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Anuradha Sarma Pujari
Date of Publish: 2016-07-23

No man’s land

 

The air in this remote town is all charged up. People are only talking about the football match even when they are shopping for their daily quota of rice, oil, vegetables and eggs. I have been around in this town for less than a month. The first day I set my foot here, I felt I had come to some place outside India, a place in the back of nowhere. After crossing the lofty mountain range, where the peaks, kissed by the feathery clouds and playfully hugged by the waterfalls, create mesmerising picture, the meandering narrow road led me to this place called Dauki. Situated on the border of Meghalaya and Bangladesh, this happens to be the last town of India. For the last two years, I have been associated with this organization for conducting a demographic survey of the bordering towns. I do not know what the outcome of the survey would be but I am enjoying myself. I have begun to understand that people cannot be bound by any man-made boundary.

This small town is actually a modernised village. There is a church, a football field, a school and numerous food joints and shops. In these shops one finds ‘Made in Bangladesh’ potato chips, Dhaka’s Khan Namkeen packets and even cakes and biscuits that are cheaper than the Indian ones. In the summer heat one can quench one’s thirst with small juice bottles from Bangladesh.

I went looking for an electrical shop to repair my iron and I found one near the football field. While the electrician was mending my iron, I watched the game the local guys were playing. It was then that he said, “There will be a big match. Bangladesh versus India. We all are waiting for it.”

I paid the Bengali electrician and walked out. Passing by those tea stalls, I thought of having a cup of tea in one of those kiosks, rather than going back home to make it myself.

Though the Jayantia community is the largest here, there are quite a few Bengalis, Biharis, Hindus, Muslims and Jains. Most of the Christians are Khasi people, who stayed back here for business. The main road is perpetually lined with trucks carrying coal and Army convoys.

Any newcomer would feel that the region is on the brink of a war. Even the locals seem to be worried. I went inside a tea stall. The wooden bench had seen better times. One could make out that it was once painted in blue. Though it is called a tea stall, it serves rice and roti round the clock. Three Army jawans were having roti and subzi. A huge Shaktiman truck which carried ration for the Army was parked outside. They were speaking in Hindi and the topic was the coming football match.

“I was told yesterday that Abbas is right- in. I wonder who will be the goalkeeper. But whoever it is, nobody can match up to our Randheer. However, our forward is weak. Thapa would have been the best choice. But he is on duty on the Rani border. They could have bought him here for a day…” While the two youngish- looking jawans were talking non-stop about the match, the lanky middle-aged one was quietly eating roti-subzi, pickles and damp jalebis. Though the jalebis were so cold that even the sweet syrup had crystallised back into sugar form, he was savouring every bit of it, nodding his head in ecstasy. Except for calling out to the slim and fair Jayantia girl with “give me rotis or give me chillies’, he didn’t take part in the discussion at all.

The girl asked what I would like to have with tea. In the glass showcase there were biscuits, jalebis and cup cakes. I didn’t feel like having any of those things, but it is nice to nibble something with a cup of tea. As I couldn’t make up my mind, the girl offered, “Have one of those cakes. These are fresh,”

“From Bangladesh?”

“Yes. Quite tasty.”

I nodded. She brought me a triangular piece that reminded me of a sandwich. Placing the plate in front of me, she said, “On the day of the match, men from Shillong will come here to make samosa and kachauri. The trucks will be banned on the road that day. People from Cherrapunji, too, will come for the match.”

These tea stalls owners get most of their business from the drivers and handymen of the hundreds of trucks that cross the Meghalaya border to go to Bangladesh. In the check-post the handymen get down. Only the driver is allowed to drive up to the demarcated coal depot and drive the empty truck back. The drivers and the handymen are familiar with the jawans. However, most drivers hand over their vehicles to their handymen to cross the check posts and they take rest at these tea stalls, have tea and flirt with the women.

“Are you from this side or that side?” the Jayantia girl asked me in Hindi.

