He is eight years old and has already travelled a great distance from his original home, to Delhi. It was not a happy shift. What made his family leave its home was fear for the lives of its member. For, Majuli island, where they lived, is in Assam, different groups of people in Assam are fighting for what they think are their natural rights.
Nershwn speaks of all this in his own way. He gives a snapshot of the world as he sees it, from his height.
Hello! My name is Nershwn Basumatari. I belong to the Bodo tribe of Assam. I used to live in Assam’s Majuli island with my parents. Majuli island is the largest river island in India.
Our house was a small bamboo hut standing on poles as the river Brahmaputra sometimes floods the island.
We had three cows and a goat at home. My mother wove shawls on the loom inside our house. My father and my brother went to work in the rice fields. My younger sister and I stayed at home. We played with each other.
In the day everybody went to work. One day my brother did not return home. I heard someone say that he had been taken away by a group of people. My mother cried a lot. She was wailing in Bodo that her son was dead, killed by the ULFA. (United Liberation Front of Assam). My parents have told me that members of ULFA do not want Assam to be part of India anymore. It wants a separate homeland for people who originally belong to Assam. That’s us.
I don’t understand why ULFA killed my brother, though.
The night I left home
In Assam, the situation is very dangerous. Everyday there is gunfire. People sneak in at night with guns. Whatever food is left, is eaten up by these people. They also demand ‘chaang’ (rice wine). They scared my father and mother too. That’s when they decided to leave Majuli.
One night, my mother packed a large bag and took my younger sister and me to the boat. When I asked her where we were going, she said she was taking us to Guwahati, the capital of Assam.
My father paid something to the boatman and stepped back. He was not coming with us. I started crying. My mother tried to hush me. She said father would join us later. And she told the boatman to move on.
To keep my mouth shut she gave me some ‘barfi’ (milk-based sweet). Soon, I was thrilled and excited with the boat ride and forgot my father’s absence. I put my hand outside and splashed my sister who giggled. This seemed like fun. We had a good time.
Soon it was time to get down. We had reached the mainland. It was night and my sister was asleep. My mother carried her and led me by the hand to the bus stop. We found the bus for Guwahati and boarded the bus.
I woke up because the bus had stopped lurching. I was half asleep and there was a lot of noise. I looked out to see what the noise was about. There were three men with guns about. I knew at once that it meant trouble for someone.
Growing up in Assam, I knew the language of the gun. They had dragged out a family from the bus and were asking the man questions. The men were accusing him of not paying the ULFA hush money. Hush money is the money people pay up to avoid trouble from the group, which collects this from nearly every family to support its activities. My father paid too.
After some time they started thrashing the man on the bus and he began bleeding. No one from the bus got down to help. Everyone knew that it was dangerous to say anything. The man’s wife started crying and tried to stop the beating. They pushed her away and led the man behind some bushes. After a while we heard a shot.
The men left the place with their guns. Slowly, people got down from the bus. They were scared. From behind the bushes they picked up something and brought it out in the open. It was the Assamese man they were beating. His clothes were torn. He was dead. This was the first time I had seen a man dead.
My father was safe
The bus started. Next morning, we were in Guwahati. My mother took us to my great uncle’s house near the Kamakhya temple. He gave us tea and biscuits. He said we kids were lucky to have escaped.
My uncle promised to take care of us till father came. The house was large and there were other children around. But I wouldn’t play. I was terrified to sleep at night because of the guns and death. My mother too was lonely and sad. I knew she was scared for father.
We stayed at Guwahati for 22 days. I counted. Then one day I heard my mother crying out in Bodo. I ran out and saw my father with another man I recognised as our neighbour from Majuli.
They came in and father opened his bag. I saw some money and some jewels being handed over to my great uncle.
Life in Delhi
Three days later we boarded a train to Delhi. Delhi was bigger than Guwahati. People spoke a language we didn’t understand. But I found father could understand what they were saying. We found a house to stay.
The house was the servant’s quarters of a man my uncle knew. It had only one room. I fell sick more than once. My sister also fell sick and had to be taken to the hospital. She never came back. My mother told me she had the ‘collara’ (cholera) or something. I don’t know what ‘collera’ was.
From the children next door I learned my first Hindi words. When I used it to show off to the man in whose house we were staying, he laughed and told me that they were bad words.
He said everybody learns a new language this way. First the bad words which are easy to pick up and then we learn to pick out other words. He promised me I would soon speak good Hindi.
He was very good. Every day for an hour he would teach me Hindi and make me write the alphabets in English. Next year he promised to send me to school.
It is now next year. Soon we will be moving to a new house. I will be going to a new school. But I feel sad whenever I think of my little house in Majuli. One day, I will go back.