Instead of Alif
Abdus Samad is a fiction writer from a Bengal-origin immigrant Muslim family, who writes in Assamese about people caught between identity politics, poverty and precarious citizenship.
Aruni Kashyap is the author of His Father’s Disease: Stories (Context, 2019), a novel The House With a Thousand Stories (Penguin 2013) and a poetry collection called There Is No Good Time for Bad News (Future Cycle Press, 2021). He is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Georgia, Athens. He tweets @AruniKashyap
Abdus Samad’s “Instead of Alif” is a short story exploring the injustice of attempting to trap a human life in official documentation. Written in context of the NRC laws and its impact in Assam, the narrative revolves around the tragedy of having to prove one’s existence.
The short story was translated by Aruni Kashyap.
I walked away from the huge crowd until I found a patch of grass on the side of the road. I sat down there, extending my legs in exhaustion and resignation. As if the weight of this problem, which I had been carrying for far too long increased manifold today. I didn’t see a solution ahead.
It was the month of Bhado. No clouds in the bright afternoon sky, and yet, I could only see darkness all around me, unable to see a way out of this problem, unable to see a path to move ahead and solve this problem. I sighed, swallowed my saliva, and wondered, “How many more people would I have to butter up?” I was so tired of this relentless sycophancy, of flattering people for help! No one had the time fill these forms for me.
I relaxed on the grass and opened my file to examine the forms once again. As I spread them in front of me, I noticed that they were intact, just as Rojob, my first cousin, had returned the papers to me. The forms had started to rot a little because I rolled them up, and carried them around everywhere, all the time. They had soaked up my sweat, dried in the air. I slid them in between some other forms immediately, and then I started reading the form on top of the file. This was a new thing that I had begun to do. I had started reading this form at least two times a day, but — ah, what was happening! Suddenly, all those black-printed alphabets stopped making sense to me. The papers stopped making sense to me, and the only thing that jumped out in front of my eyes was the deadline for submitting the forms.
It was the day after!
What should I do now? Who will help me fill up these forms? How about I go to Aziz Master’s son Inam’s house? Would he, Inam, help?
Inam was around the same age as mine. We used to live in the same village when we were young, and Inam’s father used to work at the lower primary school in our village. I didn’t have the good fortune to study in that school. By the time I was old enough to go to school, the river had swept away our entire village: corroding the riverbank in huge chunks every year during the floods. After losing every bit of their ancestral property, it was hard to say where everyone in the village fled in search of livelihood. But unlike us, unlike the people in our village, Aziz Master had money. He bought some land in another village free from floods and permanently settled down in that village. The erosions decimated our entire village, erasing it from the map forever. The school, the house, the trees were all swallowed by the river. But what was a curse for us was a boon for Aziz Master: he forged on paper that he was still a government-employed teacher, taught in the non-existing school, and continued to draw salary against his position. With his regular government salary, he also started to buy more land little by little and created a vast range of wealth for himself and his children. He sent his children to good schools and tried to give them good qualifications that would help them earn a living. Now, Inam was also a teacher in another village, another school.
But our story was different. After losing everything, my family moved to the area next to the highway, where we started living on the government’s land. Abba built a house on that location and often used to leave us at home in search of work to bring home food. He had never done such menial work before: he had always been a proud farmer who worked for himself. When I was a little older, Abba started taking me with him, too, to work, and I learned how to weave a straw roof, work in the paddy fields, in richer, landed people’s houses.
Those events happened almost thirty years ago. Amma was no more. The government had evicted us multiple times, but we always returned to the same place and built a hut after every time we were evicted because we had nowhere else to go. I brought my life partner to this house – to the same house built on the same foundation Abba had built; the house on the same location that still belonged to the government and from where we would be evicted many more times after my wedding. In between all these, I had four sons. The eldest was called Ehsan. He had been admitted to the nearby madrasa to complete his studies. That was four years ago; after learning the primers, he could recite versions from the Quran-E-Sharif in his melodious voice.
Occasionally, I earned money by doing other things, but mainly, I was a daily wage laborer: I still did the tasks that Abba had taught me: rice harvesting, sharecropping, roadwork, roofing. There were many reasons for sadness in our life such as the sorrow of not getting to eat enough on certain nights; that if I didn’t manage to work for two days, the family had to sleep hungry. But such sorrows were incomparable to the sorrow that the government was making us go through now by imposing this problem on us, where we were forced to fill up a bunch of forms to prove that we are inhabitants of this country. Was it even possible for everyone to fill these complicated forms? How about the people who didn’t know how to read and write?
