9/15/21

TSC Fiction | I Too Live in Your World | Dibyajyoti Sarma

Artwork - Rajni Bairiganjan

I Too Live in Your World


I had a dream:

Turning into black and white stones on the roadside

I’ll wait for centuries

until someone, irrigating the fountain of life

would wake me up again...

If you can, wearing kohl on your eyes,

try to resurrect

the memories of old times

with the ashes of wildfires

that lie scattered on the roadside...

These broken pieces of our conversations,

try to fix them again

and see if you can decipher the meaning.

These are mine, words I said knowingly, unknowingly...

 

‘During a Fair Winter Evening’ by Hari Barkakati


1.

But, why Mrigen?

‘Because…’ Nandini wanted to scream. She stopped herself at the last moment; she did not want to alarm the guests who had encroached upon the house in the last few days. She was the bride after all, and today was her wedding. It was not yet her time to cry. She would eventually do it after the groom arrived and the wedding rituals were over.

When it’s time, she would cry her heart out and with her tears wash away all her desires and her regrets, to start a new life. It was her decision to marry Mrigen, no one else’s. Her father had even asked her if she wanted to wait for some more time, another year perhaps. That dream was long dead. The root of the sapling she had planted had all dried up.

‘Because...’ she whispered, ‘Because he is nothing like you.’

‘He is a traitor.’

‘He is rich.’

‘He is a killer.’

‘He says he loves me.’

‘And you believe it?’

‘Why not? At least he has the courage to admit it, unlike you.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘You never told me.’

‘Told you what?’

‘That you loved me. Did you?’

There was a pause. Nandini and Bidyut stood there in the middle of the room and stared at each other — the glowing bride in a white sari with a thick red border and the emaciated man in worn denims and an unwashed t-shirt, the proverbial tragic lover. Only, he was not.

There are certain things that go without saying. He did not utter the words, though. It was not the right time to discuss love. He knew that she knew that he loved her. Otherwise, he would not be here today. It was a risk he had decided to hazard.

They had not planned this ending. In their dreams, Nandini and Bidyut were together, forever.

‘I wonder if you ever loved me,’ Nandini continued, her tone half-jocular.

‘Then why do you think I am here?’

‘I don’t know…’ 

She made a face. The anger was gone, so was the surprise. She was back to her normal self, the precocious young woman Bidyut had fallen in love with so many summers ago — strong, ferocious and enormously compassionate. Bidyut was besotted with her since when he did not even remember. Perhaps from the day they saw each other in the tuition class at Sarmah sir’s house. He was in class IX, as was she. Years later, Nandini would tell him that she had decided not to go to Cotton College in Guwahati just so they could be together at MC College, the only place of higher education in Barpeta.

Those were the days of innocence and hope. Bidyut did not even remember them anymore, and if someone reminded him, he would recall the events as if they had happened to someone else, as if he had seen them unfold in the darkness of a movie theatre.

‘I don’t know… perhaps to spoil my wedding.’ Nandini said. ‘If they knew I am entertaining a stranger,’ she stressed upon the word ‘entertaining’, ‘they would probably call off the wedding. You know your friend. He is very particular about these things.’

‘Stop it, Nandini, be serious.’

Nandini stopped. She adjusted her sari, took a few tentative steps, and picked up Bidyut’s right hand, which was hanging awkwardly next to his thin torso. How Nandini loved his hands, those long, supple fingers. It was an artist’s hand, she would say. In those days, Bidyut had been an artist.

‘You look terrible,’ she said. ‘At least you could have shaved for a change, or worn a clean shirt. It’s my wedding, after all.’

‘I did not come to attend your wedding.’

‘Then why are you here?’

‘I wanted to see you one last time, before you became someone else’s.’

‘I could have been yours,’ Nandini leaned and let her weight fall on him. He grabbed her. The fragrance of her scent mingled with the odour of his sweat. It was intoxicating. She closed her eyes and felt the warmth of Bidyut’s throbbing heart. She wished if she could freeze this moment until the end of time. ‘I could have been yours.’

Bidyut wished he could say something reassuring. But right now, he had nothing to offer her, except despair filling his heart. He wondered if it was the right decision to visit her today.

But then, he had to know, why is Nandini marrying Mrigen?

They were meeting after a gap of more than a year. The last time they had seen each other was on a busy thoroughfare, among the Bihu shoppers in Fancy Bazaar in Guwahati. They had stood frozen in front of each other until Nandini had asked, ‘How long, Bidyut? How long do you want me to wait?’

For years, Bidyut had waited for things to settle down so that he could finally leave the Front. And maybe set up a small business somewhere far away. But that moment had not come so far.

He conceded that he had responsibilities towards Nandini, but more than that, he had responsibilities towards the land, and his dead friends.

‘I can wait; just ask me to,’ Nandini had said.

A few months later, he finally answered her question. He sent her a postcard, asking her to marry someone else.

‘I could have waited,’ Nandini said, adjusting her bride’s sari.

‘That’s all right. It had to happen one day,’ he said, his voice muffled.

But why Mrigen?

Nandini could have married any man she wanted. Why did she choose their college friend and his former colleague, the traitor? She did not even particularly like him.

A knock on the door disrupted his train of thought. ‘What are you doing inside, Nandini? Father wants you at the mandap.’ It was Nandini’s sister.

