The Crown Prince of Islampur
Something inside me squirms every time I step on a puddle. I cannot explain it easily. It is not your usual toe-curling feeling; I feel like the muddy water enters me and reaches all the way up to my head. I drown inwards. This is also why I avoid wet places. Now I live in Delhi where rain is scarce and monsoons are drizzles, gone before you decide what to wear to office today. It is funny that when I left for Delhi from Guwahati in 2010, neighbours, relatives, uncles I did not know existed, warned me about the uncertainties of life away from home. But I have certainty here. It does not rain.
As I returned to Guwahati in 2019 for a story, I remembered all I had no trouble leaving behind. The city was home to me for two decades, and I hated home. I grew up in a joint family. There were just too many people—regardless of the size of our house, there was very little space to breathe. I wasn’t allowed to step outside the house until I was 10; I wasn’t allowed to step outside our housing society until I was 15. Mine was a difficult childhood that never seemed to end. I always wanted to leave it all behind. But it seemed I had no sense of its beginning and its end. Guwahati was my childhood, and I hated Guwahati.
Most people here will tell you that the city has changed now. I don’t agree with them. Even though cramped for space now with one shopping mall per house, its pura gahori replaced with schezwan pork served with mayonnaise, more flyovers than there are roads, Guwahati still walked groggily during the day like a child forced to wake up at six am for school that starts at eight. The child knows and believes this is unnecessary—bathing is unnecessary, so is eating rice with aloo shiddho and mushuri dail—but also knows that no one cares for his opinion. Another thing that had not changed about Guwahati was its incessant rain—main roads turning into fishing ponds, cars submerging, and the muddy red soil that still peeked at the passers-by, knowing fully well that the road they are walking will not for long be a carpet of tar.
I had to walk that familiar muddy road on a Saturday to visit Alam’s house to interview him. Alam lived in South Sarania, which is not very far from my house even if I take the main road. It is, of course, even closer if I take the shortcut through the house to our right, which somehow stands in the middle of the road, but the gates of that house are often closed. It had been years since I heard of Alam. We went to the same school until standard nine when Alam dropped out. We heard rumours that Alam lost his index fingers in a kalboishakhi when an uprooted tin roof flew towards him and chopped them off while he stood there pointing at the sky. Some people said it was some kind of a Muslim thing to do to, to point at the sky when it rained that hard; they said Muslims were taught that they could cause lightning if they poked the sky with two fingers at the same time.
South Sarania had changed a lot since I last visited. You could notice a stark difference between the left and the right side of the road as you entered. A lane to the left took you upwards towards ISKCON Temple, another took you to a by-lane full of apartment complexes and multi-storeyed houses; if you kept going straight skipping all turns into twisted lanes, you encountered buildings after buildings with security guards and parking lots and giant iron gates. The right side was lined with a sweet shop, a rice hotel, and tiny grocery shops. Alam’s house on the right was placed in a communal space with similar houses in the Assam-type mould: single-storey houses with slanted tin roofs to prevent waterlogging and bamboo pillars because of the abundance of bamboo plantations in the region. Like most middle-class houses in Assam until the late eighties or early nineties, Alam’s house shared a courtyard with the other houses in the compound, now hidden behind the shops selling bread, eggs, Pran’s Litchi drink, and jam-filled cakes. These houses that were a common feature once, were eyesores now, overlooking tall buildings and apartment complexes with pictures of Shiva and Ganesha on their walls to stop people from urinating on properties.
The two sides were like two countries. Alam and his coterie of ramshackle houses, old, stinky, dingy, and greasy, illegally occupied the minds of the building owners of the left side. Later, Alam would tell me about a recurring dream where he saw his home surrounded by these tall buildings that seemed to grow taller and taller in his sleep. When he slept, they grew one building at a time, trampled over his house, and stood on his chest, not killing him even though suffocated, he begged to be killed. The buildings asked him to first repeat ‘Bismillah Ilahi Rahim’. He was startled and could not say anything. Then a thousand windows opened, and he heard laughter mixed with reprimands, telling him that though he will not die, because the buildings would not be decorated with his blood, he will always be buried under the weight of the houses.
