There was this assignment at the Refinery in Golaghat district in upper Assam and I looked forward to the pleasure of a road trip that Sunday afternoon. It had been a long time since I travelled by that road in daylight hours. As the hired car sped over the road from the oil township of Duliajan towards the lower divisions, I observe that the journey is not the same anymore. Over the last decade or so, this journey has changed so much. No, not the journey, it is the vistas along the journey that has changed.
The narrow tree lined long stretches of tarmac, expansive green patches of paddy, clustered bamboo huddled dark green together and serene tea gardens , are the same in most of the parts. It’s the parts that have given way to the four lane road is what, has rendered the journey so much variation.
I often wondered at how the national highway, in process of getting expanded has altered the topography of the scenery around. More than the view, it has altered the lives of the people who dwell alongside the roads of the grand NH 37. Being an architect by profession, looking at a house always arouses more emotion in me than looking at a pebbled road.
I could see strong concrete houses standing along both sides of the road. Assam type roofed houses, halved down the middle, bare walls exposed. Some of them resemble loaves of bread, sliced in the middle with a careless knife. Jagged ends of cement and wood, poking out of the knocked down walls, to make room for the four lanes. Walls that looked indignant at having been taken down while in still good condition. There are people occupying the remaining halves of some of the homes. Do they refuse to move? Is it the emotional attachment that is so deep , that keeps them frozen and rooted in place and time, come what may ?
I can almost imagine the arguments and outbursts of these residents, when broken with the news of the imminent land acquisition. ‘To hell with government orders! , we are not budging from here. We don’t care for the compensation money. You can keep it . Build the road elsewhere. Spare our house. We love it here. This has been our ancestral home for as long as we can remember and no two bit four lane is razing our house to the ground. ‘
My thoughts are with the people who reside by the roadsides of the national highway that has been under construction for last so many years. Are they waiting for the compensation? Some them look newly constructed. Why, these houses could have lasted for more than a generation had they been allowed to stand. I wonder if the smell of new paint of these homes were lingering when the bulldozers, crashed into the dignity of the robust walls. Walls that are testaments. Walls that protect. Walls that are dumb witness to laughter, tears, passion , fits of anger , doors slamming ; walls that withstand the smash of a glass thrown against it in a fit of frustration, and walls that absorb helplessly the silent weeping of a face turned towards it. Walls of the house that conspire with the roof to hold stories and secrets, support photos of life’s moments captured and displayed as evidence to the business of belonging. Of Being. Of settling down and growing roots.
On the return journey, along the same sights, I get an education on the windfall in the lives of the people who dwelt alongside the highway. Bitupon, the simple boy from Golaghat drove me back in courteous silence for a while. When he saw my interest in looking at houses , he broke into a conversation.
‘ Sir,, see that two storied building, over there, he said. You know, the original owner only had a simple tin roofed structure. Now look at his fortune. ‘
‘How much did he get? I queried
‘Oh… the amounts ranged from Rs 50 lakhs at least to 4 crores max. The business and commercial establishments got more, he said.’
‘See that Dhaba over there’, he remarked, ‘ stupid fellow, he only had a shack serving basic food which was doing quite well. Now his new Dhaba , shifted off the highway rarely gets visitors. Bad business idea, should have purchased land in the town area.’ He speaks in a derisive tone. The flags in multi colour decorating the road face of the Dhaba continue to flutter in hope of a bunch of hungry travellers stopping by.
‘And that building ? I probe ,pointing at the blue duplex with a geometric architecture on a gentle slope off the side . They must have picked up the design from online e- plans I thought.
‘Ah… they ! he replies, two boys, brothers, works very hard. They have utilised the four lane money well. They are thriving’ , he commented. I craned , to see a broiler chicken poultry set up next to their blue home and the white fluff of the feathers .
‘Whole sale chicken dealers…them’ he explains, screwing up his face. ‘ I don’t think much of the business of the blue house brothers, I have a pet Rooster at home, it my best friend and I can never imagine trading off my best friend . ‘ I warmed to his values.
‘See that small car repair shop on the left ?’ he ranted, ‘ that’s only a front , now , he is what I call a smart guy..lives in a spartan house deep inside the forest, but is owner of more than 28 oil tankers. His humble home can never tell that he is a four lane guy ‘.
Clearly, I thought , in the world of Bitupon and his comrades, their economy is now divided into the four lane beneficiaries, and the non -four lane unfortunates. Much like the ‘haves ‘ and the ‘have not’s.
He continued, ‘Most of these residents were in competition with one another to build a bigger house than the neighbour. They wasted their money , nobody is going to take tenancy here in the middle of nowhere. They built big houses and bought cars, put they cars on hire , lived well for a few years and are now , more or less broke. Bad business venture these… real bad ‘, he shakes his head in mirth, almost sticking his tongue out a deserted large garish homestead surrounded by miles and miles of paddy fields.
I marvell at all this information he has garnered. He certainly keeps his ear to the ground.
