A City That Nurtures Innocence: To Guwahati, With Love

This is a confession. I write this article at a significant time – at a time when politics is dividing the state, religion is uniting people and monsoon is wary of its impact. This piece of writing concerns none of the above. So, I would like to take this opportunity to first apologise to those who expected otherwise. To be quite honest – I write today for the likes of the plain-hearted. I want to express the emotion that Guwahati is for me, and hope to convey these emotions to those who contributed to its making. It is said that “a thing of beauty is a joy forever.” But what if joy is beautiful – an abstraction waiting to be reified.

To my friends at TISS Guwahati, happy graduation! This one is for you.

It is common knowledge among my friends that Guwahati is my favourite city in the world. For no sunset in Paris is better than the one by the Brahmaputra ghat. No tea tastes better than than the one with friends at a tea stall by the road. The dogs are friendlier here. The sky is an ever-changing canvas.

I think my love for Guwahati blossomed as evenings by the river in Uzanbazar became a regular affair. Every sunset is a different way the ink blots on the sky -brighter or smudgy each passing day.

As an anthropologist, I studied emotion as a subject matter. Emotion, I learnt, is not born out of consequence or action. An action is only the stimuli to emotion. Emotion is born out of context. I do not feel emotional because I saw the sunset in Guwahati by the Brahmaputra. I feel emotional out of the humility that the landscape extends. A sunset by the Brahmaputra in Guwahati is an orchestra of colour and sound. It is ordinary like the many different suns that set. There is nothing extraordinary. It is the ordinary that glows, fades and reflects. And in that moment, in that context, everything feels easy for once in life – the wind feels lighter, the company feels safer and the heart feels joyous.

Although I belong to Guwahati, for most of my childhood I was at a boarding school in Gwalior. By the time I was graduating school, I had travelled extensively and lived in countries across hemispheres. Ambition kept me busy. Guwahati never really was more than a vacation for me until I pursued my undergraduate degree at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati. I am currently studying at the University of Oxford, pursuing my Master’s degree.

The decision for college was not easy. It was either St. Stephens, Cambridge or TISS. My parents thought TISS was where I should be because of the values they instilled. I was unhappy to begin college at a place I thought I did not belong in. I had an admirable educational record that deserved its right place. I thought I was “meant” to be at a place where intellectual engagement led to new ideas and new ideas to new discoveries. I wished to pace forward and not stop. The city of Guwahati couldn’t offer me anything. It was slow, away from the action and didn’t fit the bigger picture. I “stayed back” in my hometown, disgusted and unhopeful of attending college. I hated Guwahati. This was 2014.

In October 2017, things were different. I was in Oxford to pursue my Master’s degree. I missed Guwahati more than one could imagine. This was not normal for a 22-year-old, at least I thought so.

In the UK, the streets are big, they are clean; cars run fast, the Wi-Fi is faster; the liquor cheap, the society more liberal and the grass greener. At Oxford, my contemporaries are smart and I am at the epicentre of new ideas and debates. Yet, somehow, my heart still longed for the narrow galis (lanes) of Rajgargh, the roll at J-14, the traffic of GS Road and the sunset at Uzanbazar ghat. I longed for the unavailable library books and the need to engage, create opportunity and deliver.

I must have heard our friend Nilotpal Borah’s song “Majuli” a million times. This constant rush of emotions was something that I wished to understand. I was not homesick. I sensed that my worldview had changed. I realised there is joy in missing out on things and in things missing. How did this come to be?

At boarding school, I had the reputation of being that kid who filled out his own admission form. I wanted to make a life for myself. I hadn’t shed a tear on my first night away from home. What had happened to that kid who was content knowing that home rests somewhere in the valley, safe and within reach? I wasn’t feeling this way because Guwahati was not in proximity. I felt this way because a part of me never left Guwahati. The city wrapped me and the people I love within the city, in a time capsule – an eventful coincidence of wrongs and rights; love and bonding; tokens and charms.

As a land of rice eaters, Assam is famed for being “lahe lahe” (easy going, lazy or slow). If you ever happened to survey for reasons of underdevelopment in the state, then you’d find that a lack of professionalism, laziness and laid-back-ness are commonly held views. I do not wish to attach the stereotype of laidback-ness to rice eaters or rice easting Assamese. Instead, I hope to point out the obvious to those who already know it. And for those who don’t see Assam this way, I insist that you do. For the reasons I hope elucidate, you will see what I see. This is my sharing and not a judgment.