Alam’s house was flanked by two houses on either side. The common courtyard was protected by a slopy tin awning that stood on black bamboo pillars. The maroon-coloured awning, identical in every way to the house roofs, was a fraction shorter than them. An imaginative mind like Alam’s might have, on a lazy afternoon, thought of them as an old family photograph clicked at a studio where members with powdered faces were made to stand in ascending order of their heights. As I entered, I saw an old woman filling water from a hand pump that stood on the left side of the courtyard. ‘Aunty, Alam ka ghar kaunsa hai?’ I asked her, but she did not respond. I asked her again, ‘Alam er ghor kunta?’, and she pointed towards the house in the middle with a beige polyester curtain with floral designs. I knocked on the door and a woman in her twenties –who looked even younger to me — opened and enquired, ‘Kaare laage?’ I said, I was a school friend of Alam’s and I wanted to meet him. Her eyes lit up and she welcomed me, ‘Aain aain, tain bathroom o gesoin’, and gestured towards the door to the washroom where Alam was bathing.
Alam’s house was built by his father who passed away when he was in the sixth standard. Those days, most of these Assam-type houses had their washroom and loo separate from the rest of the house in the inner courtyard for concerns of hygiene, but that was not the case with Alam’s. A one bedroom-dining-hall-kitchen house, it did not seem to get much light, except for a small window just behind the dining table. There were no sofas, and Alam’s wife pulled out one of the flimsy dining chairs for me to sit. In older days, it would have been blasphemy to sit at the dining table of Alam’s house, because of irrational fears of Muslims looking for opportunities to feed you beef; actually, my mother would not even have allowed me to visit Alam. But things have changed; the society has come a long way since the nineties, especially the educated younger generation that no longer believe in segregated spaces.
As I sat there, Alam’s wife stood near the kitchen door. I assumed neither of us was good at small talk; so, after exchanging a few glances and awkward smiles, I started fiddling with my phone. I typed cricket scores on Google, thought of Kid Cudi for no reason and looked him up, typed A.K. Hangal young photos, then thought to look up media reports on Alam’s case and mentally prepared notes for questions to ask him. After stumbling upon various stories with titles such as ‘Strange Case of a Man Who Steals Bird Eggs’, ‘Guwahati Man Confesses to Smuggling, Items Include Cuckoo Eggs’, and ‘Alamgir Jahangir Stirs up Age Old Debate on Secularism’, I decided to open an American website, Outlier.com, with a longform article titled ‘Who Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?’. Alam’s crime had created waves not only in the country with heated debates across newsrooms, but had also firmly put Guwahati, and even South Sarania, on the world map. To be fair, it was actually a very strange case which is why I was fascinated enough to cover it as a reportage for Subculture—the-last-of-its-kind narrative magazine that married intellectual curiosity with journalistic rigour and did not shy away from telling the stories from the margins of the society, a sort of an anti-market crusader if you may. Alam had not only been stealing cuckoo eggs but also putting them in crow nests; this was a vital information that many news channels and newspapers were missing out. What, after all, was Alam getting from it? Because the motivation clearly was not money. However, knowing Alam as a kid, I was not very surprised. He was capable of strange things, which became apparent to us all in school after his father’s passing.
Alam was never a phenomenal student to begin with, but he did alright. He was good in subjects such as history and English though terrible in math, like most of us. However, seventh standard on, his overall grades started to sink. It was evident that he was losing interest in studies. He came to the class drowsy, as if drunk and continued the day with his gaze fixed on the window. The teachers were concerned, but he was not responding to any of their queries. In one of the classes, our maths teacher, Rabindra Sir frustratedly threw the duster at him and it hit his right arm. Alam was alarmed, he looked up at Sir, then went back to looking out of the window, which further annoyed Sir, who shouted, ‘What is out there? Is your father getting married again?’ We caught on to the again and wondered what that means. There was laughter, someone whispered, ‘Do you not know that Alam’s father left his mother to marry another woman? This one, thirty years younger than him, I hear.’ It became a running joke: Alam’s father left his mother to marry a young chick and started living with her, and what did he do to Alam’s mother? Talaq talaq talaq. It must be true, we thought; had his father really died, why did he not shave his head?