‘What would you have done with the four lane money? I asked him.
‘Me? I would buy land , ‘he says .’ No , I will not build any house. Just buy the land . And lease the land for purpose of parking, parking of anything that need a temporary resting area, it could be bricks, sand, stone chips, or cars. Jorhat town, that is close by, is the second city and coming up in a big way in real estate development. I would keep the land . I would not waste the land by making a huge house without knowing whether it will earn money. I would hold the land .’
Was he right , I thought. I told him of my fathers plot of land in Golaghat lying empty. My paternal uncles was planning to sell it. He sounded aghast. He prattled about the low price it may fetch if sold. And offered a business plan that sounded difficult if not impossible. Till then , hold the land. I made a mental note to call my eldest uncle and ask them to consider holding onto the land.
We were passing a sentinel of tall trees, lush in their growth and grave in their sagacity . I stopped the car to stretch my legs . The afternoon breeze whizzed past and stirred the leaves. I listened to the trees for answers to so many the questions that I had been asking of my life lately. Well, the answers were not blowing in the wind. I listened more closely. But the forest held its silence.
The hands on my watch beckoned me to hit the road. I dozed off a bit in the back seat, not so much to sleep as to avoid Bitopon’s chatter.
He woke me up
‘Sir, can we stop for a cup of tea ?
‘Yes, sure,’ I answered .
‘Up head after another few kilometres I shall take you to the ‘ Senai Dhaba’, it belongs to a friend of a friend .
Senai Dhaba appeared. A medium sized bamboo set up, in the backdrop of a clump of thick trees .The trees seemed to embrace the place as one would politely embrace a drunk senior colleague away from a bar room brawl. Concerned, yet aloof at the same time. The hatched roof seemed freshly repaired, each spike of straw neatly trimmed at the edges. I climbed out and look around the place. No other cars, no other customers seemed to be around. Bitopon had disappeared into the interior with the familiarity of one who was assured of a welcome anytime , as he called out,
‘Senai, oye, Senai, look who’s here ?’
I walked over to the hand pump . A scattering of unwashed utensils lay around it , like a child’s discarded toys. I tried the handle. Hand pumps always reminded me of boyhood visits to my grandmother’s home. Of obliging cousins who pushed down the handle to coax out water from the deep ground while I cupped my hands under the wide mouth of the pump to receive it. The handle was slack when I pushed it down with one hand ,making a familiar cranking sound and clear flow a gushed out . I leaned forward to cup some of it in my other hand before most of it splashed on the ground . A movement in the dark clump of trees caught my peripheral vision. I looked up. The heavy branch of an old Ejar tree was swaying on its own. I thought it odd that only one branch of the tree should move when I got distracted by the sight of a young woman with a baby in her arms hurriedly entering the Dhaba from the back entrance . This was Senai ?
I stepped inside from the front entrance . Something heavy closed in around me as I took in the scene. I’m sensitive to atmosphere. A patina of dust settled over everything inside and the smell of stale food assailed my nostrils. Bitopon held the baby in his arms, smiling, as a tiny hand poked out to put a fist into his mouth. Bitopon nuzzled it gently and made as if to bite the chubby hand in mock ferocity. The baby’s gurgle of delight, bubbo…bubbo… lightened up the place. The young woman bustled about with an energy, that I could tell was not habitual to her , inferring from the slipshod way she kept the place. She poured out the tea in paper cups. Bitopon drank his fast. No words exchanged between him and Senai, but I could sense that there was an invisible charge there.
Well, it’ s not my place to wonder about the likes of Bitopon and his doing’s I thought, walking out , as I laid the required money on the small table , patted the sweaty cheek of the baby, now back in his mothers’ arms, fast asleep.
When was the last time, I touched a baby’s cheek?’ When was the last time I touched Loya’s cheek? Do I look still look for Loya in every baby I see ? Why did I never study her features more minutely? There, I touched that raw nerve in my brain again. But this time it did not cause me that sharp pain as it did for the last two years. I could think about little Loya and her mother Luna without the howl of emotions sucking me into the vortex of a dark whirlpool. Without hating her for going away one bright summer vacation day, with baby Loya and leaving me with her diary as an explanation. Every word she wrote to me was the truth. Searing truth. Truth can be cruel. Why did she have to be so honest and upright about everything? Would being so brutally honest make her actions seem less wrong ? In books and movies, they usually went away with the best friend. But Luna did nothing of that sort with my best friend. Because I didn’t have one. Luna was my best friend. Never in my wildest dream could I imagine that the young man she was helping do his research regarded her in a light different from that of an academic guide . And she reciprocated! Were there clues to their growing closeness? Did I miss them all? Had my devotion to her blinded me to her faults? Was my capacity to sense atmosphere deadened so far as my loved ones were concerned ? Yes, his research took an inordinate time to complete. Yes, Luna paid a lot of attention to him, but then Luna always was enthusiastic about her scholars. I had no reason to even fathom that Luna would respond , and respond seriously to an academic clod . A nerd. Yes I thought of all scholars as clods and nerds now! Had she not left her diary, I would have gone to my grave with a self deceiving consolation that she must have left me for a cause that was bigger than myself. Bigger than ourselves. Bigger than the three of us.
