The eucalyptuses swayed, embraced and kissed, and swayed away. The wind blew harder and they swayed again, this time embracing each other for a longer moment before they swayed apart. On the backyard, I stood amidst the bamboos and wilderness, withdrawn from the world, my eyes following the movements of the two eucalyptuses.

The wind had not blown so fiercely in the last two years. The scene outside was exhilarating. In fact, coming from a world where sounds of drilling machines, horns and loud stereos reign, I didn’t have any idea what it was to see and hear nature dancing to its own tunes. I came out of my room to feel the first drops of rain on my face, to inhale the scent of earth, to turn nostalgic.

“Laal? Where are you heading to in this storm?”

“To fetch the cows, they must be frightened. This time we are going to get a good harvest, though.” He went on, whistling.

Laal was the oldest man alive in the village, still hale and hearty in his mid-eighties. He often whistled while feeding or rearing his cattle. I caught the festive mood too; I brought my umbrella out and stepped on the first puddle, then the second, the third and marched ahead, splashing mud and singing to myself without any destination in mind. Yet, I knew I would struggle between my heart wanting to cut short in front of Deepti’s house and pay her a visit and my mind forcing me to shed off any hopes lingering at the back of it. I turned to take the outer road, the road which passed behind Deepti’s house and in front of the richer part of the village with wealthy settlers and a buzzing market area.

“Samiran, it seems you are enjoying the weather. What about a hot cup of tea?” Nirmaali offered, standing sheltered in the verandah of her house.

I halted at their entrance. “No thanks; some other day.”

“Out on business?” she asked again, smiling.

“Yes.” I lied and sauntered on.

I reached the abandoned rice mill from where the main road divided into the inner and outer road. I saw the eucalyptuses moving to and fro. Tall as they were, it was easy to notice them from any point in the village. Some used to say a young girl hanged herself from the large peepal tree behind the mill and her spirit roamed about.

A while later, I crossed the largest grocery shop in the village; it was owned by Dhanuaa, a short and stout man in his seventies. His son Mantu ran the business now. He was younger to me by a few years but he looked older and wiser; unlike me, he had stayed in this village since his birth.

“How is it going, Mantu?” I greeted him.

“Good! Good! Where are you heading to, Doctor?” Mantu asked, as he pushed a carton of uncle chip packets inside the shop.

“Nowhere in particular; just enjoying the weather.”

Thunder cracked again and the wind blew harder. Shivers ran along the exposed part of my hands. I bade him farewell and walked ahead. My heart thumped louder as I approached Deepti’s house. She always brought the worst out in me; at all times her eyes were aflame with an insufferable endurance and pain, often leaving me with questions and a desire to comfort her. More often than not I got caught looking at them when I thought they were looking somewhere else and then, either I was smiled at or questioned wordlessly.

Sometimes I longed to shake her brutally and make her talk. It was evident she was not dumb as the rest of the village believed; she just preferred being left alone. I couldn’t, however, ask her what was wrong as she always distanced herself from me whenever I happened to go closer. I was determined to stay away from her if that was what she wanted, but my intensions saw their course changing when I found her standing in the rain, looking up at the eucalyptuses; she stood in the rain transfixed, at some happy memory perhaps, abandoning herself to the past and heedless to the present.

“You’ll fall ill. Go inside and dry yourself.” I used all my strength to shout from the road, against the roars of the thunders. She paid no notice to me.

“Go inside. You will catch a cold.” I shouted again.

“Go inside. You will catch a cold.” A voice commanded.

I looked away from the eucalyptuses along the direction from where the voice echoed.

She looked away from the eucalyptuses along the direction from where my voice echoed.

“Look!  How they sway towards each other, embrace and kiss, move away and then embrace again. We are a witness to their love-making, aren’t we?” I said, pointing at the two large eucalyptus trees in my backyard.

“Look! How they sway towards each other, embrace and kiss, move away and then embrace again. We are a witness to their love-making, aren’t we?” she said, pointing at the two large eucalyptus trees in her backyard.

“You are talking?” I was taken aback. She sounded like a spirited teenager; her voice earnest and laden with innocence.

“Shh! Someone else might hear you. How can you speak such language aloud?” He was embarrassed.

Deepti stared at me with awe.

I laughed.

