Early one morning, I asked my hotel manager for directions to the fish market. He sent Raju with me to find me a cycle rickshaw. An old man stood, one hand on a rickety blue cycle, at the end of the road. “Twenty rupees,” he said with a smile that revealed three fence-post-like teeth.
I climbed in. And from my perch, watched the inscrutable machinations of serendipity at work.
Moinuddin, once a fisherman, had been pulling rickshaws for 20 years, ever since the river went quiet and the fish disappeared. (Fish catches in this part of the Brahmaputra have fallen 85-90% over the last few decades). He’d watched the city exchange their wild catches for farmed alien species. He’d watched kids of humble fishermen grow up to become fish-barons, their riches feeding on the bland imports.
Everyone in the fish business knew him. And no one appeared to have a harsh word for the gentle, soft-spoken, always-smiling Moinuddin.
Over the next few days, his words, his stories, would rush forth like a dam breached. He had never been to school, yet he knew things. Different things. He knew the streams and beels (wetlands) of old where valuable local fish can still be caught. He knew the effect on fishing of a dam upstream, of unhealthy greedy fishing practices. Of gentle artisanal methods of fishing. Of how modern fisheries work. Of the many fallouts of catch drop-off.
He cycled me to the fish market each morning, to see the far-travelling 10 wheelers packed with iced fish. And he came with me to a far away village where river fish come from. Everywhere we went, he waited patiently for me to finish shooting.
Two days after we’d met, he invited me home. I went over that evening, just as golden light slipped behind thick clouds. He lived in a shack by the river — squatting on government land. He was one of those that everyone in the city warned me about, when I asked about the shanties near my hotel, by the river.
“Squatters! Involved in nefarious activities. Stay away from them.”
His pucca house, like that of his neighbors’, had been swallowed by the river. So these folks squatted, having petitioned the government for compensation. They squatted with the timeless patience of their kind, waiting to move back to a home where they could charge their cell phones, and have a roof above their heads that would be impervious to the thick monsoon rain.
His grandson came running out, smartly namaste-ing. Aman Ahmed, all of seven years, would later, as we were passing it, stare at Dibrugarh University till it was out of sight. He wanted to go there, and to that end he was making sure he stood first in class, each year, in school.
Tutu Begum, Moinuddin’s wife, brought out vermicelli payash and cake with laal saa. “Id has come early to our house,” the couple said in unison and laughed.
She sat down, twirling a bamboo hand fan. Then, in Assamese, she told Moinuddin that she agreed with him.
“What about,” I asked.
I resembled their daughter, they said.