distils in the wind to recreate, all at once, that lonely princess wailing in the wilderness whose story one had heard in childhood. The silence before and after the subdued cry of a bird at dawn leaves one in that state which a child must feel in this world soon after its birth. The rustle of leaves rotting on the ground send a river of fear thundering through the arteries and all the hair on one’s body stands on end. Standing in an expanse of grass taller than oneself, time stops suddenly, an intense feeling of helplessness washes over, and man transforms into a transparent stain of the faintest colour on the spectrum.
Laimyum Dolendro Sharma and I were travelling on National Highway number 44, on our way to Agartala. Laimyum was going to Tripura as the representative of the sculptors of Manipur at the Charukala fair being organised there. From there, we would go our separate ways. Travelling up to Silchar between small and mid-sized hills, we encountered forests – which can stand as a metaphor only to the deep mystery of life – all day. We sensed the presence of militants from the traffic jams we encountered in the wilderness. Vehicles speeding along on the deserted roads within forests would stop, reined in by some inner urge within their drivers, and the queues would keep extending. After a long wait some tribal in a distant hut would wave his arm – Yes, the road’s clear. At that moment the gesture made by that man – the world’s most strength-less, most left-behind – would acquire immense power because upon that gesture depended the being or the non-being of hundreds of lives. It was a momentary power that would be invested in that man by travellers hopelessly encircled from all sides, a power which he would wield with complete humanity.
(Translated by Anurag Basnet)