Magh Bihu reminisces...
Magh Bihu to me has always been about my maternal grandmother or Aita. Since Aita lived with her two sons, whom we called dangor mama (elder uncle) and xoru mama (younger uncle), her four daughters who had been married off to distant corners of Assam would troop in for Bihu, their families in tow. I can still hear the multitude of chatter and laughter resounding through the large mansion with every new arrival.
There would be elaborate preparations for Uruka, the feast on the eve of Bihu. Huge mounds of straw would be brought over to make the bhela ghor, a temporary hut where communal feasting takes place and then lit at dawn. Our gang of younger cousins would revel among the straw mounds and make our own world of make-believe. We would build nests out of the straw and imitate hens, of all things in the world, and cluck away to glory! Later, there would be painful yelps when we washed our arms and legs in the evening, as the straw would inflict secret cuts of which we were unmindful of in our fervent attempt to lay eggs.
Finally, the bhela ghor would be built and so would be the meji, a pyramid type structure made out of bamboo sticks, both to be kindled at dawn. There would be a mini-market of vegetables, fish and meat laid out near the kitchen to appease the hordes at midnight. We would make our own groups and indulge in various games (carom, ludo, badminton) and story-telling, taking turns at sitting near the bonfire. The food would be cooking away while our parents and uncles had their own sessions of gossiping. Someone from that group would suddenly appear to admonish us and warn us not to ‘run here and there in the dark’.
Aita would be making sunga pitha, sticky rice stuffed in bamboo hollows and cooked in fire. She would sit on a low stool, huddled up in a thick shawl, and stir in handfuls of straw to keep up the low fire for the pitha to get cooked. We would sit near her and try to do the same till she shooed us away. Aromas wafting in from the open kitchen would entice us to no end and finally one of us would volunteer to sneak in and get a ‘tasting plate’. We were allowed to have starters of freshly made til pithas, roasted potatoes and small fried fish, though.
Finally, at around midnight, we would be called for dinner and we would eagerly sit cross-legged on the floor of the bhela ghor. There would be another ruckus as we called out for our favourite dishes to be served. I wonder if we even managed to discern one dish from the other in that entire hubbub. We would then call it a night at around 3 am and sleep at our designated places – the parents in beds and most of us kids on thick mattresses laid out on the floor. By 6 am, we would wake up to the hollering of dangor mama who would claim ‘everyone has put fire to their mejis, only ours is left and it is already noon!’ We would tumble out, sleepy eyed and with crow’s nest hair, to light the bhela ghor and the meji. All except xoru mama’s three sons, who would be dutifully bathed and clad in thin gamochas, all ready to do the rituals. I still don’t know how they managed to wake up so early and take bath on those cold mornings. The bhela ghor and meji would be lit and eggs and potatoes thrown in, the eggs making a popping sound as the flames licked them. We would then pray standing at the edge of the fire for a great year and seek blessing from our elders. Finally, a round of ‘happy Bihu’ to everyone (and ‘happy birthday’ to Mainoo Ba) and Magh Bihu would start off!
But I have not mentioned one amazing aspect – the part where one is supposed to steal fences (bordering houses those days, like a wall), vegetables, even chicken, under the cover of the night for the feast and the bonfire! All in good spirit, of course.I somehow doubt the ‘stealing expertise’ of our guys although they would leave all gung-ho and professional types for the expedition. Let me finish this never-ending piece with an incident that I will never forget.
Rony, the youngest kid in the family, had always wanted to return home with an armload of fences on Uruka for the bonfire. Unfortunately, he was always the first to be spotted by the owner of the fences and shooed off with warnings. One Uruka, he was returning from the market with a domestic help Ramu, a simpleton who did not know about this thieving custom. Rony was explaining it to him when he suddenly noticed a fence by the side of the road.
“See the fence over there?” Rony told Ramu “We can get that for our bonfire.”
No sooner had he uttered those words that Ramu ambled off in the direction of the fence and yanked out one portion with a mighty heave. Then, to Rony’s horror, there arose the spectre of the owner of the fence.
“Who dares to steal my fences under my nose?” he demanded and followed Rony and Ramu, who was still holding on to his bounty.
The party of indignant owner and ‘un-resentful thieves’ reached Aita’s house where dangor mama was sitting beside the bonfire. Ramu strode purposefully towards the fire and threw down his burden of fences over it, the flames engulfing them instantly. Rony scooted towards the shadows as the owner approached dangor mama.
“Dada, this..hic…fence….hic hic..” he started to lodge his complaint. Clearly, he had enjoyed a little drink or two.
“They stole my fence..hic...and put my fence…hic hic…in the fire.” He finally had it out.
Dangor mama coolly shoved a stool for him to sit down.
“Come now, sit here,” he said to the owner. “How is your family?”
“Oh, don’t ask dada,” the owner slid further towards the fire for warmth. “My son has been..…”
And thus, conversation began around the Uruka fire.
Happy Magh Bihu all, and have a great Uruka!