Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Fearless
A Poem Excerpted from We Called the River Red in the latest issue of Pratilipi


I will walk down the streets of my city without fear
I will not be slapped like my cousin
Because he walked on the pavement
Where ‘Black Cat’ commandos
Brandished machine guns behind sand bags
Securing us against insurgents.
He was only sixteen.
I will not be interviewed on television
Lying half naked, faint, prodded by microphones
And asked to narrate how and why I got caught
In a crossfire in somebody else’s war.
My war is not being fought
Those who did have died,
Those who kill now live.
I will not smell the smell
Of burnt explosives clotted blood
Charred flesh outside my house
I will not watch the people
Sifting among mangled vehicles broken glass
Cast away footwear looking for the dead
I will walk to school everyday
I will greet everyone on the way
I will go out alone to play
Yes, I will dream everyday
I will walk down the streets of my city
Without fear today.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Terror and Urban Apathy

[Published Assam Tribune, 21 January 2009]

After the devastating serial blasts in Assam, on October 30, – six of which were in the capital Guwahati – everybody in the media and elsewhere was talking about how insurgency there has degenerated into urban terrorism. What very few people were talking about is that Guwahati has experienced such terror before, many times and with similar shocking impact. It is of course true these most recent blasts were of a higher magnitude and much better coordinated than any other that the entire North East with its long history of conflict and violence has ever seen. What is also true, however, is that it is definitely not the first instance of big or serial blasts in the city, nor of multiple casualties and severe damage as was being projected by most media with clichés like terror getting a new face there.

The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) which is one of the groups under suspicion for the October 30 blasts, has on earlier instances also been accused of involvement in triggering powerful explosions in Guwahati and killing many. In 2004 alone, for instance, the group targeted Guwahati five times, one of which included a series of blasts in one upper and four lower Assam districts, besides two in Guwahati. Six people were killed and about 80 injured. But Guwahati has not been targeted by the ULFA alone. No one who has followed the conflict scenario in Assam can forget the 1992 blast in the busy Paltan Bazar area of the city where at least 43 persons were killed and nearly 150 injured. An ex-‘insurgent’ who is currently the chief of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), Hagrama Mahilary, was widely suspected to be behind this blast. Today, Mahilary’s party, the Bodoland Peoples Front (BPF), is part of the ruling coalition in Assam, sharing power with the Congress-led government.

So if any new face was given to terror at all, it was not done on October 30, 2008, nor by the perpetrators of terror alone who have only done what they have been doing for a long time now ever since they traded away their ideologies in exchange for shelter and security. On the contrary, the painting of a new face for terror has been in process for a while now and at the helm of this process has been the state itself which condones such acts, often even legitimises them. Whether this legitimisation be in the form of political power sharing, or bestowing of financial largesse and an above-and-beyond-the-law status – as that provided to many Surrendered ULFA (or SULFA as they are popularly known) cadres – the fact is that nobody has been held accountable for perpetrating such heinous crimes against humanity. On the contrary, they have been rewarded and the powers that be have patted themselves on their backs for bringing ‘the youths gone astray’ back to the ‘mainstream’.

Meanwhile, what has been happening to the ‘mainstream' – whatever its definition? With such criminal elements being pushed back into its midst and woven into its fabric, the very nature of Guwahati society has changed forever. From a predominantly quiet middle class city holding dearly on to certain traditional values that defined it, it has transformed – in the course of much less than a decade – into a brash, garish, confrontative, ugly city that has internalised the discourses of death, destruction and violence to the extent that it has become inured, even apathetic.

