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The Labour Unionist

Lhutu Keyho

My phone rang again as I was boarding the bus home at Razhü Point. I knew exactly who the caller was before I even drew it out of my pocket. Aunty had already called me up several times earlier and I had not answered the calls dreading the reminder of a chore that she had asked me to do the previous night. I took a window seat, fished out my phone from my jacket’s pocket and saw that I had to answer it. “Hello aunty, I am so sorry,” I blurted out before she could say a thing. “What are you sorry for? Why is it taking you the entire day to get your friend’s headphones returned?” unsympathetic questions rattled from the other end. The urge to disconnect the call and detach myself from everything that waited for me back home weighed down on me. “Look aunt, I am going to be late. My friend was out and I had to wait,” I lied and disconnected the call before she could reply, knowing exactly what awaited me if I had to go back home that night…
I had been living with my aunt and her husband for quite a while now, and she was beginning to let her disappointment show. She had asked me the previous night to get the empty gas cylinder refilled and I had in turn complained that the gas agency was too far. I told her that she must get one of the deshwalis to get the job done and this imprudent suggestion brought out all the rage she had been incarcerating inside her since I joined the household. She immediately resorted to assaulting me and her husband with a barrage of admonishments, going on about how expensive and untrustworthy the deshwalis are. “These people are emasculating you,” she said, as she did on many an occasion. Uncle knew the routine, knew that she would go on and on, and silenced her saying that I would get the cylinder refilled the next day. I shot a wrathful glance at uncle and darted out of the kitchen, but not before aunty could remark, “See that the job is done before dinnertime, you ungrateful boy. Your parents should have never let you gone out of the state for your studies. You had completely forgotten that one has to work to eat.”

I sighed and returned my phone to my pocket thinking that I have to move out to a place of my own very soon. It was about a quarter past three and the commuters were mostly school children, hurriedly boarding the bus as the bus conductor hollered, “BOC bound bus, BOC bound bus”. I looked out of the window and saw a group of deshwalis standing nearby a shop. Three middle aged men stood apart in the group, clearly the leaders, clad in their dhotis and tattered shirts. The others looked younger, must be in their early twenties. One of the elders mashed something on his left palm with his right thumb, probably tobacco, and seems to be telling the group a joke for the whole group was engulfed in guffaws before he could finish speaking.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

I was fascinated at the spectacle as they laughed and bellowed in a foreign language which was becoming all too familiar. As I was contemplating on how these people had made themselves at home, thousands of miles away from their families and engaging in back breaking jobs every single day, I felt something very disturbing inside me, a strange disturbance whose cause I could not identify. I tried to locate the source of this strange irritation, mentally attempting to place a finger on the reason, but it felt like I was trying to remember something someone had told me a long time ago, or trying and failing to recall the right word to fit a sentence in an examination. I decided that it would come back to me later and broke my gaze from the group and looked around the small junction.

As I scrutinized the shops and the movement of the people around the intersection, the desire to locate the disturbance in me must have lingered on in my unconscious, my gaze suddenly rested itself on something very unusual on the lower rungs of the over-bridge stairs. At first I saw only the placard. It read;
“HOME DELIVERY- ALL SORTS OF GOODS
I AM A LOCAL. I AM STRONG. I AM TRUSTWORTHY.
No extra charges.”

Then I saw the man. He looked young, as young as the younger deshwalis I had seen earlier, perhaps as young as me. There was something very familiar about the lean and good looking man as he sat on the stairs holding the placard. He had short hair, almost looked shaved and was in shorts and a worn out converse shoes and wore a T-shirt with sleeves cut at the shoulder joint. If he was looking for work, menial work, he seemed to take a pride in it for his countenance did not show any sign of shame. I stared at the man and the placard, and I found myself again engaged in another mental battle, trying to connect them to a memory I couldn’t remember. As the driver started the bus and begin to move out, it all came back to me. The unusual in the spectacle suddenly became natural as soon as I recognized the man. As I rushed out of my seat and made my way out of the bus I had the feeling that the answer to my earlier mental impasse at the sight of the deshwalis was beginning to surface although I still could not grasp it. I got down from the moving bus and tried to reach out to the answer again as I ran towards the over-bridge.

“Vezüh,” I called out his name as soon as he came into my sight. I felt a slight tinge of disappointment when he looked up at me, threw a quick glance at his surroundings and took everything in with a composed sense of normalcy. I had expected slight embarrassment on his part to be seen by an old friend in an act of trying to earn money through menial labour in the middle of the town. “I didn’t recognize you in that new hairdo,” I continued when he didn’t say a word. He gave me a broad smile at that and glanced sideways to the labourers from Bihar, pointed at them with his thumb and asked me, “You know how much these people earn in a day?” He didn’t wait for me to answer nor gave me one as he went on, “People think they work at cheaper rates and therefore prefers to hire them.” I could see that he was not much amused as the labourers burst out into another fit of laughter and I heard him mumble some curses under his breath. “This is beneath you. What are you doing here?” I asked him, “I was told that you got through the NET examinations. I thought that you were teaching in a college.” As I said these I remembered that Vezüh was one of those few people who comes from the villages to the towns to pursue higher education and manages to get any real education and at the same time retain any dignity in physical work that village life instills in them. As if reading my thoughts, he called out my name and pointed at a dingy tin house on the terrace of a two storied building, grinned like he had unraveled a secret and asked me, “Have you forgotten the pact? Don’t you think that we have had a conversation very similar to this one a few years back when we were in college?” he answered my questions with his own set of inquiries. I had actually recalled that same conversation when I first recognized him. It was in fact that memory which had rendered the unusual spectacle of seeing a local man trying to get people to hire him for menial labour to appear natural…

 
 