“I am from this country. Why?”

“You are new here. There is a lot of checking these days. Last month, a boy came here for a meal. Immediately after that the Army raided the shop. They harassed us too. The boy was in the rest house. The Army caught him. They recovered arms and ammunition. He had crossed the border in one of those trucks carrying coals. Such incidents keep happening. They do not usually get caught. Hopefully, the match will be over without any hitch. My relatives will also come to watch the game.”

“How come you have relatives there?” I was surprised.

“My father is from Sylhet. He married my mom and stayed back. He died two years ago.” She explained briefly and walked up to the stove to pour tea. Plenty of Bangladeshi men marry Khasi and Jayantia girls and occupy land and property here. To avoid that, the elderly people of the bordering villages now keep a strict vigil over their girls so that the Bangladeshis cannot seduce them. This is the only way for a Bangladeshi man to settle down this side. I have heard a lot of such juicy stories during my short tenure here. Bangladeshi people easily cross the Tamabil border and sell their rasgullas here. Sometimes they even stay back. It’s only when one crosses the border via the No Man’s Land one has to produce his passport. Otherwise, they do not have to pay tax on their merchandise. It is more like neighbours exchanging a fruit or a vegetable from their kitchen garden or exchanging pleasantries from their balcony.

Lily Marboniang was sitting with three hilsa fish, imported from Bangladesh. Other than those, she had a few “katla” fish too. In the direct heat of the sun, her pink face had turned red, so much like the gills of the fish laid out in front of her. The flies hovering over the fishes were troubling her too. She didn’t bother much about those sitting on her wrap-around skirt but she got irritated at those buzzing in her face. Sylvia, who was sitting close-by looked at her and yawned. “Have not seen that Major for sometime. Had he been around, your fishes would have been sold out by now.” The statement was directed at her. “You have already sold two “hilsa”. I have yet to see a buyer. Looks like I will have to wait for those Biharis who come for a bargain by the time of closing,” she continued.

Lily was getting used to Sylvia’s barbed comments but today she lost her cool. She had hardly eaten anything the whole day. Robin, the chaiwala, had come with his trolley twice to ask her if she would like to have tea and cake. But she was waiting for the coal trucks, because that meant business. Now, it was almost afternoon. Her tummy was growling. She slapped the hardboard fan near the fish and looked at Sylvia and said, “Old lady! Are you getting so desperate because the Biharis are not around for you to flirt with, that you are taking out that frustration on me?”

Sylvia opened her betelnut-filled mouth to reveal her nicotine-stained teeth. “You are a fine one to talk to. Should I tell Simon about you? We have to pay 20 per cent tax on the fish we buy. You get it without paying anything. How?” Lily kept quite.

Sylvia knew where to hit. She covered the fishes with the black polythene sheet, put two bricks on either side and got up. She went up to Robin’s tea trolley and asked him for a cup of tea. “I don’t want these cakes. Well, you have a few onion pakoras there. Give me those.”

“These are from the morning lot. Gone stale. Have a bun. It’s much more filling.”

When I came here, the first thing I had learnt was the popularity of Robin’s tea. I got myself a cup of tea and a packet of made-in-Dhaka Khan namkeen and parked myself at the bench under the peepal tree. As I was flipping through my notebook to check out the must-do list, Lily with her cup of tea and bun sat next to me and started eating without looking at anyone. I was enjoying the fight between her and Sylvia. She smelt of raw fish. Her cheeks were red. She had a pair of green slippers on and without being conscious about herself, she was shaking her well-rounded thighs. She looked like a wild lily in this dry, lifeless place. Small wonder that she evoked jealousy among the Sylvia kind. Still oblivious to her surroundings, she got up, scratched her hip and glanced at some far away object. Robin looked at her and commented, “Maybe today the Major will turn up. Saw him leaving for some place a couple of days back.”

