Deep Bora writes about...
Uruka in Assam
Hello Don, Jerry and Bewildering Stories readers,
Today is Uruka in Assam and for the Assamese people.
For many centuries — there is documented proof of this in records in museums and libraries — the village folk gathered on this day and lit mammoth bonfires in open village fields. They used straw to build huge fires which lasted through the night till the morning of the fourteenth of January. Some of the more famed villages actually lit the straw fires on the morning of the fourteenth at about 3:30 to 4:30 a.m.
A community feast was held earlier or followed thereafter.
I am not sure whether my Granddad witnessed that festival. My Great Grandfather did surely participate in such an event. My Dad was a city man.
Today, in consonance with our ancestral festivals, we light a symbolic fire with few pieces of wood in the backyard of our homes, perhaps even on the front porch of our houses, provided there is enough space and provided the servant maid can manage to be present the next morning to clean up the mess.
This year, I have been invited to my Great Granddad’s village, which is in reality not a village any more. It is a bustling town, and I visit that place located beside the Brahmaputra river once every two or three years. For me there is no real meaning to visiting those places, for even the ‘nostalgic remembrances’ do not happen. I have never experienced the proper village life, for I never grew up there.
All the older folk my Dad introduced to me when I was young are slowly fading away; they are dying every year. Just my cousins remain and a few Uncles and Aunties who have managed to survive. The majority of my older relatives have settled in the cities long since.
I have simply heard of the free fields and open areas. One could run barefoot and shout and play truant there. I know, for I have a few village friends all over India, especially in my Granddad’s village.
The village concept of living is vanishing fast. You find buildings everywhere, except for the endless fields where grain is grown.
I drove past endless expanses of rice fields, the staple food of Assam and India. We completed more than two hundred kilometers and could see only golden fields on both sides of the highway. That was in November, and by January, the first week of the next year, most of the grain would be harvested and milled.
In ancestral terms, “enough grain would be stocked in the grain yards till the end of the monsoons and the perennial flood season.”
We rolled down the car windows and breathed in the fresh air the fields offered as the vehicle slowed down. My friend, who was at the wheels said, “This car is superb. It’s a Chevrolet. A businessman has recently opened a dealership for this company on the highway. What’s your opinion?”
The remaining four of us had no words to describe the trip or the pure natural surroundings. I continue in a different vein with
I hit out with all my strength at the person standing crouching in front of me. The darkness did help in very strange ways, for he could not see my motions, either.
I had just walked out of my tent installed at an elevation of about two thousand feet in the mountains where the jungle operations — the felling of trees — was in progress. We were settled there for the winter, and the time now was mid-December at about 7:30 pm.
On a few gentle slopes not far away and down to the north one could detect the silhouettes of people shuffling around in smaller tents. They were busy preparing dinner and, to keep themselves warm, were also making a clearing roughly at a prearranged place between my tent and theirs.
We had planned earlier to make a bonfire tonight. My camp manager — a Garo hills tribal person — was generally called by the name of Anthony Momin. He was a short man, tough and cunning. He was extremely polite with me and in my presence; Anthony and his fellow Garo tribal friends never displayed their intelligence. I once ‘heard’ — perhaps only hearsay — they had sold the same plot of mountain — about 2,500 square miles of jungle land — to about half a dozen “prospective customers,” men who were experts in the log business and bamboo, for paper production. I was made to understand that they even paid advance cash at different times. Such matters happen every now and then in the jungle business, and somebody or other is always taken for a ride.
I never bothered to check up with them before taking them in the muster rolls, mainly because they all were like that. Nobody was honest and straightforward in the jungle business. They could not afford to be honest. Except, perhaps me.
Later, I met the past owners of course, in the semi-village and its tea-shack restaurants, and they appeared non-committal. I think they recovered some money from a few trucks of logs that Momin and his colleagues delivered to them, but that is hearsay. In the jungle business, if you gain, you get money. If you lose, you part with money. There is no further knowledge.
I didn’t ask around how Momin pacified the other businessmen. One of his friends and my deputy, another Garo man named Kleaver, narrated some story to me. I have forgotten it since.
Anyway, I had taken a different jungle area on lease from the Siem, a Khasi Jungle owner in modern day definitions. An area king in older definitions.
