Two years ago, on an ordinary Sunday morning in February, a corner of Dighalipukhuri, a neighbourhood in Guwahati, became the base for a small march. As the tiny group of protesters traversed different localities, shouting slogans, holding banners and even breaking into song and dance, people stood on their balconies and porches watching. Was it a festival? Why were they in masks? Maybe it was a fancy-dress competition. This was the middle-class Axomiya’s first encounter with a pride parade.
That night, on local television, a section of primetime news was dedicated to the parade, described as a “sudden” and “chaotic” display of antics by hijras. Pooja Sharma (name changed to protect privacy), a young woman who took part in the parade, swears she “didn’t give a damn” about what the media said, or who saw her marching down the street holding a poster that said “Lesbian, and proud to be one”. At 21, Sharma is still unsure about coming out to her family. She grew up in a traditional middle-class Assamese home in Sibsagar, a town in upper Assam, much smaller than Guwahati and definitely more conservative. Back in school, when she first started questioning her sexuality, she confided in a friend that she might be a lesbian. “Do you have regular periods?” her friend asked. After that, Sharma guarded what she thought to be her “dirty little secret” for four years, until she heard of Xukia, one of two LGBTQ support groups based in Guwahati. Sharma tries to take little — and probably unnoticed — steps towards telling them: actively supporting Xukia (which her parents think is a support group for transgenders ), changing her “interests” from “men” to “women” on Facebook, making it a point not to wear a mask at the parade. “But I have a long way to go,” she says, “and so does my city.”
Guwahati and its one million plus population are experiencing, like most other Indian cities, the growing pains of change. While over the last decade, high-rise residential and commercial complexes, several malls and nightclubs have come up, it’s a city with a complex modernity, caught between the old and the new.
Perhaps most discernible is the chasm between the conservative middle class and the moneyed upper-class. “It’s the typical change versus tradition predicament the city is grappling with. And more often than not, tradition triumphs,” says journalist Anupam Chakraborty. A few years ago, pubs didn’t allow girls in short skirts to enter on New Year’s Eve. If a woman is seen smoking in public, it might become an item of primetime news tomorrow. And if she is in a pair of shorts, that is it. “Even shorts have a lakshman rekha,” says Chakrapani Parashar with righteous conviction. Parashar is a journalist with Pratidin Times, one of the top three regional television media channels (the other two being DY 365 and News Live) in the state. He is convinced that rape and molestation can ultimately be traced back to the clothes women wear.
Parashar, who comes from the small town of Gohpur in Assam, along with fellow journalist Hemen Rajbongshi conceptualised a news report, aired on Pratidin Times a few months back, which likened girls wearing shorts in public to monkeys. Even primates, the report said, have more sense than these girls who have nothing better to do than “expose”. The video, which shows numerous women in Guwahati walking around in shorts went viral on social media and was criticised by thousands, who demanded that the channel apologise at once. This is the second time that Assam’s television media has found itself in national spotlight for the wrong reasons. In 2012, a gang molestation case left the city shaken. A young woman was molested by at least 12 men, in full public view, outside a bar called Club Mint on the busy GS Road. The incident was recorded and broadcast by News Live.
Like in many other growing cities, a boom in real estate and aspirations is accompanied by an estrangement in social ties. Gone are the days when a walk down the streets meant bumping into at least one familiar face. You no longer catch up with friends at each other’s homes. You go out — a concept that did not exist till about two decades ago. Independence Day doesn’t mean being locked up inside your house, apprehensive that a bomb might go off the moment you step out. It means queuing up outside shops, buying the Tricolour and hoisting it on rooftops and terraces. “It’s far more cosmopolitan than I ever knew it to be,” says Delhi-based author Aruni Kashyap who grew up in Guwahati.
What he does lament, however, is the “quaintness” the city seems to have lost, the quiet walks he would take along tree-lined lanes, the familiarity with which he would greet others during those walks. Kashyap, like most of his generation, left Guwahati for graduate studies in 2004. For the longest time the norm, for the young, was to get out of the city as soon as possible. But today as a large number of students continue to pack their bags for Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, an equal number stay back, operating as catalysts in the transition of Guwahati from a small town to a big city. “Having a career no longer means one has to leave,” says Miguel Das Queah, a child rights activist. Queah belongs to the widening bracket of youngsters who have returned to their hometown after stints outside. “Entrepreneurial avenues have suddenly opened up in the city, be it in F and B, craft, theatre or social work,” he says.
