I reached the vicinity of Beltola Bazar and parked my car in a spot which the earlier occupant was in the process of vacating. I thanked my stars. It seemed to me to be a very good omen. A parking spot near Beltola Bazar on a busy day making itself available on at the precise moment of my arrival! Must be divine intervention, what else?
But my faith in omens dwindled and then vanished altogether when I spent the next two and a half hours going all over the neighbor-hood where Saurav Chaliha spent his last days, asking for the residence of the now departed Saurav Chaliha or Suren Medhi, retired from Assam Engineering College, and one of the finest writers in the world of Assamese literature. I got blank stares everywhere.
I then thought of asking those repositories of all neighbor-hood gossip, the gela-maal shops. No luck. No one had heard that name. Was he new to the place? What did he look like? Oh, a writer? Oh! No Sir, we don't know any writers, sorry.
I went next to a small shop selling magazines. They must know, surely. At least the shopkeeper must have overheard people discussing Chaliha's works? …Saurav Chaliha? Well you see, we sell only film magazines and children's story books. No, Sir, we have not heard that writer's name before. May be he is a beginner, yet to make his mark…
Was I in the right locality, I began to wonder. Another phone call to Kathaa, the publishers of the Saurav Chaliha's collection of stories, confirmed that yes, I was in the general locality where Saurav Chaliha lived. But no, giving the exact location would be tough over phone... There is school close by, and a workshop of some kind…
I was feeling absolutely dejected. And I grew angry in spells. Saurav Chaliha should have been a rich contractor or a moneyed businessman or a crooked politician. Everyone would have pointed out his house then. An Assamese writer of all things! Whoever bothers about such animals?
An old mechanic in a decrepit car garage, that had seen better days, finally seemed to know someone of the physical description I gave him but no, he didn't know his name. Anyway, he gave me directions.
Praying to God that my description evoked memories of none other than Saurav Chaliha in the mechanic's failing mind, I followed his directions and kept walking. After half a kilometer or so when I reached the spot described by him, I asked around and realized that the mechanic's directions were alright but what I found there was a lot of debris scattered all over a plot of about three kathas of land and whatever house had once stood there was now totally razed to the ground .
The broken bricks lying on the ground seemed to be winking derisively at me at my predicament. Or was it my frustrated mind ridiculing me through the medium of those bricks? But I was overwhelmed by frustration, so near yet so far!
I thought there was no point in trying to find out where the family had shifted. Maybe I should go to Harisabhaa in Panbazar and find out from Chaliha's ancestral house the exact address and then come back here another day. But I asked couple of pedestrians, all the same, before dragging myself back to my car. One of them was confident that Mrs. Chaliha had shifted to one of those flats and he pointed out to a bank of new buildings in the distance… Did he know which flat or which building? No, he did not, sorry.
I felt like weeping at the fate of my idol whom I had always put on a pedestal. He was a fallen idol now, pushed down to the ignominy of anonymity by a society obsessed with lustre of the lucre.
I went over to the row of buildings through a slushy 'short-cut ' someone had kindly pointed out ( divine intervention again ?) to make me avoid the longish 'main road' and I started with the first building after hitting the 'main road' at the end of my muddy detour .
No, no one named Chaliha, male or female, stays there. Same answer in the next building and the next and the next. I asked one of the security guys in one block of flats; don't they have a master list of all the tenants and owners of the flats? Who were the tenants generally in these buildings? He said they were mostly non-Assamese and from the business community. Would there be any Assamese family in any of the buildings, I asked. He pointed to the distance - can you see that rickshaw going into that lane? Go to that lane. There are a few new buildings there where some Assamese families reside, I have heard, he said and dismissed me from his gaze and his thoughts.
I went over as directed and in the first high-rise building a little distance from the mouth of the lane, I saw a lady talking to some boys in uniform. She appeared to be giving directions to the building's security staff. Maybe she is the owner of the block of flats, I thought. I asked her if she would know of the wife of Saurav Chaliha, the late litterateur, one of the best that Assam has ever produced, and Sahitya Akademi award winner, Assam Valley… etc, etc? ….Chaliha? No I don't think we have a Chaliha here.
'But baideo, isn't that 'aunty' on that block's first floor a Chaliha? - One young security guard asked the lady on hearing our conversation.
I don't know her name, the lady replied. But how old is the lady you are looking for, the landlady asked me…I was not sure but since Chaliha had retired in …..Well, she may be sixty eight, seventy or so? …I have only one lady of that age staying here, the lady answered. She is on that flat over there where those saris are drying. She is from late Kaliram Medhi's family, that's all I know…
Ah, at last, I thought I had reached! Saurav Chaliha was Kaliram Medhi's son! But the lady in that flat over there where the saris are drying… she was not Saurav Chaliha's wife but Kaliram Medhi's daughter-in-law? I gulped down the indeterminate sensations trying to come out of my throat.
I went up to the flat and knocked. A young boy opened the door. Is this Saurav Chaliha's residence, I asked. Yes, it is, he said.
I stopped an impulse to hug the boy or even to give him a peck on his cheeks. So after hours of nonstop sleuthing, El Dorado at last! Three hours! Thank God I am a retired man, having nothing better to do than chasing mirages!
I heaved a huge sigh of relief which must have made the boy wonder what made me do that. Is Mrs. Chaliha in, I asked him. No, he said. She has gone out for the day. I am her nephew. I had come to help aunt with the annual Shraddha of her husband which was due tomorrow but that has been deferred because of the Ambubachi.
As I walked back, after collecting the lady's mobile number, to my car, now nearly two kilometer away, I was deluged with a medley of emotions: sadness, anger, disillusionment, and an overpowering revulsion for a society that does not give a damn about an artist who had depicted the same society and had brought out its contradictions, its ugliness, its degradations and its beauty so skillfully in his own unique inimitable style as no one else ever had.
I felt like weeping at the fate of my idol whom I had always put on a pedestal. He was a fallen idol now, pushed down to the ignominy of anonymity by a society obsessed with lustre of the lucre. I almost wished he was around to write a story out of it.
(Written in October, 2014, to my daughter, Munmi--writer)