As time passed, Alam became more and more reticent, as if on a mission to flunk all the exams. Once he sat through a three-hour biology test writing not a single word, not even when requested by the teacher. He got a double zero. Kind as our teachers were, they decided they had to talk to his mother: What exactly was up with him? Was she not feeding him well? So, that is what they wrote in his report card: Tell your mother to meet the class teacher.
Alam was both scared and embarrassed, as the last time his classmates saw his mother, they could not stop exchanging glances between suppressed laughter or a sense of victory, he could not tell, but Alam’s body squirmed when he saw that. Later that day, when he went back home, he flung his bag across their drawing room that opened to a dining table. He threw the bag so hard that it hit one of the four dining chairs, which fell with a loud thud. Alam did not have to say anything to his mother.
He decided to explore other ways. There was a woman who swept the road outside the school every day at eight in the morning. Whenever we would pass by her, she would inadvertently sweep the dust in our direction, and we had to duck and cough it out. It was almost a ritual; eventually, we figured out the movement of her broom and learnt to escape the dust storm at the exact moment. So Alam caught hold of that woman on the day his mother was supposed to meet the teacher and begged her to help him out. Alam said, ‘Am I not just like your son?’ The woman said, ‘Nothing like my son.’ Alam said, ‘I will give you 50 rupees, that’s it.’ The woman said, ‘Fine.’ That’s it. They went to meet the teacher. The teacher complained that Alam was lazy and was always drowsy, did she not feed him well or let him sleep eight hours straight every night like he was taught at school? She said, she did. But despite all that…? The woman said, ‘Despite all that…!’ And landed a tight slap on Alam’s cheek. This time rumours spread that the woman who swept the floor outside the school was also Alam’s mother. How many mothers does Alam have? As many as his father wants. After all, it is a free country for them.
Alam’s wife puts too much sugar in the tea. I still had three cups of the sugary syrup, because Alam takes the duration of an Ashutosh Gowariker movie to finish bathing. He finally stepped out of the washroom in a striped red and green gamcha which was almost transparent. His wife seemed to notice my discomfort at that and exchanged another awkward smile with me, then asked, ‘Aaro sa khaiba ni?’ No, I did not want any more tea. Fine, she said, she would leave the two of us to talk about our school days; also, food was almost done, and I should not leave before lunch. I insisted I had to go, but then wondered what they might think if I did not eat with them. My discomfort was not their beef or religion but their abysmal hygiene but these things are difficult to explain.
Alam, of course, did not recognise me. He said, ‘Hello, I am Alamgir Jahangir.’ It was odd to hear. Even after years of studying with him, I do not remember anyone calling him that. I introduced myself as his former classmate, he said he remembered me, though I doubt it was true. I asked him if he had changed his name because as far as I knew his name was Alam Aslam. He said no, he was in fact always Alamgir Jahangir, a descendant of the Mughal emperor Jahangir. He went on to tell me that his family ruled a small kingdom in Islampur right here in Guwahati and the restaurant Mughal Durbar was their court. Was it a joke or had Alam lost his marbles? I could not tell, but this was not the strangest thing Alam had done that I was concerned about.
‘So, Dost, how are you here?’ Alam asked me. I told him I had come to talk to him about the cuckoo eggs and watched Alam’s facial expression change. He was taken over by a sudden exhaustion, he had the same sleepy eyes from school again. ‘I am sorry,’ I said, ‘but this is part of my job. I was only generally concerned about what was happening with the case. There are news articles and TV reports on this, casting you as an egg smuggler…’ Alam interjected saying, ‘Bhai, aami toh dim e saari disi.’ ‘And…’ I said, ‘Yes, exactly, for a guy like you who is so hassled that he has given up eating eggs, they don’t even realise that you are innocent. I do not get. This is not even that big a case or a crime. I might be able to help you. Tell me more about the case.’ Alam said he will, but after food which had already been served.
