Journalist Papri Sri Raman, got a UNHCR -C-NES media fellowship to conduct a study on Sri Lankan refugees in 2008. She had also visited the Jorhat Boat Clinic some time later.
Her new book, the Song of India, is a historical fiction, set in the time frame of World War II and the great Hump flights, in Jorhat and Majuli. As many as 50,000 American soldiers, mostly airmen, were stationed in Assam in the 1940s. They built all the airports in north-east India, and the closure operations by the CBI Hump Pilots Association-MIA (missing in action) Recoveries Organisation have hogged headlines for the last one decade. Michael Genin was a second lieutenant with the US Army Air Forces Air Transport Command, placed in Assam in 1941-43. He was also a musician. When Michael was tired of Assam, he went down to Calcutta by the tea trains, just to be able to play for the Calcutta Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra was later burnt down, and music lovers marked its hundred years in 2015. And he fell in love. The book has three voices, He, She and They.
Excerpt from the book:
While holy men in shadowed calm retreats
Pray through the night and watch the stars,
A lonely plane flies off to meet the dawn…
My cello and I had arrived in India on one of the first
‘Fireball Express’ planes, a modified C-87 Liberator, making
a test run to Dinjan from the Air Service Command Depot
in Fairfield, Ohio. It was the C-47, generally flying in that
sector. But we had plans for some new aircraft. And this
was as good a chance to check out durability as any, and
move troops out. We had removed the camouflage paint to
give an extra 5 mph of airspeed to the plane. We were the
first soldiers of the Air Corps’ Ferrying Command, which
later became the ATC. We were three radio officers on that
flight, carrying communication equipment, being flown in
by the Tenth Airforce. I had insisted that the authorities let
me keep my cello, no matter where in the world they sent
me out. I would go, but my cello would go with me. And
they had finally agreed.
Then I hear the song that only India can sing,
Softer than the plumage on a black raven’s wing.
I walk over flowers.
On the island, the temples are roadless and remote and
shaded by tall shonaru and hilikha on which great big birds
have nests. The bel are ripe and tempting. The bakul stand
tall, trying to reach the sky despite the canopy spread by
the shonaru. It is like the aakashdeep that stands near the
entrance to the xatro, the tall bamboo poles reaching out to
the sky, holding up lamps to our forefathers. The aakashdeep
aspire skyward in remembrance as I aspire across the seven
seas. At the edge of the grass lies the carpet of white starry
little flowers… on which I walk, wrapped in fragrance.
There is an arrest warrant out for Gurudev since
23 September, under Sec 25 of the Arms Act. Secret letters
have gone to and fro between the Deputy Commissioner
of Sibsagar, Maulavi Z Huq, and the Chief Secretary of
the Government of Assam, Shilong, complaining about
Gormur xatrodhikari Pitambardev Goswami: ‘He came
over to Jorhat and started civil disobedience movement.
His deka goswami was actually leading a procession. He
possesses a few firearms.’ The only way to stop him ‘is to
arrest and detain him under Defence of India rules’, the
Deputy Commissioner wrote. But Gurudev does not need
any firearms. He is nearly seven feet tall, and has a wrestler’s
body and a lush moustache. ‘He can kill a tiger with his bare
hands, he does not need a gun to kill a firingee’, Gurubhai
Hariram says. He reads out the warrant, faithfully copied
by a supporter of the freedom fighters in the Deputy
Commissioner’s office and sent to the xatrodhikari.
Everyone knows, inside Pitambardev’s sculpted frame
resides a soft heart. Hariram keeps repeating the story of
how, one dark night, Pitambardev was walking back to the
xatro from the house of a farmer devotee, some five miles
away. The grass was long and the scythe Hariram carried
was supplemented by two sticks the two other attendants
carried. ‘Hoi, Hoi, we shouted to keep the wild boars and
elephants away, swinging the sticks left and right. It was close
to the xatro when Gosain stumbled over something small.
He thought it was a puppy. He picked it up and brought
it to the xatro. In the lamp light, we saw, it was a tiny tiger
cub.’ The little gurbhais wait with baited breath to listen to
what happened then.
‘Gosain decided to return the cub to its mother. The
night was dark, not even a sliver of moon up in the sky.
It was so still, you could hear the river flow and the xihu
chatter. The mother tigress would have followed us to the
xatro, we thought. How could we get out of the xatro in
the middle of the night? But no. Gosain would have none
of it. So we took Suborno and his mother Chitrangada.
Gosain rode Chitrangada and I was on Suborno, who was
young and excited. Suborno was just eighteen years old
then. Chitrangada was almost fifty years old and blind in
one eye. She swayed slowly through the long grass until
Gosain thought, we had reached the right spot from where
we had picked up the cub. The mahuts quacked in fear but
Gosain climbed down and gently put the cub down on the
grass. We were all sure that the mother would jump out and
attack us. All except Gosain. He said the tigress would be
more interested in the cub rather than in us. No tiger ever
attacks Gosain since that day.’ The wide-eyed children love
Especially about how Pitambar Goswami and his
assistant, Krishnachandradev, have been hoodwinking the
British and take part in the freedom movement. Of course,
not only Pitambardev, none of the young men in the xatro
can go out of the xatro due to the ban on their going out of
the campus and mixing with the common people. ‘They are
to confine themselves to religious activities’, the government
has said. It is almost like being under house arrest. Luckily,
the road before the xatro is narrow, with wild growth of
bamboo and other trees all along. In many places, the
brick wall is moss grown and dark, merging with the lush
vegetation all around. The old fort wall is also part of the
xatro boundary. In some places the wall is broken, and the
rice fields encroach on the xatro land, difficult for most to
distinguish. The biplobis dress as farmers, cowherds, xatro
Boishnobs with sandal paste markings on their foreheads and
in their white dhuti and chador manage to look innocent.
Their demonstrations are mostly on the mainland, they
move on the river freely, the Mishing very willing boatmen.