‘Coming,’ she shouted back. ‘You wait here,’ she told Bidyut, ‘I will send someone with breakfast.’ She locked the room as she left, lest somebody else found him there. He was after all a wanted man, and the Army and its spies were everywhere.

 

2.

Bidyut surveyed the room; his current prison. In the last 10 years, he had moved from one prison to another, imagined or real, and today, it did not matter where he was. He was ready for anything.

The room was strangely empty, except for the bed in the corner and an ancient wooden cupboard. They must have rearranged the furniture to accommodate guests. This was Nandini’s room. Bidyut had been here on numerous occasions. He remembered the study table in the corner, filled with books, a mirror and a framed photograph of the two of them with their group of college friends, everyone — Mritunjoy, Prahlad, Gautam, Rani, Meghali, and Mrigen as well, taken during the visit to Manas. Bidyut wondered if Nandini still had the picture, and if she did, where she might have hidden it. Would she take it with her to her new home, like a secret piece of dowry?

The sound of someone turning the key and unbolting the door made him jump off the bed. He stood there, his right hand on the back of his waist, feeling the butt of his gun hidden beneath his belt; his legs tense and ready for a sprint. He did not do it consciously. It had become a habit.

‘Lock the door,’ the woman who entered with a large tray said. He did and looked at her. It was Meghali; she had expanded considerably. But for those dense, forest-like eyebrows, Bidyut would never have recognised her.

‘Meghali!’ he said, ‘Look at you!’

‘Look at you!’ she repeated in her own excited, schoolgirl-like manner, and placed the tray — cluttered with teacups, a plateful of jilapi, a few puris and a bowlful of rosogolla — on the bed. ‘You haven’t changed one bit.’

‘And you...’

‘What do you expect? Some people grow old. It isn’t easy bringing up three children on your own, you know.’ Mritunjoy had been dead for a long time now. The last time Bidyut had seen Meghali was at his funeral. So many of his friends had died in the last few years. For a long time now, he had stopped thinking about the dead, or had tried to. He had tried to do the same with the living. It was not easy. The dead were easier to forget. There was nothing, except perhaps a little regret. On the other hand, there was still hope for the living, and hope was a dangerous thing.

‘Long time,’ Meghali said as she passed the cup to Bidyut. ‘How are you?’

‘I’m fine. How are the kids?’ he asked.

‘Good, good,’ replied the proud mother, gleaming, ‘Sonti is studying engineering.’

‘Already? How time flies!’ Bidyut wanted to ask Meghali about Nandini, why she agreed to marry Mrigen. He did not know how to frame the question without sounding desperate. He also doubted whether Nandini would have told Meghali anything. Meghali may have been her best friend, but he was her confidant; he was privy to all her secrets, as she was to his.

Theirs was a curious relationship. Though they had been a part of a large group of friends, in a small town where everyone knew everyone, there was something going on between the two. Their friends said they were in love. They denied it vehemently. They were friends; they did not believe in love.

They did not, until the day Meghali eloped with Mritunjoy. They talked about their own marriage. It was years later, after she finished her MA, and was about to leave Guwahati. He was still looking for that elusive job. Finally, there was some hope.

The results of the state civil services exams were out and he was on the first list; he just needed to clear the interview, and that would be it. After that, he could meet her father and talk to him about their marriage, Nandini suggested, and Bidyut had agreed.

‘I keep seeing your name in the papers,’ Meghali said, this time her tone muted. ‘I tell my boys I know you, but they don’t believe me.’

Of course, how could they — a middle-class mother of three children and a wanted terrorist, a self-proclaimed commander — know each other?

‘Are they with you here? You can introduce them to me…’

‘No, they couldn’t come. Exams. And everything happened in such a hurry, this wedding...’ she stopped; it was not wise to talk about the subject. There was something else Meghali wanted to ask him. ‘Bidyut, do you remember the polythene bag you asked Mrityu to keep?’

‘What polythene bag?’ he asked. Then he remembered. It was a long time ago. Those days, he understood the value of money, the need for it. Those days, the whole thing was an opportunity for him. During the peak of their activities, they had collected more than Rs 50 lakh, and no one had the time to count the cash. One day, he just picked up some bundles and put them in two plastic bags. One he dropped at home, his mother needed the money, and the other he had asked Mrityu to keep for him. It was to be his pension.

‘Oh, that one, I had forgotten all about it.’

Meghali pushed the tray aside and came close to him. ‘I’m sorry, I opened the packet after Mrityu was gone. There was a lot of money.’

Bidyut gave her a smile. Of course, there was.

‘When will you take it back?’

He looked up at Meghali. He had thought he would need the money when he left the Front. ‘You keep it, Meghali. Use it for the boys. I don’t need it anyway…’ he stopped. Meghali’s face was impassive. ‘Wish Mrityu was here…’ he blurted out and then withdrew; he did not want to remember the dead.

He inched towards her, squeezed her puffed hands and said, ‘You have been a very good friend… you and everyone. We had a great time. Do you remember when we staged Rupalim at the Bishnu Rabha Hall? How I hated you when you set Rupalim on fire...’

‘Yes,’ she smiled. She had played Etiven. ‘I was good at playing the bad girl.’

