The Unsweetened Connection
The Unsweetened Connection19 mins 422 19 mins 422
The beauty of the river in his culture was its liquidity. The free flow of the colourless water was what made it so beautiful. It didn’t stop for anyone. It changed its course without any difficulty. The water of the river was a blessing from the Gods. Its clarity and purity represented the way to live life. The river wasn’t just glorious in itself, it beautified the surroundings as well. The elders in his village often used to say, “A man should live his days like the river, peacefully. Because tranquility is the secret of a successful life.” In his entire life of fifteen years, his father taught him that only the rich are successful. Money buys happiness and the power to fulfil all your dreams. The river wasn’t rich, yet everyone around it looked so content. The animals would cure their thirst from the river frequently at night and the passersby would stare at the magnificent sight. The light of the moon reflected by the river created an illusion as if it were glowing. Hence, the river was known to be the supreme deity and protector of the village. The villagers weren’t ignorant about their heritage but they realised that the river liked to be calm. They didn’t disrupt its peace. After all, messing with the almighty waters will only lead to destruction. However, there was one festival that the villagers celebrated through the permission of the river. The river had granted the people of that small northeastern village the approval to commemorate Bwisagu in the most auspicious way.
Boat racing was awfully popular in Southern India, although the people of his village had a unique way of sailing. They decorated their Holong Nau in vivid and radiant lights and raced along the Brahmaputra. But for him, something more important than the Holong Nau was the food stall that sold Kola Khar. He would save all his pocket-money just to buy a dish of inexpensive curry. The taste reminded him of his mother’s hand-cooked Khar, that she cooked when he was little. Unfortunately for him, he was very young to understand the deliciousness of the Kola Khar and had tasted it only once. The bitterness of the Khar, was what brought flavour to it. Raw papaya and fish added to the mixture of the dried ashes of the banana leaves, made the dish utterly scrumptious. By the time he realised that, his mother had passed away. So, every year to rekindle the few memories he had made with his maa, he ate the curry, despite his miser father’s protests. “This year would be no different” he thought in context to the festival. Little did he know his father had completely different plans for him.
In Northeastern India, traditional values are of the utmost importance. The legacy of generations lies upon the shoulders of the current ones. These practices are not illustrated in popular literature or documents. The sole reliance of these is concentrated in the hands of the people of the present who will hopefully pass it on to the youth verbally. Hima’s father had a similar plan. Though he was a miser and didn’t believe in spending money on unnecessary items, he’d go through anything to keep his family legacy alive. Himabhas didn’t understand the concept of traditions or the importance of following them so vigorously. Rarely, he would fight with his father only to be shut down with the words ``Your arguments are baseless, Himabhas. If this continues, you wouldn’t be able to make a career in the media.” Hima sighed, “There is no point in debating with paa anyways.” As he laid on his mattress, staring holes into the ceiling with little plastic glow-in-the-dark stickers, his father entered the room. Himabhas sat straight with his back against the headboard. “Lora, we will be attending Bwisagu this year.” Said paa without any hesitation in his voice. “I think you are forgetting what you said.” He stated. “That Bwisagu is nothing but for hooligans who have no work to do. They just waste their time drinking Apong and polluting the place. The river will curse us if we participate in such activities.” He said trying to imitate the deep, baritone voice of his father. His father smiled and said “Perhaps I was wrong, you’d make a good news anchor with that memory of yours.”Then he sternly continued, “My decision isn’t open for argument, lora. We will carry on our family’s traditional Sikhirini Mwsanai in Bwisagu.” Regardless of his contempt, he said “Yes, paa.”
