Sunday, 27 December 2009

Once upon a time in a city...

An Asomiya story by Mousumi Kandali in translation

Once in the middle/heart of a city, in a small room of a multi-storeyed housing complex, there was an old man. Alone and retired. One day, the old man who had been waiting with great hope that something would happen some day to his monotonous and single-tuned existence, invented a game to give some motion to his stagnant life. The game of replacing names of things with other words. Like to call the table a tree, the bed a picture, the chair a watch. In other words, when in the morning the old man gets up from his bed, looks at his face in the mirror and goes out for a walk then in the old man’s new language the sentence goes like this: in the morning, the leg got up from the picture and sat on the watch and after looking at his face on the wall flew out through the window. Slowly it was not only the pronouns but also the verbs, adjectives and prepositions that began to get changed. After having invented this novel game the old man felt very happy. And in his gleeful joy he got immersed in that game night and day, so immersed that at some point he forgot the actual names of the things. He became unable to talk to people and when people heard his absurd nonsensical talk and ridiculed him as a madcap, the old man went quiet for all time. Again, it was if in the lonely balcony of his monotonous single-tuned existence, the old man sat gloomily lying in wait for death. And all around him an icy cold stillness enveloped the old man.

As the cricket ball struck the glass window pane with a sharp thud, the pane crumbled with a loud crash. And with the sound of the broken glass, his eyes opened. With his drowsy-hazy eyes, he saw that the light filtering into the floor of the room through the transparent bits of the window was creating some long straight lines. As if they were streams of atoms made up of glimmering dust particles. Whenever he saw such rays of light he was reminded of a prism. A transparent glass prism, through which whenever a ray of light penetrates, a colourful and unique/rare spectrum dazzles to life.

Even the darkest recessses of the mind has some light. And when the light of perception penetrates the prism of consciousness, experiences also come to life like a spectrum. It is as if the perceptions that keep hitting against our consciousness remain awake even while we sleep. In his sleep he had seen the hero of the story by Peter Bichsel, that lonely old man. As if that blue, pale face sitting gloomily on the front balcony had looked towards him like a fish trapped in the sand his mouth quivering, wanting to tell him something – just then the sound of the shattering window pane broke his dream.

The cricket ball fell and the glass pane broke. The glass pane broke and shattered his dream. What will break now with the sound of the broken dream? Wondering what could break at the sound of a broken dream he yawned, stretched out and jumped out of bed.

In a city, in a small alley, in a small room, framed against a small window, floated up the hazy face of Chakrapani Dutta. The glowing end of the Charminar cigarette in the lips of Chakrapani Dutta, a sales representative of a soap company called ”Luit Soap Manufacturing Company”, was letting off curled rings of smoke.

The tall houses washed by the dull evening light had taken on the colour of dry wheat. The crows sitting on the antennae on the roofs were motionless like a still picture. A goods train moving at a sluggish pace with a chugging sound. A washerman was boiling dirty clothes in soda water in a huge iron girdle. The boiling water was bubbling over. Harsh commotion, a picture of a city enveloped in smoke, dust and stench. Perpetually exhausted and lifeless. Only the red sky, like a ripe water melon, bright and full-blooded. A few kites in the sky. Moving about listlessly in a crooked, random trajectory. Even a slight deviation could mean a collision resulting in one kite ‘cutting’ another, just like people living in a realtionship?. Resting on the favourable wind, curling themselves up at the end of a little thread and spiralling upwards. Danger, whenever they cross a specified speed. The thread snaps and it falls to the ground.

Like a kite he roams about in empty space. Light and supple, with a weightless soul, he floats around in a smooth, balanced, unhurried pace. Chakrapani, a man who had sprouted wings, flies away quickly to a turn in his memories. From the roof of a small hut surrounded by the green of the teak? and ejar trees he whistles out – Sarama, Sarama! The raw leaves of the bel plant at the gate shiver. Under that bel tree a clay-girl holds up over her head a lamp, a lamp with seven flickering wicks, the flames now alive now dead. The door of the hut flies open. And a woman, throbbing with life, stands at the doorstep, the fiery fire of her body burns his body, his heart, his wings char, he falls down from the house top, slips down, like the flickering flames on the lamp, Chakrapani is also now alive, now dead…

On the evening of the amabasya new-moon night of Mahalaya, Sanatan had taken him to the foot of the little hill by the railway track. A little distant from the city. These were illegal settlements on the hills, where there were no street lighting, no pukka ?roads. Walking along they reached a small dainty house. A house surrounded with trees of various kinds, like in an ashram. Under the bel tree on the main road, a few lamps were feebly flickering. In the breeze the lamps were sometimes brighter, sometimes blown out…A terracota Hatima-idol made by a Hira potter, was holding up a lamp with both hands. In that densely dark moonless night, seeing the glowing fiery form of the clay-woman in the light of the seven wicks on the lamp, he was startled by a sense of primitiveness, of a long time ago. He was even more startled on seeing Sarama’s face that day. He had met her for the first time that day. Sanatan’s widowed elder sister Sarama. He had met Sanatan one day when he gone to play carrom in the club of the “Nabarun Social and Cultural Sports Association”. Sanatan who was studying art at the Art College in Bashishta. Sanatan had told him that one day his sister Sarama had left the village and gone away with a Bengali boy named Krishnendu. Just a few days after their marriage, Krishnendu died in a scooter accident. Sarama inherited this house which Krishnendu had built at the bottom of the hill on encroached land. And along with the house all the trees surrounding it -- ?,? and ? He had got many saplings from his friend Jaydev who was a bearer in the Government Forest School and planted them in his little compound. It was as if Krishnendu was that quintessential Bengali romantic character, who would recite Jibanananda’s “For thousands of years…” while strolling through his garden on a moonlit night. The lush and rapidly growing trees had brought in a kind of dense forest-like seclusion to the entire surroundings. Full of magic and mystery.

“Earlier Ma used to always light a lamp under the bel tree on the night of Mahalaya. Krishnendu was very happy when he saw a lamp burning under the bel tree. After all, the chap was Bengali. At dawn on the day Mahalaya, he would play the Mahalaya Strotra “Ja devi Sarbabhutesu” on the radio, also the one sung in Bengali “And in this way the Devi Maa was incarnated…” listen to all that and get completely nostalgic. Last year I could not light the lamps – this year I have started to do it again, it is so dark here, I don’t like it,” Sarama said while offering him a cup of tea. While returning alone that evening he saw some quivering lights dancing in the Durgasarovar lake, which was filled to the brim with water?. One day, in the dim moonlight he was astonished to see the mysterious and ethereal form of the liquid transparence of the Durgasarovar. That night, he and Kanu were returning after watching the last show at Maligaon’s Prag movie theatre. The trees on the banks of Durgasarovar were reflected in strange forms. When he saw that sight, glimmering through the powdery snow-like white veil of mist, he felt that sometimes, quite unexpectedly, some moments come to life. Those moments, alive with a different appeal, are perhaps the magnetic fields in life. But there was another magnet that was pulling him back repeatedly that day. The name of that magnetic field which was pulling him back strongly was Sarama.

The boys who were playing cricket in the nearby field suddenly began to scream. Everywhere around was noise, laughter and chatter. The gang of boys are slowly beginning to drift homewards. In the shadowy dull evening light, their forms were getting smaller and smaller. In the same way his hopes, wishes and desires were also beginning to get smaller and smaller. He has no capacity left anymore to cherish big dreams and desires. Everyone begins life in the shadow of some big dreams and hopes. Like the image of a ‘close-shot’ of a train chugging closer, the innumerable bogeys of dreams keep coming under the spotlight in turn. But it is hard to discern when like a ‘long-shot’ of a train that is going away, the dreams get smaller and smaller and then merge with the emptiness in the distance. Just as it is hard to know when the fruit in ? tree in the backyard had become too hard and ripe to eat, when the knots on the bamboo pillars of the house have got loose and slack, how and when nursery rhymes have given way to the ‘photosynthesis algorithm’. Ceaselessly, continuously, it was as if this chain of action and reaction chased him forwards. Application-treasury-challan -- long queues – office-interview – city-bus-truck-rikshaw – ugly government buildings – post office – tuition-- three month maternity leave – proof-reading – book shop -- Luit Soap Manufacturing Company – tea – samosas – sanyasibaba – the amulet hanging from the neck – a charm – defect of the stars – the amabasya according to the astrological charts – the 11th day – a chugging train – the unrelenting continuous chiming of time – sweat, bitterness and the sun-burnt dryness – rough – hard – the rat-race amongst such harsh difficult material life-events... How much longer will he have to bash his head in search of water to quench his thirst against the false ponds created by the mirages caused by the overpowering dazzle of the dry sand in the sun – like the Bedouins. Like a cow tethered to a post with two yards of rope, how much longer will one have to circumbulate around life’s worldly post in a circle, ceaselessly? The beast of burden of responsibility and the foul abuse of unproductive anger was his father Padmapani. His father who kept on going screeching like an old bicycle. The eagerness to fulfil her role as a dutiful wife and letting loose her heavy sighs into the air was his mother. And with the limits of some wishes and desires that one could not touch with one’s hands and the angry intolerance of the despair of broken dreams were he and his brother Bhaikon.? And his friends running breathlessly about in order to fulfil their own demands of the moment. Oof! Like a kite whose string has been cut, how much lower will they fall, keep falling? Where should he go, to whom should he go for release from this chaotic centripetal restlessness. It is getting unbearable. Lighting another cigarette he began to think – today he will come to a decision. Nothing special in his decision, nor will it be something that no one else had done before, but still he would do it. He has taken a long time already – after having gone so far he cannot return. Since he has already found a clean water source which can quench his thirst -- today he will do it. Finally. Yes, he will propose to Sarama today. Is he not going forward again to be pounded in the grinding mill of life? But he is getting crushed in that grinding mill in any case… He needs a base now to be able to bear the unbearable weight of existence. He has in the meanwhile measured the length, breadth and extent of his own capabilities.

