In the early Seventies, when Father shifted to Guwahati with Mother, the city moved very slowly. It had a sweet laziness about it. People were still taking their siestas in the afternoon; in fact many came home from office for siestas during lunch break. People were still leisurely walking or cycling to their destinations. Even the few cars around seemed to clamber down the roads, potholes and all, at their own sweet pace. Electricity cuts never deterred the spirit to relax, sleep, eat or have fun. The summers somehow were not that fierce then. And even in those days, Guwahati was ‘big’ for any city or town in India’s northeast. My parents were the tenants of Anandi Bordoloi at Silpukhuri, who was related to Gopinath Bordoloi, Assam’s first Chief Minister in post-Independent India. Anandi Bordoloi had played a big role in establishing the Mahila Namghar at Silpukhuri. The first time I went there, many moons later, I was stunned by the absence of men at a public worship space. Women clad in white mekhela-chadars were officiating the prayer meetings and managing the accounts of the namghar. This is where Mother’s weekly visit to the namghar began, although I have never known her to be a strictly religious person. She and Anandi Bordoloi would walk down to the namghar, which was only a few steps away from the house; the elder woman walking authoritatively alongside Mother, who looked more like a disciple in the shadow of a reverend one. As I come to think of it now, she went there perhaps to break the monotony of her dull life. Eighteen years of age, Mother had just been uprooted from her social life in Dibrugarh. She was one of the reputed beauties from the Baruah family of Milan Nagar; Father was a hot-blooded Bhuyan from Khaliamari, who bore both the Khaliamari Bhuyan aura and temper well. After the wedding, she stayed with her in-laws for about four months before Father brought her to Guwahati, where he had a junior engineer’s job at the Irrigation office in Chandmari. At Guwahati, she discovered the alcoholic in her husband and spent several sleepless nights of enduring the husband’s alcohol induced aggression and abuses. The next morning he would lie at her feet and ask for forgiveness. Days went by and Mother’s confusion over Father’s behavior drove her to depression. She would shut herself in the house after Father left for office in the morning and worry about her fate, a worry that in some time became a wound that ceased to ache. Her landlady Anandi Bordoloi noticed she was not going out at all. “This is not good for you, staying in the house all day like this,” she once told Mother when it took Mother exactly twenty minutes to open the door when Anandi Bordoloi rang the bell. And when she opened the door, she looked like a beautiful goddess who did not care how she looked anymore, with an expression that could have very well proclaimed her dead. “Get ready, I am taking you to the Mahila Namghar,” Anandi Bordoloi declared; and that’s how Mother started going to the namghar. Here, she found other women who took an interest in her life, gossiped with her, made friends with her. She looked forward to every Thursday afternoon when she could spend two-three hours at the namghar, listening to and taking part in stories while munching on the Lord’s prasad which included sprouts, fruits and payas made of milk and rice. It was here that life finally made some sense to her through the shared devotion that the women practiced, which was enough to make her forget about the trifling sorrows in life.
She was only beginning to enjoy her new-found sense of self at the namghar when, in the Eighties, I was about ten years old then and my sister three years younger to me, Father managed to buy some land in Beltola, which happened to be the outskirts of the city those days, and built a two-room house. We soon shifted when the house was ready and as we made the journey from Silpukhuri to Beltola, our hearts sank as we left the charming sights of the city behind. The closer we got to Beltola, the further away we went from the city lights and fancy marketplaces. We had arrived at a place where ‘slow’ got a whole new definition. Beltola seemed like a vast expanse with a few houses and fewer shops strewn across; and everybody seemed to move in slow motion, even the ones cycling their way to someplace. Nobody ever seemed to be in hurry.
