At 35, you can’t help but suckle your own set of prejudices one day and water them the next. The case of learning, unlearning and relearning had been rested long ago with life putting forth arguments, and finally winning the suit. I loved to rush through life and witness those moments of a daze. In short, I was always travelling, indulging, capturing, relishing life. Having lived a life on my own terms, I had nothing to regret. Unlike the rest, I loved my job as a professional photographer. This was me, Ashish Malhotra, back then.

  It had been 7 consecutive destination wedding shoots before I finally landed a magazine photoshoot project for myself. I had to go to Assam. The schedule was preplanned. I was to go by air, relax for a day and then jump in on the assignment, shooting continuously with a few female models for a clothing brand the magazine had a tie-up with.  

3rd March 2019 | 09:02 

 I was furious at Air India. The panting airline seriously needed oil wells to fuel itself. I was equally furious at the magazine company for entrusting me to it. Fumes aside, I was to take a mammoth journey on the North Eastern Express. It had been years that I had stepped on a railway platform. I had reached the station a few minutes after 9 and was whiling away my time sulking at the surroundings. 9:45 was the departure time. Dressed in a casual tee, jeans and zipper jacket, I looked so out of focus on the platform. India was a populated country, indeed. The mad rush, the dirt and filth, the sickening smell of food and the unnoticeable faces- if truth was beauty, this was not the truth. 

Mom had already called twice and the phone beeped for the third time now.

 Mum, I’d be out of reach for a few days. Don’t fret. Don’t go helicoptering around. Luv yaa. [SENT] 

 I switched off the phone and left it to sulk in the depths of my backpack. The sweltering Delhi heat was making me irritable. A voice called,” Bhaiya… nothing to eat…listen”

“Beggar menace everywhere!  What more can you expect from a railway platform?” I mumbled aloud. Wrinkling my nose, I turned and threw a 10 rupee note at her. She was a 10-year-old girl dressed in rags with a few roses in her hand.  

“ Bhaiya, here.”

The girl handed me a rose and went away smiling, thanking me. I was embarrassed. But told me that it was not my fault. The girl looked like one. Reassured, I waited. Nothing much happened in the next half an hour. 

 

3rd March 2019 | 9:50

The train arrived on the platform hooting and puffing merrily. Gawd! Where was the queue? these people would crush me to death. I somehow reached my carriage door, got inside and started looking for my seat. C8, 57. The usual blue rexine and grey steel welcomed me. I threw the backpack on the upper berth. Sat down fanning myself, took some sanitizer and started rubbing my hands together. 

“Too unhygienic?”

It was a girl’s voice. I almost jerked my neck at the effort of looking at her. Not more than 27, clad in a white salwar kameez and a multicoloured dupatta with kohl-rimmed eyes, she presented a very basic picture… could not be called even pretty. I wasn’t impressed at all when she claimed the window seat to be hers.

“Sir, the seat you are occupying right now is mine. Here’s the ticket.”

The seats were already making my back tender. What difference would it make? I acted as a gentleman should. 

“ Women are infallible creatures. You are right ma’am. Do have your seat. I was busy inhaling some desi flavours.” Smirking, I shifted to my own throne. She rolled her eyes and continued making herself comfortable. 

3rd March 2019 |  12:05

Four stations had passed with my passing 166th stage in Candy Crush Saga alongside. The views had shifted from highrise to low rise and now vast steppes of grasses ran with a sparse community of trees inhabiting them. She had been submerged in stacks and stacks of sheets until then. Collecting those, she set them aside and took out a book.

1984, George Orwell

That was the first time, I felt a tinge of interest in her. Orwell’s novels were classic literature and anyone reading them had a superior taste, per se. I peeked into the sheets from the corner of my eyes. Case profiles…madam was a lawyer. This was going to be interesting. 

3rd March 2019 | 12:30

  I bought a RedBull and a packet of chips. It was thirty minutes past twelve. I was dead bored. She had buried herself in a book now. I decided to break the ice.

 “I have read Orwell too. Hats off to the man for coming up with such vivid imagination. Contrasting images of dread and love in there. I was mesmerized by the Julia-Winston relationship.”

She looked up and smiled. “ Yes, one of the finest novels I have read to date. The dystopian classic makes my blood curl every time I read it. Each time I unearth something new and realise how much the novel portrays the current times.” 

