Almost seven years ago, to the week, I had sent off instructions to Gauri Lankesh about who would receive her at Imphal airport and then take her up to Ukhrul. She was part of a team of women writers from different parts of India who had been invited to travel across the Northeast and write stories about their experiences. There were three routes; the first began in western Assam, the second in Ukhrul and the third in eastern Arunachal Pradesh. Each route had at least two women writers, who were guided along their journey by my colleagues and comrades along various points of the road. After ten days of travel, all the writers were to converge in Umiam and discuss the pieces that they were to produce for various journals.
I was nervous about the second route that Gauri Lankesh was supposed to travel with an Assamese woman writer who had dropped out. Gauri wrote in to say that she was unwell. “I have the sniffles and a bit of cough, but nothing is stopping me from coming on this trip”, she wrote back reassuringly. We had never met but I had heard about her formidable wit and courage. She was to fly into Imphal to meet up with my friends Anjulika and Grace, who would then send her on her way to Ukhrul, where she wanted to spend time with people working with the Naga Peoples Movement for Human Rights. Her eight-day trip was to take her from Imphal, Ukhrul, Senapati, Kohima, Khonoma, Dimapur to Umiam.
More than a week later, she gave me a huge bear hug when we met in Umiam and immediately began rolling off anecdotes about her trip to Manipur and Nagaland. I need not have worried about a middle-aged Kannada-speaking lady being out of place in Imphal and Ukhrul. She got along like a house on fire with everyone. “I owe that Chingya lots of money for always buying beer”, she broke out laughing, as she told us about riding out with Chingya Luithui on his motorcycle through Shirui and Langdang, as free as the winds that brought rain to the mountains. She worried that she might have offended Pradeep Phanjoubam by asking him why the dead buried in the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Imphal seemed to have better resting places that those living in the city. She was completely distraught when we spoke of the number of times the beautiful villages that she had stopped by on the way to Kohima had been affected by violence.
There was an easiness with which our conversations meandered into different subjects, almost as though she had lived in Northeast all her life. I did not have to labour through convoluted phrases to describe how militarisation affected lives of people who she had met along the way. She knew precisely why someone drank too much, or why a particular aunt spent much of her time praying when she saw army trucks pass by. She was aware of the difficulties involved in rebuilding lives after having been assaulted by the power and brutality of the state. Where others saw alcoholics and pious old persons, she saw people desperately trying to hold on to shreds of dignity that had been taken away from them.
Late into the night, as I scroll through her old mails, I am forced to come to terms with two facts. The first is hard to swallow: Gauri Lankesh was subjected to a similar brutality and violence of the state that she baulked at during her visit to Manipur and Nagaland in 2010. Those who killed her did so with the same sense of impunity that they have been doing, when dressed in camouflage fatigues in Northeast India. Her journey to the region was one of solidarity. Her horrible death has become emblematic of the violent route that nation-building has taken in India, one that she saw only too clearly seven years ago.
The second fact is easier to deal with: She never wrote anything for us after the trip. I sent her a mail saying that I was worried she had decided to return to Ukhrul and drop off the map. “There is Chattisgarh, West Bengal, Jharkhand in between…so much to do”, she wrote back cheekily. It is just as well that her pieces are due. We must write them now.