“Come here.” I was glad she commanded; she was always so aloof and emotionless that this was new: the ardour in her voice.

“It is nature’s way to convey us the meaning of love.” I said as I moved towards her, making my way through the wilderness. She took my umbrella and closed it as if she was used to doing it every day. Like a wife. Perhaps like a mother.

“I’ll get soaked.” I said but my mind was elsewhere. Sweat trickled down my spine along with the rain drops.

“It is a memory.” She replied, looking over my shoulders to the eucalyptuses which started to sway again. I moved closer. I could see the soft swell of her breasts through the wet white saadar.

Touching her cheeks softly, I asked, “Let me touch your soul.”

She looked up at me, the way a woman looked at a man, and pressing my palm to her cheek she said, “He was here too. We were witnesses to the love making of these two eucalyptuses thirty two years ago.”

“Like us?”

“Like us.”

“What did he say?”

“You find my words funny?”

“No one’s going to hear me here. Who are you?” I asked the stranger.

“I am nobody.” He replied, dispassionately.

“How can one be nobody? You don’t have a name?” I asked.

“I don’t.” He answered impatiently, as he retied a cloth on a small cut in the right leg.

“Why are you hiding here?”

The stranger didn’t reply. He didn’t feel answerable to me anymore, perhaps. I stood there looking at his profile as he kneeled on one leg and tied the cloth on the other. He looked almost like an army man, minus the uniform: brave, rough, and yet youthful. Breaking my reverie, he retorted at once-

“What do you know about love-making anyway?”

“I know. I am older than I look.”

“And you are?”

“Fourteen.”

He stared at me, disbelievingly.

“Don’t stare. My mother says it’s a bad habit.”

“Then your mother ought also to teach you it’s dangerous for a growing girl to roam alone in the woods.”

“Deepti! Deepti!” We heard my mother calling out my name from the platform of the water pump in our backyard.

“I have to leave.”

He nodded. “Don’t tell anyone I am hiding out here. Go and dry your hair. You’ll fall ill.”

“I won’t. I’ll bring you a gaamosaa when the rain stops so that you can dry your hair too.”

“Don’t bother. Just be quiet about my hideout.”

“If there’s a cloudburst, should I come looking for you in case you die?”

The stranger seemed as if he was having a hard time controlling his mirth. He just shook his head in answer to my question.

I left.

“You must go. I don’t care about my reputation, it was stained years ago, but you’ll have to uphold yours. I could have been your mother.” She pushed me away suddenly. Her reminder felt like a slap imprinted on my scruples. On the surface, I remained impassive.

“Do you want me to stay?” I asked her.

“No.”

“I’ll come tomorrow in the evening. Maybe you’ll treat me with a rice pancake?” I smiled and moved away.

 

***

 

 

It was a different era; an era of ferocious love and suffocating hatred. Anger was replaced by vengeance and guilty consciences sojourned. Kitchens sang of sobs and mejis burnt with blood, evening prayers were replaced by planning and midnights’ sleep by prosecution of those plans.

“Anju, it’s only a week left for Bihu. Shouldn’t we start practicing?” I asked.

“Amidst this tension? Are you nuts?”

We were busy peeling sugarcane as Madhu Kaai prepared the machine for extracting the juice from them. He intended to prepare jagerry for the festival.

“Celebration eases tension.”As I said, I stood up to fetch some more sugarcane.

“If you are so eager to celebrate despite the tension, then you better celebrate my marriage because I definitely won’t be able to. I haven’t even met the village-headman’s son once and now his family wants me as their daughter-in-law!” She pouted like a girl who has not been allowed to choose the candy of her choice.

Startled at the news, I turned and asked, “Your marriage?”

“Yes, my father fixed it yesterday.” Anju replied, still pouting; she didn’t appear very disappointed at the prospect though.

“Oh, it’s good news but sad as well; all the village’s girls are getting married at a rather young age and now you too…” It was disheartening for me; we had planned to attend college together.

“That’s our fate, Deepti. The sooner we get married the better. If only they would have let us choose our grooms…” She sighed.

She asked me to scoot over to get hold of some more sugarcane but her eyes fell on two armed men approaching us and she turned pale. I, on the other hand, turned pale because I saw the same stranger run and hide behind the machine inside the hay shelter.

