Assam for Dummies

I have travelled to most of the big cities of India except Hyderabad. The one thing that is common in these places of the “mainland” India is that people have very little idea about Assam or the North-East in general.

I remember when I was in Mumbai a few years back, this Marathi auto driver asked me where I was from. When I said Guwahati, he asked, “Is that close to Delhi?”
I replied, “Na, bhai, it’s in Bihar.”

Similarly, when I was in Bangalore another time, this engineer asked me, “Is it true that a bomb goes off almost every other day in Assam?”
I wanted to say, “Oh yes, and I am the ghost of Bob Marley who died when he mistook a few sticks of dynamite for pot-enthused sausages.”
Alas, I just muttered, “Haha, no.”

Then there was the time when I was in Delhi when an acquaintance of one of my friends remarked, “You know, you speak really good Hindi for an Assamese. And you look nothing like a chinki.”
I said nothing. I just made a face like I was getting ready to fart.

Finally, when I was in Chennai three years back, a taxi driver asked me, “Sir, is Assam in Guwahati? And do you need passport to go there?”
Again, I said nothing, and coughed and pretended to sneeze before making my trusted fart face.

As for Kolkata, the bongs are okay. They know we exist. It is possible that the reason may be mainly because many of their relatives live over here. We are also practically neighbours, connected by the goose neck. So not knowing about us would be embarrassing, I suppose.

Now, you would wonder why I am writing all this. Trust me, this is not a rant against all those imbeciles I have had the misfortune to meet during my travels. Such idiots exist everywhere. Assamese folks aren’t all that different. For instance, if you speak Hindi in front of an Assamese bloke, he will instantly assume you are from Bihar. Even if you tell him that you belong from UP or Rajasthan, he will not be convinced. Instead, he will produce ten reasons to prove that you belong from Bihar. Moreover, if you are a Bengali Muslim, a typical Assamese would automatically assume you are an illegal Bangladeshi immigrant, even if your family has been living here for more than a century.

Therefore, stupidity is a common disease throughout the country. And this post is not about stupidity.

In this post, I want to share some pictures of Assam that will give you a glimpse into this wonderful place I call home. They might also hopefully entice you to visit us someday. Oh and these photographs are fairly representative of the actual thing. That’s because I’m neither a photographer, nor do I have any Photoshop skills. So I lack the ability to find something beautiful where none exist. Moreover, I don’t own any expensive camera equipment. These photos were clicked on my phone and on a fairly cheap point-and-shoot camera I used to own. Since I have mentioned this point, I would like to apologise in advance for the poor quality of some of these images. Some of the pictures are quite old.
The college where I studied. Such cloudy sights are common during the monsoon season, as it rains a lot over here.
The college where I studied. Such cloudy sights are common during the monsoon season, as it rains a lot over here.
A typical sunset on the banks of the river Brahmaputra in Guwahati. (This place is called Kharguli, and is one of the best places to hang out)
A typical sunset on the banks of the river Brahmaputra in Guwahati. (This place is called Kharguli, and is one of the best places to hang out)
You can get on one of these ferries and visit one of the many river islands. If I am not wrong Majuli is the largest river island in the world. (Please Google Majuli)
You can get on one of these ferries and visit one of the many river islands. If I am not wrong Majuli is the largest river island in the world. (Please Google Majuli)
Does seeing the Great one-horned Indian rhino excite you? Then visit the Kaziranga National Park.
Does seeing the Great one-horned Indian rhino excite you? Then visit the Kaziranga National Park.
What to do when a wild elephant confronts you? "Stay silent and don't make sudden moves," according to our guide. (another Kaziranga pic)
What to do when a wild elephant confronts you?
“Stay silent and don’t make sudden moves,” according to our guide. (another Kaziranga pic)
This swamp deer says Hi.
This swamp deer says Hi.
You can stay at one of these houses in Kaziranga. They have no electricity, and during a moonless night, you can find your way from the light of the stars. Trust me this is an amazing experience.
You can stay at one of these houses in Kaziranga. They have no electricity, and during a moonless night, you can find your way from the light of the stars. Trust me this is an amazing experience.
Assam used to be known for its oil long back. The British founded the oil town Digboi more than a hundred years ago (the name came from the phrase, "Dig boy, dig.")
Assam used to be known for its oil long back. The British founded the oil town Digboi more than a hundred years back (the name came from the phrase, “Dig, boy, dig.”)
A British era Bungalow in Digboi.
A British era Bungalow in Digboi.
This is the view I wake up to every morning.
This is the view I wake up to every morning.

