Decoded by Nabina Das

It isn’t everyday that I realise what exactly I’m doing. For example, right now, I’m walking down an alleyway behind the old cinema hall. Regal or Rivoli or Tivoli, I forget what it is called. I also forget if they’ve renamed it. There’s a huge trend of renaming things, places, streets and buildings these days in Guwahati; except, perhaps, human beings.


I forget many things these days. Did I visit Halflong recently on an assignment? It was right after someone from the Assam Police Cyber Crime Cell called me up at the dead of the night and said, ‘They’re moving an arms cache there. But we need decoding. Who knows how many arms, and what exactly.’ The person said the intercepted message was arranged in such a manner that it resembled a perched bird.


Ha, look how funny. I actually remember that I was summoned by APCCC. How come I remember that incident? My counsellor said it’s the PTSD that makes it possible: selectively remembering things. And now I forget what PTSD means. However, the visit to Halflong is also memorable because of the place name. I hear these days people eat footlongs, in brightly lit but crammed outlets called Subways. Halflong as a place must have a history for such a name. And someone like me, a top woman investigator in the country’s elite Cyber Crime Cell can’t remember what that story is.


But I shouldn’t be feeling sorry for such lapse in my memory. Remember what the super sleuth Sherlock Holmes had said? Store only as much information in your head as is necessary. Information about soil types, strange animals, exotic and local customs, finger prints, smells of different varieties of tobacco, shoe soles, select chemical compositions, some weaponry, etc. Not necessarily the history of a place name, the highest peaks in the Karakoram or capital cities of certain East Asian nations that constantly seem to change their governments or currency notes.


So, going back to the image of a bird projected in a super-sensitive defence missive, the staff at APCCC Halflong branch was absolutely justified in their concern. I have a fair bit of knowledge of birds. Mostly the local ones. The ones you’d see while on an evening stroll in Halflong town, while sniffing the orange of its orchards.


As I walk down this alleyway in my careful, sandaled gait, dressed in a light shirt and loose straight cut jeans, I’m aware that most women one would encounter here wouldn’t be walking around this way. No, it’s not very late, really. If you went to the main road in front of this building that is a cinema hall, you may see people munching popcorn and waiting for a show to start.


Although, the truth is, viewers hardly throng to these old cinema halls any more. Ever since multiplexes have come up, the old theatre buildings have been dying a slow death. This one – Regal, or Rivoli, or Tivoli, I forget the name – has been standing around due to local patronage. In Guwahati, we have groups of people dedicated to saving old buildings, upstream fish, hyacinth that once was considered weed, the great Kamakhya temple atop the Neelachal Hills, and the heritage river island of Majuli. These are good things. But we also have people that’d scorn my shirt and floppy jeans because these saviours want to save the mekhela sador every Assamese woman should, in their opinion, wear on a daily basis, as part of tradition. Ah, now I remember what this hall is called. Speak of tradition! Joymoti. It was Regal or Rivoli or Tivoli earlier. Then the warring tribe of saviours came in swoops demanding to name the building after the historical heroine from Assam – Sati Joymoti who underwent torture and humiliation and death in order to protect her husband Prince Gadapani. It’s a heart-warming story full of sad details. We all loved it when we grew up. Although I’m not sure changing Rivoli or Tivoli or Regal to Joymoti was a sign of high respect to her. This cinema house is dying, the building is decaying, and no one gives a damn about any historical significance the name may hold because everyone’s flocking to multiplexes these days.


Why am I going on and on about this building then? I try to think hard and it comes back to me. It’s all about the business in Halflong. When APCCC rang me and pleaded I come that very night, adding that little detail about the bird, I left in a flurry. I was used to such lightning assignments. It was an ordinary job for me. Unlike most women in Guwahati – discouraged to walk along this longish alleyway behind an old cinema hall in shirt and jeans – my profile is specific and special. A cyber crime cell expert for decades now, trained abroad and in government service in high places, officials think I’m indispensable. The outside world thinks I’m a writer or a teacher or at best, a bank employee, who has spent considerable time abroad and is a little out of touch with local mores. A little disconnected. It helps me to have the people think in that manner, it helps my work.


Let me make it clear. When the APCCC mentioned the bird image from the message they’d intercepted in Halflong, the concerned official on the phone did blurt out, ‘It has a huge beak, madam.’ My guess was right. A hornbill. The bird glorified as a mascot for several nations and states. Saved from endangerment and now a motif of the security code for an arms cache sent in by terrorists. Nice.


Hornbills are interesting and I can tell you this easily because I don’t need to remember this. Wikipedia says these birds can have long lives, ‘living for nearly fifty years in captivity. It is predominantly frugivorous, but is an opportunist and will prey on small mammals, reptiles and birds'. Given the danger lurking in Halflong, I found the description more than apt. So, when I went to Halflong after that frantic phone call, I knew what to expect. A secret arms cache coming to the area was causing great trepidation in the insurgency-infested region. My arrival from Guwahati, a woman of substance and steely investigative calibre, had the APCCC Halflong branch on their toes. An armoured car was sent to the airport. There were four heavily armed sentries guarding the front and the back and two elite officers holding necessary papers to brief me on my way to the ordinary looking office building in the heart of Halflong town, which people normally took to be a warehouse.


Instead of running high speed on the moderately lit town streets, the armoured vehicle had jolted on to a kuchcha road. All blurry after that. I had some memories of a strange light bulb overhead, ropes cutting into my wrists, and voices whiplashing my face. But all that memory is momentary. As is the one about realising I was on a clean bed with sweet smelling vinyl pipes growing from my arms and nose.


The PTSD isn’t very bad, I tell my counsellor, feigning to know what the acronym means. Forgetting this and that at a certain age after an intense long career immersed in information, decoding, parsing, perusing, analysing, etc. is bound to affect the grey cells. Think of it, I still remember the story of our Lady Joymoti. The way she was tortured so she’d spill all secrets about her husband Prince Gadapani. The chains lashed her body and cut into the flesh but she wouldn’t relent. Die she did, heroically.


Why am I walking behind Joymoti the building, I wonder. It’s stuffy here. I should go upfront and see the accidental crowd that has gathered to watch a movie tonight. The evening is still young and the show starts at nine pm. It’s a hit movie, I’m told. Once in a while old cinema theatres too attract attention. I realise the alleyway stops at a wall. I must turn back anyway.



Nabina Das is the author of a poetry collection Into the Migrant City, Writers Workshop, 2013 and a short fiction collection The House of Twining Roses: Stories of the Mapped and the Unmapped, LiFi Publications, 2013-14. A 2012 Charles Wallace Fellow in Creative Writing, University of Stirling, UK, and a 2012 Sangam House Lavanya Sankaran Fiction Fellow, India, her debut poetry collection Blue Vessel, Saporogue Press, Denmark was listed as one of the best of 2012 in India. Her debut novel Footprints in the Bajra, Cedar Books, 2010 has received critical acclaim, while Nabina's poetry and prose have been published in several international journals and anthologies. An MFA from Rutgers University, US, and a Linguistics and English MA from JNU, Delhi, Nabina has worked as a journalist and media person for about 10 years in India and the US. She teaches Creative Writing and occasionally blogs at