Sinlung /
20 November 2013

Guwahati’s Cosmetic Development

Police personnel patrolling the banks of Brahmaputra River ahead of Republic Day celebrations in Guwahati, Assam, on Jan. 23, 2009.
Police personnel patrolling the banks of Brahmaputra River ahead of Republic Day celebrations in Guwahati, Assam, on Jan. 23, 2009.
“I come from Guwahati—a small town in the northeastern part of India,” I used to tell my friends in Minnesota, until one person asked me how large is Guwahati. When I answered, he looked at me shocked, “A small town of only 1.4 million people?” I smiled sheepishly because it was partly true, and partly untrue. Untrue because I had grown up believing that my Guwahati is a small town. True because, nowadays even I suspect that during my absence over the years—like a young girl in a large family — Guwahati has as if stealthily grown up without my notice.

I spent most of my childhood in Jalukbari, a lovely area by the National Highway 31, somewhat on the outskirts, occupying a liminal position in the city’s imagination. The royal-poinciana shaded streets, hostels and classrooms of Gauhati University were also situated in Jalukbari. But one day, we had to take the hard decision of leaving Jalukbari. The armed separatist insurgency led by the United Liberation Front of Assam was at its peak. Calls for shutdowns — Assam Bandh — were routine. My parents’ workplaces were far. Not going to work, especially during a bandh, wouldn’t go down well in the high rungs of their offices since both of them were government officers.

Finally, in 1996, we moved to the All India Radio Campus, in Chandmari, a location at the heart of the city, a protected area because it is a central government enterprise. Almost every city bus in Guwahati has to go via Chandmari to go to different parts of the city. Unlike Jalukbari, this part of the city was trampled by history  —  things I discovered later from books; from conversations with nostalgic old neighbors who visited in the evenings. They stayed for long, lamenting about the Assam Movement. The failure of which, in a way, gave rise to extremism in Assam along with identity politics, which has now hopelessly balkanized the state that speaks in many languages, with Assamese as the lingua franca.

Our campus, where fallen laburnum flowers reigned after heavy rains, was established in 1948. When it was inaugurated, Guwahatians protested against playing the National Anthem at the event, because India’s National Anthem, penned by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, made no mention of Assam or Northeast. They didn’t want to let an institution that was to be the center of Assam’s cultural activities play that song on its first day; the song perceived as one of the many images of India’s denial toward Assam.

Now, when I walk out of the house, I reach the main road. During the Oil Blockade Movement of the Assam Movement, an injured protester called Dulal Sharma had written “I will give blood, not oil,” with his own blood. If I cross that road, walk down a little, I come across the Parag Das memorial – for the popular journalist who was fatally shot in front of his son’s school on May 17, 1997, for this robust critique of Delhi’s imperial presence in Assam.

I started liking Chandmari also for the woody wild beauty of the radio campus. When my friends came over for lunch, we walked in our calm, shaded lanes. I hung out with my new friends in the campus at the Anandaram Barua Flyover, popularly known as Chandmari Flyover. We believed it was the most romantic spot in Guwahati. Students from Commerce College and the Engineering Institute of Assam sat there in pairs, discreetly holding hands in the evening and whispering words into each other’s ears. We dreamed of dating like that, when we reached college.

During days I fought with my parents, I would sit on the flyover and wonder how sad and horrible my life was. When we patched up, I would tell my mother how I sat there, looking at the speeding cars below and thinking deeply about my sad and horrible life dominated by disagreeable parents. We would laugh, high-fiving.

Like many of my contemporaries, because of the separatist insurgency I left the state for higher studies in 2004. Years of armed conflict had led to massive underdevelopment. Studious ones couldn’t attend classes because of the frequent bandhs — the same bandhs that forced us to leave our beloved Jalukbari. Sometimes, when bandhs were called during exams by a major outfit, students stayed back with friends at the college hostel so that they could write their tests and not lose an academic year. My parents didn’t want me to have such a life full of uncertainty. From a young age, every relative, every family friend, told me to “get out of Assam and build a career outside.”
This summer, I was told that that trend of leaving Assam is reversing now. Guwahati, as people say, is “developing.” New educational institutions, private and public, have sprung up; some private venture institutions have been nationalized. Jobs are opening in the private and public sector since insurgency has been on the decline (though the reasons behind the insurgencies are very much alive like smolders.)