In Search of Ghalib

(Warning: If you find my normal posts tiring, do not read this. This is so mind numbingly long that it might kill you. And if you still go ahead, don’t haunt me after you die.)

Place: Delhi

Time: 5:00 PM

It was a hot day. Despite the departing sun, the temperature was still somewhere around the mid thirties. My friend Gaurang checked his watch. Wiping the sweaty glaze off his forehead, he asked, “Do you want to go?”

“Of course, I want to go. But I’m afraid the place will be closed by now. They won’t allow us inside.” I sounded as disappointed as I felt.

“That’s immaterial. This is Ghalib we are talking about. Even standing in front of his closed doors would mean the world to us.”

He was right. We had planned this trip for some time now. Visiting Ghalib ki Haveli was one of our most important objectives. Due to shortage of time and other pressing needs, we had to postpone the visit to the latter part of the day. So what if they don’t allow us inside? We will touch the walls. We will admire the old doors. We will be where Ghalib breathed, walked and wrote; the place where he existed. The rest was indeed immaterial.

“Yes, you are right. Let’s go then.”

Hiring a cab, I searched on my phone for the exact location of the Haveli. For some reason, Google showed two locations. One was in Nizamuddin West while the other was in Chandni Chowk.

The driver asked, “Sir, where do you want to go?”

Ghalib ki Haveli.” The driver just blinked, utterly nonplussed. He had never heard of it.

“Nizamuddin,” I prompted.

“No, go to Chandni Chowk,” said Gaurang.

After hearing two more minutes of fruitless arguments in the backseat, the driver decided to take us to Nizamuddin. It was closer and free from the harrowing Old Delhi traffic.

We reached the place in less than half an hour. As we stepped out of the cab and started walking the streets of Nizamuddin West, something told us this wasn’t the place we were searching. Even though the alleys had narrowed considerably, we were still too close to the fast cars and the even faster life of New Delhi. Ghalib could not have lived here.

I checked my phone again, this time turning on the GPS. A place called Ghalib Academy was showing; and it was almost adjacent to the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin. Sure enough, we spotted a board hanging outside a relatively old building that read “Ghalib Academy.” I also saw a couple of medieval looking doors to our left, which seemed out of place.

A couple of elderly men were sitting at the entrance of the Academy. On enquiry, they told us what we already knew. The place was closed. I asked one of them about those old doors.

“It’s Mirza Ghalib’s Mazaar,” came the reply.

We both gasped. It was like looking for a treasure chest and finding a boat filled with gold. I had been to Nizamuddin’s Dargah a few times before, yet I had never seen those doors. I had never even heard of another tomb at that location. No one even thought about telling us about this place before we had actually sought it. A page lost in history it was.

Racing out of the Academy, we walked as quickly as possible towards the gates of the Mazaar (Mausoleum). A sole guard was visible through the small window set in the door. There was an old woman sitting inside on a raised platform too. We could also see some children playing inside on what looked like a courtyard.

When we approached the guard, he reiterated the sentence we were expecting – it is closing time. We exhorted him to allow us just two minutes as we had travelled from faraway lands. After much persuasion from Gaurang, the guard finally let us in, while the old woman croaked, “Don’t be late.”

As we walked past the gate and turned towards our right past the courtyard, we noticed a number of graves. But those weren’t the ones we were looking for. The guard led us down a small flight of steps, and we emerged upon an opening with a sole decorated grave at the centre. We need not have asked. This was Mirza Ghalib’s grave.

Since we were in such a hurry, I could not stop for ziyarat. However, a quick glance brought to my attention a marble tablet with the following inscription:

“Na tha kuch toh khuda tha, kuch na hota toh khuda hota,

  Duboya mujhko hone ne, na hota main toh kya hota.”

I showed it to Gaurang and almost immediately, he breathed:

“Hui muddat ki Ghalib mar gaya, par yaad aata hai

  Woh har ek baat par kehna, ki yun hota toh kya hota”

And I thought it was the perfect tribute for Ghalib. Here we were two lost souls searching for the soul who had enraptured so many lost souls for generations. In those few moments, time stood still. We were silent. We just stood there and kept reading those words. We had memorised them long back. Yet here, it felt as if, they had come to life. It was as if, their creator was whispering them himself in our ears.

