Field Notes: A Smile To Remember 


When I wrote the story of Asmat Ali— a resident of Assam accused of illegally entering India from Bangladesh until a group of lawyers helped prove he was Indian—I expected a man who would be tired after fighting a  nine-year-long battle from 2013 to 2022. 

My encounter with Ali, a rickshaw wallah who works 12 to 14 hours daily in Guwahati, was entirely different from the one I imagined. 

When I met the 48-year-old Bengali-speaking Muslim for the first time in Mangaldai town, not far from where I live, he came to my car with a shy yet bright smile and a hint of nervousness, asking, “This is not from the court or NRC office, right?”

I then realised that any call to someone like Ali, whether from a journalist or even a well-wisher, could make them uneasy and fearful. It’s not merely their livelihood that comes under scrutiny, but their entire existence. 

Ali was cheerful, smiled often, and eventually opened up about his life and his journey to prove himself innocent in front of the Foreigners’ Tribunal. 

When I asked him if it would be possible for me to visit his home, Ali said, “Sob borhiya (everything is fine), but there’s only one problem. There’s no road to my house.”

As we waited at the Moamari ghat for the 3 PM boat that would take us to his house at Nangli Char No. 5, I asked an old friend who lived in the same place, Azizur bhai, to join us. It turned out that the two men knew each other. With a wide grin, Ali said, “I don’t have anything to worry about.”

Almost two hours into the journey, the devastation wrought by the annual floods was visible everywhere. A new portion of land, with agricultural lands and houses of the residents of Nangli, gets devoured every year. 

As we crossed the Dhansiri river,  Ali pointed out areas where he had previously worked as an agricultural labourer before the floods took them. 

When we reached Nangli char, Ali assured me I would like his home. 

Once we got there, Ali took all his citizenship documents out from a transparent file, carefully placing each piece of paper as if his life depended on it. It made sense. It was these documents that saved him and his family from the wrath of a state. 

As I stepped on the boat to return home, I realised that Ali must have lost his day’s income to do the interview I requested, and yet he waved goodbye with the same wide grin he wore when I met him in the morning.

It was his smile that I will never forget. 

You can read Hrishita Rajbangshi & Sanskrita Bharadwaj’s full story here

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