“Have you girls seen any man running this way?” One of the two jawaans asked.

“No.” The other jawaan quirked an eyebrow at me; incidentally my reply was too quick to be above suspicion.

“And you?” He asked Anju.

“No.”

Anju’s plight must have saved us, for the jawaans turned on their heels and went away at that; she was thoroughly shaken by the unwarranted interrogation. Thankfully, they didn’t notice Madhu Kaai who was stirring the extracted juice in a large tumbler inside the shelter; they would have found the stranger otherwise, had they thought of looking inside.

I felt my breath return once they vanished in the bamboos at the end of the field. Panicked, Anju decided to leave; I stayed back saying that I would finish off the rest of the work alone. However, as soon as she was gone, I peeped behind the machine. There he lay, panting and huffing; his hair disheveled and eyes red.

“You are safe. They are gone.” I put a reassuring hand on his shoulder, noticing that his hands trembled as he wiped the sweat from his face with his shirt sleeve. I took my sweet time looking at his time-worn but handsome face as he tried to collect himself, his eyes closed, breathing deeply; he looked rather old for his age but he must have been around twenty-five, because four years ago he didn’t look over twenty. When he looked at me with his tired eyes, they didn’t bear any sign of recognition in them. After all, I wasn’t the same fourteen year old girl with her unkempt hair.

“I searched for you in the aftermath of the thunderstorm but you had left. Since you are alive, I assume you were not struck by a cloudburst.” I smiled and tried to lighten the moment.

His eyes widened, revealing sweet shock, as he whispered, “Deepti!”

My eyes widened too: I didn’t expect him to remember my name.

Risking our lives, I took him to our bamboo grove at the backyard, hiding and running through wild paths only I knew. Madhu Kaai was aware of our escape but he acted as if he saw nothing: during those years the villagers, in their own ways, were a part of the movement too. Once we reached the eucalyptuses, he closed his eyes and leaned against a trunk. Worn-out, I too leaned on the other.

He opened his eyes after a while and caught me looking at him.

“Thank you.”

“For what?”

“For showing me the paths that even the devil would think twice to cross.”

I laughed out loud. I wasn’t sure if he was sarcastic or complimentary but it made me laugh anyway.

“My pleasure.”

I brought him some water and leftovers from lunch. He asked me if I could look out for him as he slept. He hadn’t slept for a week. He slept on my lap and slept peacefully, under the eucalyptuses.

“You have been to so many places?” I asked him once he was awake and began to narrate his journeys across Assam.

Dusk was nearing and the birds were creating chaos in the grove.

“Hmm…Our motherland has a wonderful history. Someday, visit places like Xibaxaagar, Maajuli and Xadiyaa; behold the Xatras and Maidaams; take a dip in the river Brahmaputra. You’ll see a different world: a world you live in yet you don’t know. If our efforts work out and I live to see the day, I’ll take you on a trip.” He smiled.

“And will they? Will your efforts work out?”

The smile vanished from his eyes, shadowed by a grave concern and pain.

“I don’t know.” He sighed.

“Will it go futile- all this bloodshed and sacrifice?” I didn’t mean to probe more and hurt him because his eyes were expressive enough of his dislike for violence; we both knew the answer, yet I asked and he too answered-

“Something will come of it, I am sure. Perhaps the future generations will learn from our mistakes and try differently.”

“Or perhaps not. Perhaps, they won’t feel what you feel for your motherland because the concept of motherland itself will dissolve; after all, space is shrinking day by day and one won’t know one place from another: they will all look the same in the next twenty-thirty years. Perhaps, the future generations will happily allow outer interventions. Perhaps times will be such that they won’t care anymore.”

“I wouldn’t like to live in such times then.”

“Aren’t these times equally depressing? You are demanding people to lay down their life to save their land and their culture, yet the irony is that at this rate no one will survive to save them anyway. Cultures can be revived; lives once lost can’t be, isn’t it? Couldn’t we have waited to act in faith, patiently?”

“Deepti, you have grown very wise. You still instill hope in this miserable life of mine…”

Before he took my leave, he told me he would stay at Khagen Khuraa’s house from time to time and whenever he came, he would like me to feed him and while he slept, to look after him.

