Wednesday, January 11, 2012

North East Chronicles -2 : The Barrel Bravado

( Continued from NE Chronicles 1... )

36 seater Volvo - a white knife
cutting through the darkness
This time, I could catch the regular AC bus from Numaligarh to Guwahati.  The bus was awesome.  A 36 seater, on high pedestal;   power steering,  hydraulic brakes, white mammoth - which could negotiate the surprisingly smooth curves of the NH36 highway.   How would one miss this white fairy?   Smooth ride till the city - like a white knife cutting through darkness.  And for me, away from the dusty, bustling streets of Kolkata, it was the ultimate chariot of peace.

Surojit- a reluntant Bengali from Kolkata, who was travelling on our behest, was responsible for the testing activity.   Utpal - a non-chalant individual who also carried an air of authority, and I were the other protagonists of this interesting episode.

We had to return to Guwahati after having a tough day with an unusually testy client.   We had to go through a series of gate pass clearances as we were bringing a fiber optic kit  ( FOK) to our office in Guwahati. 

A fiber optic kit ( FOK)- some nervy
moments with it
This FOK is used to test continuity in fiber optic cables and also measure cable lengths. It looks like a heavy suit-case.  For the layman, it looks like a garage on the move.

We somehow got rid of the pesky staff and security to reach the 'mod' (junction) on time.  The tired-three let out a collective sigh of relief when we saw the bus arrive.  About 5 people, including us got in.  We put our bags inside the underbelly of the bus and shoved the FOK into the luggage compartment above our heads.

The next three hours were uneventful.  We slept like logs.  I could remember only darkness and chill.  After sometime, I could hear the thud of the rain drops hitting the bus' steel body.   The frontscreen wiper was working overtime to keep the sheets of rain away. 

Silence, otherwise. Mosquitoes.  Occasional snore, mumble, slap for the mosquit.

We all woke up to a sudden commotion.  The bus came to a grinding halt.   A flurry of activity started in the front.   Sleepy eyed, we yawned and cursed the crew of the bus being so noisy.  

The lights went on suddenly.   Three olive-green clad men got into the bus.   Covered head to toe in army shades, dripping water.  Two of them were carrying LMG's, and one had a flash torch with a long handle.   One guy covered the right side passengers and another the ones on the left side.   The third one, with the flash torch stood at the entrance.

They would ask each guy ' thera naam kya hai?'( 'what is your name?'), 'kidhar jaa rahaa hai?', ('where are you going?').  They were rude and uncouth.  Threatening sometimes.   Both were clearly nervous and shuffling the coat-flaps.  Very often they would also sling and unsling the LMG from one shoulder to another.

They asked couple of them - natives to get down to open their travel bags and suit cases.  We suddenly were uncomfortable.  Rudely pulled out of our cozy naps, in the chill wet weather, we were worried about the FOK.   The FOK was actually a suit case with thick plastic cover, that too yellow in color.  It should attract unwarranted attention! 

Army check:   Barrel Bravado
 We nervously glanced at each other, but pretended to be calm.   Curiously the soldier by-passed Surojit.  He was a puny guy - about 5 feet tall and looked pathetic.   Somehow, when he blootered out his name like a drunk -  'Surojit Roy' with a strong Bong accent and evaded interest.

My turn came.  Same questions. 

Soldier: 'Kya naam hai?' ( what's the name).  
I: 'Ashok'.
Soldier:  'Poora naam bhathaa?  Bhol!' 'Tell your full name, tell!'
I: Ashok Subramanian

He turned his back on me, and said 'saala madrasi hai' ( 'he is a Madras guy').  A chill crept into my spine, as the metal tip of the barrel touched my skin.   For me, this was a first time- I mean, touching a gun.

The soldier moved towards Utpal - Utpal was seated behind me.  

Same questions.   First name, second name.   Utpal answered 'Hazarika'.  Then the FOK caught his eye.   Our heart sank and pulse raced - faster than light could travel.  

Banging the lid of the FOK with his right, wet palm he popped questions which seem to come in fits and starts -  ' yeh kya cheez hai?'   'kya maal hai'? ('what is the thing? the thing?') The guy was becoming increasingly nervous.  

Utpal replied with a slight smile - 'apna ganji jangiya hai, sir'. ( My inner garments, sir)  The soldier took his right palm from the FOK and slapped Utpal on his face.  Utpal was rattled, and was bleeding from a cut lip.  

Suddenly, the soldier with the flash torch, guarding the entrance got off and asked these two soldiers to get off - 'yoh, chal, all clear hai' ( Guys, let's move, everything is clear).  

The gypsy carrying them disappeared in the dark.   Utpal got his face cleaned with some water.   All of us, were s#!t scared.   Nobody spoke.  The bus tentatively moved towards Jagi Road.

Next day morning, we got news that there was a shoot-out between the separatists and the Army in the nearby forests and the soldiers were checking passenger vehicles to trap possible fugitives.  

At our office, the FOK lay peacefully, unaware of the nervous moments its carriers had to go through.  Utpal took the day off.  Surojit slept through the day and I was busy meeting few of my friends.

That evening, as I was travelling towards the Guwahati Airport along with Surojit,  a sudden sense of reality dawned.  

In a group, with a gun in hand, the typical soldier feels safe.  The fear of the unknown, and the unexpected in a distant land, albeit being the same country, overwhelms the soldier every minute of the day.   When alone, and out of the camp, the soldier is literally a tramp.  

The myth about fighting for the country, patriotism et al are sold to the typical citizen who watches these soldiers in TV programmes from the distance and safety of his/her drawing room.  In reality, it is the primal need that is at work.  

All the bravado we see is because the barrel is on your side.  Fear, hunger, sleep, shelter and safety.  That is what you fight for or against.  Nobody knows it better than the soldier in the front.  

-The One

( Pics Courtesy the Internet)


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