You pop a piece of kurtai into your mouth. You don’t know why you do it, except your cousin visiting from Mizoram brought so much of it, and you don’t like waste. You don’t particularly like sweets either, but this you know – no other kurtai tastes as pure and healthy as kurtai from Mizoram.
Gur, for the rest of India; or jaggery, supposedly in English. You are not sure if it is actually an English word really. Kurtai in Mizo. Concentrated sugarcane syrup with molasses still intact. You remember when you were young how your cousins would sip at sugarless tea and nibble at a piece of kurtai. Your mother told you that’s how they ate it in Mizoram. Especially in the villages where white sugar wasn’t readily available. They made their own kurtai in giant pots from sugar-cane juice. You remember her telling you how useful this became when the Rambuai started; supplies fell short everywhere, even in Aizawl. She denies telling you that now. She skirts wide anything that has to do with Rambuai. It’s like she doesn’t want to engage a thing unresolved, like if she were to open that memory-chest, everything would crumble.
In her less self-conscious moments though, some of it spills out; she’ll tell you about the time she looked through the window of her All India Radio Station office to see the maimed body of a youth twitching in the last throes of death after one of the carpet bombing operations by the Indian Air Force. About how the necessary evening shifts meant a jawan from the Central Reserve Police Force would escort her through the curfew to and from the Station, and every night have a gun pointed into her face and a flashlight shone into her eyes by a patrolling Indian Army jawan, while another checked the CRPF jawan’s ID. The two forces served in uneasy harmony, always suspicious of each other, ever-ready to prove their superiority; a civilian life could become an easy collateral in this show of power. Occasionally she’ll tell you how, after too many harrowing nights, she stormed into the Indian Army Commanding Officer’s home at breakfast time and told him off: she was equally in the service of the Indian Government as him, and these were civilians trying to do their day’s work that were being hounded, and that was legally a violation. What she did not tell him, or tell you, is that she was caught in the difficult place of serving a government that was hurting her people, and the insanity of her people turning on their own too. The other side was the constant fear of the cost of being labelled traitors to the cause. She’ll let slip how villages were burnt and regrouped into colonies, the terror of armed personnel shoving pregnant women when they lagged, lactating mothers desperately trying to keep their babies from crying, and children with loads on their little backs made to walk the distance to the grouping centres. These were times of Rambuai. There was nothing gentle, romantic or glamorous about it.
These aren’t really your memories. You only have a vague recollection of check-gates, rude baggage-checks, bad roads, curfews, and shouting uniformed men with guns from the rare times your parents took you to visit Mizoram in those years. What you know, others have told you. But it is all a part of the particular memory-chest that you’ve inherited. There are many missing bits in it. And since your mother will not, cannot, fill in the blanks, there are many questions to your inheritance that remain unanswered yet. So for now, you keep at nibbling some kurtai everyday, as if that connects the dots and replaces missing ones. As if the gaps and fractures are filled in by its sticky sweetness. As if sugarless tea can provide the grace of continuity to heal the broken narrative you’ve inherited; a memory that is only vicariously yours.
Rambuai: A term to denote the period in Mizoram’s history between 1 March, 1966, when Mizoram declared independence from India as a result of the neglect and apathy shown by the Indian Government when a severe famine hit the land a few years earlier, and 30 June, 1986 when the Mizoram Peace Accord was signed. Literally, troubled land; or troubles of the land.