But the thought of Inam brought a ray of hope to my mind. My mind was lighter than before.
No, as far as I knew him, he won’t refuse to me help. After all, we went a long way back! He worked for a government school as a teacher, but despite his respectable position, when he ran into me in nearby villages, he asked, “Ki o? Kene aso? How are you doing?”
And I replied with hesitation, “Tur? How about you?”
As soon as my mind lightened up, I realized that I was starving. I had left the house almost at dawn, after eating a small bowl of poita-bhaat. That’s the most we could afford these days for our first meal: leftover rice immersed in cold water overnight, served with salt.
How would a better meal be possible? If I didn’t get work for one day, the next day’s ration was not enough for the whole family. What if I didn’t find work for two consecutive days? Yes, we would have to sleep with hungry stomachs. Just to fill up these forms, I had forgone two days of work. Ei je, I was not able to go to work even today, and if I didn’t get Inam at home today, I wouldn’t be able to go to work tomorrow. My family would remain hungry for several days if that happened. But I had no option. Before tomorrow night, I had to fill this up.
Bapre, I couldn’t think of not submitting the forms!
It made me so anxious.
An eight-year-old sad incident came and stood in front of me.
We, as in, eleven of us from the neighborhood, had once gone away from the village in search of work. This was after we had lost our village to the river. We were traveling in a night bus to a distant city. After reaching the city, when we were roaming here and there in search of work, a group of young men noticed us. They surrounded us, took us to the corner of the road, and made us wait. They soon started to interrogate us: our names, address, district, name of the village, etc. We told them everything honestly, but they refused to be satisfied. One big fat young man looked at us and said, “Paper? What papers do they have? Where are their voter ids?”
This time, we waited silently. We started staring at each other’s faces. When my eyes met Kuddus’s eyes, he made a gesture with his red eye, which meant, “Having fun?” because he had asked us to take proper identification with us. We had all refused. We said, we don’t drive; why would we carry identity cards in our own country? We decided to keep those at home. Nothing would happen, I had said confidently. I looked down, feeling ashamed, accepting my mistake.
But our silence only emboldened the young men who had detained us. They started to call us “illegal immigrants,” and one of them slapped one of our friends and another young man kicked a few of us. From the beginning, I was sitting with my head resting on the two knees, but one of the guys kicked me, and as a result, I fell on my face. My forehead started to bleed, but that was nothing compared to the humiliation. “We are also human beings,” I wanted to shout, but I was sure no one would listen, so I didn’t.
The gleeful men dragged us to the local police station.
The Officer in Charge was perhaps a nice man. He took our address, called the local police station in our district, and talked to the police there. After that, he released us and also arranged a free bus for us to return home.
In case Inam wasn’t home, I would just stay back at his house, but an unknown fear suddenly startled and then almost paralyzed me.
What if he also treated me like Rojob?
Rojob was my cousin. His mother was my father’s younger sister. Unlike our family, they didn’t face the problem of floods and soil erosions, and that’s why, just with their farming, they lived a comfortable abundant life. When my siblings and I were young, Rojob used to visit us, stay for extended periods. After all my father was his uncle. Even we used to pay them visits, but after we lost our land to the river, they stopped visiting us and made it clear with their behavior and attitudes that we were no more welcomed at their house. Yet, I had made a trip to their home. After all, I called his mother “Pehi!” why would he disappoint me, I believed.
When I reached his house, I saw many people on the veranda, as well as the courtyard. Everyone carried a bunch of forms, just like mine. Sitting on a table, Rojob was filling up every form. When he saw me, he seemed annoyed. He stared at my forms and appeared irritated.
Alright, never mind; as long as he helped me, I was ready to endure his expressions of annoyance. I left aside my ego, my dignity, and decided to ask him to help me.
“What happened? What brought you here today?”
“Well, why would I be here? I have brought the forms. You have to help me, bhai.” I spread the forms in both my hands and showed them to him. Rojob said nothing. He started to write on another person’s form.
I stood and waited next to him.
After a long time, he said, “Leave the forms here. I won’t be able to complete them today. Haven’t you seen how crowded it is at my place? Too many people are in the queue. You come again later and collect the completed forms from me.”
I felt a little happy when he said that. Right, a thousand times right, he was after all, my pehi’s son. I felt as he would finish my task. I extended the forms to him and said quickly, “Alright, you get them ready when you get time. I will come on Monday and pick them up from you.”