            Deepti’s mother died the evening I went to her house expecting a rice pancake. She let me hold her that day. When I entered the house, it was all in a bedlam of conflicting emotions: people ran about the house preparing for the rituals, some were drowned in nostalgia, others seemed relieved, but Deepti, seated quietly in one corner of the living room, had her eyes closed: as if she was meditating on some distant memory. When I drew near, I heard an elderly lady cursing Deepti for not crying; another was cursing her for her mother’s untimely suffering and death. I felt suffocated. I had to bite my tongue hard to check my anger. Deepti told me once that her reputation had already been stained; I didn’t know what she meant by that. I didn’t know most stories of the village but I knew that, for once, overlooking all disgrace in the situation, I must comfort her. I went to her, placed my hand tenderly on her shoulder and asked,

“When did this happen?”

“Today afternoon. Multiple organ failure, as you had predicted.” She looked at me as she replied. Her eyes bore no sign of painful loss or regrets: they were calm, calmer than before. Slowly, however, I found myself sinking in the pool of unshed tears which were not for others to see but me. I took her inside her room, excusing us for a quick medical inspection. Once inside, she sobbed in my arms. Weird, how emotions overrule circumstances. I couldn’t help the happiness I felt, while the occasion invited only grief. Deepti broke her reserve to show me that she needed me. We sat silently, holding each other’s hands for a few more minutes and then went out to participate in the rituals.

Later that night, I learnt some more about him.

 

 

***

 

My parents became more insistent on my getting married. According to them, Nirmaali and I suited each other very well; both of us having been educated in cities. I reckon that is not the only reason. It was convenient for both the families to form a strong alliance and retain their traditional standing in the village on the face of nouveau riche people threatening their long-established patronage in the community. I kept postponing my decision as I had no nerve to let my parents know of my intention to not marry her as yet. Apart from the time I spent with my patients, I found myself thinking more and more about Deepti and her past. I visited her again, after her mother’s Shraadha.

Seated on the primordial chair on her backyard, near the pump, Deepti was absorbed in the two eucalyptuses under which she broke the spell of reserve between us for the first time, two weeks ago. As dusk approached, so did her restlessness. A ball of wool tumbled over her lap and fell to the ground. I heard her swearing under her breath as she bent to pick it up.

“Whom are you knitting for?” I asked as I sneaked behind her quietly.

She started at my voice. “Ah! You gave me a fright! You are quite light on your feet, aren’t you? People say it’s a boon: to be able to move like a cat.”

I picked up the ball of wool for her. She took it from me and returned to her seat. I kneeled by her and asked-

“You didn’t answer me.”

“For you.”

“Oh! I am honored.” I did feel honored and loved.

“Should I feel honored?” He mocked.

“You don’t know the trouble I went through to bring you the snacks. Ma had preserved them for some guest who…”

He couldn’t wait for me to finish and taking the plate from my hand, he began devouring them hungrily. His cheeks had hollowed since the last time I met him and dark circles appeared under his eyes.

“Why don’t you surrender like the others?”

He didn’t answer me. From the firm set of his jaws, I discerned he was not in favour of opting out of the revolt.

“What’s the use of continuing when its futility is obvious?”

This time he leaned on one of the eucalyptuses’ trunk and pulled me to sit beside him.

“If I opt out of it now, will I surrender only the weapons? Will I not surrender my truth as well, and along with that my soul? What will be left to live for?”

“Is it even a truth if it cannot listen to times’ calling? Is it not just an absurd ideal? I know that you, for one, don’t anymore hold on to the idea of a sovereign nation…do you?” I knew he had come to acknowledge greater truths, for his eyes had acquired lately the hues of wiser realizations.

“No.”

“Why continue then?”

“I am not left with any way out, Deepti.” Sleeplessness, fatigue and insufficient food enfeebled him and this reflected in the despair in his words. He went on, “Either I die a martyr, who started this journey with pure intentions, still believing that if not sovereignty, at least the Center might allow us relative autonomy over administration: look at us as human beings as much in need of material prosperity and dignity as the rest of India, or else I surrender…” There was a small pause before he began again “but I would also like to surrender in a dignified manner, not out of fear of hunger and death, but out of respect for the Government. As of now, they have done nothing worth commanding respect, so I can’t think of surrendering.”

