A slice of NOTHINGNESS

Anuradha Sarma Puzari loves the rolling meadows of West Khasi Hills, the quietude of Nongkhnum river island and the limitless natural abundance that straddles the borders in Dawki. The novelist, short-story writer, essayist and veteran journalist keenly watches lives evolve and end within the natural boundary and loves to experience the “sense of humanity” that prevails everywhere. So, a Lily can fall in love with a Riyaz in her short story No Man’s Land, but their emotions can never be unfettered from concertinas which define the political boundaries.

No Man’s Land was first published in Assamese in 2008. The short story was recently translated in English by Aruni Kashyap for a well-known national news portal.

“Politics and religion impede people from thinking beyond border, beyond religion, class and possessiveness for land. We are becoming slaves of casteism, religion and border day by day. We cannot love people beyond border, cannot stay independently as per our choice. ‘No-Man’s Land’ is the only small portion of the world that cannot be occupied or controlled. You can feel the real freedom here,” Puzari tells Sunday Chimes in an interview.

Born in Jorhat, the 58-year-old author grew up in the tea gardens of Assam. The seclusion and serenity helped her concentrate on books, painting and classical music. Besides Assam, she has deep connections with Kolkata and Meghalaya. The latter, however, mesmerises her the most.

Puzari would often visit Meghalaya and traverse the rural areas when her husband was posted in the northeastern state as a water resource engineer. It was not just the place that attracted her but the people too. “My husband… worked on the rivers of Meghalaya for a long time. While working on the Umngot, they had a temporary establishment in Dawki and I used to stay with him sometimes. It was during 2004-07,” she says about the backdrop of the short story.

No-Man’s Land is about a cross-border football match, the camaraderie that sports can create and love that defies man-made borders.

“I loved to roam around during my stay in Dawki and interacted with the local people and made friends too with a cross-section of people there. The characters of my story automatically came from their lives. I have heard about some local love stories straddling the borders. As per my realisation, they are simple human beings, not aware of India-Bangladesh political border issues and struggling to earn a livelihood. Getting a little bit of love and care from somebody was like a bonus for them. My story is based on the above realisation,” she says about her experience and what birthed No-Man’s Land.

Puzari, who is the editor of Assamese weekly newspaper Sadin and literary magazine Satsori, says though she missed the particular football match, she got to know about the events revolving the game when she visited the place a few days later.

“I was amazed at the pre- and post-match happenings, which were the talk of the tiny township for a couple of weeks,” says Puzari, who inherited the love for football from her father. She was a state-level badminton player during her school days.
As the author watches life in the border town, she also realises the “nothingness” of the no-man’s land. The strip of land belongs to all and none and it defines nothing — neither love nor hatred, rejection or acceptance or war and peace. It is where one stands and watches the Umngot, flowing from one country to the other, and nature cocking a defiant snook at the imbecility of humanity.

“There is a fenced border between Dawki and Bangladesh and the river Umngot flows from India to Bangladesh through Dawki. I felt that you can control cross-border activities, but not the flowing river, not the flying birds which require no passport and visas to move; even the trees and creepers of India leaning towards Bangladesh embarrass the trees on the other side. There may be a ‘No-Man’s Land’ for humans but it is not a mental barrier. A friendly football match between India-Bangladesh security forces with symbol of brotherhood is the best example of good gesture across the border. But are they real friends? The inner line of the story showed the reality. When a lover from Bangladesh stayed back on Indian soil without permission, the concept of friendly football match does not work, so no-man’s land is a symbol of nothingness. As a creative person, I always feel for a borderless world. People should be allowed to work anywhere for livelihood. Feelings of nothingness cannot connect to any country politically,” elaborates Puzari.

On the illegal trade on stones and coal that goes on along the border, the author feels it is the livelihood of many and “I do not have any comment on that but no trade should destroy nature and human mind”.

“I found Dawki a tiny place with pulse of life amidst natural colourful ambience and rhythm of lives of the mixed population of the place… The life and livelihood of the people I came across is the main inspiration behind my writings,” she describes the place and the people.

Besides Dawki, Nongkhnum river island has also featured in Puzari’s works (a short story about a poor Khasi lady who loves her tiny village more than anything) and she is planning to write a novel about riverside sand and stone quarry workers across the border in Dawki.

The short story ends with a sense of nothingness that transcends borders and lives and yet commingles with the daily drudgery of material existence.

~ NM