By Sabreen Ahmed
A red Alto-800 car headed through the murky rural roads to a four-lane national highway that led to the busy town of Nagaon, a commercial hub of Middle Assam. Saira, a half-widow in her mid-twenties sat at the backseat, unmindful of the jerks and jolts that came her way through the rash driving of Imtiaz, her distant relative. It was monsoon and the incessant rain soaked the busy streets with mud splashes, thronged all along with school buses, trucks, tempos and rickshaws leading to annoying traffic jams. She looked through the rain-splattered window panes to the hectic provincial world outside. Myriad thoughts of a brazen past brew in her mind as they moved through the traffic.
Her eyes met the regular sight of a lunatic beggar picking up food crumbs near the main bridge over the River Kolong, a tributary of the mighty Brahmaputra that connects the two parts of the town. She reflexively observed the lunatic or beggar and was engulfed by an uncomfortable feeling of angst. Thousands of possibilities swarmed through her mind about his assumed perversions inadvertently taking her back to Imran, her lost husband serving in the Indian Army who might be sharing a similar fate in some part of the subcontinent. Before losing herself in the next series of apprehensions, the car stopped at a traffic signal. She hurriedly dismissed the brooding negative thoughts by looking intently at the resplendent golden sonaru and the blazing red krisnasura flowers blooming profusely by the riverside and seeped in their vibrancy for distraction. The road took a turn. Tuning her clouded mind to come out of its habitual stupor with a fake attempt at composure, Saira peered outside the wet glasses of her car and found herself in the everyday humdrum around her workplace.
She ran an NGO with a small rented room as its office, situated on the first floor of a dilapidated building just near the official campus of a university established in the name of the legendary cultural icon and Vaishnavite saint, Srimanta Sankardeva. The ground floor of the same building was occupied by a chemist’s shop and a pathological laboratory. Her NGO worked for the betterment of abandoned children around her area and wished to build its own registered children’s home. It was quite an alternate venture in view of her conservative social milieu where child labour was not thought to be ignominious and cases of molestation remained hidden. As she set out the paper work of the case on which she and her six member team worked, she heard a commotion outside. Imitiaz who also assisted her in small official errands was caught up in a fight downstairs just near the parking space. Someone from the laboratory had thrown urine samples at her car and Imtiaz was bursting at the girl who sat at the reception. The matter of discord was the parking space and the spilled urine was supposed to be a hint to stop Saira from bringing her car. Saira in spite of her small built and quiet demeanour ferociously intervened in the scene. She threatened the owner with a police complaint and calmly went back to her desk to resume work.
A hazardous life had taught Saira enough to shore up a valiant and detached composure as an individual. She was neither a nihilist, nor a bohemian but the bitter truth of surviving amidst pain gave her an indomitable attitude to face harshness. By canopying the abandoned children she hoped to ease the gnawing pain embedded in her heart and embalm the ineradicable scars etched in the archives of her memory. As she poured herself to her laptop giving the finishing touch to the application for a project seeking fund from an international organisation, her phone rang. On the other side of the line was an elderly female voice of a lady from Shillong who informed that her NGO found a slot in the network of NGOs from North-East to prevent child abuse. With jubilant fingers working on her mobile’s touchscreen she shared and spread the good news to the others in her team.
Imitiaz brought some paper and ink for the printer and began his verbal tirade against Saikia the owner of the chemist shop and laboratory. He said, “He called me a ‘rotten muslim’ gela miya and spilt the urine at the car. They hate us.” Saira tried to pacify him. “Miya is a positive word; it means elder dangoriya. You should have told him we Miyas are the new Assamese, so you feel less humiliated.” Saira along with many others in her community slowly internalized the fact that beef-eaters had suddenly become as abominable as rapists and murderers and almost every young bearded man with a skull cap like Imitiaz was often seen as a potential terrorist by a large section of the masses. She knew it very well that one could not blame the hatemongers or the saffron brigade wholly. The Muslim politicians were busy in their necromantic talismans to befool the ignorant ones or even the so-called secular ones had not done much for the long-term benefit of the community in Assam. They could not even revamp the Madrassa system on progressive lines and instead blindly followed the fashion of the Arabs. Saira had often wondered about the professional future of the children tied to scriptures when she passed across the numerous hafizi and hafizia madrassas that jostled the outskirts of her town like food joints. A skill-based progressive Islam was a far cry at least in her part of the rural world. She consoled Imitiaz by clarifying that Saikia and his likes were only vomiting the overfed jargon of hatred which had developed over time as a national and cultural fad. “Anyways who cares about the death knell of democracy in the country? Take the car to a garage and go home to change your soiled clothes.”