A city like Bombay with its fast-paced life, tall buildings, slow traffic and glamorous nights demands that you match pace with it to keep up with your contemporaries. A city like Delhi or Bangalore or Pune perhaps offers the same logic served right from the moment you step into it. Survival of the fittest is a race you must run to keep your pockets full, your stomach nourished, your hopes soaring, your dreams executed and your aspirations rewarded.

Guwahati, amongst its contemporaries, is a step taken back. It’s a slow-motion video of visible frames of colour. It’s a ‘smart city’ in the making but with a candy floss like heart. I’ve realized my references to Guwahati are either nostalgic or old school; such is its magic. One surely has to survive in Guwahati, like any other place in the world, by earning one’s bread and butter. But one runs the race in Guwahati to keep their pockets fed, their stomach happy and their dreams constantly woven fresh. The charm of small cities is that people aspire and hope to go to big cities. They go to big cities to make it big and Guwahati is no exception to that. What makes Guwahati charming in its aspiration to grow big and wondrous is the innocence that it nurtures. Life slows down in Guwahati for every good reason. You witness the joy of not running the race; at least not in ways similar to big cities. Ageing is timeless here and grace is effortless.

The race of life here is tuned into a melodic emotion of knowing that the river which consumes the sun today will rise tomorrow shinning and liberated from between the hills. Life is tuned into the music, the flora and the abundance of celebration. Life is hopeful with emotion. The city has an easy feeling, but not because we don’t have ambition. Life feels easy because we value community, relationships, interaction, and bonding.

We gather together for Bihu with a sense of celebration like any other festival across India. But we also share the grief of human misery, the pain of loss and a sense of unity with an equal sense of togetherness. Thus, flash-floods are as much a reference to household humour as is a State tragedy. “Lahe lahe” is as much an Assamese disposition as is a developmental impediment. We like to crib about the humidity as much as we love the afternoon sleep in the summer. I come to realise that to complain is to pay attention, and to pay attention is to love. Time given is a sealed love letter.

Guwahati is a naïve city of humming hearts who find beauty in joy before we find joy in beauty. We value community to celebrate, and not celebrate to build community. We take it easy because we value emotion. We see the simple pleasures of joy and happiness as beautiful. Perhaps, this is why we never really were a land of big conquests and material pursuits. We honour culture and diversity. We honour the river that flows, fearing its magnanimity and seeking solace in its serenity.

Anyone who lives here is a living testimony to this effect. All we need to do is look close enough. Perhaps I would not have felt the way I feel about Guwahati had it not been for my friends and family who kept me company. They helped make a home for me here – something which only existed as a fact and not as a feeling. From the city bus stuck in traffic to the human traffic in motion inside the city bus; the humid summer and monsoon petrichor; the bazaars and the bikers; baba and the munchies; tree houses and lakes; highways and dine ways. An exhaustive list is an understatement to an ever glowing and growing feeling.

In a way, I realised that Guwahati taught me to find beauty in joy, not in the sheer scale and manner of it. I learned to ask where is happiness, what makes me happy instead of asking how happy I am. I stopped measuring both the length of my CV and the scale of happiness. I grew more passionate.

As a city, Guwahati still lacks a lot of things – hard and soft infrastructure, public values, professionalism, etc. However, it is in the absence of things that Guwahati makes you find joy in what is present there. Now, this may be considered as an excuse for “not doing enough”, “feeling demotivated”, “lacking purpose”, etc. But I see it as both detrimental and beneficial for human life and endeavor. Knowledge, values or for that matter even money is for us to “use” wisely. I value the role Guwahati has played for me to help recognise a significant way that we forget to see our life and the world.

I formed my idea of beauty in what was present at Guwahati. This is the charm and the charisma of the city. In 2014, as a student, I felt that the city lacked opportunity. Instead, over the three years, I learned how it helps you look for places to create some. I learned to express emotion more openly and freely than I did before.

How does Guwahati nurture this emotion? How does Guwahati imbibe this perspective? I think it doesn’t. The fact that the rhythm of Guwahati is in its silence, not its noise, in its evenings and not its dawn, in its simplicity and not its extravagance is how we come to fall in love with this place without even realising it.

The change is more personal and natural than imposed upon. The Bombay beat or the Delhi beat is one to be followed – to keep up with. Guwahati asks you to listen to the rhythm and make your own along the way. I once mistook someone saying “As-I-am” to be calling out “Assam”. He repeated the phrase fast enough for me to find him calling out my home state. I tried doing the same a number of times. And yes, “As-I-am” does sound like Assam if you let your tongue slurp a bit. Maybe, this place does that to you: lets you be as you are. Or maybe it completely transforms you.

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