This short story originally written in Assamese by Nikunja Kumar Das and translated by Bhargabi Das invites us to enter the microscopic tensions and everyday lives and changes of people when a state introduces a grand project as it captures the rumors, fear and apprehensions circulating among the poor.
“Gopesh kaka, is your name in the NRC?”, my impatient teenage child asked Gopesh Kaka as he came out of the village Naamghar (a Vaishnavite temple) doing his ritualistic evening prayers and beating the drums ten times exactly. This was also a way of letting people know that the sun has set and it was time to wrap up any kind of work, particularly in the past when people had no watch to keep track of time. Gopesh kaka on hearing the question smiled and walked past him slowly without answering the question. The village for a couple of weeks is brimming with NRC news and emotions. The other-wise dead and dusty village, inhabited by largely upper-caste Kalitas and Ganaks, has been pregnant with all kinds of stories and rumors, particularly with several names not making it to the final NRC list.
The inclusion and exclusion have been particularly comical. I mean, for some the parents’ names exist but the childrens’ names do not while for some, apart from the mother, the entire family’s names are absent from the list. Narayan Koiborto’s entire family’s name has been missing from the list. Sushil Arya, Paresh Das, Haripod Dukani (shopkeeper), Madhab Mandal, Mohan Baghbaria, none of their families’ names have been included in the NRC. Near to our village, the Moshahari and Bodo families’ names also are missing from the list. This has generated a lot of confusion, anger, and gossip in the village. With the onset of monsoons, most people would crowd in front of Jole Barber’s shop and sit on the long bamboo bench and discuss different theories till late evening –
“This is all a big conspiracy! Do you know, everyone’s name in Haasanpara exists in the NRC and so does the Goriya people’s names in Rampur? And yet, here we are, so many of our own people’s names are missing!” Subodh’s valiant voice comes piercing through the innumerable noises around, including the sound of the now heavy rainfall. He has recently joined an upcoming political party and is extremely desperate to make a mark for himself and his party’s position in his home village. He continues, noticing people are finally listening to him, “We should keep these injustices in mind with the upcoming elections. Do not forget this harassment and betrayal. My father and your father just fought the Andolan in vain, looks like the people that should have been thrown out are lavishly securing their futures, while we languish in fear and hopelessness!”
To this, the two self-declared youth leaders of the village who since a few weeks have started stick fighting practices in the village’s Primary School’s premises in a bid to impress the young lady Principal joins in the chorus, “So what if their names are in NRC, we will not let them stay in the encroached villages. Those villages were ours!” Jogen, the handsome of the two who spits a lot while talking turned to Subodh and said, “I mean have you seen any Madhuram or Hargobindo in Rampur or Radhakuchi? It is either Ali or Rokeya or Rahmat.” Everyone’s passions were running high and justifiably so. I mean Haripod Dukani who sells the best dairy products in not just the entire village but in the entire area has kept his shop closed now for almost a week. Mohan Baghbaria’s entire family shifted from Baghbar after the Brahmaputra engulfed his entire house in the 1988 flood. He plays the ‘khol’ in the kirtan sessions of the Naamghar and has been missing fore two weeks. Looks like the NRC is not simply a list, the NRC is everywhere! From Haripod Dukani’s closed shop to Mohan Baghbaria’s untouched khol. It was difficult for anyone to unsee it. Except for Gopesh Kaka, or so I have been thinking.
Gopesh kaka is a peculiar character. A frail old man, kaka looks ancient and other-worldly. Kaka cannot stand up-right and does everything bent, though at some point of time I do vaguely remember that he could stand up-right. No one knows Gopesh kaka’s surname, so he is everyone’s kaka – from the newly married brides to the eighty-year-old grumpy grandmothers, everyone calls him kaka. It almost feels like his existence is universal, timeless and resists the hierarchization of kinship and relations. He was brought to our village by Doctor sir a long time ago that no one clearly remembers why.
But the more circulated story goes that he was almost on the verge of being thrown out of his village by his sister-in-law. Gopesh kaka’s family too, just like Mohan Baghbaria shifted post the 1988 floods from Baghbar. The government at that time gave each displaced family a piece of government land to settle on. After his father died, turned out the father had transferred the piece of land in his name, instead of his elder brother’s name. This, the sister-in-law could hardly tolerate. She would keep on insisting that Gopesh kaka transfer the land to them instead. Kaka, with neither knowledge nor appreciation for the letters, would more see the property document as his father’s last wish and would not want to part with it.
After a few years once in a heated argument, the sister-in-law struck Kaka’s head with a blunt knife. There was blood everywhere and it was then Doctor sir was hurriedly called. As Doctor sir bandaged his ruptured forehead, he suggested that he will take kaka with him, and from then on, he will stay with Doctor Sir’s family. Kaka did not resist, nor did anyone else. With a bloodied hand holding the land document, he walked away with Doctor Sir. In some versions of the story, Gopesh Kaka apparently cried the entire way while in other versions, his stoic icy-face did not shed a single tear. But everyone admits that kaka was hurt deeply that day.
He never went back. Doctor Sir’s family was big and also influential and wealthy. Kaka raised Doctor Sir’s only son, Shantanu. Over time he was brilliant with bamboo crafts and also took care of the cows in Doctor Sir’s family. In fact, Gopesh Kaka loved animals. Years later when a now married Shantanu would leave the village home to the city after the death of Doctor Sir, Gopesh kaka in an empty house would keep two dogs and a cat as companions. He is now the caretaker of Doctor Sir’s big, shambled house.
