Nellie, Me and Impunity: Uddipana Goswami
This is a guest post by Uddipana Goswami
I was born around the time the Assam Movement started and grew up in an atmosphere of intense xenophobia. Everywhere, we heard anti-Bangladeshi slogans – which often translated into expressions of anti-Bengali sentiments. Our parents tried their best at home to protect us from such influences. We were sent to convent schools which often isolated us from whatever was going on outside the school walls. But we felt the tensions in the air and tasted the fear. We heard the names of places and people, killed, maimed, tortured.
Nellie was one such name we grew up with. There were others – Dhula, Gohpur, Phulung Sapori – where other genocides happened, but the name Nellie stayed with me. It fascinated me and brought to my mind the image of a distraught woman. Many years later, when I started researching the Muslim community of East Bengali origin in Assam, this amorphous image of Nellie started taking a definite shape. And it translated into a poem one day – ‘If Nellie Was the Name of the Woman’ (Northeast Review).
As I wrote the poem, I realized that I could myself be Nellie, a woman, battered, bruised and abused because of my ‘otherness’, because I could – and would – not sacrifice my ‘otherness’ in my quest for oneness within the institution of marriage.
Nellie is also the ‘other’, the representative of the East Bengali Muslim immigrant population that came to Assam a century or more ago. The community made a conscious decision to assimilate with the ‘mainstream’: to this end, they even accepted the epithet Na-Axamiya (neo-Axamiya). But they were never wholly accepted in Assam because they cannot, or will not, give up those very visible – and some invisible – markers of their identity. They stand apart from the rest of the autochthonous communities here.
So even though they are willing to compromise and accommodate in order to live harmoniously with the rest of the peoples of Assam, the rest of the peoples never wholly accepted them. The dominant sections of the Axamiya politicians and intellectuals continue to profit from keeping them out of the Axamiya fold and confounding them with the later, often illegal, migrants who come from the same place – now a different country. Earlier because of their linguistic identity and in recent decades because of their religion, they have been vulnerable to exclusions of various kinds and subjected to systematic brutalisation. ‘Demographic swamping’ was the catchphrase of the Assam Movement. It resurfaces after every census report and during each ethnic riot. Many Nellies have been re-enacted since 1983, and every time, it feels like an already broken marriage breaks again.
My marriage broke the day I ran away from my own house with my six month old son. That day, my husband nearly strangled me to death, and then locked me in the bathroom. I had to cry for help through the window before he let me out. And he did this because we did not have much money in our banks and he wanted to spend an obscene amount on our son’s rice ceremony, while I said we could do a low key ceremony now and throw a party a month later when we were more stable.
‘That’s not how we Bengalis do it. We spend lakhs on the boy’s annaprasan, unlike you beggarly Axamiyas,’ was the kind of things he had been saying every time he hit me for a month before he finally cried out that morning, ‘Ajke toke merei phelbo!’ and wrapped his arm round my neck and squeezed. I saw black.
When I was a little girl, during one Bihu, our domestic help wanted to go home. I said to her, ‘What’s Bihu to you? You are Bengali, not Axamiya!’ Children can be very cruel sometimes, but their cruelty is often unintentional. I learnt the true meaning of Bihu that day when my mother immediately scolded me, ‘A festival is nobody’s private business. Everybody has the right to celebrate.’ Later, I learnt from my folklorist father about the synergetic evolution of Bihu.
I was cruel once again, in high school, with ‘Axamiya’ friends who would read the ‘revolutionary’ poetry I scribbled surreptitiously. We would dream of joining the rebels in their glamourous fight for an independent Assam. The teacher stepped out of class one day leaving a Bengali girl as monitor. We sat in the last bench and sniggered at the ‘Royal Bengal Tiger’ who had no teeth to bite us Axamiya anymore – ‘our boys’ had the guns now! We were taken to task for this by the teacher – another ‘Axamiya’ – and today, I cannot thank her enough.
