A voice called from behind just as he was walking out of the refugee camp. Brajamohan Muktiar turned round to see who it was and found himself eying up Kanai – Kanailal Das. Hands folded, eyes tear-misted, Kanai was making a plea, ‘Babu Pranaam, I …I had a petition!’
Braja had seen much of this man during his visits to the refugee camp. A man of understanding. A very affable, compassionable man. Braja was instantly moved to deep fellow-feeling.
‘Yes, yes, speak up… yes?’ Braja could not wait to hear him out, his right hand round the shoulders of Kanai, he said reassuringly, ‘We are always by your side! It’s our duty to see your well being here. That is what we’re here for! c’mon speak your mind, have no qualms!’
‘Babu! I… I… want to stay back! I do not want to be back to that land of fatality…!’ for a moment, Braja stood transfixed trying to comprehend what Kanai was trying to say. Kanai expatiated on the matter at great length. The war had ended. General Yahiya Khan had released Sheikh Mujibor Rehman. Refugees from Banglades i.e. East Pakistan were all returning to the liberated homeland of theirs. But Kanai did not want to be back to that land of uncertainties. He would rather live a life of penury here, provided Braja allowed him to erect a small sack on his land by the side of the road. Braja was rich, noble and kind. It would cost him almost nothing to accommodate a poor man on a few square feet of his land. Braja, magnanimous as he was, did not deem it fit to be given a thought. ‘Alright, alright, if that’s what you want, I’ll gladly grant you that,’ he said with grace. Kanai dived to his feet, tears of gratefulness coursing down his cheeks.
Granting Kanai a piece of land wasn’t the end of Braja’s magnanimity; he was his enthusiastic self in overseeing the construction of a hut too. Soon a hut for Kanai came up on the piece of land he had given Kanai. Kanai began living on Braja’s land. Besides himself, he had in his family his wife and two kids – a daughter and a son. For a living, he took up selling fried nuts. His wife worked as a domestic. The well-off in the neighbourhood always valued a trustworthy maid-of-all-work. The family was on the track in no time. Rumours did the rounds that Kanai’s wife slept with other men. Kanai seemed to turn a deaf ear to such tittle-tattle. The village women often lambasted Kanai’s wife. ‘Refugir jaat’ (a community of refugees), they would snap at her in a mock-serious tone. But Kanai’s wife did not mind that, nor for that matter anyone in the family. They could not afford to take offence at such things. They had devised a way of dealing with such offences. A hearty laugh: that is what they needed at such moments; a forced laugh that would make them appear amused at the love-hate mockery. Bagindra, Braja’s bloke of a son appeared on the scene one day. He seemed to take it upon himself to salvage the family’s self-respect. He began spending most of his time at Kanai’s house. The villagers wouldn’t find the bravado to hang about the house when Bagindra would be camping there.
As time passed, Kanai’s shop grew in size. A table replaced the winnowing fan which he used for displaying his wares. Then there appeared a showcase. From selling nuts, Kanai now graduated to selling pappad, pies, poratha- curries and pollows. And lo! In no time, before people could note, Kanai’s shop turned into a popular restaurant. The small veranda now added an extra patch giving the humble enterprise the shape of a regular sweetshop. Then he paid Braja whatever price he could for the piece of land – some in money and the rest in obeisance. Braja gave him papers for the land. Comfortably positioned, Kanai now brought in some of his close relations from Bangladesh. A few more families followed suit, strayed in in ones and twos. Small houses began showing up at unlikeliest of places. The small, wobbly houses amused the local populace no end.
Bagindra’s endless time continued to be spent in Kanai’s shop.
‘My shop, this…,’ he used to make a casual declaration to half-known people from different localities who would be curious to know about the owner of the shop. The words he used to utter with the airs of a busy-yet-humble shop owner who had no intention to mix pride with business. Members of Kanai’s family also gladly gave their approval to what he said. Come evening, Kanai’s wife flushed him with strong, locally brewed liqueur and fed him with what he wanted.
Drunk as a lord, Bagindra would then return home late in the evening, hurling all the way torrents of unutterable abuses at fellow villagers who had dirty thoughts about him and gave his hangout a wide berth.
Brajamohan, at that time was an important political figure in the locality. He was chairman of the local committee of the state’s ruling party. Besides, he was an influential member of the Village Panchayet. Whenever a leader from Karimganj, Silchar, Guwahati or any other parts of the state paid a fleeting visit to Dullabhchera, it was always Brajamohan the leaders would want to meet. You can count on your fingers the names of leaders who visited Dullabhchera and returned without savouring a hearty meal at Brajamohan’s house. Most political leaders of the state reminisced his hospitality, and the tasty Manipuri dishes they had savoured at his place. This was one accomplishment Braja took immense pride in.
