Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Mumbai Mumbles: Heir of the Hair Raiser - 2

( contd from the first part )

That day...

Naser came running towards the idling Chota and Munna.  He was panting, sweating and his eyes were gleaming with tears.   He blurted out, while catching his breath, in choking voice - 'Chota, Munna - apna bhabha mar gaye' (' Father is dead').

The whole world crumbled in front of their eyes.   Holding their hands for support, Chota and Munna, followed by Naser,  rushed towards Aawaara Chacha's house.

There, their father -their everything, lay silent and motionless. His white stubble was still alive - his hands that held the scissors for more than half a century, lay still.   The photo of their family lay by his side. 

It was probably a heart attack.   Nobody would know.   There was no one around.   Naser had come in to do his routine of cleaning up the hair left overs, but it was clean that morning.   He had sensed something unusual, and walked towards the dark corner.  There, he had found his chacha, immobile.


The house was empty
 post father's death
The next few days passed quickly.  The neighbors and customers showed their glum faces, mumbled their condolences and disappeared.   Then the numbers dwindled, and nobody came.   Only the two rickety chairs, the antique barber kit and the photo remained.

For the trio, the entire episode sounded distant and incredulous.   Somebody fed them during those first few days.  Now, suddenly, it was all memory.   They were on their own, like a yacht in the high seas, adrift with broken sail and no rudders.

Suddenly, only hunger and panic were their companions.   How would they survive?  Doubts spread like cobwebs in their minds. 

The mind is a peculiar animal.  It is emotional and it is otherwise.   It can panic and it can think.  A zillion thoughts like floated the human sperms.  Countless, but only one would connect with the ovary.  And an action child would be born.  Chota's mind - idle, but fertile, was abuzz with sprouting thoughts.

I was confused and confounded.  I lost everything again.  The whole world was spinning like a timeless top.  My brother would do if something had to be done.  He has never tried to do something on his own.  Naser is an innocuous creature.  He has been so attached to my father, that he has lost his bearings after my father's death. 

We needed money.  Initially, we searched in our father's pockets.  After couple of days of guilt, hunger took center stage.  We rummaged all his clothes, his barber kit, his small box of collections - we found some coins and rupees - we were so delighted to see 6 hundred rupee notes.   The first night, we bought a full dharu bothel ( liquor bottle) and rationed the rest of the money.  We spent some on food. 

Both Naser and Munna wanted to watch Sallubhai's super-duper hit - the Bodyguard.   What a movie it was!   We love Sallubhai all the way!   And that night we bathed in dharu.   We floated and danced along side Sallubhai, chasing all the maidens of Bollywood.   Time came to a stand still and slowly darkness engulfed.


Billu Barber gave hope and the IDEA...
The next day morning,  I was walking along the nukkad, looking for some work - first time in my life.

Personally, I like SRK a lot.  Why?  He came to Delhi and made it big here.  

The chaiwala (tea-maker) sneered and offered my regular quota of cutting (half glass of tea).   I was listening to the song that burst out of the chaiwala's radio. 

...subah ke khawab se udai hai palkon ke neeche chupai hai
mano na mano tum sote sote khawabon mein bhi khawab dikhati hai
mano na mano tum pari hai woh pari ki kahaniyan sunati hai...

(...The morning dreams are hidden behind the eyelids.   Whether you agree or not, while sleeping, there are dreams within dreams, and there are angels, and those angels tell stories about angels...).

The song ended, but my mind stayed - first on the song, then on SRK and Irfan, and then  ... the Billu Barber and his red color barber shop.   Suddenly, it came in a flash.  

Chota ran back to the house, leaving the cutting unfinished.  It all came together.

The tall buildings.  Rich men's hair.   The rickety chairs.   The barber kit.  Munna and Naser.   Customer - infrastructure- tools - labor, all are there.  So?!!!

His business was born.   All they had to was find a place near the nukkad

His hungry friends reluntantly seemed to understand.  They had nothing to lose anyways.  All work was Chota's - the lazy Munna and clueless Naser would just do what Chota said.

They had about 200 Rs in hand.   They went to find a place.  Not far from the Nukkad, Aslam Bhai was looking for somebody to use his dilapidated book stall.   They thrust the 200 Rs in the hands of Aslam Bhai and sold the idea of a salon to him.   Aslam Bhai, a 60 year old veteran, knew Chota's father - if he could help the children, he would.   He happily agreed. 

Now they had to decide a name ...

( to be continued)

- The One

Pics courtesy Internet

Monday, February 27, 2012

Mumbai Mumbles : Heir of the Hair Raiser - 1

How many autos would have gone by?  How many people would have boarded them?   How many cars would have crossed the circle?   The nukkad-wallah chai shop minted money because of them.  Endless Goldflake lights and cutting.   The guys - Munna, Chota and Naser would spend endless days like this.  

