Assam must be beautiful. Tea plantations spread over the slopes, rice patties flank the river valley, and rhinocerous lumber in the national parks. But I haven’t seen any of this. Trying to get my research done means I am spending my time in bland cities and travelling by night. The Assam I imagine is out there, but I can’t see it in the dark or in the streets of the capital. The closest I get are the rhino posters in the hotel and the beautiful Assamese tea I drink all day long from the road-side stalls.
The reason I am in Assam is to visit Bhogdanga, a village on the Bangladeshi frontier that is completely surrounded by the border fence. But I haven’t seen Bhoghdanga either. The border area is sensitive, I am told. A hotbed for militant elements. “Heaven for terrorists.” Certainly, too dangerous for a foreigner. I was forbidden to go anywhere near Bhogdanga, so instead I spent the other day in Dhubri, the closest city of any size. All day I was tailed by security forces, intelligence officials, and cloned policemen in identical tan uniforms, identical red berets and identical moustaches. They were there for my security, or so they said.
It became clear right away, though, that these men were not only interested in my protection. They were suspicious of me and my intentions here. When I telephoned a contact in the capital, one officer listened to the conversation over my shoulder. When I used an Internet café, two policemen went in after I left to question the proprietor. Four officers stood outside the shop where I got a shave and a haircut, and six men, one aromatically drunk, were at the bus station in the evening to make sure I really left town. It was a frustrating day.
It was hard to appreciate Dhubri while under surveillance and hearing the constant putt-putt-putting of police motorcycles following me all day. But now, two days later and in the capital, I see what a beautiful place Dhubri was. The town sits on the edge of the Brahmaputra River. Having nothing else to do, I watched the morning labourers arrive in Dhubri from villages across the river in great wooden boats. Hindu women in bright salwars and bracelets clinking on their wrists. Long-bearded Muslim men and their black-clad wives coming to barter for lambs. Sikhs here to pray at the gurudwara.
Muscular, barefoot men heaved sacks of onions and neatly bundled bamboo from overloaded carts onto boats for the return trip across the river. Bicycle rickshaw-wallahs argued for custom on the streets. Goats nibbled on whatever trash they could find, and cows – safe from the butcher’s block here amid the Hindus – lazed in the sunshine and dust.
At night, once the days commerce was over and the riverfront quiet, birds and bats rioted in the treetops. And a full moon followed the purple-smear of dusk to scatter shards of light over the Brahmaputra.