For many years I heard Father and the other men and women in the family talk only about the Elephant and the Hand, criticizing the Hand when it was in power and speculating the chances of the Elephant coming to power in the next election; and then criticizing the Elephant when it finally came to power, at how it had fallen flat on its promises. But in 1996, before the Assembly election happened, there were talks about how disappointing both these parties were and that only a radical change could rescue Assam. Father now spoke about the Lotus as the messianic political party that could cleanse the Bangladeshi epidemic and save “us” from the “larger goal” of turning Assam into an Islamic state and merging it with Bangladesh. To this, people like Rehman khura, father’s childhood friend who now lived close to our house in Guwahati, would not really know what to say. His family had moved over from Bangladesh, then East Pakistan, when the partition had happened. Even during those times, as it is now, the border between Assam and Bangladesh was porous. In fact, there was no Bangladesh, there was no Assam. It was one huge land where people of all religious faiths, castes and tribes lived. So at times like this when Father spoke about the need for a Hindutva regime because soon “our” people “would be reduced to a minority position” by the “Moosolmaan”, unmindful of Rehman khura’s presence in the gathering, he would keep quiet. All these years of friendship and it seemed Father never registered the fact that Rehman khura was but a “Moosolmaan”.
Rehman khura, who, in the past, proudly claimed his family’s association with the Azaan Pir dargah in Sibsagar, where people of all faiths visited, now preferred to flaunt this only in the company of his Muslim friends. Adding to his anxieties at such a time was his sixteen year old daughter’s intimacy with his wife’s brother’s twenty-two year old son. “Don’t embarrass yourself and me,” Rehman khura told the twenty-two year old after they were caught, “You are cousins and stay like that! Don’t brew this nonsense about romantic love between the two of you! You are good at studies, finish your engineering and then marry a girl from a good family. Forget about my daughter. She will only remain a sister to you.” But his words fell on deaf ears as two years hence the boy finished his engineering, found himself a job in Calcutta and ran away with his cousin to the new city. “I have no daughter!” declared Rehman khura and soon developed a heart condition. Rehman khura, who used to be a handsome man, suddenly began to look old and sick. His wife, Nazneen khuri, whom we used to call “Saira Bano”, because she actually looked like the gorgeous Saira Bano of the Hindi films, lost her color. The doctors said she was becoming anemic. But it wasn’t her daughter’s elopement that caused her the anemia; it was the election in 1996.
Rehman khura and Nazneen khuri lived down the main road in the Lakhimi Tent House lane, a little up ahead from our lane. Khuri’s mother was the cousin of Sayeeda Anwara Taimur, Assam’s first and only female and Muslim chief minister. Her father owned a small tea plantation near Jorhat. Which is why perhaps their house at the Lakhimi Tent House lane looked like a little tea bungalow with its white wrought-iron furniture in the verandah and the garden in front, and teak-wood furniture, shelves and trolleys inside the house. Khuri always dressed impeccably in lovely mekhela-chadars that she often sourced from a friend’s loom, which was known for its exquisite products, and chiffon sarees that made her look like a dream. And she was a connoisseur of traditional Assamese jewelry, most of which had been passed over to her by her mother and grandmothers. Khuri loved embroidery; and she worked out beautiful stitches on soft shades, with pretty white laces, for her tables and cushions. She even prepared them as gifts for her family and friends. Mother lovingly displayed them in our drawing room. Every morning Khuri picked flowers from her garden and arranged them in lovely ceramic vases at the dining table, on the console next to the main door in the drawing room, the mirror in a beautifully carved wooden frame on the wall above the console reflecting the flowers and the staircase opposite it that led to the bedrooms on the first floor. And, when the weather was lovely, she loved to sip tea and nimble on home-made apple and cinnamon cakes in the garden, shielded by the shrubs and trees that lined the periphery by the walls of the compound. So she definitely did not like it when she had to forgo many pleasant days for meetings that were called by Mother and the other women of our neighborhood to discuss the coming election.
