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BIHU

We were driving back to the boat. I was still trying to find out just what had happened in Sibasagar. I liked saying it so much I kept asking questions.

‘In Hiba-hagar-r-r-r what was happening when…’

‘When we were in Hiba-hagar-r-r-r…?’

‘Do the people of Hiba-hagar-r-r-r, the Hiba-hagar-r-r-rians like to…?’

It was all very adolescent. I think Bongo got tired of it before I did. I didn’t care. He had to tolerate me, whatever my eccentricities. It was his duty. It was only when Miss Jill roused herself from her customary torpor and told me to shut up that I did. I’d forgotten she was there.

A mile down the road we stopped. Twelve little girls, exquisite little bundles of cuteness, stood by the roadside. Each was impeccably dressed in the newest of new traditional costumes, each with a fresh wild orchid curled tight in her hair. Various mums and dads stood behind them, looking on with all the joy of a parent at the primary school Nativity play.

The appearance of a foreign monster from the front seat of the car seemed to overwhelm them. One little girl looked very uncertain indeed and needed a great deal of hide-and-seek before she would consent to pose. Bongo smiled benignly. Now this was more like it. This was what tourists should do – terrify the locals. It was our duty to behave like ham-fisted fools.

Poor kid, he was running on empty. It was the fag-end of the season and he was stuck with this stupid old man. Only one thing could rouse him from his torpor; the sight of a beautiful woman. I conjured one up.

*

We screeched to a halt yet again. She was posed accidentally in front of her house. Out tumbled the white man to take her picture while the guide and driver stood and ogled. Orchids in her hair, the widest of wonderful eyes, dressed in her absolute finest – this young lady was art. The frankness of her gaze was electric. Bongo was like a Cocker Spaniel on heat. The goddess was joined by her mother, sister, aunt and, with much persuasion and another Oscar winning performance from Mr. Dogster, one recalcitrant grandmother for the obligatory tourist picture while Bongo and the driver ejaculated silently and giggled behind their hands.

This was not the rut of randy young men, not the slash, burn and run of Western youth, this was a pagan juicy thing with the whiff of the beginning of time. The girls were frank and strong, they feared no man, let alone my drooling Bongo. Everything was fresh, everything was new.

‘Why were they standing here by the road? What is going on? Is it dress-up day – what?’

He was still juiced up from the beautiful girl. He was full of the wonder of life. For once in his life Bongo forgot to lie.

‘It’s New Year’s Eve!’

*

The great Bohag Bihu celebrates the arrival of the Assamese New Year in mid-April, the coming of Spring, the beginning of Bohag, first day of the Hindu solar calendar and this year at least, the unexpected arrival of Mr. Dogster – quite a confluence of events.

It’s a big deal, very significant, the largest, most popular festival in Assam.  That Dog had arrived in the middle of it with no idea this event was taking place was, by now, par for the course. It was the equivalent of him arriving in London at Christmas time and wondering who all these funny fat men in red suits were. He was eminently capable of idiocy like this.

This Assamese New Year goes on for a week. Today was the first day of the festival, the last day of Choitro or ‘Chait’; the last month of the Bengali calendar. The Bangla calendar is a traditional solar calendar used in Bangladesh and India’s eastern states of West Bengal, Assam and Tripura. The current Bengali year is 1415. The year begins on Pôhela Boishakh, which falls on 15th April in India. I guess you knew all that.

No? Well, neither did Dogster.

They call this day ‘Goru Bihu’. ‘Bihu’ means ‘festival’. ‘Goru’ means ‘cow’.

I’m not sure if cows have birthdays. They should but I’m not sure they do. On Goru Bihu that shortcoming has been rectified. They all get a bath, a bit of a rub with a paste of matikalai to keep away the flies, a beautiful necklace made of flowers then the lucky sods are given a spa treatment in the ponds. Their cowshed is smoked with incense then given a thorough spring-clean. They get a big dinner of fresh vegetables and rice cakes, another whack with the Dighalati leaves then, in the evening, tired and emotional, they are tied up again ready for the New Year. I’m still not sure why they throw the cucumbers.

