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Today I cast my net in lonely red waters. The red river looks redder today and the fish is scarce. Everyone else is fishing in the waters yonder. They have politely but firmly let me know there is no place there for my little boat. All day I have sat here and I haven’t caught half a regular morning’s worth. Shanti and Reva look at me with curious eyes from their boat. I know that wily old Ram ’kaideo has been wagging his tongue all around the village ever since the Army inquisition. Everywhere I go, I meet with the same glances — half curious, half afraid. And today I have been silently distanced from them all.
My parents did not approve of my spending time with an eater of cattle. But Rashid was not just another eater of cattle — he brought me life. I did not believe the rumours when they first travelled down the red river. But maybe I should have. The river never lies. It was wrong on my part to question age-old wisdom. A man like Rashid could not have fitted into the stories brought by the river, I reasoned with myself. Nonetheless to appease everyone, I turned my meetings with Rashid secretive.
We began meeting at sundown, in the shelter of the glowing redness of the skies. I would row out on one-eyed Kusumkumari’s little raft, Kusum being my only comrade who believed in Rashid. (I personally suspect that Kusum was smitten with Rashid, but she would never tell me. Why would she?) We took turns in drawing back nets lest someone saw our rafts floating suspiciously in the evening waters.
Rashid Mian regaled us with witty anecdotes. He gave me dreams of a luxurious trouble-free life. Sometimes he brought expensive fruit from the towns. One winter he brought me an embroidered shawl and massaged my cold scaled feet with commercially packed medicinal oil. I only wished I could carry it all to my mother and my ailing sister. “You can have all this and much more if you do what I do,” he said, pressing my hand. Our eyes met. Such fire he held within him. For the first time, my attention was diverted from his stories to what work he might be really doing. Surely a fisherman on the other side of the border could not earn so much just by selling fish. Or could he?
“Of course he can,” Rashid had laughed tousling my hair. His fingers always sent live currents through my body. Perhaps there was the magic in those hands. They could catch the biggest fish in the river. The biggest, the most exotic, the most in demand varieties at the market. “Yes, he can. The trick is to follow the currents of the river and the currents in the market. Be like those currents and flow. Men like me live like the river does. In abundance. But we have our share of sacrifices too. For like the river, we know not one single ghaat, state or country. We flow from one node to another to another until an unsuspecting dam traps us. And then we must make for ourselves a different route of movement.” That day, as Rashid spoke, a xihu swam into my net and I noticed it only too late.
Mother wasn’t happy with the haul. But the village feasted. Mother said killing xihus is bad luck. The river will avenge its death. Ram ’kaideo meanwhile directed the young women of the village to carefully separate the oil from the meat. “It is good fish bait. We will have a good week”, he said gleefully. That night thunder rolled the skies and it rained all week.
When I met Rashid thereafter, he looked worried and tired. We sat staring into the waters and observed the xihusjumping into the horizon in silence. I fidgeted with the chords of my net. Xihus should never be put in nets. They were never born to be captured nor were they born to live in the same waters all life. Could I too shift waters? Could I swim in the rivers Rashid flowed with? Perhaps Rashid read my mind. He patted me and sighed, “To each fish his own waters. To each fish his own course of swimming. To some it is their destiny to swim into nets.”
Then, three moons ago, Rashid Mian suddenly told me he will not come back for a long time. “Let me come with you to your village,” I said. Rashid refused. They will never let a Shankari live safely in their village. So I must not dream of crossing over. I must stay patient and believe: Tomorrow will be a brighter day. Little did I know, he was himself a stranger to his own village now.
No sooner had Rashid left, the Army arrived. This village gave shelter to HUJI members they insisted and they demanded the terrorists be turned in. Three elders were beaten publicly and left bleeding. The Army was back the next day too. I came back home with empty nets to a weeping ma and a severely assaulted deuta. They have birthed ULFA cadres, the Army insisted. My ailing elder sister and the pregnant one-eyed Kusumkumari were taken away, we don’t know where.
I sit mulling over the storm that has unexpectedly ravaged my home and dreams. A xihu quietly finds its way into my net and attempts to jump. The net rises like an ominous hand upsetting my little boat and its contents. No more xihus in my net I scream and frantically cut away at the twines of my net. The xihu slips out and executes a jubilatory splash before disappearing into the musky redness of the evening waters. I sit back wiping my hands with the edges of my lungi trying to calm down my violently swinging old rickety boat. Firmly I hold down those surging unnameable desires and emotions rising within. Sun down and I shall row back to my wife, my children, my bruised aging parents. I will return with broken nets to hungry and hurt stomachs. To every fish his own waters. To every fish his own course of swimming. But what when your waters abandon you? Where do you swim?
The Brahmaputra, the main river flowing through Assam is also called Ronga-nodi or the Red River. The word ’kaideo is short for Kokaideoor Elder brother, here a generic reference to a village elder. The word Mian is used in Assamese to denote a Muslim from Bangladesh as opposed to Assam. Padma is a river in Bangladesh A xihu is a river dolphin found in the Brahmaputra valley. A Shankari is a devotee of the god Vishnu who is a follower of the teachings of Shankardev. HUJI stands for Harkat-ul-Jehad al-Islami and ULFA stands for the United Liberation Front of Assam.