Arun Basumatary, a python and management skills.
Translated by Stuti Goswami
(an extract from the book 'the heart is a secure address'-a series of autobiographical episodes written by Pankaj Thakur)
I was an area officer for the North East zone of an automobile company, Ashok Leyland Ltd. Another organization, Walford Transport(Eastern India) Ltd. was the North East dealer for Ashok Leyland. Walford had its branch offices at many places in the North East. One of them was at Dimapur. Most of the offices and workshops of Walford had spacious compounds; such that the chassis of the trucks brought for sale could be properly kept.
It is a priority for all manufacturing companies to keep a sharp eye on its dealers. In case of automobile companies, the watch has to be even sharper; for otherwise, there is every risk of financial mismanagement in addition to unnecessary bureaucratic hassles. This might implicate not only the concerned dealer but the company as a whole. Ashok Leyland was very particular about its dealers’ operations; especially we Area Officers, as the heads of a particular zone, had to be extra vigilant.
For quite some time, there had been many complaint from the Dimapur office of Ashok Leyland. For almost two years, customers had complained that whenever they bought vehicles from that outlet, they often didn’t get many accessories they ought to have. In fact, there were several cases of alternator, battery, even gear box disappearing from the trucks when they were lined in the yard for sale.because of this, many trucks remained unsold. Though it was Walford’s responsibility to find out the reasons behind such discrepancies, since the complaints had reached the company’s the Head Office at Madras, Ashok Leyland decided to investigate matters itself. Consequently I was sent to Dimapur to enquire into the matter.
And thus, on a day in 1980, I arrived at Dimapur. At that time, a man called Arun Basumatary was the Manager of Walford’s Dimapur office. Unfortunately Mr. Basumatary is no more in this world. Anyway, late Mr. Basumatary was a man with a distinctive personality. Though not very tall, he was of stocky build, with a robust face, and a smile ever twinkling in his eyes. A man of few words, his distinctive ideas were however evident in his measured utterances.
I was received at the airport by Mr. Basumatary. From there, I was taken directly to the hotel(I can’t recollect which hotel it was though at that time there were just a few good hotels in Dimapur). Once I had checked in at the hotel, Mr. Basumatary left, with the words, “Please rest awhile, I’ll come back to take you”. After this, he literally vanished. Dusk fell. But there was no sign of Mr. Basumatary. Soon, it began to seem as if Basumatary was trying to avoid me. The suspicion arose in my mind that probably Mr. Basumatary was himself involved with these discrepancies; and therefore, keeping me at bay would be to his credit. I felt foolish at having trusted him so much while I had come for such an important investigation. I felt distressed: I had reached Dimapur at eleven in the morning and here I was, having wasted the whole day merely sitting at the hotel, doing nothing. I felt like a puppet in the hands of the man against whose office I had come to investigate complaints. Whatever, I decided, I’d go to Basumatary’s office directly first thing in the morning without waiting for anyone. Having decided that, I decided to take a stroll out in the vicinity.
Just then, there was a knock at my door. I opened—Basumatary was standing there, with that familiar smile plastered all over his face. I had hoped he would be sorry for such delay. But, to my utter dismay, I could discern no trace of apology on his expression. Though I didn’t let it show on my face, I was offended. Signaling him to come in, I offered him a seat, without uttering a word. He sat down. After a few moments of silence, he said, “Let’s go out for a while”.
Though I had got ready to out for a walk myself, I replied that I didn’t feel like.
Smiling, he asked, “Then why have you put your shoes on?”
Though that unsettled me a little, I tried to smile. I didn’t say anything, but couldn’t help admiring Basumatary’s observation.
Basumatary spoke again, “I suppose you’re angry at me for being so late. There are not many facilities of telephone and all that here, therefore the arrangements took some time.”
What arrangements were he speaking of? I had not asked for anything! I asked, “What arrangements are you speaking of, Mr. Basumatary? I really don’t understand.”
