Essays    Reportage    Marginalia    Interviews    Poetry    Fiction    Videos    Everything   
Thresholds: A Story of Family Across Indigenous and Settler Histories in Northeast India

A headline buried deep inside the paper catches my eye. “They’re extending AFSPA for another six months in Assam,” I announce. She nods, and continues to massage the green beans in her bowl.

I arrive late to a lunch with my father. He waits patiently as I approach the table, waiving away my apologies. 

We sit across the table from each other, in a restaurant in Delhi once famous for its British Raj clientele. It’s well-lit, with ornate wooden furniture, and Romanesque busts gazing down from their shelves. The walls are covered with black-and-white photography of the last days of a receding empire, and the birth of a new one.

The misplaced nostalgia is an appropriate backdrop for our reunion. Across the table, I expect to find a stranger. The last time we were this close in the past decade, we were at a cremation, both looking ahead into the middle distance. We left without saying a word to each other. 

He entertains me with stories about his travels. Guwahati, the Hornbill Festival, a wedding in Nagaland, the guest list of which he describes, unprompted, in great detail. A brief amnesty was declared among rivals so people could attend. Tracing the different camps and alliances, he abruptly stops and says, “you don’t actually know anything about the Northeast I’m more connected to that place than you are.

*

After a silence of close to fifteen years, my father begins reaching out to arrange for us to meet over coffees and lunches. Our tepid interactions would eventually find their ease, and his support and assistance would be offered as amends for the past. My mother, however, stays out of these meet-cutes, limiting her post-separation interactions with him to the absolutely necessary—weddings, deaths, illnesses. 

She asks about our meetings when I get home though. A morbid curiosity. On the phone, I regale her with the usual. What the food was like. What fresh outrageous declaration he made. I keep the worst (or best) for the end. 

“Did you know that he tells people he is Assamese?”

She pauses. “Really?”

“Yes. He said he feels like he is from Assam.”

“I hope he gets deported.”

I laugh, caught off guard by her response. “They can’t deport him. He’s from West Bengal.”

“They’re all from there. They were Bangals who moved to Assam before Partition.”

*

My father was born to a woman who was known to her family as “Kalo” or black, for the shade of her skin. Sometime in the 1950s, she briefly moves back to her parents’ home, in a town on the Guwahati-Shillong road, to give birth to her first born. We visit this home on our annual visits to Assam, a brief detour on our obligatory pilgrimage to the main sites of my mother’s life. Guwahati, Shillong, and the smaller towns of Upper Assam. Looking back, I realize this was an identity building exercise; a program drawn up to remind us where we were from. At the time, we were just grateful to be away from the debilitating heat of a Delhi summer, safely ensconced in the hills with our ever extending family. 

For what was often a whirlwind tour of relatives’ homes, the visit to my grandmother’s home stood out in its awkwardness. My mother, still straining to be a good wife to her husband’s family, would drill into us the importance of making this stop. A pall always settled over the car as we approached, and anyone who complained or tried to engineer a change in plans—including my father—would be sternly put in their place. 

It was to this home my mother’s older brother first came to formally arrange my parents’ marriage. As he walked up the concrete steps, legend has it, the children excitedly called out to their elders in Bengali that “the padre had arrived”—mistaking his light skin and bearded face for a priest’s. It was here that my mother first faced the damp dark walls of the toilet, a hole dug deep into the ground, and realized she was a long way from the scrubbed tiles of her parents’ home. Here that my mother’s trunk of belongings was sent after their wedding; its contents were unceremoniously unpacked by my grandmother and given away to the younger women in their home, with the explanation that she could no longer wear clothes like those as a married woman in their family. 

*

My father marries my mother as one of his acts of rebellion against his family. They meet at the Jawaharlal Nehru University—named after India’s first Prime Minister in the nation-building euphoria that followed Independence. Many decades later, the three syllables of its acronym—JNU—would meld into a sound that would send right-wing TV news anchors into fits of rage and hysteria, and become a much maligned byword for the enemy, the seditious and the separatist. 