My school began to seem so far away now. My sister and I would catch one of those wooden city buses, which had faces unlike the latter fleet of modern box-like buses that replaced them in the Nineties, from the Beltola bus stand to the Last Gate stand, a ten-fifteen minutes ride back then when traffic was sparse. There, a small red bus came and picked us up. The space in front of a shop at the mouth of the lane where our house was had assumed the role of the Beltola City Bus Stand although there was no structure whatsoever at the spot to notify this. Horen owned that shop, which was one amongst the line of little shops by the main road. Every morning at six he would slowly walk out of his house, a small A-type structure behind the line of shops, a little off the main road. He would still be in his blue-checked lungi and sleeveless white banyan that fell over his protruding stomach, his short muscular limbs glistening brown with the mustard oil he had moisturized himself with after bath. Girls and boys dressed in school uniforms would already be waiting in groups outside different shops in that line, even before they opened, waiting for the city buses to come. The ones outside Horen’s gelamaal shop where he sold rice, wheat, lentils, shampoo, soaps, and spices knew him and he knew all of them by their names. One amongst them was the pretty Papori Neog, the twelve-year-old stout Bodo girl, whose father Hangram Neog was an engineer and had shifted to the neighborhood some two years ago. Horen had fallen in love with her the very first time he saw her. In all of his twenty-four years, this must have been the hundredth case of love at first sight for him, which he was determined to convert into the final thing. Papori’s father came from one of the families which defined the Bodo village beyond the far-away Bhetapara area. He was the only one from that family and perhaps one of the few from that neighborhood who pursued a career and life outside the village. When he became a civil engineer and joined the Public Works Department of Assam, he bought a piece of land at Beltola, perhaps a decade ago before he actually built a house and moved in with his family. Their house was right at the mouth of our lane, which was supposed to be a “gou path” – a road wide enough for a cow to move, but due to the civic sense of the residents who left out considerable parts of their land while constructing their boundary walls, the lane turned quite wide without the government’s realization. This meant that years later when this road was being connected to the national highway through the inner lanes, nobody had to cry over land. The road led into the inner recess of the Bodo village if one attempted to move beyond the stream Basistha at Bhetapara. Papori and I often rode our bicycles up to that stream. We called it the “waterfall” because there was a huge slab of grey rock right under a rickety wooden bridge, where the water dropped with force, forming froth that looked like milk.
It was that very year when Horen had sent a love letter to Papori through me and she had responded by telling him that such nonsense didn’t suit his age and him responding back what was wrong with his age, and her turning cold to him forever that an interesting development took shape in the neighborhood. The widowed Runu Phukan, who was in her early thirties and owned a paan shop that she ran by herself next to Horen’s gelamaal store, came huffing and puffing to our house one afternoon. She rushed me and my sister into another room and latched the door from outside. Then she took Mother to a corner in the outer room and spoke of something important in hushed tones. Their meeting must have lasted for over an hour. She left with agitated declarations that “soon something will have to be done.” The next day, she came back with Horen’s septuagenarian mother, holding the frail woman on a cane by the arm and almost dragging her. The old lady had to remark every now and then, “Lahe lahe! Go slow!” in between making a motion with her mouth that seemed like she was chewing on something with her gums, since she had no teeth. There were four-five other women with them. The old woman was made to sit on a chair in the verandah, while the others sat on the murhas and piras that Mother and I fetched from inside the house. The group discussed something for a long time while I prepared tea and served them. Runu Phukan made the most noise while Horen’s septuagenarian mother’s only role in the meeting was to nod her head in agreement to everything that everybody said. Mother seemed charged and pledged her participation to whatever it was they were doing the next day.