And I, Bidyut thought, I was good at playing a victim.

 

3.

In their third year of college, they had decided to stage the play Rupalim for Jyoti Dibash, the birth anniversary of Jyoti Prasad Agarwala. Nandini was Rupalim, Mrigen King Manimugdha. Bidyut wanted to play the villainous king, but Nandini was adamant. She would play Rupalim only if Bidyut played her lover, Mayabo.

Today, sitting alone inside her locked room, waiting for Nandini to return, Bidyut remembered Mayabo. He couldn’t decide whose fate was worse, his own or that of the poor Rukmi warrior. Mayabo had to watch his beloved being set on fire. And tonight, he would witness Nandini circumambulate the sacred marital fire. Mayabo did not have a choice but to mutely watch the dastardly actions of a despot.

Did Bidyut ever have a choice?

Back then, he had liked to believe that he had. He was far more optimistic, far more hopeful of his future and his place in the world. But he could not do anything about the reality that surrounded him. He could not just wish away the day when he was 15 and his father, an officer in the agriculture department, returned home on a wheelchair. He had suffered a stroke and was to remain bound to that chair for the rest of his life. He could not change the fact that his mother, a half-educated woman with four children, had to step out of the house and join a school to feed the family, and how he, an ambitious football player, had to stop going to practice to take care of his siblings.

He did not make those choices, but remained faithful to the consequences. He wanted to study chemistry and knew that his mother could never afford it. He opted for a simple BA degree. When Mrigen would talk about how his father, a well-known surgeon, had agreed to send him to Delhi for higher studies, Bidyut could not even aspire to pursue an MA degree in the local college. His mother was waiting for the time when he would graduate and get a job.

Bidyut did not give up. He still had hopes — a job, and a life for himself and his family. In all this, his greatest motivation was Nandini. She was the one person he could share his worries with, and he was convinced that she would be there for him no matter what. They were young and had not seen the real world. The real world was a war zone and he could not fight the war armed just with hope.

After graduation, it was destination Guwahati for the entire gang — higher education for some, job-hunting for others. It was fun for a while. The girls joined the university and shifted to hostels and the boys rented a room in Jalukbari. Bidyut needed a job immediately, as his mother could not pay for his trip to Guwahati. So Mrigen got him appointed as a receptionist at his father’s nursing home.

As Bidyut continued to look for a proper job, a government job, days passed faster than he could count. Mritunjoy and Meghali eloped, and settled down in Margherita at the other end of the state. Prahlad joined a beer company as a marketing executive. And Mrigen, instead of going to Delhi, just disappeared. His father filed a police complaint, published ads in newspapers, but to no avail.

Bidyut continued to work at the nursing home while Nandini completed her course and returned to Barpeta to teach in Juroram school. He was still hoping to land a government job. He applied to all the advertisements that came his way. He also prepared for the state civil services exams. He did well in the second attempt, and cleared the written test. He was almost there, he would tell Nandini. It was just a matter of time.


The Wedding, Rajni Bairiganjan


                                                               
                                                                         

4.

‘Why did you have to come today?’ Nandini asked. ‘I don’t have the time to talk, and you can’t hide in this room. The girls will be here soon to help me dress.’

She quietly latched the door. She was still in the same white sari, this time with flower petals in her hair and a copper mirror in her hand, looking more resplendent than ever. The mirror in her hand was the final proof that she was the bride. She would carry the mirror until the mango logs were set on fire by the priest at the temporary altar in the courtyard, and the loose end of her silk chador was tied to the dhoti of the bridegroom, who would arrive at midnight. She would then drop the mirror and cross the threshold, and become a wife, someone else’s wife.

‘Don’t worry; I’ll leave in a while. Just some more time, as much as you can spare,’ he said. He hated that he sounded desperate.

Nandini sat on the corner of the bed and started to pick flower petals from her hair. ‘You are not going anywhere until the wedding is over. I don’t want to spend this day worrying about your safety; I have other things on my mind. You can leave after I’m gone.’

‘Don’t worry about me. I am fine.’

‘Are you? The last time I heard, you were on the top of the wanted list. They were saying you may be visiting Barpeta soon.’

‘Who? Your husband, the traitor?’

Nandini nearly rose to the bait, but pursed her lips.

‘I know. They are looking for me right now in Pathsala,’ Bidyut did not want to go into the details. There was a time he would tell her everything and she would listen with interest. Those days, Bidyut thought he was doing something worthwhile. Now, all he was doing was trying to stay alive.

They just sat there, each waiting for the other to speak. The silence was torturous, especially with the cacophony of noises outside. In all these years, they had never run out of topics to talk about, but today, everything they wanted to tell each other, their regrets, their wishes, about the death of those shared dreams, everything felt inconsequential. They had exhausted the possibilities.

‘You wouldn’t try to see me after I am married?’ Nandini broke the silence.

‘No. It wouldn’t be right, would it?’

‘You are not upset about the wedding?’

‘Upset? No. You?’

‘Me?’

‘Are you upset? Unhappy?’

‘It was my decision to get married. If nothing else, I had to fulfil the daughter’s duty. You should see my father. He’s so happy, he cannot contain himself.’ Her eyes were moist.

‘He’s dying,’ she said at last.

‘How long?’