In the seventies, however, the institution is still in its postcolonial afterglow. The first generations of students feel destined, fated, to fulfil its promise; and embark on a trajectory of student politics, debate, protest, arrest, detention and—eventually—coveted jobs in academia and the Indian bureaucracy. My father wanders the university’s hilly terrain in chappals made from old tires, frequently stoned. His friends remember him for his humor and profanity, which he often scrawled in unrepeatable verse across their bedroom walls. He made a reputation for himself baiting left-wing groups with his views, and would complain well into his fifties, with pride, about how much they disliked him. 

My mother, a well-dressed and softly spoken young woman, spends her time writing earnest essays about how the Indian state betrays the Assamese nation. Like many women from the Northeast, she has a long line of admirers, and rejects one wealthy and eligible suitor after another, much to her family’s despair. She goes to her first protest in Delhi, outside the Home Ministry, in support of the All Assam Students’ Union.

They were, by many accounts, an unlikely pairing. Even in JNU, land of the unpredictable, where the usually stolid lines of caste, class, and religion crisscrossed haphazardly in friendships, feuds, and romance between working class students, grandsons of famed freedom fighters, descendents of Muslim nobility, sons of indentured workers, Communist Rajput princesses, Dalit scholars, and Delhi Muslims who could trace their lineage in the city back longer than every new arrival combined—the whole caste of characters familiar to India’s intricate social landscape—they raised a few eyebrows. 

My grandfather, deprived of his birthright to a Bengali Brahmin bride, welcomes my mother into the family by refusing to speak to her and his son. She enters their domain as a kind of curiosity—a higher class, lower caste woman. Highly educated, but from a community they considered primitive. They were drawn to her light skin, but alienated by its tone, which, as an aunt memorably pointed out using the Bengali phrase pahari phorsha—“isn’t really light, it’s “mountain-light””. 

*

My parents marry in 1982, in the midst of the Assam Movement. Led by several organizations, including the All Assam Students’ Union, the movement aims to force the Indian state to stem the flow of Bengalis into Assam and the Northeast. It leads to several years of bloodshed, with communities on both sides of the divide targeting each other, as well as violence by the army and police, who act with impunity on the frontiers. The United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) is a few years away from beginning its recruitment for an armed campaign against the Indian state, seeking secession and an independent country; it is later designated a terrorist organization by the government. 

The rising tide of anger in the Northeast begins decades prior, in the early 20th century, when British colonial administrators start settling Bengali communities on indigenous land. The anger is violently suppressed in the forties and fifties, when the Indian government wages war against various indigenous organizations who demand autonomy and secession from the Indian state. The state crafts the infamous AFSPA—the Armed Forces Special Powers Act—to contain the situation in the Northeast, and later exports it to Kashmir. While the Indian army occupies every state in the region under the Act, the Bengali community, reeling from the implosion of their secular politics, buckles under the pressures of colonization, Partition, and war, and disperses, over several decades, to these vast tracts of land in the hilly terrain to the east of Bengal. 

The terra nullius status of indigenous land in the colonial imagination repeats itself in this migration of people, many of whom were employed by the British, and then Indian, governments to administer the Northeast. Bengali is imposed, through these administrations, as the official language in parts of the region. Some areas experience overwhelming violence and demographic change, with Tripura going from an indigenous kingdom to a state with a majority Bengali population over a few decades. Reports of state-supported violence by Bengali settlers against indigenous communities ripple through the Northeast, causing alarm and panic over an unfolding existential crisis. 

For the people in the Northeast, the Bengali community becomes inextricably tied to their experience of colonization under the British, and then occupation under Indian rule. The motives of the community are regarded with suspicion, and they are subject to random flashes of violence across the region. Shortly after my parents marry, my father travels to Upper Assam to visit his wife’s home for the first time. If the adults in her family felt the weight of any of this history when she married, they kept it to themselves. My mother’s nine-year-old nephew, however, springs into action when he hears of their impending arrival. He busies himself collecting flowers from the family garden, and stations himself at the front courtyard, where the newlyweds are to be welcomed. He arranges the flowers in elaborate script on the ground. My father enters to the words Joi Aai Axom in full bloom at his feet. 

