WITH EYES WIDE OPEN
D. N. Bezboruah
The word heritage is about what we have inherited—individually as well as collectively. Apart from mentioning "property that is or may be inherited," the dictiory lists "valued things such as historic buildings that have been passed down from previous generations." As a modifier, it also lists “of special value and worthy of preservation.” As such, the extended meaning of heritage (especially in the collective sense) would include what a tion or a race has valued and cherished over generations—not just the land and historic edifices, but our festivals, cultural events and customs that have endured over the centuries.
Given this legitimate semantic extension of heritage, Bohag and Bohag Bihu or Rangaali Bihu are of very special significance to the people of Assam. As Bhupen Hazarika put it so beautifully in song, Bohag is not just a month or a season; it is the lifeline of the Assamese people and the very core of their collective life. And since the extended meaning of heritage ought to include our festivals, customs and our manner of showing respect to elders at the beginning of the New Year, Bohag Bihu or Rangaaali Bihu rightly constitutes a major facet of our heritage. No wonder, with the advent of spring and the hint of mid-April being around the corner, almost every inhabitant of Assam gets into the Bihu mood and senses the rhythm of the Bihu tunes swaying one’s very being. This year, with all the senseless wrangling over the definition of ‘Assamese’, the people of Assam seem to have resolved to celebrate an extended Bohag and to be a bit heavy-handed about their heritage. This was quite a tural reaction to the unwarranted wrangling over the definition of Assamese and the eventual rejection of the well-considered statement of the Speaker of the Assam Assembly on the issue by the Chief Minister of Assam. The Assamese New Year and Rangaali Bihu came as a timely means of asserting the Assamese identity of people. I, for one, have not seen people so taken up with the celebration of Rangaali Bihu a month before the event at any time in the past.
A strong preoccupation of people with their heritage is a very desirable facet of collective behaviour. However, it is imperative that we do not lose sight of some aspects of the concern with our heritage that are semil to the kind of continuity and sanctity that must accompany all thoughts about preserving our heritage. It is also important to ensure that we do not lose sight of the economic aspects of our endeavours in upholding and preserving our heritage. The first prerequisite of such an exercise is to identify what constitutes the desirable facets of our heritage and what are actually appendages that have got attached to our notions—often misplaced—about what we need to sustain and preserve. As such, one of the most important prerequisites for deciding how to go about preserving our heritage is the economic aspect of this exercise as it impinges on the common people. People the world over have important festivals that are celebrated by those who have work to do in order to make a living. Therefore, there can be no question of extending the days of festivities and freedom from productive work beyond ratiol limits. For instance, though Christmas is a very important part of the European, American and Latin American heritage, one cannot conceive of Christmas itself being extended to anything more than two days (including Boxing Day). True, the shopping for Christmas gifts and planning for trips to be with one’s extended family must begin long before Christmas Day. But all this is done in the slices of the time available outside one’s working hours. One cannot hope to get more than two days of holiday for Christmas. True, people do save up their earned leave to be tagged on to the Christmas holidays. But there can be no question of neglecting work or not going to office at all because there are rehearsals for Bihu dances that are a month away. Even in Assam, Rangaali Bihu was, at the most, a three-day affair when we were children. But now we have kept on adding supplementaries to Bihu so that the festivities are sometimes carried on into the month of Jeth. No race or group of people can really afford such a lengthy extension of any festival regardless of how important a part it is of their heritage. It is only in a society where there is a free flow of easy money (mostly siphoned out of the exchequer) that people can think of extending a three-day festival into a week-long or month-long affair.
The other economic aspect of celebrating Rangaali Bihu is the question of who is paying for it all and who is reaping all the benefits. Every Assamese family spends substantial amounts on new clothes, new jewellery, gifts for others and a great deal of fancy eating for two or three days. But who are the beneficiaries of their spending? The shops where they buy clothes with fancy brand labels are obviously not owned by Assamese people. Even the gaamosaas are imported from West Bengal, Tamil du or Kartaka. When I was a child, they were woven at home. The pithaas and laarus that people used to make at home are now sold in shops. The supply of such items has become a major cottage industry for Bangladeshis. So the integral part of Bihu hospitality is an activity where we have passed on the work component to someone else. We like to beat the drum to the tune of Bihu songs; but the skin on the drum must be fixed, adjusted and tuned by someone from another State or by someone who is not Assamese. So what are we really doing to uphold and preserve our heritage—our Rangaali Bihu? Why, we are enjoying ourselves and having a good time. So the whole business of preserving our heritage and upholding it boils down to confining ourselves to the enjoyment part of Rangaali Bihu while handing over all the irksome work to someone else. Could there be an easier way of upholding and preserving our heritage? What is really happening is that the pleasure principle is at work again when it comes to work connected even with the preservation of our heritage. We want all the pleasure and the enjoyment, but none of the dirty work associated with enjoyment. Let us take a closer look at how people sustain and carry forward their heritage in other parts of the country and elsewhere in the world and we shall see that nowhere is it deemed possible to preserve anyone’s heritage without having to work for it.
However this is not all there is to it. Some of those from the younger generations were doing the work of preserving their heritage in great style. They were doing it with generous libations of liquor. They were getting drunk in order to perform the Bihu dance on the streets in real style. It did not matter that they were holding up the traffic. After all, they were performing the noble task of preserving their heritage. This time, our bihutolis even had the odd stabbing and slitting of throat—all in the cause of preserving our heritage. Scores of motorcycles and a few cars were stolen from bihutolis. I am saddened to think that at least a few of the motorcycles stolen had been paid for by honest fathers with their hard-earned money.
We must begin to think of more ratiol ways of preserving our heritage by actually working for it instead of handing over all irksome work to someone else—generally on contract. I am quite convinced that no heritage, however cherished or worthy of preservation, can ever get preserved through the initiatives being taken for such an objective. I am aware that there is no dearth of people who will exhort the younger generation to carry on in the way they are doing in the me of preserving their heritage. I can see huge colour advertisements to encourage people to adhere to the pleasure principle in the me of preserving their heritage. And contractors could well be in the forefront of people who want the status quo maintained so that the Assamese people can be encouraged to go on spending well beyond their means. One can go on pretending that all this is for the dubious goal of maintaining their social status so that the suppliers of goods and services from elsewhere can be the beneficiaries of our exorbitant spending. However, those aware of the very low reputation that contractors have in our society because of their substandard work visible all over Guwahati and their penchant for looting the exchequer will learn to be far more wary of their counsel and look for more positive and acceptable ways of upholding and preserving their heritage.