The Bonfires of `Magh Bihu`

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Woke up this morning in a haze of nostalgia. It is the eve of Magh Bihu, the two day celebration of a good harvest in Assam. I still remember our house on the day of the feast. We called it Uruka.

When father was there, he would have someone chop off a big log he had bought, into thick, short stalks which would be left to dry in the sun, for at least a week before Bihu. We would play around the dew kissed pile every morning.

My grandmother would send us Assamese rice based snacks called pithas in old Lactogen tins.

The Bihu feast is usually enjoyed with friends and family, so we would go to our uncle's house in Digboi, where there was a community feast. It would be biting cold and Mother would dress us up in layers of woolens, including brightly coloured woolen caps my grandmother had knitted.

There would be a tent put up and the men would be in a corner, drinking rum and whisky with water, and calling out to the cook's helper for a plate of fish fry or mutton. Fish fry would be accompanied by green chillies and onions rings. And of course, Kissan tomato sauce. The drink glasses would be carefully placed on the floor next to the tin folding chairs where the men would sit. Once in a while, one of the men there- we called them all uncles- would pretend he did not have a glass, when he felt the eyes of his shawl covered wife boring into him. Drinking was not so good in those days.

The women would be helping the cook in chopping, slicing, dicing. Children would be playing around. There would be a fire lit near the tent, but this one was more for warmth and not the "real" bihu fire. Some of the women- we called them aunties- would hand around steel plates laden with pithas made of sesame seeds, jaggery, rice powder, coconut. The women would have these with steaming tea served in paper cups.

Around midnight, we would all sit together on the carpeted floor, with banana leaves in front of us, which had some salt, a chilli and a lemon slice on one corner. Then some of the uncles would ladle out steaming rice, brinjal battered in chick pea flour fries, dal with coconut, mutton curry brimming with oil , a mixed vegetable, fish curry with yoghurt- all from serving steel buckets.

There would be lot of leg pulling and camaraderie between the men and the women. The last batch would be the cook and his helpers, the drivers and they would also be served by one of the uncles or aunties. The used banana leaves would be piled into a huge wicker basket outside the tent.

Next morning was Bihu. Mother would wake us up at 5 in the morning- still dark and very cold. She would have heated water in a huge kettle- those days, we did not have geysers. All of us would bathe, wear our warm clothes and rush out.

I would stop and stare at the crisscrossed pile of logs that father would have formed into what we call a "meji". Mother would cover her head with a shawl; light an earthern diya, agarbatti and offer paan, betelnut and a gamosa. Then father would ceremoniously light the meji.

We would all sit around the fire, our faces lit by the orange flames, listening to the crackling and spitting of the mango logs. Kalpana, our help, would appear with a tray full of pithas and tea. All of us, including Kalpana and her family, would also chuck in potatoes and yams into the fire. Father would poke into the flames and dig them out with a stick and we would peel and have them. The taste was enhanced with the excitement we all felt.

Soon, the light from the fire would mingle with the first rays of the north eastern sun. The pile of spare logs would decrease, till finally there would be the last few. At my sister's insistence, Kalpana and I would scramble around for dry leaves and twigs, to keep the fire on longer.

Lunch on this day is vegetarian (unusual in Assam). It would be puris, a mixed vegetable called labra, potato curry, brinjal battered fries followed by sweet curd and rasgullas. There would be visitors pouring in all day. Everyone who knocked at our gates would be offered some food.

I look at my daughter snuggled under the covers as I write this now.

She leads a good life. But will she ever get the chance to light a meji... to munch on pithas in the early dawn, to laugh with glee with mother was served four ladles of mutton by Sharma Uncle, to call in the newspaper boy for a cup of tea and pithas on Bihu day.....

We try to recreate this every year at home, but how can one recreate the warmth and the happiness of the simple lives we lead in those days......

The author works with India’s leading advertising agency in Delhi.

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