It was growing darker; the surrounding was as still as a dew pond. We heard someone sobbing by the river, at the end of the woods towards the north. The quiescence sent shivers through me because I felt it was the lull before a storm; a storm was in the horizon. Leaning side by side on the trunk, we both looked ahead, as we were drawn to a Naam at a distance. The music drifted through the air to our ears-

“Naajaanuhu aabaahana naajaanuhu bixorjana

Pujaa mantra naajaanu kinsita

Eteke parameshwara daaxa bhailu saranata

Muka hari xaadhibe usshita, Raam muka hari xaadhibe usshito”1

“There are many others like me, Deepti, who don’t have any option left but to continue. All of us were honest in the beginning; we wanted to serve our people because the government failed us. Gradually, duty was replaced by greed in some minds and by helplessness in the likes of us. This greed and helplessness culminated in inopportune and mindless violence. What began as a threat to the government, in a naïve notion that lives of people meant something to a governing body and to save lives they would accept our demands, turned to a real time business, a barter of threats for threats: life meant nothing for anyone; violence begot only violence. I wish each one of us will come to our senses and accept one day that duty is much more important than expectations; there’s only one way to be free and that is to gain knowledge and skills and work: work for the betterment of the society.”

“Yes, if we cannot supply productive labour, we have no right to demand fruits of others’ labour. We might not be equal in material wealth, but God has endowed everyone with their own strengths and if only we understood our worth, pursuing what others are endowed with would have never mattered to us. It’s the mediocrity of pursuit that leads people to unhappiness and violence.” I added.

“You are very wise for a seventeen year old, Deepti. You’ll choose well in your life. You might have your share of hardship but you’ll live for greater truths. Unfortunately, it’s too late for me to go back now; either I die of a bullet shot or of a guilty conscience. Instant death is always better, isn’t it?”

I felt a piercing sensation in my heart. I struggled between crying and raging but ended up scorning, even as my throat constricted and voice shook.

“Why don’t you just make yourself available near an army basement and ask one of them to shoot a bullet through your heart?”

“I want to see you grow up to a woman.” A ghost of a smile appeared on his face.

His sad smile haunted me for many months.

Snuggling up beside the earthen stove, I sipped the tea in silence and watched Deepti blow the flames with the hollow bamboo tube she had in her hand.

“Yesterday I delivered Pubali Bou’s baby.”

“Did you?” She said nonchalantly, without turning to look at me or showing any eagerness to enquire further.

“Yes. It’s a boy. The christening ceremony…” She abruptly left the kitchen, before I could complete, to collect the laundry from the backyard. I followed her. Sometimes she acted so strangely that I had a hard time comprehending where her string of thoughts ran. Gradually, though, another possibility dawned upon me and I followed her inside to find out.

“You were pregnant?” I asked from the doorway to her room.

She was busy folding the laundry and stacked them up on the clothe-stand.

“Were you?” I asked again, as I crossed the threshold and went to stand near her desk facing the window. I saw the eucalyptuses from where I stood, through the window.

Her silence was my answer.

Suddenly my eyes fell on the neat handwriting on the notebook left open on the desk. Fatefully, at that very moment, a gush of wind tossed the pages to the front page, revealing the words ‘Sesh-Prahar’.

“You write? This is your fiction?” I asked, flipping through the pages of the notebook.

“Sometimes.” She answered.

“Deepti, do I know you at all?”

 

***

 

“Deepti is a year older than Anju, yet it is Anju who got married and is now expecting.” Anju’s grandmother reminded my mother as she took some grounded mixture of betel nut and betel leaf into her mouth and tried to chew it with her toothless jaws. They were having their customary afternoon chat on our front porch.

“Yes Pehi, I am concerned for my Deepti. She is such a free spirit, I wonder if she will ever make a good-wife.”

“Then train her to be one. You are a mother of three girls.”

“There is another thought troubling me. Remember that fortune teller who came to our village last week? He said that one of my girls would have to face sorrows throughout her life. Now that Mun and Lata are married, I fear he was talking about Deepti.”

I was passing by them on my way to meet Anju and couldn’t control my urge to interfere in the elderly ladies’ conversation.“Maa, everybody has sorrows in their lives, married or unmarried. Despite being a literate woman, how can you believe in fortune tellers? If I remain unmarried, then I’ll have to accept my fate and so do you, and so does the village.”