Like everywhere on New Year’s Eve, people visit their family and friends. No wonder Neamati Ghat was busy. They pay respect to their elders with gifts of those white gamosa; blessings and wisdom are sought, there’s a great deal of bowing and scraping. Was this why I was dragged up on stage – because I was very, very old? I got a hat, too. Then I looked very, very old and very, very stupid. Where’s the respect in that?

People greet the spring season, hoping for a plentiful, rich harvest. It’s a day to pray to the weather gods, implore them to stop the yearly flooding, protect the farms and houses from all the natural calamities they seem intent on creating.

‘Now, destroy the storm and rain…’

That could just be why the temples were full.

There was a big party brewing and we old foreign monsters were definitely not invited. Bongo had decided our fate. It was easier that way.

As per plan, neither Miss Jill nor I knew anything about this till we were safely on our way back to our ship-board jail where we spent a sedate evening having our usual ‘dinner a deux’ – locked away safely while the rest of Assam had a really good time.

‘Happy New Year!’ I said to Miss Jill.

Miss Jill didn’t give a toss. It wasn’t on her itinerary – therefore New Year did not exist.  It was all for savages anyway; everybody knew that New Year happened in January. She eased herself up, belched gently and made her way to the door.

‘Mm-m-ph-h,’ she grunted by way of salute and promptly retired to her virgin bed.

‘Good night, my darling,’ I said quietly to her retreating arse, ‘don’t let the bed-bugs bite.’

*

Imagine a blank sheet of paper. Turn it on its side. Draw a line across the middle. Add a thin stroke of sandy white above it, a shimmer of brown below – and that’s the mighty Brahmaputra, wide and flat and long.

That night we were berthed beside a river bank, much like all the other river banks of Assam, equally stark, equally silent – but this one had a village just a kilometre away.  The moon was nearly full, white river sand shone silver into the distance, a slap of water flapped gently against the bow – but that was all, just Dogster, the Brahmaputra and that delicious daily silence.

I had a buzz on from my regular Kingfisher Beer, my nightly signal to prowl the upper decks with a smoke in my hand and smoke dreams in my head. I stood at the railing looking up at the stars.

From over a small rise came a black shape. It seemed to hesitate on the ridge then disappeared into the darkness – then I saw another, then another. I could hear drums. A flood of dark figures appeared over the brow of the hill, twenty, thirty people walking together towards the boat. They were all having a lot of fun, arrived like a great moveable party and laughed and stumbled around on the sand directly below.

Then they began to sing.

Song after song, dance after dance, the young men and women showed off, tried to out-do each other, danced provocatively to roars of laughter, whooped and hollered or listened quietly when the best of them crooned. The songs they sang were the Bihu songs, the bihu gits, or bihugeets. Sometimes they were tear-jerkers, sometimes raucous sing-along but all were about romance and sexual love, requited or not. Mostly not, I suspected from the love-sick looks on the faces of these happy young men. The bihugeeting was gently rude, never vulgar, but there was no doubt as to what was going on: this was a mating dance and the ladies were not at all shy.

Upstairs, in Cabin One Miss Jill lay sleeping. She was old, she was withered, barren, bleak and dry; a woman without passion, without joy. Miss Jill felt no sexual urge at all. Outside the glowing fruit of youth danced and sang, laughed and loved, celebrated the coming of spring, the natural cycle of life. I hovered on the top deck, somewhere between the two. In my heart I was down there dancing – but a swift glance in the mirror gave the lie to my heart.

‘How old are you, Uncle?’ they always ask.

‘I am one hundred and fifty years old,’ I solemnly reply.

This seems to satisfy them.

The lights from the boat clicked on, for one beautiful moment spread long dancing silhouettes across the sand then, as secretly as they had arrived, the group dissolved. With a final shout the last one disappeared over the hill and back into the moonlight – an unexplained moment in the gentle Assam night.

I stood alone on the deck as the Great Silence fell around me.

I looked at the ship’s clock. It was midnight.

‘Happy New Year, Dogster,’ I whispered. I saw a shooting star.

*

PART FOUR

MISS JILL

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