Lily gave him a killer look. “You men have just one-track mind. If he buys fish from me, he drinks tea at your stall too. But no, no one takes it in that sense.” Lily kept the cup on the wooden plank with a thud and told that boy, “Add it to my account.”

“Why? The owner of Ghosh Hotel himself bought two “hilsa” from you this morning. Fishes which you bought without paying any tax! So much of profit, why can’t you pay for a cup of tea?” Rabin charged at her.

In anger, Lily’s small slanted eyes narrowed down to two open slits. She dug her hand inside her breast and fished out a small pouch. She peeled a hundred rupee note from the stack and thrust it into Robin’s hand. Even before Robin could pocket it, Lily asked him rudely, “How much more do I owe you?”

“Seventy rupees and 60 paisa. In fact, I have to return the change.”

“You beggar, you insulted me for just Rs 70?”

“Don’t take me wrong. I tease you only because you are so pretty. I know you don’t give a damn about that Major, it’s him who tries to be close to you on the pretext of buying fish! Why do you have to react to Sylvia’s comments? We all know what this middle-aged woman was in her heydays. Don’t we know that she sees you as her rival?” Robin whispered all these to Lily, careful not to let them fall into Sylvia’s ears. But I could hear them clearly.

Lily went back to her original position. I too got up to pay Robin.

“Will you come to watch the match?” In these last few days, Robin had become friendly with me.

“Of course! Will I miss this one?”

“They have a few good players. Rumour has it that all hot shot army officers from both countries will come to watch this one. But even without a friendly match, those people are civil to us. We take cake, biscuit, puffed rice on credit. They too take back rice, kerosene oil. This divide is meaningless. If the law is so strict, they should stop our animals, our birds from crossing over. Like the cows and the goats, people too come and go. The army harasses some people, some they allow to go scot free. In a few cases they even turn a blind eye. I do not understand.”

Robin came a little closer to me. “Lily too goes to Tamabil to get her fish. But she takes a different route. The Major knows about it. But he simply ignores just because she is so beautiful. He, in fact, buys fish only from her. Lily’s husband was jailed twice on the charges of smuggling opium. But both times he was out in no time because of lack of evidence. He has been missing for the past two months. Lily can no longer depend on him. That’s why she has started this business. She has earned a bad reputation though.”

Quietly I paid him and headed towards the bus stop. Given a chance, Robin would go on gossiping about Lily. And such talks spread like forest fire. I looked at Lily. She was busily shooing off the flies. As she sat there carelessly, her skirt parted to give a glimpse of her thighs. Her eyes were pale like those of a dead fish. Maybe because she was worried about her husband!

A bus arrived. The passengers inside were packed like sardines. Still the conductor shouted, “Tamabil, Tamabil, empty bus”. Just then a jeep halted there. Two men got down and walked up to the drain near the road to answer nature’s call. They were talking in Assamese. There was a public loo nearby. Perhaps, they did not know about it. Newcomers, perhaps. I asked the one who was stretching himself near the jeep, “Where are you from?”

Sometimes a simple question brings solution to many complicated situations. That’s exactly how it happed with me. They turned out to be a team of engineers and geologists studying the current and direction of the river water for some irrigation project. Quite suave and fun-loving people! They didn’t just give me a lift, but entrusted me the responsibility of showing them around the border. I obliged.

The middle-aged engineer in green T-shirt and a pair of cordrouy pants talked to one of the jawans and kept his foot on the No Man’s Land. Waving his hands frantically, he called out for me. As soon as I reached him, he shouted with joy,

“This No Man’s Land is the holiest land on earth. This is where the earth is independent in the truest sense of the word.”

Today, this planet is tamed by the human race, which was not the case some 45 thousand crore years ago. The animals, the trees lost their freedom at the altar of civilization. But do these trees know which village in India they belong to? Their address? Does this river which flows through this state know that one part of it falls into India and the other into Bangladesh? But it has added a serene beauty to this border area which one can only dream of. The road to Tamabil unites both countries in more ways than one. The trees on this road have their roots in Bangladesh but their trunks and branches fall in Indian territory. The vines cross over the border without any hesitation. The rows of beetel-nut trees out there look up to the Indian sky. The pebbles which get carried away from here by the river get collected by Bangladeshi laboureres on the other side. These then get sold in Bangladeshi markets. Do these pebbles know where they come from and where they go?