It was one humid June Wednesday when a group of five women, clad in white mekhela-chadars, walked with quick steps and gait full of purpose, with Runu Phukan leading the way, and Mother right behind her. They were trailed on a cycle by a priest in a dhoti, his thin legs making a lazy loop with the pedals. It was in the morning, after Father had left for work. The women, drenched in sweat, walked up to a vacant plot of land, a few houses away from ours. The priest lay his cycle flat on the ground because it didn’t have a stand to support itself, took off the cloth bag from the cycle handle and in an hour’s time had set everything in order to conduct a Kali puja. Once the rituals were over, the priest laid a brick next to where the puja happened, and the group left. In a few days time, four bamboo poles came up in that site with a tin shed; Horen’s septuagenarian mother placed the sacred text Naamghosha on a small wooden pira and covered it with a white and red floral gamusa. And every Wednesday afternoon, for three consecutive weeks, the group, sans the priest whose task was over, gathered at the site for naam-proxongo, prayer service. Mother felt enthused. It was like she was creating a Silpukhuri Mahila Namghar experience right here in Beltola. The women’s solidarity had taken the shape of warm sisterhood in this short span. They were of all ages and size, and Mother had now found friends and sisters in them.
The group’s activities went on thus when, suddenly, a day came when the owner of the land arrived. And he came with Hangram Neog, Papori’s father, because the owner happened to be his friend from college days. It was he who had informed the owner, Aminul Haq, about the encroachment of his land when his wife noticed the tin shed come up and a group of women gathering at the site every Wednesday afternoon for payers.
“What is this happening in my land?” a huge and bulky Aminul Haq barked as he jumped out of the Jeep that had screeched to a halt, throwing up a cloud of dust.
Mother and the women shook in nervousness and stood rooted to the ground.
“Speak up!” screamed Aminul Haq and his entire bulk shook with rage. Then he spotted Horen’s mother. “Mahideo, aunt,” he addressed her, “What is happening here? You do know it’s my land. We bought our land at the same time from the same person. Please tell them! They can’t do all this here without my permission.”
The old woman suddenly shrunk several inches and merely stared into space.
“Speak to me,” Runu Phukan jumped forward, a small and stout woman, hair tied tightly into a bun, no red phut on her broad forehead to indicate her widowhood. She came and stood in front of Amuinul Haq, hands on her hips, legs spread as wide as Aminul Haq. “This land was lying vacant here for a long time. We performed Kali puja and have laid the foundations of a namghar here. It is now namghar land.”
“What rubbish!” screamed an agitated Aminul Haq. “This is my property and you better bring down this tin shed by tomorrow. I’ll come with the police and if the shed is still here, that will be the end of you all!” he warned like a mad man. “And, where are your men? Looking after you kitchens?” he spat out the words. “Ask them to speak to me about it. I don’t want to deal with crazy women!”
At this Runu Phukan almost charged at him, creating quite a sight as Aminul Haq stood like a giant looming over her. She had to be held back by Mother and a few other women. Hangram Neog stepped in at this point to negotiate but nobody listened to him. Finally the two of them left with Aminul Haq shouting that the tin shed better disappear by tomorrow. Quite a crowd had gathered by then as passersby stopped as well as people in the nearby houses came out when they heard the commotion. The Jeep was not even out of sight when the group of women found themselves some male supporters. “What you are doing is noble,” the supporters said gravely. “We will see how he can take away this piece of land from the namghar!” Those supporters turned up the next afternoon too, although all they did was watch from a distance. So did the husbands of these women except Father, who had no clue what was going on for he was away since the past week attending some friend’s wedding in Shillong. Aminul Haq came with the police. Hangram Neog was not with them this time. He had excused himself with the pretext that he had to attend some relative’s death anniversary. The two policemen who accompanied Aminul Haq looked like they had been dragged out of their afternoon siesta and walked and talked with such slowness that a few onlookers yawned by merely looking at them. The husbands, who had gathered to support their wives, collected into a bunch and slowly inched behind the shed when they saw the policemen approach. “You do the talking. You have an advantage as women,” they advised their wives.