‘Another six months, at the most. So I had to do what I had to do.’ This was, of course, not the only reason. But Nandini was not going to reveal the truth, not now, not today.

‘I’ve no complaints, just concerns. Why Mrigen? You did not even like him.

Nandini looked at him, this man crouched on her bed, his right hand supporting his skeletal head; and those empty eyes, which once sparkled for no reason at all; this persona and the warmth it exuded.

This man was the love of her life, in whose company she truly felt alive, for whom she had cried on so many lonely nights, with whom she shared all her secrets.

And today, on the most important day of her life, she wouldn’t share this one secret, this one truth — no, not with him, not with anyone else.

They will part with a secret; they must.

It was not an easy decision. Nandini had spent nights after tearful, lonely nights mulling over the decision, the rights and the wrongs, and its consequences. On those nights, Bidyut was beyond her reach, save for occasional postcards without a return address.  

Now that she had made the decision, she did not owe anyone an explanation.

‘Nandini,’ someone called from outside. ‘The women are back. They are waiting for you for the bath…’

‘This is it, then. I have to go now...’ Nandini sounded desperate. They understood the enormity of the situation, but could not really comprehend its burden. It was the last time they would be seeing each other, as they were, as lovers.

‘Nandini,’ Bidyut said. ‘Nandini,’ his voice cracked, ‘I’m sorry.’

 

5.

‘I’m sorry.’

This was how he started when he finally confessed to her that he had joined the Force, with Mrigen.  

Like everything else in his life, this too was not of his making.

After clearing the written exams for the civil services, he appeared for the interview. He was sure he had nailed it, he had answered every question with aplomb and then answered some more. He was certain he would get a posting.

Two days later, the landlord of the tenement where he lived woke him up saying that he had a call. On the other end of the line was Mr Borpujari, secretary to Pranay Kishor Hazarika, head of the Civil Services Commission, who wanted to meet Bidyut.

The meeting was brief, business-like. Hazarika said the final list was being readied and Bidyut’s name was likely to be there, for a much sought-after job in fact, the enforcement department. But he would have to pay for it, not much, just Rs 2 lakh. Once he got the job, he would get the money back in a year’s time. It was a fantastic deal.

Rs 2 lakh? Bidyut was aware of the corruption in the job market, but he had never explored the possibilities since he did not have the resources to pay a bribe. That was the reason why he had pinned all his hopes on the civil services. He did not expect corruption there.

He was earning Rs 4,000 a month as receptionist at the nursing home, and had to send half of it home. There was no one in the family whom he could ask for support. He could ask Doctor Uncle, Mrigen’s father, or Nandini’s father, but immediately spurned the thought. His pride would not allow it.

He tried to convince Hazarika, but the man did not have the time to listen to his pleas. ‘If you have the money, talk to Mr Borpujari, or else go home.’ His instructions were clear. He had other people to see. He had other bargains to make. 

Stepping out of Hazarika’s office in Dispur, Bidyut started to dream about the money. Where could he get so much of cash? Perhaps he should rob a bank, or some household. He could probably donate a kidney! As he walked on the broken pavements, he dreamed up one wild plan after another to amass the money. 

His life depended upon the job.

As he continued to walk — he did not know what else to do — further and further from Hazarika’s office, it started to sink in. He did not have the money, nor the resources to raise it, and he was not getting the job. His first instinct was to call Nandini, but he could not. She was counting on him, and four years after he had graduated, he was still unemployed.

Bidyut spent the next week holed up in his room, getting drunk on rice beer sold near the railway tracks, and without really thinking about anything. He had already given up. He had reconciled to the fact that he was never going to get a proper job, and tried to convince himself about his future in the nursing home. Perhaps a few years time, with experience, he would find himself a job in a medical store. 

He did not tell anyone about what had transpired. He continued to subscribe to Employment News. He continued to apply for suitable vacancies. He continued to work at the nursing home. 

That is where he met Mrigen, after more than four years. After his sudden disappearance, Doctor Uncle did everything he could to find his son, but there was no trace of him. Now, there he was, looking dapper in baggy jeans and a t-shirt.

‘Mrigen, it’s you, right?’ Bidyut went up to him and asked. It took him a few seconds to recognise Bidyut, and the last four years vanished in seconds. That evening, they went to Rajaram’s dhaba in Khanapara. 

Bidyut wanted to know what happened to Mrigen. He told him how his father had been worried sick about him. Mrigen laughed. ‘My father knew all along where I was. He couldn’t tell anyone. It was easier that way. If you don’t know the truth, you don’t have to lie about it.’

By now, Bidyut could guess where Mrigen had been. By now, the activities of the Front had become an integral part of life for the Asomiya people. Every day, the papers carried the news — militants kidnapping the rich and powerful; bomb blasts in shops, bridges, buses, oil lines; jawans killing militants; militants killing jawans. People read about the gore and horror and then forgot about it. 

When they were in college, Bidyut too had joined in the discussions about the ideologies of the Front, how it sought to change the future of the state. He would empathise with what the Organisation was seeking — Sovereignty, Independence. It was a valid demand since the central government machinery, the Great Indian State, was exploiting Assam. That was it. Beyond those conversations over tea, Bidyut had nothing to do with the Force and its ideologies.

