Wednesday, February 17, 2010

High Art, Low Lives

At the end of a failed attempt to reach Kunming (in China) from Margherita (in Assam) we were quick to settle for a resort nearby. This is what I enjoy most about travelling with my friends - this ability to happily settle for rabbit piss while you were actually looking for moonshine.

When we started from Guwahati 650 kilometres ago, no one knew where we were going. Such is the level of meticulous planning and detailed organisation of the ensemble we were travelling in. The ensemble performs music and is quite popularly known. Thankfully they had a show in Margherita. Or we would not even know where to go from Guwahati.

Somewhere through the 650 km journey, from Guwahati to Margherita, that for some inexplicable reason started at 2 am in the morning, we managed to decide that we will go somewhere beyond Margherita and visit unknown frontiers and untouched forests.

Making decision you must know is more difficult than driving 650 km straight through a night and more dangerous than the untrodden frontiers we want to traverse. It involves filtering through a sudden attack of inane answers to any question you ask. It involves fighting strong urges to kill your own troupe and tremendous self control to remain focused on the question. A typical situation of decision making process with my friends:

Friend 1: So what can we do with the 2 days we have in hand after Margherita?
Friend 2: We can do something.
Friend 3: Or we can not do something
Friend 4: All of you should shut up
Friend 5: We can go to Namdapha
Friend 6: We can also go to Arunachal Pradesh
Friend 3: Namdapha is in Arunachal Pradesh
Friend 2: Then let’s go there
Friend 4: We can also go to Dibru-Soikhua
Friend 6: Parasuram Kunda is also close by
Friend 1: We can go to Namdapha via Dibru-Soikhua and Parasuram Kunda
Everyone: Ye ye ye … let’s go there

Sounds easy? It does. Just that no one can go to Namdapha via Dibru-Soikhua and Parasuram Kunda from Margherita. Not in 2 days in any case.

At some point in the journey, a minister of the state (a real one!) became our tour operator. The star of the ensemble managed to throw enough charm to the minister into self suggesting and organising places for us to visit. He suggested Napdapha, we insisted on Burma. In fact when at Margherita we saw the sign that showed Stillwell road, going into Burma and out to Kunming in China, that was the only place we wanted to go. It was only 1700 km. ‘We can do 2 foreign countries in one trip!’ – one razor sharp calculator amongst us cried.

So the star called the minister. The minister told us it is a far cry. We should be lucky if we make it to Burma. We should have started early in the morning. It is already 1 pm and we will have to return from the border before 5. We are not allowed to spend the night in Burma. We still have 3 hours' journey left to the border.

Pointless to say that that did not deter us even a wee bit. We were out on conquering unknown land. What is time and inconvenient state rules for us? We will proceed to the border and convince the Burmese army into letting us in and out from the other side into China. So we proceeded. At Joirampur on Arunachal border (still in India), the SDO (Sub Divisional Officer), refused to give us a permit to go to the border. He said the road was being built. We called the minister. He asked us to proceed towards Nampong, the town at the Burmese border and that he will organise a pass for us. He will also organise for us to stay at the IB (Inspection Bunglow) on the Indian side.

When we arrived at Nampong, the caretaker of the IB did not know anything about our arrival. The SDO said he has not heard anything about us. We called the minister again. His phone was switched off!

We decided to take things in our own hands and proceeded towards Burma border. At the army check point there was much chaos as they were conducting a firing practice. We managed to take advantage of the situation and slip in without a pass. Ab Chinia dur nahin – now China is not far. But as wise people say – Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai, Baki Sara S***r Bhai!* Even if the Chinese were dying to let us in at the border, the border road organisation of India had actually dug up the whole hill to make road. Ahead of us there were only piles of falling rocks and soil.

‘We can not go ahead any more’ – the captain said unnecessarily.
‘But the map on the road way showed such a big road?’ – Some one bright queried.
‘It was not that big. It was only this much’ – a brighter one held his forefinger and thumb in a pinch to show how big the road was on the map. Another inane conversation began.