Alam’s wife had made a whitish chicken curry, grainy in texture. She served it in a steel serving bowl and started putting rice on two yellow plastic dishes for Alam and me. My dish had scratches here and there, as if someone has scraped it many a time over the years. I thought about how toxic plastic is, when it comes into contact with hot food, but decided to eat regardless. On the second serving, I raised my hand to signal that I did not need more rice. Alam’s wife was worried that I was starving myself out of shyness. However, the truth was that, I was not used to eating that much rice. The chicken curry was quite good. Alam licked his fingers after every morsel of food he put into his mouth. He mixed his rice and chicken gravy with unmatched dedication with all the fingers of his right hand, even his palm; not for a moment did he lift his eyes. After four servings of rice and three glasses of water, Alam burped out loud and told his wife how good the chicken was and that he was full. He noticed I was waiting for him to finish, so he asked me to follow him to the washing area near the handpump outside where they washed their hands. He pushed the hand pump with his left hand, and I washed my hands, all the while my eyes fixed on the moss-laden floor below. Then Alam bent down, and I pushed the hand pump handle while he rinsed his mouth thrice and spat out the water. He wiped his hands in the gamcha he was wearing and said, now let us talk about your case.
Who flew over the cuckoo’s nest?
The Outliner.com article called Alam an egg thief, ‘a notorious egg thief’ who had been at it for a decade before being finally caught after many a wild goose chase by the authorities. They nabbed him from a railway station in late 2019 when he was trying to flee.
The article quoted a certain Tamajit Bhattacharjee, a railway official who played a big part in bringing down the criminal. Bhattacharjee, who was returning to Alipurduar from a holiday in Guwahati, was sitting two cabins away from Alam, just near the door that led to the washroom. ‘The man kept going to the toilet again and again. The toilet was always busy. We were all irritated. Initially, we let it be thinking it must be a case of diarrhoea. But then, everyone has to go to the toilet, right?’
Bhattacharjee told the reporter that he was worried about the AC as well: ‘This constant opening of door, how much load do you think ACs can take?’ Sometime around seven in the evening, Bhattacharjee decided to confront the serial bathroom-goer. ‘You know what was strange about all this? Train bathrooms are dirty and there is foul smell whenever someone comes out, but this guy, clean floors, no smell as if he did nothing inside.’ Bhattacharjee asked him, ‘Miya, tumhara pet kharap haye?’, enquiring about diarrhoea, to which Alam said no, no, and he looked visibly uncomfortable. ‘Byas,’ Bhattacharjee said clapping his hands, ‘and I knew something was very wrong.’ His intuitions were confirmed when he noticed that Alam’s pockets had unusual bumps. What was he stealing? Someone’s watch? Jewelleries? ‘I thought what is this? My grandfather had once caught a dacoit trying to rob a gold chain from a woman co-passenger. Was this my moment?’ The result of the investigation fairly disappointed Bhattacharjee when he came to know all he had caught was an egg thief. ‘You tell me,’ he told the reporter, ‘who steals dim… in this day and age!’
Bhattacharjee informed the police about something suspicious, but as usual the police took their time to act. Alam managed to sneak out when the train halted at New Bongaigaon junction. But as fate would have it, he stopped at a book stall to flip through magazines, perhaps just trying to calm his heartbeats, and the police caught hold of him.
Alam’s wife brought us two steel glasses full of buttermilk or, as she called it, doi er ghul. It was just curd, water, and sugar; I saw three ants floating on it. Alam looked at me, smiled, and said, ‘Bhai, fifra khaile swimming sheekhe.’ This is an age-old myth about how eating ants makes you a good swimmer. While growing up, I heard it from my grandmother. I believe it was invented to help reduce waste, just like some people grow up learning that they can pick and eat food off the floor, if it is done within three seconds. Alam finished his ghul in one go while I sipped on mine.
‘So, your case,’ he said, ‘I have been stealing cuckoo eggs, yes, but only to deposit them into crow nests.’ I let him go on as I had already expressed my surprise at his doing. ‘I have been doing this for a decade. But why won’t I? You see, Bhai, if I did not, the cuckoos would forever live the life of prisoners forcefully singing in a cage in someone’s house. You are an educated gentleman, Bhai, you would know that cuckoos mostly just make noise, and some illiterate person thinks they are singing like Lata Mangeshkar: Such a beautiful singing bird I have, my Indian Idol and all that, my Zubeen Garg, my Debojit Saha.’