Saira locked her single-roomed office and came downstairs carefully lifting her green pyjama with white polka dots to avoid dirt. She crossed the road and went to the District Court, situated right across her building to meet their young legal advisor Vishnu Sharma to know about the proceedings of the case of an 8-year-old Hasina, a domestic help abused by her employers. The heavy downpour that had drenched the town in the morning had now subsided and the rays of sun pierced the bellowing clouds. She saw Vishnu coming out with a happy face. The girl was admitted to the civil hospital and the doctor in their group, Dr. Moitryee Khound attended her. Later Hasina was to be restored to her parents along with a security deposit of Rs. 100,000. It was her first success, yet it was too early for Saira to celebrate as the NGO ran on the finances of her father-in-law and she still was hesitant in drawing more connections beyond her immediate circle.
Her initial exposure to the world outside her locale was through her extensive readings followed by her tumultuous stay at the Srinagar base during Imran’s Kashmir tenure in the bitter-sweet moments of her ill-fated marriage. Despite her enormous talent and potential as a student, her dreams of becoming a doctor remained unfilled. She couldn’t crack the entrance and had no time or money to wait for a second chance with an ailing father and two younger motherless siblings. Her mother had died at the hands of a local quack or kabiraj while giving birth to her only male child who was born with deformities. Her chance meeting with Habibur Alam Baruah, the then Superintendent of Police in her district, in a state level speech competition where she won the best orators prize brought her into his good books, followed by a marriage proposal for his only son Imran. It was a highly respectable proposal to be rejected by her father Samsul Akhter, a primary school teacher with failing health and increasing responsibilities. Saira had no choice but to adjust to the way her fate was irredeemably sealed by her elders and agree to a marriage right after her degree finals with a man she didn’t meet but knew only through some formal phone calls from a war zone. Now after his loss, she could only talk with her father-in-law with ease just like talking to an old comrade, a level of comfort that she never had even with her own father. But with her mother-in-law, it was just the contrary.
Imran’s mother with her air of city-bred sophistication found it difficult to comply with her husband’s choice which her son had accepted with all his heart. Coming from a village dominated by Bangla-origin Muslims, Saira was inadequate to her idea of a cultured Assamese Muslim lady. The Assamese Muslims mostly consisted of the Goriya clan to which the Baruah family belonged to. Saira’s mother Amina Nahar herself came from a village where the majority of Assamese speakers were followers of Islam, yet her mother-in-law always assumed an air of linguistic superiority over her. Saira’s father was of East Bengal origin but spoke in Assamese with his children as it was their mother tongue. Nonetheless his love for his own Mymensinghia dialect was nourished in his communication with his relatives and neighbours. Saira grew up in a bilingual milieu with emotional proficiency for both Assamese and Mymensinghia. She admired her mother’s lineage in their comparatively lesser restrictive manner of practicing Islam and yet drew inspiration from her hardworking paternal aunt Sakina. Saira had lost her mother before her own puberty and life was never the same again.
Despite societal pressure after her mother’s death, her father never remarried and raised the children with the help of his divorced sister Sakina, an anganwadi worker who guided the village women in health-related issues but was ironically perceived with scepticism for her own childless state. Saira wished to find her mother in Imran’s mother, but the latter never replenished her urge. Saira had often felt that the goriyas were the worst sufferers of identity crisis in a politically changing Assam. She equated their condition with the Mohajirs of Pakistan, who are disowned by the Indians and granted second class citizenship by the Pakistanis. In a similar vein, the goriyas are often not considered Assamese in the line of the Hindu upper classes and other non-scheduled caste/tribe of Assamese speakers in a newly moulded Assam awaiting its much-debated National Register of Citizens. She found it amusing that educated women like Tasfia Jahan Barauh and her coterie of cultural snobs still gloated with the belief that they were a section of the khilonjias or indigenous Assamese. But in those days Muslims in Assam were unabashedly abused or emotionally ostracised as “Bangladeshis” by prominent groups and some common people driven by the euphoria of the indigenization hullabaloo ironically created a backlash in the name of protests.
The words Miya, Axomiya, Khilonjia along with the regionalist slogan “Jati, Veti, Mati” seemed rhythmically poetic but when repeated with refrain their effect had a deeply cacophonous underbelly that eroded the unifying ethos of the land, despite the seemingly united CAA protests. Many broadminded people accepted the reality of polarization and stood up to take a stand. There were also a section of others who appeared to be secular but with a patronizing attitude and often called certain discriminations as playing a victim card. While there were still many others indifferent to the blame games and for whom humanism came before language or religion – these small groups of resilient people made the world liveable and hopeful. That year even the resilient River Kolong joined the mighty Brahmaputra in creating mayhem for the land and its people through heavy floods, despite the sacramental festivities to appease the creator Brahma’s son.
