It was a cold November morning of 1998. Only a handful rays of the morning sun were able invade the thick fog covering the earth’s facade. In the remote village of Agia, located in the northeastern corner of India, four high school students were preparing for their annual examination.
“Tultul, I just need 30 marks in Science and English. You tell me the sure-shot questions only!”
I always enjoyed the extra attention given during the examination time. It was the cascading effect produced by the exam-oriented outlook of my pals that I used to get berth in class football team and partner-in-crime while stealing mangoes from the village-head’s farmhouse. Win-win propositions constantly last longer in our society.
The study session for getting 30 marks never last for more than 30 minutes; we were on time as always. But the post study discussions on girls or football rivalry were not getting initiated today. Science and English papers couldn’t entrap my friends’ imagination – I knew it for sure.
Podum broke the silence, “we three have been thinking on doing something. In fact, we have already decided”.
“I can’t join you before examination; Deuta won’t allow”, my biggest fear factor was my father.
“No, after exam. But you must come”, an unknown fear was attached in Shamim’s pleading voice.
“Oi Senga, what these guys are mumbling? Kotha tu ki?”
“We are joining ULFA. Swadhin da already explained us everything. We will leave with him to Bangladesh just after exam”, Senga dropped the bomb.
My first reaction was wow! Probably the then existed socio-political situation of Assam had influenced the upbringing of my generation in such a way that joining the banned militant outfit was always deemed fashionable and patriotic. ULFA was on massive recruitment drive during that time – the finest football player of our village, Kabiranjan kokaideu whom I always considered a role model poet and my own cousin – all left home for a cause I could not really understand, but appreciated very much. Now, it was my turn to take a step, that too, together with my childhood pals.
My wow reaction energized Podum. He continued, “Swadhin Da had read all your revolutionary poetries and super impressed. But your father was his school teacher, so he does not want to request your parent directly. You talk to Borta or simply escape with us”.
“We have been promised food, shelter, commando training and also a monthly salary that will be more than Kalita Sir’s. Once Assam becomes a country, we will be given good post with high designation. You know Netaji Subhash Bose also did the same during India’s freedom struggle”, Shamim was much more confident this time.
Poetries- commando- netaji, each of their words were arousing my inner zing. Getting 100 marks in Mathematics was seemed too cheap a target to aim now. I am a grown up man; this is the time for bringing revolution to my community. I will do only good things and become a hero, may be one day the Prime Minister of the new country-Assam. Wow, Ma and Deuta would be so proud of me!
Deuta….ok, hmm! Will he allow? No chance. I can run away; but if he finds out, he will beat me till death. Hmm! And, what about the promise I made to him on Tuesday night? No, no- I shouldn’t leave my village. I have to take care of my sister. How will Ma and sister live without me? Ohh God, show me way!
“I need to pee”, I wanted some time in seclusion to reflect back Tuesday night’s conversation with my father.
“Baba, have you written this poetry by yourself?”, my father had the school magazine in his hand.
“Yes, I just imagined how great it would be to have a different currency, different flag, and different anthem. Prabin Da and Saikia khura also sacrificed their lives for that, didn’t they?” The fashionable style of describing freedom and the death of dear ones affect the teenage mindset the most.
Deuta pulled in the wooden chair, “But what will happen if Bangladesh captures Assam for tea and oil? It is so poor a country that we will not even get our salaries; how will I feed you? Bangladeshis will force us to speak in Bengali. Who will save us then?”
Oh my God! I never thought of this side of affairs. Assam doesn’t even have an Air-force or Navy. But are the ULFA people and their supporters fools? They are fighting for a genuine cause- everybody knows that. All Assamese love and assist ULFA cadres in whatever way possible- they are our heroes.
“I am not saying the basic principle behind the formation of such groups is stupid. I only want to emphasis that armed movement like ULFA is not the only way to develop your community or region; Gandhiji didn’t approve violence at all”, Deuta was lecturing with utmost seriousness.
“What are the other ways then?”
“This is a good question. See, ULFA is requesting the United Nations and Government of India to accept its demands. Imagine you were there in the United Nations or with the Indian Prime Minister- you can do much more for the people of this region”.
Wow! That was a completely new line of thought father incorporated inside my brain. I always come last in 100 meter race, I can’t play good football also – how will I sustain a guerrilla fight against Indian army? On the other hand, I always come first in class; I can understand the complex books of Homen Borgohain & Indira Goswami- Certainly this new way would be the most appropriate for me.