I don’t really know how they decided to be docile and honest with me, or why. Till this day, I have not had the time nor the inclination to analyze their behavior, and now I don’t care. Momin and his friends worked diligently for me all the six and a half years I did business in logs and bamboo in the mountains of Meghalaya, bordering Assam state.
They handled the other labour sardars — labor chiefs — and laborers efficiently, and honestly disbursed the weekly payments even to the ration shops located miles away at about sea level, at a place at the base of the mountains and at the plains, where one could find make-do shops combined with staggering shack-restaurants.
I used to camp up in the mountains for most of the winter season, because that was the prime time for business and we had to keep our schedule ahead of the monsoons. The jungle trails meandering through rivulets, abrupt smaller plain lands, valleys and denser jungles were “kutchha roads,” dirt trails wide enough for just one truck to pass through. In the event that two trucks passed each other in opposite directions, one truck would have to park and squeeze in somewhere beside the sloping hill road. The tribal mountain truck drivers were very adept and always managed to drive past successfully. Driving on mountain routes came to them naturally.
A winter shower few days earlier lasted for half a day and we were left with the single alternative to stay put where we were, in the camp. The red-mud jungle road had turned very slippery, and even the four-wheel drive jeeps would simply skid crazily, their wheels unable to grip the road. Managing trucks was out. In such circumstances, the drivers would simply park where they were, and wait it out for the next few days till the soil went dry. A few amongst them might have walked down or up to the nearest village, where good food and rest was available for the next few days. We however, decided to wait for a few more days before commencing our log felling operations. There were few elephants hired to manage the more difficult logs and the mountain terrain.
I have seen those elephants kick around those logs cut to size, like we humans kick twigs and smaller branches of trees. They even used their trunks to drag those logs up impossible looking terrain to the nearest road and the waiting trucks.
* * *
However, that particular evening, nay night, at around 7:45 pm, I wasn’t expecting anyone to visit me, and the others around me knew they would have to shout out before coming closer to my tent, and then — after taking my verbal consent, enter my tent. Provided I was inside the tent.
Momin knew that very well, and his jungle boots made a particular sound whenever he approached my tent; that was sufficient indication of his approach. Only he was permitted to approach my tent without making loud noises. He was required to call out from a comparatively nearer distance to take my permission for entering.
That was okay with me, for I never took my girl friend to such a silly place high in the mountains. I went to the campsite all alone. Except on one or two occasions when my girlfriend went with me and I departed early after lunch, for I would have to reach the mountain base.
Then a backbreaking drive on wide plain roads — destroyed by hundreds of log trucks utilizing it daily — to the nearest town. Next, came the smooth drive all the way to Guwahati city, which we would reach by sundown or late evening. Then I would need to escort my girl friend to her house and then, later ,reach my own house for a much-needed dinner and sleep. I ensured my jeep seats were well padded with extra foam cushion, particularly for that 35-kilometer stretch of broken road. Actually a decent road did not exist.
Sometimes my close friends accompanied me for a weekend or perhaps to spend a week of holiday. And they sure got ‘the holiday effect’. In such circumstances, we managed to hoist another tent for “visitors of the boss.” I lived alone in my personal tent.
It was a must that we drink — if at all — in the visitor’s tent, and we had demarcated the maximum number of pegs one was allowed. For, to become tipsy and skid somewhere on the slopes, or even fall over a shrubby, slippery area meant roughly one thousand feet of undulating descent in the roughest manner. Hospitals were nowhere around. Fractures could not be immediately tended to, if one survived that fall.
I remember I had performed violent physical force upon all my deputy managers and the senior workmen who acted tough — though not with me — and who needed straightening out during the jungle work. Camping high at 2,500 feet, with practically no law to be enforced upon, chances were high that there could be a free for all at any time. However, the state government forest personnel were aware of my camp and never interfered with me, for they knew I was the boss who ran the show.
Secondly, their offices were situated down below, near the borders of the two states. Nevertheless they kept an eye upon the workers on the different slopes, sometimes even higher than 3,500 feet above sea level. There were several other adjacent sites booked and operated by different businessmen too. As a matter of fact most of the mountains were booked and operated by hundreds of businessmen.
The nearest well-maintained government road was situated miles away, though connected with the dirt mountain roads. That was beside the point. They were assured I was a gentleman and were very polite with me.
