[ Asok Pillai ]
At about 6:30 in the morning, the bus turns around the last bend on the road on the Assam side, and lumbers slowly upto the check post, where it comes to an awkward halt, its brakes squealing. The soft jerk caused by the braking rouses the few sleeping passengers awake, who then look about them wonderingly, slowly fixing their whereabouts.
Some of the passengers start walking down the centre aisle. They will show their inner line permits at the check post, cross the boundary on foot, and wait on the other side for the rest of the passengers. The others remain in the bus – a motley of Arunachalis and non-tribals who would rather wait out in the bus for the cops to come in and be done with the ILP check.
He is sitting somewhere in the middle row, on the aisle seat, beside a calm-looking non-tribal man in spectacles. He turns his head and looks out of the window. On the far side of the road, a street dog noses at discarded papers and plastic cups. On the pavement a young Arunachali man is in deep conversation with an APP constable. The cop guffaws at a joke the young man has made. Just another ordinary Arunachal morning for them… while inside the bus, he starts getting that familiar feeling of claustrophobia as a policeman climbs onto the bus.
His sense of composure waned, and then disappeared, about an hour ago, in anticipation of this moment. He has his ILP in his back pocket, but it has not been renewed.
While the policeman is questioning the non-tribal passengers in the front row, he starts considering what he should do when it comes his turn. Should he show his ILP and say he hasn’t renewed it, and face the consequences? Should he explain that he is half Arunachali and hope for the best? Or should he lie that he is an Arunachali all the way and hope there are no follow-up questions? It is often that he is not asked to produce his ILP at the check gates in Arunachal, thanks to the looks he has inherited from his mother’s side of the family: vaguely Arunachali, of indeterminate tribe. Then again, he could also be mistaken for a Nepali, or an Assamese. Will this turn out to be one of those times when the cop decides to ask for his ILP? He shifts uncomfortably in his seat.
He is overcome by an urge to smoke, but the situation is settling down on serious. The cop has reached the seats ahead of his, and is studying the ILP of one of the passengers.
“Renew kyon nahi kiya?” the cop asks.
“Bhool giya, sar,” the man meekly replies.
The man rises from his seat, picks up his bag from the overhead shelf, and walks morosely down the aisle towards the door. The air is tenser all of a sudden. He realizes he is overreacting, but cannot help feeling like an immigrant labourer. Relaaax, the little voice in his head says. But relaxing is the furthest thing now. He takes three deep breaths, wonders how the mind can accommodate a thousand feelings in a span of seconds.
The cop steps up to his seat. He puts on a nonchalant look, but avoids eye contact. The cop raises his hand, which comes to rest just a few inches in front of his nose. He gives up.
But just as he is about to move to get his ILP from his back pocket, his fellow passenger fishes out his ILP from his shirt pocket, and places it on the cop’s palm. He grasps the situation immediately, and keeps absolutely quiet and still, the fake composure returning to his face.
He looks on calmly in the direction of the seats ahead. The cop pauses, looks at him, holds the gaze for about two seconds, and moves on towards the back of the bus.
The fear and paranoia that have been building up inside him go up in smoke. It feels as if a cape lined with lead has just been lifted off his shoulders. He feels… pleasantly deflated. He eases back, turns to look out of the window, and catches his fellow passenger’s eye. They smile at each other, locked for a moment in mutually exclusive comprehension. The fellow passenger has made his private calculations about the situation, and he has his own understanding of it.
When the cop is done with the checking and leaves, the bus resumes the journey, after picking up the passengers on the other side of the boundary, measuring its way back into the city that’s coming slowly back to life now – and he feels like he is on his way back to… what? Freedom?…
Well, he guesses there is a sense of freedom in escaping from reality, the way he has just ducked the ILP check. What he is is on his way back to being nothing. An anonymous entity. And that’s perfectly all right by him; because sometimes there’s a certain freedom in not being noticed.