We about turned. Cursing India for being so disorganised and vowing to take revenge on the first SDO who refused us the pass saying they are building the road. It was all his fault. If he gave us the pass we would have been in Burma by now and tomorrow morning in China. We must take revenge. This poured in another set of inane suggestions.

‘We should kill his dog’
‘No we should shit in plastic bags and throw it over the wall.’
‘At the dog?’
‘No, at the SDO’
‘What if he is not outside? If we dirty only his compound he will make someone else clean it. That won’t be fair’, socially conscious one said.
‘One of us should go in and ring the bell first and while he is talking the rest should throw the shit in’
‘What if it hits me?’ – a volunteer whined
‘What if the dog is out’ – pragmatic one asked.

Thankfully we passed the town where the wretched SDO lived and did not notice it being deeply engaged in this planning of the SDO’s insult.

We had also passed the IB where we were supposed to spend the night. Now we were not in China, we did not have a place to spend the night and no SDO to throw shit at. Going back to the beautiful IOC (Indian Oil Company) guest house we had rooms in, looked too sissy. The star called another contact. This time it was just a district president (referred as DP from here on) of a political party. The minister, we decided, is not competent enough.

The guy jumped at the first query and told us not to worry about anything. He immediately organised our stay in a beautiful resort in a Singpho village nearby. He even came to meet us halfway to take us there. Singpho is a tribe with much colourful history and clothes. Their houses on stilts are built of bamboo and locally found palm leaves. They are supposedly the first people on mother earth to have done tea cultivation. Originally they came from China. They also have a lot in common with some Burmese tribes. This particular resort is run by a family on behalf of the community. The wide, spacious bamboo house on stilts is set amidst a tea garden. They serve delicious and healthy home cooked food and are an extremely friendly lot. Their hospitality makes you feel like a Singpho yourself.

But this was not our luckiest day (night by now). The resort and the hosts were perfect. There was alcohol. There was good company. This perfect setting made us forget the DP. Not that he was a bad guy. He was in fact more hospitable than the hosts. But even the moon has stain on it. This over friendly DP was into theatre and poetry. Of the loud, exaggerated, popular kind. After a couple of drinks it becomes particularly irrepressible. We sat with him innocently, enjoying his local company and historical information, albeit touched with histrionics, about the area and its people. But as he touched his lucid lips to the third glass filled with jaam (Urdu for alcohol. Somehow only that word can capture the mood of the moment that night. Alcohol sounds too scientific under this hysterics) out came a diary he has been carrying with himself. He opened it with √©lan and started –‘Here is a poem I wrote in 1989. It was the time when the military had entered our homes. No body was safe. Our boys were getting killed. Our girls were…If you give me permission, I would like to recite it in front of this auspicious audience’.

We were innocent till then. So we said yes. Later, much later, the next day, while coming back from the resort, we would have many regretful conversations about at which exact moment we should have snatched his diary and thrown it into the fire around which we sat comfortably. Well, comfortably till then. It was our innocence till then that also made us say yes to his proposal for poetry recital. For, he started, at the top of his voice, an assault of difficult, angry, Assamese words that sounded like nuclear combustions fiery enough to burn your soul. Translated, it would sound something like –

In my heart there is a palpitating unhealed wound
In the marrows of my bones and bones there is cancer
Do you not see what is happening to my country? (At this point he takes his voice few notches higher and looks at us accusingly).

I looked at my cult. They might be very good at lateral thinking when it comes to decision making, but art and literature is not what they do for fun during evening drinking sessions. His poetry had stunned even this vociferous lot (our decibel level of normal conversation inside the car had made the DP warn us to be quiet at the resort before entering it). They all nodded when he finished, I guess, to release the tension that hang in the air from the poetry. This was another near fatal mistake. For the DP took it to be a sign of appreciation and volleyed into the next page in his diary.