* * *
Therefore I knew nobody even remotely known to me would approach my tent or me without appraising me. So the person was surely unknown to me.
I had seen that silhouette crouching and crawling forward barely few minutes earlier and immediately dimmed the battery connected to 15-watt bulb. It was connected with a self-rotating switch, normally used for correcting minute rotations of a ceiling fan. I then moved closer to the entrance flap and tried to catch that person’s shadow highlighted against the lamps of the other tents situated north and lower below. There it was. I moved out gradually, not making sounds.
The resounding hit of my clenched fist slapping against the opponent’s shoulder muscles was hard enough to be heard at my camp manager’s tent. For sound travels faster and is more quickly audible during winter nights. This is mainly because the density of air is greater in the winter months.
I stepped back in a feint and with the same motion, stepped forward using my left jab not at the person’s jaw but at his hand now suddenly up to defend his shoulder from a second hit. Within the next second I was crouched down and grabbed both his ankles, heaving once towards myself and the upper slope.
How did I know it was a he and not a she?
Simple really. In the night of the jungle, one of the primary and non-violent moves — to identify a stranger — means you brush the aggressor’s groin area. That will give you adequate proof of the person’s sex.
And, what if you know for sure it is a female? Then, you don’t hit the shoulders. You follow the lesser violent moves in Kung Fu. Or you can use Kai jut so and its paralyzing yells to temporarily gain total advantage over your opponent. Bruce Lee was the supremo in that.
Or you simply greet the female with a pleasant smile in the dead of the night, not that she can see in darkness!
Provided you know the female is not your opponent, etc. However, in this case the person was a male, and one shall never find a female opponent in those mountains at any time. Sure.
I stood up quickly and aimed a feint power packed kick to the aggressor’s jaw; only, I curved my foot away a few inches from his face and did not hit him. He got the message, all right. He was down and beaten, perhaps lucky enough to be away from the path of a heavy kick. Who knows, the second kick might be closer and damaging! He yelped once as I quickly turned him around with my feet and immediately slipped my forearm inside both his elbows from the back. I pulled him inside the tent, half dragging him. I also dimmed the light few more degrees.
“Hell man, you treat friends very roughly.” He managed to speak in a rough and hoarse voice and I recognized that voice instantly. It was my friend from Shillong, the capital and hill station of the state Meghalaya, where I was then operating my business. “Was that King fu?” He queried.
I smiled as I spoke while restoring the original brightness of the 15-watt bulb, which lit up the camp’s internal premises. Within seconds, Anthony Momin and four of his deputies were at the entrance. To this day I have never asked them how they knew of the stranger’s presence. However, I was ascertained of the fact that they were keenly watching my tent and its dimming light; and the silhouettes of two persons while only one should have been seen that night.
Any intelligent person can deduce that. Their loyalty also did not surprise me for they were being paid for that. They glanced at my face once, in turns and entered the tent premises that one-time without asking my permission. In the dim light their stares reflected violence and unfriendliness, and one could gather easily their sentiments were disturbed for someone had intruded upon my privacy, their boss.
My friend glanced away from their stares and winced in pain as he tried to stand and they immediately understood the situation. Anthony talked to them in Garo language and one amongst them muttered about something like attending Church tomorrow — a Sunday. He left grudgingly, for I had not spoken to him — the camp bonfire needed supervision and immediate attention.
“Sir, your friend?” Anthony asked in a plain voice. I knew his muscular grip could tear the person apart or even beat him black and blue. He drank only when I did and like me, did not smoke. I had seen him occasionally smoke a beedi — tobacco packed inside a large dry tobacco leaf — simulating a cigarette. His friends were equally powerful from the physical point of view, rough and unfriendly. However, they knew I could beat the hell out of them all combined, and always maintained a safe distance from me.
I also knew that they had families of their own to maintain, and that their permanent homes were yet further up inside those mountain ranges. They once took me to their mountain village and I traveled on elephant back while they trudged along. Of course, the elephant was faster, but I rested the animal frequently so they could catch up. They were experts in mountaineering and felt less exhausted — perhaps because they were born in those mountains and since childhood, were accustomed to walking therein.
“Sir, the Mahout will take you quicker to the village! We shall follow and be there by noon,” one amongst them stated. I nevertheless halted at regular intervals and we shared the summer heat with lemonade mixed with fresh spring water. I had decided to leave my bike and the jeep at the camp.
