Last few months have been hectic in Assam. Apart from confirming my desire to live in South-East Asia valid, it has given us – me and some similar suffering souls - endless trouble. The good thing is humour is at ready hand. The bad thing is jokes are getting crueler as situation gets worse.
Come June and come flood. Estimated 2 million affected. I had to walk through deep water pulling my pajamas up to indecent heights and reluctantly baring my Thai food fed midriff to complete strangers in day time at public places. Not good news for anyone. While we were busy figuring out relief work, a group of Indian experts on disaster insisted on visiting. They told us they can set standards of relief work for us. They ordered a meeting of all people who wants to do flood relief work and told us what happens to people during floods. They have seen that in Bihar it seems! In my father’s village I have seen people getting out of their home through the roof during the floods on a yearly basis. The roof is designed for this specific eventuality. Inside the house there are planks at various levels to escape the raising water level. The hope is one will not have to cut the roof. But in case the water level gets too high, one always has the option of cutting open the roof. Flood relief is as regular as Bihu and Malaria in these parts. People know exactly where to keep their goats and exactly where to row the raft to shit. Still a bunch of people from Delhi who has barely seen water in a bucket wants to set standards for us! Sigh! Even our disasters are being ordered now!
Barely had we finished sprinkling the bleaching powder into the submerged wells that a group of morons decided to molest that girl in public. The city was abuzz with rumours and speculations after the 9th July incident. The story I have fabricated after collating all gossips goes like this – The girls is a call girl. That day she was at the bar celebrating her friend’s birthday. They were quite tipsy by the time and had a fight inside the bar about payments and bills. (Quite a common phenomenon considering how often bars try to cheat you on your bills thinking you are drunk and have lost count of your drinks). Outside, the reporter of that sleazy news channel was drinking with his buddy who is the main man in that video. When the girl came out with her friends, they wanted to pick her up. She, already pissed with drinks and off high bills, refused. That irked the reporter immensely. ‘I am a reporter with the most TRPed news channel of Assam’ – he thought. ‘And you a mere call girl dare refuse me as a client!’ – he said. To teach her a lesson he called and ordered his channel to send a camera immediately and his friend helped by molesting the girl. It seems they were thinking people will think the girl is being attacked by public for being drunk and going against Assamese culture. Everyone knows what happened afterwards – the public ordered death for both. The chief minster ordered the police to take immediate action. And the police ordered the main culprit to surrender immediately. Could you please find out what exactly is happening to the case, while I take a break to laugh at them some more?
After 9th July times were good in Guwahati. Good only because I do not go to bars, pubs or clubs much. Mostly because I cannot hold my drinks well anymore and tend to fall asleep on the dance floor and need to be carried home very often. For some years now there has been a shortage of people who want to go out with me. The number and frequency has decreased further since I have put on about 6 kgs. Therefore, the news that the DC has ordered all bars to close by 10 pm and has banned live music in bars and clubs hardly did anything to my non-existent night life. While others mopped about the regressive direction our society is taking, I indulged full-time in the drama and gossip that ensued. Who is saying what on TV, who is an anti-feminist, who is a raving idiot were all unraveled. The editor of the news channel resigned giving a false idea to a young aspiring journalist to believe that her incessant twits did it. Some threats of murder and police case later, it turned out that the aspiring journalist is a compulsive liar and no one really knows who she is. I spent exciting time doing B grade detective work trying to weave more stories. My favourite part of the Guwahati-girl-molestation-case saga involves our chief be by power. For the first time in my life I went to submit a memorandum. While we submitted the memorandum the chief assured us that he has offered the girl whatever she wants – accommodation, employment and security. Someone in our motley crew asked if we could visit the girl too, to see if we can offer any help. I do not know why the person asked that but the chief, true to his magnanimous reputation told her – ‘yes, yes, of course you can do her.’ I burst out laughing and nearly got ordered of the palace of the high priest. Thankfully we departed quickly as he assured us that there is nothing he can do because ‘common people do not understand anything.’
I was beginning to enjoy this over ripe ferment of our moral discomfort with modernity and sex. I started wearing the shortest shorts and miniest skirts because people, on the streets and in the shops, will look at me disapprovingly and tell each other - our society has gone to the dogs! I had taken to going to bars from office as they are now open only in the afternoons when the whole thing just came to a dud. To be taken over by the ‘Muslim-Bodo’ clashes in Kokrajhar. Bad one, as you know, I have just come back from Bangkok attending a 3 months course on Peace and Conflict Resolution. I was sweating in my shortest shorts thinking the office might want me to go there. If I said no it would confirm their jealous suspicion that I was only having a good time in Bangkok. If I said yes, I will be surrounded by millions of Bangladeshis.