After having measured the actual length, breadth and extent of one’s capabilities, the realisation of one’s limits is perhaps the greatest tragedy in one’s life. As if even after having seen a hundred shimmering lights, the unbearable misery of having to remain still. Like termites which keep nibbling into one’s insides, all the time, hollow. He was reminded of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. That rare moment when Siddhartha attained enlightenment. At which moment Siddhartha discovered the desire of never having to hide Siddhartha from Siddhartha. There it was written – we will remain well-wishers till the moment we remain intimate with words. Let alone despising others, if one learns to despise oneself then many assumptions come to light. Man should learn the procedure to be able to introspect with a detached and clear sight. At least to die in peace.

One evening, after returning home from work, he lay in bed and thought – “let me be dead”. Just as one throws a piece of paper out of the window, if he throws his body also into that empty space, then there will be no loss to anybody. Yes, it is enough, he cannot bear it any more. For a whole month now he has not been able to get a single order. His boss had already warned him, if he carries on like this then there will be a cut in his commission. His mind has shrunk with remorse and sorrow. Lying on his bed he began to think of the various methods and procedures of committing suicide. Once somewhere he had read a few lines by Dorothy Parker about suicide:
Razors pain you, rivers are damp;
Acids stain you and drugs cause cramp;
Guns aren’t lawful, nooses give;
Gas smell awful, you might as well live.
Ha! After thinking about it for a long time he came to the conclusion that the best and most beautiful time to commit suicide is in the evening at ten thirty. Just when the two song programmes “Gunjan” and “Chayageet” would be playing on the “Vividh Bharati” centre of All India Radio. And after that, leaping out of bed, after pulling his diary from his table, he started writing a note to Dorothy Parker, very intently. “An aesthetic method to commit suicide” “The best style to commit suicide” – dedicated to Dorothy Parker. First close the door and bolt it. Just when it is about 5 minutes to 10:30 p.m. But don’t close the window. So that a little bit of the night sky and the wind can come in. Then turn your radio on to the Vividh Bharati centre. Old Hindi songs or ghazals will begin to float in the room. If you are lucky, you might even get to hear the beautiful notes of the guitar of Pandit Vishwamohan Bhatt, before you die, which will then become your death tune and lead you to hell. (What will you do by going to heaven, you will meet all your best friends in hell). Now take a glass of water and swallow 3-4 sleeping tablets (don’t take more than that because then you will not have that pleasurable experience of death). Just when sleep or intoxication begins to grip you, cut the nerve on your wrist quickly with a sharp blade. And then lower your limp body on the bed. Slowly your two eyes will get closed. And with each drop of blood, slowly, with one step after the other, death will come closer to you through the severed vein of your wrist. And, with calm serenity you will be able to enact your death the next morning when the early morning music begins to play over the radio. Just as he was deliberating about this procedure to kill oneself, there was a slight knock at the door. That day Sanatan had come to take him to Sarama’s house. That was the amabasya day of mahalaya. That day he saw Sarama for the first time. That day, in an astonishing manner, the only romantic incident in his life had happened. And on that dense amabasya day, in a very unexpected manner, his life had filled and spilled over with the most lively, bright and soft bits of moonlight. After that day he has not thought even once about death.

There is not need for description of the phase after that unique poetic event in the life of sales representative of the Luit Soap Manufacturing Company, Chakrapani Dutta. Because there is nothing novel in that. Just as those romantics couples who say with a naughty smile “You know, with my man, he is so...“ “things between us are a bit different” that is all just make-believe. Or putting on airs to give the impression of leading an artistic and fulfilling life. Actually, it is only the starting point of any relationship that is unique. In the period that follows, everything from state-nature-condition, hopes and demands, anger-quarrels-compromise, emotion-feeling of oneness and possessiveness, sorrow and languishing in sorrow are the same for everyone. There is nothing that one can call new –only the manner of expression and language-use, could be minimally different. Chakrapani-Sarama also went forward a long way, a long way along that same path. In mind... also in body. A few days after having met, their bodies had given up all restraint. Yes, there are the same quiverings also for the body, the same electric sparks, post-coital sweet-nothings, the same Akhenaton-Nefertiti, Sudrak-Basantasena, Dhanabar-Ratani… Worldly flesh and blood, hunger and thirst and seldome, a few rare moments of the so-called heavenly metaphysical experience! Else addition, subtraction, multiplication and division – worldly calculations.

“Bravo, brother, well done, what a fine calculation, you have trapped a really big fish in your net, you rascal. Nobody knows when the Luit company will flow away along with the Luit, so he has found an excellent way out. A permanent post in the LIC, easily available loans from the LIC, and moreover the land and property of the dead husband. The brother has gone to Kolkata, to become an artist – he will probably never return. Experienced woman, knows all the tricks, not like those raw young females that she will keep fussing and complaining for nothing. Really, you are damn lucky, brother…,” Kanu said, rubbing his stomach. That day they had all had a lot of fun together. All of them had raised their alcohol-filled-glasses and applauded “Cheers to Chakra”. No, he was not angry to hear their words, on the contrary he was happy. His mind had been completely excited at the possibility that besides filling up the empty spaces in each other lives, she would be able to fill up many other empty spaces in his own life. Actually, after that first phase of moony-romantic love has given way, the consuming desires of greed and lust, lying in wait in the subconscious, push back those intoxicated emotions and come forward to the top. Of course he did not wish to dissect this feeling called love. He is scared. Is what he feels for Sarama only a sympathetic attraction or just a mutual attempt from both to fill up the empty spaces in their lives? Or is it a desire of his idealistic mind, which had once cried out “We shall have to do something for the good of society someday”, to see himself as a bigger higher being, to go against the tide hoping to get the admiration of others, or, was it simply the natural result of two adults’ growing intimacy. He cannot say for certain. He has not thought about these things so deeply. There was also no need to think. What is the need to clinically dissect and analyse a simple and trusting relationship. No matter what else, he cannot imagine a life without her. He had already got into the comfortable habit of taking each step with her, together. After gulping down the last drops from his glass, his two drunken eyes closed that night dreaming of a happy and prosperous home.

The evening of light and shadow finally lapsed into darkness. He moved away from the window. He wants to have a cup of tea but there is no sugar-tea-leaves, even wicks in the stove, he has none of these. He will have to have his tea at Sarama’s. If possible, also the evening meal. Taking a long drag at his cigarette he put on the black T-shirt that was hanging on the clothes-line in the room. The shirt was dirty. The combined smell of cigarette-sweat and Old Spice was giving of a strange rancid odour. Putting the Harrison lock on the door he went out into the street.

Some fireflies were dancing around the electric tube on the street. In the sky a few timid stars. A bat was hanging onto an electric wire. Maybe the whole matter has now become like the inverted vision of the inverted bat. In that twisted world, the difficult become easy, the hard become as easy and immediate as plucking blades of grass, Love, death, sex – everything. From a little shop near the railway track he bought two cheap Bengali porno books. If he could he should have bought an English magazine, but he did not have so much money. Suddenly he felt rather bad. If only his mother had seen him in this state – that simple woman would have swooned worrying about his state of sin. When he was young his mother had shown him the illustrations of hell painted on the walls of the Kirtanghar. That one in which in a huge cauldron filled with boiling oil, the sinners by being boiled by the Yama’s assistants. Below the fiery blazing fire of hell. Actually, they are now slowly beginning not to feel the physical excitement of the first few times. Even skilled fore-play did not excite them so much any longer. Easy availability had made everything dull and lacklustre. It was as if the rare excitement of resolving, one after the other, the many veils of mystery, were being soaked up by the easy?, lifeless experiences like a piece of giant blotting paper.

Sarama was a very complex woman. Sometimes a little wild, sometimes extremely indifferent. And also a sort of hangover of being traditional. She never allows him to come into her bed room. That room was witness to her conjugal life with Krishnendu. That is why… Sarama’s kitchen was not directly attached to her main house. Rather, an L-shaped mud-floored verandah joined the kitchen to the bed room. If one goes in through the kitchen, there is a little store-room. A camp bed, one broken table and a wooden chair, a broken stool, and a tin box lay there. One day Sarama opened up the camp bed. It was quite stable and also quite wide. After that she pushed the broken chair, stool and other inessentials under the bed. After removing the cobwebs and the dust, and putting a cane mat over the bed and a clean tablecloth over the table, the room came to life. And one day Sarama took him to that room. No, no, take off your shoes, you are not allowed to come into the kitchen with shoes from outside. “Oh nice, what a nice arrangement.” When one switches off all the lights, the house, which was right next to the hill and surrounded by so many trees, becomes enveloped in darkness. Even if they shut the door, they keep the window open. Wind that rolls down the hills then flows into the room. It is very nice new moon nights. Because on starlit nights for some strange reason, Sarama does not allow the window to be opened completely. But a new moon night! A few fireflies roam about in the dense forest-like desolation. And in the light of the stars they both get engrossed in that primeval activity. The frogs croak. Really, did that Chakrapani, who had lived in a little room in a little dirty alley, ever imagine that he would one day be brought away from that dry, harsh, rough environment and be given so much breeze, so much light, so much stillness, all so generously sprinkled on him. With what tenderness Sarama had begun to pour lubricant oil on the rough and hardened nuts and bolts of his life. And the wheel of his life has become smooth, friction-less,…

Sarama’s house is only a little distance away. He is getting excited after a long time today. ... The winged Chakrapani lands on the rooftop of Sarama’s house and cries out Sarama, Sarama! Stopping awhile at her gate, he felt his excitement roll down his body. He likes his excitement. This is a sign of his being alive, awake and still loyal. And today he will give Sarama two ‘surprises’ – first, propose to her and second, of having returned from his trip two days in advance. Two days ago his boss had sent him for about a week to a moffusil town on some company work. Since some organisation announced a bandh, he hurriedly finished all his work and returned early this morning. He had not seen her for just two days, but it felt like a long time. A two day gap had made his mind and body impatient. And today is again a new moon night. Through the trepidations of his desire, hope and passion, he felt a hardening wake up within him. Like a man on wings, Chakrapani kept going at a fleeting speed.

