A love, a river, a song, a maybe

There is something moving in the background – A river perhaps?

It was in 1998. I was at the Sukreswar ghat at seven o’clock in the morning, facing the gray waters of the Brahmaputra river. As a student of Cotton College, Guwahati, walking along the river was a regular concern for many, and I was no different. A winding line of buses crawled along, even as morning devotees hurriedly made their way to the nearby temple. Flower groves flanked the road along the ghat, as the intoxicating smell of Rajnigandha spread. ‘Baideo loi jaak, phool loi jaak‘ (my sister, here, take flowers), a boy called me.
From where I was standing, I could see the deep waters of the Brahmaputra swirling halfway. Rains had been persistent and water levels were high even in December. From afar, I could see the island of Umananda, right in the middle of the mighty river. On days like this, the island seemed particularly mysterious. As always, looking at it now, I had an itch to visit. Umananda is one of the smallest river islands on which humans live, with the highly endangered golden langur. Mythology has it that the Hindu god Shiva built the island for his wife Parvati as a place where she would go for pleasure. But the old people of the hostel had warned us not to visit the place. “It’s a strangely quiet and dangerous place, don’t venture there,” they said.

There is something moving in the background – A river perhaps?

I looked up at the Bhuvaneshwari temple on top of the distant Nilachal hills. He sat beyond the temple of Kamakhya – a silent observer of the city. I had seen the exact opposite view from there too. From above, the river looked like an innocent blur, moving slowly, like a heavily pregnant woman. There were, however, no spots of water destruction on Umananda; he stood as a stubborn little embodiment of resistance against the threatening waters. A voice shouted to me: ‘baideo jabo neki?’ (sister, do you want to go upstream?). I looked at the young man who had shouted in my direction. Without realizing it, I had descended the steps, near the water. On a whim, I got into his little boat, jol pori, written in red on both sides. “Two hundred rupees hobo’s” (It’ll be two hundred rupees, okay?), he said. I nodded. With a quick push, we were in the waters. I looked back excitedly; it was exhilarating, this sudden departure into unknown waters. The waters of the Brahmaputra are deceptively deep – I had read about it several times. And now, as the boat sped towards Umananda, the low hum of the engine overpowering the water currents, I felt a pang of unease at my sudden, impulsive decision to visit the island.

There is something moving in the background – A river perhaps?

The rocks were darker and sharper than I had assumed. My feet in the cheap canvas shoes ached where the sharp edges came in contact with the thin peels of my student allowance affordability. The man had given me a hand while helping me out of the boat, warning me to be back before the high tide set in. You could hear the winds howling here, the small trees protruding at awkward angles, somehow managing to hold on and survive, the constant threat of the waters below. The Langurs stared at me, then with sudden cries jumped from tree to tree. You come across the temple quite suddenly. No wonder, given the size of the island. I sat in the temple premises for a bit, looked around, then rang the bell. A pujari came out hearing the chime, smiled hesitantly and offered a few prasad and as quickly, withdrew. Left to my own devices, I wandered to the other side and slowly descended to the dark rocks, where the waters were constantly making music. There seemed to be some kind of natural shelter hidden in the rocks that I could see from the top. It almost looked like a small cave from a distance. As I was descending towards the refuge, I suddenly heard music. I was surprised: was it really someone who played guitar? But before I could even react to the sudden music, I had already slipped and made a small splash. The music stopped, and I looked up from my pathetic state to see a man in his thirties, holding a gun in his hand, who was pointed at me.

There is something moving in the background – A river perhaps?

The activities of the fearsome and violent ULFA (United Liberation Front of Asom) have intensified since the 1990s. The group had, however, garnered much sympathy from the public. They were local heroes even when they fought a very dangerous battle with the Indian army through their various hideouts in Assam. Every other day someone died and the whispers of the jungle described these men as the toughest and most dangerous you could meet. But there was a ghost-like mystery surrounding these stories. No one knew them, no one recognized them, and no one saw them – unless they wanted to be seen, that is. And yet the state was full of them and their whispers.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

How does a girl on a desert island react to a man pointing a gun at her? I had no idea, so I stood still, too scared to react. There must have been something on my face that made the man put the gun back in his pocket. He stared at me for a good minute, before reaching out to help me out of the water. I sat down then, on the dry rocks, while he nonchalantly picked up a guitar.

After what felt like an eternity of silence, he looked at me and asked, “Are you singing?” I lowered my head without answering. He seemed not to notice, and instead strummed the guitar and started humming lines from a popular Zubeen Garg song:

jibon pathot kahaniba jodi haaru
diba prerona muk jujiboloi
andhar pothot jwoli roba tumi saaki hoi
tejor probhatok aanibole

(On the roads of life,
if I’m defeated,

be the hope of my fight.
On the dark roads that I face,

be the lamp that brings light)

Zubeen was our pop icon and everyone loved his romantic songs. I had heard the lines being sung many times on the University campus; in fact, he had played it himself at our annual festival. I never imagined that I would hear his song sung in these circumstances. There was nothing left for me to do and slowly I found myself enjoying the music, even humming along. Before long, we were both singing softly and in tandem. I could see the waters rushing more distinctly now; the man had put his toes in the water and indicated with a tilt of his head that I could enjoy it too. After a while he stopped singing and asked my name. Rather nervously, I asked him too. He then looked me straight in the eye, rolled up his shirt sleeves and pointed to two bullet holes on his arm. I had never seen anything like it and quickly looked away. I could feel him smiling behind my back. A gust of wind blew my hair and I felt a finger on my back rearrange it.

Someone suddenly called, ‘Baideo ase neki?‘(sister, are you there?). I was shaken, it must be the boatman looking for me. The tide had started to rise and I knew I had to go. Without a word, he helped me up. It was a strange feeling; I was almost reluctant to get out of this spell. But I got up and brushed the wet mud off my pants. Before turning around, I looked at him and he returned my gaze. Without a word, I then walked to where the boat was going up and down. For a minute I wondered if he was going to call me back, he knew my name now. But only calm followed me, the winds howling, imitating the seagulls in the sky. On the trip home, I wondered what I had felt while sitting there, and why the sudden wave of loneliness had enveloped me.

There is something moving in the background – A river perhaps?

In all likelihood, I could have met one of ULFA’s feared men. Of course, I had no way of confirming it, and we didn’t say anything except that he asked my name. But you knew some things intuitively, and this was one of those things. But this man had been strumming the guitar, playing with the water and singing love songs out loud – could he have been a killer?

I didn’t share my experience with anyone when I was back at the hostel. It made no sense, none of it made sense. Did I ever go back to Umananda? Did I revisit the cave where a man with a gun sang songs with a girl fresh out of college while the waters touched their feet? Golden langurs, they say, still thrive in Umanada. And, when the tide is about to come in, the waters still make love to the dark rocks on the other side of the island.

There is something moving in the background – A river perhaps?

(“There’s Something Moving in the Background” is a poem by the author, first published in northreview.com. It describes the small business of the city’s flower vendors on the Sukreswar Ghat, with the Brahmaputra River in the background.)

About John McTaggart

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