As he is getting old, doing the chores is difficult for him. But everyone loves Gopesh Kaka, and he demands love too, in a way. So his lunch and dinner is largely settled in some or the other house. He is a perennial guest and a family member of each one. The children particularly. Once my teenage boy was telling him the story of Toba Tek Singh. He had recently learned about Manto and his famous short story and was eager to show off in front of someone – “Toba Tek Singh was a mad-man Gopesh Kaka. When the country was partitioned, Muslim mad-men from Delhi were to be shifted to Lahore’s asylum in Pakistan and Hindu mad-men from Lahore were to be shifted to Delhi’s asylum in India….” At this, Kaka laughed out loud saying, “Kae ba pagla buji e pao nai! (I am unable to grasp who is really mad here!)”
With the NRC exercise announced, I was worried about Gopesh kaka, so had sent along a form in someone’s hands a long time back. Now with all the heat back in the village, I suddenly had the urge to find out if Gopesh Kaka did submit his form along with documents. On the way to Doctor Sir’s house, my body was gripped with several questions – Did someone help him out? Did he check his name in the list? Did he submit on time? And as I approached the verandah, I saw Gopesh Kaka cutting betel nuts listening to the faint murmuring of the radio afar. He looked up and seeing me, continued cutting them. I was no stranger; he does not have to offer me any tea. I straight away asked him if his name is on the NRC list, who helped him with the document arrangement and form filling. He said nothing and continued with what he was doing. At this point, I got irritated and almost shook him. “I did not submit anything. I am not worried about NRC. I am not worried about anything.”
He told me with extremely calm eyes. I was becoming agitated by now and started lecturing him about how this is extremely worrisome, his future can be in jeopardy. The NRC would have helped him and if he wanted help, he could have just asked anyone! This time he got up and went inside.
He was inside for quite a while. I was almost thinking that he was preparing tea for me when he appeared with two papers in hand – “I do not know what help these papers could bring. One of these documents made me lose my family forever, took my home, my village, my brother, everything from me. I do not even know what this paper says. Or whose name it has on it. They all say that it has my name but all I see are prints of a bloodied hand of a very young boy who never experienced fear, embarrassment and pain of that extent ever in his life. This document has been my enemy for life. And the other document you hurriedly put in my hand, which has brought nothing but chaos in this village, to all the people I have seen grow up and marry and have children in front of my eyes. What good has papers brought anything to the little world I know of? Are you scared that my name is not on some NRC list? I am not, because my name is on my Ishwar (God)’s NRC list – that list is ever expansive and all-encompassing – from Rokeya who comes to this house and helps me clean my cat to Haripod Dukani. My soul has been engraved in that list. And my life-less body should be quietly cremated near Doctor Sir’s ground, where I took the cows to graze. And in case if this government does not allow my dead body to be cremated in the village grounds because my name does not exist in the NRC then just like your son said, I should be made another Toba Tek Singh. Throw my body in some no-man’s land, in some in-between world where I am away from all sane people with names etched in the NRC list.” Gopesh kaka was shaking. I was shaking while the radio murmured in the distance the rumors of another NRC – “A better NRC, a more correct list!”
- NRC – National Register of Citizens; It is a register of citizens, wherein residents of Assam had to show the Indian state prescribed documents to prove their citizenship. The NRC was first conducted only in Assam in 1951. The updation of the NRC was one of the demands of the ‘anti-immigrant’ Assam Movement that started in 1979. The Movement led by the Student’s Union led to the signing of the Assam Accord between then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Union leaders in 1985, according to which all immigrants who had migrated to Assam from then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh till 24 March 1971 (creation of Bangladesh) were recognized as Indian citizens and all others were to be identified and deported back. The NRC updation till now has happened only in the state of Assam. The final NRC list was published on 31 August 2019 and 19 lakh people have been left out. These can now appeal against their exclusion in Foreigner Tribunals.
- Kalitas – an upper-caste Assamese Hindu community.
- Ganaks – literally translated as scribes. This upper-caste Assamese Hindu community is largely responsible traditionally to prepare birth charts of new-born children and also preside over ‘namakaran’ or ‘name-giving’ rituals of new-born children belonging to upper-caste Hindu Assamese households.
- Koiborto – a lower-caste community. Traditionally Koiborto s were recognized as a fishing community. In some areas, particularly during medieval era of the Ahom rule, they were also required to draw a small symbol of a fish on their fore-heads so that people could easily identify them.
- Bodo – an ‘indigenous’ tribe of Assam. The Bodos in Assam have their own autonomous council and their autonomous land is called – Bodoland, carved by incorporating parts of already existing districts in Assam. Moshahari is a surname, largely used by the Bodo community.
- Andolan – Andolan, literally translating to ‘Movement’ refers in the story to the ‘anti-immigrant’ Assam Movement (1979-1985).
- Khol – a percussion instrument, mostly played in eastern India. Also called as Mridang. It is often associated with the Vaishnavite tradition and is used in devotional music.
- Goriya – Goriya Muslims recognize themselves as an ‘indigenous’ Muslim community in Assam. They distinguish themselves from the Assamese Muslims of East Bengal descent, who are also derogatorily called as ‘Miyas’ in Assam.
- Manto – Refers to famous writer and playwright Sadat Hasan Manto who wrote extensively about the pains and travails of the common man during Partition of India. His short story ‘Toba Tek Singh’ was originally written by him in Urdu in 1954 and has been translated since then in many languages.
Nikunja Kumar Das is a retired Executive Engineer of the Public Health Department, Government of Assam. He had actively participated in the Assam Movement (1979-1985). His interests lie in politics, writing and gardening. He can be reached at email@example.com
Bhargabi Das is a PhD Research Scholar of Anthropology in National University of Ireland. She works with populations living in river ecologies called Chars in Assam and their experiences with the state. Her research is funded by Irish Research Council, Government of Ireland. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org