Because of this “development”, a lot of my contemporaries are returning to Assam from cities they had left years ago in search of better opportunities. But the new Guwahati that I encounter annually when I return from the United States to spend my summers is alien to me. Dappled with tall, glittering giant shopping malls that play terrible songs, Guwahati seems like a city only for the wealthy. In this city of the wealthy, there is no space for someone like our cook, who refuses to use the city bus and walks the one-hour stretch from home to work even after we decided to pay for her bus rides. She would rather save that money. Saving 20 rupees a day added up to 600 rupees, or $10, per month.

Those old neighbors who sensitized me about Chandmari’s history are no more to be found. They have moved out of Chandmari after retirement; some have died. Our campus is less woody now. Several trees have been cut down to make way for new apartment complexes for new employees. The quaintness of the radio campus is a happy nostalgia. I met a new batch of middle-aged men and women. When I was a school-going teenager, they were young and newly married, full of hope and enthusiasm. Like prophets, they lament that the future of Assam is dark, so is theirs because everyone is neck deep in corruption; that these shopping malls are ephemeral like seasons’ flowers. They don’t lament about the Assam Movement. Nor do they say things would have been different if United Liberated Front of Assam would have led an intellectual and cultural movement.

They allege that the large, new business enterprises – media, malls, coal mining, constructions, multiplexes, restaurants – have investments from surrendered militants and corrupt politicians; that those are ways to turn black money into white. I don’t know if that is true.

A woman carrying her goats on a raft in the flood affected Chandrapur area of Guwahati, Assam, on Sept. 25, 2012.
European Pressphoto Agency
A woman carrying her goats on a raft in the flood affected Chandrapur area of Guwahati, Assam, on Sept. 25, 2012.
Something deep inside tells me — when I see the water-logged streets of this “much developed” city, when I think about our cook, when I hear of a woman called Basanti Devi getting electrocuted after stepping onto a puddle of water on a rainy evening while returning home after buying vegetables for dinner to feed her three fatherless children — that this change of Guwahati is not natural like a snake shedding old skin to get a healthy one. It is like Lakme foundation cream hiding pockmarks for just a few hours; there is something reprehensibly wrong with it.

In my room, I talk to old friends who pat my back, questioning me about my sex life, who ask me if I would carry this or that for them in my next trip. Some of them have found jobs in the new, booming private television media where a lot of journalists I know of are paid less than 10,000 rupees, or $160, per month. In the prime-time programs, they appear looking almost white, sleek and glamorous in attires provided by their channels. But their jobs have no other benefits – no health care, no security, no retirement schemes.

One of my old friends is now a television anchor. When we go out to buy traditional weaves to stitch new shirts for myself from the handloom market, people stare at us. I feel proud. After shopping, when we sit down to eat momos, I ask him what are his plans, because he entered the industry as a stopgap arrangement. I suggest that he take some competitive exams. He changes the topic.
I want to tell him about an Assamese journalist who has worked for more than 20 years for a wealthy print media house but earns just around 20,000 rupees per month, or $320, but I don’t. You don’t talk about exploitation and the future over pork momos.

It is evening. We decide to walk down home because we always did that when we were younger and poorer, dependent on the monthly allowances of our parents.

When we reach the riverbank in Uzan Bazaar, a breeze touches us.

I ask him, Do you remember that urban legend?

What legend? he asks.

Remember, when we were in high school during the late 1990s, some people used to talk about secret treasures? Of large bags of extorted money buried by militants? A lot of them surrendered, got huge stacks of currency from the government to start businesses. But later, they dug up those bags also. According to another version, the militants who buried those bags were killed but they passed on the information to others before dying. After “coming back to the mainstream,” the former militants dug up those treasures and used up the money. (I didn’t tell him that I wonder if that money is used to actually “develop” Guwahati.)

Why are you telling me that? he asks.

Because I don’t think it was an urban legend, I say. It must be true. Remember last summer when I was here, after heavy rains, thousand-rupee notes and five-hundred-rupee notes started floating in a marshland in Guwahati?

Yes, in Chachal, he says. I heard one daily wage laborer collected 50,000 rupees. I think two people drowned in the marsh while money-fishing, no?

I say nothing. He stops an auto-rickshaw.

I think it is going to rain, he says. Even if it rains a little, the city will be flooded and we won’t be able to reach home. Let’s not walk, he suggests.

When we haggle over the fare with the driver, I think about our cook. When it starts raining, I think about Basanti Devi. She had three children. The children seemed as if they were too young to understand what her death meant. When TV cameras zoomed in to show their confused faces, I had found myself wondering if the correspondents were disappointed to find them so stoic, for not crying.

Aruni Kashyap is the author of the novel “The House With a Thousand Stories.”


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