A gentle prod by the guard brought us out of our musings. It was almost dark now. We also remembered that our true objective was yet to be fulfilled. With a last glance towards the grave, we left the Mazaar, and called another cab. This time we were sure of our destination.

A few minutes later, we were being jostled by the overwhelming crowds and dazzled by the bright sparkling lights of Chandni Chowk, with the colossal Red Fort behind us. Climbing a rickshaw, I instructed the puller to take us to Ghalib ki Haveli. A blank stare told me that even Ghalib’s neighbours have forgotten that he used to live here. And here we were thinking Google was confused. He knew Ballimaran, though; so that is what we told him was our destination.

Soon we were racing past other rickshaws; weaving our trail through the sea of controlled chaos that was Chandni Chowk; twisting our bodies and grimacing as the rickshaw licked the sides of unwary pedestrians on the bustling alleys of Ballimaran; before stepping on the hallowed grounds of Gali Qasim Jaan. A few rushed steps later, emerged from relative darkness, the ancient-looking wooden doors of the place the arguably greatest poet of India lived in his twilight years. Here we were, finally, standing in front of Ghalib’s home – Ghalib’s Haveli.

We waited on the front steps for some time. In my mind’s eye, I could imagine the doors were back to the magnificence of their heydays. The curtains would part slightly and the hushed voice of Umrao Begum would filter past them from the other side.

Shaking myself out of my reverie, I strode inside, into the hallway. A second set of doors on the right were closed, as were the set on the left. Despite expecting this due to the odd hours of our visit, I could not shake off the bitter feeling of disappointment. We were so close and yet so far. However, there was nothing to be done. I looked over to Gaurang, and it was like looking at a mirror, as his face had the same despondent look as mine.

We came out of the hallway and stood on the front steps again. Many people were passing by; yet no one even turned their heads to look at this place. It was as if Mirza Ghalib was just a name from the history books; a remnant from a bygone era; just another Djinn in this City of Djinns. How sad it was that while his words found home in the hearts of people all around the world, his own people had forgotten him; forgotten that he was only a human. That he too had a home; that he too needed people to visit him, think about him, and ask him if he was all right. Maybe, he was wrong after all when he had said:

“Dil hi toh hai na sang-o-khisht

  Dard se bhar na aaye kyun”

Maybe, the hearts of men are made of bricks and mortar. Perhaps, compassion and remembrance are just words. Words written by mad poets like Ghalib.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, someone said, “Come back after an hour and talk to the night watchman. He will let you in.”

While we were lost in our thoughts, an old roadside shopkeeper had been observing us intently. He must have read the disappointment on our faces, and wanted to help us out. He told us that with a little “persuasion,” the night watchman would let us in for a few minutes.

I could hardly believe him. Was there hope after all? Would we breathe the air inside Ghalib’s home? Was it possible that we could hope to be his mehmaan? Who was this old man? How did he know Ghalib? Wasn’t that name lost? To add to my amazement, he also offered to talk to the guard himself on our behalf.

Therefore, accordingly, we waited for an hour, and the night watchman let us in. Finally, after all that effort, we were invited to Ghalib’s abode. We already knew it was a museum these days. There were stone busts of Ghalib and replicas of his Diwan. There were murals on the walls with his pictures and couplets. These were all fine, but these were not the things that almost made me shout out loud in happiness. It was the fact that we were inside Ghalib’s Haveli at a time when it was not accessible to visitors. We were alone with him. It was dark outside, but I was glowing on the inside. Everything around us said Ghalib. Everywhere we looked, there was Ghalib. Every moment we spent there, it was with Ghalib.

As we left the place and started walking towards the Lal Qila, Gaurang started reciting Gulzar’s memorable lines on Mirza Asadullah Beg Khan:

“Ballimaran ke mohalle ki wo pechida daleelon ki si galiyan

  Saamne taal ke nukkad pe bateron ke qaseede

  Gud-gudaati hui paan ki peekon ki wo daad wo, wah-wa

  Chand darwaazon pe latke huye bosida se kuch taat ke parde

  Ek bakri ke mimayaane ki awaaz.