We left the dusty roads of Latur 20 years back, when the earth-quake struck havoc into our lives.  

I used to spend a lot of time in my father's salon.  He had two rickety chairs - from the sarpanch to the chaprasi, all visited him.   Everybody would pour their woes to him, and he invariably be the news-courier.  
That day in 1993 - the quake
destroyed my family

Young and old would flock to hear cricket commentary in the salon's radio.  The teen's would pop in suddenly to comb their hair and adjust their dress to impress the double-pig-tailed-gals who would leave the nearby school at 3 pm.

Life was a stand still - everyday would be the same- until the morning of September 30,1993.   That morning, when we were asleep, everything was destroyed - my house, my family - everything.  My young sister and mom were buried under the roof - they were sleeping inside the house.  My elder brother and I survived.  My father's leg was amputated in the nearby hospital.    We all used to sleep outside the house.

My neighbour's family completed went under the ruins.  Their bodies were discovered 3 days later by a gora saheb.   Only my friend survived.   We all had slept outside the house that early morning. 

The sarkar saheb's came and went.  Promises were made, but finally, my father ignored them, and decided to move with his antique barber set and some clothes.  He wanted to forget the tragedy, but he always carried the photo of our family in his box - it had all of us smiling.  My elder brother, my mom, my sister, my father and me ...

He dragged us - a reluctant bunch of 3 kids to Mumbai. After three days of journey on foot, bus and passenger trains, we reached Aawaara Chacha's place Damu Nagar Basti

My chacha still has a large chawl there.  He is very old and can't see, but he left Latur and settle in this place almost 30 years ago - all against my grandfather's wishes. 

My father started a small salon in the corner of Aawaraa chacha's house.  Now he had two chairs and about 20 customers - regulars - both working and the lazy.

The endless vigil of the nukkad continued
We all became very close  - my elder brother Munna, my neighbourhood friend Naser and I.  The shock of the loss of our families left us together - in this unknown city.  We now eat, sleep and spend our time under the same roof. 

My father called us to clean the hair left overs at the end of the day like everyday.   We would use the old broom and the plastic bucket to remove the hair pile and return to the nukkad.  

Another cutting, and another lights.   The song chikni chameli still played in my ears from my new Nokia phone.  Munna yawned and Naser went to get some vada-pav. 

Then our eternal vigil of the mundane would start.

For Chota and gang,  things were so easy.  Occasional chore and the endless vigil.   The chaiwala chuckled at these furniture in front of his shop.  Almost 15 years had passed -  large buildings had sprung up in the neighbourhood, an air conditioned school and two malls had appeare from nowhere - but for the three young men the eternal time pass continued. Till that day - ...

( To be continued)

-The One

Pics courtesy The One and Internet

Friday, February 24, 2012

Mumbai Mumbles : Cops love Gandhi?!!

This Monday was going to be a long day.   From Thane in the north of Mumbai, to Lower Parel in the south and back to Kandivili, it was one heck of a drive - almost 100 Km!  

Morning:  I hopped on to my friend's car for the drive along the Eastern Express Highway.  We reached the Dadar-Lower Parel signal,  we were to go straight, but instead ended up in the lane that turned right.   The lane was empty.  So we waved at the cop, who did not allow us to move to the left.  

Incident 1: Cop took
money and did not pay
Few seconds later, we moved ahead and around with the left indicator on.   A senior cop appeared and said that we had violated the traffic rule for lane-cutting.   We were asked to park aside.   The cop asked for the original license.  My friend had only a photocopy.   The cop asked us to pay 100 Rs for not carrying original license, and another 100 for lane cutting. 

We paid in cash and asked for receipt.  The officer was baffled.  He told that the officer had gone to the other side of the traffic signal and he had the receipt book.  We said we will wait.  He became fidgety and said that it would take more time.  We retorted that we will wait for the receipt.  About 10 minutes passed. He become increasingly nervous and returned the photocopy and the 200 Rs back.  We smiled and left.

Clearly he was banking on us to move on, but blinked when we stood our ground.  More than the traffic violation, the soft trick of the cop stayed in my mind. 

Incident 2: The driver flung a
10 Rs note at the cop
Evening: The second incident, happened late in the evening.   We were driving back to Kandivili via Ghodbunder road.  At the naka ( junction),  there was a traffic pile up.   The reason was that cop had done a naka bandi ( stop-and-check).   Most of the vehicles were on hi-beam. 

