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Sultry Summer Heat

by Deep Bora

Prologue: 2006

The intense smell and surface atmosphere of heavy diesel-petrol smog hit us with fierce intensity as we cut across one of the last bye-lane shortcuts and entered the main road. We had earlier decided to take the overbridge route and that offered a temporary respite from the smog-covered main roads. We could feel a slight cool breeze as we traversed the few overbridges Guwahati city provided and headed in the direction of the airport.

It was only after we had cleared the University area that the air appeared normal, and thereafter we enjoyed every mile of the travel.

Many miles later we parked our two-wheelers at a friend’s place and a few minutes later, we walked a few dozen feet north in the direction of the highway.

“It’s high time our friend arrived. He must have taken the highway instead of driving through the city,” one amongst us stated.

We did not reply and our silence was duly accepted as a confirmation of sorts, for almost all the four of us were busy wiping the grime and black soot from diesel smoke off our faces and arms.

About five minutes later our friend’s car screeched to a halt few yards from us as we awaited his arrival besides the highway. We noted the Chevrolet was missing and instead, a Hyundai Santro shone neatly in a silvery metallic color.

I complimented him for bringing the smaller car, for only I knew the road leading to the mountains. The others had heard of all that from me!

“In any case, the Korean car shall also see the end of the day by the time we return to Guwahati.” I stated. “It is really good you didn’t bring the Chevrolet, because the undercarriage, the wheel joints and the bearings might get smashed by those unpaved roads.”

By the time I finished talking, the car windows had rolled down electronically at the touch of a button. We could see Govind Deka’s face properly.

We enjoyed gulps of fresh air while making ourselves comfortable in the car and were finally seated inside-all five of us.

The powerful engines purred super silently, and the car did not vibrate at all.

“Deep, now you will have to tell me the road direction,” Govind Deka stated with finality as the car sped on the highway, reaching nearly 100 kms/hour.

“Ya, I’ll tell you in advance. And another factor; don’t wind up the windows or switch on the car a.c. We don’t need that till another 25 kms.”

Twelve kilometers farther on, we crossed Mirza town without a halt and continued ahead till the road turned into a semi-paved and dusty corridor winding for another 30 kms. I advised him to roll up the windows and soon we could breathe fresh conditioned air.

Deka had to water wash the front window constantly to scrape of the dust which accumulated every other minute. The car surged ahead on a road filled with potholes and ditches. The road itself must have been about thirty feet wide. At certain stretches the potholes disappeared and the road appeared good for a few kms.

Within fifteen minutes we had gotten used to the car swerving left and right to avoid the potholes. The suspension was very good, and we didn’t feel the jerks and associated discomfort.

We didn’t talk much for the stereophonic music playing the latest DVD hits seemed enchanting enough. Just once in a while, a bottle of fresh mineral water was passed around with almond biscuits as an accompaniment.

Ultimately, after two hours of monotonous driving which seemed to last for an eternity with endless turns along a lonely road, we reached the dust-free area. I confirmed to my friends that we were approximately three to four kms away from the site. Finally, we reached the base of the mountain area and I directed Deka to take a right turn as we approached the shops and shack restaurants.

We parked the dusty and muddy car on a field large enough for two or three football fields. Immediately thereafter, the Assam Government Forest ranges commenced: tall trees leading to the mountains.

I stretched, as did my other friends, and we felt fresh, though we climbed out of the car lazily and looked keenly in all directions. The skies were very blue and clear, hinting at a mild drizzle perhaps.

“Wow, that’s paradise for sure.” One amongst us exclaimed. The air was so pure and fresh, we could feel the almost cold air enter our lungs.

Far.....Very far away, I spotted a column of smoke rising up in the air, twisting and curling to meet the yet further placed clouds in the heavens. The plains village commenced from about that direction.

“Sir!” An exclamation behind us.

In unison we turned around to spot a young Garo boy of less than ten years of age holding a tray with five cups of hot and steaming tea. I looked further behind him and spotted another chap running in our direction with biscuits and bread.

Gautam Saharia laughed in sheer pleasure as he stood beside me and patted the young chap on the head. Pradeep Saikia was facing me by then and his muscles swelled up under the t-shirt he wore as he accepted the first cup of tea.

They were all here and prepared to take an adventure into the mountains with me.

Fifteen years earlier

The man of indeterminable age with Oriental features sat quietly in one corner of a straw hut restaurant. A filter cigarette hung loosely between his fingers, and he tried not to look directly at me.

There were others: all males, from both Assamese and Garo tribal descent, who sat carelessly inside a shack straw roof restaurant. Some were old, a few older, and one could spot younger men also, all sipping tea with biscuits. I took no notice of them while entering the restaurant.