These lessons from my formative years shaped me as an individual and helped me as a student of literature and later, of sociology. In my adolescent years, some of my best and lasting friends turned out to be Bengalis. Many of my mentors, professors and elderly friends who guided me in my career have been Bengalis. Their friendship has made me a better person. Little wonder then, that I ended up marrying a Bengali. And that is when the tables turned.
I fancied, for a little while after I met him that:
Lost love, redefined politics came to fruition
In a confident generation, globalised as far as suited us
Localised as much as was enough
To hold on to our ethnic identities over smoking cups
Of cappuccino and latte, feeding on pizzas
While in the background played
Rabindra Sangeet and Bihu songs.
(Poem ‘Love Has a Way of Happening’ in Muse India)
Caught up in the romance of ideas like inter-ethnicity and multiculturalism that I was researching for my PhD at the time, it took me a while to realize that the confidence I’d seen in our relationship was really in my mind alone. When my new boyfriend took to speaking my language just a fortnight into our relationship, I was thrilled. I was just back from a conference in Bangladesh where I met some wonderfully warm people, full of Bengali national pride, and an intellectual breadth that swept me off my feet. Then, I was in Calcutta on a fellowship, in close proximity with some of the foremost intellectuals in the country. I was still reeling from being in this emancipated, enlightened company when I met my ex-husband, who could talk his way into anything. And he talked his way into my heart and mind, speaking my language, approximating my discourse of inclusiveness. I married him hastily – too hastily.
After marriage, he still spoke to me in Axamiya; I would often reply in English, hardly ever in Bengali because I have never been confident with new languages. I did, however, speak my broken Bengali with his parents, and anybody else who I knew did not understand English. Then there was the fish – I told him fish was as much a staple in Assam as in Bengal, only I didn’t much like it. But he always made it an Axamiya vs Bengali issue. I would laugh it off, till I was left crying from pain – he would pick up a fight over some trivial issue, non-cultural in content and hit me, again.
He would buy me Axamiya mekhala sadors, but complain I didn’t wear the Bengali sari. I didn’t think of the sari as a Bengali dress, just something I wasn’t comfortable in. But I did wear the ones he got me, especially during Durga Puja. And every Durga Puja, I would be conscious wearing them because I couldn’t be sure that the exposed parts of my body were not showing the bruises I carried on me.
I’d told him when we met that I was not particularly religious. I didn’t like the ostentation associated with Durga Puja. If I adore the goddess, I said, I can do so in private. I don’t need to spend obscene amounts every year to parade my devotion. Before marriage, I never visited the puja pandals, but with my husband, I did trudge along to some in CR Park in Delhi. I only enjoyed going to one puja hosted by a particular family there in which they spent according to their own means, without ostentation. He’d said he was okay with that, but every Durga Puja the violence would escalate. Later, he cried, apologized and convinced me that his brutality – which started soon after our marriage – was because he was always so stressed out from his job as a TV news journalist.
It was only after we separated that I realized how little I had understood him in our four and half years of marriage. I had even allowed him to get away with abusing me – and everything I stood for – as ‘you motherf*&^ing Axamiya’. I made excuses for him: how impetuous he was, how he did not mean what he said, how he actually did love me and my culture, why else would he speak my language… On the face of it, he was the perfect Axamiya jowai (son-in-law) and he’d often used that image to also establish professional relationships in the Northeast. Maybe it was my fault I did not ‘appear’ to be the perfect Benagli bou. But I had never been one for tokenisms – I’d thought being inclusive in my mind was more important. I’d grown up in an intellectually charged atmosphere with two professors of literature for parents who had always taught their children respect for other cultures. I had grown up with the firm belief that by allowing the people around me the space to practice their own beliefs in their own ways I would be left alone to deal with my own beliefs in my own way. I was proved painfully wrong by the one man who should have understood me more than anybody else in the world. When I left him, among his many accusations against me were how I called all Bengalis ‘ostentatious’, how I hated Bengalis and never wore their dress, ate their food or spoke their language.