One of the cops from the sideline tried to stop a lorry.  The muddy-shabby looking lorry slightly increased speed as the cop approached.   And suddenly a 10 Rs leaf appeared in the air - swirling in the air towards the ground.   The cop tried to catch it, but a whiff of wind blew it away from him.   He desparately tried to get hold of the floating note and in the process came right in front of my car.  

With the hi-beam on, it was a pathetic sight.   The cop took about 30 seconds to bring the 10 Rs note under his control.  He was flailing his arms desperately to get hold of it and trying to hold back the traffic.  

My heart sank.   If at all, there was some feeling, it was anger against the impunity of the lorry-driver who flung his bribe, but slowly it turned into a sickening feeling churning the underbelly.

Why are cops so desperate in pocketing money?   I have seen other instances of thrust-and-pocket operations between errant drivers and cops.

Ideally, the traffic cop's job is to uphold traffic and civic sense among people.  But in reality, out there on these streets - standing the pollution, managing unobliging public, being paid low - the traffic cop clearly has one of the most hazardous, hostile and hapless jobs on earth.   They have collection targets and are the Munnabhai's for their superiors.  

So, between the idealism and reality, are they right, for developing a soft love for Gandhi - who smiles from the 10 and 100 Rs notes?  How do I explain this to my kid, who saw all the action during that evening? 

I just told my kid - 'Cops love Gandhi'.  He smiled, but not sure, if he understood it.

-The One

( Pics Courtesy Internet)

Disclaimer: These are real life incidents.   This is no attempt to demean the cop fraternity.   The One salutes the bravehearts who weather the tough climate,public and make our road-life better in all ways possible.

Monday, February 20, 2012

North East Chronicles 7- The love bug and the moon-lit elephant ...

It was the Year 2000.   The year of the computer catastrophe.   The world was watching the possible armagaddon with bated breath.  But, life to him was suddenly bright and green, especially after the tumultous 1999.   The hapless yacht of his life had lost its sail, oar and the anchor.

The year end of 1998 had delivered a Richter 9.0 tumblor - his heart had broken into thousand pieces.  Life and work had become meaningless.  He got a below-performance rating, for the first time in 5 years.

Then, Assam beckoned.  This time to complete unfinished business - the project had to be signed-off.   Somehow, somehow, he had scrambled into that flight to Guwahati and finally reached Numaligarh.  There he would spend the entire year rebuilding his mind-machinery from the left over debri of 1998.   His parents decided to re-engineer his life.

On that Valentine's day, only coincidentally though, the die-hard romantic got engaged.   Was he happy?  Not sure.  More so, he was confused.   Vacillating between the first love and the fiance', his mood moods switched between bursts of ecstasy, confusion and despair.  

The marriage was to be 5 months later, in South India.   He would leave Assam for good after this business.   He had got his transfer orders ready.  His thoughts about the future was blank.  His job, though, right now, was to finish and collect the outstanding payment - a large value, that.

Slowly, slowly the love bug started biting him, yet again - only this time, it was his fiance'.  The purse would be opened - a glance at the picture of her, and again he would be hit by a zillion emotional pins.  He would want to talk to her about it, for a long time. 

The phone booth was yellow in color.   The glass was polished and painted in black - ISD- PCO-FAX -XEROX.   The kid at the PCO would disappear every now and then, and come back with something to eat.   Occasionally there would be commotion - but the lady from the closed door behind the phone booth would admonish the kids to be silent.   The place was kept clean.   This was serious business for the phone booth waali.
He would spend
long hours talking to her

The phone booth was more than 3 kilometers away from the township.   The workers and vendor-officials would have to walk the distance to make phone calls.   There would be a queue of atleast 4-5 people till 11 pm, when the lady would chase away the eager customers still wanting to talk to the person on the other side.  

The curse of waiting long would be the dreaded walk back to the township.   There were two major threats.   One was a pack of barking mongrels - with luminous eyes against the pitch black darkness and the other was a type of huge beetle, the size of a cricket ball.  

The dread was compounded by some recent incidents - couple of eager-beavers were chased down and biten by a pack of dogs (nobody was a witness).  And recently, there were skin lacerations from some unknown insect.   The fear spread like fire. 
Love bug made him
immune to fear

The dogs and the bugs did not stop him.  After all, he was bitten by the love-bug, wasn't he?   He would get there just after an early dinner and would speak for about an hour  - that would be eternity - for him, her and the increasingly impatient people behind the line.  They would curse him and cajole him to get their ears and mouth to the talking device.  

That day was an exception.   They had returned late to their rooms.  There was no food.  So the rice had to be boiled and the potato had to be mashed and fried.   That took time.  He ate impatiently, put the plate and the dishes unwashed and rushed towards the phone booth.  

