Yesterday was Bhogali Bihu, an Assamese festival to celebrate the harvesting of crops. I missed going to my hometown to attend the celebrations this year. Exams are knocking on the door. Waking up yesterday morning, and knowing that I won’t be able to see the “Meji” fire (a bonfire lit on occasion of Bhogali Bihu), catch up with my cousins, have the whole family around me…I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of sadness. My parents and my sister were also going through the same emotions. And then the calls started coming in from all my relatives; the distance barriers were overcame and the families were united again. Catching up with all the people stretched the phone calls for more than three hours. It felt awesome talking to everyone. In the evening my youngest uncle’s family came over to our home. And as we sat down for lunch, we missed being with the rest of the family but comforted by the thought that no matter where life takes us…the bonds are too strong to be weakened by distance. And festivals like these are a constant reminder of these bonds of love.
Since my childhood, I’d been a great enthusiast of festivals…and Bhogali Bihu was no exception. Some of my fondest memories are of the Bihu celebrations in my hometown, the huge gathering of all the members of our extended family (at least 60 people) at the “Bhoj” (a feast) the night before Bihu. Since the evening before Bihu…preparations for it would start on a grand scale. A huge tent would be erected on our front yard. Carpets and mattresses would be laid on the floor. Firewood is purchased. Pithas (different varieties of sweets prepared during Bihu) would be cooked. Everyone in our joint family would gather in the tent by eight pm. There was a distinct fervor and excitement in the air. There was so much to do. A meal for sixty people was no small feat. The women of the household, my mother and my aunts, would gather at one corner of the tent and busy themselves with the meal preparation. Their duty was to chop the vegetables, marinate the chicken and fish, and gather the required spices. Their duties ended there. The food was always cooked by the men folk. And since they rarely ventured into the kitchen, these festivals were occasions they eagerly looked forward to flaunt their culinary skills. The fire would be lit after some time, and different items were cooked in turns. There were about five-six different dishes. As the food was being prepared, few of the people would gather around the fire to protect themselves from the cold January night. My grandmother was always one of them. She would quietly supervise everything from her cozy seat next to the fire giving occasional instructions. Since the fire wasn’t large enough to provide warmth to sixty people…there would be few small coal-lit stoves and the rest of the people would be huddled around these.
The older children would be sprawled lazily on the floor mattresses, chatting and listening to music. The music system would be brought out to the ground, and it’d be on full blast playing everything from the popular filmi music to traditional Assamese songs. Few of my uncles would go out for a smoke and stand outside the tent carefully shielded from the elder members of the family. Alcohol was consumed occasionally by a couple of people who would hide the glasses under the chair! But after some time it would become evident that they were drunk when they began to exhibit their dancing skills. It was more energy than style. A very amusing sight. There would be a constant chatter…Many conversations going on at the same time…and I loved the buzz. These were the occasions when everyone would catch up on the family news…news of births, deaths, weddings, new jobs, and even the gossip. Childhood stories would be related. My grandfather’s presence was missed all throughout the celebrations. Sometimes there were heated arguments and a long forgotten quarrel would be revived. The children would get all excited and even place bets on who would win the argument! And all of us would be sorely disappointed when someone would mediate peace between those on the war path. One of my cousins would bring out his guitar; few of the children would dance. New nicknames were generated, old ones were relished, and everyone would compare bits of their most embarrassing incidents and silly goof ups ensuing loud laughter.
What would I be doing? I would roam around the whole ground with my own group of followers. It consisted of nine of my younger cousins and since there was a good four to eight years difference between them and me, they would obediently follow me around everywhere. I would assign different duties to each one of them. A couple of them would assist my aunts in chopping vegetables. Sure, they were offering help but not without any ulterior motive. These “helping acts” would provide plenty of opportunities to sneak out salads and fish fry and snacks. Few of the cousins would be assigned the duty of guarding the wooden fence that formed the boundary wall on one side of our ground. It’s a tradition on the eve of Bihu to “steal” wooden fences for firewood. And given the huge number of family members, we always had enough enthusiastic little guards waiting fervently in anticipation to nab a thief that night. We never did. No one dared to approach our home on seeing the large number of people gathered. And by midnight…the food will be ready. As the dishes were laid out, the kids always created a huge ruckus over the seating arrangement. But soon everyone was seated and the food was served. It was always traditional Assamese cuisine. Non vegetarian dishes predominated. I always relished the prawns and the roasted sweet potatoes. I loved these long drawn out meals, full of animated conversations, laughter and the genial ambience. After the meal, those who were feeling drowsy would retire to bed. Few would lie on the floor mattresses and chat late into the night. And few of my uncles would have a friendly game of cards. Bets were made and money was won and lost within the family. My youngest uncle derived great pleasure from winning huge sums of money from his elder brothers that night. He is unusually lucky. And as he is my favorite uncle, sometimes I would help him by innocently peeking and using sign language to tell him the cards dealt to my other uncles. I always used to get a hundred bucks in reward. It was all done in a fun spirit. By two in the early morning, everyone would go off to sleep. Only to wake up after hardly two hours of sleep. It was the day of Bhogali Bihu. And the ceremonial bonfire “Meji” would be lit. The “Meji” would be constructed of a tall heap of wood stacked one over other and covered with a stack of hay on the top. Since the lit “Meji” fire is considered holy, one has to have bath before approaching it. This would lead to long bathroom queues, followed by the painful experience of taking a shower at 4am in the cold, cold January morning! By sunrise, everyone would be out in the grounds again, sitting in a huge circle around the “Meji”. We would all be shivering in the cold. And then the fire would be lit. As the flames rise, everyone would bow their heads in unison and pray, and the women would throw certain offerings into the fire. I loved this moment. There is this profound calm that prevailed at that very moment and the comfort of the whole family gathered together on this occasion. Soon after, the conversations from the night would be continued, few would sit quietly soaking in the warmth from the fire, the children would attach sweet potatoes to bamboo sticks and roast it in the fire, and all these would be followed by a sumptuous breakfast. The merriment, the joy, the comfort, the laughter, the whole family gathered together for the occasion…sitting around the “Meji”, engulfed by its warmth….I will always treasure these memories.
Years have passed since those days. The extended family has scattered all over India and abroad. The “Bihu” celebrations are still held at our home the same way. But the number of people attending it has considerably decreased. Every year someone or the other is prevented from attending it due to job responsibilities or because of a clash with exams at college and school. I don’t know when the whole family would re-unite to attend such an occasion again…and I long for those earlier days.