Guwahati now has a plethora of new cafes with kitschy decor, and pubs that are no longer exclusively male bastions, and an audience who enjoys dubstep, psytrance and Bollywood in equal measure. In 2005, when the first Cafe Coffee Day outlet opened in the Bhangagarh locality, it was practically the only thing that the town talked about. Going to CCD was the incontestable highlight of the weekend. Today Zoo Road, which goes through the heart of Guwahati, has outlets like KFC, Subway and Domino’s glittering like shiny badges of prosperity.
But the glitter cannot hide the grunge. Vikramaditya Banerjee, a 28-year-old, owns a trading company and often finds himself in localities like Malingaon and Athgaon on work. “It’s evident that ‘development’ is restricted to only some parts of the city. A place like Malingaon, though a very important commercial area, seems to be stuck in the past decade — it is dusty, cramped and underdeveloped,” he says.
Banerjee finds life here as difficult in some ways, as it is in the metros. “You need to be super-motivated to survive in Guwahati as well,” he says. For one, there is no dearth of competition for a businessman here, quite unlike the scenario during the ULFA-led separatist insurgency in the Nineties. There are major connectivity issues. “Just a week ago, a major landslide kept the road to Meghalaya completely blocked for hours. Everything came to a standstill,” he says. At the end of the day, he says, Guwahati is a small pond, where everyone wants to be a big fish.
In the Nineties, “partying” was limited to a couple of private clubs, catering only to the crème de la crème of the city. In 2015, every weekend, Anil Plaza, a commercial complex in GS Road temporarily metamorphoses into party central, with three of the city’s top clubs — Terra Maya, XS and Cafe Copa — in
Terra Maya, the most happening venue, is on the sixth floor, and a side of it opens out to the twinkling hills surrounding the city. At 10 pm, when the rest of the city retires, Terra Maya slowly opens its doors to its first batch of enthusiastic customers. It’s evident that its clientele — in their high heels, studded boots and slick hairstyles — take their parties very seriously. “And why shouldn’t we? “Partying isn’t a crime, is it?” asks 22-year-old Raina Das (name changed to protect privacy). Das has lived in Delhi and Dibrugarh, but somehow finds Guwahati the most judgmental, whether it is about what she wears, or where she goes. “One afternoon my friends and I were smoking outside. At a distance, I saw a couple of boys shiftily trying to film us on their mobile phones,” she says. “It’s ridiculous. If men can smoke in public, so can I.”
The organisers of the first queer pride too had faced many questions and their office was turned upside down on the eve of the protest. “It goes against Assamese culture,” a student collective told the organisers. “Who decides this ‘culture’?” asks 26-year-old Minakshi Bujarbaruah, a city-based activist who returned to the city in 2013 from Delhi. She works closely with the transgender community of Assam, and finds herself battling prejudice every single day. “Because of my work, I’ve often been branded lesbian. The work I do and the clothes I wear are a constant source of speculation,” she says.
These instances highlight the awkward, pubescent turmoil in the city. “There is this new-found sense of anonymity and with that comes some amount of freedom and irresponsibility,” says senior journalist and author Indrani Raimedhi. Another darker side of the Guwahati nightlife is the number of shady escort services that thrive as side businesses, especially in lesser known establishments. There are frequent brawls as well that usually start with the line: “Muk sini puwa nai? (Don’t you know who I am?)”.
“And these are exactly the kind of things we want to put a stop to. Sex scandals, drugs, gambling, or anything untoward, which might be a public menace,” says Parashar, who provided the voiceover for the news report on women in shorts. He along with Rajbongshi are part of what Pratidin Times calls their “City Time Operation Squad”, and claim to reach the scene of crime much faster than any police team. More often than not, they end up covering visuals of tipsy girls coming out of bars and clubs. “Every other weekend, you will find news reporters waiting under any given club or bar, armed with their microphones and camera sets,” says Bujarbaruah. What is the girl wearing? What drink is she holding? What time will she go home? These hawk-eyed reporters are the first to notice, and sometimes even cause, a spot of trouble. “They have a reputation of breaking into private parties too,” she says. Headlines like modaahi mohila, modaahi jiyek (drunk mother, drunk daughter) often become highlights of the 7pm (primetime) news.
