The dirty, rubbish-infested, noisy platform of the Dimapur railway station is like any other in the country where journeys begin and end. The daily comings and goings of endless passengers on this platform is symptomatic of the human fascination with travel and mobility. For many, the hustle and bustle of departures and arrivals through this platform is a source of livelihood: the chai-walla, the chana-walla, the paan-walla, the book and magazine vendors and the touts who thrive on passengers without confirmed tickets or without one at all. Their problems about tickets somehow get solved one way or the other because of these wily characters who are expert operators with a well-laid out network of ‘understanding’, (read that as cash exchanges) with the ticket collectors of the various trains which pass through Dimapur every day. And many passengers on un-planned journeys due to emergencies consider these touts as their saviours whereas in truth, for the numerous unorthodox ticket vendors on the platform, scrounging on the desperation of these travellers has become a lucrative venture.
But there is honest work for another band of workers who provide the enormous manpower required to move people and baggage to and from the platform who are commonly known as the ‘coolies’ or porters, with their badge numbers prominently displayed on their persons. They are invariably clad in coloured shirts, with the ubiquitous coils of cloth used as head-rests on which huge boxes and bundles are transported with ease to and from the train. The one remarkable feature of this band is that like in many other towns elsewhere in the country, they are all considered ‘outsiders’, meaning they are not ‘locals’, or simply put, there is no Naga among them. Interestingly, the common identification tagged on to them is ‘Bihari’ whether they actually are from that state or not. When or how this term came into vogue to designate this work-force connected to the railways is difficult to say. The band of porters formerly called ‘coolies’ is a tight-knit unit and like all brotherhoods, it is a world within a world. They stand by each other and tolerate no interference from others, even the local population.
And in such a band, a man called Nandu had survived and risen from the ranks, as it were, to become a respected ‘dada’. It was assumed that he was from Bihar like most of them but any other details concerning him or the others in the group were not known. His mother tongue was said to be Bhojpuri and he was a Hindu. But he was also fluent in some other languages and dialects like Hindi, Nepali, a few Marwari dialects and fragments of local languages like Ao, Sema and Lotha. But his greatest asset was that he was proficient in the lingua-franca of the Nagas: Nagamese. Though he had started as a novice in the profession at an early age, because of his command of this link-language, he became increasingly indispensable in matters of interpretation between newcomers to the town and the providers of local transport like the rickshawallas, auto-ricksha drivers and the few taxi drivers. In all these dealings, he could instil faith in the customers that whatever he negotiated for them would be fair and safe. As a result, he was recommended by satisfied customers to their friends and relatives and gradually Nandu became the most sought-after porter on Dimapur railway platform. Some customers even remembered his badge number 25 which became synonymous with fairness and security because the drivers who were chosen by him to transport the passengers always deposited them safely at their various destinations, even in the dead of night. These grateful travellers always gave large tips to the drivers who did not mind the late hours because of the extra income. So every day after a train pulled into the station, calls of ‘Babu, Babu’ of the porters trying to attract the attention of passengers would be mixed with shouts of the knowledgeable passengers ‘Nandu, Nandu’, and soon he would be surrounded by numerous groups of passengers clamouring to be the first to be taken care of.
Nandu liked his life in Dimapur; he found the natives tolerant, open-minded and surprisingly un-class conscious. When he first started working as a daily wage-earner in well-to-do families, he was treated well and often given water, tea and snacks, a thing unimaginable back home. He could roam freely in the town both in the day and at night. The heat of the summer was somewhat severe, but so was it in his hometown, if not worse! But of late his mind had been disturbed by what he had heard from a Marwari businessman for whom he had worked for some time earlier. For the first time Nandu heard the word ‘outsider’ being used for non-locals as a pejorative term, almost in the sense of an enemy. What he learned was that there was a serious move to deport all outsiders who had no valid inner-line permits. Nandu knew that many recent new-comers from another community were living with forged documents and the proposed drive was mainly targeted against them. Though an uneducated labourer only, he immediately understood what was agitating the local people.
When he first landed in Dimapur in the sixties, there were not many people like him; the locals outnumbered people from other places. But now, the town was overflowing with the influx of another group of people locally known as Bangladeshis. They started out as menial labourers and household servants in both local and non-local homes, also worked in rice paddies and other plantation sites of rich local land-owners as well as in many of the brick kilns around. But they had soon managed to capture almost all the retail market; as vegetable vendors, dry-fish sellers; had an absolute monopoly in the poultry sector and grocery stores. Ready-made cloth shops, shoe shops, barber shops flourished in their hands. Only the whole-sale fish market was in the control of the Biharis. But eventually the local people had come to realize how ‘dependent’ they were on these establishments and they began to agitate. The public resentment was mainly directed against the former group because of their economic clout and the patronage given to them by local politicians because of their numbers. But Nandu knew that when it came to a showdown, all ‘outsiders’ would bear the brunt, even if Nandu and his community enjoyed the patronage of the powerful Marwari business community, who though non-local, occupied a more advantageous position. Many big-time Marwari businessmen were descendants of those who were allowed to trade in the erstwhile Naga Hills by the British and therefore their community, even those who came later to join their ranks, was deemed to be more ‘indigenous’ than these relatively new entrants into the state. Besides, they controlled the entire wholesale market of the state and had strong links with the powers-that-be and enjoyed their patronage and protection.