“Issh…Issh…Issh! This girl has a big mouth.” Anju’s grandmother swallowed some more of that red grounded mixture, “The village shall despise you, if you continue this attitude, Deepti. No matter how time changes, being married or not married will always make a difference in a girl’s life.” She professed and left.

That day army raided the entire village and arrested many young and middle-aged men, including Anju’s husband. They abused the young women and girls and harassed the aged people in the households where a protest arose, refusing to hand over the male members. Khagen Khuraa was kicked and thrown on the ground for refusing to say anything related to the militant outfit. Arms and ammunitions were found and brought out from the warehouse inside the rice mill and the cattle-sheds in some households. They even searched in our backyard.

I saw Anju’s grandmother covering up for a young man who had taken refuge in their house for a few days. She was kicked on her chest by a jawaan. I could no more dislike that woman for lecturing me. That day everyone saw an intense loyalty and love in the eyes of the villagers for their fellow men. I didn’t realize at that time that things like loyalty and love are only time bound.

Worried about him, I kept looking at the wilderness behind the house, under the eucalyptuses, even at midnights. Days turned to years; there was no sign of him.

And then one day, vengeance turned to weariness, guilty consciences were back for killing innocents, kitchens again filled with laughter and gossip, evening prayers and mid-night sleep returned.

Militants surrendered. Those who were left in the outfit were scared to come out of their hide-outs. People had settled down. Schools were established and new roads were built. Markets grew in and around the village. Telephones and cable lines were made available. Bicycles were replaced by scooters and cars in some households.

I had earned my graduation from the regional college and established a tailoring workshop to mobilize the woman of the village to stand on their own feet. I also started welcoming proposals for marriage on my mother’s insistence but, hoping against hopes, I still waited for him.

One night, during the winter months of 1990, I heard a soft knock on my window-shield. It was a wild night with thunderstorm cracking and roaring and rains flooding the surroundings.

There was another knock.

Scared, I switched on the torch and turned it towards the window but I could see nothing except the darkness. Gathering my courage I opened the window. Although there was no one in sight, I sensed someone sitting below it. I heard sharp intakes of breath. I gathered some more guts and switched off the torch and as soon as it was switched off, I heard a familiar voice call me ‘Deepti’.

 

Fear, wonder, sorrow, excitement- myriad of emotions passed through me at that moment. Unable to hold on anymore to the suspense of the moment, I opened the front door and tip-toed to where he hid. He refused to come inside; I brought him anyway and locked the door to my room.

“I didn’t know the forests behind your house have been cleared.” He whispered while he sat down on my bed and ran a shaking hand through his hair. Though I couldn’t see his figure clearly, he appeared even thinner than when I saw him last: a glimpse I had when he came to fetch his belongings from Khagen Khuraa’s house one night; probably a year ago.

“You came on impulse?”

He nodded and leaned against the bedpost near my window.

“When did you have your food last?”

I didn’t wait for an answer because I knew he would have stopped me. I simply slipped away while he rested. By the time I came in with a plate of rice and vegetables, he had already lit a candle in the room.

“Are you out of your mind? If those bastards out there see the light, they wouldn’t wait for a second to enquire. Moreover, there’s a curfew.”

Disregarding what I was saying, he moved towards me; the candle flickered. Towering over me, he lifted my chin with his finger and looked into my eyes.

“Are you my Deepti?”

His emphasis on the ‘my’ left me all giddy and blissfully aware of my femininity.

I nodded. It was the first time I realized the meaning of being shy.

“I keep track of everyone in this village; everyone who had been loving and a loyal friend. Madhu Kaai died of TB. Dhanuaa married. Anju had a baby boy. Laal bought two more bulls…”

“And?”

“And eligible bachelors are eyeing my Deepti.”

“Your Deepti will never marry anyone else.” I confirmed.

I pulled his head tenderly towards me and placed a kiss on his forehead. Then I made him sit on the bed and fed him the food I had prepared for him.

The room was alit for a second by a lightning, followed by a terrible thunder. When its roar subsided, I heard a sob and a hiccup. He grabbed me by my saadar, pulled me to him and nestled his head on my bosom.

