Wednesday, January 6, 2010


I am an Assamese, and when I write about Assam, being born & bred in Guwahati, I cannot write without having Guwahati in my heart. Guwahati is the city I was born into. Guwahati is the city that my mum & dad choose to build a house and called it their home. There are so many cherished moments related to this city that it is hard to put my finger on any one such memory and say that this is what defines Guwahati for me. Guwahati for me is the collective soul of that varied populace that inhabit its is the big-nosed city bus that I used to travel on as a twelve year old child, it is that obsession with maas-bhaat (fish-rice) and tamul-paan (betel nut and its leaves) that are laid out on a xorai (an offering tray made of bell/brass with a stand in the bottom) whenever a visitor comes knocking at our door. The Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk talked about the huzun (Turkish for melancholy) of his city when he wrote about Istanbul, a city dear to him. If I have to use the same word, then I would say that Guwahati’s huzun lies in the memories of buddhi aair saadhu (grandmother’s stories) that I read as a child. It lies in the acres upon acres of fertile land that lay on both sides of the narrow road, land which is now slowly but surely being turned into residential complexes, malls. It lies in the spirit of bihu and the way it is celebrated throughout the city. It lies in the aura of the neighboring teashops where a good morning chat begins with those famous lines ‘kela ki khobor bey tumar?’ (Hey, how are you?) Off late, a new type of huzun has also crept in. It is in the emptiness of many an Assamese home, with their children gone to study further in Delhi, Bangalore or Pune.

Now, if I close my eyes and think of Guwahati, images rush to my mind...........images of that kilometer-long train journey over the Saraighat bridge with the river Brahmaputra on both sides; memories of that steep uphill walk to the Kamakhya mandir (temple); beggars lying half-naked on pavements outside the Ugrotora mandir; that resplendent display of muga-eri (traditional silk dresses) worn by beautiful Assamese ladies on the eve of bihu (the agricultural festival of Assam); that narrow stretch of road between Chandmari and Guwahati-Club that always seems to be bustling with slow-moving traffic, that far-away removed world of the University campus, a world within a world and acres upon acres of its undeveloped land.

There is an interesting nugget, regarding the origins of serving paan-tamul as a symbol of respect to guests, which I came across while surfing the net one day. The story goes something like this..............Once upon a time; there were two friends, one very rich and the other equally poor. Every day, the poor friend would go to his rich friend’s house for dinner. One day, the poor friend decided to invite the rich guy to his home for dinner and told his wife to prepare something special for the occasion. But there was no foodgrains to cook in the house. So she tried knocking on the neighbor’s doors but they refused to help her. Out of sheer helplessness, she killed herself rather than face the ignominy of having her husband face humiliation in front of his rich friend. The husband, coming back from the fields, saw his dead wife lying on the floor and was filled with remorse. He recalled the argument that they had when his wife told him that they have nothing to eat, He remembered all those moments in the past when he had mistreated his wife, told her lies so he could go to his friend’s place for drinking. In a moment of anguish, he too killed himself and lay down near his wife. The friend, when he came knocking, saw the two corpses strewn on the floor. He thought about his dear friend and his wife, the happy family they were, and the waste of life that now lay before his eyes, something for which he held himself responsible. Feeling guilty, he too committed suicide. Seeing all these unfold before his eyes, God finally came to the house. He felt bad for all of them and transformed their souls into paan, tamul & chun (limestone). The wife, he transformed into chun, the husband paan and his friend into tamul. This way, he united the souls of the husband-wife into one (as we usually consume paan with chun on it). From then on, it is said, that this tradition of offering paan-tamul (with chun) to guests as a symbol of respect started.

Guwahati holds a special place of being, an identity for people from all walks of life and ages. As a small child, my Guwahati was confined to my home, that bus-ride from my home to school and back, my neighbours’ kids, my relatives’ houses and the open ground beside our house, where I used to play cricket as a kid. As I grew up in size, so did my idea of Guwahati. That road between my home and school extended to all the nooks & corners of the city that my exploring feet egged me on; the company of the neighbor’s kids gave way to new friends, acquaintances and my idea of an evening-out moved from a walk to my relative’s houses to the cramped quarters at my friend’s place. Times were changing and so was I. But throughout this cycle of change, Guwahati always remained loyal to me. When I was a toddler, it was that stable ground that I learned to walk on; when I was a bumbling teenager of seventeen, it became that seedy cinema-hall and the neighboring paanwalla that helped me escape from the demands and disappointments of my parents and school; and finally now, when I am a fully-grown male of the employable sort, it has become that distant abode far away from all the din & noise of metropolitan existence, a place that I run away to atleast once in a year.

A special mention has to be made of the slang ‘kela’. It is a way to address one of your peers, something with which you start a sentence or end it. Then, depending on contextual usage, it can be flavored to mean a lot of can be the happiness that you feel when you meet with a long-lost friend of yours, it can be the pent up frustration that one might feel. At times, it can also mean that, for want of something better to say, you just mumble it out. Like just the other day, I was sitting with one of my friends in my room, getting bored with nothing better to do. Moments before, we had exhausted ourselves with a heavy dose of video games, some of which had ended in arguments. There, slumped on the bedroom sofa, that excitement and its aftermath gave rise to an intense feeling of boredom. Out of desperation, I muttered ‘kela’ three times in as many minutes! The slang ‘kela’ by dint of its repeated and favored use, has succeeded in serving a higher purpose. It has given a sense of identity and belongingness to the Assamese youth among his own peer group. It has also served as a beautiful form of self-expression that goes beyond words, emotions that cannot be conveyed in alphabets.

I, like my Dad, usually have a benign tolerance to things when they change. I was silent when the Gauhati that I grew up in became Guwahati. I also had a tolerant smile on my lips when globalization came and replaced that cup of tea my mother makes with a machine-made cup of espresso coffee. But that day when those eighteen serial blasts shook every nook and corner of Guwahati, I could take it no more. I wept for Guwahati, I wept for the trees in my backyard that seemed soiled from the dust of that blast, I wept for the Guwahati of my childhood innocence that will never be the same again. I wept for the victims who lost their lives and their dear ones for whom life stopped in that instant, if only to be mended in a half-hearted struggle for survival the next day and the days that followed. I wept but was anyone listening? ‘Guwahati will move on.’ Said one of our honorable ministers moments after the blast. True, the city does tend to move on. But that ‘moving on’ has more to do with the apathy of the general public who find it convenient to turn a blind eye to disasters if they happen outside their home. It has also to do with an inherent sense of helplessness that decades of unrest has dealt on the city. So many words have been spoken about our glorious past, so many names of brave martyrs have been is time we look into the future and step forward.

Guwahati, with its river Brahmaputra and its many rivulets; the city, with its history of folklore, the inherent craftsmanship of its people since time immemorial; its image tarnished in many a battles fought over the centuries...............such is the soul of the city I was born into. Even now, as I put my pen down away from the paper, I can still hear the distant beats of the Nagara naam (a form of prayer involving loud sounds to drive away spirits) being played out in some remote village not too far away from Guwahati, the dhol (drums) beating in rhythm to the rising tempo of the Taal.

Guwahati is the city I was born in............and someday many years later, when I am old and dying, Guwahati is the piece of land that I would love to sleep forever on.

1 comment:

  1. The last para is very touching.
    I have never been to Guwahati. Your description drew clear sketch of that place in front of my eyes. :)
    I enjoyed reading the post and liked the story of two friends the most.

    Best wishes. :)