The house was immersed in darkness. What happened, is Sarama not there? But where is she gone? Where could she go? She has no one. Knocking at the door he called out, Sarama, Sarama… one, twice, many times. Slowly he began to bang on the door. But not a sound – everything dead, still. Not knowing what to do he stood a little while on the verandah. He could hear dogs barks’ floating in from the distance. After waiting like an inanimate object for a while on the verandah, suddenly, thinking of something, he jumped over the bamboo fence near the house. The back of the house was also still, silent. Dragging himself along the wall of the kitchen, he came near the store-room. And in the hazy light he saw that the window was open! He froze in fear. His heart-beats began to hammer into his ears. He went forward slowly – and after waiting for a while, slowly thrust his face in through the window. It was dark inside – one could not make out anything, something made some noise inside but then again like a graveyard the unmoving, unliving darkness became stiff and static. He felt drained, something heavy let itself drop its full weight on his head. Like a druken man he started to take some unsteady steps backwards.

Just while he was about to climb over the bamboo fence again, thinking of goodness knows what, he went back again. Feeling his way around, he made a full round of the kitchen and then came to stand near the adjacent mud floor. Took out his matches from his pocket. At the corner of the mud-fllor, near the door of the kitchen, two broken low stools were lying there, joined. The phosphorus of the match stick gave a last big glow – in that fleeting light he saw that on top of the stools – (which was a sandal stand created by Sarama’s neat hands) there were a pair of hawai chappals, and a pair of black ladies high heeled shoes. And, and, a pair of large brown shabby Woodland shoes – lying crookedly like the English letter L on the ground. As he tried to open the gate with trembling hands he saw something near the bel tree – he could see the thing only because his eyes had got used to the darkness by then. He did not see it while coming in. Again with a flash, another matchstick came to life. And he saw, a black coloured Yamaha was parked under the bel tree. In the fog, the seats of the Yamaha had become a little damp.

After roaming about like a madman for a long while when he finally arrived at the railway line near Durgasarovar, it was very late in the night. With a burning cigarette on his lips he had been thinking about a relationship. Which was like a cigarette – in his pocket, within reach of his outstretched hands. But which, like the released cigarette fumes have now merged into nothingness. Oof! In the end, he had also become Peter Bichsel’s old man. The game that the old man had invented to remove his loneliness, that game had transformed him into the world’s loneliest man. The game with which Chakrapani had hoped to circumvent his harsh environment and purposeless existence, that game had pushed him into the well-like deep depths of darkness and emptiness. What will happen to him now? He was scared to think about this, terribly scared. He stared into the darkness, without blinking. Suddenly piercing the darkness, a passenger train chugged by. Rows of bright squares carried along the yellow light. Fantastic! As if it was Kandinsky’s vibrant yellow “Autumn”. When he was happy his father used to shout out in a strange way – Mabhoi, Mabhoi! Sitting in the courtyard his father had often sung folk songs, mystic tunes, in his grave bass voice “Some day the bricks of the big mansion will come loose....” His fear deepened with the notes of the song. As if something was gripping his lower stomach. Once when he was young, looking at a raging will-o’-the-wisp, he had been unable to control himself and had pissed in fright. It was as if that old intense fear was beginning to encircle him again. What will happen to him? Sarama is no longer by his side – what will happen to his life now?

What will happen? You will die? The world will turn upside down? If Sarama was by your side would peace and plenty overflow in your hands? Did Sarama have a Guarantee Card? What will happen, not happen, what you will get or not get, all the deliberations of these cruel moments, will they remain the same after one day, two days, many days, many years? In the vast scheme of this universe what will be the role and meaning of this present happiness and sorrow?

Krishnendu died in a scooter accident. Nikhilesh who worked in the same press with Krishnendu wrote an obituary for him in The Assam Tribune: “He was a dedicated worker – never compromised with his integrity.” Could the hardship and the humiliation that Krishnendu experienced day after day while trying to do his duty be expressed in just a couple of words like “dedicated” and “uncompromising”? That was it, end of story. Everything at an end. Could anybody, even Sarama, experience the real truth of those words in Krishnendu’s life? Why, she had not been able to bolt her door for all time to come. Was it even possible to bolt the door?

Very genuine, and natural are these pains and suffering and dashed hopes. But on top of all of that is something else – tall, deep, vast, no less genuine. This canvas – with the swarming of thousands, like innumerable little insects, erupting in a vast anarchy. Against this back drop, these intersecting and contradictory innumerable snapshots... salvation and food-clothing- shelter, art and culture and cola-condom liberalisation. In the middle of this perpetual bombardment, will you be able to survive with your emotional hangover? Idiot! Ten others will suffer and be deprived and you will escape, what is so special about you that you will be an exception? After the first intoxication of love had worn out, you had also started to do your calculations, of what you will get or won’t get, of the passionless emptiness, and such things. Then how did you expect that Sarama will not also calculate? To be able to not calculate is a great thing, but how many are so great? Of course everybody locks it up from public view -- calculations continue to go on in the dark recesses of the subconscious, if you only know to empty it and look, you will see it. Oof! how everything is gradually becoming impure and polluted. – the wind and the rain, the mind, relationships... even baby food. In the middle of all that will you find something pure and unpolluted just by looking for it? Is there something called love in this world? There is no love, there are only myths of love, there is no god, only a concept of God. Actually you are suffering from that malaise called delusions of grandeur. Of course everyone suffers from this disease, silently. Sitting in the dark auditorium, everyone creates for himself a larger than life image of himself. And sitting in the gallery of the stadium they scream and shout “You should have hit the ball like this,” “You should have thrown like that,” but how many of those who shout have ever touched a ball?

No one can do anything against the natural inclination of one’s mind or the limitations of one’s position. At most one can try to grow within one’s demarcated area, like a tree growing vertically, When one is in an area outside one’s control, one always has to play a pre-assigned role. As if an unconscious patient suddenly wakes up and finds himself inside the operation theatre. Without any prior knowledge. A table is always a table. Like Peter Bichsel’s old man, just calling a table a tree will not make it a tree. It cannot become a tree. It has to remain in its predestined form of a table.

In this way, juxtaposed to Chakrapani’s intense fear, a voice of reason also began to play inside him. And like the stories of Sanatan, Bhaikon, the Peter Bichsel old man, Sarama, Chakrapani’s transient, distressing story also kept getting typed in the type writer of the unseen, khat, khat, khat... in an unending, ceaseless, pace, “ Once upon a time in a city …”
(Gariyosi, July 1997)

(Translated from the Assamese original “Asomoyot akhon Mahanagarot” by Meenaxi Barkotoki on 22.07.09)


Saturday, 26 December 2009

Mathematics Education Trust, Assam

Mathematics Education Trust, Assam (META) came into existence in June, 2004 at the initiative of a group of likeminded people engaged in promotion of mathematics education in the North-east region of the country. These individuals have been involved in various activities like Mathematics Training and Talent Search (MT&TS) Programme of NBHM, Mathematics Olympiad and other voluntary training programmes in this region for the last several years. The experience of these activities suggests that there is a conspicuous gap between the students of this region and the rest of the country in terms of the level of quality and maturity. Therefore, it is felt that unless some special attention is given externally and from a much lower level, there is hardly any hope for improvement of mathematics education in this region only through formal education.

As a result, the trust was formally formed with the following objectives:

1. To organize workshops, seminars and such other activities for improving the awareness and standard of mathematics education in this region.

2. To encourage young and committed school and college teachers to act as disseminators of the cause of quality mathematics education.

3. To develop educational aids and techniques relevant to the specific scenario prevalent in this region.

4. To support promising and needy students of mathematics by providing them financial assistance to pursue their studies.

5. To support and provide financial aid and expertise to other centres or institutions to take up activities and programmes in accordance with the stated objectives.

The core of the Trust is the Board of Trustees, currently having the following members as trustees:

Prof. Tarakeswar Choudhary, Presently Visiting Professor, Tezpur University, Tezpur, Assam.

Prof. Nanda Ram Das, Department of Mathematics, Gauhati University, Guwahati.

Dr. Meenaxi Barkataki-Ruscheweyh (formerly Bhattacharjee), Department of Mathematics, University of Wuerzburg, Germany.

Dr. Swaroop Nandan Bora, Department of Mathematics, IIT Guwahati, Guwahati.

Dr. Bhaba Kumar Sarma (Managing Trustee), Department of Mathematics, IIT Guwahati, Guwahati.

To plan and carry out its various activities, the Trust has a Programme Committee comprising of fifteen members nominated by the Board of Trustees drawn from different parts of this region (presently all are from the state of Assam). The members of this committee are dedicated teachers who are involved in various voluntary activities for promotion of mathematics and science education in this region. These are some of the people who feel concerned at the present scenario of mathematics education and are ready to work towards its improvement.

For more details and information kindly contact any of the trustees.