The sky was lit with the full moon.   The air was fresh and tingling against his skin.   But he had no time to enjoy  - he had to get to the phone.
It was a moon lit night

She was waiting for him, patiently.  Nobody would lift the phone, but she.   Today, the phone did not ring, yet.  

He  had somehow managed to rush inside before the phone booth waali - decided to shut shop.  Some cajoling, and she allowed him to start - but admonished him that he had only 5 minutes.  He said, he would take only few seconds, just wanted to say hello and hear her light voice.

The phone rang, finally.  She picked up and went straight into demanding an explanation for the delay.   The voice on the other side was impatient but eager to explain.  She could hear the heavy, short breaths and the muffled, angry voice of the impatient phone booth waali

After some incoherent explanations, he said he would call her again.  He put the phone down quickly and reluctantly.   He paid the bill in cash and left the phone booth.  Atleast he could hear her voice today - even if it was angry.

The phone booth was shut and lights went off quickly, in no time.   He walked now, slowly. The air was still fresh, young and tingling.  The moon played consort to the wind.   The trees, resembling dark curtains, swayed gently in the breeze.  

He could see the lights of the township at the distance.  The refinery chimney was spewing fresh white smoke and the amber neon lamps lit the refinery -  it was surreal.  All was quiet.  He was already thinking about sleeping. 

It was 9 foot mass - moving towards him
There was a sudden movement.  At the corner of his left eye, he saw the tree quickly swaying faster and then snap.   A 9 foot black mass was rolling on to him, like an army tank.   There was a distinct rumble, sending shivers down his spine.

He froze.  Dark, silent and swift.  The thoughts about fiance' and the sleep vaporized swiftly.   It was here and now.  

He quickly moved behind a tree and hid.   He was counting his stars, literally.  The black mass seemed to move in his direction for a second, and in another, changed direction and went into the paddy fields on the other side of the road.

He took a deep sigh and thanked his stars.   He kept mumbling to himself that he was fine.  

His heart was pounding unevenly like a machine gun fire.  The skin was wet with sweat - and he was full of fear and relief.   He moved at a fast pace towards his guest house, and drank loads of water.

Later that night, he walked up to the window and his eyes took into the surreality again - the trees were still swaying to the wind,  the chimney was still spewing white smoke, and the neon lights in the refinery glowed amber.   Nothing seemed to have changed.   Nothing.

- The One

( Pics courtesy Internet)

PS - I learnt that Elephants are a common occurrence in these parts and what I did, was right.   Elephants can't see in darkness.   One had to just stand still, preferably hidden in darkness, to escape the mammoth's eyes.


Sunday, February 19, 2012

North East Chronicles 6: Camp Lakwa: Part B: Ahoms - the makers of Assam

( This second part is the final article from Camp Lakwa, Sibsagar - this piece attempts to draw interest of readers to the hidden legacy of the Ahoms.   The first part had touched upon the pre-Ahom era, ie the Kamrupa Kingdom).

The Ahom empire defines the pivotal period of Assamese history.   Till the middle of the 19th Century, until British annexed Assam as the north-east frontier, the story of this 600-year reign is about a chronicle of alliances, valor, deceit, friendship and travesty.
The kingdoms of Assam

The Ahoms called their kingdom Mong Dun Shun Kham, (Assamese: xunor-xophura; English: casket of gold) while others called it Assam. 

The kingdom was founded by a Tai ( a Burmese-Chinese sect, emerging from the present Myanmar and Yunnan Province of China) - the Sukhaphaa did not fight, but established himself in an uninhabited area, and became friends with the local tribes.   The capital Charaideo, which is in Sibsagar, is being pushed by the local youth as a heritage site under Unesco.

There was a constant push for expansion by the subsequent kings towards north, south and west along the Brahmaputra valley.  In the changing demography, some of the tribes such as Barahis, Marans and some Nagas got converted into Ahoms .   However, the expansion was so fast, that Ahoms became a minority in their own empire.  The result was a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural empire.

During the rule of the Suhungmung in the 1500's,  the Ahom king assumed a Hindu name - Swarganarayan.   He defended the kingdom against the first Mughal attacks.   He expanded at the cost of the Sutiya kingdom, a weak but continuing lineage around Southern Assam.  

Rang-ghar - one of the
Ahom buildings in Sibsagar

The Ahoms used to bury the dead and brought in wet rice cultivation methods into this region.  Post the influence of Hindu culture in the 1500's, they started cremating the dead.