It was one afternoon of gossips after collective worship at the Beltola namghar, which had by now about twenty members, that gave birth to the need for subsequent meetings over one whole week right before the 1996 election. The namghar, which began as a tin shed with five members, was now a concrete hall with a manikut, a small enclave where the sacred text Naamghosha was placed. The donations over the years made by the increasing population settling around Beltola turned the tin shed into this concrete structure of cement and mortar. That afternoon, the women had just finished their naam proxongo, where they held a special prayer service for Horen’s mother, who was dead a good ten years now. Horen’s wife had offered the prasad that afternoon; yes, Horen finally managed to charm a girl after his thousandth attempt. He stole his cousin’s girl, who was at least five years older than him. Everybody said the girl was as dumb as Horen but they did make a good match. The prasad included payas made of jaggery and the women relished it. Runu Phukan, the fiery woman who had challenged Aminual Haq, whose land the five women had encroached upon a humid June Wednesday in the early Eighties to set up the Beltola namghar, was now older and a disastrous mother-in-law to her eighteen year old daughter-in-law. The desire to control and be the authoritative voice had by now assumed such a dominant aspect of her personality that she wittingly or unwittingly took it upon herself to push for things that she thought was best. In that vein, she began sermonizing women in the namghar about the perils of the “Moosolmaan invasion” from Bangladesh. “We need a social change!” she drilled, “We need to protect ourselves, fight for ourselves, who will if not us? You think the Centre will? They are not bothered! You think the Assam Government will? Well, then let me tell you, they are the ones who have brought these Bangladeshis to our land! And all these Bangladeshis, I swear, are ISI agents!” Pakistan and Bangladesh meant the same to the women at the namghar. Soon it was decided that from now on, until the election a week later, every afternoon the women would gather at one of the households in the neighborhood, educate the women of that household about the need to usher in change by voting for the Lotus. I am sure the Lotus had not foreseen this kind of publicity, nor did it ever come to know of it.
The first household the group visited for their sermons happened to be that of Rehman khura’s because, Runu Phukan strategized, “A Moosolmaan family converted into our cause would be like winning a battle where we can be assured of more Moosolmaan families joining the line.” When the group was greeted by khuri in the drawing room where the maid had brought them, Mother asked her about her kids, pets, her family and weather in upper Assam so that the rest of the women understood that Mother was more than familiar with the beautiful mistress of this gorgeous house. Runu Phukan began talking once all of them had settled down in the comfortable sofas.
“Please don’t think that this is personal and we are against Moosolmaans,” she said in what sounded like a rehearsed phrase, well-meaning but mechanical in import. “It’s just that we don’t want Assam to become a part of Bangladesh. We want to stay independent.”
Nazneen khuri arched her brows, tilted her head a little and said in her smooth voice, “You mean independent the way the ULFA is talking about it?”
“Oh, no! No!” Runu Phukan urged in her loud rustic voice, her mouth a big ‘O’ as she talked while chewing on paan, the red of the betel juice spilling a little over the corners of her mouth. “We are not talking about Assam as an independent country.” And then she said a little softly with a gulp, “We want Assam to be in India; the way it is. As you know, the demography of Assam is undergoing so much of change with the immigrants coming in from across the border. We are not talking about your families, of course! You have been living here since ages. We are only talking about the Bangladeshis.”
Nazneen khuri tuned pink, she looked embarrassed. Runu Phukan ignored it and carried on, “The Lotus’s Hindutva angle will save us. It will dispel the Moosolmaans who have come from Bangladesh; but traditional Assamese Moosolmaan families that people like you come from will not be harmed because you are Assamese first, then Moosolmaans!” Nazneen khuri’s head was spinning by then. She was getting tired of this “our land” sagas. Her sister, settled in Shillong for the past thirty years, was now crying over how the Khasis were targeting them and the other Assamese families with “leave our land to us” philosophies. And her sister, who couldn’t think of living anywhere else now except the beautiful Shillong, was becoming delirious and saying that she wouldn’t mind converting into a Khasi from Assamese if any such thing was possible.
On Election Day, the sky was as blue as Surf detergent powder. The sun’s rays fell softly on the ground and, in all, made it a very pleasant morning. At least till the time Mother, Neog Aunty, Runu Phukan, Nazneen khuri, and a few other women from the neighborhood walked out of our gates defying the ULFA’s diktat to boycott the election and walked their way to Bonphool primary school, beyond the Bhetapara bridge, to cast their votes. Father went with his friends later and that’s another story that I’ll narrate in a while. There was not a single rickshaw on the road. Very few vehicles plied around. Like always, people were taking the ‘Assam bandh’ declared by the ULFA as seriously as any other happy occasion to stay at home. When the women came to fetch Mother, the weather was lovely, “the heavens are blessing us too!” they chirped as they moved out of the gates. They had not even walked fifteen minutes when the sun’s soft rays turned fierce. Their skins pricked and sweat trickled down their spines. Yet they marched on, talking less as the weather turned sour. Father, who was with a friend on a scooter, crossed them near the Bhetapara bridge. He looked the other way while zooming past Mother and the other women. Mother, not in the habit of being seen publicly with Father much, stole a glance from the corner of her eye. The women now talked not at all; the only sound that came out of the group was the wheezing of labored breath. They moved forward in inches as their bodies became heavier under the sun. Somebody suggested a short cut and the group found themselves walking into the territory of a childless couple who kept a dozen canines. They froze to the ground when the snarling beasts came leaping at them. But none attacked. They just formed a circle around the women and scared the daylights out of them with their growling and barking. The owners came out just in time, preventing many of these women from fainting, and remarked, “It’s ok! It’s ok! They are not more dangerous than human beings!” The group was then shown to the back gates, which supposedly made the distance to Bonphool primary school shorter than the route from the main road, amidst a cordon of the dogs. By the time the women arrived at the school, an A-type building with about four-five rooms with grasses growing all around, they were so out of shape and breath that they sat down on the school grounds for a few minutes’ of rest.