‘So, you joined the Front?’ he asked his friend.

‘I can’t tell you that,’ Mrigen laughed. He was in high spirits. It had been a long time since he had met someone from the old gang. ‘I saw Mrityunjoy and Meghali in Margherita, spent a night there. Mrityu has become quite the householder.’

‘When?’

‘More than three years ago, on my way to Kachin. I stayed there for six months. Back in Assam, I spent one year in North Lakhimpur, then Dibrugarh for a while. Now, I’m the area commander in Nagaon.’

‘What are you doing in Guwahati?’

‘I can’t tell you that either, top secret.’

Later, Bidyut would argue that fate had prompted him to follow Mrigen and join the Front. Otherwise, why would he meet Mrigen at that particular juncture and why would Mrigen be there to do this specific job?

‘Have you heard of Pranay Kishor Hazarika?’ Mrigen said a while later, after he was sufficiently drunk. Of course, Bidyut had. ‘He needs to be taught a lesson.’

Those were difficult times. The Guwahati battalion was in disarray. Parag Nath, the squadron leader of the military wing, had been killed in an encounter a month ago. The gossip among the ranks was that his second-in-command, Banajit Pathak, had turned into a government mole. And it was he who had informed the CRPF about Parag’s whereabouts.

The Force blacklisted Banajit and those close to him went into hiding. They now needed to build the Guwahati battalion from scratch. Before that, however, they had to show the establishment that they were still active in the region. That’s why the plan. Anyway, Hazarika had it coming.

Bidyut decided on the spot. He wanted to see Hazarika pay. No, he did not want to join the Front, but he wanted to see the bastard pay.

‘Okay, do you know how to drive?’

‘No, but I can learn?’

‘And gun?’

‘If you can do it, I can,’ Bidyut said.

Learning to drive a Maruti van was not difficult. Nobody even bothered to teach him how to shoot; they just gave him a .4mm pistol. The difficult part was to survive the consequences.

He just could not believe he had so much hatred, so much frustration inside him, and it all found an outlet in a cold-blooded murder, in the middle of the day.

As they planned the kidnapping, Bidyut was surprised to see how Mrigen had changed over the years. He was no longer the in-house clown, as he had been during college days, the spoil brat, the show-off… Today, he was levelheaded and meticulous, driven with a sense of purpose. He would not even lift his finger without thinking twice.

The mission fell into place like clockwork. It was a ‘collection’ trick. They would abduct a person, demand a ransom and release the man after his family paid up. It was easier if the relatives did not inform the police or the press got wind of it. In this case, Hazarika’s family decided to keep quiet. They knew the stakes involved. Of course, he was not alone when he so brazenly sold the civil services posts to the highest bidder.

After the money was handed over, Mrigen told Bidyut to drop off the target. It was easy. All he had to do was to drive to Hajo, with Hazarika lying bound and gagged in the backseat, drop him somewhere off the highway, and drive away as fast as he could.

In all these days Hazarika was in captivity, Bidyut wished if he could just go and beat the bastard up. Mrigen would not even entertain the idea.

‘You want to beat somebody? Just wait. There would be plenty of opportunities,’ Mrigen would say. Bidyut could not explain to him that he did not want to beat just anybody; he wanted Hazarika’s blood, only his.

Once he found himself alone with his prey, in the middle of the highway, Bidyut knew what he wanted to do. There was no second thought. He stopped, hauled Hazarika out from the car, un-gagged him and asked, ‘Do you recognise me?’ Before the man could even draw his breath, Bidyut held up his gun and fired, four times, into the dazed captive’s skull.

To his credit, Mrigen came to Bidyut’s rescue when the incident turned into page one news the next day. ‘It was my fault,’ he said. ‘I should have seen it coming.’

The controversy was the least of Bidyut’s worries. He had had his revenge, and with those four shots, he had rewritten his destiny. He would remember the stories of the dacoits of Chambal who would take up arms for personal vendetta and once they had completed their avenging, they would turn outlaws. That’s what Bidyut had become — an outlaw.

Thanks to Mrigen, however, he got a chance to wear a fancy mask above his criminal face, the mask of a revolutionary, a patriot.

Trouble was, for a long time, he would not believe in those ideals. For him, the state, and for that matter the entire country, was going to the dogs and nothing could save it. Being a revolutionary right now, however, was the best possible solution. It was a job, and the salary was good; he could decide how much money he wanted. He told his mother that he had gotten a job with the oil company in Digboi. He said since it was a new job, he would not be able to visit home for at least a year. Instead, he would send home money every month, a big amount.

He told Nandini the same story.

He tried his best to keep in touch with her, if only sporadically. It would be months before he would call her up, or send her a postcard; but he could not provide an address for her to write back, or a number to call.

More than a year later, when Bidyut was finally home, she confronted him, and he had to tell her the truth. He said he was sorry and Nandini screamed, ‘Why? Why?’ She would have married that receptionist at the nursing home. But to join the Front?

‘I’ve not joined as such. I’m here to make money. I’ll be out soon, and then, I can start over. It’s just a matter of time,’ he reasoned. 

‘How long?’

‘Give me another year.’

One year became two, then four. There was always the same question, when? There was always the same answer, soon. 

               

6.

That insane desire to scream returned to Nandini. She took a deep breath. The moment passed. 