Many ‘morning-after’ reports in the media relating to the bomb blasts talked – again in clichés – about people bravely coming out on the streets of Guwahati defying terror and fear, refusing to be cowed down, their spirits uncrushed. I saw these reports on national media, which usually relegate news of such events in the North East to the tickers at the bottom of the screens, or better still, ignores them: like the October 22 blast in Manipur where 15 people were killed and 24 injured. The October 30 Assam blasts however made it big, given their resemblance to the recent spate of bombings elsewhere in India and speculations about the suspected collaboration of Islamist militants. The day before, I had also seen raw unedited footage of the blast sites on TV, thanks to satellite technology. And everybody in Guwahati had seen them too. Earlier – before the North East had its first satellite television channel and insensitive unethical journalists thrust their microphones at burnt, bleeding and grievously injured blast victims and camerapersons blithely filmed charred bodies and mangled limbs and the channel aired them with a cursory ‘unedited footage’ note – the reality of suffering in and witnessing a bomb blast might not have been so palpable. And yet, on the evening of the blast when I spoke to my parents in Guwahati for the ninth time that day – my father had had a close call – my mother told me with horror that she could hear people bursting leftover Diwali crackers!

No news channel, national or otherwise, of course reported this because it has nothing to do with changing the faces of terror. And talking of urban apathy does not go well with the proclaimed political agenda of tackling terror and its perpetrators. So they call the proverbial rose by another name, one that smells sweeter. After all both are ways to come to terms with the blood and gore that defines city life in times of terror. Only, the way my city has learnt to live with the phenomenon seems as inhuman as the acts of terror themselves.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Burnt Flesh and Xewali Flowers...
After a long gap, I am writing in Assamese again. This one was a reaction to the 31 October serial blasts in Assam, six of which were in Guwahati, the media circus that marked it, and the urban apathy that followed. It was published in Deobariya Khabar, the Sunday supplement of the daily Asomiya Khabar on 16/11/2008.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

AN EPIPHANY

My poets loved Guwahati then, and love it still. Inspite of the fact that it gobbles up all energy like a black hole, inspite of its ugliness, inspite of its festering soul. Temptress, tormentor, lover, bride, killer, companion, dream, reality – the city is all this and more for them. They look under the layers of filth for traces of her beauty; they come back over and over again to her, ‘even now, hanging from a city bus’.

Why this passionate attraction transcending time? How this sustained infatuation?

The poet has the key…

The sound from your veins
Guwahati
Resound once again
In mine.


And such empathy brings with it an epiphany. The city courses through your veins, mingled with your breath. You love it when you live it.
***

Sushil Duara, of course, is rabidity itself. No empathy there, only antipathy – to everything that the city has become. He is also a slave to selective memory. Although we do not directly get a description of Duara’s utopian Guwahati, we do get a strong feel of it through his paranoid take on the present.

If Nero playing the fiddle while Rome burnt is apathy, certainly Duara’s hostility to Guwahati while it continues on its course is best defined as antipathy?
***

Throughout this re-look on the city of my birth, I have often found myself alternating between my poets’ empathy and Sushil Duara’s antipathy. At times, I almost felt I had lost my grip on reality – just like Sushil Duara. But I have strived to find a balance, between unqualified nostalgia – often nostalgia for an imagined past, or a past viewed from a singular perspective – and an equally unqualified abhorrence – of a present that does not flow naturally, lineally from my imagination or wishful projection.

Maybe if I hadn’t come back, I could have lived happily ever after with the idea of my homeland, rather than with the idea of my lost homeland which my return forced upon me. Having been in Guwahati for the last two years, and seen that not only is the present not faithful to my imagination, but also the past, I had had to live with a sense of complete bereavement…

Until the image of a love-crazed poet on the banks of the Brahmaputra brought to mind a picture I had taken on the same river – my river – not very long ago…

The poet’s sun is a dead sun, and yet he loves the city that buries it in its bosom.

You know he bathed in the Brahmaputra of your bosom every day
You know he waited every day at the ferry
ghat
To watch the red dead sun
Descending, shuddering, into the fisherman’s net.

My sun is alive, and though it may not live long today, it shall rise again tomorrow and bring life to a city that in the prognosis of many – like me formerly and Sushil Duara eternally – has lost its soul.
My Red River



Thursday, May 25, 2006

HOW IMAGINED IS THE IMAGINARY HOMELAND?

