The roads were abandoned this morning. An unnatural quiet prevailed in the narrow threadlike lanes that led off the main road along the river. The small houses that lined them were still: no sound of people talking, no errant television chatter or laughter. The only human presence was the clusters of policemen in khaki and the occasional police vehicle that coasted past them.
So many times in these past few years this small town had been gripped by such protests. Ever since the students of the AASU had decided to fight the government on the issue of Bangladeshis being allowed to not just stay but also vote, the state had been thrown into chaos.
Normal life had been overtaken by the unpredictable: the rhythms of offices, schools, colleges, households, births, deaths and weddings—all had been ruptured by the overwhelming call of the cause. Four years now and the Agitation—it was aptly named, the movement the students had launched in 1979—showed no signs of abating. The people of Assam had not lost hope or courage or energy yet. They spilled out on to the streets in their thousands when summoned by the student leaders—the Boys, as they were affectionately called—to picket and demonstrate and protest, and stayed indoors with windows closed and lights out when ordered to by the same leaders.
Rukmini had marched on the roads too. On sweltering summer mornings, she had walked alongside her fellow medical students, in angry phalanxes, from the hill the college stood on, to Dispur, to the seat of the state government. In the blazing sun—thin cotton blouse stuck to her wet back, silk mekhela clinging to her damp legs—she had stood patiently blocking the gates of the Secretariat preventing officials and ministers from entering their offices. Faint with hunger and sometimes fear, at the sight of the restless police cadres grouped in front of
them, she had shouted with hundreds of others, Joi Ai Assam.
Long live Assam. Long live the Motherland.
A state at war. A city at war, that was what this city had become. The bandh this day had allowed her town a small reprieve, given it a chance to remind Rukmini of how it had been before it was stoked into a blaze.
In recent times, she had not paused to stop and look at it. This morning the city was graceful in its tranquil elegance. On the low green hills and in the valleys that nestled between them, single-storeyed houses with their half-timbered walls of plastered ikora reed and charming pitched corrugated metal roofs—called the ‘Assam-type houses’—lay close to the ground, encircled by rings of green: slim straight betel nut palms, sturdier coconut palms, mango trees with unexpected seasonal inflorescences of flamboyant orchid, and tangled shrubs bearing flowers and fruits throughout the year. Some even possessed their own little ponds, their unruffled surfaces studded with pink water lilies.
Each house an oasis unto itself, Rukmini liked to think. In Robin Khura’s modest backyard there was just such a small pond, where Jitu, his son, and she had spent many a morning trying to catch the fish that lurked beneath the glassy green waters. There was some concrete now: there had been very little of that in the days when she had been growing up. But now in many compounds, in most neighbourhoods, concrete houses had been built alongside the old ones, and in some, the older ones had been torn down entirely to make space for the new. Nevertheless, these new buildings hardly ever rose above two floors, they did not breach the canopy that surrounded them. Only in a few areas—the bazaar areas along the river mainly, Fancy Bazaar and Pan Bazaar—did a few tall buildings stand. The rest of the town still hugged the ground it was built on.
‘So quiet,’ Arun remarked. ‘Is it always so dead during a bandh?’
‘Yes, yes it is.’
The bandhs were absolute here; Rukmini had seen footage on television of bandhs in other faraway cities—Delhi, Bombay and Bangalore—and in those places there was still some movement in pockets as contrary groups opposed the calls. But here in Assam, bandhs were just that. Bandh. Everything closed, came to a grinding halt. No one challenged the protests because everyone supported them, understood the need for them. Nothing so complete was possible without deep feeling. The people were gripped with an urgent desire to fulfil what the Boys had begun: to make the government do its duty; to expel illegal aliens, instead of arming them with citizenship and voting rights.
Rukmini had lived through many of these suspended days when the city was inert with a silence broken only by the softest of sounds: the rustling of leaves in a mango tree as the wind passed through, the cawing of a crow from the top of a water tank, the muted chatter of a television.
This was the first time she was out there in the open on such a day, exposed, vulnerable on the dead streets, the cynosure of unseen watching eyes as their small cavalcade coasted through the empty streets. She felt like a traitor.
Excerpted with permission from Undertow by Jahnavi Barua, Penguin.