I gathered that Alam was stealing cuckoo eggs for safekeeping but why keep them in crow nests? For all his empathy for caged birds, why did he only care for the unborn when so many cuckoos are trapped from the open? I said I understood what he was saying, but I have certain doubts that I need to clear, to present his case in my magazine convincingly.
Alam was sitting with his feet up on the dining chair, with his hands he was holding both his feet. Sunlight wafting through the open window just behind him fell on his right cheek, lending a peculiar shine to his beard. You could see that his beard had whitened in some places, though nothing else on his face spoke of weariness or aging. ‘Alam,’ I said, ‘this is important.’ He straightened himself and started to speak again.
‘Crows are dirty, they eat leftovers, waste. No one goes near a crow nest. Most people will not even know where a crow nest is. Entire life people spend shooing them away, but in death they become an important part of mourning. They teach us how to mourn. In the bird world, whenever there is a murder, the crows caw and run helter-skelter, as if scared, as if out of fear that whatever happens, hated as they are, they will be seen as the cause of the death. They have such strong connection with death. But Bhai, no one knows where a crow nest is. It is indeed a safe space. A young cuckoo can grow there safely and then one day fly away, without the peering eyes of those who want it to sing and dance for their entertainment. I also wished a cuckoo would pick up the crow tongue and never be found out for who it is.
Yes, a young cuckoo, of course a young cuckoo… people do not want old cuckoos, they only reluctantly agree to take an old cuckoo as a last resort when all methods to catch the bird young fails. You see, it is difficult to make an old bird sing, difficult to train them, so catch them young when you can.’
This might be true. I remember my grand aunt who lived in Karimganj; she had an old cuckoo that would wake up early morning and call azan, startling the entire neighbourhood. My grand aunt had lived through the Partition and was, to an extent, phobic towards Muslims. So, the cuckoo enraged her, and she let out choicest abuses in Sylheti though all I remember is ‘Shuoror baichha, haramir jaat, mulla,’ and that she always threatened to kill it. The cuckoo was fondly called Saradindu, but started responding to Mulla and Miya instead; later, it was found that the bird had lived most of its life in a Muslim household before being sold off to my grand aunt by a boy in the locality, who engaged in bird trade as a part-time business. My grand aunt designed an elaborate torture manual for the bird, which included feeding it pork, but she did not know where to get pork from, and other people in the house were able to make her settle for just letting the bird go. With much reluctance she agreed, but on the condition that she gets to slap the bird trader while holding him by his hair. I do not remember if she went ahead with her revenge.
Alam’s wife came to take the ghul glasses. It was already three in the afternoon and I assumed like most Guwahatians, Alam’s family also was used to a siesta. The day was hot, and I wished I did not have to leave at that hour. Guwahati streets are mostly deserted in the afternoons; not long back, government employees would sneak out of their offices to come home for an afternoon nap before going back to sign out. But I had to go. I said, ‘Okay, Alam, now that I have your version of the events, I will go back home and write it down. For now, I am happy that you are out on bail. The reasons you gave should be enough to rally public opinion behind you, which should help your case.’
Alam smiled and said, ‘I hope so too, for all the unborn cuckoos out there.’ He said he will come to see me off because he anyway had to go and buy eggs from the shop outside. I called out to his wife and said, ‘Didi, jai.’ She did not respond; I assumed she was asleep. As we walked and reached the shop outside, Alam asked me if I wanted to smoke a cigarette with him. I said yes, and he bought two Classic Milds. Neither of us had a lighter, so we had to take two steps back again to use the lighter hanging in front of the cigarette shop. The shopkeeper addressed Alam as Alam Bhai and asked if everyone back home was doing well, Alam said yes. Then, the guy cupped his hands around his mouth and said, ‘And coo?’ Alam smiled and told me, ‘The past few months were exhausting but also fun in some ways. This guy here, he was part of the crowd that pranked the Outliner reporter when he came here. Everyone was very excited, a white guy after all; suddenly, I was Shah Rukh Khan of the locality. They did not care that this was for a criminal case; you should have seen, there was a crowd around that reporter, some wanted to get a selfie clicked with him, some wanted his autograph, they were all very very proud of me. What else could I ask for? The crowd followed the reporter to the house and every time he said crow they cawed and every time he said cuckoo they cooed. I think some of the details that the reporter missed out, was because of them. The reporter was a decent guy, he dealt with everything with a smile, but was profusely sweating.’
