Fiction: The Cenotaph at Dulung

Prasanta Das

Prasanta Das

In the nineteen eighties a lone Assam State Transport Corporation bus took you from Guwahati to Dulung. The red bus usually reached a little after eight. By then most of the shops would be closed. But there were always a few men standing outside Hrishikesh Book Stall, patiently waiting for the bus which brought the Assam Tribune, the Sentinel, and the Assamese dailies from Guwahati. The All Assam Students Union was powerful and could, in those years, bring the state to a halt. But up here in the Karbi Anglong hills its writ didn’t really run unless there was local support. From the newspapers the bus brought, we got to know how the agitation was faring, what Prafulla Mahanta and Brigu Phukan were saying or doing, if there had been a bomb blast somewhere, or even when the next bandh was. 

          It was one of the last days of December and the night was cold. I was waiting for a copy of a Bombay newspaper called India Weekly to which I had contributed an article on the Assam movement. India Weekly had zero circulation in Dulung but the Manipuri driver of the state transport bus had promised to bring me a copy from Guwahati. The bus arrived and stopped near the book stall.  A few autos, looking for late fares, drove up. Among the passengers who alighted from the bus was an elderly gentleman and a young man thin as a knife. It was easy to see that they were father and son. What I didn’t know, of course, was that the previous day they had gone to the Bata shop in Paltan Bazaar to meet a salesman there who hailed from Dulung. From him, they had learnt there was no “standard” hotel in the town. Now, while the other passengers began to disappear into the night, father and son stood hesitating. I suggested that they go to the nearby Tourist Lodge.

          The next morning, we were in the common room discussing the elections that had been announced when Barua sir, the Principal of our college, entered, followed by the thin young man I had seen the previous night. Barua sir motioned to us to be seated, placed a paternal hand on the young man’s shoulder, and said: “This is Partha Dutta, our new colleague. He arrived last night from Guwahati. We will have to find him a house to rent.” Then, telling us he had work to do, and assuring the newcomer he was in good hands, he returned to his office. 

          The common room was large, though on a visit to the college, five years later, I noticed that it was smaller than I remembered. There were chairs and a bench, and a long table with a bamboo tray into which Gopal, the peon, would toss our mail and official letters. The newcomer was greeted with excitement: there had been no new appointments in the last couple of years. Someone, it must have been Sengupta, sent Gopal to the college canteen for tea. We began to ask Partha questions. He was from Guwahati? Where, exactly? How old was he? So, he was going to teach Chemistry? Any experience in teaching? Which college had he gone to? School? Fortunately, no one got around to asking him what the periodic table was or where he saw himself in five years. We gathered that Partha’s father, who worked as a clerk in the Assam Secretariat in Dispur, had sent him to Don Bosco, instead of the nearest Assamese-medium school. Then he had packed Partha off to Delhi University, no doubt to keep him out of trouble at a time when students in the state were picketing government offices and clashing with the police. (Perhaps there was some notion of preparing him for the Civil Services.) Partha had completed his Masters in time while his friends in Assam had got delayed.

          Partha was keen to be accepted by us, and answered all our questions with sincerity and eagerness.  We were pleased and flattered. It was difficult not to feel a little protective towards him; he was so young, so trusting. Even Mahanta, who had become very silent when Partha had sat down, was beginning to thaw. Mahanta’s father had died when he was still a boy and he was lucky to get any schooling at all. Afterwards, he had done a series of lowly jobs so that he could put himself through evening college. Depending on his mood, Mahanta could be cold or brusque if you hadn’t led a life nearly as hard as his.

          There was no sign that Partha recognized me. It was dark last night and he couldn’t have seen my face properly. I didn’t blame him for not remembering me: I am an ordinary-looking chap of less than average height. But perhaps he was still a bit disoriented by his new environment. I suppose father and son had been fine till Bakulia, which the bus would have reached just as dusk was falling. It usually stopped there for the passengers to have a cup of tea. After Bakulia, the landscape changes from flat rice fields to hill country. For two hours as the bus climbed uphill in the dark they must have wondered what they had let themselves in for. Then a WELCOME TO DULUNG signboard, put up by a bank, and the appearance of town traffic like scooters and autos would have told them they were approaching their destination. Stepping off the bus in the near dark – met by men waiting for the morning papers to be delivered at that hour – their first thought must have been that they had arrived at a backwater of a backwater. This feeling could persist. In fact, many of my colleagues behaved as if had been banished and were always hankering to be transferred to Guwahati. As for me, I saw and enjoyed connections. Opposite the book stall and the bus stop was a small park in which there was a brick structure now in an advanced stage of dilapidation. Weeds grew through the cracks and on a dirty marble slab was the fading line, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Few knew or cared but it was a cenotaph erected some years after World War I had ended to commemorate the fifty-odd hill-men of this region who had died in a corner of a field in France. Taken from their villages to do labour work and roadbuilding halfway across the world, these men had vanished forever. But it was possible, if you had the patience to trawl through old dusty files in the district’s offices, to find out their names, for the British kept records of almost everything, and also, to some extent, since you can’t cross-examine the dead, construct their stories. When they left home did these men know that would never see it again? What were their thoughts on seeing the sea for the first time? Or, when they saw sahibs scrubbing the deck of the ship they were travelling in? I was writing a book on the Indian porters in World War I and questions about the lives and fates of these men these kept me busy.

