A GOOD reporter always gets his or her facts right. In fiction too, I was told before my first assignment in 1989.
You don’t need to spend 21 years in the profession to discover fact and fiction trading places or blending, sometimes due to the pressure of filling up pages. But there are some facts you never fictionalize, whatever the compulsion.
And there are facts you know aren’t fiction but don’t carry the ‘official’ tag. Such as the capital of Assam.
“Nice report, but you got something wrong,” emailed Nikhil Goyal from New Delhi the other day. “Dispur, not Guwahati, is the capital of Assam; the books say so,” added the general manager of a private firm with business interests in Assam.
He wasn’t the first to point out my ‘mistake’.
“Sure?” asked my (Hindustan Times) Nation editor Arnab Mitra a couple of months ago. “But that isn’t official, is it?” he asked again after I replied in the affirmative.
Goyal – and Mitra – won’t be the last. Hence this trip to Guwahati’s past.
Once upon a time, on the southern bank of river Brahmaputra, was this periodic market of betel nut. Villagers then were practical; they named a place for what it was. So this weekly (fortnightly?) haat of guwa (betel nut) got its name – Guwahati.
The British, obviously, couldn’t pronounce Guwahati the Assamese way. They gave it an Anglicized twist – Gauhati.
Cut to 1972. An insignificant employee of a significant department – income tax – is transferred from eastern Assam’s Dibrugarh town to Guwahati. His transfer almost coincides with the shifting of Assam’s capital.
Meghalaya, carved out of Assam, gets its statehood on 21 January 1972. Shillong becomes its capital while Assam packs its capital complex – secretariat, assembly and residential quarters of employees, officers and legislators – into a tea warehouse and adjoining structures at Dispur near Guwahati. A plaque says the capital is ‘temporary’.
I, son of that insignificant income taxman, didn’t realize when Dispur ceased to be “5 km south” of the erstwhile betel nut haat. Today, Guwahati measures 260 sq km and extends beyond a much-bloated (compared to 1972) Dispur in the south.
[Maligaon, likewise, is no longer ‘6 km west of Guwahati’. People in this railway-nurtured locality still have the habit of saying ‘I have work in Guwahati’ or ‘let’s go to Guwahati today’ whenever they need to travel to the city centre. Maligaon’s pincode is Guwahati-11.]
Does that automatically make Guwahati the capital of Assam?
Dispur today is one of Guwahati’s many localities. Unless you have a Vatican City-like situation, there isn’t any reason for Dispur to qualify as Assam’s capital.
If it does, Dalhousie Square or BBD Bag should logically be the capital of West Bengal. Because the Writer’s Building, the seat of power in the adjoining eastern Indian state, is situated there.
For the same reason, Raisina Hill – it sports the federal secretariat (North Block and South Block) besides Rashtrapati Bhavan – should be the capital of India, not New Delhi. Or maybe the Sansad Marg where the parliament is sited.
Such arguments, you might say, are meaningless after Assam got its ‘permanent’ (concrete structures presumably last longer than tin-roofed warehouses) capital complex in 2005.
But why, pray, does Dispur have a postal address that ends in Guwahati-781006? Shouldn’t a capital carry its own postal weight, even in this age of electronic mail?
My residence is in the jurisdiction of Dispur Post Office too. I wonder if a snail mail addressed ‘Dispur’ and not ‘Guwahati-5’ will ever reach me.
I don’t file exclusive reports (stories, if you may). Nor have my dispatches made heads roll or governments fall. So you can’t possibly call me a good reporter.
That gives me the license to err, to continue writing this or that place is this or that far from ‘Assam capital Guwahati’.
Besides, I don’t know how to measure distances from a capital of corruption and red-tape, as Dispur is often called. Do you?