“It’s okay sir, let’s go. You’ll get to know of it yourself. After all, you are a young man with fine tastes, you’ll like it for sure.” In almost an authoritative voice, he requested me to come along.
I noted that the man of few words had said quite a few things. He had said I would understand everything when I saw, he was assured of my tastes, he had also seemed to caution me that I was a young man and at the same time he sounded so confident that I would I would love it! As far as my age was concerned, he wasn’t wrong. At the same time, even I thought I had decent tastes. Till that extent it was all right. But, what about his confidence, that I would definitely like the ‘arrangements’? I couldn’t understand. Most importantly, I was absolutely unaware of what it was all about? It was such an uncomfortable, inexplicable situation. Basumatary’s words had seemed more of a command; and so I had neither opportunity nor the atmosphere conducive to express my thoughts openly. I began to feel as if Mr. Basumatary knew some magic to bring people under his spell. Without uttering a word, I stepped out of the hotel. Silently we sat in the jeep.
The jeep moved on. Both of us were silent, lost in our own thoughts. Basumatary was a man of few words anyway, added to that, probably my countenance had made my thoughts clearly perceptible, for I was sure Mr. Basumatary understood that the heat of my anger had lingered on.
Most probably it was the month of February. There was still a tint of cold in the air. That feeling might have been caused by the fact that in a jeep, one feels the wind a little more. It was pitch dark outside. Not a soul was in sight. In the distance we could see a flickering light or two, glimmering, waving out to us. After travelling some distance in this manner, our car turned, veering into a small path towards left, away from the highway. An uneven hilly road. I guessed we had long left the boundaries of the town of Dimapur. Suddenly, Basumatary spoke up, “The road isn’t very good. Please hold on tight.”
I didn’t feel the necessity of answering him. To be honest, I didn’t want to reveal my caution. I remained seated in silence. Arun Basumatary was carefully steering the wheel, busy negotiating the uneven path. Enjoying the fragmentary sights made available by the flashing headlights, I increasingly entered a different world. I had a little acquaintance with the hills. But this particular area was unknown to me. We were trundling through the dense forest, with an assortment of unknown trees and climbers on either side. Though seated in the same vehicle, I realized that both of us were wafting in two different worlds. Prior to this, I had no idea of how enticing such brief flashes of sight in the dark could be. All of my anger had long evaporated and escaped through some tiny vent in the world of my thoughts. Instead, my mind was now filled by enamouring images of the verdant hills, images etched by the play of light and shadow.
The barking of dogs wafting in from the distance, and at places sounds of the keko snake fell on my ears. At some other places, fireflies in bunches were dancing an ancient rhythm, as if, secretly conspiring to wean us away from our paths into some other world. Immersed in such thoughts, I did not realize how much time had elapsed. Suddenly, Basumatary spoke up—
“Kindly look upwards, to your left. Do you see something?”
I glanced in that direction. Indeed, a little ahead, at an elevation, I could see flashes of firelight at several places, close to one another. I replied, “Yes I do. Seems like a village.”
“That is exactly where we are going -- a big Naga village of this area. It will take us some time to reach there though”, Basumatary said.
After overcoming several hilly curves, we finally halted before a particular house.
We got down from the jeep. Several elderly Naga gentlemen advanced in our direction, with heartwarming smiles. I noticed a vast courtyard, and a house on one side. On another side, in the light of the fire, I noticed a big barn meant for storing grains harvested in jhum farming. The fire had been lit on the other side of that wide courtyard. We were offered broad wooden murhas to sit, near the fire.