The kingdom expanded under Susenghphaa aka Pratap Singha, who expanded the kingdom towards the west, and defended the Ahom empire against by-now consistent Mughal attacks.

Pratap Singha brought in the Durga Puja festival to Assam.   For a long reign of 38 years, he was able to manage both war and internal development.  This was due to strong minister line that he had built called Burhagohain, Borgohain and Borpatrogohain, and the viceroy line - Borbaruas.  

Battle of Saraighat - An illustration
 The second half of the 17th century saw repeated Mughal attacks   The Mughal attack culminated into a decisive battle called the famous Battle of Saraighat  which resulted in clear defeat of the Mughals.   The Ahoms, under Supangmung captured and held the Guwahati area on both the banks of the Brahmaputra river till their fall in the 18th century.  

Lalit Borphukhan's statue at the NDA
- In remembrance ofthe popular commander
The Battle of Saraighat ( 1671)  brings out two great historical characters of Assam.  One was Lachit Borphukan, who successfully commanded and repulsed the Mughal army under Ram Singh.  The victory of this battle is celebrated as Lachit Divas in Assam. 

The second was an astute leader called Atan Burhagohain, the prime minister of the Ahom kingdom, who spoke political treatise, wise in administration and diplomacy.  He turned down the offer of becoming a king twice.

Post Lachit's death, Atan was killed by Lachit's brother Laluk Sola.  He also gave away Guwahati to the Mughals for some paltry bribe.  He installed a young Sulikphaa Lora Roja  as the Ahom king and tried to hunt down Gadapani,  a descendant of the first Ahom king and the rightful heir to the throne. 

Laluk Sola,  in this process, incarcerated Joymati, wife of Ahom prince Gadapani. She is known as Sati Joymati because she endured torture and died at the hands of royalists under Sulikphaa, which enabled her husband Gadapani to rise in revolt and become the king himself.    The first Assamese movie Joymati by Jyoti Prasad Agarwala featured this story. The date Joymati died is celebrated as Joy Divas in Assam.

Gadapani, after killing all including Laluk Sola, became Supaatphaa alias Gadadhar Singha.   During his reign, Supaatphaa, removed Mughals from Guwahati for good, through the battle of Itakhuli

His son, Sukhrungphaa aka Rudra Singha was like Akbar for Ahom Kingdom.  Rudra Singha was the last of the great kings of the Ahom kingdom.  He brought in strong administration, governance and peace. He had Joysagar dug at the spot where his mother Joymati was tortured.

Ahom Kingdom's last years - in 1826
There were few more Tunkhungia kings, the last lineage of the Ahom dynasty.  The rule ended with the Burmese invasion.  In another decade, the first Anglo-Burmese war happened and Assam passed on to the British.   The surviving Ahom king earned a pension of 500 Rs from the British.

The Ahom culture is a mixture of Burmese, Chinese and Hindu culture (in the later half ).   They had unique service system for their subjects ( Paik system).   Thus Ahom's defined the DNA of Assam's history.

The history of Ahoms, a journey as good as any, is not really part of the 'Indian history' taught in our schools.    It is important that this forgotten and sidelined piece of history is included in the Indian mainstream history.  We agree, don't we?

- The One

Pics and Source from Internet

( PS - From here, we move to the next stop of Jorhat - Numaligarh.   Please join the journey there)

Monday, February 13, 2012

North East Chronicles 6: Camp Lakwa: Part A- Kamrupa - the tale of Ancient Assam

What do you expect of a place which is so far from where you were born?

The place that you might spend a few months, and move on.   Some of these places become indelible chapters in your life and memories, don't they?

That is why we have travelled so far in the North East Chronicles and still the footprints are there, in the sands of time.  The detour from the actual Lakwa anecdotes is essential to also live and breathe the most important aspects of  this place - Assam - its society, its culture and most importantly, its peoples.

During the end of the 20th century,  I wandered around this land as a free bird, but like an ostrich, I could have put my head in my sand and forgotten its multiple layers of history.  One can smell the undercurrent of countless stories, not too well known.

The land is endowed with heavy rain and forests and the Mighty Brahmaputra river.  The land and peoples were always like the tantalizing maidens.  An exotic cocktail of mythology, history, valor, legends and culture - is this land of Assam.

As I dug out to understand the history of these lands, from the Camp Lakwa - some interesting stories turned out.   While the modern day search engines and Wiki's would throw better details on the history and life of these peoples, I attempt to sketch the chronicle of this wonderful land in this part of the North East Chronicles.

Mythology states that the land of Assam was ruled by Naraka dynasty. The most famous king was Narakasura.   Mostly these people were called Dhanavas  (demons), essentially people who did not practice Vedas, so mostly indigenous people, in the eyes of the Aryans. 