          Leaving the common room, I went to the Principal’s office.  He was sitting in his chair, a gamocha draped over its back. “Tea, Sarma?” Barua sir asked in his usual grave manner. “No, sir,” I replied. “No tendency?” he remarked sympathetically. He had a habit of using that word, both in English and in Assamese. We talked about the elections. The college building was going to be requisitioned for election purposes and faculty and staff would be co-opted for election duty. “This boy Partha is going to be a problem, Sarma” Barua sir said, smiling. He was obviously thinking how much risk was involved in excluding Partha’s name from the list of teachers and staff the district administration had asked him to send. I replied that they might not give him election duty. He laughed. “They are going to need a lot of people. I don’t think anyone will be spared.”

          But he was not the kind to worry much. He had begun his career in a college in Aizawl. The Mizo National Front had taken over and Indian air force planes had strafed the town. There was panic and an exodus from Aizawl that included Barua sir’s colleagues. But he had stayed on in his job (his detractors later said that he was unable to escape). The insurgents vanished into the jungles, order of a kind was restored, and Barua sir found himself elevated to Principal by an appreciative government. I had several times attempted to get him to reminisce about how he had felt about being bombed but got only the most laconic answers. It was as though he had no interest in something that had happened long ago. But occasionally he did or said things which led me to believe that he had not altogether forgotten.            

          He found my interest in the cenotaph strange and had once told me to leave it alone. I had made some progress in tracing the descendants of those who had participated in World War I. In fact, only a few days ago I had gone to a Dimasa village near Phuloni where I had spent an afternoon with a retired forest ranger who had grown up listening to his grandfather’s tales of men who had gone off to fight in some distant land long before there were aeroplanes in the sky. I didn’t mention this to Barua sir.

          The announcement of the elections had brought about a change of mood in Dulung, as it had elsewhere in the state. There were few students in the college next morning when Partha arrived, very eager to teach. I could see the disappointment on his face when the librarian, a small, bearded man, told him there would be no classes. Things continued in this desultory fashion for a week or two during which Partha managed to take a few classes. Some of his students thought he was too young to be a lecturer. This wasn’t really true (he was twenty-three) but the district’s literacy rate was low and many of the boys went to school rather late. His routine consisted of going to the college in the morning, taking classes if there were enough students, meeting colleagues in the teachers’ common room, and leaving in the afternoon. I was there when he was introduced to Holiram Hanse. Hanse had just won a Sahitya Akademi award for his short stories.  But Partha obviously had not heard of him because he politely asked Hanse which department he belonged to. I cringed. O, these convent-educated types! But Hanse only smiled and said, “Assamese”.

          In the evenings, walking from Professor Colony to Hrishikesh Book Stall, I sometimes ran into Partha. One evening I met his father. It was in one of Dulung’s hotels, where the two of them were sipping tea. The smell of dal, curry, and lime hung in the air. The elderly gentleman seemed anxious and began to ask me about the likely situation in the coming days. Would the government not crush the movement, now that the elections had been announced? Would there be trouble in Dulung?  I assumed that he was asking me as the author of an article in India Weekly and opined that the hills had been quiet thus far and would probably continue to be, even if there was a storm brewing in the plains. Later I discovered that he had asked almost everyone he met the same questions.