Soon, the solar cycle had completed an entire rotation. The season of harvest was welcomed with open arms by all. The semi-lunar new year brought happiness and prosperity for the farmers and joy of the spring for the children. The reaping of the rice had begun to concoct the famous rice-beer called Zou. The start of the season also met with the birthday of the deity Lord Hanuman. Therefore, in a way the air gleamed of prayers, chants and rituals. It was a festive beginning, but for Himabhas it was a tiresome day. Practicing the same dance steps over and over again was driving him insane. In the name of ‘dynastic succession of the great capability of Sikhirini Mwsanai’ his father tormented him to move with precision and accuracy. As compared to his father, who danced energetically and gracefully, he looked like a young duckling who didn’t know how to walk. His father would take his time to laugh his head off at him saying “Lora, if your future employers see you dance at this festival, they’d rather hire a chicken to anchor news for them.” However, Himabhas wasn’t an easy one to crack. He wouldn’t give up no matter what. His father’s laughter fueled him up to perform better and better. Thus, with the blink of an eye, he changed his destiny from that of ‘the ugly duckling’ to that of ‘the graceful swan’.
As the day of the festival neared, the father and son duo along with their close relatives, continued the preparation of their ritualistic dance in full swing. The flowers were in bloom and the song of Bwisagu could be heard from miles afar. The boating teams made harmonious sounds in unison as they paddled the Holong Nau along the length of the Brahmaputra. Simultaneously, their rival teams rowed the Khel Nau right beside them. The competition was cutthroat, but the spirit of the competency was not beyond the beauty of the sport. The members of the rival traditional boats were from one family. Their synchronisation in paddling the boats echoed in order to please the eyes. Furthermore, the stalls for which Hima long waited for had started taking their positions and settling in. The only person discontent in this whole scenario was Hima’s father. He said, “Lora, try harder. Expressions. Focus on the expressions. This is not a courtship dance. Sikhirini Mwsanai is the dance of the butterfly. Focus on your fluidity. Fly free!” “Don’t look so glum. Position your hands against your chest and start again. From the top.” he continued to nag his lora.
Ultimately, Hima’s father reached the saturation point of his satisfaction. He was pleased to see his son, nephew and niece get the hang of the dance. That’s when the nostalgia hit him like a wave. During his childhood, many more dances like Ojapali and Jhumair used to be performed by various ethnic groups in the Assam Cultural Festival of their college. He reminisced the old days, the bodies of the young men glistened with sweat as they danced passionately. The exotic dance of the Bihu was exuberant for which the women would dress in saris with the customary golden and red patterns. Unfortunately, due to the rapid technological advancement and custom practice of living in the cities, many people left their cultural roots to live a life of ease. He wasn’t particularly against the city folks but he missed those days when he used to try different cultural dances and other practices with his friends. Maybe this was the consequence of materialism, it came at the price of all real relationships of the world. His friends transcended into mere acquaintances because he had to forgo the things that delighted him the most in order to attain the money and power that he longed for. At times like this he would just look upon all the circumstances where equity brought him so much more than what friendship would have. But looking at his son giggling with his nephew and niece he could comprehend that perhaps life is meant for earning love not money.The more he pondered deeper in his thoughts, the more the memories of his past came flooding back to his mind. Yet, he felt that being miser and teaching the value of money to his motherless son would only make him stronger to strive for what he deserves. The feeling of seeing his lora content is what made him feel absolutely elated. Possibly, this is how it was supposed to be. The father’s unachieved dreams will be fulfilled by his son.
The northeastern community was, for several centuries, known for their close relationship with the animals. Cattle was worshiped in the state as it brought along means of livelihood for the people. Out of all the farm animals, the most divine one was the cow. The tradition of worshipping the cow, although can be seen throughout the India subcontinent, was particularly distinct amongst the Assamese tribes. Cows were the largest producers of milk and hence, were thought of as mothers. It is said in ancient folklores that cow milk is the supreme symbolic representation of a mother’s love for the offspring. On the darkest days of childhood, when the infant struggles to breathe, not only does the mother’s milk arrange for the strength within her child’s body, but also it offers the warm feeling of an embrace, that protects her offspring from the cruel cold of the world. Himabhas could perceive the logic behind revering the species. Losing his mother at a young age wasn’t easy. In his mind, the figure of a cow was firstly associated with the sacrifices of a mother and then as an animal, deity or so. In the evenings, after school, he’d often spend his time in the shed of Malvika. He would offer her hay, water and even clean after her on occasions. For him, it seemed as if she was the reincarnation of his mother. He would talk to her about the happenings in school and at home. She was even named after his mother as she had similar brown-tinted skin like his mother’s long hair. Malvika wasn’t nearly as old as his mother would be then, yet Hima had taken a liking towards her.