‘I have to go now,’ she repeated. It was an awkward moment. They were both sitting on the bed and both had this overwhelming desire to touch each other.

Nandini got up, crossed the room, opened the door, told someone, ‘I’m coming, give me five minutes,’ shut the door, and stood before Bidyut, who got up from the bed. She could succumb to temptation.

She took Bidyut’s thin hands on her own. His hands were warm as if he was running a fever. He was breathing fast. She was not breathing at all. After a second or two, she exhaled. 

Nandini let go of his hands — this man, the love of her life. And she, the bride, knew. This moment would haunt her for the remainder of her life, and she would carry this moment as an emblem of her regret — a memento of those missed opportunities.

‘Okay, here is the thing,’ Nandini was back to her own self, ‘I don’t know if you are aware, but all your former colleagues are in town, attending the wedding. I cannot let you leave and wander about in broad daylight. You cannot stay in my room either. I have found you a place in the makeshift kitchen in the back. You wait there until the wedding is over and I’m gone.’

This was his punishment: To witness Nandini’s wedding. He accepted the verdict without question.

‘Your mother is coming in the evening. I will try to arrange a meeting,’ Nandini continued.

‘No, don’t. It would be difficult for her.’ He did not want to say that it would be difficult for him. He had not been home for years now. There were times when he would visit Barpeta for the night, meet Nandini on the sly and leave. It was dangerous to try to visit home. The police kept a constant vigil on his house.

In the beginning, he was confident that since he had not officially joined the Front, he would remain anonymous. After the tragedy at the Baghmara embankment, however, he could no longer remain anonymous. He finally joined the revolution, over the dead bodies of at least 15 people, friends and foes, finally closing the door to a possible retreat.

 

7.

That Nandini’s father was happy was an understatement. What he had arranged for his daughter’s wedding was a feast fit for kings. There were four cooks, stirring rice in huge iron pots. On one side, there was a mountain of potatoes and cabbages and pumpkins; on the other, two butchers were skinning a goat. There were several of them tethered in the corner, wailing intermittently.

Bidyut had expected to sit there and spend a long, uncomfortable and despairing day. As soon as he reached, however, someone gave him a knife and pushed him towards the mountain of potatoes. There were already two people at work, an older man in a baniyan and a gamosa and a younger one, in Bermuda shorts and a Manchester United jersey. Bidyut wondered if the youth knew the football club. He sat there, made himself comfortable and started to peel potatoes.

‘Take a break, boy, or your fingers will go numb,’ the older man said after he had already peeled a bucketful, and offered him a plastic cup with steaming tea, and a puri with a rosogolla, which he declined.

‘The arrangements are impressive, hah, kaka!’ the boy in the red t-shirt said, ‘What do you think?’

‘It ought to, isn’t it, considering the wedding…’ the older man said, ‘The bridegroom is after all the richest man in the whole of Barpeta, and powerful too. Even police, ministers are afraid of him.’

‘Yes,’ the other nodded. ‘Whatever he is, he had made money for himself. And money matters.’

‘Do you know the bridegroom…,’ Bidyut could not resist the temptation to know how Mrigen was doing. It’s been four years since he had seen him last, that night when he had arrived unplanned, to tell Bidyut in person that he was surrendering the next day. Mrigen was there to ask Bidyut to join him. Bidyut had been waiting for that very opportunity all along. But when the moment arrived, he had to decline it. They had an argument that night.

In truth, however, he had made the choice long before, on that day near the Chawlkhowa River in Baghmara, behind the embankment.

'Mrigen? How is he?’

He was not sure the question sounded so silly, but his companions erupted into a roaring laughter.

‘What do you mean how is he?’ the older man asked. ‘Like how he looks? Or how behaves? Or what he has done?’ Then he turned and spat, and put his face forward towards Bidyut’s ear and whispered, ‘He’s a bloody murderer. God knows what Nandini saw in him.’

‘Money. Money,’ the boy chanted.

The Mrigen he remembered was different.

Granted, he was a cocky bastard even then, but he was also an idealist, and a leader. He was the reason Bidyut had stayed back in the Force. When Mrigen was there, he did not have to worry about anything.

The Fall of Kabul - Artwork by Harsh Kumar


 

8.

That morning in Baghmara, Mrigen was not there.

It was to be a routine operation. The intel was that a big CRPF convoy would be passing by the embankment on Monday morning. It was the perfect opportunity for an ambush. Their number was already dwindling. After Bidyut joined them, the battalion had 25 people. Three years on, they had 16: three comrades had died in encounters, four were in an Army camp and two had gone missing. Those who had gone missing were the dangerous ones; they could be simply dead or they may have acquire a new identity and become government informants.

There were times Bidyut entertained the idea of going missing. He gave it a serious thought, but it was difficult to just drop everything and leave. There was such excitement, and such danger!

Mostly, however, it was a thankless job. Nobody cared about what they aspired to achieve. He had to rely on Pradipta’s optimism that the people will come around when they have achieved their goal, and they will forgive the Force for the mayhem. For now, however, mayhem was the only way.