Some thoughts on Assamese Mentality

Largely based on a section from my M.A. Thesis, Univ. Wuerzburg, 2008

Attributing a mentality to a set of people is not a very usual thing to do. But during my investigations on Assamese identity over the last years, I have often wondered if there were certain attitudes and modes of behaviour of the Assamese that could contribute to (or detract from) their sense of ‘Assamese-ness’. I was reasonably certain that there was something more to this thought, I also had a vague idea what it could be, but not enough to be able to pin it down. So I asked a few people in Assam for their opinion, and also read up a little on what writers in the past had to say about the subject. I present some of those opinions and my findings in this article.

Let me first indicate what I mean by mentality, in order to clarify why I think it makes sense to attribute a mentality to the Assamese as a people and why I believe mentality to be relevant to the question of identity. I will assume mentality to be defined as a characteristic attitude of mind or way of thinking of a person or a group of persons. “Identity”, as defined by Kakar, “is meant to convey the process of synthesis between inner life and outer social reality as well as the feeling of personal continuity and consistency within oneself” (2). Identities, therefore, are constructs that an individual (or groups) creates for himself ; furthermore they are also formulated in ways that he considers appropriate. What we consider ourselves to be depends on how we perceive ourselves, and how we perceive ourselves depends also on our mental set-up: if we have an understanding of what our mentality is and how it works then it is perhaps easier for us to construct an identity, or at least to figure out that part of our identity which stems from our mentality.

Let me next specify the section of population I am interested in. I shall use the marked word ‘Assamese’ to mean the urban, literate Assamese middle class, most of whom are caste Hindus living in the Brahmaputra valley in Assam and who have Asamiya as their mother-tongue. A majority of these ‘Assamese’ have jobs either in government, universities, or other public and private sector undertakings. In the context of the ‘Assamese’ , I am convinced that there is something in their nature and mental make-up which poses a big obstacle in the ‘Assamese’ project of self-definition. In other words, it is their mentality, real or presumed, which influences, in a very crucial way, their efforts at identity formulation. Let me try to substantiate this claim in the following pages.

The legacy of the past
Let me begin by listing some baggage that the ‘Assamese’ have carried from the past, which impacts on their present. This is because when one hears something often enough for long enough one begins to believe in it -- that is the power of auto-suggestion. For instance, after having been told time and again that they are slow, lazy and good-for-nothing, from all quarters, the ‘Assamese’ today believe that they are really like that. In the Asamiya novel Ai Samay Sai Samay, one of the characters, Arun Bora (who is portrayed to be very much an ‘Assamese’ himself) declares loudly that the ‘Assamese’ are “a race of lazy bums, good-for-nothings, dhodar jaat.” He goes on to say that nowhere else in this world but in Assam can one find a road named after the lazy bums “Dhodar Ali”. “Here is a country” he continues, “where to make these lazy bums budge out of their houses, one has to set their houses on fire” (Chowdhury 207; trans. mine). Even if this story is largely apocryphal, the labels have stuck.

Perhaps there is even some truth in that allegation . In any case, many clichés, real or imagined, that have come to be associated with the ‘Assamese’ over time. As Misra tells us: “Some representations that have come down from the colonial period still prevail. For example, the Assamese are lazy, indolent and xenophobic, Assam and the north-eastern region are full of jungles and primitive tribals” (178).

Nari Rustomji, describes a few more still-relevant clichés: [T]he Assamese are, by temperament, an easy-going people not given to reacting sharply to provocations. The first words of the Assamese language that a newcomer to Assam learns are lahe, lahe, (‘slowly, slowly’), an expression that has come to be accepted as summarising the Assamese disposition of patient tolerance, if not indifference. Until the last century, the Assamese led a comparatively easy life. […] There was no need for hustle and bustle, food was plentiful, and if things occasionally went wrong, they righted themselves in their own good time. The smoking of opium contributed to the general euphoria of the people and the philosophy of ‘lahe, lahe’ gave complete satisfaction. (9) It is not my intention here to investigate the veracity of these labels, what matters is that most of these attributes still apply to the ‘Assamese’ even today.

On the positive side, the ‘Assamese’ are supposed to be a simple, generous, decent folk, easily satisfied, not overly ambitious, not guided by considerations of ‘doing better’, happy and content with their lot, and generally not given to too much thinking and worrying. But there can also be other interpretations based on the same evidence. All of these could be considered to be euphemisms for plain laziness. They could also be read as a ‘sakalu asil, sakalu ase’ (which roughly translates to a ‘we-had-everything, we-have-everything’) attitude, as pointed out by S.G. Kashyap, who also explains where the twist could lie: “We have plenty to be proud of, problem is that we seem to take pride in the wrong things”.

And this old acclaimed virtue of the Assamese of being content with very little can also be read as a lack of curiosity. As Arindom Borkotoki, rather ironically, put it, “The Assamese view of the world is restricted to their ‘aag baari’ and ‘pis baari ’”, that is, to their ‘front garden’ and ‘back garden’. And this lack of curiosity extends also to themselves: not many ‘Assamese’ could tell you what the population of Assam is, whether Assam shares a common border with Sikkim, or whether it was Srimanta Sankardev or Sri Madhabdev who wrote the NamGhosa. These examples serve to illustrate the fact that the ‘Assamese’ have a very weak sense of their own literature, geography and history , and a very confused and mixed-up sense of their own cultural and religious traditions . They are also very naïve when it comes to other communities living in close proximity to them in Assam.

Sharma reiterates my view about the ‘Assamese’ in the following quote:
They are completely indifferent to the Asamiya language, literature and culture, to Assam’s history and completely ignorant and unenthusiastic about all those who have made significant contributions to Assam’s social life, […] it is doubtful whether they can be really called Assamese. (67; trans. mine)

The romantic Assamese
But there is more to it than just indolence, a restricted world view, a bad education and a muddled head. Sometimes the ‘Assamese’ are even willing to disbelieve facts, in order to promote their favourite fictions. For example, many ‘Assamese’ even today may be willing to believe that a ‘Swadhin Asom’, a ‘Free Sovereign Assam’, could become a reality, many gloat over the greatness of the Assam football team (even if the fact is that most of the players have been hired from other states), many will proudly wax eloquent on how Assam has captured the music scene in Bollywood (even if that is not the whole truth). Furthermore, they can also be ‘fed’ ideas, made to believe that they are their own , in order to be assured of their enthusiastic and unflinching support . The overwhelming support the people of Assam gave to the hosting of the National Games in Assam last year, or more recently to the SMS campaign to crown a television idol, are good examples.

How does one explain this? Perhaps this is because the ‘Assamese’ are generally considered to be a trusting and gullible lot. A more generous explanation would be that they are a romantic lot, given to day-dreaming and to building castles in the air. Or is it because they have been so badly deceived and betrayed in the past (by the young student leaders for example) that they need a few good stories to keep them going.

Whatever the reasons might be, it would be hard to deny that there is a degree of wilful and deliberate blindness and unwillingness to admit to the whole truth that is involved in this. While being enthusiastic about half-truths can be considered to be better than cold indifference, what is worrying is the fact that the ‘Assamese’ use more often their hearts and only seldom their heads to arrive at their conclusions.

This comes as no surprise as the ‘Assamese’ have always been considered to be very emotional and sentimental. It is only in waves of emotion (for one fear or the other, today the fear of being superseded by the Bengalis, tomorrow the fear of being outnumbered by the Muslims) that the ‘Assamese’ react at times of crisis. Furthermore, as we have seen during the Assam Agitation, most ‘Assamese’ seem to be able to know their minds only when they are part of a crowd.

While, to be fair, this is not true of all the ‘Assamese’, it is still true for a large majority. Why do the ‘Assamese’ get carried away like this? Can this be explained just as a kind of herd instinct or does it imply that the ‘Assamese’ are simply incapable of taking a more objective, reasoned approach? Whatever it might be, it does point to a kind of childishness, to some inbuilt immaturity in the adult ‘Assamese’ psyche , and to a deep-rooted sense of insecurity and a lack of self-esteem.

The poor Assamese victim
Let me give another example before embarking on the discussion: each year there are floods in Assam in more or less the same times in more or less the same places – this has been happening for a long time now, but how do people react to this? A Guwahatian living in say Silpukhuri, when he reads about floods in Dhemaji or even in Nalbari, simply ignores it – those places are just too far away. When he hears that the waters have topped the Bharalu and have entered houses in Machkhowa and Santipur he begins to feel a little uneasy but still does nothing. Finally when one fine morning he wakes up to find that his own slippers have floated away, he is forced into action. He does what he can to rescue himself, his family and his belongings (very often, in a sloppy, casual and disorganised manner), but even in the midst of all that he makes it a point to complain, long and loud, about how nobody has come to help him in his hour of need, how the government has completely failed etc. etc. The moot point is, how many people did he help before the waters reached him?

Perhaps we can give the Assamese the benefit of the doubt by claiming that the ‘Assamese’ aren’t, as a rule, proactive. They have no ability to initiate action. They can only follow, not lead. But if one thinks about it for long enough one will see that there can be also another way of explaining this. They have got so used to the idea that they are ‘victims’ that they almost wait for the next opportunity to prove that they are really so – it is almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy – as if they almost will it to happen, so as to have yet another reason to feel sorry for themselves, and also to have more grounds to continue to grumble.

I am reasonably sure that if one took a vote to determine one word with which most ‘Assamese’ would like to describe themselves, then the winner by a huge margin would certainly be the word ‘victim’ – they consider themselves victims, victims of huge conspiracies hatched by everyone around them, victims of state apathy (“nobody cares about us”), victims of exploitation (“look how our oil is being stolen”), victims of natural and man-made disasters (like floods and bomb-explosions), victims of heinous conspiracies (hatched between the Bengalis and the Muslims), victims of their large-heartedness and generosity (which is exploited by the immigrants), and so on. Naturally related to this is a perception of threat from all sides.