The policemen told the women to raze the shed to the ground, but there was neither threat nor warning in their voice. They sounded more like they were stoned while on duty. Aminul Haq intervened with a harsh, “The police will take you to the lock-up!” But the policemen hushed him up with “now be polite to the ladies here” and assured him that this was their business henceforth and they would settle things their way. “We will come here every day till you have dismantled the shed” they announced in their stoned voices and left with Aminul Haq. For a month after that, those two policemen kept coming, as usual their stoned selves. At first they watched from a distance as the women went about their rituals. Then they started accepting the prasad and eating it with relish. Aminul Haq visited the site a couple of times and caught the policemen gladly consuming the prasad and chatting with the women. There was no sign of any dismantling of the shed. No one noticed when he stopped coming. And finally the day came when those two policemen disappeared too. The encroachment was successful; a namghar was established in a Muslim family’s land. Runu Phukan’s voice quivered with pride for a long time after this incident. So did Mother’s. But when a refreshed Father returned from Shillong, Mother’s narration of the incident lost its sheen. He shouted at her for associating with “low class women” and causing trouble to “harmless people”. That night he drank one full bottle of whisky at home and once he finished, he threw Mother, me and my sister out of the house. That whole night we stayed under the tin shed in the encroached land. It was late in the night, everybody was asleep; nobody noticed us. Before dawn the next day, Mother took us back home; we climbed over the gates and waited at the doorsteps for Father to get up and open the door.
The most striking thing about the Nineties that I remember was the disappearance of the wooden city buses with distinctive faces inside which the driver sat maneuvering the beast. The gear box next to the driver’s seat was one huge mound that emanated heat. Often when there were no seats available, we sat on the edge of this huge gear box, careful to be perched in a position such that the heat did not irritate the backside. With the disappearance of these wooden city buses I also noticed that the stretch from Last Gate to Beltola was beginning to look dense with people and new houses that had come up. Never noticed these houses when the construction was on! It was as if they had sprung up all of a sudden. More shops appeared and even Beltola started looking different. Roads were wider now, open fields were gone; and there was a new-found hustle bustle on the streets. The peaceful Beltola of a decade ago had now changed into a chatter-box. There was the chatter-chatter of numerous cars and buses and trucks; the chatter-chatter of people on the streets and inside and outside the flats that were being built at Godspeed. And it went on from morning till night. Beltola was now a busy place. Even our school buses now came to Beltola to fetch us. We no longer had to travel to the Last Gate bus stand to catch them. At first I flaunted this sudden change of character in our part of the city in front of friends in school. After a few years, it ceased to be a matter of pride and became an irritant with the constant noise pollution. Adding to the woes of residents like us who lived close to the main road, a Kali mandir and a Vishnu mandir had come up in some years, side by side, right opposite the mouth of our lane. The priests of both these mandirs considered their own temple the best and stayed in regular competition with one another. So if a naam proxongo was held at the Vishnu mandir, the Kali mandir priest would ring the auspicious bell for a longer duration in the evening. The competition between the worshipper of Lord Vishnu and that of Goddess Kali grew intense by the day and finally a time came when the Vishnu mandir priest got hold of an old tape-recorder from somewhere and played, from dawn to dusk, the same cassette of borgeet, devotional music over a loudspeaker. In a few days’ time when complaints came in that the same songs night and day were testing the patience of the population around, the priest acquired another cassette – this time devotional lyrics set to Hindi film music tunes sung by Anuradha Podwal for T-Series, which did great business for Gulshan Kumar before he was gunned down in broad daylight in Mumbai. The priest played both these cassettes in turns; and he kept playing them, ignoring civic protests, till the tape-recorder broke down and let out music in such high decibel that the songs came out in fast-forward mode. The music stopped, to the relief of everyone, the day the priest died of heart attack. Listening to the sounds that came out of his own tape-recorder, people joked. It was that very year that Aminul Haq, who was not ever to be seen in the locality again after that encroachment of land for the namghar, appeared one foggy December morning. He was seen standing in front of the namghar, which was now a solid building with people’s donations, for a long, long while. His huge bulk was covered by a red and black Naga shawl and a cap almost drooped to his eyebrows. Somebody recognized him and asked him why he was there. He said he was going away to Canada forever and had come to look at his land for one last time.