Friday, October 03, 2008

Milan, my friend

Creativity, I thought, is a work of happiness. Words, I thought, spring out when you are happy. Because words come when thoughts form. And thoughts form when you are stirred to think. Pain has a numbing affect. And so when pain comes, you just withdraw. All within you shut down in numbness. Then there are no thoughts and no words carrying them down.

But that was what I thought.

Sometimes, things change. Like they did today.

Today I met pain. I met him right in my bed, in the morning hour. But unlike before, I didn’t shut down. Instead, I felt the need to talk. To write. To bring the words out.
And so here I am.

And here I’m looking back. Going back there where I was 5 years ago.

It’s a small town. Once the tree of Agar grew in abundance there. People took the bark off the trees and burnt them in the temple. The mother of all perfumes, this Agar is what today’s ‘Agarbatti’ came from. And then this same agar helped the place get its current name: Agartala.

Milan Debbarma had been living there for past 11 years. His living was supported by sale of bamboo shoots. And when there were no bamboo shoots to sell, he worked as a daily wage laborer. He climbed trees, plucked coconuts, betel nuts, made bamboo fences around tiny gardens, spread ‘chan’ grass over the roofs of fellow poor people’s huts. For a meal and Rs.50, he would do any of those and catch fish from your pond or clean them of water weeds, cut grass or even milk your nastiest cow for you. Yah, he was an everyman’s right hand.

The day I met Milan, there was a dusk to dawn curfew in the town. And I had landed myself to report on the incident that had resulted into this curfew: An attack by militants on a village on the outskirts of Agartala. I spent the day visiting a hospital, seeing 23 bodies in white sheet (6 of them babies under 10), and rows of animals, tithed to bamboo poles, where they had died, burnt when the huts of the villages were set alight and when humans ran out to save themselves. They were shot of course and so there was none to come to the house and free the animals. Now here they were…their blackened, charred bodies telling the stories of agony inexplicable.

As I was spending hours taking notes and practicing my brave act of not crying, it was getting dark. And then it was dark. And then it downed – the fact that I had to return a long way back to the town, to be safe.

But safety was a 3-hour journey away. And by the time I made it there, the tiny town had shut down its shops and shutter of the lodges. The curfew hour had started.

I had a place to lodge myself. But I had nothing to eat. And I was hungry. And I felt lonely too. The memories of the day, my first encounter with the horrors of terrorism and mass massacre had formed a tight knot in my throat and I needed to spit it out.

This is when I met Milan. He stayed in a hut that stood right next to the tiny house I was staying in. He had seen me coming in and going out. Now in the dark of a curfew night, I saw him coming. He knew I was hungry. And now he had come to invite me to share his dinner.

We ate ‘daal-bhat’ in the semi darkness of his hut. Lights were not forbidden, but put out in the fear of attracting attention. Sometimes, when there’s a combing search operation on, even a broad smile is seen as a suspicious act. There is a general air of distrust and everybody is a potential killer or conspirator, and therefore guilty of some unproven crime. Living in complete anonymity is therefore what everyone tries. Not lighting a lamp is an act of that anonymity. Maybe even an attempt of being non-existent. And Milan did have a reason to be non-existent.

In Agartala, the deads were Bengalis and the killer’s tribals. Milan was a tribal man, living in a Bengali area. There was a constant fear of being the subject of a retaliation. Of being lynched. Stabbed in the dark maybe. Although he was just another poor laborer. And an everyone’s helper.

‘I left village because there we were constantly ordered by the militants to shelter them, to give them food. If we didn’t, we were beaten Then, one day I ran away with my wife. Came here. I thought I had escaped’.

In the dark, I didn’t see his face. But the pain that I could sense in his voice was hard to miss. Leaving the village to escape violence. But now here he was, the easy poor scapegoat. Being held for a hundred crimes he hasn’t committed. Being answerable for all wrongs that he never did. Carrying a terrible burden of guilt and conscious that is sourced elsewhere.

‘People like us spend all time earning their next meal. How could I ever think of anything else?All I want is to find work every day. I pay Rs. 200 rent for this hut. I hope one day I could live in my own hut’.

Such a small dream. For a man who lived in a country that is reaching out to the moon soon. A country that, among it’s citizens, has world’s 5th richest person.

But then this was the dream of a nobody.

And it did die that way – without coming true.

Milan didn’t die of stabbing though. Nobody lynched him either. Ambari, however, continued to see more shooting and bodies of dead men and women and kids and cattle kept being added to the previous list. But this week the town of Agartala was ripped apart by a number of bomb blasts.

Milan was helping a friend sell clothes in GB market, one of the blast venues. Poor vendors, selling hand me downs to poor laborers shopping for Durga puja. It was puja time. The only time they could afford to buy new clothes, the only time to be worry-less and happy. His name appeared in the newspaper next day, as one the seriously injured. His right leg was blown off knee down.

Early this morning he died, of excessive bleeding. It was this message that I woke up and began my day with.

Death is the ultimate end of everything, even of worries and fear. But I wish Milan had been freed of fear and alive as well.