I don’t know…

Why these ramblings about a home I no longer feel at home in? Was there anything utopian about the past, other than the projections of a wishful imagination? What is the ‘ideal’ really? Why do I look to the past for it? Am I not also a victim of the Romantic, the burden of which the Historical has always had to carry? Or am I perpetrator and a propagator of the same?

The answers to these questions, if I were to be very honest, would be
- Don’t know
- No
- Don’t know
- It’s convenient
- I am
- All of the above

A present that derives from a utopian past that I subscribe to makes it convenient for me to rave and rant against the ‘others’ who have ostensibly gone against the tenets of that utopia. I can safely proclaim, ‘I am not in that brigade’. End of story. I do not commit myself to anything beyond that.

But imagine if I were an optimist and looked forward to a utopian future. It would put the onus on me to work towards it, would it not? Would I not have to decide what would constitute that utopia? Would I not have to live up to it then, if only to maintain my high moral ground? I would most certainly have to.

So what do I do to shirk responsibility? I live in the past. I wear the mantle of the exiled intellectual who knows her homeland is only imaginary, but still hankers after what was and is now lost.
***

I ask the poet what he thinks about the loss of ideology and erosion of values in the Guwahati psyche of today – as if it was or could ever be one unified entity, a homogenous glob of ideas and sentiments, one identity. And I know I am too lenient with the past, too indulgent; my line of questioning is selective, just like the collective memory.

Dating from the late 70’s and early 80’s, there are these pictures of civil disobedience and mass defiance everywhere; there’s a lot of blood in some of them. There is one of blood on the main road at Chandmari. Inscribed in that blood is a now immortalized slogan of the movement: tej dim, tel nidiu: take blood, no oil. Swathed in bandages, the chest that oozed all that blood appears as a symbol of the dedication and determination that fired an entire generation of youths to fight for the right to self-determination and against neo-colonization. There were many who shed more blood and not quite so voluntarily either.

On the north bank of the city also – that part of Guwahati which remains sub-urban in nature but from where the city originally began developing – some blood was being spilled. Only this was the blood of indigenous agriculturalists, and among the perpetrators of violence were student leaders fighting against the bohiragata, ‘foreigners’. For obvious reasons, images from Phulung Sapori do not make it to pictorial depictions of the Assam Movement.

It was not ideology that was involved in the Phulung Sapori incident, and I skim over it, as does the collective memory. Only somewhere at the back of my mind, the cover page of Syed Abdul Malik’s Moi Morinu Najau Kiyo flares up for an instant. I can almost smell the putrid smell of rotting dead bodies of people massacred in one of the worst genocides ever, at Nellie, hardly a two hours’ drive from Guwahati...

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

BOHAG MATHU ETI RITU NAHAI
(Bohag is not merely a season)


It is Bihu back home

Perhaps there is bohag in the air,
Perhaps death.
Perhaps dhol-pepa-gagana sound
Perhaps bullets.
Perhaps the kopou is in bloom
Perhaps blood.

…bullet, blood and death, death, blood and bullet: that’s all there is. Perhaps I am better away; or perhaps, better home…

But it is Bihu today
Back home,
And I am away.
***

I wrote this in 1998 in a bout of intense nostalgia that was mixed with sadness at the loss of a highly romanticized paradise. It is Bihu again back home, but home has lost much of its romance, because I have lost much of my romanticism.

Or perhaps not. If I had, would I be running away today from Bihu back home because I cannot stand the cacophony of the growing commercialization of Bihu (as of everything else) in Guwahati? Bullet, blood and death seem preferable to this cacophony, because they at least indicate that somebody is still fighting for something, that somebody still has faith in some ideology, and has not freshly sold their integrity and pandered the collective soul for a few hundred thousand rupees.
***

But this is not a discussion of how the flag bearers of the aspirations of every small and big nationality in Assam are increasingly going around – as a senior friend wryly puts it – with a ‘to let’ sign on their behinds. This is a discussion about the increasing commercialization of Bihu as it is celebrated in Guwahati. The sell-out of ideology by its keepers is relevant to this discussion only as far as it explains the larger phenomenon of commercialization of society in Assam at large. After all, if the price of a car is the same as the price of a soul, imagine the number of cars there will be cluttering the street outside every bihutoli in Guwahati. Would not the smoke from these cars smother all ideologies?
***