Sobs muffled in my bosom as I rocked him in my arms while somewhere not far away gun shots thudded and roared on Assam’s bosom, piercing through the silence of the night. Outside, the eucalyptuses swayed, to embrace and kiss each other.

“I never knew my life would turn out to be so filthy, so hopeless, Deepti…”

He told me how he came to join the outfit. He had earned his Master’s Degree in mathematics in Calcutta University and aspired to be a mathematician and a philosopher someday when, all of a sudden, his innocent younger brother lost his life in an encounter during Assam movement, his mother killed and his sister raped. He continued,“We are people of modest means, thrown at the mercy of the powerful ones but each of us will leave behind a story, Deepti; a story that will not lose its significance even if the outfit dies. I want a new era to begin. I don’t want the next generation to be a victim. Can you help me, my love?”

His ardent plea “Can you help me, my love?” kept ringing in my ears for a long time; years after his death.

“It’s still ringing.” She said, oblivious to her surroundings, oblivious to the fact that I was still present in the room.

“It’s getting late, Deepti.” I shook her arm slightly.

“When you call me Deepti, I forget my age. Don’t call me that.” She admonished me playfully.

“I’ll call you Deepti. Deepti, Deepti, Deepti.”

She thumped me hard on my back and burst out laughing.

Her first laughter: the sound of her laughter rang in my ears for days and it will keep ringing throughout my life.

 

***

 

“Etukuraa aalaxuaa megh bhaanhi jaai…

…moi aasu xaaradia khiriki mukhat,

bukuye bisaraa janaloi baat saai.”2

I often heard Deepti humming these lines from a poignant Assamese song and often I felt a tight knot in my chest knowing well she still longed to go to him. I wondered if I could ever experience what Deepti and he went through; I came to an understanding with him that I won’t ask for his Deepti but for my light, someone to show me what love’s strength entailed: in their story, in her ingenuous nature, in her care, I was slowly seeing my light; my truth. Soon, I thought to myself, soon I’ll be able to stand alone fearlessly to serve love.

“Those two eucalyptuses have witnessed many transformations.” Deepti said when I asked her why she kept looking at those two eucalyptuses.

We were sitting in her backyard.

“You mean besides your life?”

“And my death.”  I looked at her sharply as she paused.

“Yes, besides them.” She continued, “They were here when my mother first stepped into this house, when Nehru was promising socialism and secularism…”, I have never seen Deepti resort to cynicism and yet, at this moment, I definitely heard contempt in her voice- “when these people you know- Laal, Khagen Khuraa, Anju’s grandmother- were looking forward to new openings and opportunities the newly independent India was offering. They were here when our lands were confiscated by outsiders and our jobs given away to migrants. They witnessed the euphoria of independence being replaced by demand for a sovereign Assam: the people who, at first, lived with their hearts in their mouths, intimidated by the injustice done to them, gathered the courage to sacrifice their lives and loved ones for an ounce of justice and fair share. They were here when the Brahmaputra and its tributaries carried blood instead of water.” She paused again and took a deep breath. “They were also present when the community Naam-ghar was set up seventy years ago, when the villagers feasted together on Urukaa and watched Bhaaunaa till mid-night, when everyone cried after a daughter of the village was married away…” I understood she was carried away by her past; her voice grew more distressed with each word. I let the silence be whenever she stopped midst her memories. “…they were here when the same people betrayed their brothers and sons, gave them away, let them be killed. I think they will still be here when the past will be nothing but a fable for the future generations.”

“Why don’t you leave the past behind Deepti?”

“You tell me, how can I leave the past behind?”

Operation Bajrang had been successful to a startling extent in eliminating any signs of protest lingering in the state. The people had again shut themselves up in the cocoon of dread and dismay; they lived, or rather, tried to live like everything was normal.

Nothing was normal though. And I felt that nothing shall ever be normal. Outside Assam, Assam would be known as a land of insurgents and terrorists, of forests and wilderness, of stupidity and profanity. She would be left isolated and ignored; worse, she would be robbed of her culture, her beauty. Within Assam, she would be thought of as worthless.

Who would know her worth?

“Remember, besides the strong rulers, a great intellectual like Xankardev was also born here; Xankardev: the epitome of non-violence and peaceful tolerance. I am sure that Assam will give birth to a number of people who will love her beyond time, without using violence as a mode to seek justice. I…I…” He paused halfway to cup my wet cheeks in his palms.  From his anxiety and distress, I knew he had come to bid his final good-bye.

