Jadav Payeng is a simple man. Ask Jitu, the native of Assam’s Jorhat who consorted him to world capitals, introduced him to dinner-table habits,
English words, shoes and the western toilet. On that night, when all of us were huddled over a lantern and local brew, surrounded by the deep dark forest of his creation, Payeng, though, had let it forth: “I don’t need anybody. I don’t need to go anywhere,” he had burst out angrily. “I’m happy to be here.”
It was nevertheless Jitu who called me on that rainy Kolkata night a couple of weeks later. “The island Mekhahi has gone under the water. There was a flash flood and the river tore through it.” What happened to Payeng’s elder brother, Malbukh, who had made us sit at the only dry corner of his barn and laid out bowls of the thickest and most filling buffalo milk curd? Malbukh was the only human inhabitant of that portion of the island that had emerged from the river Brahmaputra in the near past. He lived there with his herd of two dozen buffaloes — there is no news of him or of the cowherd Payeng, who had gone to search for his brother.
Earlier, I’d spent a few nights and days with Payeng on the fringes of his forest — a 350-400 hectare dense green belt in the island of Ouna Sapori, about two hours from Jorhat, that he personally created and nurtured for over three decades. One night, Payeng had recollected one of his escapes from a river island when a deluge arrived stealthily under the cover of a pitch-dark monsoon night. He had held on to the tail of one of his buffalos, those expert and instinctive swimmers, and swam across the gurgling Brahmaputra. “If you let go of the tail for a second, the currents will drag you in,” said Payeng. They had touched ground again at another small riverine island, among the many that emerge and dissolve with the cross-currents and mood swings of the great river. Payeng escaped one home to seek refuge in what would soon be another.
Since his birth in Ouna Sapori, home for 54-year-old Payeng has been a nebulous, shifting construct. It has been moulded, transformed and held hostage to the sudden twists and turns of the river, for the Brahmaputra is notorious for its rain-fed drunkenness. Each year, hundreds of small