But on Monday, I saw a more extensive crowd standing in a serpentine queue on his courtyard as well as verandah. Rojob was busy filling up other people’s forms, and even that day, he was annoyed to see me: it was writ on his face, but he didn’t say anything to me. I decided not to ask him anything. I thought he must have filled up the forms and kept them aside. It was natural that he was annoyed. I decided to wait till he returned my forms. I would leave immediately after.
With that hope and conviction in mind, I waited in his house as he continued to fill up other people’s forms. About half an hour later, he called me, “Here are your forms. All of them are here. But please count them once and tally with your checklist to see if all of them are intact in the file.”
With much happiness, I extended my hands and collected the forms from his hands, but I was rendered confused when I looked through them. What was this? What was it seeing? The forms hadn’t been filled. Did that mean, did that mean that he hadn’t done my work? I shut my eyes and check again. No, the forms hadn’t been touched. I asked him what this was.
“Hoy o, I couldn’t finish your task. I didn’t get time. Please don’t mind.”
There was nothing left to say, I was so shocked. I couldn’t even imagine that Rojob would treat me like that. Crestfallen and speechless, I collected the forms and decided to leave without saying a word. Suddenly, Rojob spoke, “Why don’t you do one thing? You could go to Idul’s, and he would finish your task.”
“Idul? Who is Idul?”
“He is from our village. He is the membor’s son.” I tried to understand what he meant by “membor” and after a few moments, I realized that he was referring to the village council. This guy Idul’s father was perhaps a “member,” so people continued to refer to the family with that designation.
“Why would Idul do this for me? Who is Idul to me? I don’t know Idul and Idul doesn’t know me!” I had become a bit emotional. My voice quivered.
But my quivering voice didn’t touch Rojob’s heart. “Go, go to Idul. You give my reference, and he would help you.”
I didn’t know if Idul would help me finish the forms, but I had no option but to go meet him. If he, did it, I would be saved.
With those thoughts in my mind, I started walking towards Idul’s house, following my cousin’s directions.
A man had been observing me from the time I was waiting for Rojob to hand me back the forms. When he saw that I was returning, he approached me as soon as I stepped out of Rojob’s compound, by sliding aside the bamboo barricades that passed through a few holes carved in two logs of wood. The logs of wood, like two pillars, stood on both sides of the entrance, holding the bamboos.
“Heri, robosun”, the man stopped me. I looked at him.
“Can I ask you something – only if you don’t mind?”
“No, I probably wouldn’t but what do you want to ask me?”
“Ki kotha mane – is Rojob your brother? As in, are you related?”
“Yes, he is my brother – he is my pehi’s son. My father’s biological sister.”
“Oh really,” he nodded his head in affirmation. “Now, I have been able to understand why Rojob didn’t do your job. Idul is my cousin too, and his father is my Khura – my father’s younger brother. Even Idul refused to do my work and sent me to Rojob.”
“I don’t understand what you are trying to say.”
“Well, the thing is: it is not entirely straightforward. I am not surprised that you haven’t understood it yet. In fact, even I took a few days to understand this matter fully!”
He started to explain the situation to me: Idul and Rojob; relative and friends; the blank forms, the stacks of forms. There was a mystery after all.
“Listen, bhai, the intentions of these are the same. They want to make money. They don’t want to help people. They are trying to make a profit out of this crisis. But they are hesitant to ask for money from their extended family members so whenever any relative seeks help, they delay the job and then ask them to go to the other’s house. Rojob sends his relatives to Idul, and Idul sends his relatives to Rojob. If you can pay Idul, go ahead. He will happily to your forms!”
The conversion with that man turned many things transparent. Kith and kin, family and friends: they didn’t care, and they just wanted to make money. At first, I hesitated to ask, but still, I did, “So, how much do they charge per head?”
“Five hundred rupees! Not one rupee less!”
Five hundred rupees! Then what was the point of going to Idul’s house? I told the man after letting out sigh tinged in sorrow, disappointment and hopelessness, “I haven’t touched five-hundred rupees in a very long time!”
I needed to go to Inam’s house.
That was my only resort. As I stood up from the patch of grass to go to Inam’s house, I felt a soft touch of someone on my back. That was the exact spot on my back where the young men had kicked me years ago after they had decided I was an illegal immigrant.
Startled, I turned back and saw a young man of no more than thirty years: perhaps, twenty-six or twenty-seven years old? A handsome young man who was also quite tall. He wore a T-shirt and a pair of trousers that was the dark, slightly chrome yellow color of muga-silk, without the sheen.