 “I wish you get a man who would know your true worth.” He paused and said, “The trunk full of books I left in your room last time, it’s mine. Those books are a part of my life and so they are meant to be yours.”

Then he held me closer to his heart in a tight hug as if he would never let me go, never let us part. We stood holding each other for a long time. I wept in silence.

“Those are rare books, use them, enhance your knowledge, and pass it on to your children.”

“Our child.” I whispered against his chest.

He slightly nudged me away to look at me.

“I am with your child.”

“Honestly?”

The boyishness he had lost years ago, sparked with alluring intensity on his face, in his voice. I smiled amidst my tears and nodded.

The eucalyptuses witnessed our joy, the promises we made unspoken.

The eucalyptuses also witnessed my stomach being kicked thrice, my saadar being torn to pieces, tooth marks being placed on my belly, my sanctity being snatched away and our child being washed away with my blood.

The eucalyptuses even witnessed his anger, his efforts to save me from the two jawaans and finally a bullet entering his body and him, relapsing on the ground slowly, clutching at his heart and crying.

He died in front of my eyes, on my lap, under the eucalyptuses; he died not because of a cloudburst but because of a bullet. An instant death he wanted, and an instant death it was.

I sat paralyzed. They were caught by a search party which was informed by some villagers. One among them was Anju’s husband; another Dhanuaa.

I tried not to be critical, but I couldn’t bear to see the pain in Deepti’s eyes.

“Let’s leave this time-bound life, Deepti.”

“And go where?”

“To timelessness?”

She smiled a sad smile.

“What about your marriage to Nirmaali?”

 

 

                                    

*END*

 

 

Glossary

 

Bajrang:  A military operation carried out to eliminate the separatism movement in Assam.

 

Bhaaunaa: One-act religious plays where instances from the Hindu scripture, Bhagawad Gita, are acted out.

 

Bihu: The main festival of Assamese people. It is celebrated thrice a year and is basically associated with harvests.

 

Bou: Assamese term used for addressing the wife of an elder brother, someone equivalent to an elder brother in relation or a friend; in some parts of Assam, during old times, it was also used to address the mother.

 

Gaamosaa: A towel woven by the Assamese women for the purposes of gifting it to the beloved and relatives, and for daily usage.

 

Jawaan: A military man of India

 

Kaai: Assamese term used to address people considered equivalent to an elder brother. It is the short form of the longer term, Ko-kai-deu, which is used for one’s own elder brother.

 

Khuraa: Assamese term used to address the younger brother of the father or someone considered equivalent to a paternal uncle.

 

Maidaam: The tombs of the Ahom rulers in Assam

 

Meji: Large mound of hay stacked in a pyramidal shape and burnt on the eve of Maagha Bihu (during mid January), to celebrate the end of harvests and to get the blessings of Fire God (Agni).

 

Naam: Assamese prayers sang along with the music of Assamese instruments during evenings in prayer halls.

 

Naam-ghar: Assamese prayer-halls

 

Pehi: Assamese term used to address the sister of a father, or someone considered equivalent in relation.

 

Saadar: The upper portion of the traditional Assamese attire called Mekhelaa-Saadar. While the lower portion ‘Mekhelaa’ is wrapped around the waist, covering the legs till the ankle, the Saadar is wrapped around a short thin blouse and the Mekhelaa.

 

Sesh-Prahar: Those moments when the night is at about to end and the dawn is about to begin.

 

Shraadha: The funeral feast of the Assamese people. It is either celebrated on the 11th, 12th or 13th day from the day the person expires.

 

Urukaa: The eve of Bihu

 

Xatra:  Hindu religious institutional centers in Assam resembling those of Buddhist monasteries to a large extent.

 

 

Notes

  1. Translated as- “I don’t know how to call you or how to surrender myself to you. I don’t know any hymns and praises to worship you. Therefore, God, I become your slave willingly. Do whatever you think I deserve, God; give me whatever I deserve.”
  2. A Bhupen Hazarika song, translated as: “A piece of delicate cloud floats along…I am standing in front of the heavenly window, waiting for the one my heart longs for.”