Those were the days

Warm inclusiveness defines Assam reiterates ADITI CHOWDHURY

Of the many bonuses that retirement has bestowed on me, the amplitude of reflection figures at the head of my list.

These days I get the time and space to allow the mind to wander, free of all constraints. And there seems to be so much one can ponder over. As we mature in years and reasoning, we stop looking at the world with a tunnel vision. A broader spectrum arrives. This inevitably leads to a wider sweep of thoughts and ideas.

My entire working life as a teacher of English Literature, was actually spent in a kind of a fantasy world. Everyday, for awhile at least, I could escape from humdrum reality and dwell in the realms of Kings and Princes or in Pastoral Paradises where Evil lurked no doubt but Good was, almost always, vindicated. And the fictional crimes commited for passion, power or pelf never seemed as sinister as the threats that confront the real world today.

Post retirement, I have often found myself making mental treks into the days of my childhood, adolescence and young adulthood, when life experiences were so very different from those encountered now.

This trait of journeying back and forth in time has given me ample food for thought. While reminiscing about times past, I wonder at the sea changes between our early life and that of today’s young. All my contemporaries will agree with  me that compared to the brutal realities that a growing child today is exposed to, we all grew up in an Assam where conflict, dissension, religious intolerance were almost alien words. So children, regardless of gender, wealth and status, lived a life of uninhibited joy. It was a simpler world then. And there was unfettered rejoicing.

My childhood and adolescence, spent in the Upper Assam town of Jorhat, in retrospect, was like living in a La La Land of endless fun, sharing and caring. Not limited just within a close circle of family and friends, our activities embraced the extended community as well.

Our school attracted students from all the neighbouring states and we were truly a motley crowd! The prayers in school preached universal love and no one ever thought of raising any objections. The striving for excellence was the only mantra instilled in us.

At home, my mother used to tell me stories about how, during the Second World War, when my father had to go out of station on work, the five Naga students who used to live in our rented house, were literally her self-appointed guardian angels. Fiercely protective, they would vigilantly stay awake when there were intimidating American soldiers prowling on the streets of the town.

Jorhat had the unique distinction of being the fulcrum for inter-cultural fusion. There was a sizeable Sikh population in the town, totally integrated into the Assamese way of life. Hence, the halwa from the Gurudwara was sent regularly to our house and was a temptation we could never resist.

The Eastern Theological College attracted Christian scholars and students from all over India. Many of Assam’s oldest Muslim families had their ancestral homes in Jorhat. Hence, the children of our generation growing up in Jorhat spontaneously imbibed the best of all these cultures. Harmonious coexistence and homogeneity were the credos for all aspects of community life then.

We celebrated every festival with equal gusto. My close friend Grace Thumra’s father was the Principal of the Eastern Theological College.  The ambience of their beautiful home, specially at Christmas time, was a major influence in my formative years. Another good friend, Inderjit Matharu, could never get a chance to eat her lunch because we made a beeline for it every day. Her mother’s Pindi chole and bhindi were things to die for. Eid for us was a time of sheer gastronomical pleasure just as Bihu was. In those fun-filled times, who belonged to what faith or followed what ideology, were  matters of the least concern. We were just one big bunch of young boys and girls and experiencing and enjoying to the fullest what life had to offer.

Our activities in those days were definitely limited. And we had no virtual world to escape to. We studied hard and played harder the rest of the time. Sports and music were our only pastimes. And the quaint, black phone with the manual exchange where we could coax the operator to connect us three ways so that we could chatter endlessly, was our only gadget beside the radio and record player!

The recollection of these wonderful memories are now like visiting an alternate world. I take frequent trips back in time and marvel at our innocence and perhaps our naivete too! Then, as I pick up the morning’s papers, my return to reality is a disagreeable awakening. Ethnic conflicts and cleansings often hog the headlines. The points of divergence have multiplied over the years and are spreading like an unstoppable virus. Separatist movements are rupturing the fabric of the society and state. How does one react when a monkey dies in Hailakandi and the contention is that Lord Hanuman has been killed? We hear of meat being used to vandalise temples. Incidents of this kind had only happened in spine chilling serials like ‘Tamas’. Never in the Assam of yore with all its warm inclusiveness! I read horror stories about the rate of girl trafficking escalating in Assam and shudder to think of the helpless young victims.

I was recently told by a young student studying in Bangalore that they have started to practise what is termed as “situational awareness” as life for North Easterners has become very insecure in many metros. They are often targeted for being ‘different’ from the rest of India. So they have to be alert about what is going on around them, spot danger immediately and keep themselves safe. This bit of disturbing information saddened me beyond measure because our generation never felt all these stressful rumblings. Safety was hardly an issue when we were young. And to be unsafe in one’s own country is shaming!

Our part of the world was one of the last bastions of tolerance and peace. But here too, the gentle tenor of life has changed. In a media-wired and gadget –driven world, it is easy to disseminate wrong ideas and information. And this often results in a whirlwind of chaos. At such moments the words of a much loved song sung, of course, in a different context, reiterates in my mind-“Where have all the flowers gone?”

The Assam we were born in and grew up in was remarkable for its affectionate hospitality and diverse artistic heritage. This state is, in its own ubiquitous way, a melting pot of varied cultures, creeds and beliefs. It enfolds the people of its many hills and valleys in its generous and loving embrace without any discrimination or divisiveness. Whenever friends from outside the state have visited us, they go back with the fondest memories of the place and the people. And always with a promise to come back! There are so many fanatical fans of Assam I know about who make an annual pilgrimage to this golden land tucked away in India’s remote north-east. Their faith in the goodness of Assam and the Assamese has been unwavering. We, the Assamese, must also consciously work at sustaining amity and unity, the two distinctive characteristics of our beautiful state.

In my contemplative moods, I dream of Assam as it was during my shaping years, when every individual could live with a mind without fear and the head held high. And I look forward to a resurgent Assam with a vision of fusing   the best of tradition with modernity.