Its hard not to miss him.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Travelling through Myanmar(Gag-the order of the day)

Travelling down the Indo-Myanmar Friendship Road, for a split moment, I had an illusion of homecoming. The road –a wide, rain-drenched one (it opened on Feb’ 2001), was smooth and had that signature deserted look of any hilly town. Now and then I saw locals, mainly girls, in their bright blouse and longyis – walking by, their faces hidden under the made-in China umbrellas.

In the ghost of a jeep, I found myself sharing a seat with 3 people. The youngest of them, Htun, is our driver and guide and in this rainy, stormy weather, also the saviour, – who can take us to the destination. The greatest love of his life seemed to be chewing betel nut. The 2nd one, an elderly Burman Buddhist and the 3rd person,(yes, another Mr.Htun), a primary school teacher.

We were going towards Kalaymyo, the next big town after Tamu. The cyclone had hit the country 2 days before. There was news of great loss of property and life. Being an Indian, and a media worker at that, I was itching to talk about it, to discuss it, to hear some argument in favor and against the government-taken measures. If nothing at all, I expected people to curse, to complaint…

But minutes passed and then hours, but nobody spoke a word. On the way we stopped twice, first to have afternoon meal (a huge plate of rice with tangy fish curry) and then for a ‘routine check’ by armed soldiers. And I was amazed to see how silently people moved. They ate, chewed betel nuts, some smoked and others just sat there. On the veranda of the bamboo thatched motel, waiting for the journey to resume.

Later that night I was eating dinner at hotel ‘Hollywood’ - a 2 storied house that served as lodge cum bar cum tea house and sold rice, fermented fish chutney and sour apple beer, I saw people gathering in to watch TV. I expected them to switch on the news channel. Instead, the colour TV monitor brought on a Thai film, about a boy and girl and their unrequited love.

It took me 4 more days to learn of and understand this silence, that is, until I met Alex in Kalewa. Alex or Alexander Kwang was a fellow wanderer like me. Unofficially, however, he was a human rights activist. It was Alex who told me that the ruling military junta in Burma neglected everything in the country except the politics. Yes, you could do all illegal businesses but you must make sure not to be involved in politics. This is also the case with many so-called pro-democracy cease-fire groups, which had entered into sorts of agreements with the regime during the past eleven years. Burmese government claimed that, as of now total 17-armed ethnic groups had entered into cease-fire agreements. It has allowed these groups (in Burmese ?Nyein Chan Ye? groups) to operate both legal and illegal businesses with freedom in many parts of the country. These groups come and go in their "areas" with uniforms, guns and their own flags.

But is talking about a natural calamity, a disaster as big and as damaging as a super cyclone a political activity? Yes, said Alex, because it would gradually lead to the action taken or the lack of it. And there would be criticism. And that would be politics. If you were a peace-loving citizen, you would keep quiet, go home and pray –that’s what the Junta said and that’s what you did, if you wanted to keep your freedom of movement intact.

That people were not allowed to speak against the government was not the biggest surprise for me though. What surprised me is how life went on despite that. How people lived their life in absolute normalcy, with the gagging order ruling every sphere of life!

And that’s when I learnt…even peace could be an illusion!

Travelling through Myanmar(The journey begins)

The first thing that you have to deal with and of course with great difficulty, once you cross the international border in Tamu, is remembering names.

To begin with, every name sounds same. Maybe that’s because your ears are still ringing from the continuous journey on rickety buses and then on even more sickly-looking Burmese autos, or maybe because you just haven’t heard so many names with so many ‘n’s before. Whatever the reason is, you can’t help asking everybody again and again to repeat and even after they have already obliged 3-4 times, you still can’t quite get it, and therefore, still can’t help feeling stupid.

The first person I met after entering Burmese soil is Ko Htun Win, the army soldier on duty in Tamu bazaar. The second, the man who sold me a bunch of bananas, was Daw Than . The third, the young urchin who seemed to have curious mixed feelings of ‘who the hell are you’ and ‘love at first sight’ for me, told me his name was U Ngwe Thein. Hmm…no medal for guessing by then I had already forgotten the name of the soldier.

Mercifully, I didn’t stay long enough in one place to face the same person again and again and address him more than once. And mercifully, I looked smiling and strange and young enough to be forgiven, even if I did commit the sin of forgetting names.

But when it came to places, I had no such escape routes. 2 days before I crossed Tamu, I was in Chandel(Manipur), where, over a hot plate of mouth watering Changpa-me (rice gruel, cooked with chunks of smoked pork and herbs) I tried byhearting names of places I might be travelling through …. Nam Monta, Htan Ta Bin, and Man Maw, Ah Myint, Homelin, Thamanthi….

Later, on my way 70 km long journey from Chandel to Moreh town, which leads to Tamu –the first Burmese town I would be in, I tried remembering the very essential What’s your name? (Na meh be lu kaw leh)‘Thank you’ (Kyei zu tin ba deh) and ‘hello(min ga la ba)’s in Myanmarese.

But now, when I was here, in the land of pagodas, my memory failed miserably, making me feel like a complete idiot. In fact it was a classic situation for an idiotic gypsy. –No map, no knowledge of local language and just 20, 000 kyat(pronounced chyat) –the amount of money that could barely sustain me a couple of days and, thanks to the cyclone that had hit the land just a day earlier, with very few roads now open for me to take. Yes, my journey had begun in a true stellasque style.