Friday, 25 January 2019

Taru Bala Das and Mahesh Chandra Das

Two years ago, after her mother's death, my own mum, Korobi, told her childhood friends of how her parents' marriage came to be. I was fascinated, and have shared an extract here:

Taru Bala Das and Korobi Saikia
Taru Bala Das and Korobi Saikia, 1990s
"One has to delve into the family history a bit...

My paternal grandfather, Dr Praneshwar Das' entire family was wiped out by kala azar, black fever, and he was brought up by his maternal uncle where he grew up in an atmosphere of learning and scholarship amongst seven cousins. He trained to be a doctor, and worked in several places in Assam.

My father's schooling up to class 3 was in Nowgaon after which the family moved to Goalpara where my paternal grandfather was originally from. It was there that my father continued his schooling although, in his last year, he was imprisoned in Gauhati jail for his active participation in the Independence movement. He was released just two months before the matriculation exams and came out with flying colours. He then joined Cotton College where he became friends with Suni mama who was my mother's cousin, and with Mohan Dowerah, the son of Komol Dowerah — this was Komol Dowerah of Komol Dowerah College in Dergaon, Assam, who also happened to be my maternal grandfather's cousin. It was these cousins who were instrumental in bringing about the marriage between my parents.

My maternal grandfather was Sarbananda Dowerah of Golaghat. He was a tea planter, and was associated with various civic bodies in the town as well as with the chamber of commerce. He had eleven children, seven sons and four daughters. My mother was the sixth child; she studied in a school run by American missionaries and was closest in age to Nalin mama who later went on to become very well known in the Assamese film industry.

At the time when my parents' marriage was being arranged, my father was living in Sunbeam, a cottage in Lumaurie, Shillong, where he was working as a civil servant; before moving to Sunbeam, he'd lived in Chitrakoot, his sister's house in Laban, Shillong, where the room he occupied is still, close to half a century after his demise, referred to as 'mama's room' in recognition of the time he spent there.

Although by the standards of those days, Goalpara and Golaghat seemed far, by the time my parents married in 1949, marriage alliances had already been forged at distances as large if not farther.

After my parents married, they acquired some land in Motinagar, Shillong, where plots were being granted to civil servants. My father seems to have initially been quite laidback about the acquisition although, with a little prodding from some neighbours, he applied for a plot where he ultimately built the house we grew up in.

My father was particularly enthusiastic about fish; I still remember the bhags for various families nearby which he distributed along with huge khili paans which he bought from Bara Bazaar. In the afternoons, ladies from the neighbourhood would gather in a garden to prepare marinated robab tenga and oranges. My mouth begins to water as I write this...

The camaraderie that we shared as kids can't really be replicated, can it?"

Saturday, 3 November 2018

[Link] The Rule of Law

I critique the rule of law with reference to violence and its own history, pointing out that it has often been 'the voice of the immensely privileged codified in statute and subordinate legislation' in a piece that was published by Smashboard and later by Firstpost.


"...the rule of law is not an egalitarian concept and its history demonstrates that it not underlain by gender neutrality. It may be possible to force it into another, less discriminatory mould more mindful of equality and individual rights but that would require recognising our current understanding of the rule of law for what it often is: an idea perpetuated by white men living in sexist societies themselves and forming the theoretical basis for the racial hierarchies which plague all of us today, often with their ideas being used to support economic drain and worse of countries primarily populated by non-white peoples.


The Constitution of India promises individuals equality and dignity. However, that promise may well be betrayed by the rule of law if it is not structured to avert violence induced by such facets of one’s identity as gender, sex, and sexual orientation.


Violence is unlikely to be eradicated in our own time but it can be contained, and it is legitimate to ask that the rule of law be structured to protect the most vulnerable amongst us. The most vulnerable are not just those who are poor but anyone who lacks the privilege of power which is, of course, most of us and women, upper class or not, in particular. After all, privilege is always relative, and persons who are abused invariably have less privilege than their abusers. If the rule of law is not structured to address the concerns of those with comparatively less privilege, its adoption would too often merely result in access to law and not in access to justice."

Thursday, 25 October 2018

[Links] State Policy, Citizenship, and Patriarchy

In a two-part series, I explore the human rights implications of processes like the formation of the NRC with reference to my own story, the problems of patriarchy, and the burdens of history. 

Excerpts below:

Issues of citizenship and belonging have always been fraught in India. We are a plural society that was irrevocably torn apart in 1947. As a legal construct, the Indian republic is a federation of states. As a social reality, we know affiliations to various sub-nationalisms, subsumed within a greater pan-Indian nationalism, to be a source of individual pride.
We are not, however, a society that has consistently seen communal harmony. In recent history, British colonizers used a divide-and-rule policy to help cement their control over vast swaths of the Indian subcontinent.
American photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White saw vast areas of Calcutta “dark with ruins and black with the wings of vultures that hovered impartially over the Hindu and Muslim dead” in 1946. The image of death approaching under the waiting, watchful eye of vultures was not new to Bengal, which had, at the time, barely recovered from a devastating famine, exacerbated by British policies, that took about 4 million lives. This was the same famine that prompted Leo Amery, then secretary of state for India and Burma, to compare Winston Churchill’sattitudes to those of Hitler.
Photographs taken in the 1940s in the fenced hunger-cum-labor camps of Europe and in the fence-less hunger-cum-labor geography of Bengal are not always easy to tell apart. Ravaged bodies with ashen skin, regardless of their color, can look much the same in black and white.
We may only now be beginning to call the famine genocide, and recognize the lingering effects of Partition, but we know what to expect of concentration camps. And we know that their effects can be achieved simply with incendiary rhetoric and administrative action. They do not need fences or a fenced-off vocabulary.

Evading the past not only allows us to evade our shared histories but also the memory of the traumas we have all suffered in the process of the fragmentation of our identities and our lands. It erases tales of migration and assimilation, and it enables the development of constructs that alienate and perhaps even corral in forced-labor camps, if only in imagination, those whom we now consider “outsiders” who do not belong within our borders.
In our own time, borders are often closed by documenting the people within them and recognizing them as citizens. The smallest unit of documentation is often not the individual but the household, particularly in relation to rations and fuel, which may keep women in the control of men who are listed as being the heads of households. Instances of women subverting the system to establish their own independent identities are the exception.
As a result, closed borders tend to reinforce often-violent patriarchy and disadvantage those not ensconced in privileged, socially approved familial structures.
Leaving aside concerns about the “them vs us” narrative, experience has taught us that we have difficulty recognizing our own because of documentation issues, shared histories, close cultural ties, and common vocabularies.
Given that the identification of those who qualify as citizens is no easy matter, there exists a constitutional imperative to ensure that laws deriving legitimacy from it do not flout the implicit guarantees it accords to individuals. That requires the development of legal processes that ensure that the most vulnerable among us are not sidelined. People cannot legitimately have their citizenship called into question simply because they find themselves without familial support. The cost of not submitting to violent patriarchy cannot legitimately be statelessness.