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The Exodus Is Not Over

By Nandita Haksar

‘Pack your clothes. I have booked your tickets on the morning bus tomorrow. We have found two girls going to Delhi. You can go with them.’

Atim had been waiting for this moment, but now that it had arrived she was overwhelmed by feelings she could not describe in words. But her father was calm. He handed her the money he had kept for the occasion. Several weeks ago, he had sold one of his goats for Rs 1,500, which he gave his daughter. He had been trying to speak to Atim in English, as Hongreiwon had instructed, so that she would be more prepared for Delhi, but it did not seem natural. However, he was confident she would pick it up once she started work.

Atim could not believe that it was finally happening. She could feel her heart beating fast. She had seen such wonderful photographs of Delhi in magazines; the one she remembered most was an advertisement of a posh restaurant with lots of people and a beautiful woman pouring coffee. Her stepsister, Lily, who was looking at the pictures, had told Atim that her daughter Masowon too worked in a place where she poured coffee for guests. It had sounded so grand. Lily had shown her photos of Masowon dressed in her black uniform with a bright red collar and matching red lipstick. Just the thought that she could soon be wearing such a uniform had kept Atim awake.

Then Atim remembered the time when she had gone to wash clothes in her neighbour’s pond. They had no running water supply in their home. The neighbour was there and they had started chatting. She told Atim that her daughter Angel had told her that those girls who stay in Delhi only go out at night and that is the reason why they have such wonderful complexions.

‘But how do they go out in the dark?’ Atim had asked. Her home had no electricity. The older woman had told her that Delhi was all bright and lit up every night.

Atim did not sleep the night before she left. She had never experienced such excitement in her entire life of twenty years. She kept thinking of the photographs she had seen in Leena’s albums. Leena had worked in Delhi before she got married. There were photos of her outside the posh Benetton showroom in Connaught Place. It looked really out of this world. And then there was the magical world of the beauty parlour. Leena’s sister’s daughter had returned from Delhi looking like a model. She had dyed her hair burgundy and wore lots of make-up. Her skin was so smooth and fair. It was rumoured that she was earning Rs 5,000 a month!

Next morning, Atim hurried to the bus stop and found the two sisters waiting for her. It was early in the morning and the bus was already crowded. It took less than four hours on a winding road down the hills to reach Imphal, the capital of Manipur. From there they got a bus for Dimapur in Nagaland, another seven-hour journey. Atim’s excitement had made her speechless. She was startled out of her stupor when Jacinta shook her shoulder and said, ‘Take a last look at the mountains. Later you will miss them.’ Jacinta had been in Delhi for three years.

Dimapur was a crowded town. But Glory’s friends shepherded the three young women and booked them into a hotel and later in the evening invited them to dinner. Atim felt she was living her dream when she found herself in a restaurant, sitting at a table with a tablecloth, and knives, forks and spoons laid out. The restaurant was called Skylark and she was served by waiters.

At night they caught the train to Guwahati. When they reached Guwahati station they bought Tinkle comics and settled down in a corner to wait for their train to Delhi, which would arrive late in the evening. Atim asked Jacinta to tell her about Delhi.

‘Delhi is full of people and buildings.’ Atim had seen cities in Jackie Chan movies and imagined Delhi would be full of tall, white, gleaming buildings over which helicopters flew, and broad clean streets.

‘Many Koreans come to my showroom. They find it difficult dealing with our money.’

‘Foreigners come to your showroom!’

By the time the train to Delhi pulled into the station, Atim’s excitement had reached its peak. She was going more than 2,000 kilometres away from Ukhrul, the only home she had ever known. They settled into the train. A Punjabi man in a turban was in the seat opposite Atim. He ate bananas and lotus fruit almost continuously and the women commented on his appetite in Tangkhul.

After a while, Atim asked Jacinta the question that had troubled her sometimes, ‘Is it safe for us in Delhi?’ She had heard a story about a girl from Nagaland who had gone to a shop in Delhi to have her pressure cooker mended. There she noticed that some men had followed her. They tried to molest her but she swung the pressure cooker and hit one of them before running out of the shop. On another occasion, Atim had overheard a conversation between Hongreiwon and Mayori about how unsafe Delhi was for girls from the Northeast. Mayori had said girls should not wear shorts and wander around at night. Atim could not really understand all this talk, but she felt a nagging fear that she had not known before.

The movement of the train made Atim feel nauseous and she went to the toilet, but the smell made her feel even worse. The constant shaking and noise began to get unbearable. It was only the excitement of reaching her destination that kept her going for two nights. When Jacinta said Delhi was nearing she peered out of the window but could not see any brightly lit buildings. The Old Delhi railway station was crowded and Atim could barely walk in a straight line. ‘This is Delhi,’ Jacinta called out to her as she made an effort to keep up with the other two. It was late in the evening and they took an auto-rickshaw. As they drove through the streets of Delhi, Atim felt a deep disappointment; it was so dark and smelly. Finally, when they arrived at Kotla Mubarakpur and the auto turned into a narrow alley, it seemed even darker than Ukhrul. This was not the Delhi Atim had dreamt about.

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