The first day of the festival started with a boom for Himabhas. His little cousin came running towards him, while he was studying, and shouted, “Hima bhai, Hima bhai, the fair is finally here. The festival has begun. Let’s go!” Hima wasn’t particularly interested in the festival, however he couldn’t upset his enthusiastic little cousin. The first rite of the festival started. A young boy, perhaps seventeen years old, began playing a melodious tune on his flute. His tune was amplified by the speakers and the other flautists commenced after him. The pleasant tune was none other than the Santravali. The villagers believed that snakes were a foe of all creatures. They despised the snakes and the snake like people, who appeared majestic from the outside but had hearts filled with pure venom. To keep such creatures away from the tribe and protect their uniformity, the ancient tradition of playing the Santravali was born. They trusted the melody would destroy all snake eggs. The annihilation of the snakes was considered an act of general welfare amongst the Bodos. After the rite concluded, the next came the customary puja of the deities. Firstly, the village priests chanted the distinctive mantra to heartily thank the river, to be gracious enough to share its water and grant life to several habitats. Then the priests proceeded to take some water, from the river, in a lota and pour it back into the river. They encouraged others to the same, as they guided them with the sacred prayer. Hima followed the lead of his father, who knew the prayer by heart.
As the sun began to set, people started to leave for home. The first day of the festival had ended and the rites were called to a halt. Hima and his father had just reached home. “Should I draw the bath for you, paa?” asked Hima. “No, lora. Your cousins and Uncle will be arriving soon. Let’s prepare the table together.” His father said brightly. “Okay, paa.” Said Hima dejectedly. “Here comes another miserable family tradition.” He Thought. His father, on the other hand, was overjoyed to be able to connect with his beloved through the powers of the divine. Almost immediately, his cousins and uncle joined them together at the table. They all sat in undisturbed silence, as Hima turned off the fan and lit the candles. “Bow down your heads and let us embark on the journey to ask the master of all to look after our loved ones and ancestors.” Said Hima’s uncle in a calming voice. Everyone concurrently joined their hands and bowed their heads in humble gratitude and admiration of the Almighty. Where on one hand the children prayed for toys and games, the adults including Hima, asked for the forgiveness of their sins and to bless the lost souls of their ancestors. Hima’s father prayed for his wife and her spirit to live in heaven for eternity. He asked the Lord to give him strength and keep his family under the shadow of his wings. As soon as everyone was done praying, they rang the bell placed on the table and proceeded to get their supper from the kitchen. Hima’s father and uncle were the last ones to eat their food. Hima’s father was smiling brightly after his prayers as though they had already been answered. “The food was delicious. Thank you for having us over, however next time you have to come to our place.” Said Hima’s uncle jokingly. “We’ll come over to your place when you’ll clean it, Bhai.” Said Hima’s father tauntingly. “I will, I will in due time. Come on kids. Let’s go.” Said Hima’s uncle while gesturing to his kids to hold his hands. “Bye, Hima Bhai. See you tomorrow.” Said Hima’s cousin. “Baa!” said Hima’s little toddler cousin. “Bye.” Said Hima simultaneously waving at his cousins excitedly. “They’re a handful, aren’t they?” said Hima’s father. “Yes, but I love them.” Exclaimed Hima with gleaming eyes. “I’m tired now, goodnight paa” said Hima yawning. “Goodnight, little lora” said his father sweetly.
