BY ANURADHA KHANDELWAL
If you have never lived in Assam you will never know.
If you havent been born in Assam I don’t even expect you to know, forget understand.
I am from a small one horse town called Silchar in the Cachar District of Assam. It used to boast of one arterial road cutting through the belly of the town, a few shops catering to the tea crowd, a club, three movie halls and that’s it. A few double-storied houses dotting the roadside, some vernacular schools, two colleges at the two ends of town, and the mighty Barak River, a tributary of the Brahmaputra, flowing serenely in winter and in rage during the monsoons. That’s all there was and that’s all that was needed. Once you crossed the Barak on a ferry, you were on your way to the airport. A small tin roof place with green wicker chairs on the verandah where you watched the old Dakota land and take off. And you walked with the passengers right up to the aircraft and then said goodbye. The airport called Kumbhirgram was the entry point into the big big world outside. There was a railway station too which I never saw till much later when I took a train to Halflong. It was a beautiful journey. But that’s another story.
But the fun part was that you could drive 3 kms out and you were in lush green countryside, soft undulating hills and trees and water bodies. No traffic, no noise … just peace and quiet. Paddy fields in different shades of green. Tea bushes all disciplined in neat rows interspersed with tall lanky trees which gave them just the dappled filtered sunlight. And soft winding roads leading to white picket fences into sprawling bungalows with manicured lawns and white wicker chairs and striped garden umbrellas. No sounds but the rustling of leaves whispering sweet nothings to each other and the gurgling of water cascading over little rocks. This was the Assam I grew up in.
Few cars on the roads and no pollution at all. Wherever you looked you saw Assam type houses with tin roofs, swaying betel nut palms and maybe a few ducks. I have spent many evening on our terrace watching the sun set or sun rise….and all I saw was no high rise buildings…clear vision as far as the eye could see. People going about their work and daily routines in a “lahey lahey” fashion. The times they were different. Life was easy, and everything was fresh and clean and green.
Since there were no “eating joints”… different types of food was what one experienced at parties and picnics. Everything was done from scratch. Recipe books were read , wonderful recipes were culled from old copies of Woman’s Own or Women’s Weekly. And Femina and Eve’s Weekly helped too. Starched tablecloths & serviettes, fresh flowers, shining cutlery and white and gold crockery …. Dinner sets in blue and pink English designs…and bearers in white uniforms. Those were the fine dining days. Tables would creak under the weight of the goodies. Snacks were light finger food not heavy duty stuff. The cut glass glinted against the light and women drank sherry or gin or wine or martinis and men stuck to scotch !…music played softly and conversations built up. Dinner was served at 9 and then the “afters” were coffee, chocolates and a good brandy or such …. and everybody sat around the fireplace talking softly…happy in good company, well fed ! Tea Parties were dainty sandwiches and cakes and scones and cupcakes and cinnamon doughnuts and chicken patties. And orange squash ! And all home made. That’s the Assam I grew up in.
Everywhere in undivided Assam it was a ritual to go for picnics in winter. Winters were mild and the stunning blue skies and warm sun and cool waters of a stream were deadly combinations. It was always a five star picnic !!! Fresh and hot food would be cooked by the domestics….chairs and tables all laid out. Beer would be chilled. And everyone would sit on the boulders with their feet in the water munching hot pakoras with tomato sauce and drinking chilled beer and the beautiful atmosphere. Lunch was served…rice chicken curry vegetables pooris salad and pickles. And of course, there would be a couple of desserts. Then back again into the water singing songs , going for walks, and in time for hot tea and sandwiches and cakes….then we would all pile back into our respective cars to drive home.
When God created the Earth he made a special place and it was Assam of my growing years. The Nor’westers hit Assam in mid March its as if God is showering his benevolence in silver. The thunder and lightening are magical . And the rain comes down in torrents. And then magically it all clears up leaving everything a wonderous clean green ! Morning are always sunny…always but always. Dark clouds come in the afternoon. It is the magic of the Nor’Westers that makes the Assam Tea what it is.
Monsoons come and go sometimes flooding the town completely sometimes not so bad. But clothes become limp and the house is damp and the garden is full of gladiolis in a orange shade. It used to rain for days on end…sometimes just powder rain which stay on your strands of hair and glint like diamonds in the sun ! Nowhere in the world does it rain like it does in Assam.
The wonder of watching the clouds come in from one side and the rain then creeping up slowly…while sipping tea on a verandah is something that cannot compare with anything. Seeing the lightening and hearing the thunder while all is dark and then the raindrops playing a tango on the tin roof….all the while sitting on the verandah sipping wine with Chris de Burgh in the back ground…no street lights, no head lights…just inky black darkness. I love it ! I long for the night to be night…dark and mysterious and beckoning somehow.
I hate these sodium vapour lights that take away from the darkness and fill the streets with circles of ugly yellowness…sickly and jaundiced. Those clear nights in winter when the sky is full of stars and the moon is an object of awe…moonlight picnics on the banks of a small rivulet ….unmatched and unrivalled. Or see the colours of the garden muted and awash in the silvery moonlight. That’s the Assam I grew up in.