When Radha Gobinda Baruah brought Rongali Bihu onstage for the first time at Latasil in Guwahati in 1952, I wonder if he had any idea that in another half century, everything about Bihu would be stage managed – from its form and content to its very spirit – and that to the unrestrained demonstrations of love, laughter, gala and gaiety that characterize Rongali Bihu would also be added the ostentatious demonstration of wealth. Today, Bihu has become big business. Some individuals live solely on the income generated by organizing Bihu once every year – also, there are the ridiculous add-ons like Bohagi Adarani Utsab (festival for welcoming Bohag or spring) and Bohagi Bidai (farewell to Bohag) celebrated before and after the actual traditional Bihu time. All in all, almost every time of the year has become festival time because staged festivals translate into income generation. There is no dearth of sponsors, or of artistes and wannabes, or of organizers. If there is any dearth, it is of the spontaneity that Bihu stands for.
***

As a child, Bihu time was an exciting and busy time for me too. When rehearsing for chorus or Bihu dance competitions organized in various bihutolis, I did not however realize that I was also being part of a process of commercializing Bihu. I only used to get goosebumps every time I sang ‘Sira Senehi Mur Bhaxa Janani’ or ‘O Mur Apunar Dex’ and saw the gamosa fluttering atop the flag post at the bihutoli. I was amazed at the richness of my culture while watching the cultural shows that many times lasted till the pre-dawn hours. I questioned nothing, accepted everything; even the fact that Mukoli Bihu (open-air Bihu), which is the only true kind of Bihu, had become an aberration, organized only at select locations in Guwahati.
***

I had never seen Bihu outside Guwahati, except in films and on television. In Sibasagar last week, I saw Bihu in a different form. Most of the celebrations were in the open air. At the Gargaon Kareng Ghar, from tiny tots to youngsters, everybody formed troupes and was dancing. At a village near Charaideo, I saw little girls and boys going from house to house singing husori and dancing Bihu and blessing each family at the end of the performance as was the ritual. It was a pleasure to see these tiny ones tottering around and banging on their instruments trying to achieve some semblance of tune and rhythm. A filmmaker friend from Kolkata was fascinated by the colorful picture these little dancers projected. I found myself wishing I had had a share of this when I was a child.

Then suddenly, while driving around to catch some of the color on camera, our car had to brake hastily as a troupe of these pint-sized performers threw a bamboo pole on the road. In order to be able to proceed, we had to pay them a ransom, and I realized they had imbibed the contemporary easy-money culture quite thoroughly. If it is not a bamboo pole, it is a gun; if it is not a troupe of dancers, it is a band of current or ex- ‘revolutionaries’. And if paying up is the only way to pass by and continue on one’s journey, who wouldn’t? We certainly did. Anybody mindful of their own interests would.

Just as a corporate house would pay a troupe of local young men a sum of more than a hundred thousand rupees simply for coming first in a husori competition (and they instantly spend that sum on food and drinks). If this effectively dilutes any resistance to their anti-local activities and co-opts the section of the society that is most likely to resist, why not?
***

It is Bihu back home, and for once I am glad I left before I saw more.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

INTERVIEW WITH NILIM KUMAR, POET AND AYURVEDIC DOCTOR, BY UDDIPANA GOSWAMI ON 20TH MARCH, 2006
---


WHY THIS INTENSE ATTRACTION TOWARDS GUWAHATI? YOU KNOW IT IS UGLY, FESTERING, AND YET WHY IS THERE SO MUCH LOVE FOR IT?

I was born and brought up in Pathsala and moved to Guwahati in 1979. Guwahati attracted me from the very beginning. I wrote the poem when I was briefly away from the city: my posting was in Karbi Anglong then. There is a lot of nostalgic love for the city in this poem. My entire youth was spent in Guwahati, the city shaped me in many ways. So naturally I was in love with it.

