Our small town is not known for many things. The local dry fish market is perhaps its biggest draw; people claim it is the largest in all of Asia. Then there is the nearby paper mill which provides employment to a lot of people here and the regional post office, known for perhaps the biggest beehive that I have ever seen. The town also has a small park nestled around a waterfall, a place the locals throng on weekends and holidays. That is about the extent of popular things in Jagiroad, unless you count the hills behind our home.
The series of granite hills run the town’s distance, providing the geographical spine in a place where many people have lost their metaphorical ones. The hills are an offshoot of the Khasi hills in Meghalaya, another reason why people still look at it as an outsider. It stands there like a forgotten dormant giant, the shattered fragments from when it was once relevant.
My grandfather first came to Jagiroad as a young married man, barely into this twenties. He was employed to work in the stone quarry which provided granite rocks for construction of bridges and roads all over the state. My father was born five years later and my grandparents had four other children, three boys and a girl. Soon, after most of the bridges were built and roads paved, the quarrying work was left idle. My grandfather was considering a return to his village in West Assam when a friend offered to provide some land and help start a milk business. My grandfather accepted the offer but, narrow-minded as he was, never thought the town would be his ultimate resting place. He kept harbouring dreams of going back to Goalpara.
I remember riding my cycle up and down the gentle slopes of the hills and play cricket on the grassy plains with the other children. We used to cross a small pond on our way to the grassland, sometimes stopping to catch catfish in its waters. During the dry months, the water-bed turned into a sticky marsh and we kept losing our slippers in the mud. We threw rocks at the jamun and tamarind trees, hoping that the sheer barrage of pebbles would pick a few berries.
At the cusp of the new millennia, India was growing in a modern economic superpower, pushed ahead by its deep-rooted agrarian economy. Assam offered new opportunities for the rich and poor alike. Small towns like ours saw a massive inflow of people from the rural areas, many in the search for fresh beginnings. Scuffles between the locals and the migrants grew frequent. The newcomers were looked down upon, even treated as scavengers out to steal jobs from the residents in the town. There was a call to clear Assam off ‘foreigners.’ Narrow-mindedness was contagious.
The foothills became new homes for the migrants. The forest was cleared and the marshes filled to set up temporary homes. The slopes were now being increasingly dotted with thatched roofs. Trees were cut to cook food and in turn the wildlife suffered. People began littering the area with garbage and open defecation. Several birds lost important nesting grounds while many were hunted as game. My grandmother told me stories of leopards being spotted in the forest canopy. Now goats and cows roam the area in search of fodder. Elephants began rampaging the upper slopes, enticed by the prospect of easy meals of bananas and vegetables. Many people, especially woodcutters, lost their lives to such altercations. Meanwhile, several elephants lost theirs to human vengeance. The environmental implications were much more severe than the economic ones. Man’s wants superseded nature’s needs.
The towns landscape has changed drastically over the recent few years. New buildings have cropped up, the express highway streams through the town, fancy cars are increasingly common. Things have changed for us as well. Our family is much smaller. Our house is much larger. People have grown old and rich and forgetful. There are things that have survived the transition. We still complain about the weather being too hot and humid and wish it would rain everyday. The dry fish market and the post office are still here, and so are the hills. It now acts as a weather forecaster; the grey monsoon clouds tangent its peaks before flowing downwards to the town. It still stands ignored and forgotten, and will continue to do until the end of most of our times. Regrettably, it will bear the scars etched upon its surface by man longer than the memories of the people who now call it home.