The next few days went by in a blur for Hima’s family. They contributed to help with the food stalls and performed the rites devotedly. They repeatedly rehearsed their piece and synchronised their steps on the beat of the dhol. At last, the sixth day of Bwisagu arrived bringing the festival almost to an end. All the special acts and khel were reserved for the finale. Hima glanced at his father nervously, as he was putting on his traditional attire. “What happened, lora? Are you anxious to perform in front of such a huge crowd?” asked Hima’s father, his voice laced with genuine concern. “No, I was just worried if little Ripun forgets his steps.” lied Hima. “Oh dear, I don’t think he’d forget. Let’s leave now.” Said his father. The walk to the river bank was noiseless. After walking a little, the lights of the festival were visible. It was beautifully decorated for the boat race. All the Holong Nau were in steady positions. The boats which were painted in resplendent colors raced across the floor of the river, starting from a specific point of the Brahmaputra to a distance of seven hundred meters, where the onlookers awaited to see the winner. As the race commenced, the rowers dressed in flamboyant clothing directed their oars against the flow of the current and paddled strongly. The marvellous display of the rapidly progressing naus made the audience widen their eyes in astonishment. The admiration for the rowers was immense within the hearts of the spectators. Amongst the loud cheers and whistling, one could ever so often hear a little child say, “Maa, I want to row a nau as well.” A boat swiftly propelling towards the finish line took the trophy home. Countless other rowers, tailed the winning boat, but couldn’t cross the line on time. Nonetheless, all the rowers were in high spirits seeing their fellow mates win. The audience cheered on and on. Innumerable whistles created an ambience of ecstasy.While everyone was merry, Hima took the opportunity to squeeze through the crowd and walk towards the stall of pure deliciousness. However, the instant he got out of the jam, his father got a hold of him and said, “There you are. Let’s go. It’s time for the dance.” Hima gloomily went along with his father. The dance of butterfly or Sikhirini Mwsanai was conventionally performed only by women of tribe whereas the men played indigenous Assamese instruments. Nevertheless, Hima’s family had a unique custom. The custom of dancing like a man – with pride and your head held high.
This tradition also had a very exceptional beginning. The story goes back to Hima’s great-grandfather’s days. A young, charming lad who was teased because he was a little more feminine than other guys. He was bright in studies and cultural education, however he lacked physical strength. Oftentimes, he tended to watch his mother and younger sisters dance on the trail of the butterfly. He was way beyond fascinated with the roots of the dance. Thus, he secretly started to imitate the steps. He searched for books on the dance in order to absorb the value of the facial expressions and precision of the steps. He was the true epitome of grace. The men in his family disapproved of the singular idea of him dancing in Bwisagu. Even though the other men said he was short of masculinity, he wasn’t the one to easily give up on his dreams. He practiced day and night and skillfully mastered the dance. His poise was something the men aspired to achieve but wouldn’t say out loud and made the women envious. On the sixth day of Bwisagu, he finally danced. His posture was heavenly and he righteously embodied the spirit of a butterfly. The audience savored the dance in absolute delight. The men of his family tried to replicate the dance by his side. The tradition of the butterfly, although depleting, was clearly of prominence in Hima’s family even to this day.
The audience gave a big round of applause to the dancers as they aligned on the stage in their costumes. The men were dressed in an orange colored paguri and a parallel vest fashioned of the same material. Under the vest they wore a long-sleeved kurta of medium length and vibrant green dhoti. The vest was accompanied by a khaki dupatta wrapped around the waist and a scarlet Aronai with detailed work of silver agor. The women sported costumes made up of similar materials. The traditional Dokhna, Jwmgra and Aronai increased the elegance of the performance. The dancers stood with their heads bowed as the music slowly started. The Sifung was played first, contributing to a high-pitched and shrill tune, which marked the beginning of the song. Next, the players of the Serja and Kham set the melody into pace as the dancers commenced. Slow foot movements, followed by actions of the moving wings of a butterfly were set to motion. The dupatta was used to recreate the complete personification of the butterfly. As the song progressed, the beats got louder and the steps became swifter. The formation of the dance carried out in the form of a blossoming flower, incorporated the beauty of spring. The defined and strict movement and positioning of the participants brought life to the dance as it grew towards its end. A final bow to the audience was met by cheers and whistles of the crowd. The heaving dancers smiled as they moved backstage.