When our eyes met, he smiled at me, but I couldn’t recall where I had seen him even though he seemed familiar. Even though he seemed like someone I had met before. Where had I met this young man?
I searched around in my field of memories. This young man seemed well educated. I started to recollect each and every young man I had met in my life who was educated. But no, I wasn’t able to figure out where I had seen this young man.
Since I had so many question marks written on my face, he said, “Mama, it seems you are not able to recognize me?”
Mama? Uncle? No, I shook my head, no, I wasn’t able to recognize who he was.
“Kiyo? I am Munnaf Mama’s nephew. I am Habib!”
This time I remembered.
About five-six years ago, when Habib’s father had hired me and six other men from our village to harvest the paddy because he wasn’t able to find enough women to do it. I had lived in their house for almost a month and helped them in manually harvesting acres of paddy fields. Habib was an undergraduate student then. He was tiny, thin. A very young boy, then.
When I recognized him, I stood up, but he forced me to sit down again by pressing on my shoulders with both his hands. After that, even he sat down with his legs stretched to the front, next to me, on the patch of grass next to the road.
“When did you come to this side?” I asked him.
“Yesterday: I had to fill up the forms of my uncles. I finished them all at night but have just submitted it at the office counter.”
“What kind of papers are you carrying, Mama?”
I told him and asked, “What do you think?”
“You haven’t submitted them yet?” Habib asked me.
“No, I haven’t.”
“You haven’t found someone to help you fill these?”
“No, I haven’t.” I shook my head, in utter helplessness.
“I was walking by, then I saw that you looked extremely worried. I could guess you must be struggling with the forms. Give them to me, I will fill these up. Would you like me to do that?”
Would you like me to do that? Of course, I would like it!
“Here, take them, take them all.” I wasted no time before planting all the forms in his hands. I felt my mind was fearless after a long time. Habib spread the forms on his lap and knees and started to complete them step by step. In between, he asked me questions, and he scanned the documents.
“Oh, your papers are from nineteen-fifty-one?”
“Right, Habib! Most of us have papers from fifty-one.”
“I see, I see,” Habib said. “You know, including you, I have filled up two-hundred and thirty-eight forms so far since this process started. Except for two-four people, almost everyone has papers from fifty-one.”
“You have filled up the forms of two hundred and thirty-eight people! You have helped a lot of people, Habib!”
“What else to do, Mama? People roaming from pillar to post to prove their citizenship in the country they were born! It is an unbearable sight.”
Habib’s remarks touched my heart. “You feel bad, but not everyone. I hope there are others like you. I am sure there are. But there so many who don’t care, who don’t help.”
“It is possible – not every human being is the same, isn’t it? You know what, Mama, the main reason behind our problems is that we don’t have a good education, and we all need to be educated.”
“You are right, Habib, I have been thinking a lot about the value of education these days.”
Did I think about education and its value and the floods and the soil erosion and the forms and the citizenship registration nightmare when I was leaving Rojob and Idul’s village that? No, I was just trying not to cry.
They only had to complete the forms. Write down names from the documents we had provided. Write dates from the documents I would have furnished. And yet, despite multiple requests that I made, by casting aside my dignity and self-respect, despite being a member of my extended family, Rojob didn’t help me. Let alone board exams and university degrees: only if I was able to read and write, I wouldn’t be facing this. Why did I send my first son Ehsan to a madrasa? Instead of sending him to religious school, if I had sent him to a regular government school, wouldn’t he have learned better. He would have been able to help me with this. He would have been able to face the situation that was starting today of forms, of citizenship proof, of being rendered stateless in our motherland, with much ease. Perhaps, I made a mistake. I should have sent Ehsan to a government school. How could I rectify my error? I asked Habib.
“Why are you saying that you have made a mistake?” Habib questioned me back. “An education from a religious school is also a valuable education.”
“Do you think I could send him to a school now? Isn’t it too late? He can recite verses from the holy book so well.”
“Why wouldn’t he be able to? People can go to school anytime. There is no age limit for education.”
“Perhaps, I should start sending him to a school from now on.”
“Sure, you may.”
I said nothing more.
The little wish that grew in my mind, was soon a decision. Habib returned the forms after completing them. Each of those completed forms was as if a sign of relief for me, not a mere document. Ah, the worries of so many days, all that anxiety!
Was I looking for the documents to be filled up? Or was I looking for someone such as Habib?