*

My mother attempts to find a place in her new family. She takes her husband’s last name, speaks fluent Bengali, and learns to raise her voice—unthinkable to those who knew her before she married. She sells her jewelry and uses what’s left to her by her family to pay for my father’s siblings’ weddings and university degrees. She learns the cuisine and seeks her mother-in-law’s approval—withheld by my grandmother until the very end of her life, when she would spend her days enveloped in a cloud of sadness and confusion, her memory of us fading in and out of her consciousness. 

Bengali is the first language I learn, in the long afternoons when my grandmother babysits me, while we await my mother’s return from her day at work. I lay sprawled out on the cool tiles of her floor, the sun streaming in through the back door into her room, and she holds court for hours with free-wheeling improvised stories about the sun, the moon, and the villain that tries to come between them. I absorb her turns of phrases and her vocabulary, becoming fluent and using the language to express myself, to negotiate deals regarding meals and playtime, and for our screaming matches when these negotiations go off the rails. If there is a border between her and myself, my grandmother never lets it be known. 

My mother speaks to us in Bengali at home, defaulting to Assamese only when we’re with relatives and nannies. She largely manages to keep the rumbling undercurrent of disapproval at bay, except for a few instances, when they would abruptly bubble up to the surface, with nowhere left to go.

“Why are the Assamese like this,” my grandmother once inquires of her daughter-in-law, “always ready to kill people?” 

*

My mother’s brother passes away in Delhi, and his body is flown back to the small town in Upper Assam where they were raised. He had been a professor at the local government college, much loved by his students, before leaving for better healthcare in mainland India. He is an institution to himself in this town, his name remembered by most of its inhabitants with pride. He is one of the only Hindus to have his death announced by the mosque, a mark of honor for our family. 

My mother makes the journey there with my sister, who describes the funeral to me over the phone. After the cremation, my uncle’s ashes are taken to a village where everyone shares his last name and is tied to us through an elaborate and extended family tree. There, by the lake where we would fish during our summer visits, is a bamboo forest where the ashes of every person in that family is welcome to rest. My uncle’s ashes are taken into these woods by his family. My sister remembers their path, darkening as they get deeper into the forest, the cries of invisible animals filling the air. 

A year later, in my mid-twenties, I return to Upper Assam with my mother. My uncle’s son has built a lecture hall in his father’s name at the college, and we arrive for the opening. Dozens of members of our extended family from the village attend, some of whom we haven’t seen in years, some of whom I’ve never met. We crowd around each other, exchanging names, ages, and occupations. My mother is greeted happily by many, their memories of growing up with her as a child still filled with warmth. A middle-aged man with a henna-dyed beard comes towards her, smiling. It takes a moment for her to recognize him. She puts her hand up to his face, her palm resting on one cheek, and her thumb on the other. She draws her fingers and thumb together, resting their tips on his chin. “When did you grow your beard so long?” 

He grins. He asks after her health, and quizzes her about me. He walks us to the car. We bundle into the backseat, and he shuts the door after us. He holds his hand up, framed by the car window, and waves from behind the glass. He stands there as my cousin starts the car and steers us onto the tarmac, becoming smaller as we chug down the road.

Once he is no longer visible, my mother turns away from the window and looks ahead. “I haven’t seen him in many years,” she says. “He had run away to the jungles with ULFA. I hope he decides to stay this time.”

*
In 2009, my cousin gets married in Shillong. It prompts, as these events do, the return of family members from mainland India and abroad. Braving the cold of a Shillong winter, we congregate on this hilltop town, where my mother’s mother was born and raised. My mother returned here, from Delhi, to give birth to her first born in her brother’s home. We gather at this home for the wedding, where not much has changed since our visits in the summer as children. The electricity wobbles frequently—the light bulbs suddenly dim themselves and then gradually turn back up to full beam, before dimming again. The wooden floors are just as creaky under our feet, and the tin roof just as noisy in the rain. 