Alam took a drag and wistfully looked at the sky and said, ‘I think it might rain.’ The shopkeeper responded, ‘It should. It has been so hot the past few days.’ There were dark clouds in the sky. This was familiar. I knew this day would suddenly turn into night.
Guwahati rains were always unexpected. At times, the climate would shift so rapidly that the universe had no time to transition, leaving the sky simultaneously sunny and pouring. We called it fox’s wedding. Alam said I should wait; we should stand under the extended roof of the cigarette shop. I thought, why not. This might just give me enough fodder to conceptualise a background against which to pitch my article. Could I just ask Alam once to point at the sky when it begins to rain?
The shopkeeper said, ‘This time it should rain for days.’ Alam chirped in, ‘Do you remember the last time it happened and there were fish on the streets and people clamouring to catch them?’
By this time, the shopkeeper had stepped out of his shop and joined us. We stood in a row: ‘How could I forget? The party afterwards at your place. I never thought you were much of a fish person.’ ‘What did you think I was?’ asked Alam, as if he already knew the answer.
This predictable humour was starting to bore me. Their conversations were both drab and purposeless, but then what was I even expecting? People of my city revelled in the nonsensical.
I asked Alam, ‘So, when did you steal an egg for the first time?’ He might have not liked this deviation from their merrymaking over fish on the streets. He looked at me and said, ‘Eggs?’
He took the last drag of his cigarette, stubbed it with his right foot and said, ‘Sometimes it feels like years ago and sometimes it feels like yesterday.’ I nodded and gave him a faint smile, just so that he continues: ‘So, you do keep thinking about those days. Tell me more. What was the feeling like after you did it the first time? Did you feel dejected, or did you feel happy? Do you remember what you were wearing that day?’
The shopkeeper, standing to my right, stepped out from under the shade, spread his right hand out at the sky as if announcing the arrival of a royalty, and yelled, ‘Ba adab ba mulahiza hoshiyar.’ And then it began to rain. The stupid shopkeeper had flipped the plot over in my head, I could not control my frustration and yelled, ‘Damn it!’ Both my companions burst into laughter. The shopkeeper said, ‘I have seen this in the movies: Damn it. You understood? You better understood.’ Alam patted my back and added, ‘Such fine English you speak, Bhai. I know my article is in good hands.’ The shopkeeper suddenly remembered the movie he was talking about and blurted out, ‘Laadla. It was Anil Kapoor in Laadla.’
There was thunder and lightning in the sky. Guwahatians are mortally scared of lightning. There are many dreadful stories about rainstorms. There is an oft repeated one where a flying tin roof beheads a person who ignored the wrath of the rain gods. The story keeps reappearing with variations, sometimes the person is a man, sometimes a woman, walking alone on a night like this in Kalapahar or Sarania.
Alam looked at me and said, ‘You know what? I think you should wait it out in my house till the rain stops.’ The shopkeeper said since there was no chance of a customer showing up in this weather, he would also accompany us. I looked at my watch, it was three forty-five. We walked back towards Alam’s door. He looked at us and smiled and said, ‘Your Bhabhi must be asleep,’ and instead of ringing the bell, knocked on the door with the aldrop latch thrice. He said, ‘Ogo dorja khulo, dekho ke aise.’ I wondered if seeing me again and the shopkeeper who must be a regular visitor would really be a pleasant surprise for her. After almost ten minutes, she finally opened the door. Her face looked puffed up as if woken from a deep sleep. She looked at us and yawned, and then smiled. We sat on the dining chairs again. The table was not entirely clean yet, I could spot food stains here and there.
Alam flicked a grain of rice with his fingers. ‘It is raining hard,’ said Alam, ‘I did not want him to catch a cold,’ he added pointing in my direction. ‘Yes,’ his wife said, ‘Back in Delhi, he must not be used to such rains.’ The shopkeeper added gleefully, ‘Our Badshah Jahangir and his generosity.’ Alam’s wife corrected him, ‘Shehenshah, shehenshah.’