For a simple man like Nandu, however, such social permutations and the attendant tensions were peripheral to the struggle for daily existence which began in the morning and ended in the evening. If he earned enough for two meals and something to put away, he was happy. But this uncomplicated tenor of his life was now threatened. His anxiety at the moment was not entirely for himself; it was for the abandoned waif whom he had picked up from the platform one winter long ago, out of pure compassion and had adopted him as his son despite his community’s objections and warnings. When it became known that he knew nothing about the boy’s antecedents, they had advised him to take the boy to the police. But Nandu would have none of it; instead he simply smiled and told them that what he was doing would only earn him ‘punya’ and this unknown boy became Nandu’s adopted son and when he was old enough, the ‘father’ put him through the rigours of his own experience as thela pusher and rickshaw driver first and eventually initiated him into the group of porters and was now on the verge of being registered as a porter. His identity? Bihari Hindu.
But now Nandu realized that what he did out of love for an abandoned child many years ago had now become a grave threat to their lives because of the dark secret surrounding the adopted son’s origins. For more than seventeen years this boy who spoke almost all the languages as his ‘father’, observed all festivals and pujas as a Hindu, was in fact a Muslim from across the border. Nandu had discovered this during the first bath that he gave the boy some days after bringing him ‘home’ to his one-room lodging near the railway track. At first the boy appeared to be dumb; did not utter a word but would exhale long breaths as if something was choking him. And he would not touch water, let alone have a bath as Nandu repeatedly told him to. So one evening he proceeded to bathe the boy himself and it was during the forced bath that Nandu discovered the terrible truth; the boy had been circumcised!
A chill ran down Nandu’s spine; he squatted on the wet earth and began to think what he should do. Should he take the boy to the tenement near the brick kiln to the Bangladeshi colony and tell the leader that he had picked up the boy from the railway platform and kept him with him as his adopted son in complete ignorance of his true identity? Would they believe him, especially when he knew that there was always a simmering distrust between the two communities? It was very likely that he would be accused of kidnapping the boy and handed over to the police. And his own people, wouldn’t they declare him ‘achut’ because he had adopted a Muslim boy? Could he give up the helpless child making him twice-abandoned? He thought for some time, intently gazing at the boy’s face and found that he did not have the heart to knowingly subject this little helpless child to such a dark future. He resolved that he would protect him and give him a secure life. Nandu, at that stage in life was full of self-confidence and with a false bravado believed that he could shield the boy not only from others but from his own true identity. But unfortunately, what he failed to realize at that moment was that he was proposing to chart a destiny for another human being with a misguided notion of altruism.
He dried the still unresponsive child, dressed him in new clothes and sitting him on his lap, asked again what his name was. The boy remained mute like so many other times before. But on this night, Nandu told him, ‘Suno, tumhara naam Ajay hai, samjha?’Still no reaction, so Nandu shouted into his ears, ‘Ajay, Ajay, Ajay, samjha?’ The boy stirred as if from a stupor and wriggled out from Nandu’s lap and squatted against the wall just as Nandu had found him on the platform with his back to the farthest pillar that night. Thus the man and the boy stayed, neither moving nor trying to make contact. At last the boy shuffled towards Nandu and pulling at his dhoti, spoke, ‘Amar naam Ajmal.’ Nandu sprang up and jerked the boy to a standing position shouting, ‘Tumhara naam Ajay, samjha?’ The boy saw the anger in the big man’s eyes and lowering his own began to cry. When his sobs subsided, he uttered just one word loudly, ‘Ajay.’
So the little Muslim boy named Ajmal became Ajay and it was for his future that this ageing porter was now so troubled. He had to do something in order to ensure that the boy found a safe haven in this strange land where, due to his unwise love, he had inadvertently condemned his ‘son’ to become a twice-impugned ‘pariah’ beyond the geo-political definition of ‘outsider’; the poor boy belonged nowhere. Nandu frantically began to consider his options: could he take him to his village? No. Could he leave him alone when he himself eventually left Dimapur? No. Nandu spent a whole day at home mulling over this seemingly insurmountable dilemma. By the time Ajay came home from his work, Nandu had come to a decision: he would confess to Ajay, ask for his forgiveness and together they would discuss a future course of action. After a simple meal, sitting beside Ajay the penitent man began to speak,
‘You see beta, you are not my real son’ to which Ajay replied brusquely, ‘Yes, I know.’
Nandu felt the rebuff in the boy’s reply as a real physical blow, as much by the harshness in the tone as the absence of the word ‘bapu’ unlike Ajay’s customary address. Nandu understood why Ajay had been restless and morose this past month, or so, ever since the rumour of deporting all non-locals began to circulate. He was a grown boy now, aware of the truth about himself and had begun blaming his ‘father’ for this treachery as he saw it. There were a few times when Nandu had wanted to talk to him but was deterred by Ajay’s dark mood. Having lost all opportunities for explaining that it was love alone that had compelled his actions, Nandu now stood utterly condemned by the rejection in his son’s eyes. Truly dejected, he wordlessly flopped on the string bed. Ajay remained where he was for a very long time and went out without even a word or glance at the man on the cot. Exhaustion finally overcame a distraught Nandu and he fell into a troubled sleep.
