— Dipankar Nath
Images from the past
A flock of pigeons descended on the yard where the freshly harvested rice grains were being dried in the sun. Instinctively he ran towards the yard before the pigeons could snatch a few mouthfuls. He remembered being patted by his mother for being a good boy. After all, she had spent hours separating the rice from the hay.
It had come to him all of a sudden. He could even remember there was only white pigeon in the entire flock. He smiled to himself. It was a victory. Another event he could remember from the days when he was free.
He had grown old and his memories kept shrinking. Astonishingly he found out that he could vividly remember events from the more distant past. May be that is what old age is about. To forget whatever pains you had to face as a man might be blissful.
He remembered the clouds drifting over the enchanting Karbi Hills. The smell of the forests when it rained. The stories told by his grandmother in the yard lit only by the stars. The fear he felt when a herd of wild elephants had surrounded his home.
He remembered shifting to the plains along with his family. He never wanted to leave the hills. He loved them. And the idea that he won’t be able to roam the valleys like a king filled him with dread. Besides, he never liked the language there. It was so harsh compared to the sweet tongue of the hills.
But they had to move. It had become difficult to farm in the hills.
He stared back into the old, gray and cold stones of his cell. The only light he could see was a ray of light coming through a hole in the ceiling high above. He just had one last wish.
End of Innocence
He was petrified. The people around him were shouting at him. He could not understand. He never could have understood. He never learnt the tongue of the plains. He tried to explain but they couldn’t understand too.
It was already a week since they had arrived. He did not know the language of the plains. He always hesitated to go outside. But he was finally pushed out of the house by his elder brother. He walked all the way to the market place. It was dusty and dirty – he took an instant dislike to all his surroundings. But since he had to stay here, better get used to it, he told himself.
He roamed for the entire day. He was about to return when he saw a group of persons trying to break into one of the houses near the market. He observed them silently. They were unable to break into it, but before he could realize they had put the house on fire. He shouted at them. Realizing they were not alone the miscreants took off.
But the fire did not go unnoticed. People started surrounding him and the house. They were saying something to him. But he could not understand. He came to realize that they were suspecting him. But he did not know how he could explain. Soon they were all over him trying to beat out a confession but they could not understand him. He was helpless. He hated the place. He hated the miscreants. He hated the people around him. But above all he wanted to be home.
A bitter pill called ignorance
They took him away. The men in khaki and the men in green. It seemed they were plotting his doom together. There were many theories that went around about his origin. He was accused of being a Japanese spy (not that he knew, he couldn’t understand, but well that is what the old police records say). He was accused of trying to cause “grievous harm”. But the best he could do was plead. That they could understand. But then he was a security threat, possibly of foreign origin. They could not take any chances. The men put him in the Central Jail of Tezpur. There was no trial, no court. They did not even bother to check any relatives. His persistence and constant shouting made them to transfer him to the psychiatric institution. The doctors declared him fully fit within a year. But he was put back into the jail again. It seemed so fruitless just to drag on through such a life. One of the doctors had tried to teach him the native tongue. That was the only way he would be able to fight. He would have to communicate first.
He finally learnt the language. He had his fellow prisoners to thank for that. But there was no one he could talk to. Nobody wanted to believe him. He asked the prisoners, who were to be freed to tell his story to people once they were outside. They promised they would. But no one came to rescue him. In the minds of the “others” he was still a dangerous person. He did not know what had kept him sane all these years.
He knew that it was only those memories that really kept him from going to the other side. He never failed to remind himself of the past; the beautiful past of now which he had only a handful of memories. He waited. Someone might still believe him.
The Light at the end
It was the summer of the 54th year of his imprisonment that someone finally came to meet him. She said she worked for an organization that fights for human rights. He didn’t understand her much but she seemed so eager to help him. His story had somehow reached the outside world. He thanked whoever had done it.
They finally released him. The organization had filed a case against the government for keeping him unlawfully and without trial. A part of him did not care. He did not have an extraordinary number of days ahead to live. He knew that. But at least he would die free. His real fear was that everyone he knew might be gone. His fear was that after so many years the hills might not be the same. Were they as green as they used to be? He could no longer climb those hills but least he could see and feel the air. At last he was free.
Now an old man, he finally had his wish, to die amongst the hills that he was born. No one could recognize him from his village except for an old man who used to help his father in the fields. His elder brother had died two years earlier. It didn’t matter though. He will be gone soon and no one would ever notice. He just hoped that no one else would have to go through the same ordeal.
(Dedicated to all the victims of miscarriage of justice, this is my take on the life of Machal Lalung who was kept in prison for 54 years without trial. He died in 2007, two years after he was released from jail.)