I said, ‘I might be a Delhi-return, but I am still immune to this weather. You know once you learn to swim, you never forget.’ No one responded. Alam’s wife asked if we want tea. I said, only if you are making it for yourself. His wife smiled at me and got up from the bamboo stool she was sitting on. I turned to Alam and asked, ‘So, since I am here, let us talk a bit more about your story. What did you feel when you stole that first egg?’ His wife yelled from the kitchen, ‘Which reminds me, we are out of eggs.’ The shopkeeper responded in the same pitch of voice saying he will send them a dozen as soon as the rain stopped.
My mind wavered from these inane conversations occasionally to the rain falling on the tin roof. Back in Delhi, on many nights, I would search for ‘heavy rain on tin roof’ on YouTube and try to fall asleep to the music. It somehow never worked, like it did in Guwahati.
‘Should we tell him that story about your first day?’ asked the shopkeeper, and Alam blushed as if we were talking about his wedding day. He looked away and swatted a mosquito, and looked at his palm, then wiped the blood on his lungi. ‘You remember, Bhai,’ he said to me, ‘When we were young, we could catch them in our fists.’ I do not remember playing any such game with Alam, but I did not say anything. He turned towards the shopkeeper and asked, ‘Isn’t there a cricket match today?’ The shopkeeper said yes, yes. Alam’s wife warned from the kitchen, ‘Switch it on only if you want the TV to burn.’ Many people in Guwahati, at least those who had CRTs back in the day, feared their TVs would be damaged by thunderstorm. She added, ‘Also, we are out of sugar. How do I make tea?’ I said I do not need sugar. While I waited for her to respond again, Alam and the shopkeeper started talking about cricket in general: The lack of interest they have in the game these days, how great Tendulkar used to be, and such. Just then, the lights went out. You could hear a collective sigh of disappointment from the neighbourhood. Alam remarked with grave distress in his voice, ‘Oi toh gese.’ His wife said I told you so. The shopkeeper seemed unperturbed, and thought of this as an opportunity to propose, ‘Let us play antakshiri!’
I always dreaded antakshiri. The abandon with which people got involved annoyed me, and for what joy? It was also a never-ending game. ‘What languages are we singing in?’ asked Alam. ‘English only,’ smirked his wife. ‘Then only my brother will win,’ he said gleefully. ‘We will sing in Bengali and Hindi both,’ declared the shopkeeper, ‘Assamese also.’ He said, ‘Baithe baithe kya kare…,’ Alam said let it be, let us just start. It was decided that Alam and I will make one team and Alam’s wife and shopkeeper the other.
Alam got up to switch on his Eveready emergency light which he kept on the dining table. It had two small LED rod lights inside, enough to create a dim familiarity in the darkness. You knew who was sitting where, but any overt expression of grimace, discomfort, anger, I always assumed were kept at bay.
The shopkeeper said, ‘Ma…song with ma. Maine pyaar kiya…’ I chastised him ten thousand times in my head for incorrectly singing the song but did not bother to say anything. Alam did not seem to care. He sang, ‘Aana mere pyaar ko na tum jhootha samjho jaana…,’ and pretended to pass an imaginary mic to his wife, who sang ‘Nahi nahi abhi nahi…’ The shopkeeper teased Alam’s wife about their ever-flourishing love for each other saying, ‘Oto prem okhono.’ Alam’s wife hit him on his shoulder playfully saying ‘Dhur’. It started to increasingly seem like a Bollywood movie now with Alam and his wife as the protagonists and the shopkeeper playing the sidekick who will die during the climax. As Alam continued the romance with ‘Roop tera mastana…’, the shopkeeper started repeating in loud whispers ‘Jaaye…ey…ey’, looking for the next song. Not one to accept defeat, our Alam sang the introductory lines again and stopped at ‘Na’. In response, within a minute, the shopkeeper started humming ‘Na na na…’. Alam snapped at him, saying this is not a song, ‘This way anyone can sing anything and earn points.’ ‘Look it up,’ said the shopkeeper, ‘Look it up on Google. I am number one Zubeen fan.’ Then he saluted Alam, who swore to me under his breath, ‘Motherfucker thinks he is Zubeen from Mission China.’