“Don’t be afraid. You can come this side,” said the border security guy, putting a full stop to my trend of thought. The smiling man had a name—Riyaz Ahmed. When they saw us hesitating, the others joined him.

“We are coming to play the match, don’t you know?” they asked with so much of zeal that this particular match would erase the India-Bangaladesh border once and for all. And after that there would never be any question on the political territory of Bangladesh. Only two days more! After that both countries would merge into one, courtesy this friendly football match!

Riyaz, still with his winsome smile intact, came a step forward. “Your Colonel was here yesterday. Had a cup of tea in our camp. Why are you so scared of stepping into our country? Look, what is written over here,” Riyaz pointed at the signboard on his side. It reads, “Welcome to Bangladesh. Wherever you are is your own country.”

However, the Indian security man was not buying this. He shouted at us, “Enough, come back now.”

I looked at Riyaz and said, “We will come to your country someday with permit. We will come to see the match. Best of luck.”

Riyaz was, perhaps, getting to be a bit reckless. He came up to the No Man’s Land and shook our hands. Smiling that beautiful smile, he said, “You always speak the truth when you are standing on this zero land. People should actually think from a zero perspective. Then, no one would be biased. Religion, caste, country, border – everything merge into one to become one big football. Even the images the astronauts took from the space show the world as a big round football.”

Lost for words, I kept looking at Riyaz. In that camouflaged uniform and the cap which covered his forehead, his eyes shone like two bright stars. A few moments with this armyman liberated my soul. The engineer in our team held Riyaz’s hand and said, “Damn this political boundary.You are my brother.” Even as we walked back, we kept looking over our shoulders and waved. The engineer guy said, “Had Bergman or Antnionie saw this moment from which angle he would capture it?” Maybe he was just trying to show off his knowledge on film making.

“I can speak for Ritwick Ghatak. He himself was an immigrant and captured the pain of Partition in his camera,” I said quietly.

Suddenly I spotted Lily walking on the road which was parallel to the border. She seemed to be in a hurry. She was walking fast without looking anywhere.

Only two hours back, I saw Lily at Dauki. Why would she abandon her business for the day and come to this place? Maybe, she is looking for that Major. The BSF jawans saw her but they did not object. These things are normal. They recognise the people living in the border areas. It’s okay for a person living here to share a cigarette with someone across the border or invite him to sit under the huge tree and share his domestic problems. They do not object to such things.

My companions and I parted company. They had to get back to their workstation and I did not want to take any more favour from them. So, I decided to catch a bus back. It would hardly take me 20 minutes. I threw a last glace at the direction of Lily. She had disappeared from my vision. Maybe her house is somewhere here. But what happened to her fishes, I wondered. Maybe, she gave them to Sylvia to sell. But Sylvia was having difficulty selling her own. And again these two do not get along. So, where did she keep her fishes? Why on earth am I bothering about Lily and her fish, I rebuked myself. I better think about the work I have to do. One should be detached like a zero. I should keep that nuance of No Man’s Land within me.

Suddenly I remembered Riyaz. I had never met such a romantic and philosophical jawan before. They say a huge of number of highly educated men join the army as there are hardly ANY career options available in Bangladesh. This football match between the BSF jawans of both the countries is surely going to be fun.

Truly India and Bangladesh became one that day. As if it was not just a local match but the World Cup final. The excitement in and around the field was palpable. There were more than two hundred people from Bangladesh to support their team. Riyaz was the left in. Whenever Riyaz manoeuvers the ball, I yelled—Riyaz, Riyaz! ‘I hope I am not betraying my own country by supporting Riyaz,’ I though for a second.

