The best news for any eight-year-old boy could be to be told that he does not have to go to school. Such news would undoubtedly be even more exciting if that boy’s English teacher was very strict, and never hesitated to use the stick. Indeed, the excitement at the possibility of never having to set foot in a school again is difficult to comprehend, yet that was exactly what happened to me one morning in 1979. No matter how hard I try, I cannot remember whether it was summer or winter, but I do vividly remember hearing the news on the radio. The All Assam Students Union (AASU), which at the time was spearheading the anti-‘foreigners’ Assam movement, had declared the indefinite closure of schools and colleges, and ‘asked’ all students to boycott classes, effective immediately.
The six-year-long agitation, from 1979 to 1985, was sparked during the parliamentary by-election in the Lok Sabha constituency of Mangaldoi in 1978, following the death of the local MP at the time, Hiralal Patwari. According to the rumours making the rounds, the electorate had grown massively in recent years, and the AASU was demanding that the elections be postponed until the names of alleged foreign nationals were deleted from the electoral rolls. Thus, the Assam Agitation was born – and school was out.
Until that day in 1979, agitation in Assam had meant the shouting of slogans, occasional class boycotts and a few processions to the office of the sub-divisional officer (SDO). But this was a windfall – no class ever again! I felt like feeding my textbooks to Baba, the family goat, but could not gather the courage to do so. What followed was a year of mixed fun and tedium. The routine consisted of daily marches to the SDO’s office, picketing, spending some time there after being arrested, and then coming back at the end of the day. As this was a never-ending process, no one went to the protests every day, except perhaps hardcore activists looking for future political returns, or perhaps those who were simply born romantic about such things. As kids, we had little need for these types of gatherings – many of us were too young even, for instance, to develop a crush on some girl and attend the daily rallies for her sake. So, mostly we focused on how to deal with the endless boredom that had settled upon us.
What helped was cricket – there was cricket everywhere. Asif Iqbal’s Pakistan was playing India, and we were glued to the radio. Soon thereafter, the Australian team arrived in India. While we promptly forgot what had been in our textbooks, we knew the names of every cricketer on the Indian team. But that was not enough. Pushing ourselves further, my brother and I decided to write down the name of every Test player on every team. My brother was especially good at this, digging up names of unknown players from obscure magazines. Within six months, we seemed to know everything there was to know about cricket records: which Pakistani player was a Christian, how many of the West Indies players were of Indian origin. During this time, I also started to take up cricket – though my mother rarely let us play with the neighbourhood kids, as she was overprotective to the point of extreme paranoia.
The only exception to my mother’s anxiety was Rantu, a boy some eight years older than me, whose family was close to my own. Rantu played every sport that could be played in our hometown. Inspired by an article about the practice regimen of the West Indies cricketers, he worked out with the small cork centre found inside the usual cricket ball, and a two-inch-wide piece of bamboo as his bat. As asking his peers to play with this equipment was sure to draw ridicule, he chose me, the timid kid. In retrospect, this helped me tremendously. As something of a weakling, my only job was to strike quickly and inflict damage on the batting team if the fast bowlers failed to strike. Also, I was a left-arm slow-spin bowler, and many batsmen are largely helpless against spin bowling, especially when it is very slow. Beyond that, though, the team could have fielded a scarecrow in my place and done as well.
Cricket also introduced me to scores of colourful, eccentric characters. I become familiar with them only when I started playing club cricket, but Rantu had told me of them years before. He would, for example, tell me how ‘GA’, a batsman who also fielded at the slip and belonged to a relatively rich family, went to Calcutta to buy an SS bat, rumoured to be the same brand that Sunil Gavaskar used. Rumour had it that his SS bat cost him INR 500, a princely sum in 1980. Looking back, that bat did not seem to do GA much good after all: batting for 25 overs in a 30-over match and making 17 runs is not something to boast about. But GA kept getting selected for the district cricket team, and Rantu explained to me that it was his SS bat, and his desire to play with it, that prompted his inclusion.
Then there was Baatul, a constantly used nickname meaning ‘Insane’. Baatul was the only person who could beat GA in low scoring. Oddly, he was known even more regularly for something else: even on the rare occasions when Baatul scored more than GA, there was not a single time when the seam of his old cricketing pants did not tear open at some point, showing his red underwear. Maybe it was his lucky charm. The town knew Baatul well; if he disappeared after batting, most knew he had probably rushed to PK’s, near the Kali temple, where he would be enjoying free ganja or a brief post-lunch siesta. Looking back, I believe that the consistently pathetic performance of the district team was most likely due to the opening pair of Baatul and GA.
Into the yellowed pages
Cricket aside, it was during our yearlong school break that Rantu also introduced me to William Shakespeare. I recognised the name, of course, but Rantu was the first to tell me the story of The Tempest. Then came magazines and books – having plenty of time and nothing to do, we raided our father’s collection. And that is where I came across a 1975 issue of Pratidhwani, an Assamese magazine, edited by Bhupen Hazarika – the guy with the butterfly moustache and cap, whose face national broadcasters tended to show in overtly patriotic videos to imply that Northeast India is not forgotten.
It was that issue of Pratidhwani, turned yellowish-brown by the ravages of time, that introduced me to the Don. Someone had written a lengthy article on Francis Ford Coppola’s film The Godfather, with detailed descriptions of each sequence, augmented by many stills from the movie. There I learned about Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Luca Brasi, Kay Adams, Massimo Fanucci and many others – though with the exception of Brando, I had no idea which name in that list was an actor and which was a character. It was not until 1992 that I would learn that Pacino was the actor who played the central character, Michael Corleone; and it would take several more years to finally watch Brando in action. Pratidhwani also introduced me to names such as Satyajit Ray, Sharmila Tagore, Katy Mirza and, above all, Ritwik Ghatak, the renowned Bengali filmmaker. The magazine did not talk about Ghatak’s movies, but rather published an Assamese translation of a murder-mystery story by the iconic director. Unbeknownst to me, Ghatak was still alive when the article was published, though he was dead by the time I read about him.