Early Assam - Kamrupa Empire  (350-1100 AD)
Between 350 AD and 1100 AD, the land was called Kamrupa - meaning - amorous form.  The name comes from the story of the devas sending Kamadeva (Cupid) to destroy Lord Shiva's penance.  This is the place where Kamrupa apparently retired when he was reborn post Lord Shiva's wrath. 

Another story from Mythology for the name of Kamrupa.

Kamakya temple
reflects the legend of Sati

Legends indicate that Assam was the place where Sati spend her amorous days with Lord Shiva in the name of Kamakya.  When Sati gave herself to the yogic pyre in protest against her father Daksha's non-invitation of the Lord Shiva and Sati.   When Shiva wandered the worlds in his grief-striken Rudra form,  Lord Vishnu slayed the body of Sati into some 51 pieces.  Sati's organ fell in this place - and resembled Kamakya - the source of genesis.   The present day Kamakya temple was built in the 1500's.  It was nourished by Rudra Singha, an Ahom king, who was a devout Hindu would be one of the most famous of them.

While there were different clans that ruled Kamrupa, the most famous of them is the Varman Dynasty.

The most important king of them all was Bhaskar Varman, who had a long 50 year rule(circa 600-650 AD).  He had his military pacts with Harsha Vardhana, brought peace and security to his subjects, and was a noteworthy ruler.  People prospered under his rule.  The Chinese traveller Xuanzang visited the court of Bhaskar Varman.

There was few dynasties like Mlechchha dynasty (who were descendants of the Naraka dynasty) and Pala Dynasty that ruled till 1100. 

The mighty Brahmaputra, the giver of life
in these lands, has seen the rise and fall
of many dynasties
The history of Assam has always intertwined with the mighty river Brahmaputra.   The river is the backbone of the lives of people here.  The river is the giver of life -water, food and everything.

It also acts as the transporter of food, people and soldiers.  Yes, this river has seen many a battle, the rise and fall of dynasties.  

As the river ebbed and flowed, season after season, the wheels of time ground past the demise of the Kamrupa empire.

After the typical chaos that happens after an empire falls, during the period of 1100-1200,  some Tai's of the Burmese descent came to the land of Kamrupa.  

These people did not take establish themselves by force, but through relationship building and mixing with other royals in the region.  The Ahom kingdom was born - the seeds of the modern Assam were sowed in Sibsagar!

...To be continued

- The One

( Source and pics: Wikipedia)

Sunday, February 5, 2012

North East Chronicles 5: Lakwa: Saikia, RIP...

Calmness in those days, in Sibsagar, was an on-and-off affair.   There would be bursts of action, commotion between the locals and the security forces on the ground.   Then there would be a week of uneasy silence, and people would settle down  to run their normal life in the narrow alleys of the town. 

The reason for a flare up was due to a constant high pressure undercurrent between the fuming, but dependent locals and the restive and high strung up security forces.   The oil and gas industry needed the protection and the local activists were hell-bent on keeping the pressure on.  

The locals could not run large businesses.  The small scale vendors were dependent on the materials management departments of the oil behemoths.   The jobless would resort to vasuli ( collections) or chanda (tax) in the name of one God or other.   The hawkers and other people had to tolerate this.

There were serious restrictions in the way of life.  Some are outlined in my earlier story around Lakwa.  A constant effort of oneupmanship was on.   This was through the local newspapers to some extent.   Even small incidents were reported in two different points of view.   The news papers had to do a constant balance act.  This present incident revolves around an effort to score brownie points going awry.   In fact, this was the preceding week of the events of the Barrel Bravado narrative.  So this is a prequel?  Not sure, and none can explain.

This ADSP was known to be a press savvy officer  ( let us call him Saikia.)   All news bytes on law and order were fed to the local newspapers by this gentleman.  Over the years, it seems he had become the unofficial spokesperson of every law and order story, for all security forces, including the Army.  

This time, there was a tip-off, cordon and search and few people were arrested in the Sibsagar - Jorhat district border.   Couple of people were arrested.   Apparently, some cache of arms - including LMG's, grenades were recovered. 

Saikia called for the first hand press meeting.   The local press eagles eagerly landed like vultures.   The local dailies were hungry for news bytes.   For the normal person, sanity prevailed by keeping the kettle on ... reading the stories of both sides and munching the news-cud till the cows went home.

A file pic of cache of arms for display

The press meeting was arranged on a week day evening.   A small shamiana ( tent )was put up.   The sound systems were arranged.   The standard arrangement of a followed table covered with black cloth, laundered and sprightly looking.   Few LMG's, grenades, bullets were spread.   Two jawans ( soldiers) and couple of tenadaars ( constables) from the nearby chowki ( police station) assembled.  

