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Opium eaters & an eccentric sahib
- Writer recalls an old woman who became an addict after tragedy struck

Continuing with her series of fortnightly columns written exclusively for The Telegraph, novelist Mamoni Raisom Goswami recounts fascinating anecdotes about European officials and planters in Assam during the colonial era

Opium eating was a very common practice among the villagers in Amranga, where we spent our childhood. The practice prevailed even much before we were born. A lot of women sold opium in our village and in the process, they also became opium eaters. Many stories about these addicted women circulated in the villages. Our grandmother used to tell us many of these tales.

One such woman addict was Satari. She was a poor woman who lived in a hut in front of our house. She loved me deeply. She was one of my playmates. But she was older than I, almost my mother’s age. She had lost her husband, who was very dear to her, and many more tragedies had struck her one after the other. She took to opium for relief, and very soon became an addict. In fact, she became the worst addict of our village. Some years ago, when I visited Amranga, I met Satari, then an old, feeble woman — looking emaciated. She was lying on the ground in her courtyard, surrounded by some people.

They said she was very ill. When I wanted to take her away for treatment, they said it was too late. The damage done to her body and mind by poverty, opium and tragedies was now beyond recovery. In fact, that was one of the last moments of her life. I felt very sad and returned with a heavy heart.

It is said that by 1952-54, half the residents of the village in our satra had become opium addicts. Some of them were women, who sometimes had to be dragged to the camp. Old Congress party workers volunteered for homeguard duties. In the afternoon, these opium eaters sat and gossiped in the courtyard of a ramshackle school building.

Their gossip included tales of how the Burmese took away some of their forefathers as prisoners, along with some 10,000 other prisoners who were taken to Burma in 1824. They spoke about Finch sahib, who was probably a commissioner of Upper Assam, whom an opium eater of Nagaon had killed with a hulabari because he tried to ban opium-eating in Assam. They spoke about Milrey, Hamphrey and Bore sahibs, who were popular forest officers in North Kamrup, as they had exempted some of the Goswami families from the grazing tax on elephants.

Their conversation would never be complete without the memories of Gilman sahib, who they called “Gilmil” sahib. He was actually a German national. A brave hero of World War II, he lost his son and one of his eyes in the war. It is not known when he came to North Kamrup and became the manager of Barduwar tea estate, which was adjacent to our satra. It is said he helped build a road from Palasbari to Bardowa, which proved to be a boon for my father.

When my father used to drive his old Ford car, elephants were posted at different points on the road to pull the car out of the muddy patches at those points. As a child, I remember seeing an elephant pulling my father’s car out of a ditch, especially during the monsoon.

Gilman was known for his kindness as well as his short temper. This German gentleman used to help needy Assamese people financially. I have narrated several legends of Gilman sahib, which I heard from some of the villagers.

One story goes thus. One day, Gilman went to the forest of Mirza with his old rifle. A popular Chaudhury of Mirza had also gone hunting in the same forest with his countrymade gun at the same time. In the midst of the German bans (a kind of thick bush with red and yellow flowers) and ajar trees, Chaudhury caught sight of a wild bear. He shot at it. Suddenly he heard another shot from the opposite direction. When Chaudhury went to retrieve the dead bear, he found the German sahib standing near his kill. The sahib and the Chaudhury started arguing over who had killed the bear. Chaudhury could not control his temper and kicked the sahib. The German sahib left the place immediately in great fury and reported the matter to the commissioner, stating how a native had inflicted an insult on him. Gilman was given special powers to take suitable action. It is learnt that the commissioner requested him to use only one bullet, if he wanted to take revenge on Chaudhury.

When relatives and friends of Chaudhury heard about this, they went to Gilman and begged him to spare Chaudhury. One of Chaudhury’s friends, a shrewd man, requested Gilman that being a soldier, he should kill Chaudhury like a soldier, and proposed that he should try and shoot him on market day when Chaudhury would cross the market on his white horse.

Gilman agreed. On that fateful day, many people waited with bated breath to witness the event. Chaudhury’s friends started shedding tears in advance. There were no streetlights at that time, not even kerosene ones. But the sky was clear. Kerosene lamps at the small shops on the street were shedding a dim light. Gilman took his position with the rifle. People held their breath. Chaudhury’s white horse became visible on the hazy eastern horizon.

A thundering sound was heard. The white horse disappeared into the western horizon.

People wept for Chaudhury. But next morning, to their great surprise and joy, they saw Chaudhury puffing at his hukka in the courtyard, wearing the same old canvas shoes. What was the mystery'

The horse was the same, but the person on the saddle was an effigy of Chaudhury, made of cow-dung, a broken pot and broomsticks. But the effigy had been dressed up like Chaudhury, including his turban and the old canvas shoes. Since Gilman had only one eye and that too a weak one, he could not make out the difference. But surprisingly, it was learnt later that Gilman sahib was actually happy to see Chaudhury alive.

We heard many stories about Gilman, mostly from our grandmother and our mahout Keltu. Montu, my brother, and I enjoyed listening to these legends. In one such story we were told how Gilman took away rice pounders from the village women and hung them from branches of trees. Gilman couldn’t stand the sound of rice pounders. The village women would be busy pounding rice in the afternoons. As Gilman couldn’t stand the sound, he took with him a few helpers, dislodged the pounders from the sockets, took them away and strung them from citrus trees.

There were many such stories about Gilman which almost became folklore. But probably no historical account of Gilman’s life exists or has been written down. Some say he owned a house on the banks of the Brahmaputra. It was said many aristocratic families knew Gilman and frequently visited him as well. He had two daughters and it was said that he lived with a Khasi lady.

Though I have never met or seen Gilman, the many legends that I have heard about him makes him one of the most unforgettable of characters, who appears before my eyes in his cap and boots.

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