Next came Prasangik, a literary magazine, edited and published by Satyaranjan Kalita, better known in Assam for his detective novels and the shadowy character of ‘S K G’. Prasangik introduced me to Urdu couplets, novels and stories, informative pieces on cinema and many Assamese literary figures – writers whose works, over the following decade, I read voraciously. Prasangik’s section on beauty was, purportedly, handled by the actress Sumita Sanyal, a fact that I remember because my mother read the column and made me search for the shampoos that ‘Sanyal’ mentioned. (Being the youngest child in a family without a girl had some disadvantages.) It was also in Prasangik that I came across the name of the Chilean writer Pablo Neruda for the first time, when the poet Nirmalprabha Bardoloi, replying to a question on who was her own favourite poet, wrote ‘Pablo Neruda and Paglaa Hiruda’, the latter a reference to the ‘insane brother Hiru’, an affectionate reference to the noted Assamese poet Hiren Bhattacharyya.
Indeed, those school-less days were also filled with films – 40 or 50 that year at the town’s two cinemas, despite the fact that we hardly understood any Hindi. It was easy to leave home after lunch, watch a movie, and be back before darkness descended. To be honest, few restrictions were imposed on us at home, and there were no curfew hours. But as the friends we went with had such restrictions, we tended to go to matinee shows. In this, we needed to rely on stronger friends to buy tickets – no mean task, as in that pre-TV era the area around the box office was always infested by fearsome touts or scalpers (called ‘blackers’ in the local parlance), ominously named Hitler, Zulfikar, Kalu and suchlike. Years later, ‘Hitler’ explained to us why he had engaged in scalping: the government had failed to offer him an honest job, and he, as a man of principle, had declined to pay a bribe to gain employment. It was only after repeated badgering that he would divulge that he had not even finished high school. But Hitler was not out of the ordinary. In Assam in those days, it was customary to believe that it was the government’s duty to offer a job to anyone who had studied up to, say, the ninth standard.
Re-crossing the Brahmaputra
All in all, 1979-80 was a year to remember. I never again had so much fun without having to worry about responsibilities – studies or otherwise. For us, even with all that was going on outside of our neighbourhood, it was a year that seemed to usher in an end of agony: never again would we have to go to class, face a nasty teacher, worry about homework or examinations. Caesar had crossed the Rubicon, and there was no going back. But the All Assam Students’ Union did not have what Caesar had: while Caesar had horses, Assam was never famous for them. Elephants, yes; rhinos, yes; but horses, no. With horses comes horse sense – common sense. Caesar’s horse not only gave him speed, but also the insights that only a horse can impart to a human being – and thus knew when to cross the Rubicon, and why he should do so. Lacking the same advantage, the AASU leadership was unable to foresee that it would not be able to maintain an eternal boycott of classes.
I do not know whether it was only my parents who got tired of watching us kids sit around doing nothing. Could it be that the parents of the AASU leaders were also fed up? We may never know what ultimately prompted the AASU to cross back across the Rubicon – or, in this case, the Brahmaputra. But, eventually, it happened. And so, on another morning, sometime in 1980, came the news that the boycott of classes was over. I could not believe my ears – I was mortified at the thought of stepping back onto the school grounds. Finally, though, we accepted the inevitable with the stoic nonchalance of drafted soldiers.
Since then, a great deal of water has flown under the Brahmaputra bridges, and speculations and discussions rage on about what the movement achieved and where it failed. To be honest, I have no clue. What I can say is that we were heartbroken when the AASU decided that the class boycott would end. Even today, decades later, I have not forgiven the AASU leaders. Then again, every tragedy comes with a silver lining. The government, probably as a bonus for our return to school, decided to promote everyone to the next class. On the other hand, our parents felt that the wasted year had adversely affected our competitive spirit, making us worryingly laidback. Yet further tension loomed.
During those halcyon years, the Assamese were rarely forced to wrestle with issues that plagued other Indian states: dowry issues, strict caste hierarchy, inter-religious conflicts, etc. Yet during and after the communal clashes of 1983, the tone of the agitation changed a bit, at least in the perception of some people, to one of Hindus versus Muslims. The Assam agitation might have had many drawbacks, but it was never a Hindu-Muslim conflict. In fact, quite a few of the prominent leaders of the agitation came from the Assamese Muslim community, and some of them joined the next cabinet when the movement leaders formed the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) in 1985, and won the legislative elections.
As a youngster injected with nationalist ideas, I too believed that we would need to get rid of all those ‘illegal immigrants’, and that Assam would once again become the prosperous dreamland that legends made it out to be. Within a few years of the end of the agitation, however, most of us, by then in our late teens, realised that little was going to change. As they say, Assam is a land of lahe lahe, where everything happens slowly. If I remember correctly, only about 500 cases of suspected illegal immigrants were filed during the first AGP government of 1985-90. Yet the Assam Agitation did bring in significant changes to the state and the mentality of its inhabitants, the effects of which today seem far-reaching. At around the same time that I was coming of age, many Assamese seemed to lose some of their innocence. The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), whose existence and influence become violently overwhelming during between 1986 and 1990, could thus have found increasingly fertile ground for its growth. To a great degree, this would undoubtedly have been prompted by feelings among the Assamese youth of sudden empowerment, followed by frustration. But that is another story.
~ Pankaz Sharma was born and raised in the Brahmaputra Valley of Assam, and has since lived in Delhi, Hyderabad (Deccan), Jerusalem and Los Angeles. He works in science for a living.