The euphoria of Magh Bihu is well upon us. After the feasting on Uruka night followed by the sacred Meji bonfire at the crack of dawn, the five–day long festivities are on at full swing. The entire state seems to be taking a timeout in reconnecting with a cherished tradition that grew from our agrarian base. It is a tradition now mostly pushed aside and forgotten in our migration to the towns and cities. The primarily rural society that observed the holy transition of Makar Sankranti with spiritual fervor and love for the land, is itself in transition. The spirit of Magh Bihu past exists mostly in our memories. And yet the home in the village still beckons to those of us who can make the way back at this time of the year. For those who cannot, there is some solace in the Bhogali fairs and melas that have become a regular fixture in our towns during mid–January. Self–help groups and small entrepreneurs are setting up stalls all over Guwahati, and customers are spping up their local delicacies with gusto. Thanks to them, the denizens of Guwahati can taste laroos, pithas, curd, cream, myriad rice products and other delicious foodstuffs. Then there are the TV channels with their non–stop cultural programmes, but still uble to differentiate between the Bhogali and the Rongali! Their cameras pan desperately to show the hubbub in the Bhogali markets, the exorbitantly priced borali mach or patha sagoli with the proud buyers posing with them like trophies. Meanwhile other buyers voice their frustration on television: ‘How can we afford to cough up such huge sums? Better to go for imported foodstuffs’. Thus it is that in the economics of Magh Bihu, imports from other states, particularly of fish, are meeting much of our burgeoning demands. We ought to spare a thought to the villages we are turning our backs to, where the land is being taken over by foreigners. For if we do not introspect now, the day is not far off when these same foreigners will be tilling our village lands to feed us, when fish farmers from distant states will be putting the rohu–bhokua–sitol on our plates in the coming Uruka feasts. The rampant commercialization and consumerism that we have embraced has not left Magh Bihu untouched. Our farmers and village artisans may not be doing well and we may be indifferent to their lot, but we invoke their produce freely to create an artificial world in our towns. The tradition of eating khowa may not be known to many residents of Guwahati nowadays, so it is interesting that a restaurant in the city is advertising fresh produce from the fields as items in its menu during a food festival. As in the past few years, there are attempts to recreate the ambience of Magh Bihu of the villages in Guwahati, with thatched huts, dhenkis pounding rice, and delicacies cooked up over roaring bonfires. City dwellers are flocking to the tribal food festivals, with their local wines drawing a section of the youth like bees to honey. But all this cannot obscure the underlying reality — that savouring our fast–disappearing rural way of life once a year will not help our villages survive. Our fields and forests, our rivers and ponds, our machines and mills must yield a harvest large enough to make us self–reliant as a state, so that the benefits truly reach the producers. Only this will guarantee the joy and abundance of Bhogali, the Magh Bihus of the future.
Food for thought