You have not seen our home. You have never been to our village. You do not know its name. But what does it matter now? Our village is going to disappear bloody soon. So everyone here says. Already the last remaining inhabitants of our village are packing up things in their antique iron trunks. We are leaving.
This is Assam. Monsoons are awful. This is the time when the regions lying alongside the course of the grand Brahmaputra river goes down in a dirty yellow expanse of floodwater. You will be lucky to see a road. Harvest fields and adjoining homes, everything disappears. This river loves to kill. Old mother and I weathered through days when the monsoon winds would shake and rattle our corrugated roof, pull down the washed linen from the clothes-line, pluck the hay from the stacks and scatter the mango leaves and broken twigs around our yard. Then the rains would bury down on us and bring all activities in our village to a standstill. Fathers, mothers, children, youths, old people, they all stick inside their homes, subsisting on hoarded grains and praying that one day the sun would come blazing down on us.
We are boat people living for ages in this riverside village. Once in a while it is good to have a flood. Just great to see the waters of the Brahmaputra crashing down from the hills to our downstream village. The waters bring umpteen logs and trees as monsoon offerings. As wood was the mainstay of our village economy, jubilant young men would swim fearlessly across the turbulent waters and drag the logs through the swift current to the river bank. We get quality wood, but only during floods. The accumulated wood is utilized for assembling boats. We use the pine wood variety, locally call it wiue kaath, to fashion the bottoms of our boats because of its buoyancy. A large boat, let’s say a standard boat, takes around eleven months to build and the maker is paid anything between a lakh or more. Just the right amount to see a small family through the year. And not just boats. Our people craft pretty furniture pieces as well. And now and then we sell the collected logs as firewood to bordering districts.
But this good river, in return for bringing us free logs, gets to feast on our land. Year after year, it eroded the banks and shrunk our village acre by acre. I recall grandmothers with wet unkempt hair flinging themselves upon the earth in sorrow at the sight of their prized farm land tumbling into the raging river, land that used to fill their dinner plates. To save ourselves, we built embankments our way, piling cement bags with red earth, white sand and stones high on the river bank and propping them up with bamboo poles. These were temporary measures, we knew. The embankments couldn’t contain the river’s fury for long. Land and trees and livestock kept getting snatched by the Brahmaputra. We were all going to perish. But not everyone wanted to die. Some fled the village when they still had the time. Mother and I and a few other households were the last morons to stay behind. Blind love for our village, you can say. Hopefully, the river will not worsen things during the next monsoon.
The river was notorious in our district. People dreaded to come during the monsoon. They said they didn’t know how to swim. And we said: You believe in newspaper reports?No flood here, man. All lies.
But the river soon exposed our bluff. You can conceal a suicide, but you can’t conceal a flood. No question about it. Our village was actually shrinking in size. What you saw one year might not be there on your next visit. Yeah, yeah, we would have sold our land real cheap, but there were no takers. No villager across the bamboo hedge and up the stretch of earthy road was fool enough to fall for our offer when they themselves would be quitting one of these days. And no outsider was fool enough to settle in our village.
So here we are, stuck in our village, nowhere to go. Every passing year of blockbuster erosion brought our nondescript home of wood and bamboo netting closer and closer to the river. The areca nut palms on whose barks I had carved random words as a kid had all disappeared into the river. Our playing-fields were only a memory. Every year the provincial administration promised to erect embankments. And every year we were the fools filling cement bags with white sand and stones.
The rains arrived early this year, like it had a peasant wedding to send off. Starting from April, just after our spring festivities, it rained intermittently for a full week. Sometimes we saw only clouds, sometimes a little of the sun, but rain mostly. One day the rains got heavier. We heard over the radio that the rising waters of the Brahmaputra had already inundated nineteen districts and displaced over 1.23 lakh people who now took shelter in 177 relief camps. Ten thousand head of cattle had been affected in the flood which had breached numerous embankments, country roads, bridges and buildings. The Red Horns Division of the Indian Army, the State Disaster Response Force, the Fire and Emergency Service and private aid groups were carrying out relief operations, rescuing people, distributing food. An annual affair.
For so long we had managed to keep our feet dry. But when the third wave of monsoons arrived, what a racket it made on our corrugated iron roofs, with what force it came down! Nothing we speak could we hear. On our sodden yard I stood under an umbrella and saw the river spilling over our yard, in such watery volumes that it made our heads spin.
