Two kittens showed up at our back-veranda today. The mama cat gave birth on a sofa chair sometime at night. The old sofa chair was too outdated to be placed in the living room and too unsullied to be discarded or given away. So we placed it in the back veranda where aita would occasionally view overgrown weed and accumulated plastic waiting to be burnt. For some reason, aita doesn’t sit in the front-veranda where the dahlias and gerbera bloom, from where she can see the big charcoal road that connects the two big important roads converging at the “main bazaar” of my town. That’s why they call this area Majgaon, meaning village in the middle. Granted, she had spent decades and decades around this road, switching houses frequently (nonetheless always anchored to Majgaon), possibly bored with the road and its dogs and its goats and its cows, but hey there’s nothing particularly fascinating about the toilet-tank either.
Mama cat ran away with one kitten early morning, stressing me out. Friends texted conspiracies “it’s a runt! it’s a runt!” Google kept suggesting kitten formula, there was obviously no kitten formula in the fridge, and maa refused to part with her towels. It’s easier for her to disown me than adopt a cat. “Arey, the sofa will keep the kitten warm,” said papa with confidence, having received his doctorate from cat university. I took matters in my hand and prepared an Amazon cardboard house, bedded with winter PJs that no longer fit me, only for mister-not-the-runt-anymore to be sneakily luggaged away by mama cat an hour later. At least, aita won’t sit on the sofa for a while.
Before moving to Tezpur permanently, my visits were limited to summer vacations. I went to see aita and my cousins, but not much sight-seeing happened— a shame considering the town’s history. Tezpur is derived from two Sanskrit words that when put together become “city of blood”. What could be more metal for a cute little town on the banks of Brahmaputra?
After the Dalai Lama and his 100k friends escaped Tibet, they took refuge in hastily prepared shelters of bamboo and straw in Tezpur, sort of like my cardboard cat haven, where they were hospitably treated, today an entirely alien concept to refugees in Assam. The hospitality became a cringe moment in 1962 when Chinese troops captured Bomdilla, a town only 150 kms away, preparing to march towards Tezpur. Nehru’s address to the nation on All India Radio “my heart goes out to the people of Assam” would’ve been great material for a feverishly upvoted dark meme on Indian subreddits. Soon, administration deserted the town. Some people stayed behind for patriotic reasons, others had no means of escape. But the town was so metal that China declared a unilateral ceasefire before attempting to capture it.
To be honest, I’d get bored to death at my aita’s house, bored enough to be interested in red ants that would climb the amlokhi tree. I never figured why it’s always the red ants that love Indian gooseberries. They don’t seem to eat it, but crawl incessantly across the branches, like it’s their axis mundi, assuring the ants fertility and world-domination, with enough cult worship that is. I swear there’s something with the colour red and world domination.
Everyday, amlokhis would be strewn on the ground, and aita would collect them, dry them, salt them and make amlas that taste like songs people stopped humming. As we sat around the rice, bengena and masor tenga, aita whose back hadn’t arched yet would stand near us until we’re done eating. Maa would recall the finesse of aita’s cooking when her hair was still black, of her koni torkari and mankho torkari that drove the children crazy.
In spite of living here for only a year, I feel strangely connected to Tezpur. Everything seems to start and end with Tezpur. 22 years ago, papa met maa in a deeply aromantic arranged marriage setting, and 16 years later, they decided to buy property here after a decade-spanning real-estate pokemon hunt in three different towns.
There’s a list of places my parents didn’t want to live in. Towns near Nagaland, towns in Bodoland, towns that flooded, towns where the underground freshwater contained too much iron, towns too east and towns too west, towns frequented by leopards, towns where the fish market was too small, towns where fish was imported (salami) and not sold locally. That checked off most towns in Assam and Guwahati was too expensive to consider. They finally bought this house at a discounted price since the previous owners were close relatives. Aita moved in with us shortly after, but the three sisters continued beefing.
The food-truck in Mahabhairab is not really a truck. “It doesn’t and can’t move,” papa told me. Maybe not, but I still think it’s a truck. After all, papa retired a few months ago, but he will always be an accountant to me. There’s one Big Bazaar, one Sohum, one Reliance Trends, one Gold’s Gym, one Titan EyePlus with free eye-checkups, one Jawed Habib, two Vishaals, two Domino’s and one useless Google Maps. Once papa and I ended up at the ghats of Brahmaputra because we wanted to install broadband at our house and someone pinged the JioFiber office right next to the river knowing fully well that a WiFi-thirsty person like myself would be stupid enough to convince his dad to drive there. The office turned out to not exist in the ghats, and reversing the car through those dirt tracks leading straight into a ferry triggered an ancient fear of drowning that made me curse Google in four different languages. A month later, we drove to the ghats again to buy a proper laptop for a proper Microsoft Teams experience, but HP World happened to be on the other end of town, far away from the ghats that the maps suggested.
The ghats of Tezpur are beautiful. They’re not like the ghats of Jorhat. The waters of Brahmaputra want me to stare. To disappear and become undone. The waters of Brahmaputra make me write. But I’m hardly the first person to say that. Bhupen Hazarika, the bard of Brahmaputra, noticeably sang many songs about the river. I don’t want to write about a river. That’s become too corny. You would think poets are done fetishizing water by now, but they’re still at it, maybe it’s some brain wiring caused by drinking water for the past 300,000 years. Maybe I’m too dumb to realise the socio-economic possibilities around a river, maybe I’m too transfixed by the drier spells of late, the sandier riverbed underneath the Kolia Bhomura, the imminent doom of Zangmu and three other Chinese dam-projects in Tibet.
Rajendra Singh said the third world war would be over water. I think he meant that literally. It’s easier to assume that the world will fight over water, not because its stakes in earth are 71%, but it’s always been the more exciting trend in the market, and if you’re the type to hop on trends late, like those people who’re still making Baby Shark reels, who’s to really blame? The Mughals, for instance, had only one weakness – their navy. The disadvantaged Ahoms knew this and turned the Brahmaputra into their playground. After losing their 17th rematch, the Mughals must’ve felt worse than the Mongols did when their dream of Japan archipelago sank twice, once in 1274 and again in 1281, because their fleets didn’t take enough typhoon 101 lessons, effectively lowering the Mongols’ score by many levels on the intimidation scale.
Maybe this power over living beings prompted me to place a bowl of water next to the cardboard box, hoping that mama cat will come back in the evening to give her babies a warm, goodnight sleep. But she never came. Maybe she took refuge in a safer exit somewhere, where she doesn’t have to depend on humans, where she won’t be abandoned.
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Loved this story. Having lived for a very short year in the 90s, in Jorhat, the very presence of HP World and Jawed Habib sounds so modern. But then it is 2022 and the world has changed.