He started another recitation. This time it was about love. Cruel, deceiving, unrequited love. He was drunk and consumed by his poetic emotions for sure. But he was also quick enough to move to the next page in his diary before people got a chance to recover from the previous one. And it was all organised in a chronological order. The local alcohol mixed with the tiredness of the failed attempt to go to China and generous overdose of the magic herb had made us slow in reflex. The DP had reached 1998 before any one of us could think about self defence. Also the atmosphere by then was too tensely poetic to have another decision making conversation of the aforesaid kind. We had to move carefully. This was an enemy more dangerous than the Burmese and Chinese army put together. The attack was relentless. I heard two of our bravest soldiers whispering into each other’s ears like a pair of little girls in bloomers. They were of the opinion that only an overdose of the magic herb could quieten this smouldering poet. So they started rolling joints at a speed only slightly slower than the sonic jet that was dropping killer words on us.

Meanwhile more people, hearing about the presence of the star amongst us, had arrived at the resort, hoping he would sing few of his popular mushy love songs for them. But, this evening, there was stiff competition for our star. The larger audience only aroused more passion in the poet’s diseased marrows. We had more to suffer.

However, these distractions of rolling joints, people’s arrival etc did slow the enemy a bit. It was past midnight and we had reached only 2002. Also the public began do demand successful love songs, not unsuccessful political poetry. Our crew in the meanwhile managed to pass on few more joints to the evening’s target.

I must add here that our crew was behaving exceptionally well that day. Normally it would not take 2 minutes for one of them to lose it completely and throw the poet into the fire. They did not care much for art and other people’s living in general. But today, we were at a new place with amazingly hospitable people. Also being a part of a star troupe meant our activities could get reported in local media instantly. So the crew was at its restrained best. And in fact the following account will highlight the moment of victory when this logically challenged army devised some sharp cunning and defeated the enemy tactically.

So after a new round of rice beer, introductions were made, our star was given a guitar by the admirers and few people sat at his feet to listen to his crooning voice. The DP took this opportunity and launched into a late 2002 poem. He proceeded with vigour renewed with beer and presence of young females in the audience now. When he finished his first stanza, one of our soldiers passed him a joint. He stopped to take a drag. A second soldier said in a loud voice, ‘Take a break, let me tell you some poetry now’, and he threw his voice at the poet –

Have you ever shat in a forest?
Or on the green of the grass?
Have you wiped your bum with wild leaves?
Sometimes it makes you burn.
Have you washed your bum in freezing cold mountain springs in winter?
Or peed on dry leaves making them smoke?
Have you farted loud into the maddening wind of Phagun (an Assamese month)
If you have not
Have you seen anybody else do it?

When he finished there was death like silence. We heard a loud sound of something banging shut. It was the poet. He was lying on the floor with his bum pointing towards the sky and had just shut his diary up. He never got up that night again.

The poet soldier of course received much applause from us. He has become a hero since. After the initial discomfort even the audience admired the simplicity and effectiveness of his poetry.

When I look back, I vow not to go on a holiday with my friends again. Especially not to China. I am still a bit traumatised to think about poetry or art. It will take time to heal. But on the upside of it, we now have a new talent amongst us. And the star continues to have competition.

* Translated into English this very profound idiom would be something like – 'All Indians and Chinese are bothers and rest of them are brother fuckers'

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

For a Free Land, Free Life

Please sign the Impunity Must End in Manipur petition to end Armed Forces Special Power Act in Manipur. Irom Sharmila (who I wrote about earlier) has been on hunger strike for 10 years demanding removal of this atrocious law that our own (?) country has imposed upon us. Enough is enough. For a free land and a free life, please click on the following link and sign the online petition.


I know online petitions are a bore. Also I am not really sure about how effective they are. But for this, I will try anything. It's a matter of freedom or death! So friends. Please sign.