When he got up next morning, he saw that Ajay’s bed was empty; but he thought nothing of it. It was Ajay’s habit to go out early in the morning to run along the railway tracks with friends and enjoy a hot cup of tea at the chaiwalla near their tenement. After cooking some chappatis and a simple dal, Nandu went out for a chat with his cronies before starting out for the station. Nandu was listless the whole day, but at sundown he came home expectantly, hoping that Ajay would be home. But there was no sign of the boy. For the second night Nandu tossed and turned in his bed, sick with worry about his son who was still ‘missing’ from his cot. The next morning as soon as he stepped out of his room, he instinctively sensed that something was amiss: the usual greetings of ‘Ho, Nandu bhaiya’ were missing and every one seemed to be heading for the station. He too walked towards the platform and from a distance saw a huge crowd milling about and a policeman was shouting ‘Nandu, kaha hai Nandu’. Fearing the worst that he and his Biharis were about to be rounded up and deported, he fled the scene and made his way to the residence of his old Marwari boss beyond the tracks. The boss was still asleep and he spent a restless hour behind the garage waiting to be admitted into his presence.
When he was finally summoned to the outer room, he was trembling uncontrollably. He could not speak at first but gradually in fits and starts told him why he had come to him. After hearing him out, the Marwari chuckled and said, ‘Arre budhu, you are wrong about the commotion on the platform. Actually, someone hanged himself from a pole there and the wretch used his dhoti to do so, leaving himself totally naked. Turns out that he was a mussalman’. Nandu was shocked beyond words and thought, ‘Ajay!’ and nearly fainted. After the stunned silence, the first thing he said to the bewildered Marwari was, ‘Hame bachao mai-bap,’ and grabbed his feet, sobbing wildly. Sensing that something of momentous significance was about to be revealed, the wizened old man took him to an inner room where amid intermittent sobs, Nandu told him of the sorry saga of his misplaced affection for an abandoned child whose true identity he had concealed and was now convinced that his ‘son’ had met such a tragic death because of this ‘paap’ he committed.. The old man remained silent for a long time. At first he was incensed with Nandu for involving him in this sordid affair but he soon realized that he had to act with extreme caution to avoid any communal friction at this critical juncture when all outsiders were under threat from the local population. But most important of all, his knowledge of the dark truth and any involvement in the matter must remain hidden. The solution: Nandu had to disappear altogether. Having come to this conclusion, he thoroughly questioned the frantic man again about his movements and arrival at his residence and when he was satisfied that Nandu had not told any other person about Ajay’s identity and also that nobody knew that Nandu had come to meet him, he began to plan the ‘deportation’ of the Bihari ‘outsider’ now become a ‘refugee’, ostensibly for his own safety.
In the meantime, when the body was brought down the police discovered that the face was bloated beyond recognition because of the injuries. But many Biharis noticed the missing small toe from the left foot and instinctively concluded who the person was. But they said nothing for fear of retribution from the other group on all of them for passing him off as a Hindu. They also turned bitter against Nandu because they now believed that by wilfully adopting the boy in defiance of their advice and hiding his true identity from them, he had betrayed the entire community, thus putting them at great risk. They hurried away from the platform once it became clear that the man was killed first and then strung up by his dhoti for the final exposure of this dark secret. The police went through the motion of trying to establish the dead man’s identity and kept the body in the police morgue for another two days. But when nobody came forward either to identify or claim it, they buried the remains in the graveyard for the destitutes and unidentified of the earth. Thus through this last tragic and ironical twist, Ajmal aka Ajay was finally accorded the ‘proper’ burial befitting his true identity.
Nandu spent the whole day cooped up in the Marwari’s godown, alternately crying for Ajay and cursing himself. In the meantime, a ticket was procured on the last train out of Dimapur for the fugitive. While taking leave, Nandu once more touched the Marwari’s feet in abject gratitude who gave him some money and blessed him. As pre-arranged with the ticket collector, Nandu boarded the train at the last moment and travelled in his cabin away from the other passengers. And as instructed by the crafty businessman, Nandu was let off at a deserted platform somewhere before reaching Bihar.
Thus abandoned in the middle of the night in a strange place, the old porter sat on the cold cement bench of the un-known platform and thought of the other one, lording over which, he had once imagined that he was a destiny-maker. Instead, here he was now, a lost soul bereft of all future because of his love for an abandoned child. The vaunted ‘punya’ he had wanted to earn through his love had come home to roost as the curse he now had to live with.
Know your writer –
Temsula Ao is well known poet, scholar, and novelist from Northeast India. In 2013, she received the Sahitya Akademi Award for her short story collection, Laburnum for My Head. She received the honorary Padma Shri Award in 2007. She is the recipient of the Governor’s Gold Medal 2009 from the Government of Meghalaya.
This story was first published in Eclectic NorthEast (November 2013) issue