My optimism was at the zenith- “Deuta, how can I become such kind of ‘big’ person?”
“That’s like my son! For that you have to study hard now. Then you have to study in world’s best University like Oxford where Indira Gandhi and Manmohan Singh had studied. I have set aside our Ulupara agriculture land for your study purpose only”.
That was probably the first time I imagined myself as a student in the world’s oldest university. The sparkle of dreams in my eyes – this was what my father wanted to see. Dreams are the first steps of success, he always said.
“Promise me, you will stop writing these poetries and concentrate on your books. First thing you have to do is to secure rank in HSLC board exam and then get admission into Cotton College, Guwahati”.
I came running to my amigos, still trying to fix the broken zip of my half pant.
“I will not be able to accompany you now because I have to first study in Oxford University”. I also explained the proposition behind my decision as I understood from my father so that I did not sound too odd to my friends.
“But Swadhin Da did not tell anything about this; per himself only ULFA can bring prosperity to Assam”, Shamim put forward his confusing viewpoint.
“Tultul, where is Oxford University? Are Science and English required to study there?”, Podum was dreaming in spite of his weakness- I felt energized. How great it would be if four of us study together in future also!
“Oxford is in America. When it is day here, it is night out there. Science and English are required, but I will help, don’t worry. Just sit beside me during exam time or we will fix timing in urinal”. Who says you have to be practical or knowledgeable while dreaming?
“Wait, do you have any clue what brilliance and how much money are required to study outside India? Even if you are the topper at our Assamese medium village school, nobody will give a damn to you. Why don’t you admit that you are coward and unpatriotic rather than giving excuse? ”, I loved Senga for his direct words, but I hated him equally.
Shamim joined in, “It is fine if you don’t come with us, we still love you. Tell us one thing – what if you do not get admission into Oxford University?”
“I will join you guys. You three will be at higher position by then- so take me directly. But I don’t want to join the arm-cadre division; rather I will be the magazine editor of Swadhinota. Is that fine?”
I always wish decision making would have been as simple as it were during teenage time. There left nothing much to discuss. The stage was all set for Podum, Shamim and Senga; still I put forward my last counter argument-
“Can you postpone by a few years? May be we can all go together if you defer this for now”.
And, they didn’t defer. In fact, three of them vanished when one exam paper was still left. Police came to our house too; Deuta didn’t allow them to question me. The whole village was under awkward silence for several months. Everybody knew everything but nobody would open his/her mouth. The educated parents became stringent than ever before.
Time goes by……. I got state rank in HSLC and studied in Cotton College too. I tasted the sweetness of national integration and widened my definition of patriotism. The desire for ‘comfortable life’ landed me in corporate world, where I met another set of people who believe in bringing revolution via cafeteria talks and watching English news channels. I studied the insurgency movements across the globe and developed an emotionless yet patriotic perspective for Assam movement. My father passed away, still saving the Ulupara agriculture land for my higher study. I also learnt that Oxford is not in America and the urinal-cheating wouldn’t have been possible to get into the university. Meanwhile, 90% of ULFA leadership surrendered to Government of India in exchange of lucrative deals without giving a damn to the ideologies that destroyed the lives of thousands from my generation. In this restless world, who cares the ideologies and sacrifices made by three innocent boys of a remote village fifteen years ago?
I do, I do, I do!
In fact, this is my childhood experience that keeps my feet on ground every time I tend to fly in vacuum. A sense of responsibility binds me to my roots. Personally I do not buy-in the argument that one academic degree from an institute can do wonder; rather, what one does on the field makes all the difference. But as Ratan Tata once said, “a promise is a promise”.
I did not even think twice before respectfully declining the acceptances from University of Cambridge and London School of Economics after I received the offer from Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government. While accepting the 100% scholarship as BSG-UNIV scholar, I only wondered how many lower middle class fathers preserve their agriculture lands for kid’s higher education! I miss my Deuta- my mentor, my creator, my pride.
And I miss Podum, Senga and Shamim. They didn’t have a visionary father, but they had a good friend- yet I couldn’t prevent them from going astray. That’s an unfinished episode of my life that I often wish to re-write in my own way.
“Are you still alive? Let’s make a new promise today- you come back to mainstream without taking Government benefits and I will join you all. We will work very hard and build upon our childhood dreams. Together we will create a new Assam, a new Northeast, a new India, and a new World”.