The press corps with their notepads and pen, thick set goggles,  old Nikon cameras assembled - about 7-8 of them.  The wait for Saikia was on.   We were outside the hotel, having some vegetable pakodas and chai. (tea).

Saikia arrived about 45 minutes late.  With an air of familiarity, he waved and wished couple of reporters by name.   The guys wished him back and then settled down.   Some of these scribes would have thought, here he goes.   Saikia rambled about how the police was alert along with the security forces, and how they were successful.   The people were thankless and did not appreciate what the rakwalas  ( guards) did to protect them.

The discourse went on for about 20 minutes, before one of the tenadaars brought Saikia's attention to the table.   Then immediately Saikia started on how the tip-off worked and the dare devil raids were conducted and 3 people arrested.    It was a bloodless raid, he said proudly.   He got up and struted around the arms catch.  How would anybody escape their net?

The Army-men suddenly saw that an olive-green jeep was coming towards the naka.   They stepped back and moved out of the tent.  This innocous actsaved them!

Meanwhile, the master of the oratory function, Saikia, took a grenade in his hand and lifted the same above his head - like a magician pulling out the rabbit out of the hat.   He put the ring of the pin in his hand and swirled it like a master rolling his whip to bring a circus lion under control.    We all were watching this small theatrics with rapt attention.   The scribes were catching on to every word spilling out of Saikia's mouth.  

A typical scene of Sibsagar after
typical 'events'
Kabooooomm.... the grenade went off.   What we saw was a flash and fire...we rushed in to the hotel.   The tent went up like a ball of fire.   The over-excited ADSP had accidently pulled the pin when he swirled the nip of the grenade with his fingers - a scribe who survived later told.   Couple of other hand grenades and some bullets exploded, adding to the melee.

It was all blood and gore.  Smell of burnt flesh and screams of the injured-but-alive were heard.  Mangled steel chairs, broken wooden chairs, footwear, burnt notes.   The net result - about 4 people died in the nearby ONGC hospital and 13 of them injured.

The security forces in the vicinity were confused by the explosion and panicked.  They took firing positions at the end of the street and asked everybody to leave the site.   Two of them opened fire for about 10 minutes, in almost every direction.  Three by-standers were injured, so I heard.

When the gun-burst stopped, the entire place looked like a war zone.   The blue sky had turned ash with smoke.   The light brown sand was painted red with blood.   Ash and red, a weird sight. 

This adverse sight, the smell and the sounds were too violent for any person to bear.   I ducked into my room and kept staring at the road from the window.  

Night fell.  Nobody ventured out.   Everybody embraced and took solace in the darkness.  There was a powercut, and this time it was God given.   Silence and darkness - were great comforting allies.   Atleast for sometime.

Next day, the bus that had to take us to the oil-rig came and honked, inviting us to start our day, business as usual.

When I stepped out of the hotel in the morning, the sky was again blue.  The sand was wet, but brown.   No ash, no red.   The entire place was again bustling with people trying to find their way and executing their morning chores, as if they had gone to a movie last evening!  

As the bus played the same Assamese tune, this time, my mind was not hugging the music.  The sun was too hot and bright.  It all, now seemed like a sordid drama of last evening - curtains down, all packed up.  All I could think of was, Saikia RIP.

-The One

(Pic courtesy Internet)

Friday, February 3, 2012

North East Chronicles 4: Lakwa: Story of the missing bag and the mysterious 'bhari'...

(Recall the mention about my workstyle in the earlier narrative.   This narrative brings in a small bit of history in an otherwise simple story)

We were to install an EDI application on SCO unix in one of the oil companies.   In those days, there was no Internet.  We had to rely on internal emails and fax machines at the Gas Authority's drilling block in Lakwa to get the instructions to install and test the application and database, checklists and sign off documents.

The employees who worked in the drilling block had to leave for work early .   The morning sun brightened up the eastern skies far too early. The golden rays would melt the morning dews on the green leaves of the bamboo trees.   The birds would echo the tunes of the Assamese folk songs.

After the morning tea, we boarded the bus, daily that would leave for the drilling-fields at around 630 in the morning.   The ride in the bus is something we always looked forward.   The sweet breeze that would tease and play with our hairdom.  

The driver would play the exotic Assamese folk - the voice of the singers like the birds cooing, with signatures of fresh flute and very light beats of the traditional drum.   If one could imagine the sights and sounds of nature flow in unison, this was it.   The mind would be fresh and free, ready to tackle the frenzies of the day.
The music and dance of Assamese
resonate with nature

The seniors and the workers would leave around 4 pm.  The convoy of buses would leave for the respective abodes of the worksmen before the sun vanished behind the tall trees of  the forests.   The weather could become chill almost immediately and the birds would return home.   Silence, till next day early morning.

