“Twenty three years,” she said with a faint smile.
She was not the girl whose relentless laughter could stop the busiest fish market. Today, she was the child she was 23 years ago. Must have been less than 12. That was when she tasted a different flavour of life. That was the beginning of many deaths to follow. Some deaths of dead people. Others of abandonment. And there are the living deaths.
She was Tejimola. No, her father did not love her. Or her two younger sisters. Not even the brother half her age. Her mother taught her all. As if she was preparing for death. From weaving to cooking to caring, she knew it all well. Only did not know why. Did not know if they could wish for better days or that was it.
Thankfully, the abandoned children did not lack pity. The big family or the neighbours and the village. Some did pass on a bag of goods on the weekly market days. Some generously called all the four children to share dinner of a leftover feast. Though the mother died and the father left to remarry and stayed away, the girls were very good. Especially the eldest. They never uttered a word back. Finished all the chores neatly at the homes of father’s three brothers. The aunts were all smiling and sharing food. Meat days were special. The girls were called early. And they always got some curry and sometimes a piece or two for their brother at home.
The two younger girls fell in love early. They were the best bihu dancers of the whole area. They started rebelling about the missing pieces of meat as well. No meat, no work. But Rupa was fine. She was always fine. Not quarrelsome like her sisters. She always knew not to talk back. She knew she should listen to everyone. Sisters eloped. Brother died. She was fine.
Today, she was not.
She did not know when all the silent acts of resistance for existence started bringing bordoisilas (annual monsoon storm) every early spring. The years increased the pitch of her voice. And the length of her laughter. Recently their village became part of the extended town. The road became four lanes and her estranged father returned with a bag of fish for the long left dinner. Though she laughed loud often and uttered a curse or two and fell in love with a boy from another community few years younger to her, she was a good girl after all.
That was a happy dinner before a lot of bitter ones to follow.
People were counting money in lakhs and crores. Engineers in charge became gods who could change people’s fortunes overnight if shared a share. Over the years, she too had repaired the house. Added some concrete. Replaced the thatch with the shiny sheets. It hardly took a saving of ten thousands or twenty throughout the year. How much more could it cost to build a house entirely once this one is engulfed by the yellow machine with giant teeth? Four lakh was a lot. Maybe the government really thinks for the people. She did not seek help from the engineer god. Besides, she has some savings from her weaving, tailoring and embroidery work. And few thousands on loan with almost regular interest.
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Today the men with ghastly eyes and big hammers broke the wall of her newly built house. The notice said the land was already sold to new owners by her father. Everyone did advise her well to not fall in the trouble of constructing a house. She should just use the money to get married to her lover and leave this place, they said. Repeated calls and her restless voice.
I was 1,700 kilometres away. My letters and her presence touched every possible local authority. The personnel in charge of the police station was on a leave. The meek Assamese lady circle officer spoke at length in English in front of the sub-divisional officer who could understand but not speak Assamese. Only the harsh words and threats were spoken in Assamese, and she knew they were meant for her. She was the voiceless 12 year-old-girl once again. I was constantly praying for more strength to the strongest soul I had known who survived many deaths and many silences.
There was another flash flood of messages from the people I call home. Agaratoli. The wife of the main forest officer was gaining popularity among her faceless fans by capturing glimpses of the dangers of the forest at night. News anchors were screaming about the legal provision barring entry of anyone at night except for forest officials. I thought of the boy with the dread locks, who refuses to switch on lights while passing through the mathauri (embankment) bordering the forest. He inspires everyone the silence to enjoy the sounds of the forests. He plays with rhinos in smoked dreams. Ritu must be sad today. Tithi was also out in the evening.
Today’s sky was too magical to keep him inside walls. He shared the magic. Maybe the forest flames and red cotton blooms knew sky is the only place left for protesters.
Rupa’s three-year-old nephew was screaming repeatedly: “The bad people broke Rupa’s home, I will keep watching… I will keep watching… I will keep watching.”
Devyani Borkataki is a community activist from Assam working with organisations across the country. With an academic background in History from Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University, she has been exploring different shades of indigenous community lives. Presently she is working in Kumaon Himalayas.
Featured image credit: Ricardo Gomez Angel/Unsplash