Meeting in Deodhai Village

Benudhar Sharma

Photograph by Kevin Kunstadt

One evening we sent an appeal for circulation in the Deodhai village of Godhuli Bazar mauza that a meeting would be held that evening; everyone from the village – old and respectable, young and unmarried – should assemble in the namghar. Along with fifty or so volunteers we reached Deodhai village in the evening. There was no sign of a meeting to be held in the village. There was a Kalita family nearby; the house was called Xakkhowar ghar – the house of the green leaf-eater. Four of us went to their house to sit and rest awhile. There we met a man from Deodhai village, seated in the veranda. Because they followed Deodhai traditions in those days, the Brahmins and Kalitas did not usually eat with them or keep their close company. That is why the man from the village was made to sit at a slight distance from us on a floor mat. When we asked if he had heard about the meeting, he muttered, "I guess there will be a meeting! It is not time for people to gather yet. Even if they come, they will come only after they have had their meals."

It was from him that we gathered that the meeting had been called for after all. Having eaten and drunk at Xakkhowa's house, slowly we made our way towards the namghar. When we reached there, we saw no sign of human presence; only a lot of hay lain out inside the building. We sat down on it. We got tired of sitting. The cold was making our bodies go numb. It was almost midnight. Just then a few ruddy old men – like ripe thekera – walked in. Then, one by one, a group of young boys also showed up. After the old men wrapped themselves up in their shawls and sat down stiffly, a couple of the boys lit a fire between us and the old men. We waited for a while as we warmed our hands and feet by the fires; our bodies soaked up the heat. Suddenly an old man shot a question at us:

"So then, why are you people here? Tell us, let's hear."

Soft-spoken Indreshwar Sutia answered him:

"You should all spin cotton threads. We have come to tell you that."

As soon as he heard that, the old man lifted his behind and spoke in a surprised tone:

"Forget it. That won't get me an apessori. Will you people get me one? Do you have anything else to say?"

Sutia: "None of you should touch opium. We beg you with folded hands."

Old man: "What will happen if we have opium?"

Sutia: "You become lazy. Many diseases make their home in your body. You cannot save money. The way a non-opium eater's son can jump into a pond even in this cold month of aghon, an opium eater's son cannot. He will shrivel up in the cold. A non-opium eater's son is good-looking. The other one is bony. You have to earn what you want to enjoy. But what will a lazy opium eater earn? That is why opium eaters are so poor."

Old man: "OK, OK. Keep your knowledge to yourself! Who told you opium eaters are poor? I have opium worth four rupees every month. Come, let's go to my house. See what I don't have at home. I have a pair of elephants. Four sons. My sons pick up their ploughs and go to the field at the break of dawn when the phesu bird starts calling. I also have two granaries – one for the grains, the other for unthreshed paddy. Who says opium eaters are poor, ho?"

Sutia (with regret): "Of course, there's no point talking about rasgollas in front of people who eat only bhimkal."

Old man: "Herou, don't talk so tall! I have an orchard full of bhimkal; I have not put one in my mouth yet. And what rasgollas are you talking about? Let's all leave now, come!"

Although the old man was an opium eater, he was an outstanding example of a characteristically healthy and handsome Axamiyā physique. His language was unembellished; he said what he thought; to earn and to eat – it was as though that was all he knew how. It is a natural trait of Axamiyā people to be intolerant of big talk. That is why, even though Sutia had said the right things, since they did not ring true for him, the old man's anger had grown by leaps and bounds.

Seeing his actions and attitude, we began to talk among ourselves: "We had to come across this uncouth man!" In great disappointment we were about to break up the meeting and leave. Just then, a man named Somessar Deodhai Phukan came up to us and whispered: "That man is like this only. He taught the Ahom language to Gordon sahib. Even Phanidhar Chaliha had great respect for him. He also taught the Ahom language to Deputy Golap. Since he has had such close acquaintance with so many great men, he talks so big. You people need not leave. At least tell us a little bit about Gandhi." We later came to know that the name of that hot-headed man was Manessar Phukan.

On Phukan's request, we spoke a little about Congress and non-cooperation. After that, we offered cotton to a few young men (we were each carrying a bundle with about a powa or half a seer of cotton in it). They would not even hear of it. After much coaxing and cajoling, at last a young man named Sandaram bought a small bundle containing half a seer of cotton for two ana. Half a seer of cotton got us four volunteers. We coached them and sent them to go picketing at an opium shop in Amguri. We gave the responsibility of picketing to Sandaram. He became our first foothold in Deodhai village.

At our orders, they went picketing to the opium shop. On the fifth day, Simpkins sahib, the superintendent of the Amguri tea company, came to see the picketing and asked: "Well, who sent you to picket?"

Sandaram: "Huzur, nobody sent us. We came on our own."

Sahib: "What will come from picketing?"

Sandaram: "We will get swaraj."

Sahib: "What is swaraj?"

Sandaram could not say. He scratched and scratched his head and said in a sacred tone: "Huzur, I will tell you tomorrow. I will leave now." Saying so, he quickly left the opium shop and dashed breathlessly across a distance of seven miles to me. Repeating the above conversation verbatim, he asked me: "So, what should I tell sahib now? He has said he will put me in jail if I cannot tell him."

Seeing his predicament, I said: "Tell him this: swaraj is nothing but picketing in front of the opium shop."

A few days later, I heard that Sandaram had never gone anywhere near the shop again. Fearing he might somehow get arrested, he even left his village xattra. But as Dinaram Phukan, Somessar Phukan and Dhaniram Phukan of Jaradhara village took on the responsibility of picketing, the Congress started functioning in that area quite smoothly thereafter.

translated from the Assamese by Uddipana Goswami

Used by permission of the author's family.