This could very well be symptoms of what is called a ‘minority complex’, which is a well-known phenomenon in such situations. The curious phenomenon of numerically dominant ethnic communities manifesting a ‘minority complex’ or anxieties about minority groups [….] Cultural nationalism has not been confined to minority groups fighting for self-determination against assimilation by the majority. Rather, cultural nationalism is as evident among numerically and politically dominant national groups as it is among minorities. (Pfaff-Czarnecka 13)
Even though it must be admitted that the ‘Assamese’ have plenty of valid reasons to feel slighted and, to complain could be a good defensive strategy, as a survival tactic it is bound to boomerang sooner or later.

This attitude to always pass the blame to someone else also makes it harder for the ‘Assamese’ to sift out those situations where they could actually do something to change things for the better. Sanjoy Hazarika mentions a conversation he once had with a government officer who, referring to fish having to be imported into Assam (instead of producing it locally) told him that “[t]he fact was […] that the Assamese still took life too lightly and were not prepared to work hard and use existing opportunities – or create new ones. ‘It’s the easiest thing in the world to blame someone else for your problems,’ he said, referring to long-time Assamese grievances of neglect by the Centre” (Hazarika 265).

I have talked about traits in the ‘Assamese’ which point to some sort of inherent immaturity earlier, one can add their natural tendency to blame others for everything that goes wrong to that list. This also often implies an inability to accept responsibility for one’s own actions. Because of course, when things go wrong, then it has to be somebody else’s fault. The total lack of initiative of the ‘Assamese’ (not just in setting up fisheries but also in exercising control over their own lives), as well as their childish habit of pointing fingers at others without trying to do anything themselves, can be so self-defeating that one could even go so far as to say that ‘they deserve what they get’.

The Assamese rule of expedience
We have already seen many instances of how the ‘Assamese behave when they are part of a crowd. But what happens when an ‘Assamese’ is not part of a crowd? Let me state my guess first. When faced with having to make a decision, an ‘Assamese’ will first try to do what everyone else is doing; if that it not clear then he will try to follow the path of least resistance; alternatively, he will lie low and hope that the issue will blow over before he is forced to commit himself. In other words, he will try to postpone taking a decision by himself. So that, when things go wrong, he can reserve the right to complain, which he very much likes to do, as I have already pointed out.

Let me try to substantiate why I think like this by asking a few questions that have bothered me for a long time now. Why is it that when there is a call for a black-out or a bandh, most ‘Assamese’ automatically comply, without even bothering to ask or find out what the action is against? If it is a call for a bandh, then of course, there are no further questions asked – after all who could object to an extra holiday? If it is a call for a black-out people grudgingly switch off their lights and see out the time in darkness, more out of worry of their window-panes being smashed than out of any great sense of solidarity or conviction for the cause. These calls have become such a normal part of everyday life, and people have got so used to having a bandh every now and then (conveniently timed to make possible longer weekends) that in recent years, many do not even bother to find out who is calling the bandh – it might be in support of something one day, and in protest against exactly that same thing the next day, doesn’t matter, people stay home on both days!

Of course one can explain this by saying that it could be physically dangerous to venture out – true, but should we also not be asking how it has come to be that the ‘Assamese’ as a community have made it possible for a mere handful of protestors to bring a whole city (or even the whole state) to a standstill by doing no more than simply calling a bandh? Has anyone worried about the loss in man-days incurred to the community in the process? One has cared about one’s own security but has one spared a thought about the greater well-being of the community? What I am trying to say is that it is often expediency rather than commitment to a cause or a sense of responsibility towards the community that prompts the way an ‘Assamese’ behaves. I return to this last point about community later.

But this rule of expediency seems all-pervasive at the moment: one sees it in so many different forms – in college students preferring to read only the ‘Notes’ to the prescribed texts without bothering to look up the original texts, over-anxious parents doing the children’s home-assignments for them without stopping to think how much harm they do their little ones in the process. This attitude is ‘penny wise but pound foolish’ to say the least, but more seriously, by making it seem to be the default mode of normal behaviour, this rather dishonest and unhealthy attitude seems to be getting handed down from parents to children.

I am not saying that an individual should be an expert in everything, but why is it that many ‘Assamese’ have no reasonable idea about anything, even about the things in which they have supposedly been trained. Even if we could excuse drivers, plumbers and electricians for not knowing their jobs because they were badly trained, what excuse do we have for their trainers, for teachers who don’t know their lessons, for PWD engineers who build roads which do not last a season, for high-ranking bank officers who need calculators to add four plus seven? I bring this up not only because there is a huge systemic disorder in our society that needs to be addressed but also because the ‘Assamese’ not only do not know, they will also not admit it. They will rather pretend that they know, which is much more worrying, and points to a basic dishonesty of character. The ‘Assamese’ would much rather prefer to fudge things as long as they can get away with it, rather than try to learn how to do something properly -- so much so that this is fast becoming a significant character trait.

They also pretend to be concerned about the general good, but in reality they do not care to look beyond their noses. They would like to have principles but only as long as they do not make life too difficult – of course the Bangladeshis must go, there is no question about that, but on the other hand, they must also stay otherwise who will do all the heavy work at construction sites to build the posh houses for the rich ‘Assamese’! When others jump the queue, they are very unhappy; but they would not miss even half a chance to do so themselves – the guiding principle seems to be: when at a disadvantage assume the high moral ground; when there is a chance, have no compunctions about grabbing it. But one cannot have the cake and eat it too!

The non-existent sense of community
Let me return once more to the Assamese man-on-the-Guwahati-street, and examine, a little closely, whether he has any sort of civic sense of community. If somebody fell into a manhole in Ganeshguri perhaps the irate family members would make sure that that particular manhole got a cover, but from that it does not necessarily follow that open manholes in Silpukhuri will also get covered – see what I mean? The ‘Assamese’ are able to do things when they are emotionally charged and as long as it affects them personally, but they are reluctant to extrapolate from there, and do something for the general good or to pursue matters to an end. Lalit Barua was of the view that, “in Assam, one does not see a collective mind at work. There is something missing about us. The whole culture of informed public discussion and debate is entirely absent in Assam.” He believed that one principal reason for this is that the ‘Assamese’ find it hard to take a reasoned logical stand (as opposed to extending emotional support) over issues of general concern.

I could keep giving other examples, but I hope I have demonstrated that there is something about the ‘Assamese’ – call it pure selfishness, call it short-sightedness, call it absence of commitment as a community – that one sees in these examples. We lack a sense of community , we live each one for ourselves, as best we can. And not just that, as I hinted at earlier there is also a degree of dishonesty, of wilful avoidance, of hypocrisy involved. We either do not know our minds, or do not have the spine to speak up publicly. Instead we readily submit and go along with the tide, even while denouncing it in private circles. And what is the result – things that nobody really wants (like the ULFA and insurgency) come into being, and things that everyone really wants (like peace and order) do not stand a chance. And we give a very poor account of ourselves as adult human beings and responsible members of the community in the process.

This ‘save-your-own-skin’ attitude of the ‘Assamese’, implies not only that one cares only for oneself (and for one’s own immediate family), but also that one does that to the absolute exclusion of everything and everyone else. Between his feeling that he is a victim of vicious forces with hidden agendas against whom he is completely powerless, and his efforts to try to keep himself and his family safe he has no more time or energy left for anything else, to think of the wider world. In fact he tries not to look, hear or see too much for fear of having to do something for others. That is always somebody else’s job.

So what is the picture of ‘Assamese’ mentality we have at the end of this discussion? Besides being guilty of an appalling ignorance of and confusion about one’s own history, culture and traditions, the ‘Assamese’ are also lazy, almost to the point of being callous and irresponsible. And when an ‘Assamese’ finally does act, he does so just in order to tide over the immediate crisis rather than taking a long term principled stand on the issue. Most often he waits for others to decide for him, which then gives him the scope to complain if and when things go wrong.

But this is not to say that the ‘Assamese’ do not ever support public causes – they do and in great style as we have seen so many times in the past – but the reasons for doing so are more emotional than rational – they are not based on any objective reasoning, nor arrived at through collective discussion. And in all matters which require his personal exertion and initiative, he thinks only about his little world – himself and his immediate family and friends – anything beyond his ‘aag baari and pis baari’ does not matter.

I have not focussed on the reasons for why the ‘Assamese’ behave the way they do in this article. I am also aware that by focussing on only the unsavoury stories, I have presented a very negative picture of the ‘Assamese’ and his mentality. I also know that random examples cannot be proof of anything, and for every example I have used to illustrate something there are probably many others which would prove just the opposite. It is also a fact that no ‘Assamese’ is as unpleasant as I have painted him here. If I have still used this method, it is because it has been my aim in this article to point out some of our weaknesses, in order that we can together think about the issues I have raised, maybe find ways to answer some of them and in the process become more worthy of praise. If I have been needlessly harsh then my only plea is that I have not spared myself, for this has primarily been an exercise in introspection and self-evaluation. And in so far as I have substantiated every claim I have made with examples from real-life, the case I make and the conclusions I draw from it cannot be written off as pure spiteful thinking. Even if it is only to prove that this will not become another case of wilful refusal to face the facts, the ‘Assamese’ will have to hear me out. And then decide, each one for himself, if there is any truth in at least a few of the many allegations I have made, and whether there is anything that he needs to do in order to make sure that I do not get another chance to be so critical. I would be happy if this article is read in that light.

Bhattacharjee, Meenaxi. 2008. Problematising Identity in Assam. Unpublished M.A. thesis. Wuerzburg University, Germany.

Choudhury, Rita. 2007. Ai Samay Sai Samay. Guwahati: Banalata.

Kakar, Sudhir. 1981. The Inner World: A Psycho-analytic study of Childhood and Society in
New-Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Hazarika, Sanjoy. 1994. Strangers of the Mist: Tales of War and Peace from India’s
New-Delhi: Penguin.