I noticed, men young and old had trickled in ones and twos out of the darkness, such that, soon enough quite a crowd had assembled in the yard. Just then, a large group of ladies too entered, raising a tumult in the air with their tinkling laughter. From within the house, four young girls came out, with bowls in hand. They courteously placed the wide bowls on the slightly raised table-like wooden stools kept before us. That was modhu-- a local drink—served to us. A radiant smile was glimmering on each of their bright faces, the irradiance sprinkling on their entire bodies. The elderly gentlemen were talking amongst themselves, Basumatary conversing with them in their own tongue. At times, he conveyed to me a few important information. That house was the village headman’s. The girls were from neighbouring families. They had been brought in to serve the guests. Many of the villagers had already arrived; some were yet to come. The modhu that had been offered to us was their traditional beverage, made of the local sweet rice(mitha saul), through a special technique. If the guest refused the drink, it was taken as an affront to the hosts.
Following Basumatary’s hint, I took up a bowl. Cautiously I took a sip. It felt really nice. It had a slight taste, and was slightly warm; which lent it a different savour. At a definite interval, I sipped in the drink from the bowl.
Meanwhile, the question that thronged my mind was—why had all these people assembled here, that too in such large numbers? Was there some festival? I asked Basumatary. He smiled, “There’s no festival as such. When I had said that I would bring you here in the evening, they invited a few other people from the village as well. And so, they have lit this huge fire. And made arrangements for this special drink. After some time, the young men and women of this village will perform a dance in your honour. Meanwhile, dinner is also being prepared. Two pigs have been slaughtered already and are being cooked. But the dancers will continue in turns, till they are wearied out. If you wish, even you can participate in the dance. Of course, there’s no compulsion, for you are tonight’s guest of honour.” After this explanation, it wasn’t hard to understand why Basumatary had said things like, “(you’re) a young man, have tastes, and would enjoy”. Further, I understood what arrangements Basumatary was speaking of, and which had taken a long time to arrange.
Meanwhile, the girls had poured some more modhu into our bowls. The fire was burning bright. The warmth of the fire and the drink together aroused a rimjhim sensation that spread across my body, and I was smitten by the evening. Further, the fragments of animated voices emanating from the young men and women’s lips fell onto my ears, filling me with a strange ecstasy. Some time passed by in this way. Suddenly, an elderly gentleman raised his hand before the fire and mumbled something,as if offering prayers to their God, and pointing towards inside the house, seemed to signal something. At once, a group of girls rhythmically came out of the house, into the courtyard, performing the preliminary steps of a dance. They were followed by a large group of young men. The girls formed a line, and first slowly, then with increasing pace, matched steps to the beat. The boys were uttering something that sounded like haiyahaa haiyahaa, while taking jumps at the same spot. Though they were uttering the two words as softly as they could, in varying tones, those words didn’t enter my ears. The elegant swaying of the girls amidst the play of light and shadow created a mystical aura that ensnared me; such that harsh sounds like haiyahaa seemed out of place. At least, that’s how I had thought then. The dance continued. The bowls were emptied and filled in turns. As time went by, practically everyone present , sans the elderly gentlemen, participated in the dance. Once I noticed, Basumatary too was in their midst, immersed in the dance. I was enjoying the sight. Just then, Basumatary and a young lady, matching steps with the others, approached me, and with the utmost respect invited me to join the dance. I too, spontaneously joined them, holding them with either hand, and entered into the heart of this marvelous world. At times, that picture of robust and striking faces of the young Naga girls glistening in the firelight, wafted before my eyes; on my ears fell the unwanted cries of haiyahaa; in my nostrils tickled the sweat-scented odour emitting out of the bodies of young men and women dancing incessantly for a long time.
Time flew before we even realized. No one had the intention of glancing at the watch. At one time, at Basumatary’s beckon, I traced my steps towards the jeep. I do not know what scenes glimmered before Basumatary’s eyes as we drove back; but in mine wafted the beauty of the smooth movement of the dancing Naga lasses.
Next morning, Basumatary arrived at the hotel at about nine. We came out together to the office. I thanked Basumatary for the incredible arrangements of the previous night. Basumatary didn’t say anything, but summed up the matter with a simple smile.