Mother, I said, we’re finished this time. The routes out of this place have all gone down in the water. Power lines have been snapped. We can’t charge our cell phones. We can’t call for help. We’re stranded, mother.
Hush, boy, said mother, when we still have matchsticks and chopped wood and three cans of kerosene and half a bag of rice, we will get by.
The matchsticks saved us for a couple of days. But soon the matchboxes became damp and wouldn’t light easily. We washed without washing our clothes. Otherwise, we would have nothing dry to wear. Potatoes, onions, rice and beans for lunch and dinner. Fried slices of bread in the mornings and evenings. That was all we had. Our old bulky radio brought us more disturbing news. The administration had forbidden all boat traffic on the river. People had got killed by lightning bolts while sailing. The rat behind this unusually heavy flooding was Bhutan. It had released excess water from its dams, allowing it to enter India.
Well, administrative orders or not, I figured we should be fleeing now. But our boats had got washed away. Of course, we could build plantain rafts in no time. But how the devil could we paddle downriver in this torrent?
Somehow, we passed the night. The morning witnessed only a slight drizzle. I saw the flood waters still seizing a good part of the shore. It just needed another strong downpour to fully engulf our village and pull away our homes. I gulped down a cup of black tea and then got busy making myself a plantain raft. Not a moment was to be lost. We had to be off. I was sitting on my haunches with my machete on the ground when the sound of an engine turned my head. I saw a motorboat slicing through the water and making for our place directly. I saw young boys and girls. At least a dozen of them. The motorboat touched shore and the boys and girls leaped out. Their babbling drew out our village people from their homes. We stood to watch this pretty display of young boys and girls hauling cartons toward us. Boys and girls in sunglasses and jeans and caps. And look at us. I was in an old, yellowed-up vest and pants. Mother was in her everyday work clothes. And look at some of our village people. They wore only cotton towels.
The sprightly boys and girls turned out to be members of a private aid group who had defied the sailing ban to bring us provisions. Rice, dal, flour, salt, turmeric, soaps, bargain clothes, farm eggs, cookies, candles. But it wouldn’t do for everyone here. So, like crows pouncing upon a dead rat, everyone began raiding the cartons. I elbowed my way forward, shoving off the village dwarf, and managed to grab a pack of dal and flour. The lean schoolmaster was getting his hands on a box of farm eggs when it was snatched from him. The schoolmaster got into a fight with the robber, snatching back the box of eggs and then, in his rage, tossing it into the river. Similar incidents of robbing occurred. The trick was to grab and run or get robbed. The wife of the priest felt her blouse being pulled during the unholy scrabbling. She lashed out at a male person behind her. But this was no time to be nice. This was the time to make the most of it even at the cost of somebody’s modesty. What a hard struggle it was! Too many stranded people here and too few goodies. Nobody was happy.
The riotous mood, the fierce squabbling and accusations, unnerved the members of the aid group. They now feared a backlash from the villagers. The girls particularly became jumpy. Before anything could happen to them, the members quietly fled the scene during the chaos.
We went back home with bruises and torn clothes and whatever little we could capture.
First, we had those boys and girls in the morning. Then at noon we had helicopters hovering over our flood-ravaged village. Political leaders watching us from above. Political leaders accused by the media of their apathy toward the plight of the flood victims. So they came. They had a quick look. And then they left.
“Those bastards never come down,” spat one villager. “They just come to look.”
I wanted to forget the horrors of our village about to go down. So I slept, how long I was unsure.
“Wake up, boy!” Mother jostled me out of bed. “This is no time to sleep.”
I saw the purple colors of early evening outside the open window. I had slept through the rain. Mother went outside with a lantern. The rapid fluttering of bird wings told me that something was afoot. I rushed out to see the river spreading toward our yard, tearing away large chunks of earth from the bank and digesting it. Our home was now within grasp of the surging waters. Alarmed pigeons flew about in panicked circles.
What is to happen now, mother?
We’ll just have to let our feet get wet this time, said mother.
Disregarding the rain, she led me toward higher ground under lantern light, splashing along the narrow, tree-shaded, slippery zigzag route to the village elder’s home. The man came out to see in his trademark white loincloth, followed by more villagers. And he saw that the river had come.
“This time we’ll have to beat it,” said the village elder, shaking his head grimly. “But we’ve only one boat left. And there’s forty-nine of us!”
“Whatever you do,” said mother, “take my boy along with you too.”