After fifteen minutes of back and forth, and Alam championing our team, he said he was thirsty and was about to get up, when his wife intervened saying she will fetch him water. This meant the antakshiri had to be paused for the time being. We had to start with ‘ba’ once Alam’s wife was back. ‘I will sing it this time,’ I told Alam, ‘Wah, Bhai,’ he said. ‘But before that, since we have some time, could we talk about your cuckoo story once?’ I asked. ‘Yes, Bhai, let me have a sip of water,’ he said smiling graciously.
His wife came back with a plastic tray with three glasses of water. Alam took his, as she kept the tray on the table. He finished the water in one go and wiped his face with the back of his hand. It was too dark to see the details of Alam’s face, but for some reason I remembered the many times in my childhood I was fascinated, seeing water droplets on people’s upper lips after they finished drinking.
Alam’s wife said, ‘“Ba”, now sing with “ba”.’ I started Bairi Piya from Devdas, of course I could not remember the entire lyrics. The other three were more than happy to chime in. The shopkeeper particularly put his heart out into singing the ‘ishh’ part. ‘Look at how he moves his hands,’ said Alam’s wife, ‘as if he is Aishwarya Rai.’ ‘Nothing less,’ said the shopkeeper.
‘Shh…shh,’ our opponents said together, they had to sing with ‘shh’. They continued saying ‘shh’ for a while, looking around the room, as if they had dropped their song somewhere in the darkness, and now it was forever lost. Alam said, ‘I know a song, but we are competing.’ Alam’s wife said, ‘Does it matter? Next time, we will help you.’ ‘Does it matter to you, Bhai,’ Alam asked me, ‘I said not, if they are helping us the next time.’ Then Alam got up, and asked everyone to stand up with him. I waved frantically — I do not dance. After trying to convince me for a bit, they gave up. The three of them got up and Alam started singing Shuhag Chaand Bodoni Dhoni. The three of them formed a semi-circle and started dancing in a to-and-fro motion, clapping, and swinging their hands. I remembered the family weddings I attended growing up, in various parts of Assam. This song and dance routine was a common feature, where irrespective of age everyone came together to perform. It was especially fun for the older people, the younger ones mostly stood gawking at this aspect of their family members they were entirely unaware of. That grumpy uncle, that shy grandmother, everyone making merry.
Once the song was over, all three of them looked exhausted and sat down. ‘I am too tired for all this now, Bhai, I realise,’ he confided to me. I said, ‘I understand.’ I looked at my watch again, it was four fifty-five. It was not raining anymore, I could tell. I rested my hands on my knees preparing to stand up and said, ‘Te aami jai.’ It was time for me to leave. Alam asked what the hurry was. I said I had something personal to attend to. All of us got up together. Three of them, as if in chorus, informed that they were happy to meet me and would be happy to see me again. I smiled at them and walked out. Alam’s wife held the door and the other two stood beside her bidding me goodbye. I had just crossed the cigarette shop when I heard a collective cheer. I knew that electricity was back on, a split second before the streetlights lit up.
Artist’s note: As a kid, back when my father was employed at the Guwahati Hight Court, he took me to attend a court hearing. There were three accused, all of whom were unassuming, regular, working people. One of them I remember was an electrician, another a carpenter, and the third one, I do not remember; all of them were Muslims, all of them were found to be terrorists. As I grew up, I had a friend at the gym where I used to work out, who would narrate stories of how he was scared every time there’s a bomb blast in Guwahati, because someone or the other would be picked up from his neighbourhood. Recently, I interacted with a journalist who narrated the story of a Bengali Muslim person who was declared an illegal immigrant under NRC and spent three years in detention because his handwriting did not look like that of an eighth-standard pass to the Foreigners’ Tribunal. Alam’s story in a sense is the story of the Bengali Muslims in Assam whose existence is enough for their persecution. But I did not intend to write a story of hopelessness. “The Crown Prince of Islampur” is a story of resistance and solidarity.
Debojit Dutta works as an editorial associate with India Development Review. His writings have appeared in Himal Southasian, The Wire, Scroll.in, Aainanagar, and The Bombay Literary Magazine.
Image – Raktim Mondal