The performance was a huge success despite Hima’s anxiousness. He tried to keep himself calm and desperately waited for his reward at the end of the show. “I’m going to drink some water.” Claimed Hima as the stirred near the direction of the stall. “Hima Bhai, I’ll come with you. I want water.” Said little Ripun. Hima sighed disconsolately and held the hand of a very overjoyed Ripun. “He did well regardless of his disinterest.” Stated his uncle. “Yes.” Said Hima’s father. By the time, Hima and Ripun were back, the fireworks had started off. Something about looking at the fireworks lightened up against the charcoal night, made Hima satisfied with himself. Like a little boy, he stared at the intense sparks that went off with a boom. His eyes shimmered from the reflection of the glistening lights. During that moment, as his father stared at him, he realised that he was still young. It was high time that he appreciated the small things in life before he is lost amongst the big city people. This village would probably stay here forever, but as time passes by, he couldn’t guarantee the certainty of this statement. He had yet so much to enjoy and so little time to do it.With this final thought the last firework exploded only to disappear in the darkness within a matter of seconds.
With only a few minutes on the clock, until the festival winded-up, Himabhas raced for the Khar stall as if his life depended on it. He felt euphoric just thinking about having the dish. As soon as he reached the stall, he said, “One plate Kola Khar.” “Coming right up.” Said the guy behind the stall trying to make it quick. Hima was heaving as he searched for his wallet. Just as he was about to remove his money, someone with brawny masculine hands tapped his shoulder. He knew very well who this esteemed gentleman was but decided to keep calm rather than look petrified. “Lora, what are you doing here?” asked his father austerely. “Here comes another lecture about understanding the value of money.” Himabhas thought whilst he tried to come up with something reasonable to argue with his father about. “I was just a little…” before he could complete his sentence, the server cut him off, “Here.” He said handing him the dish. Before he could answer with a ‘thank you’ his father said, “By any chance, can you make it a one by two?” “Sure.” Said the server happily. “What are you doing, paa?” asked Himabhas puzzled at his father’s actions. “Did you know an important part of passing on traditional values to you lora also includes teaching them how to make some of their own?” stated his father as casually as he could. Hima’s father wasn’t very good at expressing his feelings towards his lora. But this simple gesture touched Hima’s heart. “Sorry to cause you the trouble, lad” said Hima’s father. “Here” he continued handing over the money that he took out from his wallet while Hima was lost in his trance.
The walk home was silent as usual, but the father and the son had formulated a much deeper relationship than either of them could meditate upon. As they shared their dish, which was just as bitter as their bittersweet bond, they grew more fond of each other. Hima could finally unravel what went on inside his father’s mind, up to a certain extent. He was late to realise that despite having his reservations, his father loved him and cared for him a lot. He was always taking into consideration what was best for his lora. The welcoming of the bottom of the disposable bowl coinciding with them reaching home. Hima took charge and threw the bowl and pair of spoons into the trash as he felt too awkward to carry a conversation with his father. “Shall I draw you a bath, lora?” asked his father as an attempt to rank their level of uneasiness. “No, I’m good.” Answered Hima without any discomfort. “That was easy.” Hima thought at the back of his head. “Alright then I’m heading to sleep. Goodnight, paa.” Said Hima. Immediately after they separated their ways, Hima’s father called him out and said, “By the way, it does taste like your mother’s.”