The initial months of separation were the months when we could have worked towards mending the relationship to whatever little extent possible, at least for the sake of our little son. But those were the months when my ex-husband heaped insult upon heinous insult on me as well as on my family and my culture and community. When I’d left my house in Noida and come to stay with my parents in Guwahati, I had had to leave behind my books, my writings, research material, everything. I asked him for them. He sent me a few packets of my belongings through speed post, packed in cartons – about 40-50 books out of my collection of at least a thousand; my doll collection, mostly broken; some rags; somebody’s used sanitary napkin; and an Axamiya xarai twisted and broken. The first time he’d come to my parents’ house and seen the xarai, I’d explained that it was a symbol of respect in Axamiya culture. Even if he had broken it in a fit of anger – and I had seen him break a whole bookcase once – he could just have kept it with him; I’d only asked for my books back. He also sent me a Calvin and Hobbes comic collection, wrapped in the pat silk dhoti my parents had given him for our wedding. He’d asked me then if he had to wear it, and I’d said it was traditional for the groom to wear pat silk, because it was a major source of Axamiya pride. He’d worn it at the time. He tore it up now to pack cartons.
After I came back to Guwahati, I’d started working for a local daily as literary editor. Soon after I joined, the managing editor had left on a clandestine journey to Eastern Nagaland to meet (as was revealed later) some rebel leaders. It was a long expedition fraught with all kinds of danger. Adverse rumours started flying soon, and the journalist’s family was distraught. I’d met his father, a former police officer, for an interview once. Knowing that my ex-husband had many contacts in the home ministry and the intelligence agencies in Delhi – contacts he often flaunts and continues to threaten me with – the old man called me one day. ‘Please ask your husband to find out what he can,’ he said. I was still hopeful than that things would get sorted out quietly, eventually between me and my husband and so I didn’t say anything but gave him his number. Not long thereafter, my mother got a text message on her phone, from my ex-husband: ‘Great journalist gets kidnapped and they have to fall on feet of a Bengali. To get his news and save him. Huh’. I still have the message, backed up – and all the other messages he sent me and my family members, threatening, insulting, harassing. Ironically, recently, he took the same ‘great journalist’ along with him to register a false case of abuse against me. Two days later, he got along two other journalists – both Bengali this time – to my house on my son’s birthday and assaulted me. Being in the media, he believes, gives him immunity.
I had never thought the problems in our marriage were owing to cultural differences. I had always felt they were the result of dissimilar upbringing and unequal educational qualifications. And the more cultural insults he heaps on me, the more convinced I get that I am right. If I was Bengali and not subservient, he would still abuse me – he had a Bengali wife earlier and had got a divorce from her too. He is just the kind of person who would use any weapon at his disposal to hurt the other person – it is not a deep seated conviction with him that Bengalis are superior to the Axamiya, or that I was not Bengali enough to be his wife, or that I could not be a good wife to him because I was Axamiya. It is, in the end, a lack of intellectual maturity and a question of opportunism.
Just like the violence during the Assam Movement, his violence is also directed at those who are willing to compromise, to live and let live. For the dominant Axamiya, the issue of illegal immigration is just an excuse to target the minority communities, as in Nellie. Elsewhere, even ethnic minorities were targeted during the movement. Now that these ethnic communities are fighting back, the East Bengali Muslims remain a convenient target for them, as was I to my ex-husband. Deeply felt and consciously adopted intellectual or cultural ideals have nothing to do with the fate of Nellie or me.
February 2013 marked 30 years of the Nellie massacre. Nellie has not got any justice yet, and I know that neither will I. No law of the land has come forward to redress her, and many women like me continue to face harassment from the men in their lives. They all have immunity from accountability for even the grossest of human rights violations. They can – and do – all act with impunity.