It was Father’s harsh tones that hit Mother’s ears. She craned her neck to see Father squabbling with the polling booth agent. The agent looked like he was party to some crime that he had not committed himself; yet he argued on with Father, his voice not as determined as Father’s. It was learnt later that in the voter’s roll, there was a crescent and a dot in front of Father’s name, which in the Assamese language indicates a deceased. Father was furious with this carelessness and told this to all and sundry; but repeated recounting of the tale soon turned the incident into a legendary joke. Father had left the polling booth that day without voting, even though pamphlets and posters strewn on the grounds and stuck on the walls propagated one’s right to vote. Mother and the other women were not so unfortunate; their names were there in the roll. Or maybe they were because the sun was getting fiercer in the afternoon and there was a long line in front of them. Many, Mother especially, started thinking why she was there when she could have very well been in the house, under the fan. Somebody came up with the brilliant idea of killing time by pointing out “Bangladeshi faces” amidst the voters. Nazneen khuri felt very uncomfortable with this, but politely shook her head in disapproval whenever a “face” was pointed out. Runu Phukan, keeping with her aggressive nature, called out to someone up ahead in the queue, “Oi! Who gave you permission to come and vote, Bangladeshi?” and then making a gesture with her hand that sliced the air, she said, “Will break your legs intruder!”
In the line ahead, amidst red-dotted foreheads, a brown-skinned frail woman with light brown eyes and sharp features, in a blue cotton saree, a scarf over her head and no red dot on her forehead, turned back to look at Runu Phukan. “Whom are you calling a Bangladeshi?” she asked in an irritated voice, as if she had often reacted to such nonsense in the past. The others in the queue looked amused.
“Yes! You!” Runu Phukan shouted “You, Bangladeshi!” The polling booth agent, who was sitting by the door of the hall where the polling was happening, stretched his neck to see what was on but did not get up from his chair. Nazneen khuri panicked when she realized that Runu Phukan was addressing the woman in the blue saree. She strode past the others and came up to Runu Phukan. “There has been a mistake,” she hissed, “That woman is Ayesha Baideo, I know her and her family. She comes from a reputed family in Dhubri; so does her husband. And she herself is a respectable school teacher here. She is a very pious lady; has just returned from Haj.” Runu Phukan kept quiet after that but showed no signs of regret or being sorry whatsoever. She merely folded her hands across her chest and stood there flaring her nostrils. Nazneen khuri apologized to the lady, who looked at khuri in a way that spoke more than words. Something was stirring inside Nazneen khuri. The past few days, the women of Beltola namghar had gathered Nazneen khuri and the other women of the neighborhood under the leadership of Runu Phukan, who crusaded against the Bangladeshis. “Vote for the Lotus! We don’t want Assam to be a Muslim state!” Runu Phukan had drilled regularly into them, and when she spotted Nazneen khuri, she would say, “Vote for the Lotus! We don’t want Assam to be a Bangladeshi Muslim state!” Today, standing there to cast her vote, witnessing Runu Phukan embarrass Ayesha Baideo, Nazneen khuri wanted to scream at Runu Phukan, at the polling booth agent, at the government for putting people like her and Ayesha Baideo in such a spot. When her turn came to vote, her hands shook as she held the ballot paper. There was the Lotus in a box between the Elephant and the Hand. She picked up the stamp with trembling hands. The image of Runu Phukan, hands crossed across the chest, nostrils flared came to her mind. So did the helpless look in Ayesha Baideo’s eyes. Nazneen khuri’s body ached with all the walking she had done in the hot sun to arrive at the polling booth to cast her vote. Sweating and trembling, she brought down the stamp on the ballot paper in one quick strike on the line between the Elephant and the Lotus. Her vote became nullified.