Sounds…the sounds in a big city drive me crazy. Anywhere in Assam then, you could lie awake at night and only hear the night…silence broken by the sound of a dog barking somewhere far away…soft gentle dark rustling as if the darkness itself was singing you a lullaby. I know it sounds crazy but I have always felt it and I know for sure many of you out there will agree. Why are all the folks from Assam so taken up by the sound of the raindrops on a tin roof ? If you havent fallen asleep to that sound you will never know. It is reassuring that alls is well in God’s world ! And when the hails do the tap dance you lie awake and smile and feel alive. Thats the magic of the Assam I grew up in
Gentle simple people happy with the bountiful fish and rice . Loyal staff that has worked in the same place generation after generation. People who know you as so and so’s daughter. People recognising you even after you have been away for long…gracious folks with no “psho psha” at all. …. no false pretensions , no airs , just fabulous human beings. Thats the Assam I grew up in.
The paddy fields, the mountains whichever direction you went, the dark rolling clouds filled with rain, the soft white candy floss clouds floating in a blue winter sky…the impromptu streams and mini waterfalls after a week of good rains..the ferns in every nook and cranny, the soft water…oh the tasty water of Silchar ! And the softness of the water making your hair shine like a halo and silky to touch ! The undulating hills of tea bushes, the bungalows on the hills offering a 360 degree view…the small winding roads and skinny cows and skinnier goats grazing ..the cute tidy “bashas” of a village and a playground where one always saw boys playing barefoot football in the rain. The happy shining faces as they ran after the ball in sheer glee. This was the life. This was the heaven on earth. Going for a spin meant going on a little “nauka” down the river Barak. People shopped for fresh fish and vegetables in the evening and took it home to be cooked for dinner. The small bakery where bread and “bandh” were handmade in wood fires, unsliced loafs, and the bestest rusks ever,This was my Assam ..the place I grew up in.
You never called..you just dropped in and were always welcome. You went for tea and stayed on for dinner and if it got too late to drive thru the thick jungles you stayed for breakfast and then left. That was Assam hospitality. People you made friends were from all parts of the world…fair skinned blonde hair and blue eyes from across the seas, dark skin curly hair from the South, smooth albaster skin from the tribal belts and then the plains people who had migrated to this place for generations. …like my family….from various parts of north and western India. The one thing that was strong in all of us despite the varied backgrounds we came from was the fact that we all were proud of belonging to Undivided Assam. And that ran strong in all of us.
My friends are varied… Kashmiris, Khasis, Jaintias, Cacharis, Mizos, Nagas, Manipuris, Nepalis, Anglos, Marwaris, Punjabis, Upites, Brits, Assamese, Bengalis…and we are all from Assam. Wonderful isnt it ?
For me Assam will always remain Undivided Assam in my memory. Now it is has become the Seven Sisters State….but once it was all one.
Assam is now being written as Axom..which is the right way ….and then there is Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland, and Arunachal. Assam is such a beautiful state….we have the Himalayas rolling down to the deltas of the Ganges…hills and valleys and rivers and lakes and wild life and much much more.
Things have changed for the worse…pollution, dust, crowds, bright lights, huge concrete malls , all have come up in place of the corner shop and the panwala. The change in weather is also being felt with rising temperatures. And corruption and greed is ripping thru the belly of Assam….
But in my mind I cling to the picture that I have …the place of serenity I grew up in ….the green Surma Valley on the banks of the Barak River which I still think of as home……..
Where lightening talks to me
And thunder sings bass with me
While raindrops dance with gay abandon
Where night is dark night
And the day is bright day
And evenings are soft golden whispers
saying bye bye to the sun
Where Rabindra Sangeet is everyone’s birthright
And Bhupen Hazarika is a household name
Where Maa Durga gets seven
Days of undivided attention
Where Rhinos roam free
and Hornbills soar high
Where Tea is revered and respected
Where smiles are exchanged randomly
Leading to life long friendships
Where we all came together
and joined hands
And Assam was the glue
that has kept us from falling apart
For all the wonderful things
The sweetest pineapples
The best juicy oranges
The tastiest barak fish
Those small pearlike rice grains
The best CTC tea
This is called Axom-ness awesomeness
This is the Assam I grew up in
This is the Assam that is in my heart
This is the Assam I love.
Born in Assam brought up in Assam educated in Assam and extremely passionate about anything Assam from Tea to Pithas to Mekhlas and so on. Married to a Merchant Navy Captain, she burst out of my Assam Cocoon to find myself in Bareilly in the Hindi heartland …. that was 34 years ago…but she still goes back to pay her homage to Assam and she still yearns for those days that are no more. Has two daughters. And thanks to the laptop that has rekindled her passion for writing. She cooks, writes and read and listen to music. Loves to drive everywhere.