Their adobes were on bamboo and wooden stilts a minimum of four feet above the land slopes and jungle plains. This ensured that flash floods passed underneath their homes and left them undisturbed. Flash floods follow a cloudburst that occurs suddenly higher up in the mountains, and a huge quantity of water is released all over the mountain slopes. Since there are no dams and reservoirs to check millions of gallons of water, the flood waters gush down those slopes, eventually merging with one or two main streams or rivulets. This stream finally merges with the actual river nearer to the base of the mountain — say about a hundred or three hundred feet above sea level.
So, if the village were not upon stilts, the entire village might have been washed away. This system of existence has been there for centuries, I suppose. At least, I have seen one Christian cemetery up in those mountains, which has been in existence since 1825. That makes roughly 150 years, or more than one and a half centuries.
These smaller villages are not connected by the weekly buses, which meander along those mountain routes connecting some of the more famous and larger villages — finally ending up at Shillong, a hill station capital situated at 5,500 feet above sea level. These smaller villages are interconnected via jungle routes that are barely motorable. One has got to walk or sometimes, get lifts by the commercial log-truck drivers who might be operating within the vicinity of their areas. In that case, you might find small shacks at the outer ends of these mountain villages doing business like selling tea and biscuits and of course, almost all the readily available brands of cigarettes.
Most of the mountain folk villagers walk down to the mountain-base and to plains area once a week — to attend the once-weekly bazaar, and they purchase and trade, even barter. The plains folk maintain that bazaar and sometimes tribal-folk businessmen and women join them for trade. There is a second weekly bazaar day, perhaps on a Thursday, though attended by a lesser number of people, for all the shopkeepers do not sell their wares then.
I was introduced to Kleaver’s wife and his kids, who ran around the place with runny noses. They offered me hot tea and some tribal homemade biscuits. I looked around the place and found cheerful people resting in their houses upon stilts. There were not more than thirty houses in that village.
Later during that day, I was taken to Anthony’s house a few kilometers upward and to the northwest.
That village appeared similar, and the houses were identical; the food was similar, and the kids, too. At that height in the mountains, summer heat seemed pleasant though we were sweating slightly because the monsoons were waning. I enjoyed the second cup of Assam tea in sips, aware the tea leaves were fresh and brought from the nearest tea Garden in Rani area, down on the Pattarkhama route and at about 200 feet above sea level. Perhaps they had managed to purchase fresh tea leaves from the sale counters located at the bazaar end of the tea garden adjoining Rani village.
Garo tribal folk managed a very peculiar eating habit, which I believe is persistent even now, in 2005. I am now however, referring to the late eighties and early nineties.
During the winter months, they hunt in those forests and mountains and this process is carried on till the monsoons arrive around June-July. Sometimes we have pre-monsoon showers that commence as early as February and last intermittently until April. It is difficult to tell when such showers end correctly, for pre-monsoon showers are not regular showers, although the northeastern parts of India sometimes receive regular showers commencing as early as mid-March.
They then preserve the meat thus obtained in salt and dry their rations aplenty. The food was thus stored in containers and leather bags inside their homes for those rainy days:-
When the muddy roads would become too slippery for even the toughest men to walk upon. During those stretches of long days and nights, only rice, lentils, and few vegetables would be available. Sometimes, they needed to skip the weekly bazaar for weeks altogether. During those hard days and nights, when even chicken were scarce; the preserved dry meat would become their only source of good protein.
I deftly declined a soup concocted from that stuff — the last winter’s preserve — even before it was prepared. For I stood up and walked to the open kitchen and politely requested Anthony’s wife not to take the trouble. Instead, I offered a good old bottle of plains lemonade mixed with cool spring water. I had brought two bottles of lemonade juice from the camp, earlier that day.
We ate rice, a thick lentil gravy combined with soya beans, cabbage-cauliflower light fried in simmering oil and fried potatoes. I organized that vegetarian meal with Anthony’s help. He had become accustomed to my tastes. We ate lesser amounts of animal meat primarily because it took a longer time to digest and interestingly, one feels lesser hungry after eating mutton or chicken. I think cholesterol was digested almost immediately because the exercise we did — climbing, mountaineering, walking those impossible looking slopes and driving — simply burned away all fats and cholesterol.