  Aur dhoondhlaayi huyi shaam ke be-noor andhere

  Aise deewaron se mooh jod kar chalte hain yahan

  Chudi-waalan ke kade ki badi bee jaise

  Apni bujhti hui aankhon se darwaaze tatole

  Isee be-noor andheri si gali qasim se

  Ek tarteeb chiragon ki shuru hoti hai

  Ek quran-e-sukhan ka safaa khulta hai

  Asadullah Khan Ghalib ka pataa milta hai.”

 

Ghalib's grave
Ghalib’s grave
The lines that got me interested in Urdu in the first place. Sorry for the poor image quality.
The lines that got me interested in Urdu in the first place.
A coulpet on a wall inside the Haveli
A coulpet on a wall inside the Haveli
This bust was apparently gifted by Gulzar. The books on the sides are replicas of his Diwan.
This bust was apparently gifted by Gulzar. The books on the sides are replicas of his Diwan.

 

A closer glimpse of the Diwan. Sorry for the poor image quality. Our phones were dying by that time and we just snapped a few pictures quickly.
A closer glimpse of the Diwan. Sorry for the poor image quality. Our phones were dying by that time and we just snapped a few pictures quickly.

 

 

The Silver Lining

(Let me share a piece I wrote a couple of years back. )

Towards the end of the movie Shawshank Redemption, Tim Robbins’ character Andy Dufrense says, “Hope is a good thing – maybe the best of things – and no good thing ever dies.” That simple statement made a lot of sense to me. Hope epitomises all that is good in this world. It is the beginning of every new adventure, and the cure for the nervousness we feel while approaching a stranger. It is the sliver of light which keeps us going in our darkest hours.

For me, the worst feeling imaginable is the feeling of hopelessness. It is arguable that the fear of death may be the worst feeling. But I think even when people are fearful of mortal danger they carry the hope that they will escape their impending doom somehow. Any kind of fear is accompanied by a curiosity for the future where we imagine ourselves coming out unscathed. There cannot be anything more terrible than when you feel you cannot do anything to change your fate.

This was precisely what I felt in the two minutes that followed the moment when I saw the flames engulf the hydrocracker unit on the evening of 7th April, 2012. The inferno seemed to grow by the second, and the flames were so bright that they appeared six stories tall. There didn’t seem to be anything left except the terrible yellow light and the blood-red sky. And I knew it was the end. There was nothing I could do to change what I was sure was going to happen next – a bigger explosion followed by total incineration of everything in view. A hundred and sixty atmospheres of hydrogen was bound to explode sooner or later.

I averted my gaze from the horror unfolding before me and looked to my left. Some people were running here and there in a chaotic manner. I did not know where they were heading. The look on their faces was of pure terror, and I remember wondering why were they scared? For one wild moment, I felt the urge to join them – to run – to which destination I don’t know, but to run, if only to escape my fate. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t because I didn’t feel any fear. Fear had left me, and as it left, it drained all the hope in me. I didn’t see any point in running away, for I could never outrun the flames. I didn’t see any point in going back to the control room and saving my plant, because there wouldn’t be anything left to save within a couple of minutes, anyway. I just stood my ground and watched them run, all the while thinking that this wasn’t the end I had imagined. So many dreams never realised, so many adventures never embarked upon…so many secrets never told. I had accepted my fate.

As if out of nowhere, one of my unit’s operators shouted, “Hussain, I’m going to the explosion site. You go and normalise the plant.”

Those words went through me like a blast of cold air on a December morning. It felt like someone had turned on a switch which made my senses go into overdrive, which only moments ago had been numb. Suddenly, I was fearful. I was fearful for my life, for my subordinates who were out in the field, and for my friends who were in the main control room, which was closer to the fire. I was fearful for my career, which was at stake if I couldn’t take a safe shutdown. But through all these emotions, I saw the elusive hope. I, somehow, saw myself coming through this terrible nightmare. All the things I was made to memorise to handle such emergencies started coming back one by one. All the necessary emotions filled my mind: logic, reason and faith in my abilities. I was thinking clearly again.

I still don’t know why his words affected me so strongly. Perhaps, it was the sight of a man running towards the possibility of death, or serious injury. Or maybe, it was all those people – seniors, bosses, and friends – who kept calling and reassuring that they were coming soon. I realised those men I had spotted running before, were actually running towards the fire and not away from it. No one seemed to care that they were risking not only their lives, but also the futures of their families.