We reached the Walford office. Beginning the investigation, I sought the necessary papers and documents. Basumatary showed that the allegations of many parts disappearing from the sessis of the trucks lined in the yard were true. It was further proved that the thefts were conducted in the dead of the night by thieves crossing the brick wall despite the presence of the chowkidaar. Such thefts went on,almost regularly for two years. However for the last eight-ten months , such acts had abruptly stopped. I requested Mr. Basumatary to explain how this was suddenly made possible, what steps had the Walford management taken to ensure such sudden change. Mr. Basumatary hesitated. At that the thought struck me that probably he had himself planned and enabled such thefts to occur; and now with the increasing infamy he had himself had such acts stopped. Of course I couldn’t say that openly and so, preparing to take down the record his statement officially, I indirectly pressurized him to reveal the truth. (In between it even occurred to me that Mr. Basumatary had stayed away from me the whole of the previous day to keep me away from the investigation; and that in the evening, he had arranged for that trip to the Naga village to either divert my attention, or weaken me.).
After insisting him for a while, he finally agreed, “Okay, I’ll tell you, but before that, let’s have a look inside.” Saying this he got up from his seat and led me in. Between the backyard of the house where Basumatary lived and the yard where the trucks were lined up there was a small wall, though the two campuses were almost adjacent. There was a door in that wall, through which one could move between the two sides. My suspicions thickened. By then, Mr. Basumatary had walked through the house and slipped through that tin door and reached the yard. Behind us, a chowkidaar followed carrying two cane chairs. He placed the chairs in that yard. Soon tea was brought in. Though the cuppa was needed, I began to suspect Mr. Basumatary of unnecessarily trying to delay me. I seemed to smell a mystery. Probably an impatience had rooted inside my mind. Therefore, finishing my cup of tea hastily, I said, “Mr.Basumatary, please tell me what you want to say.” Once again the man seemed to hesitate as he stood up, “Please come .”
Mr. Basumatary went and stood before a two-layered five feet long wooden door right next to the wall, at a distance of about thirty feet from the tin door. He ordered the chowkidaar to unlock the door. I felt as if I was that traveler awaiting the opening of the magical door to the cave containing precious stones and pearls in that Arabic tale I’d read in childhood. The door opened. I couldn’t contain my surprise. At a little distance from this door, there was an iron cage—fifteen feet long, six feet wide and five feet in height. Inside the cage,a huge python, almost ten-twelve feet long, was lying peacefully.
What relation had my investigation with this python? Unable to comprehend anything, I asked, “Mr. Basumatary, please tell me the real thing.”
“This python has lived with me for a long time now. Actually, I had earlier kept him out there, at that end of the courtyard. Then, I used to take him out of his cage and allowed him to roam that part of the yard for two-three hours every morning.” Saying this, Basumatary pointed to one end of the courtyard,“After which I would put him back in the cage, give him his food, and go out to work.”
“But when there were frequent thefts in the yard, I suspected that the two night chowkidaars slept the whole night, taking advantage of which, the thefts could be easily conducted, and the culprits could escape without any problem. I devised a plan so that the chowkidaars would not fall asleep during their night duty. Accordingly I began taking the python out at around eight in the evening, and went off to sleep. Next morning, I would put him inside the cage. The dose really worked wonders. Ever since, the chowkidaars haven’t dared to sleep a wink, and the thefts have stopped. After the news spread in the neighbourhood, people have almost stopped coming to our place.” I was astounded at the management skills of this thoughtful man of few words. That brought the investigation to an end. There was just one thing I couldn’t decide—whether or not to mention the python in my investigation report.
Even today, when the topic of Nagaland springs up in some conversation I’m reminded of Arun Basumatary,of his management skills, and I’m reminded of those long mesmerizing moments from that enthralling dance performance in the play of light and shadows, nestled amidst the dense verdant hills of Nagaland.