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THE MIGHTY BRAHMAPUTRA

She hovered there in the doorway of the 4WD; half in, half out – balancing on her bottom just this side of catastrophe. The new Madam let out an elegant squawk and landed on the banks of the Brahmaputra with a thud, lost amidst a cluster of brown arms. Her hat and bag were passed to her and with an assistant on each elbow she was escorted slowly to the edge of the river.

Miss Jill’s voyage of discovery had begun.

She was a sprightly seventy-six, neatly dressed in sensible clothes, crisp, clean and perfectly coiffed: dark blue slacks, a starched white blouse with pink stripes, pure grey hair swept up and tucked back in a swirl and a face that still retained a brittle freshness. She was a spinster, maybe that was why. Her face looked soft but those fleshy pink cheeks were the only thing soft about her – she was sharp as a tack and twice as dangerous. Our Miss Jill had lived a considerable life.

As she was man-handled down the bank, it was clear that my companion wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry. She gingerly pottered down to the gang-plank, wrenched one arm from her servant and held out an imperious hand.

“Pleased to meet you,’ she said with a faint smile, ‘I am Miss Gillian – and your name is?’

That clipped British accent gave it all away.

‘Mr. Dogster,’ I replied and shook her proffered paw. The merest touch and she recoiled but then, with a conspiratorial smile, leant towards me and smiled.

‘I’m so-o-o glad you’re Australian. In my experience, they’re always the best companions on a voyage.’

The one thing we both had staring us both in the face was that I was her only companion on this voyage – for the next fourteen days. Nobody warned me about that.

*

All of Assam tried to cram onto a single flat roofed ferry, tethered to a pole at Neamati Ghat. Shouting and swearing, laden with chickens and children, passengers swamped the boat, scrambling, jumping and shoving their way across precarious planks aboard a precarious perch to an equally precarious future. Once on board they dumped their belongings and grabbed a space, guarding it with their lives. Young men squatted on the top deck and gambled, others chatted with mates and kept watch as twenty, thirty bicycles were loaded on the roof, a dozen motorcycles – then, amazingly, a car.

Below decks was crammed with women and children piled one on top of the other, anxious heads poking out of the open sides of the boat, gasping for air.  A baby was passed hand to hand through the masses then disappeared, wailing, into the hold. Not that anybody was looking at the baby nor caring for its fate – something far more interesting was happening. A white monster had come to town.

A row of little brown eyes followed my every move.

In turn I followed theirs. It was a fair bargain – everybody was happy.

‘Ma-a-a-a-a-aaah!’

There were goats as well – but then there always are, heading off to Shiva; goats and chickens and a pig on a pole, lost amidst the laughter and the fight to be first on the ferry of death. Multiply this scene ten-fold and that was Neamati Ghat. Whole families headed for extinction but nobody seemed to care. There was a distinct air of festivity.

‘It’s so busy, Bongo.’

Yes, I had another Bongo. An Assamese one this time – a handsome lad, in a solid, blank kind of way – dependable but dull.

‘Is it always like this?’

‘Yes, sir, yes. Always like this,’ he lied.

*

The car screeched to a halt. In front of us was a herd of decorated cows being pelted with slices of cucumber. This was something I’d never seen before. There are big miracles and little miracles – here was a little one. I got out of the car. Miss Jill was content to observe from a distance.

Lao kha, bengena kha, bosore bosore barhi ja,’ the woman in front of me muttered, ‘maar xoru, baper xoru, toi hobi bor bor goru…’

‘Eat gourd, eat brinjal, grow from year to year,’ she was saying, ‘your mama is little, your papa is little – but you’ll be a big cow…’

Various other intimacies were performed with the lucky animals; they were washed, garlanded, their big stupid foreheads smeared with ground turmeric, their horns and hooves rubbed with henna then lightly whacked with little bundles of dighalati and makhiyati twigs.

Whack, whack, whack!

‘Dighlati dighal pat!’