Misra, Udayon. 2000. The Periphery Strikes Back: Challenges to the Nation-State in
Assam and Nagaland.
Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study.

Pfaff-Czarnecka, J. & Rajasingham-Senanayake, D. 1999. “Introduction.” Ethnic
Futures: The State and Identity Politics in Asia.
New Delhi: Sage. 9 -- 40.

Phukan, Mitra. 2005. The Collector’s Wife. New-Delhi: Penguin & Zubaan.

Rustomji, Nari. 1983. Imperilled Frontiers: India’s North-Eastern Borderlands.
Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Sharma, Chandan Kumar. 2006. Asamiya Koon? Guwahati: Span Publications.

The Guwahati Notebook, 2007 (unpublished field diary compiled by Meenaxi Bhattacharjee).

The Guwahati Notebook, 2008 (unpublished field diary compiled by Meenaxi Bhattacharjee).


Inverted Time-Space Machine

Some thoughts from Montreal, Sept. 2004

As I sit looking out of the window of our apartment in Montreal into the cluster
of tall stately buildings of the Universite Montreal, it is hard to put it
alongside the view out of the window of my room in Kabul, where I was less than
ten days ago. These two worlds seem to have almost nothing in common, and yet
people live in both worlds, people with roughly the same emotions, the same
aspirations, the same dreams...Perhaps, but the memories of what they have
seen,heard and endured are different, grossly different, maybe that is what
makes the difference, all the difference...

If Montreal is a city of immigrants from all over the world, people who have
come here from all corners of the globe seeking better opportunity, hoping to
realise their dreams, Kabul today is a city still half-paralysed by the shock of
what it has suffered in recent years. And if it is hope that has made people
flock to Montreal and to make it their home, it is total hopelessness and
despair that has forced so many to leave Kabul and their own homeland over the

And if the quality of life, the culture and the sophistication of a
city like Montreal can be thought of as representative of what peace-loving
people can achieve in a stable world through self-initiative, hard work
and expression of their own free-will, the city of Kabul bears ample testimony
to the extents to which other societies can, at the same time, cause themselves
to self-destruct, to squander away everything they have, for a thought, an idea
(which rapidly becomes an ideology) which may make very little sense
to everyone else, but which is enough to sway people to murder, to treason and
even to total annihilation.

Put these two worlds next to each other, and you will see once again the
old rule in operation whereby societies and civilisations have existed in
different parts of our planet at the same time but have been completely
out-of-sync with each other: while one has it all and is going higher still,
the other is going down down down and the bottom is still not in sight yet.
And look elsewhere and you will find societies at all the intermediate levels

It is hard to accept that these worlds can coexist simultaneously. It is even
harder to fathom why and how. It seemed as if I was living in some crazy
inverted time-space-machine, which was playing some cruel trick on me and
my senses. I could not help juxtaposing pictures from these two worlds
and then trying to understand one while keeping the other in context: the sights
and sounds of a lovely maple-tree-lined picturesque wide avenue in Montreal
against a dusty crumbly crowded street in Kabul; a modern smart female
student from the Montreal Universite against a covered-from-head-to-foot,
faceless and unrecognisable one going to Kabul University; an invitation to
dinner at a Montreal home and to one in Kabul; going apple picking in
the lovely orchards outside Montreal and in the incredibly beautiful Panjhir valley in Afghanistan ... it was driving me crazy... nothing made sense any more... it
was as if the same words meant completely different things in these two worlds.

And if I was not dizzy enough, I tried to figure out what these words meant in
my world back home in Assam. Immigrants, war, terrorism, bomb-blasts,...
all these words existed in my world too. Our situation is certainly not as bad
as in Kabul, we still have a chance, at least a better chance than them. And yet
we do not seem to want to take it. Do we not see, can we not read and pay heed
the writing on the wall? Do we have to go all the way down before we learn our
lessons? And if murdering all those innocent children in Dhemaji on
Independence day was not bad enough, even on Gandhi Jayanti last Saturday,
some of our people, probably of the same sort that exist in Montreal and in
Kabul, were trying to kill each other, planting bombs at railway stations,
blowing up markets and homes,... And yet we
have the cheek to call ourselves a civilised and civil people who will only
'do unto others what we would wish them to do unto us'... all this does not
make sense anymore... something has gone very badly wrong somewhere...Is it
enough to just watch and wait and hope that this was the last time...?


Back again in England

Written after a visit to England in November 2004

Being back in England again was fun. In many ways it was clear that a lot of
time had passed since I was here last, but still, it was good to be able to
count in miles, ounces, pounds and pints again and to see the traffic moving
on the other side of the street than in the rest of Europe. I wasn't sure what
it was about England that I missed most. I have often thought about it, but it
is hard to really pin it down to something specific. Going back again made me
realise that it was perhaps not anything definite but just
the general atmosphere, the ambience that I missed.

First it was great to be back in a world where I did not have to strain to
make myself understood or to understand what others said. It was very
comforting to be able to almost effortlessley read and understand what was
written on newspapers and magazines and was being said over the radio
and the television. It is amazing what a massive difference just the language
can make. Not just that, the topics being discussed, like Wimbledon
and cricket, were also familiar. It was sheer bliss to be able to curl up
in one of those very comfortable and deep arm chairs, armed with a
steaming cup of tea by my side and the latest edition of the Saturday
Guardian or the Sunday Times, and just be...

Also the people. Those I saw on the streets in England were so different
from each other that one could easily claim that there was no one canonical face
that could be called British. And when that is the case, no one needs to feel
like a foreigner there -- I guess that is what makes England so unique -- in the
sheer ethnic and cultural diversity of the people living there. Of course this
must lead to conflicts and tensions too, but then, aren't there tensions
everywhere for one or the other reason? I loved the anonymity, of not being
singled out (which happens to me so often in Germany), of not having to explain
myself. I could just be myself and nobody seemed to care.

The summer sale was on, and everywhere one could see big colourful banners:
'Buy one get one free' or 'Hurry, last three hours of sale; all stocks must go!'
The advertisements for tandoori burgers and sandwiches, and the smell of mince
pies, sausage rolls and cornish pasties made me realise that I had missed these little things
too. Not that I liked eating them very much, but still, not having the choice
can be a loss in itself. In all those years I had
lived in England, I had never liked baked beans but to my great surprise, I
found myself asking for some at breakfast one morning this time!

The English weather of course played very true, and did not stop being anything
but itself, even for a single minute during the whole time I was there. In other
words, it drizzled ALL the time, literally. Of course I had gone prepared and
after a few hours of getting used to the idea, did not let it bother me, nor did
I spend any time in making predictions. There was no point in doing so, whatever
you said, you would be proved wrong. So I just decided to forget about it and
get on with what I had to do. And the British trains have also not changed --
they are as inefficient as they always were! But the sight of the newly
renovated Leeds Railway station (with its smart baggage escalators to every
platform) was a very pleasant surprise.

The real treat however was access, once again, to the charity shops which are
ubiquitous in England. They had been my favourite haunts while I lived in
England, and it was just wonderful to be able to do that again. There was no
knowing what one might find inside those wonderful places -- a much-wanted book,
some lovely crockery, a pair of almost new curtains, a lovely woollen scarf or
a wonderful old painting. And I simply loved chatting with the elegantly
dressed, kind old ladies who helped out at those shop-counters. I
revisited all the shops I knew, and in some strange way, that more
than anything else, made me feel like I was back home again.

Of course those shops had more to them than just nice second-hand things which
one could buy for very little. They represented some cause or the other --
cancer research, children, spastics, animal-welfare, blind, homeless,... the
list was growing. And with it also people's participation in one or more of
these charities. There was a clear sense of public support for these causes, as
well as against the war in Iraq as well as for difficult issues like cutting the
debt in third world countries and insistence on fair trade so that farmers got
their rightful share of what the end consumers paid for their produce. In the
few days I was there, I saw more processions, rallies and signature-campaigns
aimed at raising public awareness and support for one or the other of these
cause than I have seen in more than a year in Germany!

Not everthing had remained the same though in these years of my absence. Every
single university student seemed to have got himself or herself a mobile phone in the
meanwhile! Some shops had moved or just closed down; the
thick bushes of bright and colourful rhododendrons and fragrant azaeleas
at the entrance of Roundhay park had been removed, presumably to make way for a new restaurant; a new
building for the Music School had been built in the parking lot
just opposite my old office in the University; the city had a posh new square
called the Nelson Mandela Square right opposite the City Hall.

But there was one change which was much more than
I could bear, it made me wish that I had never gone back --
it was the sight of the house in which I had lived in -- my lovely little
home with its quaint irregular shaped rooms and its lovely triangular rose
garden, that house where I had lived a whole year, entertained so many friends,
woven so many dreams and still have so many beautiful and happy memories of --
was dead! It was locked and all the window blinds were firmly
drawn. High fences prevented passersby from looking into the rose garden.
It looked as if no one lived there anymore. As I stood in the rain and rang the
bell, I knew that there would be no
answer and that there was no point in waiting and getting drenched.
In despair I looked away at the houses across the street and wondered if that
old lady who always used to keep my mail for me was still there -- but this time
too the bell evoked no response -- instead two big Toby cats looked out of the
house window and glared quite nastily at me. I realised that it would be best
to just go away and to never come back ever again. That house which
was such an integral part of everything nice that
happened in that year I spent at Leeds, did not exist anymore.
It was dead for me. Gone! That part of my past was lost forever.

Maybe that is the story of life itself: changes with time -- some for the
better some for the worse, new dreams making way to old memories,... as I flew
back from Manchester, I wondered what other changes I would see the next time
I went back to England again -- will it hurt so much again? Would I have the
courage to face the new reality? Why can't I think of all the nice things that
I also saw? Why can't I just let go of the past? But again, maybe that is part
of human nature too -- for where else do we exist if not in our memories of
the past and in our dreams for the future...