They were meticulous. They selected a spot away from the villages, so that after the blast, the Army did not go and harass the villagers as they had done in Nalbari last year. By the time they dug the trenches, placed the explosives and fixed the road, it was morning. They had two vans and one bike. Mrigen was to be around to detonate the bomb attached to the bike. He would not trust anyone else. The others were to get into the vans and go in the opposite direction. They had kept the vans on the riverbed a kilometre or so away.

As the sun rose, they left Mrigen on the spot and walked back to their vehicles. They looked like a bunch of college students out on a picnic, and that was their alibi. They even had college ID cards ready. Pranjit noticed it first, footsteps on the wet sand next to the placid river, fresh and not theirs. Then he noticed the tyres of their vehicles, all flat. He pulled up his gun and screamed, ‘Run.’ Bidyut had no idea what had happened. He just followed the others and ran to the other side of the embankment, as gunfire rang out behind him, disrupting the music of the serene morning.

By the time he hit the ground behind the old hollong tree, his trousers soiled and sand inside his shoes, the worse was already over. There had been seven of them. Now, there were only three. The others could not make it, as gunshots continued to ring incessantly. Pradipta was hit too. He was bleeding profusely. Bidyut made him lie on the grass and put his handkerchief on the leaking hole on his colleague’s abdomen. In seconds, it was soaking wet.

‘This is the end then?’ Pradipta asked.

‘No. It’s not,’ Pranjit said and gritted his teeth.

He was not ready to die yet. He had dreamt of a future, and he would see it unfold before his own eyes. ‘No, it’s not,’ he repeated.

He took the charge, and held on to the guns. There were a total of 24 rounds. As they could guess, on the other side, there must have been an entire platoon.

‘We’ll have to kill at least 24 of them, then,’ Pranjit said.

He would not give up. Their only hope was the bomb going off. After the blast, the platoon would inevitably move there. Until then, they needed to remain alive, and avoid getting caught.

With the bullets raining on them, the prospect looked dim. The hollong tree was not much of a cover either, especially if the platoon decided to move forward and face them head-on.

By the time the bomb went off — Bidyut could feel the earth under him tremble — everything was over, the gunfire and life itself.

He was the witness to the carnage, crouching between the two dead bodies, and three empty guns, and a tiny silver ring on his palm. ‘Give it to my mother,’ Pradipta had said, clutching his hands, ‘And tell her, I tried.’

Pranjit did not get the time to say anything. As the bullet pierced his heart, he turned towards Bidyut, and gave him the gun he was holding. That was it. Later, he would discover that there was still a bullet left.

For a long time afterwards, a long time after he had travelled to the remote village next to the Subansiri River in Uttar Lakhimpur to meet Pradipta’s mother, Bidyut would continue to carry that gun with the single bullet, a reminder of the sacrifice.

It was not easy for Bidyut to rationalise the deaths of his colleagues. With each death, he would wonder if the cost of a human life, with such wondrous possibilities, worth the cause, the idea of freedom, which, at best, was an abstract concept.

Even the deaths of his colleagues were abstract; they just stopped existing.

Those who remained alive rarely had the chance to witness the bodies of their dead colleagues. If they died in encounters, the authorities disposed the bodies as fast as they could. At times, they would not even keep a record of it. On occasions, especially if the media was involved, the body would be sent home. Those would be the lucky ones.

For the survivors, each death meant changing the base, for, the Army might already have gotten wind of their whereabouts. Each death meant exacting revenge, on the Army, police, or agents of the establishment. It was a vicious circle, an endless merry-go-round of deaths and more deaths, and Bidyut played along.

Mrigen had argued that it was nothing but a survivor’s guilt, and Bidyut should wake up to the reality and surrender along with him.

Bidyut could not do it. He was ready to betray his country for personal gains, but he could not betray the memory of his dead friends. He was convinced that on that particular morning, he remained alive for only one thing: to keep fighting until it was his time to sacrifice himself. He would repeat what Pranjit had said: ‘No. It’s not; it’s not the end.’

 

 

9.

It will all be over soon, Mrigen told himself. It was late evening and he was sick of playing the role of an excited bridegroom, that too wearing a dhoti and all, chanting Sanskrit mantras on cue from the priest and then meeting relatives and friends, the whole lot of them, including the minister Parikshit Khargharia. Khargharia had insisted that he visit in person to wish the bridegroom. It was the minister’s personal victory after all, not only making a dreaded terrorist join the mainstream, but also giving him a chance to lead a normal life. 

Mrigen was actually relieved when Prasanna, his friend and unofficial bodyguard, came to him and said that they needed to talk, alone. It was urgent.

‘You know, Bidyut is here,’ Prasanna said, breathless, ‘Tilak saw him at Nandini’s house in the morning. He tells me that you know and told him to do nothing.’

‘Yes. You won’t do anything either. We have nothing to do with him. Not tonight, not ever.’

‘I remember what you said. That was then. Now, you got what you wanted. Now, why protect him? You know how valuable he can be to our project. This is Bidyut, right? Bidyut. Imagine what we can get from Khargharia in exchange for him. We can get the entire stake at the mine in Sarabhog.’

‘What’s wrong with you, Prasanna? You know why Nandini agreed to marry me.’

Mrigen was angry, and it was not because he was on a fast today, and he wanted a smoke and could not have one. It was not Prasanna; he was angry with himself.

Why did he agree to marry Nandini and get himself in this mess?

