There is a hint of chill in the air and across India, the magical fragrance of Champa flowers, in full bloom kindles nostalgia in my heart. You know that the change in season has set in. If I were blindfolded and had no track of space or time for days, I would still know intuitively that the time of the year has arrived which Nepalis across the world gleefully look forward to: Dashain and Tihar are coming! (Rest of the world calls it Durga Puja/Navratri and Diwali)
My hometown in Assam, Dibrugarh, also transforms completely during this season. Colourful shops pop up in every corner selling trinkets and other items. The temple bells begin to ring louder, and the priest sings praises even more eagerly to please the Gods. There is a non-stop haggling in the market over sweets, fruits, curd etc.
Many Indian Nepalis, scattered across the length and breadth of the country (for livelihoods or education) head home towards towns and villages in India where their forefathers had settled hundreds of years ago.
There is a rhyme in the Nepali language for children – which welcomes Dashain (it also has connotations of economic struggles faced by many of our ancestors who migrated out of the Himalayan Mountains of Nepal to various parts of the world including India).
The poem has stayed with me, and it signifies the inception of the festivities for children even today. It goes:
Dhet Timaru Sanga Basti Na, Para Bashu!
One has to lift the right hand to get going with the poem. It starts with the little finger saying “Dashain’s here”, the ring finger chimes in, “We will eat and drink”, the third finger is a little sceptical “Where do we get all the food and drinks from?”, the naughty forefinger remarks slyly, “We will steal” which pisses off the thumb who denounces all and says,” I will not live with you four, I will live far away”.
That was the reason, we were told as children, about the awkward position of the thumb.
The first morning of Dashain for us in Dibrugarh starts with a customary visit to the only Nepali Mandir in town, where the Goddess Durga enigmatically stares at infinity. I always wondered as a child, if she could see right through me. The order of getting prasad from the priest was etched in stone: father, mother, elder brother, I and at last my younger sister.
My earliest memories of childhood are from Dashain; our first brush with toy-guns. Every child in the neighbourhood had one, and chase games turned into fake shooting sprees. Children would die and aggressively wake up and shoot again, all at the same time. The other largesse was the big balloons which were half our sizes that floated on top of our heads.
I met with a major accident while buying balloons during Dashain, as our family wandered, admiring the Goddess, from pandal to pandal. And as the hired taxi sped to the hospital, my parents kept singing “Dashain Aayo, Khowla Piyola” – while I lost consciousness.
Dashain was also the time when people visited our homes in droves. Some came for a few hours, others for a few days. And farther the visitor came from; the higher was the chance of getting a goodbye tip of a few coins. My grandmother was the elder of the entire family, and everyone came to seek her blessings and a large “tikka” of rice mixed with curd. They, in turn, returned the favour of the tikka.
In those formative years, the white curd-rice tikka was a constant struggle for many of us. Our identity as Nepalis (there were five of us in different classes) was a closely guarded secret at school. Moreover, the dripping curd tikka was far less elegant than the bright red ones on the forehead of the more affluent Marwadi children. The elite in the town sent their children to the missionary school, and the tikka could give away our class as well as linguistic identity. So, on the way to school, the tikka would vanish from our foreheads.
Goat meat plays a significant part in our cultural celebration. Dashain is the time when at least some households in my village would slaughter goats, and we would all wait religiously for our share of meat. Nepalis eat all possible parts of a goat, right from the skin to the intestine. Young and not-so-young men would surreptitiously sip Raksi (liquor) munching on Rakti (goat intestine cooked in goat blood) as they carefully chop all edible portions of the poor animal. Raksi and Rakti, as they said, is ambrosia- even the Gods cannot resist.
During Tihar, families cook a traditional Nepali dish called Siyal Roti which is eaten with sesame chutney. I was stuffed with so much Siyal Roti as a child that afterwards for many years I could not even stand the smell of it.
During our teenage years, pandal hopping was with friends from school and neighbourhood. It was much more than a cultural event seeking the blessings of the Goddess; it was our first ticket to loiter far away from the gazing eyes of our parents. Now when I look back, Dashain indeed broke many social barriers as everyone in new dresses and high spirits walked through the town admiring, shopping and eating. For a few days, the town would almost seep in uniformity.
Incidentally, many of us had our first brush with alcohol during those long festive nights. It was an experimentation of a tall order. Sprite would be mixed with beer to make it more palatable. Even a drop of that lethal concoction would make our world go tizzy.
And there was gambling, cards and a conch game called “Kowri”. The gambling would reach a crescendo during Tiyar. I used to play “Kowri” furtively during teenage years but always lost the little money I had; I never understood the rules of the game.
And like a beautiful dream cut short by the dread of the morning, at some point of our lives, Dashain ceased to be Dashain. Many of us were the first of our generation to move out of our hometown for higher studies and work (remarkably just like our early Indian ancestors!). So, home visits during Dashain became erratic. My wise old lady breathed her last some years back. My sister only visits India every two years, and that rarely coincides with Dashain. I have lost track of my relatives. No one likes tipping an earning man anyway. My parents have resigned to the fact that my visits would no longer be regular.
Dashain never feels the same anywhere but at home in Assam. And as I pack my bags, my excitement is palpable. This Dashain, after six long years, I will be in Dibrugarh. I can already see my town decked up like a bride. I can hear the noise of boisterous children running amok. I can smell the strong scent of the Champa flowers and fresh tea buds, a fragrance found nowhere on the planet. The Goddess will be staring into infinity. I have a craving for Siyal Roti again. I need a large curd dripping tikka on my forehead. Bring on the gambling games, get me the Rakti. I will sneak-in some Raksi. Finally, I will be home.
Happy Dashain Everyone!
Image source – welcomenepal.com