It must have been almost three years since the night the „pact‟ was signed. It was on a rainy august evening and I remember that it was getting quite dark outside. The atmosphere inside the tin house on the terrace of the two storied building was getting more vociferous with each summon, departure and return of the lady of the house with the boys‟ orders. I thought I was fortunate to be in town at a time when college boys were receiving their scholarships. The shabby bar was crammed with college boys and each boy was trying his best to be heard. The five of us, Vezüh, me and three of his friends were huddled in a corner around a table with our mugs of local rice beer surrounding the lone candle lighted on the center of the table. Our enthusiasm was not dampened by the want of electricity, as we debated on several issues in quick succession, ranging from politics and development in the state to the art of flying a kite. It was in the course of these debates that one of Vezüh's friends brought out the question of the illegal Bangladeshi immigrant, the IBIs as they were referred to by the youngsters, in Nagaland. According to one of the friends, these IBIs were becoming a thorn in the Naga society, with visible increase in crimes committed by them against the locals. “Yes,” I retorted, “I don’t know where they get the audacity to beat up our people and rape our women in our own land. These people don’t have guns, this is not 1956. Why are we allowing them to even stay?” Emboldened by several mugs of beer, another friend went to the extent of suggesting that the Nagas should go back to their warring ways, and take up our machetes and start hunting heads. He said that he strongly believes that this was the only way to get the outsiders out our land.
Vezüh must have been waiting for us to stop speaking, for as soon as we did he started. “You are not seeing the bigger picture,” his speech had an intoxicated resonance. “These people are not going anywhere. You are talking about the IBIs; I am talking about all outsiders here who had stayed because we let them stay. We have given them employment, and they are now turning up in unending numbers to accept the jobs which we are offering. They will not stop coming, and we cannot stop them. There is only one way to send this people packing, to stop these crimes. Take away their jobs. Do that they are kaput!” He said these words with the confidence of a pastor on the pulpit. He looked at me and continued, “You are quite right, this is not 1956 and therefore guns and machetes will solve nothing. They will only add to your problems.” He would not allow us to talk before he finished his speech, his philosophy as he called it later. He continued, “If there is anything that has to be done, it is to do your own menial works and try your hands at running the small and petty businesses. Get the gas cylinders refilled by yourself, get the rations transported from the shops to your homes by yourself, construct you own houses, and whatever cannot be done, let them be done by some local labourers. This is the only win-win solution. This way, the immigrant problem is solved and some local population gets employed.” The group looked at the drunken Vezüh in awe, listening to his gabbing in silence as I marveled at the eloquence beer bestows to people. “This man would get Rome built in a single day if given a barrel of fine beer,” I thought as I looked at Vezüh. I knew that the whole discourse would be forgotten the next morning but for conversation’s sake I asked him who he thought were those local laborers who would do the jobs that we cannot do on our own. He took a long drag from his mug and took his time lighting a cigarette before he replied, pointing two fingers that held the cigarette to an imaginary group of people. “These people, school drop-outs, there are quite a lot of them in the villages, even unemployed degree holders, these people will get the job done. I will lead them,” he said, “that day is almost here.”
“A Labour Union!” One friend in the group suddenly shouted, either brainwashed by Vezüh’s rhetoric, or trying to keep the discussion going on in a positive note. “We must form a labour union. It will be a revolution.” The friend suggesting this belonged to a community famed for forming unions every time they meet in a group. “We will sign a pact” Vezüh added with excitement, and tore a sheet of paper from his notebook and began scribbling some words on it. He then passed the sheet around saying that all five of us must sign it. “It’s a pact,” he simply said. When the sheet came to me and I saw what had been scribbled, I almost burst out laughing at the childishness of the whole affair. The note read;
“LABOUR UNONIST PACT:
I hereby vow to do whatever menial job my body physically allows me to perform.
I further give my word to do my part in forming the labour union.
Signed on this day, the 25th of August 2012, in Ash and Beer.”

I was startled at the concluding words but wrote my name below the others‟ signatures and handed it over to vezüh who did a very strange thing with it. He held the note to the flame of the candle and allowed it to burn out on his palms. After it was rendered to a greyish residue he crushed it on his palms and placed it on the table, making a small heap of paper ash. It was when he started dropping a pinch of the ash into each our mugs that the last line began to make sense. We were too stunned by this presentation that none of us even complaint when he said, “I dare you to drink your beer bottoms-up to complete the pact.” Vezüh held out his jug to us and the other three followed as I reluctantly complied with this drunken enactment. We gulped down the contents of our jugs, looked at each other and burst out into guffaws, high fiving each other. I could not remember what transpired in the shabby bar after that final drag of beer-ash concoction. It was perhaps the ash. They say cigarette ash in a glass of beer could leave any experienced drunk completely blitzed.
… “I was just fulfilling my part of the pact,” he continued and grinned at me, now answering my question. “Some boys are coming from the village in a few days. They said that they don’t know how it works out here, so I thought I’d give it a try so that I can tell them how things are done here.” I was surprised that he had really been serious the night we drew the pact. “I had been sitting here and in some other spots for the last three days. We had no classes, I am teaching at my old college by the way,” he added. “The boys are going to have a lot of competition from those mellowed ones,” he said, referring to the deshwalis.
“Did you fulfill yours?” he asked me. As he asked me this question I felt something clearing up inside me and I thought it was almost an epiphany as the cloud suddenly lifted and I saw it very clearly. “These people are emasculating you,” these words, my aunt’s words were the cause of the mental impasse, the words I was trying to recall, when I saw the snugged Deshwalis earlier. I stole a quick glance at the group of labourers once more before I replied, “I am working on it.”

Glossary:
Deshwalis: Literally means people of the country, but the term is used in Nagaland in the context of labourers from Bihar

Razhü Point: A locality in Kohima, Nagaland
 
     
     
 
 
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