As every one of them went to the explosion site and started helping the fire-fighters, the lines which divide us ceased to exist. There were no bosses, no managers, no operators, and no foremen. Everyone was equal, fighting for the same cause – even if they had different reasons. Were they fighting for their families who lived close enough to the refinery to get hurt in case of a bigger explosion? Were they fighting for their friends who were in the refinery? Were they fighting so that they wouldn’t be branded cowards later? Whatever might have been their reasons, they all knew this was something they had to do. They were the owners, the servants…the experts. Guiding them was the self-belief, born out of technical expertise and dedicated training exercises. Guiding them was hope, born out of a fear for the lives of their close ones.

And they were not giving up. The never say die spirit that was on display shone brighter than the blaze. Hopelessness could not conquer me for long because hope was all that was around me: through the hard work of the operators, through the calm headedness of the engineers, and through the courage of the fire-fighters. Soon it all ended. The fire was put out. We were victorious.

For me, all that remained was the faint memory of those dreadful moments – and a major realisation – that the greatest fear is the fear of losing hope, which if we apply the rationale I mentioned above, is a contradiction in itself.

This piece is in reference to the major fire that occurred in the refinery where I work. The cause of the fire was determined to be a technical fault. It was the biggest fire in the history of the refinery. It took the fire-fighters and the refinery employees nearly three hours to put out the fire. Fortunately, no casualties took place.

A Joke

It was a normal evening. Old friends caught up. They laughed, made fun of each other, did all kinds of silly stuff like always, and said goodbyes, promising to meet again soon. The night went peacefully. Then morning arrived and brought with it the news that one of them has broken the promise. He felt like leaving for the next station all alone and never even thought about informing the others. He probably thought the others would see the humour. It was another prank after all. Only they lost their sense of humour somehow. It was not a prank. It was reality. It was death. He played the funniest joke of them all, yet nobody laughed.

They thought it was a joke too. They refused to believe the news. They did not care for the evidence. How could such a thing be true? People do not leave just like that. Even as they stood before the morgue; even as they pushed back tears to see that pale face clearly; even as they went with him on his last ride home, they could not believe the world could change so much so quickly.

Yet, it was true. The world had changed – for better or worse. Despite trying as hard as they could, discerning the part that was better from all that was overwhelmingly worse seemed impossible.

Oh, how overwhelming was the worse! Was breathing always so difficult? Eating was never this painful. Moreover, since when did they become so fearful? They were fearful of laughing – even smiling. They were scared of talking. They were even fearful of crying. They were fearful of their own vulnerability.

Hope felt dangerous. Ambition seemed worthless. Love stopped holding any meaning whatsoever. Relationships became chains. Family started to feel like a burden. Faith shook on its foundations.

These young men searched for that feeble ray of light that would show them the purpose of life. Try as they might though, it remained elusive. The black hole of death had sucked it into inexistence. All that remained was darkness.

They realised pain was now a companion; a friend they needed to embrace. Embrace, they did. Hurt became healing. Despair replaced hope. Indifference trod down aspirations. Emotions became symbols exchanged over texts, but never felt in real life. Blocking out became second nature. Suddenly, it seemed easy. This was all they had to do until they too left for their respective journeys.

But the world was not ready for that. Society frowned upon them. They were outcasts. Grief was not supposed to be felt for so long – that too for “just a friend.” Moving on was mainstream. Bury the dead – they said. Bury the past. Burn down the memories. Pull back the tears. Be men, or at least pretend.

Therefore, they started pretending. They put on masks with smiles painted on them. They pretended to laugh at the joke life had played on them. They became skilled actors. They faked emotions. Pretending to love, pretending to become angry, pretending to be men; pretence came subconsciously. Society accepted them again. People invited them for gatherings. Life became normal again.

However, nothing was normal. Nothing would ever be normal, ever again. As they met on another normal evening, they laughed, made fun of each other, did all kinds of silly stuff like always, but never “promised” to meet again. Promise was the joke that made life and death laugh. They understood it. As they parted, they thought that one dead old man (Ahmad Faraz) told the truth when he said:

“Hua hai tujhse bicchadne ke baad ye maaloom
Ki tu nahi tha tere saath ek duniya thi”