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Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The splendor that is Baishakh

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This morning, on Pahela Baishakh, we celebrate our heritage. By doing so, we celebrate ourselves. In Baishakh, it is rainbow thoughts which seize the soul in us. It is that insistent melody in the consciousness which plays in the heart.

Baishakh is a reminder of the good days that have flown. It is a recapitulation of the clouds that have passed into time. It speaks to you of the warmth you experienced in the embrace of your mother. It tells you of the thrill there used to be as you accompanied your beautiful aunt on her evening stroll through the woods where those monstrosities of urban buildings stand today. Every Baishakh used to be a season of festivities, a time when you celebrated life. For many of us, Baishakh comes in all the splendor of childhood innocence.

Years ago, or aeons ago, in the little hamlets dotting this land, Baishakh was a matter of the heart, carried to its musical conclusion by the soul. When Pahela Baishakh dawned in our little villages, we woke to the chirping of the birds and the song of the breeze as it rustled through the palm fronds lining the pond.

There were the ripples, coming one after the other, all across the pond, until suddenly the dip of your feet in the water led to happy commotion. Where the ripples had until then been a soft play of melody in the gathering sunrise, that commotion created by your dipping feet quickly gave it the quality of good, healthy cheer. You went into the water, and stayed there, until your father came and induced you out of it. It was Pahela Baishakh, said he, it was time to be in the pond, yes, indeed to be in and with other things besides.

In these times of an increasingly consumerist twenty first century, with all the banality outside your window, you tend to sit back and reflect on an era that is forever gone. Call it the black-and-white era. Baishakh in the old days was a clear delineation between black and white, between light and shadow.

Not that black was evil, or that shadow was sinister. It was simply that life came, and was enjoyed, in a fine balance of experience. Our mothers, all young and all so beautiful in those days, were thrilled to bits by the advent of Baishakh. They added to that beauty when they raised their hair to the heights of the romantic.

They wore their hair in a bun. In our parlance, it is known as the khonpa. Go back to all those black-and-white photographs of the 1950s and 1960s and you will know. Notice too the rojonigondha or the beli flowers on that khonpa, and you will then have cause to recall how feminine beauty once came in grace that was as natural as it was eloquent. They sang Kanon Devi's songs; and they loved Shondhya Mukherjee.

On Pahela Baishakh, then, your mother and mine tapped nature, partook of its charms and used them to enhance their own sensuous appeal. There were the values, that sure sense of self-esteem that came with such an act. Profligacy was nowhere to be seen; and nothing of the seductive was there.

All you could see was the alluring. And our grandmothers? Baishakh for them was an excuse to plunge into the cheering business of preparing a variety of pithas. Age had already begun to take its toll on them; and many of their responsibilities had already been passed on to their daughters and their daughters-in-law. And yet when it came to a preservation of tradition, to a commemoration of heritage, no one could do the job better than they.

They stoked the fire in the thatched kitchen even as their grandchildren ran riot in all the cheerfulness they could muster. Their husbands, our grandfathers, all bearded and therefore all sage-like, chuckled in toothless happiness. It was Pahela Baishakh, a happy day, a time that promised a journey back to the past. These old men, patriarchs of their families, waited as the home fires burned. The smell of khichuri, that unmistakable crackling sound of the wood as it burned in the mud stove, promised delights yet undiscovered and yet not wholly unknown.

And then there was the village beyond the courtyard. Your neighbour the peasant, as ever in penury, nevertheless looked happy on that bright Baishakh morning. He had reason to. Ever since the emperor Akbar devised the system where the haalkhata could be placed in an annual spotlight, this peasant, like all other peasants, had had a special relationship with Baishakh. It was the season that held out promises for the year ahead. It spoke of fresh new crops. It retold the old story of how the sun had set upon a year, to rise on another.

In the old days, Baishakh was a time when the coming of storms heralded a new celebration of human experience. There was something pristine about those storms, for they connected present with past. Your ancestors had walked home through such storms, men and women who now lie buried in graves that give you ideas of the cemeteries your generation will one day inherit. Baishakh made you fearful; and yet it made you surmount fear, tell yourself that the rain and the storm were at the core of Creation.

And because they were, you were at the heart of Creation as well. Indeed, Baishakh in our childhood was an image of the metaphysical. It shook up the heavens; it threatened to uproot the belligerent trees in that little forest beyond your fields of rice; and it made you acutely aware of your loneliness in time and space.

And then came another Baishakh. The little girl, the neighbour you had always thought was a mermaid as she playfully waded through the rain-filled rice fields in the monsoon, was no more a mermaid. She had turned into the classic beauty you always dreamed of serenading in the light of the moon someday. On that Baishakh dawn, you cupped her cheeks in your hands even as she closed her eyes in profound serenity, blushing to the roots of her hair as she did so.

This year, in Baishakh, you remember how you have loved, consistently, her moments of glad grace. She ages, in all the fire and fury of beauty. She is not yours. And yet she is part of you, will always be.

The writer is Editor-in-Charge, The Asian Age

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