Food recipes became political as borders and language for a newly married Saira. The kitchen was the breeding ground of discontent with Imran’s mother. Despite Saira’s culinary skills of making perfect narikol larus shaped as mini Ping-Pong balls, soft chapatis resembling a full-moon, common recipes like Pulao, Kofta, Korma and various meat curries that she had learnt from her aunts, she could never come close to the efficiency of her mother-in law. Tasfia boasted of her signature style pan-Indian cuisines like the Kashmiri Wazwan and Mutton Roganjosh, Nawabi chicken delicacies, Roomali Roti, different styles of Biryanis, Paranthas, phirnis, halwas, stylish salads and many more. Saira loved making fish items mainly of the smaller and darker variety and various dry fish chutneys typical to her village, which was disliked in the kitchen of the Baruah Mansion. She was always taunted by her mother-in-law for her aversion towards beef, an unavoidable delicacy in Muslim homes all over India. The historic beef ban came as a bane for many, less on religious grounds but more on the very apprehension of having to curb their hedonism for a delicious and cheap variety of wholesome meat. Saira had often joked with her folks at home, “Be prepared to stick to a vegetarian diet. The beefless days are ahead. Every Muslim village will have a beefless kitchen.” It was indeed a sadist chance for the rich snobs of the foodie community to talk about the dangers of red meat, but the poor had to compromise a cheaper form of nutrition, a business and sometimes even lynching. Saira apprehended that the beefless days would not be short-lived unlike her stay in the Baruah Mansion; nevertheless she always stood for a free kitchen without borders.
Saira’s decision to leave the Baruah Mansion after Imran’s loss was welcomed by Habibur Alam and he gave her a free hand to choose her own way as a daughter. He had accepted the harsh reality that Imran was dead at the frontiers like the other two officers in the team who led the surgical strikes as declared by the Army headquarters at Srinagar. But Saira refused to comply with the idea of death as Imran’s body or for that matter any of his belongings could never be traced. She clung to a firm idyllic belief that he must be in some jail in the other part of the Line of Control in Pakistan as a prisoner of war. An ex-police personnel, who was himself a Baruah, came to Kashmir and used all his resources to know about the people held captive in various jails in the subcontinent both in India occupied Kashmir and Pakistan occupied Kashmir but all his hopes went in vain. No information about Imran could be deciphered like many untold and unresolved tales between the borders and amended constitutional articles.
Saira had waited for long in Srinagar for Imran’s return. It was natural that she received directions from the Army headquarters to vacate the place and complete the proceedings of receiving his pension and other emoluments. A shattered Saira refused to leave Kashmir and Imran’s memories for good. The trampled dry leaves of the Chinar and the lakes were a testimony to the cries of mothers like Tasfia and many half-widows like Saira who lost their loved ones. Barauh and his wife who reconciled to their fate took an unstable Saira to a psychiatrist in Delhi to bring her out of her trauma. The young spectacled psychiatrist in his finely decorated chamber tried in vain to manipulate Saira’s feelings through counselling. He suggested a rigorous course of medicine for six months and some social therapy. Tasfia mysteriously mellowed with her son’s disappearance but her feelings for Saira remained unchanged.
Coming back to Assam Saira was sent to her paternal home to be under the care of her aunt Sakina pehi and her sister Sufia, an aspiring medical student. Baruah forced her to continue with her studies and even planned her remarriage but Saira was unyielding. She still hoped that Imran will come back to her. In some moment of epiphany amidst bleak loneliness may be a year after her return from Kashmir, she spoke to her father-in-law about the idea of the NGO and in no time it merged them with a purpose to contain their hollowed existence. The impending visit to Shillong to sign the MoU with similar agencies in the North-East was a chance for Saira to pull in resources beyond that of her patron and the pension of her officially dead husband.
As her memories faded in the darkness of her mind, she looked towards her future goal of nourishing her orphanage and finding the traces of Imran in some human space or form. Continued strife with life seemed no longer a chaos. She had tuned herself to the music of sadness. But for the moment she eagerly waited for Imtiaz to come back with the car and prepared for the next day by calling over Vishnu to her office. Dr. Maitryee Khound too joined with some packed food as a surprise treat at their team’s first success. They were all eager for the visit to Meghalaya enlivened with the hope of building a home for the abandoned having a borderless kitchen. It was late afternoon when Imitiaz returned with the cleaned-up red Alto car, wearing a new pair of pathan suit. The stains had been washed off and the car freshened with the strong smell of a spilled bottle of Itar. Imtiaz parked it back in the same spot. Beaming with a placid smile, he discarded the memory of the insult in a putrid corner of his mind like pelting garbage in the increasingly polluted Kolong, the river that flowed nonchalantly like many other rivers with water hyacinths as well as dangerous pollutants alongside the trials, joys and sorrows of human history.
Sabreen Ahmed has received her PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi in Feb 2013. Her Thesis is entitled “Muffled Voices: The Zenana in the Fiction of Muslim Women Writers from South Asia.” She has done her post- graduation from the University of Delhi (2005) and graduation from Cotton College, Guwahati (2003). She writes book reviews, fiction and articles for The Thumbprint, The Assam Tribune, Café Dissensus, and others. She has published an anthology of poems, Soliloquies and edited a book, Indian Fiction in English and the Northeast. Currently she is an Assistant Professor at the Dept. of English, Nowgong College, Nagaon, Assam.
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