Erm…the girl was, no doubt, intelligible. I looked like a fool now talking about the romantic angle. I was a little irked too. Used to all the female attention I received as perks in my job, my ego whined like a kid. I broke her reverie.

“ Sorry, mam. I didn’t even have the courtesy to introduce myself. I am Ashish Malhotra, a professional photographer.”

At the word ‘photographer’, her eyes lit up or did I imagine the shine. She nodded appreciatively.

“ I am Shakuntala. I am a lawyer by profession. “

The courtesies were over. What next? Surprisingly, she took the lead. 

“What do you click, Ashish? I hope I can call you Ashish, can I?”

“ Of course, you can. I insist you must, Shakuntala. I capture memories. I have captured some high profile weddings, expos and TV programmes in the recent past. Are you headed for Guwahati as well?” 

She answered,” I am headed for Goalpara. It is a beautiful district with the Brahmaputra flowing by. A lot of sightseeing places are there like the Pir Mazhar, sacred to the Muslims and the Sri Surya Pahar, with its 100 Shivlingas, pious to the Hindus.”

I was curious now. Assam was a haven for mountain lovers, Chai sippers and Rhino fans. I had heard the name ‘Goalpara’ somewhere. But could not make out the connexion. 

“ Seems like a place to explore.” words flowed involuntarily. The ice had melted, waters flowed, and emotions boiled, frothed and vaporized as the sun started taking the western course. 

By the time Goalpara station came, I had decided to ditch the train and pay a visit to her village.

 

3rd March 2019 | 15:20

We had left the train a long back and we’re on a track among the greens. Mountains hugged the landscapes. “You live in a beautiful place, Shakuntala. How far is the village?”

My stomach was revolting against the sudden famine. I was going to shout this to her when a huge monstrous structure came into focus. 

“Hey what’s this?” I asked, “ A new amphitheatre or hall for the people of the village? It looks grand.” My DSLR D850 was out and  I went on feverishly clicking with Shakuntala in and out of focus.

 “O this! It is a huge detention centre the government is building. When it will be completed it will house the largest number of illegal immigrants.” 

 “A concentration camp!”

 “Sort of.” She added innocently.

Weird. The structure looked menacing. Suddenly, I felt too timid to continue further. What was I headed for? I calmed myself down. I wanted to trust her.

 We were nearing a village now or to be particular, a group of crooked shanties sprouting like mushrooms in the otherwise pasture land.

“Di!” A child of five came running and hugged her lower torso.

 “I met papa today. He looked sad. I told him to eat the fruits mum had brought for him but he told me to eat them.” He was now showing her the fruits.

Click!  None of them noticed.

“Did they tell when they will leave your papa?”

Shakuntala knelt before him and started enquiring.

 “He was behind huge bars, Di. Mamma was whispering to him. Case..money..lawyer..documents. Will this uncle help us?”

 He was staring at me now as if pleading. There’s nothing more precious than a child’s innocence. Overcoming my scepticism, I asked, “What’s your name buddy?”

 “Nona.”

 The kid ran away leaving the two of us alone once again.

 “Let’s get moving. I need to take you sightseeing too.”

 “Why is the kid’s father in prison and why were you so concerned?” I had gurgled out my doubts to no answer.

 3rd March 2019 | 15:55

The sparkling Brahmaputra flowed close by. Everything here presented a contrasting picture from the gooey greens to the grey crooked huts. Having lived an exuberant life, the shanties around looked filthy, repulsive and obscene to me as if maligning the scenery.    

“Shakuntala, were these the sights you wanted to show me?”  

 Silence.

I knocked a pot standing nearby breaking them both. Fear is harmful to your mental faculties. In my case, It suspended  my sense of control. I shouted “This is a place fit for pigs. You live amongst criminals and you call yourself a lawyer!” 

 “You know my name and you know my profession. I am here to give legal help to these people”, she retorted. 

 “More”

 “Come then.”

 I was taken by the hand and drawn outside. The child’s eyes followed me everywhere. What hope he carried! I was not a saviour. I was a bloody tourist. 

3rd March 2019 | 16:05

We were knocking the gate of a little well-to-do straw hut. A lady opened the door. 

“She is Monalisa, a teacher by profession.”

“Mona, what’s the update?”