1979 WOULD HAVE BEEN THE TIME WHEN THE ASSAM MOVEMENT HAD JUST BEGUN. WHAT WAS YOUR EXPERIENCE OF THE MOVEMENT IN GUWAHATI?

I was studying in the Ayurvedic College in Jalukbari and you might know that the movement had its centre in the Gauhati University at Jalukbari. Naturally I was drawn into it, everybody was. However, given my leftist leanings at the time, I did not get entirely involved in the movement, I did not jump into it so to say.

WHATEVER THE CRITICISMS WE MAY LEVEL AGAINST THE MOVEMENT TODAY, IT WAS INDUBITABLY A GLORIOUS MOMENT IN THE HISTORY OF ASSAMESE NATIONALISM WHEN THE YOUTH OF ASSAM, FIRED BY AN IDEOLOGY AND DEDICATION TO A CAUSE, ROUSED AN ENTIRE NATION TO CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE. WHERE IS THAT FIRE AND PASSION GONE NOW? I DON’T SEE ANY OF IT IN THE YOUTH TODAY…

The youth today have lost their faith in political ideologies and have given up their idealism. The political unrest that has marked the past few decades of Assam’s history has mainly been the cause of that. Insurgency and the centre’s policies aimed at controlling insurgency have also affected the youth’s psyche to a great extent.

There was a time when student politics was development oriented, forward-looking, passionate. But since the entry into Assam politics of the discourse, degradation and corruption that marks pan-Indian politics, student politics here has also changed character.

AND HOW DOES THE LOSS OF IDEALISM AFFECT THE YOUTH’S RELATION TO THEIR CITY?

We had an emotional relationship with Guwahati, we cared. We were roused by events that took place in Guwahati. I do not see that happening among the youth now. Guwahati has been reduced to a carnival ground, where they only have fun. They use Guwahati today as their playground but they do not care for the city. It does not belong to them, nor do they belong to it.

IS IT BECAUSE OF THE RAPID COMMERCIALISATION THAT HAS BEEN TAKING PLACE IN THE PAST FEW YEARS?

It works both ways. Commercialisation gives rise to this kind of an apathy towards the city on the one hand; and on the other, it is this kind of apathy that encourages commercialisation at the cost of everything else.

YOU SPOKE ON THE ONE HAND, ABOUT THE IMPACT OF INSURGENCY AND ON THE OTHER, OF THE STATE’S COUNTER-INSURGENCY MEASURES ON THE PSYCHE OF THE YOUTH OF GUWAHATI. IT IS COMMON KNOWLEDGE THAT TO A GREAT EXTENT THE INFLOW OF UNACCOUNTED MONEY AND RAPID COMMERCIAL GROWTH OF MOST OF THE NORTHEAST, ESPECIALLY OF ITS URBAN CENTRES, HAS BEEN A RESULT OF THESE TWO FORCES. DO YOU AGREE WITH THE VIEW THAT GUWAHATI HAS ALSO BEEN A VICTIM OF THE PHENOMENON?

Definitely. When one is flush with funds one does not care about ideologies. Emotions suffer in the bargain. And Guwahati, as the cultural and political centre of the Northeast, has taken the impact of all the negative impacts of insurgency and counter-insurgency. Even if certain incidents do not happen in Guwahati per se, tremors are felt in the city; it is sensitive to developments in the entire Northeast.
***
INTERVIEW WITH HAREKRISHNA DEKA, POET AND RETIRED POLICE OFFICER, BY UDDIPANA GOSWAMI ON 20TH MARCH, 2006.
---


WHAT DOES GUWAHATI MEAN TO YOU?

The poem is a reflection of my attraction towards the Guwahati city. It is an ugly city, an unplanned city, and it is a city that, like a blackhole, gobbles up all energy. But inspite of that, I have always been attracted to it. That is what the poem also expresses.

