The sound of the marching boots and the incessant screams of the tribals fighting for their land reverberated into the stillness of the chilly evenings. Evenings fell and morning suns broke early through the dark clouds on those eerie mountains.
It was the night of 25th December 1982. I recall it clearly. A bunch of Khasi men were trying to enter the compound of my home and attempting to light up the meter box. I stood stricken as Ma held on to the boti that she used to cut her fish, instructing me to be brave.
“They are cowards, we have no fear”, said Ma to console me.
My young mind knew she was lying because her frail body was shivering. I understood that to face fear you need to lose fear. The Khasis were opening the meter box and screaming “Dokhar, Dokhar!” And almost as if the Gods above decided we needed to live longer, the CRPF marched close above our heads and the insurgents ran as fast as lighting into the bamboo forests opposite our home. We had just kissed death and stood holding on to each other like a boulder withstanding the raging seas.
Truth be told, the mountain people were a peaceful lot. Till the Bangladeshi refugees starting infiltrating into the crevices of the hill. They were insecure about this new phenomenon and one day they decided to take the law into their hands and finish the evil from its roots. They caught every Bengali on the dark streets and punched them till they bled uncontrollably.
The Centre was cut off from this part of India. They didn’t understand the differences between the various tribes and their culture. The Centre intervened by sending the CRPF force with a shoot at sight order.
My school was suddenly shut and the grey-white building looked like a forlorn ghost waiting to be lit again. I didn’t miss school much as I disliked the discrimination against the Bengali students which the nuns too practiced those days. The Khasis hated the Bengalis like plague. And I was their easiest target because Baba didn’t stay and I was just suddenly made aware of this reality. In spite of the matrilineal society structure, I felt acutely aware of being a girl in the Khasi land.
They made lewd gestures but didn’t ever touch. They said mean things about Ma but they never physically harmed any woman. The men were targeted to be butchered.
Just as the CRPF walked past, I saw Ma call a jawan & in her impeccable Delhi Hindi, she told him, that she lived alone with her little girl. She wanted to give them water to drink every time they were tired of marching. They agreed readily because water in the hills is difficult to get and arduous to carry. I saw her carry a bucket with a glass on the side and keep it outside our gate. I knew she was smarter than the Khasis and the CRPF forces. She gave them refrain and refuge in her demure way and protected her daughter and herself from being burnt alive in that wooden home. I learnt the word jugaad that day at a tender age of 10.
The CRPF became first name acquaintances. I knew she was putting her best foot forward to keep them happy. They were gullible to affection. She didn’t voice her truth to me, but I I could see her, much more than others did. Her shared sorrow of loneliness, survival and cunning was all visible to me. As she negotiated life, insurgents, army and her patriarchal surroundings of judgement, she still wore her hair in a neat bun and stood in her crisp cotton sari. I realized she was not one who would ever give up on life and living.
As I take out my red sari, I remember how in that environment of hate, Ma gave me this red sari and said every time you feel lesser, wear your sari and your courage like an embellishment from the Universe above. Once the sheen of courage reaches your eyes, the wrinkles fade, the grey ceases to matter and what remains is your grace and gratitude of your life experiences. Peace, purpose and colour pervade your mind, and from there your surroundings, too.
I call this Firdaus, which means paradise.
May each of us find Firdaus in the mundane and the marvellous.
“All things are but masks at God’s beck and call,
They are symbols that instruct us that God is all.”
— Farīd ud-Dīn Attār, The Conference of the Birds