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.