WHY THIS ATTRACTION? WHAT IS IT ABOUT GUWAHATI THAT CONTINUES TO ATTRACT POETS LIKE YOU OR NILIM KUMAR WHOSE POEM EXPRESSING THE MAGNETISM OF GUWAHATI – BOTH OF YOU CONSIDER HER YOUR LONG LOST LOVER WHO STILL CAPTIVATES YOU, YOUR EMOTIONS – WAS PUBLISHED ALMOST TWO DECADES AFTER YOU WROTE YOUR ODE TO GUWAHATI?

There is pulsating life in the city. It is a living city, not a dead one. True there has been a lot of social degeneration here, but there are still a few things about it that make the city alluring. Its intellectual and cultural lives, for instance, are still vibrant. And most importantly, nature has not abandoned Guwahati. Despite all vandalism by human beings, nature continues to be kind to its inhabitants. The Brahmaputra continues to flow and the hills still provide scenic beauty. Although human habitation has come up like ugly sores upon these hills, they are still beautiful. The tress still grow, the birds still come to visit Guwahati.

BUT FOR HOW LONG?

For as long as it takes. Guwahati will live. All it requires is awareness on the part of its inhabitants and a tremendous effort to reverse the onslaught made upon the city.

MY EXPERIENCE HAS BEEN THAT THE CITIZENS OF GUWAHATI ARE BECOMING LESS AND LESS AWARE, AND MORE AND MORE APATHETIC.

There has not been any dramatic show of civic awareness maybe, but a slight growth has been noticeable. There have been instances when citizens have come out into the street to get their demands fulfilled. Besides, a few NGOs are doing their best to save Guwahati. We need more concentrated effort and proper policies and planning. For instance, satellite townships have become a necessity given the pressure of population on Guwahati. We need to think along these developmental terms.

BUT GUWAHATI HAS BEEN DEVELOPING – IF YOU CAN CALL THE KIND OF COMMERCIAL GROWTH WE HAVE SEEN IN THE PAST FEW YEARS AS DEVELOPMENT AT ALL – AT A FURIOUS PACE, SO FAST THAT I FEEL IT HAS BEEN THROWN OUT OF GEAR ALMOST. WOULD YOU AGREE TO THAT?

I am originally from Sarthebari, but was born and brought up in Tinsukia. But I moved to Guwahati for my education way back in 1959. I have seen the kind of commercial growth Guwahati has undergone since then, especially since the capital of Assam was shifted from Shillong to Dispur, and it became the gateway to the Northeast. The growth has been rapid and haphazard. In present times, the commercialisation has been more frantic; there is a lot of fund money coming in from all quarters, and all of this gets concentrated in Guwahati, with no accountability or transparency. The money does not filter down to rural Assam where there is more need for it. Mismanagement of resources by the state has resulted in such discrepancy.

But having said all this, I would still maintain that the city has not been derailed or thrown off its tracks. Take Calcutta for example. It is a metro but it still retains its value system in many ways. Similarly in Guwahati, the sense of community, especially among the Assamese and Bengali communities, is not entirely lost. And that is the saving grace.

BUT WHAT ABOUT THE YOUTH OF GUWAHATI?

The positive side of the commercialisation and expansion of Guwhati has been the opening up of new avenues for educational and vocational training of the youth. They are certainly benefiting from it.

CAREER DEVELOPMENT APART, WOULD YOU SAY THE YOUTH OF GUWAHATI TODAY HAVE THE SAME KIND OF VALUES IN THEM THAT THEY PROBABLY HAD IN THE 1970S AND ’80S WHEN ASSAM SAW A CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE MOVEMENT OF TREMENDOUS PROPORTION AND THE STUDENT COMMUNITY PROVIDED LEADERSHIP TO THE MOVEMENT?

No, certainly not. When I wrote the poem in 1981, the situation in Guwahati was volatile. It was the peak of the Assam movement. And inspite of the unrest, Guwahati attracted me; it was throbbing with life. I was the Superintendent of Police (Kamrup) at the time, and I have seen and dealt with student politics of the time. But it is sad that student politics today has been reduced to a politics of opportunism. It is all about easy money. There is a lot of glitz and glamour that steers the youth of Guwahati today.
***