It’s evident that the focus of the media remains “women”, often branded as “loose” and a threat to respectable society. Frustration at such moral policing finds vent on social media, in the form of satirical Facebook groups such as “Scumbag Assamese E-Media Memes” and “Assamese Media’s Victims.”
“But that’s just social media,” Rajbongshi, who is originally from Baihata Chariali, a small town in the state, is quick to retort, “We aired the segment on shorts in June and not a whimper of protest was heard. This only means our viewers agree with what we say. Social media picked it up only two months later.”
There is perhaps some truth in what he says. “There is a sizeable audience who not only watch, but even agree with such news,” says Koushik Hazarika, the editor of G Plus, an English language tabloid which covers the social and cultural scene of the city. “The real viewership for these channels lies in the smaller towns of Assam such as Lakhimpur or Tezpur,” he says, “Guwahati is perceived to be the big, bad city filled with immoral, irresponsible young people who only know how to get drunk and party.” Chakraborty points to the reaction to the 2012 horrific molestation to suggest that even within the city, women and this new lifestyle remain under scrutiny. “The middle and lower middle class of Guwahati want their old Guwahati back — without its nightclubs and its parties,” he says.
Rajbongshi today is the butt of all Facebook jokes, especially among the Assamese community. He has more than one satirical page devoted to him, memes fashioned out of his pictures and an inbox flooded with angry messages from young women from across the country: something that led him to delete his Facebook account recently. He has a defamation case filed against him and earned the ire of the Women’s Commission of Assam, but Rajbongshi seems quite unperturbed. “At the end of the day, my job as a journalist is to report and spread social awareness. I have done exactly that,” he says.
According to a survey done in 2012 by North East Network, a women’s rights NGO, 72.5 percent of women in Guwahati have experienced sexual harassment or violence in public places. “You don’t have to be smoking or drinking or wearing shorts to invite stares and cat calls,” says Devyani Borkataki, a 23-year-old working in the city. During her 10-minute walk to work from her hostel, Borkataki hears at least two lewd comments on a daily basis.
Assamese society has long prided itself on how it treats its women. For one, Assam never had any concept of the purdah, even in the olden days. Second, it claims to be a dowry-free zone. Third, women, especially in rural areas, are known to enjoy some amount of economic independence. “But that doesn’t negate the fact that there’s witch hunting, domestic violence here. A telephone hotline for women has been defunct ever since it was set up,” says Anurita Hazarika of North East Network. “Sexual harassment was as prevalent in the Nineties. It’s just reported more nowadays.
Only recently, the central government has decided to invest Rs 500 crore in Guwahati, which it believes has the potential to become a “Smart City”. But development that lives cheek by jowl with crumbling civic infrastructure does not make for a better quality of life. “Beneath the facade of development, the city is ailing. True, there are hundred and one jazzy restaurants but is there even a single bookstore in the city?” asks Raimedhi. “In the heart of Pan Bazaar, an old and busy market, there are a row of shops devoted only to books, but students come to buy only textbooks.”
A few months ago, the second pride parade of Guwahati took place. This time, there was no angry youth organisation in the picture. “Small consolations like this don’t go unnoticed.” says Rahul Medhi . Ten years ago, he would scour the internet to meet men in the city. “Being gay in Guwahati was about living with aliases, meeting only via clandestine online groups, and something you ‘corrected’ by getting married,” he says, “Today, we actually have pride parades and support groups — that’s a feat in itself. It will probably take decades to change but that’s something I’m inured to.”
Just how the rest of Guwahati is inured to the rains, and the floods that follow. Every monsoon, life comes to a standstill as parts of the city turn into a sluggish brown river. Rubber floats carry food and other supplies to stranded residents living in lanes behind the very road on which Subway and KFC outlets stand. But the seasoned resident of the city sails along, past graffiti-strewn walls and large hoardings announcing Pinkathons, waiting for the rains to abate and the waters to recede.
Tora Agarwala is a freelance journalist based in Assam