Tiptop Furniture in Assam’s Bongaigaon has seen better days. “But it’s also seen worse,” says Bimal Baidya, owner, proprietor and sole employee of the ramshackle carpenter shop for more than 30 years now.
On a May morning in 1996, back when it was in another location, it witnessed a riot between the Bodos and Adivasis. Next day, the shop was razed to the ground. But Tiptop found another life, in another location. There it witnessed a devastating flood. On that afternoon — sometime in 2002 — as the water levels rose, Baidya climbed on top of one of his chairs. “There was no sign of the rain stopping. So, I kept stacking my furniture — first a table, then an almirah,” says the 61-year-old carpenter. That night, Baidya slept on top of the almirah as the murky water swivelled threateningly all around him. “I thought I was going to die,” he says. But the night passed, the waters abated, and Tiptop moved again.
But through it all — the riots and the floods — there wasn’t a single day Baidya didn’t turn up at his shop. Each morning, his cycle would be stowed away, the shutters pulled up, and a small prayer — incense sticks clasped in his hands — recited.
Till in November 2016, four men from the Assam Police’s border force landed up at Tiptop, and whisked away its guardian. In the one year and one month that followed, all was quiet at the shop. For Baidya, till then the hard-working, friendly, tamul-chewing carpenter of Bongaigaon’s Bou Bazar, was proclaimed a foreigner — a Bangladeshi living illegally on Indian soil, whom everyone was suddenly wary of.
The notice from the Foreigners’ Tribunal (FT) — one of the many quasi-judicial bodies first set up in Assam in the early 1960s to try so-called “illegal immigrants” — had come three years back in 2013. (Official records say that, as of February 4, 2018, there were 899 such detainees in the six detention centres.) “I did not understand anything it said — just that I was a suspected Bangladeshi and that I needed the documents to prove that I wasn’t,” says Baidya. The documents were there, and so was the belief that he was in the clear. “My parents crossed the border in the early 1950s. I don’t even know which part of Bangladesh they came from. These weren’t things one ever felt the need to discuss,” he says.
Yet, in 2016, Baidya found himself in a jail in Goalpara, about 60 km from his home in Bongaigaon. “They told me that I would be out in a week,” says Baidya. But the week turned into a month, and then several more. “I can’t explain what it felt like, only someone who has been in jail will be able to,” he says.
In his 13 months of detention, Baidya lived in a hall with about a hundred inmates — murderers, thieves and dacoits, hardened criminals who had to serve sentences up to a decade. “Yet it was us, the ‘foreigners’, who were treated the worst. ‘Oi Bangladeshi, get out of the way’ — that’s how they would refer to us.”
In jail, the blankets gave them hives, the food was terrible, and the hall barely big enough to accommodate them all. Sleep would be evasive and thoughts of home, his shop, his family would keep him up. “There was despair all around me — men crying, longing for home. But for me, hope came from the fact that I knew I was innocent, that this is my home, that I was born here in Bongaigaon,” he says.
In jail, Baidya’s two daughters and their husbands would visit him as often as they could. “My wife visited once in the beginning,” he says. Those days filled him with hope. “After they would leave, I’d tell myself that once I was out, I would work so hard, that I would make tables and chairs till 1 am if I had to.” But on those very nights, Baidya admits, he would feel pangs of searing depression. “A voice would tell me, ‘My life was over and that there was nothing left.’”
A year later — on December 18, 2017 — Baidya was released on bail. “On the ride back home, I imagined my wife waiting to greet me, standing by the side of the road,” says Baidya. But she wasn’t. On reaching home, Baidya learned that his wife had died while he was in jail.
“She stopped eating once I had left,” he says. “That is the day I told myself, that nothing mattered anymore. No compensation from the government, no court judgment declaring my Indianness, could give back what I had lost. I told myself — if I had to go to jail without committing a crime, I might as well commit a crime and go back.”
But thoughts of his daughters, his son — who had stopped talking the day his mother died — kept up Baidya’s resolve to fight on. In a subsequent court hearing, he was declared an Indian citizen.
His shop, which he reopened after 13 months, still stands at Bou Bazar. He still cycles there every morning, pulls up his shutters, lights the incense stick and recites a prayer. But nobody comes by.
“In the past one year, I have got one big order for Rs 3,000. Otherwise, it’s just odd jobs for Rs 20,” says Baidya. “No one wants to buy furniture from a Bangladeshi, you see.”
It’s a Sunday morning in December, a year into Baidya’s freedom. There’s an old alna (a traditional Assamese rack) that Baidya says he has been working on for months now. There are no takers.
Chewing on a piece of tamul, Baidya sits on one of his tables and says, “The mind is a strange thing — sometimes it tells me that ‘You’re over.’ Yet at other times, it tells me ‘You’re okay. you can do it.’”
Like he had when Tiptop, ravaged by floods those many years ago, had almost closed down. “That time, a novel idea hit me. I made a guest list for a wedding. Once the list was ready, I went to each and every person on it. But the ‘invitation’ was not for a wedding, but for money so that I could rebuild my shop. Some laughed, some refused, but some gave me Rs 100,” says Baidya, who collected Rs 4,000 by the end of his little crowdfunding project. With it, he set up Tiptop Furniture in Bou Bazar, its abode for the last 23 years — and counting.