Whenever there was breach of peace in the locality – be it dispute on land holdings, be it confiscation drive on the part of the local co-operative or mere clash of interests on distribution of ration – it was invariably Braja who had to play the role of the peacemaker. His own family, his children never mattered to him. In fact nothing mattered to him other than serving his party which was to him serving his motherland, serving society in general. The more people appreciated his selfless service to mankind, the more selfless he became. He never expected anything in return – other than people’s gratitude and political leaders’ pat on the back, of course. It would be inconceivably mean of him to wish anything for himself. How could he do that? Leaders couldn’t be self seekers. Braja was a true leader of the people. Even the opportunities that came his way without his asking for them, he doled out to the less fortunate. And who could be more unfortunate than the refugees from East Pakistan who had to begin life right from the scratch? Kerosene permit, petty government jobs, quotations for construction of Government establishments, all he would dish out to the wretched lot. No one in his view could be poorer than those who had no land to till and produce their livelihood. Naturally, the new settlers found in Braja their savior. They would not stop praising his leadership qualities before big political leaders.
‘There cannot be a man of such greatness and magnanimity in the whole wide world!’ they would tell any visiting state leader. Braja would find life’s meaningfulness in those spontaneous outpourings of the grateful souls. Nothing, to him, was more rewarding than a great leader or minister appreciating his work.
Kanai Das wasn’t long in discovering what went best to feed Braja’s ego. He left his now-well-established shop to his wife and son who he knew would run it better with Bagindra’s patronage and turned himself into personal assistant cum all-time companion of Braja. On Braja’s recommendation, the local branch of a bank granted Kanai a loan with which he stocked up a range of goods in his shop and erected a pukka house. Then again, leaving a better established shop to his wife and son, he obtained a timber license through Braja and busied himself in a trade of logging and supplying timber. All this, however, he did without ever neglecting his political work as an active party member and trusted ally of Brajamohan, the most influential leader of the area. Slowly but steadily he was becoming a name in the political circles. With full support and go-ahead from Braja, he made every new refugee from East Pakistan member of the party. Unused Khas land, gochors and choras of the area were allotted to the refugees whose settlements sprang up everywhere dotting the wild looking landscape with meticulously groomed homesteads that looked more firmly grounded than the age-old ones. Most of the newcomers were Kanai’s cognates and agnates. And they proved to be more zealously devoted to Braja’s party. One thing Kanai had learnt for a price: the local Bengalees held the Manipuris in unshakable awe, respect and love. They would not simply say or do anything against the Manipuris without whose valiant role Dullabhchhera would have been part of East Pakistan. Kanai made sure that such loyal elements stayed on the sidelines and knew as little as possible about party affairs.
The Manipuris on the other hand had little time for political activity. Their Kirtans, dance festivals, holi, nine-day-long Rathajatra festivals, thirty-day-long autumnal discourses of the scriptures and an endless list of all-important occasions kept them busy. Over and above all this was factionalism that inevitably cropped up in the observances of these festivities. The rumbling echoes of these festive-time factional eruptions would, with supplementing as well as complementing flare-ups, keep them mortally busy and active all the year round. Straightjacketing their adversaries with ingenious game plans was their favourite pastime. And they celebrated their petty victories over their rival factions with extravagant community feasts, meant to put a whole faction of people to mortal shame and ignominy. The inherent tribalism which constantly egged them on to score over their rivals often led them to sell off pieces of their land property. With immeasurable self-contentment they would call the new settlers ‘refugees’, and yet pester them whenever they needed money for organizing celebrations or feasts without which their vainglories would fall to pieces.
In course of time, Braja’s health began to fail. The ‘tiger’ who once prowled in the area unchallenged was fast becoming a shadow of his former self. It was Braja, who on 14 August 1947, led a force against Pakistani invaders and beat them off. People from East Pakistan had come in a wild trainload that day. The train had flags of Pakistan adorning it. Shouts of ‘Allah-ho-Akbar’ and ‘Long live Pakistan’ rent the air. People on this side had been anticipating such an invasion. Still there were no sight of any military or police parties. Braja had organized the people of the area, toured every village and held meetings to awaken people as to the impending danger. His fiery speeches had magical effects on the Dullabhchera youth. From nobody knew where, he had collected a ‘selpung’ (a giant bell-metal gong used by the Manipuris and the Kuki-Chin tribes of the region), which only he could lift. On 14 August, when the wild train was in sight, Braja sounded his gong and the Manipuri youths of the area rushed to the spot where Braja had instructed them to assemble for advancing in proper formation. People belonging to other communities had already fled Dullabchhera. Oh, what a moment of glory it was! Braja could still visualize the scene. Manipuri youths from Kehur gang, Khilua, Gergaon, Chandor gang, Shyamar gang, Paanchdali,Chamtilla, Baskantilla, Oringtilla… all coming out as should true Kshatriyas, armed with whatever they could lay their hands on. Manipuri martial traditions in those days were still to go into oblivion! Braja’s Manipuri force had that day beaten off the trainload of Pakistani invaders. But for Braja, the history –and geography too – of Dullabhchhera could have taken a very different turn that day.