He knew the answer and he did not like it.

The answer was greed. He was greedy. He wanted to have everything he could, no matter the cost.

Today, on the day of his wedding, he knew he had reached his limits. Thus far and no further, as Brother Joseph, whom he had befriended in a remote village near the Manipur-Myanmar border, used to tell him.

‘You know, you may want to appear ruthless, strong and smart, but in your heart, you are a coward,’ he had told him, and Mrigen had laughed it off. He was sure nothing could bother him, until now.

 

 

10.

There was no second thought. When he stumbled upon the chance to make Nandini marry him, he took the chance. Like every other boy in college, he too had been infatuated with her. She was, without doubt, a special girl. He could not act upon his desires of course, and gradually he gave up on her, especially after he came to know that there was something brewing between her and Bidyut. Bidyut was his friend, after all.

Even during the days at the Front, though he knew Bidyut would visit Nandini on occasions, he never asked him about her, not once.

Even after his surrender — it was a major event, they even printed his pictures on the front page of the dailies — and after he had returned home, to the same town where Nandini lived, he did not have the time to think of her. He was busy with other things, which mostly involved his survival.

The surrender came with a price. While he received the money and was allowed to keep his gun, he needed to share intel with the authorities. He needed to help Brigadier Batra with the names of his former colleagues.

In an ideal world, he would not have wanted to betray his former friends and be an informer for his former enemies, but he had to choose; it was either him or them. He knew though Bidyut decided to let him be, the others in the Force would not. He needed to fix them before they fixed him.

Nandini had the same concerns, of course, for Bidyut.

Her father had been admitted to the Guwahati Medical College Hospital then.

That day, on her way to see her father, Tilak had seen her. He knew her well. Those nights, when Bidyut would visit Nandini at her house, Tilak would stand guard outside, to make sure that they were safe. It was this concern for safety that forced Tilak to confront Nandini.

‘Have you seen Bidyut lately?’ he asked.

‘No. You should know about him more than I do.’

‘Not anymore. I surrendered. With Mrigen. We tried to convince Bidyut, but he wouldn’t listen.’

Though she was concerned, she was also proud about his decision. At least Bidyut had some integrity. At least he had not run to lick the feet of his enemy at the first chance he got.

‘He’s in danger,’ Tilak continued. ‘Tell him to leave Guwahati, at least for a while. They are hunting him, and Mrigen would have to help them, whether he wants to or not.’

Nandini had no resources to contact Bidyut. She only hoped that he was aware of the developments. Yet, she could not just sit there and fret.

Once she was back from Guwahati, she came to see Mrigen, to plead before him to spare Bidyut. In return, she said, she would do anything.

Anything.

Mrigen would be a fool if he let go of this opportunity.

               

11.

‘I don’t understand. Why do you want to stay on? The party is over, Bidyut. It’s time to go home.’

It was their last meeting, the day before Mrigen was to surrender, in public, before the media.

‘You were the one who wanted to leave at the first opportunity. Now the chance is here and you don’t want to take it. Why?’

‘What do I do with the dead bodies?’

‘What dead bodies?’

‘Those dead bodies we so easily discarded and moved on. You want me to give you a list of their names, starting with Hazarika?’

‘I haven’t forgotten anything, Bidyut, but you know as well as I do, we lost. There is nothing to look forward to, unless you want to be hunted down and then get killed like a dog.’

‘That, or become an agent of the very establishment we wanted to destroy, to be someone like Hazarika?’

They argued the entire night. Both were adamant.

Finally, Bidyut said, ‘I would rather die like a dog than betray the memory of my friends who wasted their lives for the cause.’

‘It was all a mistake.’

‘Yes, and we all must pay for it. With our lives. With our blood. You too, Mrigen. You cannot just escape.’

               

12.

Mrigen had decided that he could. He could escape and start over. He did.

Thus far and no further.

He paid the price of survival. He betrayed his former colleagues. His betrayed his country. He was even ready to betray his former friend.

He could not.

Somewhere beneath the veneer of what he had become, he was also the same boy who was infatuated with that special girl. Nandini.

And he knew.

He must keep the promise he had made to the woman who would be his wife in a few hours.

‘Look, Prasanna. I don’t want to get into arguments, not today, but remember. Not only we are not doing anything about Bidyut, we will also try to protect him as long as we can, as long as it is humanly possible. And, he shouldn’t know anything about it.’

It was the promise he had made to Nandini. It was their secret. Nandini would marry Mrigen and, in return, Mrigen would see that Bidyut remained safe.

 

13.         

It was past midnight when the groom’s party reached the bride’s house.

There was an elaborate reception at the gate, with the bride’s father welcoming the groom, and the women throwing rice grains at him. His best man, Prasanna, held a large black umbrella over his head as he stood there, in equal parts proud and polite, surrounded by the crowd of friends, family, relatives and the police, in a spotless white silk kurta.

Without even looking around, he knew, in the crowd, there was a pair of eyes looking at him.

He knew in another time that man in the crowd would have stood in the very spot where he was now standing. He knew, in another time, he would have been the man holding the large black umbrella.

He knew, in another time, he would have been happier for the groom than he was now, being the groom himself.

 

Bio: Dibyajyoti Sarma is a journalist, poet and publisher (Red River), based in Delhi.