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Never Again - contd

by Mrinmoyee Goswami
(Guwahati, India)

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What good it would do anyway? The government would increase the wage by a few rupees and cut down on the permanent workers' ration. Even if the government raise our wage, the big people of the company go to court, and nothing happens. My younger son Robi used to say that those people give a lot of money to the netas for their elections. The government therefore has to look after the interest of those big people.

You ask if my younger son is educated? Yes, he had passed Matric in the First Division with very good marks. A simple chokra from Coolie line. How could he be so different? Everyone wondered. Some were happy, some were jealous. The Babu's handed some money for admission, clothes and books belonging to their children. The Manager gave my wife a job in the bungalow. My son started taking tuition for his studies. He passed BA. The Manager called him to the office, looked at his mark sheets, and gave him a clerk job. "Work hard. Save some money. Get a MA. Dibrugarh University is near. We could then offer you a management position", he said.

Anyone else in his place would have rejoiced at such an opportunity. Father at the bottom, son at the top. But my son was a fool. His disdain for a life, an ultimate prize for the likes of us, led him to leave home. He became a kind of Samaj Sevak, fighting for the land rights of the displaced people. He started remaining away from home for months at a stretch.

One day he called me up from Guwahati. He said that the government is evicting some of the Coolie families who had left the chai-bagans and settled outside. He joined in the protests.

"It is the government land. They have forcefully encroached on it". The government claimed.

The activists protested against the government handing land to the big company people to set up factories. Whereas the land rights to likes of us hang in jeopardy. The government say that the company people will make factories and people will get jobs, and Assam desh will turn rich like Dilli.

The houses of our people were burned down on the ground that our people have encroached on land full of different rare plants, and animals and hence they must be evicted. The activists stated, "If the government keep on evicting families without proper planning, it will only lead to further trouble."

The protests escalated. They took out a huge march demanding a rehabilitation plan for the displaced people. The mob suddenly turned unruly, leading the police to fire. A bullet hit on my son's chest. He laid down his life on the street.

Time passed. The elections are a few days away now. The netas have started coming once again. Those voter pleaser netas, without minimal decency and honesty, have started to sell themselves unabashedly to people like us. We are simple-minded, less educated and hence gullible. We applaud when they get on stage and hug and kiss our rugged, mucus-dropping, dust-coated children, enter our homes, sit on our mud floor and take food. The women, some as beautiful as the women in the talkies, take the tukri and go to the bagan to pluck leaves, hold the hands of our women sweaty and smelly from long stretches of work, and there they take the steps... one, two, three to the beats of the Jhumur....... as if each movement dictates their destiny. And people like you hold the camera in hand and capture their every movement to ensure that no minute gesture of their self-proclaimed pretentious magnanimity gets subtracted.

However, people of this chai-bagan had consistently voted for The Great Party, and for a reason. A son of my best friend emerged as one of the biggest netas from our community. He went to the college in Tinsukia and then to the University in Dibrugarh. He became a neta for the students, then an MLA and finally a Minister. He even married a girl from our community. How proud we felt to watch him on the TV, a simple chokra from our own chai-bagan all becoming so very big. He visited when his father was alive, never forgot to visit me and take my blessings. He always brought his son along with him. Gradually their visits shrank; he came during the elections.

A few days ago, the neta’s son came right into my doorstep. He is contesting the election this time, in place of his father. He was accompanied by his wife, who we heard is an Asomiya girl from a wealthy family in Guwahati. She was dressed in a large red-bordered white sari, white flowers on her hair. She looked resigned to everything, trying hard not to show her boredom. The young neta touched my feet, looked at his city wife for a moment, and as if by some unspoken language between them, she forced a smile and touched my feet too. He took my hand and said how his
grandfather and I were the best of friends, how often his father talked of playing on my lap. He spoke of my younger son, how Robi-da carried him on back around the chai-bagan. I marvelled at the simplicity. Tears rolled down my eyes. He said, "Dadu, I will arrange an old age pension for you once I get elected."

I shook my head, "What good shall it do to me? My son is gone. All I live now is to see my granddaughter married to a good boy."

"Oh, my sister is so grown up now." He looked at her and smiled.

A chamcha whispered something into his ear as if to remind him of his duty. He said,
"Now Dadu, I know that you all would vote for me. I am sure all the people of the nearby bagans too would vote for me. Only you need to have a word with them."

"Why would they listen to an old man like me son?" I asked.

He then talked of my son, how he had made the community proud, what a loss his death meant to us, how his sacrifice had been overlooked for. That would be enough to steer the wheels in his direction. I listened in silence and wondered what sort of person would engage the dead. But I was not angry. Only resigned. My sorrow, my anger, took the form of apathy. I only said, "Yes my son, I will vote for you. I will vote for The Great Party. "

He seemed uneasy. Then regaining his composure, he spoke. What he said next shook me to the core. "Yes, of course you would support me Dadu. It was foolish of me to ask. But then you must not vote in the same old symbol."

"But why, son? Have I not always voted for your father?"

"Yes Dadu. But father was with The Great Party. I have joined The Great Reformist last month. Only The Great Reformist has the power to change our community, our Tea Tribe people. The Great Reformist has promised to grant Schedule Tribe status to our community. Also, they are raising the wages, and grating us so many benefits. I, his humble representative would fulfill his dream."

The Coolies assembled right at the very place you are sitting now clapped. Whereas I stood dumb folded, engulfed in a strange feeling of confronting something unmistakably real. I don't know how big people think. I simply don't understand these things, choosing this symbol over the other symbol. I am a mere Coolie, after all. And just like other Coolies like me, I see and hear the things that the netas tell us, not knowing what it really means. But that day, seeing the young neta in front of me, I felt. These were the same old people, were they not? The same netas who had been with The Great Party all along had represented us all these years. And now the same netas joining The Great Reformist with the same old promises ST estatus, wage hike, those assurances suddenly seemed offensive to me. What good are they going to do to us?

I wanted to laugh at the folly of my neighbour's, the preposterousness of it all. We have to toil for two square meals a day, this squalor we were born in and have to spend our lives, not even getting the simple days to work of plucking tea leaves during the lean season, now start envisioning a future for their children with education and government jobs, living in towns and coming home in cars as Sahibs, so many foolish notions hammered into their heads, that I had to restrain myself from shouting at this folly. However, I had no desire to open their eyes to these outrageous flaunting's. Only I was shaking uncontrollably. Maybe with anger, maybe with betrayal. I wonder what sort of malady it is. The young neta mistook it for my emotion. He touched my feet once again. Then I did what I should have done. I placed my hand on his head in blessing.
He left, and then the others departed. Only I remained with my granddaughter. She took my hand as if in consolation, and together we wept for the emotion only we felt. Our existence is bewildering, our problems insolvable; this Blackness seemed to be our destiny as if she meant to say to me, and I too realized it more than ever before.

But then there is something that I can do, can't I? And I would do just that. The feeling brought a triumphant smile to my lips.

Yes, Sahib, you have guessed it? Have you not? I am not going to vote again. This Coolie is not going to vote. Not this time, Never again.

Bilat- a foreign country
Hariya - a type of rice beer
Baideu - an elder sister, also used to address one higher in rank or social hierarchy
Jhumur - a folk dance of Assam attributed to the Tea Tribe community
Khilonjiya – indigenous in Assamese


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