Some of the folks who needed to work late would stay till 630 in the evening.   No one was allowed to stay in the rig after 630 for security reasons.  Our work, during the peak times of the project, demanded that we stay till this hour.   Not to miss this bus, everybody scrambled to wind up.  There was always a sigh of relief once the bus was boarded.   We got into the bus, and deposited our bags on the overhead compartment.

The bus was playing Hindi music.  Kishore was singing meloncholic lullabies on how life was wasted in a city.  Five people including my local engineer and me were onboard.   The wind howled, echoing the impatient mood that prevailed in the darkness of the bus. 
Sibsagar bus stand - where the buses stopped last

After an hour, we reached Sibsagar town - it was pitch dark, interspersed by few dim street lights.

We used to stay in hotel Brahmaputra - which was the only decent stay for visiting professionals.  Private contractors, politicians, employees of the oil behemoths, all stayed here.  

So the bus would go through a small stop-start routine to drop all people around the town and finally would wind up its trip near the Sibsagar bus stand, just opposite to the Brahmaputra hotel.  The bus finally came to its final halt.  We pulled out bags out of the dusty compartment, and got out.

We would have started walking for few yards, then a large figurine was running towards us - as though,on cue,  shouting expletives.  'kela, sur, mur bag-tu suri korne, kela, sur!'... ( 'expletive, thief! you stole my bag, expletive, thief!') When he neared, we were standing under a dim street light.  

I recalled his face.  He was one of those administrative staff, who we would see at the rig. We thought he would be one of those unnoticeable beings. But we could remember that he used to throw those bile looks at us - the white collar morons.  Now, as he rushed towards us, his eyes shone in madness and face reflecting beastly rage.

Reaching for my friend, he yanked the bag out of my friend's hand, and started slapping the poor, shocked soul.  We could not comprehend this sudden burst of action.  I was too shocked, but recovered quickly to pull his body out of this guy's reach.   But this man was on to him like a leach, still trying to slap and smother, panting like a raging bull, and his mouth frothing like a poison victim. 

Few souls were around to see the commotion, but none moved.   Then suddenly, from nowhere a thin frail man appeared.  We could not see him.  He was dressed in a jacket and trousers and appeared as a silhoutte against the dim street light.

The stranger pulled this guy out and said - nusubo na! ( Don't touch)  On seeing this man, the raging creature stopped and apologized - 'Mur bag-tu heraal, thai...'.  ( My bag is lost, that is why). 

The thin stranger then asked this man to go and apologized.  The creature vanished into thin air.  Our friend shaken, bluttered-Moik duk paisu.  Moi doctor lage'.   ( 'I am injured, need to get a doctor')

The good samaritan led us to a small chai shop.   'Saa kaa, sob teek hobo'  ( 'drink the tea, everything will be fine').   We gratefully drank the offered tea.   It was a good anti-dote for a quick recovery for the two shocked souls.   We said ' dhonyabaad' ( thank you)and left hurriedly.   All along, my friend was behaving more surprised, excited than shocked.  I could not understand his strange behavior then.

Was he Aurobindo's brother?
When we went to the hotel, we went to the clinic attache' near the verandah.   My friend had swollen lips and some bruises around his forearms.  Doc examined them and gave a pain-killer.

No sooner we entered our room, I ordered for hot water, couple of hot idlis ( we got idli's in those hotel!!, sambhar was not as good though!).

 I tried to switched on the TV.  My friend, more excited than traumatic said, ' do you know who we saved us today?'.   I shrugged my shoulder and reached for the remote.   He pushed it away again, and said ' that is Aurobindo's bhai, Sotthi!!, believe me!'.  

He repeated this atleast 3-4 times.  I was shocked!  I just had tea with history!!!

The next day morning, I called our offices in Delhi and Calcutta and informed that we were attacked.  The seniors advised me to put in a written complaint against this guy to the Group General Manager of the Drilling block. But one of my local friends and my customer advised against it.  So we did not.

Back from work early, that evening, we walked around the place where we were attacked.  It was called the 'bhari'- the house.  The aura of the legend permeated the air.  Any reference to the 'bhari' was spoken in hushed tones for fear of being noticed.  

We never saw the frail man again.   His house was always bereft of activity - I went past the ' bhari' couple of times during the course of my stay.  But it stood there always, assuring its people with its calm facade.

- The One

( Pics Courtesy The Internet)