The family who owned the last boat said they would decide. Already the family comprised of five members. Ten extra people were all they would allow. Otherwise, the boat might capsize. On the spot they started choosing people who would leave with them. I wasn’t in the list, nor was my mother.
“Nonsense!” roared the village elder. “Take the women and kids. They make lighter load whatever their numbers.” And this time the elder turned to count.
“What about the rest of us?” asked one man in the midst of his counting.
“We can climb up on our house roofs,” said the elder. “We’ll stay up there till the water recedes.”
“No, no!” disapproved the boat owner. “I said no more than ten extra people. Only fifteen of us. Mind, it’s our boat. Besides, we’ve trunks to take away.”
“They’re just trunks,” said the elder. “Women are more important. One dead woman is the death of a family. One living woman will give birth to a new family.”
The boat owner’s family would listen to nothing. They were adamant about their choice of people. The village elder stormed back to his home nearby and moments later returned with a heavy axe. Villagers backed away from his menacing form. Women hustled away their kids to safer ground. But the elder only made for the family’s boat secured to a palm tree.
“Fine,” he said. “We’ll all stay back. This is my judgment in the interest of everybody.”
Instantly, the village elder started hacking away at the boat with his axe. The boat owner’s family retaliated with violence, but they were manhandled and outnumbered by the others. More axes were brought. Pretty soon, the boat was in sunder.
I withdrew from the brawling with my mother, heading toward our home. “Mad dogs, mother! They’ve been bitten by mad dogs!”
But mother had other things playing in her mind. She made straight for the kitchen in the far corner of our home and sat on her haunches before our high earthen stove black with soot. She tipped out some blue kerosene from a plastic bottle onto the few remaining pieces of half burnt wood and ignited it with a single stroke of a matchstick. As the wood began crackling with fire, she collected the flaming pieces and came out in the night.
“You lot!” she shouted. “Here, take these! Throw it as high as you can. It might draw the attention of passing boats. Watch out you don’t let it fall in our homes! Just aim at the river.”
Futile, some thought. But the majority decided to give it a try. The scuffling stopped. Villagers rushed back to their homes and returned with more flaming timber. Everyone vied with the others in how far and high they could hurl the flaming torches. The night sky became illuminated with numerous projectiles shooting up like rockets and then plummeting down in the river where the fire died with a hiss.
But no passing boat showed up. Nobody heard our cries. Eventually the villagers gave up. Only the ugly dwarf remained, still staring hard at the river for probable signs.
The river was coming, and we couldn’t wait. Mother and I hurriedly lifted the trunks from the ground and placed them atop tables. The flood water shouldn’t go that high. We tossed our clothes on the Indian Rosewood bed which mother had brought on her marriage. She even collected the sacred scriptures and the incense sticks she kept before the deity.
It’s just water, she said. Nothing to crack us up.
But how long will the water remain, I thought, that’s the question.
A stone dropped on our roof, bounced and rolled down noisily. The dwarf was calling for our attention and excitedly pointing toward the river. We sighted dinghies approaching our sinking village, the occupants shining powerful flashlights. Mother’s idea hadn’t been a fiasco. The dwarf next aimed a stone at the very roof beneath which the village elder was known to relax with his tobacco pouch. The man came out to investigate. He got the picture and alerted the others. Everyone saw the dinghies. Everyone began clamouring for their attention.
The first dinghy came ashore with two military personnel on board. They said something to the villagers. Word was passed that we had less than an hour to get packing. We were to leave behind all heavy stuff. Come as you are, said the uniformed men.
“I’m taking our cash,” said one villager hurrying past our home. “My woman will get her ornaments.”
In the rush, I wondered what I should salvage. Cash, ornaments, important documents, old photos.
“You go away,” said mother. “I’m staying back. Somebody has to guard our stuff.”
“You crazy? Who will loot our stuff?” I said. “Everybody’s leaving.”
“If we both leave,” mother said, “there is no telling who might show up in the morning and take advantage. Boats pass by our village daily.”
“The river is coming! Can’t you see?”
“The water won’t go that high,” said mother. “The furniture will get spoiled, though. Nothing we can do about it, boy. As for me, I’ll stay on this bed. It’s high enough. It’ll be my home tonight. You come back in the morning.”
I cursed mother, cursed her soul. I lost interest in taking away whatever important things I had on my mind. I came away from our home with only my clothes on me and my worn-out blue rubber slippers.
“Take some cash with you!” Mother called after me from the door.
I didn’t listen, I didn’t look back. I went down the slushy path toward the waiting dinghies. I was the first to arrive. The others were taking their time in gathering their bric-a-bracs.