Now don’t get me wrong there. Personally I have nothing against Bangladeshis. I have a couple of them as friends. But being surrounded by millions of Bangladeshis in relief camps is not my idea of peace at all. It is a physical discomfort. I suffer from a condition that makes me get very annoyed with loud noise unless I am making it myself. People who are close to me can vouch for this - for loud noise I make. Living in the North-East for the past couple of years, I have been spoilt by the quiet ways of the tribal people here. In fact my condition is so acute that sometimes I find some tribal people also very noisy. But it is not their fault. It is my condition. And if you have been near a Bengali speaking crowd, you would know what it will do to my condition. Again, it is just a physical thing that Bengali needs to be spoken at a very high pitch. When I visit Kolkata, sometimes I get thrown out by the sheer volume of the salesperson who is standing across the counter and answering if he/she has the thing I want to buy. When you pass through a Bangladeshi village in Assam (you know they are Bangladeshi because they wear blue checkered lungis and a particular kind of colourful cotton sarees. They might have legal documents, but they have come from Bangladesh for sure) you will hear a distinct high decibel buzz in the air. It is all of them talking at the same time at the top of their voice. So Kokrajhar was bad news for me. Also the issue is not about Muslims as the Indian experts are saying again. And I by no means am advocating for or against any community at all. After all it is a physical issue. Like Nietzsche says – ‘annoyance is a physical illness that is by no means ended simply by eliminating the cause of the annoyance.’
To escape Kokrajhar, I went to Xadiya - the furthest you could get within Assam. It was green, wet and quiet. There is no news paper, no phone, no internet, no electricity. There is no road, no hospital, no high school either. It was kind of ideal except that I had to travel on the no-roads in a tempo (a larger auto-rickshaw). The only time my guts were not being shaken out of their socket was when I was pushing it through the knee deep mud. The home brewed rice beer is sour at this time due to too much water content I was told. So the drinking had to be controlled too. After about 10 days I came back to Guwahati thirsty for some scotch on ice. But no, this is not the right time to be in Assam at all.
I have walked through pit-latrine washed flood water, demanded that women be allowed to drink and wear shorts and still not be molested, I have managed to escape undesirable noise level, I have braved muddy road and sour rice beer but nothing prepared me for the jolt that came on 10th of August. One idiot filed a complaint against another idiot who owns a wine shop in Guwahati. It seems his (the 2nd idiot) wine shop is right next to the church and hence illegal. The DC (the 3rd idiot) ordered the shop closed. In retaliation the 2nd idiot filed a petition in the high court saying if his shop is illegal then all other wine shops are also illegal. In an unprecedented quick response to a case, the court ordered the DC to immediately close all wine shops, bars, clubs, beer shops and local liquor places that fall within 500 metres of any religious institution, educational institution and hospitals, dispensaries, nursing homes etc.
Now, as bad luck and terrible math would have it – there are about 700 wine shops, bars, clubs, local ghatis (official figure 461) in Guwahati. Guwahati’s area is around 264 sq km. This means there is a wine shop every 300 mts in the city. Also in the past decade Guwahati has given permission to about 600 educations institution and 400 private nursing homes (figures are chosen as random as the orders). If all these EI and HI and WS (educational institutions, health institutions and wine shops) have to be fitted into 264 sq km, then obviously they will be next to each other. In fact it is a sheer wonder that they are not one and the same.
This is where my North-Eastern pride comes in again. Despite there being an Indian law about wine shops not being allowed to be near hospitals, schools or temples, we have managed to co-exist very conveniently so far. If a school does not have a wine shop within 300 metres, there is always a bootlegger who will have it. Every hospital has photos of muslim, hindu and Christian gods by the corner where everyone spit their red beetle nut juice. Some highly secular ones even have guru nanak and budhdha photos. They also have attendants and workers who double as bootleggers. In all religious festivals we drink and in fact in many temples too you will always find alcohol and ganja. All of this is an educational experience anyway. Law has never been a problem for us.
In fact, finding alcohol has never been a problem for us. I am not jolted that the high court order will hamper my drinking. On the contrary since Friday, last weekend has been one of the drunkest weekend I have had in months. We have been drinking more because wine shops are closed! What has jolted me is the mess administration is going to be in because of the order. First, so what all wine shops in Guwahati are closed? We have Khanapara on the high way right next door which is in Meghalaya and hence free from the high court order. Already there are millions of wine shops there due to lower taxes. Since Friday, Khanapara has become like a crowded fair ground and a traffic night mare. Guwahati traffic police department had to send extra teams to Khanapara to manage the extra flow of traffic into the highway which would otherwise block highway traffic. We know that Guwahati is in a traffic jumble because of lack of traffic police personnel. Where will they manage traffic now? Inside the city or at Khanapara?
The court has also ordered that all the officials who had given all those illegal licenses to the 700 wine shops, bars and clubs be pulled out. While this is a bringing-tear-to-the-eye kind of anti-corruption move, what worries me is that there will be no officials left to do office work anymore! Again using math we know that behind each illegal license there is a whole department from the officer to the peon. (Reminds me of an African village – ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ – they say in Africa). Will all of then be pulled out? Even if all the officers are pulled out who will remain in office? Who will find out who did what? All of them will be in court defending themselves, according to my calculations.