A few freckles of raindrops hit my shirt and failed to bother me as the straw brushed my body. The short man accompanying me was first to enter and obviously needed no introduction to the people seated inside. A few men waiting outside, though sheltered from the drizzle rain, seemed not to notice anything.

There were two types of men here. One with plains features like myself. The other type was men with inscrutable and Oriental features: the hills and mountain tribesmen. However, I had lived with them long enough to understand their inscrutability, and they knew that very well. To them I was inscrutable, and I knew that. They knew I could decipher every move they made and see through their lies and truths.

Outside, the entire place appeared usual and very busy, for it was bazaar day today at the plains land area. The overhead clouds cleared occasionally and a clearing just beside the main road could have contained a few football fields. At the very edge of the field, one could see the official forested area commencing. That was ‘protected area’ scheduled by the state government. Log cutting wasn’t allowed out there, within Assam state.

They all were not looking at me. They were not looking at me for they knew me as the ‘young city businessman.” All except a very few amongst them.

“Please sir, be seated.” The man of indeterminable age requested as I approached his bench-table. I pulled up a chair which was meant for me.

I had not bothered to look around outside and even inside the restaurant whilst approaching him. His bearing and poise were direct proof of his identity and I was meeting him for the first time.

I saw him trying to appraise me, attempting to judge me keenly and I knew he was failing with every attempt.

“Here, let me light your cigarette.” I offered.

The man accompanying me sat respectfully one chair away, ready to be of service.

Within few moments, like a rehearsed programme, hot, steaming tea and cakes arrived on the table-bench and I offered the same to both of them. I knew the restaurant owner took his own initiative for the snacks order because I was his costliest customer.

Anthony Momin grinned from ear to ear while munching a couple of biscuits with mouthfuls of hot tea. He was sitting beside me and had accompanied me to the bench table earlier. I knew he had eaten nothing since early morning that day, awaiting my arrival from Guwahati city. He was standing at the beginning of the clearing as I braked to a full stop, turning sharply right once. He ran to my vehicle as another deputy foreman began to clean the 4-wheel drive jeep of the grime and slush mud that had stuck to its wheels and undercarriage.

Most of the people present there and who mattered, knew this was a great day for a formal meeting was scheduled between their biggest Gaon-Bura (Village-senior most Elder) and me.

I also knew that. But I did not care for their hidden emotions, because they were not expressing their hidden emotions, and I was no prophet to sense or know their hidden emotions. So that was simple and plain. A business meeting.

Internally of course, I knew the majority amongst the Garo people in that area — mostly male folk — would get direct employment working for me in felling jungle logs and cutting bamboo. I knew the terms were mine. I had sent word of my business operations to the Gaon-Bura more than a week earlier via Anthony.

For the sake of my convenience, he expressed a genuine desire to meet me and greet me at the plains rather than let me hike up three thousand feet into the mountains, to his village.

After a round of polite enquiries and a cup of hot tea, we started a formal round of business talks.

“Per truckload of logs, you sir, can you pay us a royalty of Rupees something? Perhaps we can reduce the bamboo truckload to Rs. 10/-” That was the only statement he made as a request and seemed rather uncomfortable while doing so.

Within half an hour our deal was complete and finalized.

I was present in many other jungle sites many hundreds of miles elsewhere with my colleagues and friends. I had witnessed the endless hours and days of shrewd bargaining and hassle-free advances which the now-clever Garo village headmen were capable of garnering for themselves.

“O.K. You’ll provide me with 100% tribal Garo work force and I shall employ no one else except Assamese men, of course. They have worked with me in Burnihat and Nongpoh and other jungle sites. They’re my old staff and you needn’t worry. They are family men and won’t bother to ‘tease’ your tribal women!” I watched him smile wryly as the tenseness eased from his face. The smile conveyed cunning reality and an elderly concern

I knew that was part of his main problem.

“This is the price for each truck load of logs and the following for bamboo.” I finally cut the deal to their anticipation, keeping my overheads and costs. We talked for the greater part of a hour as the sky became duller and we kept on drinking hot tea in sips through the thunderstorm.

“My men, they don’t stick long with other businessmen, sir. In that case, you bring your own labour?”

I knew very well that the mountain folk had been very trustworthy once upon a time, maybe about a century ago. However, urban people took advantage of them as time progressed, and conversely the Garo learnt the tricks of modern life. Now these people were known to be cunning, shrewd and aware of all the methods of cheating available to mankind.

Sometimes one wondered if they were a shade cleverer than the plains people and the cheats and swindlers.

“O.K. If the mountain guys do not stick with me, I shall bring in my own work party. It’s a deal.” I finally ended our hassle-free bargain.

Somehow or the other they perhaps understood the city gentleman’s business methods for they never left my payroll nor my company till I departed finally, after five long years of jungle business in that area.