“Out of animosity, someone registered a case against us. Now the question is about our land too. And now that we no longer belong here, we cannot hold anything. My life is broken. Where will I go, Di? This is my home.” Mona was despairing. 

“Don’t worry. Government has options for rehearing of case and appeals too. We will keep appealing until you get justice, Mona. Now grab all the important documents, you need to show you are Indian.”

 “Land dispute? But you can always show the ownership documents, can’t you?” I intervened. 

“This is NRC. 19 lakh people have been declared as illegal immigrants. The neighbouring state has already made its policy clear. The government wants us out. Especially people from a particular caste or should I say, sect.” 

Click! Click! Click! Where was my disgust now? 

3rd March 2019, 16:20

We were out in the open. It was too bright. 

 “You need not worry. I will take you to the bus stop. Guwahati is beautiful. Here, have my number. Call me if you feel the need.” She smiled.  

I smiled back. At that moment we both understood each other.  

“You must be hungry. Come. Taste some Assamese cuisine. You will love it.”

3rd March 2019, 17:00 

 I was devouring fish curry and gulping down rice. The amma who was serving me looked ancient. 

 “Amma, why are you here? Have you got no home?”

“Beta, the government wants proof of my citizenship. I came to this place three days back after a month in jail. I am Mahnoor Bibi, 80 years old. I have existed since the times of Gandhiji. . Have something more to eat, beta.”

Click!

 Shakuntala shouted from outside. “I will meet you in 15 minutes. I have an important meeting with someone. If you like to join, I am three houses away.” 

“Amma, would you like to tell me your story?” My DSLR knew what it had to do next. 

Nona came out from his hiding place. “Uncle, take my photo too. I will tell the PM that my papa did nothing.”

I smiled as tears flowed unhindered. Click!

3rd March 2019, 17:30

As I went outside, there were stories to be told everywhere. From the cooing mountains to the haunting shanties. The veiled faces bespoke their innermost agony of losing themselves and their identity. As if pulling a tree from its roots and telling it to find a new place to sow itself again.The common had no politics but politics had them. 

Sadiya had been separated from her kids. They were in detention centre. Her husband’s name did not come up in the citizen’s register. Click!

 I went to Nona’s mum too. She was worried. Her husband had been put up in the prison with rapists and murderers. It was on their persistence that he had been moved to a detention centre cramped with 300 people. Click!  

What might these people have in front of a government that had decided upon its course? The holocaust images shredded my mind as Nona kept coming in and out of focus. 

People were lining up outside community centres made to sift and discard foreigners and illegal Bangladeshi immigrants as we talked. 

3rd March 2019 | 18:10 

I was embarrassed about my so-called success, of the hullabaloo I made each time my work was presented in print or on Television. How many bodies had creeped in below those lights but not a single story was told. Shakuntala was sitting next to me at the bus stop. 

I asked her “I want to hear your story too, Shakuntala.”

“My father was 65. The only reason for my happiness. He committed suicide on coming to know that he would be sent to prison. I am trying to save whoever I can. These people are rightfully Indian and are being forced to live in sub-human conditions. It pains me, Ashish.”  

The blunt reply had my conscience axed. I was in pain too. The belt of the camera was biting into my skin, getting heavier with every click, as if carrying aeons of lives and stories that will never make sense to the people who sit cosily in their house singing the National Anthem, cussing politics. We were a self-centred lot.

She was meaningfully beautiful. Uncensored, raw and picturesque like the Hulukunda Pahar behind her in all its glory. I bade her goodbye. She smiled and waved back.

7th March 2019, 19:00

I sat safe and secure in one of the resorts in Guwahati, prim and proper for the event in the evening. The images of the so-called immigrants stuck to my soul and had coagulated in my veins. I no longer felt inclined to be at the party. I felt suffocated and stupid sitting there. Dragged deep down, all I thought was that the journey was incomplete, the traveller still had to go miles before he could sleep.  

Author’s Note:

The National Register of Citizens (NRC) is a register maintained by the Government of India containing names & certain relevant information for identification of Indian citizens of Assam state. The register was specifically made for Assam state. (Wikipedia)

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Photo By: Christina Ambawala

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(This is an entry in ArttrA-4, a room8 writing game at ArtoonsInn. We’d much appreciate you rating the story and leaving a review in the comments.)

 

 

Thanks for reading.

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