The main reason we ate fewer pieces of meat was simply because a few pieces are required by the human body to absorb the protein, etc.
* * *
I slept that night in Anthony’s house on stilts and shared his accommodations with his family. There were no real internal doors or walls, though the house was evidently divided into several parts. I occupied the living room throughout the rest of the day and in between, relaxed on a chair in the verandah overlooking a rivulet, which flowed gently past the village.
We ended dinner early, with a cup of hot coffee each; and I was awake by midnight, for the cold was beginning to creep in silently and the blankets provided not much relief. I looked around and adjusted the inverter-backed night lamp. Perhaps Anthony knew I was walking around, for I quietly crept out and walked down the few ladder steps, heading straight for the village elder’s house, the “Gaon Bura.” He was earlier introduced to me as Anthony’s uncle.
“Good evening sire. It is good I invited you to my abode after dinner.” He spoke in age-old tones, between 55 to 60 years old. He always rode on horseback down to the mountain base. “Here, the cold is getting intense, and your jacket is not enough protection. We had few continuous days and nights of rains till the day before yesterday.” He held out a glass of pure local broth brewed in his village in the most tedious process.
I had seen them ferment the liquor and then boil it to evaporate it; and again condense it drop by drop through a loop-necked brass utensil. The resultant liquor was supposed to be pure and unadulterated. I accepted the glass and drank in sips, careful not to drink the liquor in mouthfuls. It looked like a glass of water.
That’s all. A glass of water.
Half a glass can knock an elephant down for about a day, if it hasn’t drunk it earlier. I was aware of that since the first time I took that brew. My city friends say that the nasha — a Hindi term denoting “kick” — lasts till the next few mornings. My mountain friends say they were fed drops of it since they were in infants. Whew.
So I tasted that mountain-liquor in half sips, though I had gotten used to it by now. I knew, generally refusing to drink with the village elder amounted to an insult directed to their entire clan, the village.
However, they knew of the city man by now. Who had the audacity to refuse a drink with more than one Village Elder — Gaon Bura. They now understood his strange ways and finally decided he meant no insult to them.
He had even gifted them each with one bottle of Black Dog last New Year’s eve. Every year, at around that time, he made a point to send them a bottle of Peter Scott or Jamaican rum.
Let me tell you, about six bottles of our plains liquor equals one bottle of their mountain liquor!
* * *
So I drank the entire night in sips and we managed to empty that bottle, half each. Some time in between, somebody came; his elderly wife perhaps, and lit a small bonfire at the edge of a stream few yards away from his house. We continued to sit in his veranda feeling warm all through the night.
I listened to age-old folklore, which held more of a mythological charm to me, but I knew those stories were real. His eldest son was about my age, now working in Shillong.
Earlier, I had politely refused Anthony’s jacket offered to me before dinnertime.
* * *
The next day, lunch was scheduled in Kleaver’s village, with his Gaon Bura and on this occasion we ate chicken curry, obviously brought from our camp earlier that morning. Perhaps they sent a young lad for that errand. I promised Kleaver that I would relish a dinner treat in his own house at a later time, before we departed for the main campsite below.
* * *
“Look man, this is it. Serious,” my friend stated with finality.
I looked at him again in the blinking firelight, which lit up his face. We were nearer to dinnertime and the campfire was lit. Tonight, dinner was scheduled in open air, and I had refrained from drinks. My friend from Shillong was two pegs down and still very sober. Michael was a relative nephew of the Siem of another territory.
He was a Khasi gentleman from Shillong, rather well versed in the mountain and jungle terrain and had hitchhiked from Shillong along the Patharkhama route in a friend’s jeep. That road is a metalled road and excellently maintained. He also happened to be a good friend of mine and therefore know how to reach me quicker through those jungles. Very difficult to trace, my campsite was located about five miles inwards from the main metalled road leading to Patharkhama — a major log business center in Meghalaya. I used that route less frequently and the internal jungle routes more often.
Michael later told me he had walked the entire five miles of winding mountainous road since noon that day. His friends had stopped at the junction of the kutchha road and the main metalled road to see him off.