North East Writers' Forum

North East Writers’ Forum NEWF — a forum for the promotion of creative writing in English in North-East India -- was formed in January 1998 to serve as a common platform and to promote the interests of writers writing in English in North-East India, in order to make possible regular interaction and discussion among them and to contribute positively to the dissemination of creative expression to a wider audience. Besides this, the Forum also hopes to encourage the process of translating into English, and thereby make available to a larger audience, the best creative works from the regional languages of this part of the country.

Activities: A Monthly Meeting of the Guwahati Chapter of the Forum is held at the Forum office premises in the Deshabhakta Tarun Ram Phukan Stadium Complex in Guwahati. Readings of recent writings by Forum members and/or of other pieces of writing that members might want to share with others followed by a detailed discussion is the main component of these meetings. Even non-members are welcome to attend the meeting.

The Forum publishes an annual literary journal called NEWFrontiers containing literary pieces in English – poems, stories, essays, travelogues, book-reviews, comments – besides a newsletter containing recent and forthcoming activities of the Forum. Contributions are solicited from all. They may be sent directly to the Editor of the Journal at the office of the Forum.

Besides holding its AGM, the Forum also organizes work-shops, seminars and literary meets from time to time at various locations of the north-east.

Membership: Membership is open to anyone (who has passed Class XII or its equivalent) who is interested in writing. For membership forms and for further details about the Forum please contact the Secretary or send a request to the Office of the Forum.


Outcaste at home

After a visit to the Meenakshi temple in Madurai in April 2007

Stephan had said that he would like to see the famous temple after which I had been named. I had seen the Minakshi temple as a child and thought I wouldn’t mind seeing it again. So, since we were in Chennai and Madurai was not too far, we decided to go there at the end of the working week. But we had to wait till Sunday since on Saturday there was a government-sponsored Tamilnadu Bandh over the OBC reservation issue. Stephan, being a German, had never heard of a state-sponsored bandh and was not too amused by the delay, and also the additional hassle of having to re-schedule flights, taxis, hotels etc. Well… we Indians believe that if one wants to earn some poonya by doing a real tirtha-yatra, then one has to be prepared to suffer a lot of additional hardship and expense, I jokingly told Stephan, little knowing how badly my poor wise-crack would misfire on us later.

It was scorching hot when we arrived in Madurai that Sunday around noon. The temple would reopen only at 4 p.m. we were told. We decided to wait, braving the sweltering heat and the attendant unpleasantness. Our guide was not too happy with our insistence about going in – he was not sure we would be allowed. “But why not, a temple is for everybody, isn’t it?” He did not seem convinced and it was not until later that I began to understand what he had in mind.

Till we reached the inner courtyard with the lotus tank there was no problem. But at the further end of the corridor there was a board which declared that Muslims and Christians were not permitted beyond that point. I was taken aback. I had visited many mosques and participated in many Church services in recent years, even though I was not just a Hindu but also a Hindu Brahmin. No one had ever refused me entry. What was the matter with Hinduism? Why did we need a rule like this?

“Maybe they are scared that the Muslims and the Christians will go in and desecrate the temple,” Stephan suggested in an attempt to be fair.

“That only shows their insecurity, nothing else. You think a silly rule like this can stop anyone from making mischief if they decide to do so? ” I answered angrily.

“In the Pashupatinath temple in Nepal they also have similar restrictions, I have heard. They have the same rules also in Tirupati and many other temples here. This is not an exception,” our guide said, hoping that that would placate me.

“Two wrongs do not make a right,” I retorted angrily. “Since when has Hinduism become so intolerant? Our greatest strength has been our all-embracing character and our liberal-mindedness.”

“Not any longer, Madam,” our guide answered quietly.

I was embarrassed and tried to apologize to Stephan. But he seemed to take it in his stride. “This is rather unfortunate, but this rule does not prohibit me as I am neither Christian nor Muslim. Let’s try to get in.” To our right we saw a very long queue of devotees waiting to get into the temple through the general entry route. I directed our guide to buy us two higher-priced special entry tickets.

But we did not get very far. Suddenly a rather menacing looking, dark, pot-bellied priest blocked our way and started shouting, “Ille, Ille, Ille!” When I protested and told him that we were neither Christian nor Muslim, he demanded to see our ‘conversion certificates’ issued by the Shankaracharya at Kashi. Stephan raised his hands in surrender at that point but I was not going to give up so quickly. “But I was born Hindu. I am a Hindu Brahmin, my name is Meenaxi. Where is the question of conversion?” I asked him in English, and repeated in Hindi to make sure.

Either he did not understand me or he pretended not to. I did not understand what he said in his long loud and lewd-sounding reply either. But from his expression it was clear that he did not believe me. On the contrary it was obvious from the look of disgust on his face that he thought our presence was defiling the sanctity of the temple, and from his menacing hand waving that he wanted us out of there immediately. I had perhaps never seen such uncouth behaviour anywhere before in my life.

Normally I do not take injustice lying down. But that day I don’t know what happened to me, I just tamely gave in and we walked out, just as we had been instructed! Till today I have not understood why I did not do more to protest. Maybe the incident was just so unexpected that I just did not know how to handle it -- I had never before in my wildest dreams imagined that I would have a problem in getting into a Hindu temple. Maybe living abroad for many years had made me soft and unaccustomed to such rudeness. I was completely unprepared for such a battle. I do remember telling myself while standing there that if some puny self-righteous priest decides to scream and shout and be abusive I did not necessarily have to follow suit. After all that was a temple, not a fish market! It was a place for being quiet, calm and friendly, not for being angry and insistent.

Nevertheless as we walked out, hot angry tears trickled down my cheeks. We sat for a few minutes in the outer courtyard steps to let the truth sink in. We were both more than a little stunned by what had just happened. Although I’m not a regular temple-goer, I had really looked forward to the darshan of my namesake goddess. I had consciously tried to psyche myself into the proper frame of mind for going to a temple that morning, but it seems that had left me completely unable to stand up for myself. I felt very hurt, doubly wronged, not to speak of the embarrassment I felt about Stephan having to be involved in this unpleasantness.

But he was more sorry for me than for himself, “Don’t be so upset, didn’t you say your goddess is everywhere -- she will know you had come to see her.” Yes, but then why do we have to leave from her doorstep, without seeing her? This was somehow all wrong. I knew in my heart that, left to herself, the goddess would have never refused us entry – after all she could read people’s minds. But poor thing, her fate was worse than ours. First of all, she was a prisoner in her own house. Not just that, she had absolutely no control over her guest list. She had to leave that job to her over-zealous keepers who had the last word on that. And if that was not bad enough, she had not even been able, in all these years, to teach her own house-hold staff some basic politeness and good manners!

Seeing me trying to drown my own unhappiness in the imagined greater misery of the goddess, the matter-of-fact Stephan tried to get me back to reality. “Leave the goddess out of this -- she is out of this game in any case. Let us get back to the facts.” By then he had worked out what was bothering him most. “That these priests here cannot hope to read people’s minds I can understand. What I don’t understand is how they can claim to be able to read a person’s religion from just a look at his or her face. Admittedly it was probably not very difficult for them to decide that I was a doubtful case, but why did they not allow you in – you are Indian, you are Hindu, you are Brahmin, what more could they want?”

“Don’t ask me. This is the first time ever that such a thing has happened to me. How and why beats me completely,” I answered unhappily.

“Maybe the fact that we went in together made them suspicious,” Stephan suggested. “In that case I am sorry.”

“It is someone else’s turn to apologise, not yours,” I sulked. “In any case, I was not going to go in without you.”

“Another thing, in your salwar-kameez, you look quite different from the other sari-clad women waiting in the queue, you know. Maybe that and the fact that I was with you confused them. ” Stephan said.

“Whose side are you on? Stop finding excuses for them. They don’t deserve it. I am not the first salwar-kammez wearing Indian who has come for a darshan to this temple. I might not look south-Indian but I certainly look very Indian. In any case, if they were confused they could have asked a few questions, not shouted us out of that place in that outrageous manner.” I snapped.

Stephan didn’t try to find reasons for that. Even though he was extremely level-headed and always tried to be fair, he too found it hard to forgive bad behaviour. “I agree with you there. Even if they thought us both to be doubtful cases, the whole affair could have been handled in a more civilised manner without allowing it to degenerate into such a spectacle. It is absolutely disgusting.”

The whole system seemed completely random and arbitrary, and the manner of enforcement incredibly high-handed and peremptory. Neither of us could make any sense of what had just happened. I wondered whether I should try again to go in, but the mere thought of having to face that bad man again seemed so unpleasant that I decided not to. We left it at that and headed for the airport, hoping somehow that time and distance would help to heal the hurt.

Stephan’s analytical mind kept working even during the flight. He was still intrigued by the procedure of implementation of that crazy rule. “Tell me, are there not many Indian Christians and Muslims who don’t look any different from the Indian Hindu? How are they prevented from going in? Do they check the `conversion certificates’ of every person standing in queue?”

“That is highly unlikely,” I answered.

“Conversely,” Stephan carried on, “there might be many Indian Hindus who might not look exactly like the average Indian. How do they get in?”

“Maybe they all have certificates from the Shankaracharya,” I replied grumpily.

“Saying what? That they don’t need a certificate from him?” Stephan continued. “I don’t see the connection between `looks’ and `conversion certificates’.”

“Neither do I. Let’s stop this analysis. I’m sick of all of that. Nothing makes any sense to me, no matter how hard you try to explain it.”