          After a few days, Partha’s father left Dulung, more or less reassured nothing untoward would befall his son. Partha had made friends with the young men of his age. They were local boys, some Assamese, others Karbi, waiting for their examinations. He had also befriended townspeople. One evening I saw him with Tuliram Terang, the local politician who had his own political party. Tuliram liked to hang out in the market area, greeting people and being greeted in turn. You couldn’t shake hands with Tuliram. A hunting accident in his youth had blown off his right arm and partly damaged an eye. Tuliram was the one person who took an interest in my research. He talked about renovating the cenotaph and organizing a function with the Governor as chief guest. But he had stopped asking when he noticed that my research was turning up not only Karbi names but also Dimasa and Rengma Naga ones. Tuliram was smart. It was known that he would be contesting the elections.  A delegation of his Assamese friends had gone to dissuade him. After all, he was the chief patron of the Asam Sahitya Sabha in the hills. But Tuliram had offered an explanation to which the delegation had no real answer. He said he was a professional politician. Boycotting an election was something he couldn’t afford to do. I thought he had a point. Tuliram was like an Assam-type house, built from local materials and designed to withstand the occasional earthquake. He has been very successful, becoming a minister in successive governments.

          There was a noticeable increase in the number of CRPF personnel in the town. The evening trips to fetch the newspaper now seemed fraught with risk. I stopped going but how I missed those long walks back to Professor Colony with a newspaper in my hand, the fields glowing with fireflies! The Superintendent of Police was replaced by a younger and tougher man. Helicopters carrying important bureaucrats began to land in the Dulung football field from where they were swiftly transported in white Ambassadors to the Deputy Commissioner’s office on the hill. These trips were to assess the strength of the resistance in the district. The government was determined to hold the elections, no matter how unpopular. For us the problem was how to avoid election duty and not lose our jobs. For, official retaliation would surely follow any refusal to participate in the elections. But participating also meant risking social boycott. It was a highly-charged time, with words like “sacrifice” much in use, the prevailing view being that the agitation was a matter of life and death for the Assamese community. There was local support as well, for the issue of illegal migration affected the Karbis too. Even Brahma, the lone Bodo colleague in the college, who had stopped attending our meetings, began to join us in the common room, as did Bireswar Barua, who came from a family of diehard Congress supporters and so was a bit of a pariah.

          We now decided we had to tactfully refuse election duty and asked Barua sir for permission to hold a meeting in the college. We did not think he would agree. He had acquired the image of being a government man since his Aizawl days. But he surprised us by saying we had the right to protest. Because he said this in his grave, reassuring manner, it lulled us into believing that the heavy hand of government would not fall on us. It was decided that there would be safety in numbers. So, we decided to invite all the government officers in the district to the meeting.     

          The big day came. It was rumoured that the Deputy Commissioner had got wind of the meeting and would take steps to prevent or even ban it. I expected to see policemen on the road to the college, waiting there to prevent people from attending. But it was just another sleepy Dulung afternoon, complete with the comforting sound of doves cooing in the trees and benign-looking cows in the college field.  

          The meeting was held in one of the large classrooms. Partha had arrived early. He had written “Meeting of Karbi Anglong District Govt. Officers, Organized by Dulung Govt. College Teachers’ Association” in cursive handwriting on the blackboard and was now converting it into neat block letters. The classroom was almost full. Men we hardly ever saw, like those from the government farm on the outskirts of Dulung, were there. A couple of lady doctors from the Civil Hospital were present too. Gopal was going around with cups of canteen tea, awed by the presence of so many gazetted officers under one roof.

Barua sir was probably the senior most officer present. But he courteously asked the District Agriculture Officer, an energetic and broad-shouldered man, to preside over the meeting. The District Agriculture Officer courteously refused. The competitive politeness between the two ended with the District Agriculture Officer finally acceding to the wishes of his host. He was offered the inevitable gamocha by Barua sir and escorted to his presidential chair. The District Agriculture Officer called the meeting to order. He reminded us that we were not against the government as such, we were dutiful officers, after all, but we were concerned for the security and safety of our families. He then invited us to express our opinions. The librarian was on his feet immediately. He had brought with him a political science book from which he quoted frequently to prove that that boycotting an election was very much a fundamental right of a citizen. We fidgeted. Then the director of the Dulung Tribal Research Centre stood up to declare there was no difference between hill and plains people. There was loud cheering at this. (Afterwards it was rumoured that the director was one of the several spies the Deputy Commissioner had planted in the meeting.) Mahanta rose to say that most of us had contributed nothing to the agitation. It was the rural people who had borne the brunt of the punishments meted out by the authorities on agitators. The urban, salaried class had played it safe. It was time we did something. His fiery speech was getting him attention. Partha decided he wanted some. Could Professor Mahanta please speak a little loudly, please? So that everyone could hear? Everyone looked at Partha. “O, Partha,” I thought. “Partha! Partha!” said someone behind me, shocked. Barua sir shook his head sadly.