Whack, whack, whack! 

‘Makhi maro jat jat!.’

The cows, to their credit, appeared completely unconcerned.

Her husband unthreaded the old pogha ropes from their neck and threw them aside with a flourish. Slapping his holy cows on the rump, he shouted and threw more cucumber slices at them, anxious they taste their freedom – today was their one day of the year; today they were allowed to wander anywhere they wanted.

‘What’s going on, Bongo? This is very strange.’

‘Ohhh,’ he said absently, ‘we love our cows in Assam.’

*

My Brahmaputra Bongo was an upstanding, clean living Assamese, all of twenty-five years old with a young wife and child – Dog was his ‘duty’. He was professional and somewhat distant, stoically followed where I would go, stood off to the side and let me run, translated when I needed and kept silent when I didn’t. He was happy to wait, I was happy to wander. His English was adequate but he had nothing to say; as my Assamese wasn’t coming along too well deep conversation was never on the cards. His ‘duty’ was to guide where appropriate, facilitate movement from A to B, make sure I wasn’t mugged and get me back alive. This he did perfectly well.  I didn’t want a new Assamese best friend, nor was he offering.

I was a ‘thing’.  The less this ‘thing’ knew about what was going on the better. Bongo would never maintain his schedule otherwise.

*

In Assamese Sibasagar is pronounced ‘Hiba-hagar-r-r’, best said with a guttural growl.  Try it. Pretend you’re a pirate. Lower your voice to a sexy purr, add a bit of a throat-clear to the letter ‘h’, imagine you’re seducing a handsome Spaniard and say it:

‘Hiba-hagar-r-r-rrrr…’

Very satisfying. Much more interesting to say than to see.

I’d already had that privilege on the way down to Neamati Ghat. It’s a perfectly ordinary Indian town about half way between Dibrugargh and Jorhat with an odd temple complex of aesthetic note and some very uninteresting ruins.

Today it was full of life. Something was happening.

‘Why is it so busy, Bongo?’ What’s going on?’

‘Ooo-o-o-oh, this is not so busy,’ he said, ignoring the multitude threading their way past us, ‘just a normal day.’

I think Bongo might be telling me a little fib.

A steady stream of the faithful pushed their way up a long flight of stairs to a pod of strange conical temples on the hill, past the beggars, across a well-tended pathway to a corrugated iron roof on poles, shelter to the dozen or so sadhu’s lined up inside. The holy men dispensed blessings, sold bits of string and strange powders wrapped in paper, clay prayer lamps by the hundreds and I suspect goats, judging by the four wandering around contentedly nearby. Shiva is quite a bloodthirsty god – he likes a bit of ‘maa-a-a-a!’ chop! Watch out goats.

The outer wall of the main temple was painted blood red in anticipation; worshippers muttered prayers and lit lamps, knelt, bowed and whispered secrets to a butter-lamp candelabra before walking barefoot into the dark.

Deva deva Mahadeva

Nilgriba Jatadhar

Bat Bristi harang deva

Mahadeva namastah-h-h…

The sound of prayer, a splash of water; a long corridor into the inner sanctum, a high-vaulted ceiling and blackness everywhere except for the flickering of flames from thirty tiny lamps on the floor. On one side a priest crouched on the stone floor receiving a queue of faithful, bowing and whispering, offerings piling up. On the other a new altar set up with a massive statue of Mrs. Shiva, the one with many arms. re blessings, more offerings, then off, like all the others, to the Shiva lingam, to pour milk and oil – then leave. There’s no hanging around in this Sibasagar Temple – make your offering, get your blessing and get out. That includes tourists. It was time to clear a space, take a break from the whispered prayers, the blood and muck of Hindu worship. It was all a bit fervent. Something strange was going on..

Oh, God of gods, my Mahadeva,

blue-necked, knot-haired divine.

I have blessed you Mahadeva. 

Now – destroy the storm, destroy the rain…

*

PART TWO

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