The drive after ‘Senai Dhaba ‘ was in brooding silence. Bitopon looked straight ahead and kept drumming his fingers on the wheel in an unconscious devils tattoo.
I broke the silence.
‘What time does Senai close the Dhaba at night ?’
He looked back as me in surprise and gave a small laugh
‘ No, the baby is Senai, Sir, the mothers name is not Senai. ‘
‘What is her name?’
‘ Nomami ‘.
‘ And where is Nomami’s husband?’ I asked
‘ He died ‘ replied Bitupon not offering more .
When?’ I pursued, my antennae alert .
‘Beginning of this year, ‘
‘ How ?’
I caught the heaviness in his voice .
‘He killed himself.’
‘Why? I asked, my voice sounded hollow to me. I felt I needed to know all the details. Only in the details of the story will I find salvation, I was convinced.
‘ He had a fight with Nomami.’
Then? What was it about ? I couldn’t stop myself as the words tumbled out.
Having met the sullen Nomami and her slapdash manner, what could she have said that drove a man to kill himself , I wondered.
Bitopon’s look at me sideways over his shoulders seemed to weigh a decision, before he replied.
‘ She happens to be a very timid person. A timid and truthful person. She told her husband the truth about Senai not being his child.’ He sighed as his shoulders visibly relaxed .
I sensed as though he had felt a relief in shifting the burden of his conscience to me.
I did not have to ask, who the father of Senai is.
An involuntary ‘ Oh’ escaped my lips and I clamped down . What could sound appropriate after that I did not know. Hell! Why did he tell me all this? A veritable stranger! He must feel the same way I feel about revelations. That often it is easier to share the truth with strangers than with friends . With strangers, you do not have explain yourself. You do not have to pretend. With friends, you needed to justify your actions. You need to wear a mask when with friends . All this while I had thought that to tell the truth, one needed to have a streak of boldness. Courage was a necessary prerequisite to honesty . Am I now coming around to the fact that a gut wrenching strain of truth can rage beneath deception and betrayal ?
Darkness had descended over the paddy fields as Bitopon pressed on the gas with a sudden recklessness. I did not care to tell him that he was driving like a man possessed. Both driver and passenger had reasons to feel wretched it seemed. We were crossing the protected forest area now. I looked out the window as the trees whizzed past . They seem to take the shape of a man and suddenly grow tall in front of my eyes. I blinked. I needed a drink.
Up ahead a traffic jam was piling. Vehicles pulled up in front of us. I could hear shouts and see something burning. When Bitopon rolled down his window, I could smell rubber burning. Some kind of protest was on. A protest at night ? What has this world come to ? I didn’t want to get stuck in the jam and asked Bitupon to swerve off the main road and take a diversion into a side lane.
He whined,’ but I have never travelled across this side road ‘
I snapped, ‘ neither have I . We’ll surely find a way.’
Several wrong turns later, we were able to hook up to the highway through the hitherto untraveled road and reach Duliajan town . I thanked him for bringing me home. While paying Bitopon and signing his duty slip, I asked gently ?
‘How did Nomami’s husband kill himself?’
The shadows hid his expression as he replied.
‘ His body was found hanging from the Ejar tree in the clump beyond the Dhaba. On the morning after the Uruka, festival’ . He drove away without a word.
I stood rooted to the spot, staring at the taillights of the departing car , lost in an avalanche of tumultuous thoughts.
Some men are unable to find their way through untraveled roads. They lose themselves. Some men are unable to live with the truth . They do themselves in. Whoever said’ The truth shall make you free’ had only optimistic notions about freedom. Yes, the truth had set Nomami’s husband free. Absolutely free. I will have to find a way to accept the truth. And that acceptance of the truth about Loya will be my freedom. I have never travelled on that road , but I found a way out didn’t I? Maybe the truth is more kind, when you read about it, than when it is brandished before you in the midst of a marital fight with a reticent woman, inside a thatched hut, with a new born baby wailing. A fight to end all future fights. Where nobody is likely to win.
I stood staring, until raindrops forced me in. Now safely ensconced in the reading chair in my bed room , a chill crept over me as the swaying branch of the Ejar tree flashed in my mind. I poured a drink , not bothering to add any soda or water . I pulled open her diary , seeking her company again. Some of the pages had loosened from my obsessive leafing through it.
I read the last lines of her diary .
‘Sometimes you just have to take the first step. The road will reveal itself.’
I had always thought that she had ended it rather abruptly. But now it seemed to make sense to me.
I needed to tell her something. Tell her diary something.
I picked up my pen to add the words of Freud.
‘Mortals can keep no secret
Even if their lips are sealed, their fingertips gossip
Betrayal forces its way out of every pore.’
I put away the diary she had left for me. I shall not read it again.