I recollect, I had once accompanied Michael on a visit to a place called Jhirang, which is beyond Rani town — located at the plains border of Assam and Meghalaya. We took the rough dirt route from a friend’s campsite many miles further west and traveled on motorbike. Although the journey would have been shorter and comfortable via the main national highway from Goalpara district to the Guwahati airport, we decided to travel via the mountains.
We had to rest for the night in a remote hilly village and reached the next day around 10 am. Jhirang seemed as if God had forgotten to add finishing touches to that hill village semi-town. It also looked like a paradise lost. Completely dependent upon logs business and firewood, the windswept semi-plains of this village-town afforded a clear view of one massive church at its other end, after which the forested area commenced again. We walked for a mile and a half inside that place before reaching a tea shop and rested a while. The semi-town appeared to be situated upon a mammoth clearing with plains and highland as part of its surface. The land structure was best described as partly undulating.
We met Michael’s friend whose house appeared to be a replica of a regular house generally found in Shillong hill station and he even had electricity connection. The music system boasted of a 250-watt sound output and we listened to many of the favorite singers popular then. Michael introduced him to me as the Siem’s son, here for the summer holidays.
* * *
“You mean you want to invest?” I asked him professionally.
“How much do you wand to spend?”
“Hell man, you don’t need finance for this jungle site, I know that. Atul Saikia, your Assamese friend, assured me of that. He said he wanted to partner with you on this logs business and that you refused.”
”Look, there is room only for one in this location. I have already invested, and there is no more to invest. Atul agreed on that issue, and we have partnered since on another jungle site. We shall take up that location by next season. I will teach him, and I am sure he can manage that site independently. I need to go there only once in two months. We shall split the profits.”
“I er, was meaning the gentle slope lands and Pineapple.” He blurted out truthfully.
“Pineapple here? I don’t know about that. You’ll need plenty of free land, even if mountainous,” I appraised him. “Then you’ll require plenty of laborers to weed the entire place on a regular basis.”
“What’s that, friend? That’s price escalation from the allotted price allocation.” He seemed to doubt his own proposal by now. He had already planned out the finance part of the venture.
We chatted on till dinnertime and later relished a very hearty meal amidst his cheerful company. Word was spreading around that night in the campsite, though only among the Garo people, that pineapple kheti — meaning farming — was in the cards.
In reality, if proved successful, that would mean plenty of work and food throughout the monsoons, at least in that area.
“You can understand my involvement, man. I can be here throughout the year supervising the cultivation, and you can rest in Guwahati if you like.”
* * *
About six months later, I was in Shillong for about a fortnight on a business trip during the monsoons. I had put up in one of the good hotels there. Through a gentle round of gin and tonic, I told him, “You need to plant pineapple on a hill slope all right. You also have to plant it on the slopes facing away from the rain. That shall mean plenty of mountain slopes to be taken into account. The rain water has to be drained away, naturally and immediately.”
I met him last year and he tried to coax me into hybrid chilly plantation. “It is selling for 65 bucks. You see, here, let me explain. One plant grows about two feet tall and will provide about five kilos every week. All we have to do is take care of the plant blight with plant medication.”
Last season, I heard he bought a truck and is involved in the coal business. One of our common friends told me that — though he again, heard that from another close friend — who operated coal from those hills. Michael’s wife is the proprietor of a few hills in Jiantia hills district and the only substance you find there is coal. I think he has finally settled down. Once or twice a year we meet either in Shillong or Guwahati.
Michael has not contacted me the latter half of this year though just before Christmas, my mobile phone registered a missed call and the name of the caller was clearly displayed in the missed calls list. Michael. Somebody else phoned from Shillong intimating me Michael was on his way down to Guwahati.
I await 2006.
Did you know, Don, Jerry — those hills and mountains in Meghalaya are loaded with lots of uranium, which looks like coal and glows in the dark? Medical tests by the government have proved now that this is a different form of uranium and not determined radioactive until lately. Many hundreds of village people have collected those glowing substances and keep them as mementos in their drawing rooms. In the past dozen years, their health has shown no signs of deterioration.
Though this is by no means the formal end of this letter or the events mentioned therein, I would like to tell that the names of the places mentioned therein are correct and real. Thanks.
Rani town now boasts of its Industrial Estate, and much prior to reaching it from the highway, one can find “Acoland,” which is a massive children’s park. The authorities even hosted the New Year’s party last year.
Copyright © 2005 by Deep Bora