By about two o’clock in the afternoon, the clouds gathered in force and the weather seemed threatening to rain very heavily. We ended the tea session and I ordered the restaurant owner for lunch — a plain affair comprising rice, lentils, potato-vegetable fry, one piece of chicken each; and one large chili for each plate.

Lunch was devoured by all five of us heartily: two assistants of the Gaon Bura, Anthony, me and the Gaon Bura — and the restaurant seemed nearly empty as the clouds thundered high above. We all kept quiet, for it was common knowledge that flash floods were about to happen — that a very heavy downpour had already commenced high in the mountains.

Lunch over, I offered a filter cigarette to the Village elder, the Gaon Bura. He accepted it whilst retracting his 19th-century petrol-kerosene lighter, an artifact which is no longer in use today in the towns and cities.

I hoped the filter would mask the smell of kerosene from the filter as I lit the cigarette. Much later, maybe half an hour later, he offered his pack of cigarettes to me. This time I produced my gas lighter and lit the cigarettes. He puffed the smoke and nodded knowingly whilst looking squarely at me.

I had immediately understood his appreciating and wise nod.

Therefore, after a few puffs of good Indian tobacco, I offered the lighter to him and said. “Please keep this as a gift. When the gas is finished I will give you a refill gas canister and demonstrate to you how to refill the lighter.”

He keenly accepted the new gift and a few minutes later, said. “My Father’s cousin’s cousin was in World War 2.”

I got the hint and asked him if he were in Burma. Or undivided Afghanistan of the 1940's. “No,” he stated, “I don’t really know where he was posted but I got this kerosene lighter from my father, who in turn, took it from his cousin’s cousin.”

I noticed evening gradually dawning by 5 pm, hastened by the incessant rains and cloudy weather. I offered a cup of tea each to all the men present inside the thatched-hut-restaurant. There was an audible murmur all around as they accepted the steaming tea heartily.

I had noted that the bazaar had not really been a beneficial one for both the buyers and sellers, that day.

It took me a while to reach the field opposite the restaurant amidst a slight drizzle by about 6 o’ clock and the Gaon Bura was beside me along with few of his village deputies, mainly the guys who took care of all his daily requirements.

“Most of the people did not come down from the mountain villages today for bazaar. The route is very slippery and we cannot climb up anyway for the return journey!” The Gaon Bura declared whilst seated in the front seat of my jeep.

I intervened. “I can take you to the nearest plains village where you may have friends or relatives living. After all, there’s no point sleeping inside the jeep or even the restaurant for the night.”

Therefore, eventually we decided to proceed back about six or seven kms. And further east for about another four kms.

In the dead of the night at about 7:30, skidding almost all the way and trying to avoid all the khuds, we finally managed to reach his cousin’s village and were eagerly welcomed. I noted the rains had increased in tempo, now accompanied by fierce winds.

His cousin’s house was large, located upon a big plot of land which boasted of a small pond in the front, adjacent to the front yard.

About half an hour later, I could hear a muffled rooster shriek whilst I sipped broth made from vegetables, in the main living room. The hot water and a pair of sandals were a welcome luxury and they made sure I was given the most comfortable bed in the large bedroom. The children were asleep and few grown ups made polite talk in the light of a kerosene lamp.

Much earlier, we were told of the electric transmission posts and lines which were semi-complete at that time and which promised a human luxury: electricity.

Sleeping under a very large straw hut under blankets and quilts in August, in a village far, far away from Guwahati city was something I had never contemplated. Ever.

The air was sweet and very fresh, Even smoke did not exist there!

We stayed in that village house for nearly one week, waiting for the storm to end. Whenever there was a lull in the skies, we knew we needed two full days of sunshine and dry weather for the Gaon Bura and his entourage to reach his village high up in those mountains.

I had decided not to drive to the forest bungalow or the tourist resort — which was almost always empty — and which were not more than a dozen kms away.

I spent the days in leisure pastime and enjoyed the scenic view outside when the rains stopped for an hour or two. Durings the late evenings and early nights we sometimes played cards and ludo.

I told them I had discarded ludo by the time I reached class 5, and they laughed delightedly.

We listened to a radio which had no FM channel. We watched a simple black and white TV which was fitted with a booster and very rarely, could catch the local state channel.

I asked them about cable TV. They gave me innocent looks, and I explained it to them.

The last day I spent there was very sunny and the atmosphere looked like nature had super-cleansed the skies.

I wondered when the metropolitan cities of India would look like that once again although I knew that answer one decade earlier, before pollution had really hit our cities.

“When the petroleum stock of Earth dries up and battery cars and electric buses dominate our roads.”

However, that is a sure eventuality and all the metropolis cities of our world will follow suit.

Copyright © 2006 by Deep Bora

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