          The meeting passed a resolution saying that the elections were likely to be violent and therefore the district’s officers were constrained to refuse election duties. So far, the government had chosen not to aggravate the situation by strongly opposing the daily picketing of offices and the bandhs. But now the it reacted almost immediately. By next morning the district administration had suspended Barua sir for permitting the meeting to be held in the college. The librarian was suspended too, as was Mahanta. But what really frightened us was that, for some reason, the district administration suspended Sengupta as well. He was Bengali and had nothing to do with the movement. There was fear and panic in the common room.

          I went to see Barua sir. He was sitting in his office, waiting for someone from the Deputy Commissioner’s office to come and relieve him of charge. “Why Sengupta?” I asked. Most of us liked Sengupta because he was an amiable and helpful man, always cheerful, despite the large family he had to support on his college teacher’s salary. “I have no idea,” said Barua sir. “Maybe someone doesn’t like him.” Mahanta was present, looking preternaturally calm for a man whose arrest and prolonged suspension could spell doom for his family. And then walked in Partha. He had lost the cockiness he had acquired after arriving at Dulung. In fact, he now looked more like a chastised schoolboy. He wanted to go home and had brought his station leave application for Barua sir to sign. Technically, Barua sir was still Principal. He signed with a flourish. Partha looked relieved. He departed hastily and that really was the last time I saw him.

          Barua sir was arrested later that day but released not long after. Mahanta, Sengupta and the librarian remained in jail till after the elections. Our college building was requisitioned for election purposes. Officers and staff were flown in from other states to conduct the elections. They were housed in the college building. They were apprehensive and fearful, especially after couple of them were set upon by some youths one evening while talking a walk. I wondered for some time about my chances of arrest because of the articles I had written on the agitation. For a few days I lived in fear of the bamboo tray in the common room. Then, like many others, I took to hiding in the countryside. It was an outlaw hero kind of existence. In the countryside, wherever I went I met a family or two willing to provide me with food and shelter.

          After the elections was over, I returned to Professor Colony. Partha’s father had somehow managed to have his son transferred to a college in Guwahati. Friends there reported that the old man had nothing good to say of us or of Dulung. It was foolish of us to give in writing our opposition to the election. It would have been wiser if we had just disappeared as government employees like him had done. These remarks were received with anger in our common room. Partha’s behaviour was endlessly discussed and debated.

          But in the course of time the election and the turmoil it had caused in our lives was forgotten. It’s always that way, isn’t it? Years ago, before I had set my eyes on Partha and his father, I happened to find myself outside the Bata shop in Paltan Bazaar, the same shop the two had visited before their trip to Dulung. A bomb had exploded outside the shop a few weeks ago. But now there was no sign of the blast that had killed and maimed a few pedestrians. It was as though someone had hit a reset button. There was the usual muddle of cars, busses, and rickshaws, and the usual rush of train and bus passengers. Life in Paltan Bazaar had returned to its default setting.     

          I was transferred to a college in the plains, a routine transfer. My book on the Indian labour force in the Great War was finally published. It was brought out by a publisher in Guwahati who behaved like he was doing me a favour. So, it was left to me to arrange a release function. I decided to do it in Dulung. It was five years since I had left. I arrived there one morning – there were night buses now. Hrishikesh Book Stall had diversified into selling electronic goods. Barua sir was on the verge of retirement. He had aged quite suddenly and was frail, so that Gopal had to keep an eye on him.

          The function was held in the teachers’ common room which, I now saw, was in fact smaller than I had thought it was. It just about accommodated the students who had been ordered to turn up for the occasion. Gopal had removed the old bamboo tray (into which he used to chuck our letters) and produced a nice table cloth. A group of boys and girls sang the college anthem after which Mahanta provided a rather formal introduction to the author. Barua sir made a gracious speech praising my scholarship and my tenacity as a researcher. I was a worthy role model for the students, he said. Then he uncovered the wrapping and held up the book as Sengupta took pictures with the Nikon camera he had recently acquired. Barua sir leafed through my book. He looked at the photographs of the cenotaphs that I had included: the one in Shillong, the one in Tura, and of course the one in Dulung. It had been partially renovated by the NCC unit of Dulung Government College and looked presentable enough in the photograph Sengupta had taken for the book. One of the students had been given the task of offering the vote of thanks. He proceeded to do so. Then we were asked to please rise for the national anthem.

          We stood up. The boys and girls began to sing. Something seemed to jog Barua sir’s memory. He lowered his head and whispered, “What was the name of that boy who joined before the elections?” “Partha, sir,” I whispered back.  


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