BY MAMANG DAI
What is the capital of Colombia?
After so many years these lines keep running through my head. It was a game that my friend Yamin Hazarika and I played when we were in school. We would be standing in line — either going into assembly or queuing up for lunch when Yamin would tilt her head and say, what’s the capital of Colombia? A flurry of questions- answers would fly back and forth — and what is the capital of Iceland? What is the capital of Albania?
I don’t know why but back then we were enamoured of such ‘GK’ quizzes, pen friends, and, I guess, in general, the geography of a world we had not yet seen. Those were days, in Pine Mount School, Shillong, Meghalaya. There was a bunch of us, an adventurous class of teenagers if ever there was one, and as I recall, Yamin was a bit of a dare devil too as we formed a secret society with a hideout dubbed the Falcon’s Nest that was aptly located on the ceiling above the dormitory. Study was the last thing on our minds, but then Yamin was a consistent scorer of good marks in all subjects, and a rarity for me, she scored in maths too.
Years later we met in New Delhi. After school our paths had taken different turns. I was living abroad then. From a distance I had heard I knew Yamin had cracked the civil services exam and distinguished herself by being the first woman from Assam to join the central police service, and journalist friends told me that she was in posted in Delhi. (Yamin Hazarika was a 1977 batch DANIPS (NCT of Delhi, Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Lakshadweep, Daman & Diu and Dadra & Nagar Haveli Police Service) officer. They had met her when media had poured into Delhi following the assassination of Mrs. Indira Gandhi in 1984. It is only now, looking back, that I can begin to imagine what pressures Yamin might have faced then as a young Assistant Commissioner of Police in charge of three high profile police stations during that dark period of the anti-Sikh riots that rocked the national capital.
But when we met up again after almost two decades it was as if nothing about us had changed. Yamin was then Deputy Commissioner of police in charge of the Crimes against Women Cell. She was married and was the mother of a baby girl. ‘Her name is Huma,’ she told me, explaining a bit about the Persian word meaning a fabulous bird like the phoenix. We talked about our lives, remembering how we had started as school girls always thinking about ‘grub,’ and how our blazer pockets would be falling apart being the stash away for bhujjia, tamarind seeds and whatever food crumbs we could lay our hands on. At that time she was also planning to travel to Europe, ‘sort of back-pack across and also go to Rome,’ she said. “I want to throw a coin in the fountain.”
That was Yamin —- ever independent, eager to find out things, to know more. The intervening years seemed to have taken nothing away. It is strange now to think how long ago all this that I am writing about took place. In the early eighties when Yamin was the ACP for the Chanakyapuri police sub division Delhi was quite a different sort of place. Of course the world around us was changing. The north east and our homelands were coming into focus, but even so, north, south, east, north-east regional differences did not figure so much in our minds. There was a job to be done, a whole new world to connect to, and this was what mattered most. I can say Yamin accomplished all of these things in her own feisty manner without fanfare. The IT revolution was yet to arrive and there was no great hype about movers and shakers and women of substance. Even back home in Assam and other parts of the North east I think few registered the brave daughter the region was sending out to the world.
I met Yamin again in Itanagar when she was back from her posting in Bosnia as part of the UN peacekeeping force. We did not ask about capital cities anymore, but the next day Yamin was travelling to the Upper Subansiri area—ever on the move, I had thought then. That was the last time I saw Yamin. Today if merit and achievement is being acclaimed I think Yamin stands out as a first amongst iconic stars, just as she was in the way I remember her in school for her brilliance, beauty and charisma.
A writer, journalist and former civil servant based in Itanagar, Mamang Dai has written extensively about the culture and history of Arunachal Pradesh. She is a member of the North East Writer’s Forum, and has to her credit a number of published short stories and poems. Her previous books include The Legends of Pensam, Mountain Harvest—The Food of Arunachal; River Poems; and two children’s books, Once Upon a Moontime and The Sky Queen.