The woods in the back are mercifully untouched. We spent hours here in the summer, chasing each other up and down the hill through the trees. Sitting on rocks and munching on snacks we had pilfered from the kitchen. Tracing the path of the stream that ran along its outer edge, beyond which we were not allowed to venture. 

Each of us is assigned a task for the wedding. Mine is to mind the bonfire by the woods with my cousins, and one of their husbands. He is several decades older than most of us—theirs was another unlikely pairing. While we cut the large bamboo poles down to size, and then slice them down the middle to create makeshift benches for guests to sit around the fire, he spends his time supervising us, and keeping us motivated with his outlandish stories. 

Sohail Khan, khaakar paan, jalade Hindustan (Sohail Khan, eats paan, burns Hindustan),” he recites in Hindi. “My friends used to sing that for me at school.” He chuckles, beaming at the memory, and drawing laughter from his audience. We drive the last bamboo stake into the ground, mount the benches and sit down for the time-honored Assamese tradition of getting wasted with each other. 

The sky changes color, and darkness sets in. The fire crackles and the mood grows somber. The conversation turns, as it had already several times that day, to the reported surrender of a senior ULFA leader at the border. He denies having surrendered, and is produced in court in handcuffs, where he is welcomed by a rapturous crowd of supporters. One of the last central figures still active in the organization, his capture is lauded by the Indian government as a major success. 

As the conversation peters out, people start heading inside, away from the cold and into bed. The fire starts dying down, and no one moves to replenish it. A few of us remain, facing its embers, drunk enough to not feel the freezing weather. 

“I’m really sad today, Rini,” Sohail says, into the silence. “It’s the end of an era.”

*

After my parents marry, they decide to remain in Delhi. They move to the outskirts of the city, across the river, where the government is in the process of acquiring farmland to build apartments. The area’s dirt roads and isolation have changed rapidly in the decades since, with the construction of six-lane highways and half a dozen metro stops connecting it to the rest of the city. 

My mother’s pride—being able to buy the home they first moved into in the eighties. She treasures this split level apartment, which anchors her to the city, amid disappointments, debts, and divorce. It is the home we grew up in, learning the city around us, finding a place in its heaving tide of humanity. A city which both accepted us, and looked upon us with a kind of curiosity, sometimes bordering on hostility. These encounters ranged from the idiotic (“Do you eat humans in Assam?”), to threats of sexual assault (which women from the Northeast get singled out for), to straightforward exclusion (“Is she chinki?,” a landlord once asked my real estate agent, before refusing my application for the apartment when his suspicions were confirmed). 

Her relationship with my father comes to an abrupt end twenty years into their marriage. Unable to look away from an alarming level of infidelity, she sets out, once again, to swim against the tide and live as a single woman in her fifties. She preserves our bedrooms after we move away, and runs a small business from her apartment. On a cool autumn morning in 2019, I sit with her at the kitchen table, where she is in the process of preparing a catered meal for dozens of people. She wakes at 6 am to begin washing vegetables, and I join her an hour later with sleep still in my eyes. 

I fumble with the newspaper, which, as the morning wears on, is usually dismantled into several parts and strewn across the table. My mother sits across from me, with a large steel bowl full of water and a stack of vegetables. I leaf through the sections, scanning the pages. As is our morning ritual, I read out bits of news for her. 

A headline buried deep inside the paper catches my eye. “They’re extending AFSPA for another six months in Assam,” I announce. She nods, and continues to massage the green beans in her bowl. I go back to the rest of the paper, not unaccustomed to this response. 

I flip a few pages and examine other headlines. She grabs the beans with both hands and pulls them out of the bowl, draining the water. “That must mean they’re going to pass the CAB this year,” she declares. 

The Citizenship Amendment Bill was passed in December 2019 by the far-right Bharatiya Janata Party. It is opposed by critics as an attack on India’s minorities, specifically the Indian Muslim community, and indigenous communities in the Northeast, who oppose the CAB as an attempt to engineer demographic and political change through settler communities in the Northeast.