| Illustration by Uday Deb |
This is a story from my childhood, when I was not even 10 years old. At that time I was studying at the Latasil Primary School in Guwahati. But my mind was always at Amrang, my ancestral village where I grew up. Those were the days when we had an elephant and I used to ride on it and roam about the village.
From atop the elephant I could see a long distance, towering above the world around me. And then I saw him — a leper, who had made his home underneath a huge tree on the outskirts of the village. His condition was pathetic beyond description. Yet he lived on, lying on a cloth spread out beneath the tree. When it rained, he would crawl to the nearest shelter, usually the verandah of someone’s house. Often he was chased away; a leper had no place in society then.
One day, I had accompanied my father back home from a trip outside the village. As we both rode on the elephant, my father suggested a different route to the mahout so that I could see some new places. As we approached the village, I saw the leper once again. Seeing the astonishment on my face, my father told me about the leper and asked me to “build a hospital for such people when you grow up”. Those words of my father continued to resonate in my ears for a long time.
Time passed by, months, years, decades. But those words of my father stayed with me. As a writer I was lucky to have been bestowed with many honours, some of which also included cash components. I have always tried to utilise this money for welfare — like the cash awards from Sahitya Akademi I have given for treatment of students wounded in police action during the Assam agitation.
But setting up a hospital? Fulfilling my father’s wish? That seemed an impossible dream. I got the answer in 2008 when one fine morning a friend of mine called up to say, “Baidew, there is good news. You have been awarded the Prince Claus Award of the Netherlands.”
The award, given by the Prince Claus Foundation for Culture and Development, also carried a substantial cash amount that gave me a new lease of hope.
As I received the award in Amsterdam on December 3, 2008, from Prince Friso in the presence of Queen Beatrix and other members of the Dutch royal family, my mind was a whirlpool of emotions; the picture of that leper lying under the tree floated in my vision.
I knew that I would not be dreaming of a hospital anymore.