But then it is a match, a friendly match, a match that washes away the feelings of enmity from our minds. In fact, we should support them and they should cheer for our players and set an example—no, I did not suffer from any guilt pang. For that moment, I became a bird, a tree, the turbulent river, a fountain of joy at the No Man’s Land. India beat them 4-0.

After the match there was a feast for players and jawans of both countries. Bangladeshi visitors went back. The place wore an unusual calm look after months of excitement.

I had to go to Shillong to submit my reports at the head office. After two days, I came back. I headed towards that Jayantia girl’s tea stall. This time she offered me a new kind of biscuit—a creamy chocolate layer between two wafers.

“Bangladesh?” I asked her pointing at the biscuit.

“A new biscuit dealer had come on the day of the match. He gave us. If these sell he will bring more.”

“Did your relatives come?” I asked.

A little shadow crossed her face. “They could not,” she replied.

Lines of trucks carrying coal are rushing towards the border. There are new faces in these stalls. Some exchanged takas in these stalls. Nobody asked them questions. Who wants to bother about such things? That’s solely these security guards’ headache.

I walked towards the fish market. I thought of buying a fish from Lily. Just for those sad, lonely eyes. But Lily was not around. Sylvia was happy, doing a roaring business in Lily’s absence. Even Robin’s tea trolley was surrounded by customers. I waited for Robin to get free. On the first opportunity I spoke to him, “Lily is not selling fish today. I wanted to buy a hilsa.”

Robin was pouring water into his kettle. Without looking at me, he replied, “How will she come? She was shot at. Don’t you know? Everybody here knows about it.”

I felt slighted. “In don’t know. I was away to Shillong for two days,” I said.

Robin started mixing milk powder and sugar with a spoon. With a smirk, he continued, “Those many supporters who came from Bangladesh on the day of the match, all of them did not go back. One of them was left behind. There was a problem at the check post because of that missing number. Next day, at wee hours two figures tried to sneak into Bangladesh and the army fired at them. Both were wrapped with one cover. They could not get past the No Man’s Land. Both fell on the ground. Those two turned out to be Lily and the missing Bangladeshi man. He spent the night with her. The Major booted her badly despite the fact that she was bleeding from the shot in her arms. Nobody knows whether she wanted to go with that Bangladeshi or was just helping him to go back.

Everyone thought Lily frequented Tamabil to meet the Major. Nobody knew about this Bangladeshi man. The army badly injured him too. God only knows what will happen to Lily.”

“Where is she now?” I couldn’t help but ask.

“In the hospital, where else? There was a fight between the two armies at the border. The chief commander of that side got so wild that he wanted to shoot her dead. His name is Riyaz. He came here to play in that match. The Bangladeshi took a bullet in one of his legs. After many meetings between both the security forces, it was decided to send that man back to his country. Lily will be punished. The Major is still mad at her.”

Walking slowly, I left that place. Sylvia’s voice came from behind, “Fresh fish. Buy one. There are hardly any left.”

Poor Lily! She understood the meaning of zero, without being taught.

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Noted storyteller Anuradha Sarma Pujari (1964) is a novelist, short story writer and a veteran journalist. She is the Editor of Assmaese news weekly Sadin and monthly literary journal Satsori published from Guwahati. Sarma Pujari, who shot into fame with her novel Hriday Ek Bigyapon, has several books, including ten novels and a four collection of short stories, to her credit. Her other popular novels include Mereng, Son Horinor Chekur, Kanchan and Sahebpurar Borosun. Her collection of short stories include No Man’s Land, Catherinor Soite Eti Nirjon Duporia, Ejon Osamajik Kobir Biorgraphy and Bosontor Gaan. She is a recipient of Kumar Kishore Memorial Literary award conferred by the Asam Sahitya Sabha.

 

(Parbina Rashid, who translated the story from the original Assamese is a journalist with The Tribune, Chandigarh. She can be reached at - parbina@tribunemail.com)

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