“I wanted to be fair. But I must admit I don’t see the logic at all. But I still feel very sorry for you – they should have let you in, at least.”

“I don’t see why I am particularly better qualified to see the goddess than you.”

“Well, simply because you are a born Hindu, in fact you are Meenaxi herself! My case is rather different. I have left the religion I was born into, but I have not felt the need to convert to another. I believe in God, and I am happy to just leave it at that. I do not feel the need to belong to a particular religion, although I would have been very happy to pay my respects to your Goddess Minakshi.”

“But the rule excluded only Muslims and Christians. As long as you are neither, how could they stop you from entering?”

“You saw how.” No further explanation was necessary.

When we spoke about that incident to our friends in the south, they did not seem surprised. This sort of intolerance and high-handedness was fast becoming a rule, rather than an exception, in Hindu temples. Temple priests were becoming more and more suspicious, fundamentalist and aggressive. Threats to temple purity, real, imagined or self-propagated, were regularly being fed to the public to make them more radical and thereby supportive of such intolerant and exclusionary temple policies. Many temples in fact had gone one step further and allowed only Hindus in, we were told. Forget about allowing non-Hindus, the day is not far off when even lower-caste Hindus will not be allowed into the temples in south India. Temples are fast becoming the exclusive domains of the high-caste Hindus. All politics in Tamilnadu is nothing but caste politics. Don’t you see now why the government had to call a bandh over the OBC reservation issue – it is the only way any government can survive here.

We heard all that and much more. I had not realised that so much had changed. Some of the stories we heard were terrifying – can so much happen in the name of religion, at this age and time, in a new progressive India? Don’t fool yourself, my friends told me, people might be earning more money here these days but their minds are getting smaller and shallower. And as far as the religious pandits are concerned, they are hell bent on ushering in the Dark Ages again. Just about everything is possible in this country – it’s not for nothing that they keep advertising ‘Incredible India’, be happy that you don’t live here, a friend added cynically.

I had not reckoned on that when I had decided to move to Germany a few years back. Although I had tried to keep track of the news, I could see that I was quite out of touch with recent developments (if they can be called that) in India. So what happened to us in Madurai came as a big shock, made worse by the realisation that it happened in South India – for I had long believed that sanity, reason and plain good common sense prevailed above everything else in the south! Silly romantic me! Just showed how little I knew of the ground reality.

Although the Madurai incident happened more than a month ago, I’ve still not been able to come to terms with it. How could they not allow me into my `own’ temple? And if they did, why did I allow it? Should I write to the temple authorities and demand an apology? Well, what good would that do? It would help to soothe my ruffled feelings but it would change nothing in this new aggressive face of Hinduism, of which that was only just an ugly but minor manifestation.

I have long wondered how so much intolerance, so much fundamentalism, verging on fanaticism, could have taken root within our great all-embracing all-inclusive religion? Is this unreasonable, prejudiced, blinkered and radical new face of Hinduism something that I can understand, accept, and be proud of? Today if there is anything I feel, it is not pride but shame, real shame.

There was another time about fifteen years ago, when I had felt the same sort of shame. The occasion was the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. The demolition was a disgrace to every Hindu. I felt very deeply ashamed, and was on the verge of an ideological collapse. I declared I wanted to have nothing to do with Hinduism any more. My father, who understood my inner crisis well, even sympathised with it, but who was a greater soul with a deeper sense of social responsibility, helped me to see sense by asking, “I can see you don’t like what is happening, but how do you think your leaving the fold will help to reverse that? If all right-thinking, liberal-minded Hindus like you decide to opt out of Hinduism now, do you think Hinduism will ever have a chance of regaining its former glorious image?”

I had listened to my father then. My father was wise, sane and sensible. But he had miscalculated the power and strength of the fundamentalist ideology. Today, almost fifteen years later, the situation has not improved, if anything it has become much worse -- the fundamentalist juggernaut has continued to roll, gaining strength, in the meantime. The fact that a vast majority of Hindus are actually moderates at heart has not made an iota of difference. It is the vocal aggressive minority who dictated terms. With the result that today that terrifying juggernaut has become completely unstoppable.

My father would not have stopped me from opting out today. He would possibly have also chosen to leave himself. This recent incident in Madurai might have meant nothing to that foul-mouthed priest who threw us out, but it certainly has sent me a very clear signal -- get out! And it is certainly much easily done this time. The last time I had wanted to opt out by myself. This time I don’t even have to bother with that since the high-priests of Hinduism themselves have declared me a `kafir’, they have stopped me from entering a temple, disowned me, made me an outcaste in my own home.

Strangely enough, I am beginning to feel that there could be some justification in that. After all, I don’t think I could be loyal to this new brash brand of Hinduism at all. This is not the religion I was born into. These are not the same class of priests as those who had blessed my parents when they had gone to Madurai just before my birth. This is not the great religion my father had wanted me to be a responsible member of. The voice of sanity, of reason, of tolerance has long been lost in the cacophony of aggression, of suspicion, of hate, of mistrust. What good is a religion if it cannot teach its followers anything positive? Why do we need to bother about religion if it cannot help us to realise that all human beings are equal? Why do we need priests who are so petty that they believe that shutting a door can keep God away from someone?

In fact I am relieved. That someone else has taken the decision for me. That I don’t need to feel guilty anymore about all the evil that goes on in the name of our religion. That I don’t need to feel responsible next time I hear or read of some Hindu vandals on the rampage. That I don’t need to feel disloyal each time I pass by a Hindu temple and do not enter. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with our gods, it is the priests and their associates that I do not want to have anything to do with. What Stephan had chosen to do in relation to his parent religion years ago I am choosing to do now, in relation to mine. And if he has managed to keep his faith and his basic humanity intact, without the intervention of priests, I trust so will I. After all, the non-violent and happy religion I grew up in is not dead, it still lives at least within me. That will keep me going.

There is one thing though, that has not been satisfactorily resolved by this deal. My name is still Meenaxi. I feel a bit uneasy about leaving my namesake Minakshi in the clutches of those hungry hounds posing as her keepers. If she is not careful, they will stop at nothing, not even from wolfing down her own flesh, to appease their appetites. “Dear Goddess, please, don’t let these monsters devour you. And do let me know when you are your own mistress again, so that I can come to see you. After all, we two don’t have any quarrels with each other, do we?”


Random Thoughts IV

The happy side of Guwahati

Written after a trip to Assam early in 2008

Not everything was so depressing in Guwahati this time -- some things also made me very happy. They mostly has to do with some people I met this time – for apart from meeting and rediscovering old friends, admired teachers, and respected elders, I also met some very pleasant and polite young people, who seemed to have the right ideas about what is good for them and for Assam.

One idea that seems to be taking root slowly but surely is the idea of the Jatiya Vidyalayas, of which there are already more than four hundred in the state. Having studied in an English medium school myself, and having grown old enough now to be able to look at both sides, I am convinced that the only way forward for the Assamese is for everyone to be really bilingual, which unfortunately my missionary school education did not make me: I can only haltingly read and even more haltingly write in Assamese, to my intense embarrassment. I have tried very hard to improve my Assamese over the years, but with age, that ability seems to diminish. So I was really thrilled that besides other very laudable aims, one of the basic aims of the Jatiya Vidyalayas is to make their students bilingual (in English and Assamese). Since children are our future, it is wonderful to see this movement gaining acceptance and recognition.

While on children, it was a great pleasure and privilege to visit ‘Arohan’ in the city. Built and run according to the plans and vision of our legendary Bhabendranath Saikia, it has to be seen to be believed – for success stories like this are rare. When we visited it on a Friday afternoon, the place was buzzing with happy activity. Children of various ages were busily engaged in various activities – singing, dancing, painting, reading,…; there was a smile on most faces. On my way back my thoughts went back to my own childhood when I had spent many happy hours in the Bal Bhawan in Delhi. There is a Bal Bhawan even in Guwahati, I know, but why then did we need Shri Saikia to make this effort? Maybe the sheer fact that institutions like Arohan have to be created through private enterprise is proof of the fact that public institutions, which already exist and are supposed to cater to the same needs, have totally failed to deliver. We had the good fortune of meeting Baidew, Mrs. Saikia, who seems to have made it her mission to convert her husband’s dream into reality. And judging by the happy faces around, she, assisted by her dedicated team, has already achieved it. Would it not be good if all the Bal Bhawans in the state are handed over to Mrs. Saikia? I am sure she would be able to convert them into many more happy Arohans in no time.

On the last evening before I left Guwahati came the final icing on the cake – the stage production of our best playwright Arun Sarma’s famous play ‘Nibaran Bhattacharyaa ahi ase” by noted stage personality Bahirul Islam and his very able drama school students. The entire production was truly spectacular in all aspects, the soulful music by Tarun Kalita was divine. This play has been done on stage many times, very successfully too, but the production by Islam was probably the one that did full justice to the thoughts behind the play – judging by the words Arun Sarma khura spoke at the end, maybe this enactment corresponded exactly to what he had always imagined it should be – the ultimate satisfaction for a playwright. I was in tears at the end, not just overwhelmed by the sheer beauty and artistry of the production, but by the sense of emptiness, hopelessness and despair that the play brought home. In the play Nibaran Bhatta let many birds of ideas fly away, claiming that by catching a bird, he killed it. But Nibaran Bhatta did not die in vain, like the haunting chants that spread out over the whole auditorium, Sarma khura’s idea-birds will live on and multiply; with his great performance, Islam, gave drama new life, by creating such beautiful music, Kalita invested the life with a soul. There are many lessons to be learnt from it, not just to dare to expose the shallowness of our pride and the meaninglessness of life itself but also to be able to create art and beauty even in the face of these undeniable, unalterable truths. And those dark mysterious melodious chants will haunt me till I return to Guwahati again.