Plangent Memories

Childhood was uneventful and there has been nothing to rejoice or remember in retrospect, except that year. A year that abruptly restructured my relations and interactions with my friends from the dominant community. Suddenly I learnt how to be conscious of the presence of an `other' `they' amongst `us', bringing about a strange reticence in my interaction with my friends. I was told to take care "not to speak of anything" with them. A cocktail emotion of suspicion, hatred and fear for `them' entered my repertoire of normal existence. Overnight my neighbors had become people who are after my community. There was mayhem and madness all around, everyone asking for nothing but blood and more blood of the `other'. It was a fateful year that permanently changed the social landscape of this beautiful city - Shillong - called the Scotland of the east.

The tremors of this social quake can still be felt of and on and it still haunts my memory like a childhood nightmare that turned out to be real.

My parents often related to me the costs of the partition that divided the sub-continent followed by the death dance of rejoicing and the price that people paid for their leaders' whims. My father recollected how at the age of ten, he was forced to forfeit the warmth of a home and decent education to seek ways to provide for a big family. He often narrated the struggles he engaged in and the pains he endured during that search. He told me how he slowly consolidated his position and started to win the struggles with life. However, suddenly that year everything seemed to have come to an end. We realized how fragile can be the condition of a group of people disregarded by history, without a homeland and surviving on the benevolence of host countries. The events of the year reminded me how being or not being from a particular community can determine your destiny. How your language, habits, ways of living etc can determine your claim to be the rightful or wrongful owners of your own produce. In short that year reoriented my perception about how human relations operate, how social, political and economic ostracisation follows ones ethnic being and the real meaning of being an `outsider'.

That was nineteen hundred and seventy nine. The annual puja holidays were coming to an end, ringing along an apprehension that always followed the end of holidays. The dread of schools reopening and the beginning of the annual year end examinations. But this year, the dread would be of something else. It was sudden and unexpected. 

The grown-ups came home unusually early that day, their sullied faces reflecting traces of an abstracted mind. They discussed issues that were inchoate and incomprehensive to us-the children. Anyhow, we were also too busy to get involved in adult problems. The huge stack of burnt out crackers that had deafened the city for the last few days required our immediate attention. They needed to be put to flames before elders played spoil-sport and reduced them to ashes under their watchful eyes. However, our initiatives were nipped in the bud by the cold reprisals of the grown-ups who seemed really worried today. Each one of us slowly realized that today there was something more than the usual adult worries, however, the gravity of the problem was still beyond our childish sagacity. And along with the increasing darkness the pall of gloom and tension seemed to mount, instigated by the relentless ringing of the instrument men use to communicate distantly but that which has distanced the human interactions between the most immediate of neighbors - the telephone. Ours was the only house in the entire locality that had the instrument, and the entire neighborhood, people who never cared for each other, was suddenly bonded by this gadget.

Slowly we started to hear "killed", "burnt", "threw a bomb" and similar other words, words that now started to help us comprehend a disjointed understanding of what was happening. Slowly fear gripped us and without taking food many of us fell asleep.

When we were awake the next day, elders were still at home and none seemed to be busy with their routine activities-of dressing up for the day, scurrying for the bathroom-except that the tension they reflected last night seemed to have increased in intensity. We were told that "curfew" had been imposed in the city and no one would be able to go out. Though we had no idea what it meant, it saddened us because with the grown-ups around, our activities had to be restrained and particularly so on a day when they were more angry than usual. This imprisonment continued for days and we started to feel bored. But now we were also tense because we could hear the word "killed" with an uncanny regularity. Our rations started to get subsidized and our hungry pleadings were met with stern faces. We were asked to sleep with our shoes on and valuables were distributed in small bundles among the elders. Sleep eluded us and we always heard frightening shouts and cries all around.

Suddenly one night a deafening sound aroused us from our slumber. We could discern from the discussion of the elders that a powerful bomb ripped through the house of one of our neighbors `Mr. Shome' and that his daughter was seriously injured. As days passed the entire city was being engulfed by burning infernos of ethnic hate. Now the moment had come to engage in the activity that we always anticipated with trepidity. We have to leave home. It was too dangerous for children and women to stay. We left the early next morning, probably never to see our home again. Only the elders remained.

We went to a new city, encountering new problems and new people. But communications made us aware of the fact that there was no respite in the insensate rage that suddenly seemed to have gripped a group of people. I can remember, with a recurrence of morbid feeling, incidents that have ever since remained etched in my memory. I was told how an entire locality was surrounded by a raging mob and houses set on fire along with the occupants. I feel choked when I recollect with a visual clarity the incident of the small child who was pushed back into the flames when he tried to come out. How painful his death must have been and how shameful have been our acts. I remember how an entire busload of innocent people was mercilessly mutilated. Sometimes, even today I imagine that I can hear their shrieks and pleadings for mercy from a frenzied mob. Consistently, I heard the mindless violence perpetrated on a group of people considered to be `usurpers' and `exploiters'.

I was terrified, however, to hear discussions about permanently resettling somewhere else. I was to lose my own school, my own friends, my own little world was shattered by a rage about the origin of which I am still unclear. I have not known any other place, I know no other people. Suddenly I felt forlorn and deprived of a sense of belonging, homeless and unwanted.

The events of the year played a significant part in my life as well as in that of so many others. I have grown up like all grown-ups, like them I have been sensitized from feeling grief and remorse at the loss of human life. The pain that we are supposed to feel as a human community at the loss of a compatriot eludes us in a manner that distinctly under whelms the progress of our civilization. In these passing years I have seen new places, met new people, learnt new things, gained new insights. However, despite all my efforts I have failed to learn how we learn to "hate".


More by :  Rajesh Dev

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