Saturday, December 24, 2011

North East Chronicles - 1: Out of the camp, you are a tramp

Sometimes, a 6 hour journey shows what you would not see in a life time.  Life in its reality - staring at your face.  And through the entire experience, you feel chills down your spine, and remember the feeling for a long, long time.   The entire speciality is the simplicity of the entire episode.

It was to be one of my regular weekend trips to Guwahati from Numaligarh.   The AC coach bus - about a decade ago, this was a luxury - push back, high pedestal, air-brake fitted buses - white in color, would have been a shock and awe for the normal traveller with a colored mind.

Well, I missed the tryst with it by 5 minutes - the pick up and drop from the refinery to the rendezvous point ran late.   I curse myself.   Reason:  Heavy rains.

There was no bus till 9 pm;  and there was no way that I was going to go back - I missed two inbound pick-ups going towards the factory, so technically I had exhausted that choice.  With a wet jute back-pack and outfit, I hopped on to the first 'kataara' that came the way. 

The twilight came rather early.  It was cloudy, and the rains hit the tin exterior of the 'kataara'.   The noise grew and so did the chill.   The windows and the roof leaked, and  a distinct mumble came out of the occupants of the dingy tempo.   

A kataara- throws a different perspective
of life
I hugged my leather coat closely to feel warmer.  My next seat was unoccupied.   After an hour went by.  

We had reached Bokaghat.   Few vegetable vendors got in, carrying with them empty baskets, but the smell of the day's sale permeated the air.  

I was seated  just behind the driver.A tall dark man crept into the seat near me.  This caricature was more than 6 feet, lanky, dark.  He was wearing a white half-sleeve and khaki trousers, with slippers.   He was holding on to a khahi 'jolna bag' - the typical cloth one with a long shoulder handle.  He crouched in his seat, and swept of the clinging water in his eye brows.   Not to say, he was drenched wet.   The smell of sweat and fear hung around him.

The conductor did his rounds and this guy thrust a 50 Rs note.   The conductor pursed his lips and returned the note and asked for change.   I gave the guy 5 ten rupee notes, and he mumbled a 'thanks' with a heavy South Indian accent and paid the conductor and got the ticket.   He then thrust the wet crushed 50 Rs note to me.

This kataara was to end its 3 hour journey ( the air bus would have taken only 2 , sigh!) at Samaguri.  Before that we were to pass through Kaziranga national park.   This is a nearly 17 km journey amidst tall trees on a well laid 2 lane road.   On either side of Kaziranga, are tea estates.  The entire stretch including this is a 20+ km stretch.   Towards the end of this journey one would see the mighty Brahmaputra, the lifeline of Assam.   

Whatever was left of the light quickly disappeared, and it grew darker beneath the tall trees covering the tea plantations.   It would be dark till the first lights of the town of Bagon appeared.   The bus rocked and rolled in the darkness.   The smell of rain, sweat and vegetables throw a cocktail of emotions in the bus.   The air was getting nippier.

The guy should have felt real cold, he cringed in his seat and pulled the jolna bag closer to him.   He started dozing - probably tiredness, cold and hunger was putting him to sleep.  He rolled his head around.  At a sharp turn, he woke up with a start.   He was panting and sweating - even in that wet cold, his sweat was visible.   He was awake till we were to reach Samaguri.

The journey across was uneventful as we passed the towns of Jakhalabanda and Misa and the home stretch towards Samaguri appeared.  All along, people speaking in sweet Assamese would get in and get out.  Every time the kataara would stop, our hero would look nervously around and put his head down below his shoulders.

The kataara reached Samaguri Bus stand.  We switched to another bus - a Swaraj Mazda 15 seater.   The guy followed me, and again sat next to me.   This was the first time he spoke.  In Hindi, he asked - 'aap kahaan jaa rahe hai?'.  I told him, and asked him where he was going.  He said he had to go to the Guwahati Railway station. 

Then with his bag by his side ( he had taken the window seat), he went off to sleep.  He looked like a tired, lost man;  but sleep hugged him with a blanket of darkness.   He snored in a peaceful sleep - occasionally brushing off mosquitoes, and turning and tossing in his sleep.   I was awake and lost in thought.   The conductor came and went.  I paid for both, as I did not want him to get up.    The rain had stopped.  

This journey , 12 years ago,
showed that life is not a perfect dream...
 The Mazda stopped at each bus-stop regularly.     The driver was playing a mix of Bhupen Hazarika and other Assamese folk.  People came and went.   Coo-coo- that is how people speak in this part of Assam. They sing Assamese than they speak.   It sounds like that the language is made from the Bamboo trees.  More on that later. 

When we reached Jagi Road, our friend was up and looked much better.   We disembarked from the Swaraj Mazda.   The journey was relatively uneventful.

We enquired about the journey from Jagi Road to Dispur.   There was a cacophonous group ahead, and we understood that they were from the conductors and chaporans, who were asking every passer-by to board the bus on Guwahati.

Once we got our seats identified, we had a mutka of chai. Our fella started talking.   He seemed at ease now.    This gentleman was a cook in the Army. His name was Selvarajan and had moved into this detachement about 5-6 months ago.

He told that he was coming from Digboi.   There apparently was a small army detachement in that area.   The captain wanted to get back to Delhi along with his family.   He wanted to our cook-soldier to get tickets for his journey, and send this guy out.  

If you have to come out of an Army post or camp, then apparently you have to sign an undertaking of absence and reporting within a particular period.  This guy was on a week's off.  

Secondly, it seems that one should be completely debriefed, and stripped of all Army colors, badges and insignia.   Assam, those days was a hostile territory for outsiders.  The separatists were on the attack and run.   It was guerrilla war in some sense.   The Army would do search-and-destroy based on tip-offs, the separatists would use this to entice the small groups of soldiers into traps.    Considering this, the guy had to travel incognito.

The fear was that if detected, the locals would inform the separatists, and this guy would be arrested, tortured and even killed.    So keep a low profile, look the bit.   Mix with the crowd.  Then pray.

A soldier on the guard
- tough life, distant land, own country
 We boarded the bus to Dispur.  Again our cook-soldier's guard was up.  He seldom spoke.   It was getting dark and cold. 

I caught a small nap, only to be awakened by the holloring of the conductor - he called out 'Dispur'.   I got down.   I could not bid bye because the cook-soldier had gone into a deep snoring slumber.  

The bus left leaving me staring at shops closing down after the Friday business.   Only booze and chai shops were open.   Moments later,as I walked towards my friend's house,  a wave of emotions hit me.  

Imagine,  as part of the army detachement unit, with gun in his hand,  he was a proper soldier.   The uniform and gun gave him identity and security in a distant land.  

Now, he was out, on his own, without the uniform and gun, shivering in cold and fear, unsure of what would happen to him, till he finishes his mission - getting tickets for his superior's family. Out of his camp, he was a tramp, literally.

I dont know whether our cook-soldier succeeded in his mission or not.     But what I know is that,  a perfect life is a distant dream...

- The One

( Pics from the Internet)


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