One day Braja collapsed while attending a party meeting. Kanai bought some medicine from a chemist’s shop and sent Braja home with a party worker to escort him. Kanai could not leave the meeting. It wasn’t an ordinary meeting. An annual general meeting it was where new committees were to be formed. The Manipuri members were all absent, busy as they were settling a social dispute. So, while the Manipuris were going for each other over whether it was the old-king’s clan or the new-king’s that deserved the seat of honour in the sitting arrangement of the kirtan mondop, Kanai proved his being the chosen one of Braja and made sure most of the committees were formed with new settlers forming majority in them. Displaying great sorrow and regret, he also made it clear in the meeting that Braja’s health was no longer permitting him to carry out the party responsibilities. The president of the meeting called upon the members present at the meeting to suggest the name of an incumbent who would fill in Braja’s place. One of Kanai’s followers lost no time in proposing Kanai’s name and a host of other Kanai-followers supported the proposal. The old members, the denizens of the area only looked at each other and said nothing. After being appointed the new Chairman of the party’s Area Committee, Kanai went to seek Braja’s blessings. Braja had to suppress a big sigh while passing his hand over Kanai’s genuflected form.
Then came the Panchayet Election. Kanai was now the all-in-all in selecting party candidates and strategy. But he could not turn a blind eye when Braja suggested his son Bagindra to be made a candidate. However, clever as he was, Kanai secretly engineered the candidature of a neutral candidate against Bagindra. Bagindra lost election. Most of his supporters had not doubted Bagindra’s victory; many hadn’t even bothered to go and cast their votes. The intimate circle of Kanai voted for Nirmal Das, the neutral candidate. Even a child could tell how Bagindra was sabotaged by Kanai.
An enraged group of Bagindra supporters, baffled and disorientated at the sudden, unexpected turn of events, lost their cool. They braced themselves with country liquor and proceeded to pull down Kanai Das’s house. Bagindra had some political acumen inherited from his father. Drunk though himself, he went to stop the agitated lot whose action might trigger communal tension in the area and help Kanai garner sympathy.
Before Bagindra could overtake and stop them, stones thrown by his supporters broke down some of Kanai Das’s windowpanes. Bagindra somehow managed to be at the forefront of all to stop them only to be faced by Kanai Das’s son who had come out with a razor-sharp, menacingly oversized dao. Behind him were emerging an army of incredibly well prepared refugees, armed with sharp weapons. Bagindra’s supporters were not prepared for such preparedness on the part of the refugees. They broke into desultory runs. But not Bagindra. He knew if he ran away that day, he and his people would have to be running away from everything all their lives. Some of Kanai Das’s supporters hesitated. After all, they were used to treating Bagindra like a demigod all these years. Precisely at the moment, a police van arrived at the spot.
Bagindra was taken to the police station where charges of larceny and attempt-to-murder were framed against him. Non-bailable charges; Bagindra was sent to court from where he was sent to Karimgunj jail.
Brajamohan tried his best to save his son. But the case took unusually long serpentine turns. On returning from Karimgunj court one day, he realized he was left with no means to fight the battle. He made a solemn admission of his defeat, asked his wife to do what she could and took to his bed.
Brajamohan may have chosen to resign. But recollections and echoes from the past would not desert him. He remembered how he would go out of his way to help the helpless lot. He also remembered how the other day, when there was a clash between the locals and the new settlers over a piece of khas land, he had heard one of them saying ‘Manipuris go to Manipur, Deshowalis go to Bihar, this is our Bengal!’ There is nothing he could do now. He had made his bed and he must lie in it… and wait for the great eraser that would come in slow, painful steps to erase all the imprints he had left on this soil. He had inherited this soil from his forefathers. He had one day risked his life to save it. Never could he imagine someone could remove it from under his feet in… in such a way… Can a hundred lives sacrificed save this soil now…? The question rambled through every nook and cranny of his consciousness unanswered.