“Don’t you have anybody else with you?” asked the rescue team.
I just shook my head and got up on the first dinghy. One by one the villagers started boarding the dinghies. Everyone was there, but not my mother.
The village elder was the last man to enter the same dinghy. A small cloth bag hung down from his left shoulder. He never missed mother. Nobody did. Maybe, each person thought she was in another dinghy. Night is the master of hoax. And in times like this everyone cares only for his own skin.
The village elder leaned back lazily, his right knee raised; he could sense the gloom and disquiet around.
“We fear for nothing.” He tried cheering up the villagers. “Just how much water is there that we should be thinking our village will drown, eh? You call this water?”
His words keyed up the others even as the dinghies started pulling away from our doomed village. An old woman was the first to react joyously. “You mean we’ll see our village again? Our village won’t disappear?”
“Not in a hundred years, granny,” said the village elder. “At least, we won’t see this happening in our life time. Why, I would have stayed back had the dinghies not arrived! There will be just one foot of water over our village land, no more than that. I came away because—because I won’t find a proper place to piss in this water.”
It raised some laughter.
“Just think, I didn’t even bother to bring along my extra pair of glasses,” continued the village elder. “I didn’t bring my cycle, either. Everything is safe. Tomorrow morning you’ll see it yourself when we return home. Only thing is everything will be mucky.”
I found solace in his words. Maybe, this explained why mother didn’t want to leave home. She saw no hazard. Our home would withstand the flood. Just how much water is there, eh? For a moment I felt like re-joining my mother. But the dinghy had by then got over a kilometer away from our village. There was to be no turning back. I would just have to wait until morning.
After we reached the opposite bank, we were shifted to a relief camp. Temporary structures made of bamboo and rusted iron sheets in a hillside area where no lights blinked. This was the best the administration could do for us. Already present were other flood-affected people with wives and naked kids and utensils. So many people I saw, and still so lonely I felt.
The entire night there was only the thought of home in my mind, of mother, the lemon trees in front of our home, our yard gate, the clothesline, the fallen areca nuts and neem leaves, the bats making home inside the bamboo holes on our roof. In the morning all of us were raring to go back home. But we were told the situation still hadn’t improved. The current was still strong. And so no sailing. The roads connecting our village were still submerged. So, stay where you are. I had no means of contacting mother. We had no newspapers to read or radios to tune in to a station. We wouldn’t know what day of the week it was. We were lost. Isolated.
Two days later, after surviving on three kilos of rice per day and unfiltered water, the ban was lifted. We hired boats to take us home. But at first we couldn’t locate our village. We sailed back and forth, bypassing areas of half submerged land appearing strangely unfamiliar to us. It wasn’t like this. Could it be that we took the wrong route?
Impossible. We couldn’t possibly forget the route back to our village.
Again we turned back. This time somebody sighted a fluttering red cloth tied high up around a palm tree which was critically leaning at the edge of the newly eroded land. Any day the tree would collapse. The red cloth was the last identity of our village. The same red cloth that a youth had tied on that palm tree so long ago and who killed himself by falling from it. We had unknowingly passed by through this tract of land, little recognizing our village because the river had devoured a large chunk of it while we had been away those two and a half days.
Our beloved village had changed costume.
My mother’s home, our home, oh my god, our home… it was not there. Our entire plot of land had sunk into the river. And not just our home. The uphill road beyond our home which used to straddle between the other houses had been devoured as well by the rushing flood waters. The only thing seen standing up was a ramshackle bamboo toilet up the hill. Nothing else survived. Goats, dogs, our livelihood, all gone.
Our village was now only a story.
I couldn’t know what became of mother. I could only assume she had got swept away or I could only hope she was bailed out at the last minute, that she was now waiting for me at some relief camp. I began to understand why mother had been so obstinate. She must have foreseen there was no escape for our village this time. She wanted to cling to our home and land until the last moment. This was the home built single-handedly by father when he had nothing. Mother didn’t want to abandon it. She wanted to go away with it. Because if she had fled like the rest of us, she would never see our home again.
Home. Such a wild, hypnotizing influence it has on people. Each straw and leaf on the ground is like your baby. Even the tiny pebble between the wild grasses cannot be given away. The cobwebs on the roof are there to stay. The sparrows are our sparrows. All the smells and sounds, it cannot be found elsewhere. Everything will begin and end here.
Never will I leave home. This was mother.