Tonight is the Uruka feast and I am away from my hometown. Even if I had been there, the rush of arrangements to erect a large tent on the ground, gathering firewood for the early morning Meji, cooking enough food for whatever fragments of the family were present would seem like such a poor replica of the Uruka feasts of my childhood, it’s better to abandon the feeble attempts to recreate it. People grow up, move away and priorities change. Families fragment, takes roots in new places, and jobs or other obligations prevent them from returning home. I blame it on the convenient scapegoat, ‘circumstances’.
A decade and half ago, on this night, I would have been buzzed with excitement in leading a pack of ten unquestioningly obedient cousins in preparations for the Uruka feast. I’d order them around, assigning a few to the peeling of peas and potatoes, few to guard the bamboo fence on the far right boundary of our grounds, and the rest to just follow me around to be assigned for little tasks as they came up. I did nothing but revel in the sense of authority they bestowed on me. The women would be decked in their finest mekhela sadors, and the men could be mistaken for political cronies in their starched white kurtas. An enormous tent would be erected on the lawn, the responsibility for which would always fall on two of the most enthusiastic members of our household, the house-help (who had been with us for more than 26 years now) and the driver da. One word would persist throughout the night, chaos.
One of my uncles would be responsible for buying firewood for the bonfire, Meji, set to be lit the following morning. He would spend the entire evening arranging the firewood in various permutations and combinations to avoid being asked to assist in other chores. Another uncle would gallantly ask the womenfolk to move away from the large vat set atop a fire, surrounded by whorls of peeled vegetables, soaked rice, mutton, numerous containers of spice and oil; as if to suggest that his cooking skill was fine enough to be displayed only on festive occasions, just like the new and shimmering clothes everyone wore. Modesty wasn’t a virtue we valued within the family and this would be proved again and again in the night that followed. Bragging was rampant; about who cooked the most succulent chicken, who fried the fish to just the right amount of crispiness, who was the best poker player (and my youngest uncle slyly emptied the wallets of his elder brothers later in the night, every year, some people never learn, especially one of my uncles who always took this defeat to heart and sulked for days), who could imitate the nuances of Bhupen Hazarika’s vocals better (and the uncles would be humming various songs throughout the evening in what they thought to be a not so obvious way of outdoing each other, especially when one of my cousin fuelled this feud by strumming the guitar to accompany the songs of one of the uncles at random, infuriating the rest).
Liquor would be concealed under the chairs at the back, below the stairs, behind a bush; and it was really amusing to pretend we didn’t know why the men disappeared for few moments only to return beaming at everyone, and sometimes even breaking into a spontaneous jig. My youngest uncle, who never brought into our relationship the conventions of unwavering respect and strict boundaries, who was more of a friend and alliance in the pranks we played on unsuspecting members of the family, would be lurking in some dark shadow behind the tent and pester me to keep supplying him, unnoticed from all eyes, a steady supply of peeled peas or fried fish that he required to munch while gulping down beer. I agreed on the condition that he would allow me a few sips of the beer. He reluctantly agreed; soon I was the one beaming at everyone, and quietly stole a plate of fried fish for him. I was only thirteen then; and secret sips of beer on the Uruka night became quite the unlikely tradition for me through my adolescence, until the novelty of it wore out.
No one had the faintest idea who was responsible for cooking what, when would dinner be ready or what dishes were being cooked. We just left the consumption of a sumptuous meal to destiny. Surprisingly, there had never been any compromise in the taste of food. Even the rival cooks reluctantly acknowledged it.
Sometimes a disagreement would break out into a full fledged fight and this excited all the children. Our eyes lighted up with the promise of entertainment and drama, and some even placed bets on the potential victor. Whatever commotion arose, it always died down soon enough, and everyone sat down to dinner in a show of great solidarity.
My father would always mysteriously disappear sometime during the course of the evening only to emerge just before dinner, beaming at everyone. My grandmother wouldn’t budge from the spot that she would chose early in the evening, strategically located away from the smoke and cold draft of air, but one that provided the warmth of the fire. She would speak about the days gone by, about the Uruka feast in the village, to any willing ears. The women would find some way to be busy; cuddling a child to sleep, making pithas, catching up on the latest updates of births, deaths and marriages in the various branches of the extended family.
Often few neighbours and the families of my uncles’ friends joined us. The gatherings never consisted of less than fifty people; more than half of it being the family itself. The children and the women would retire to bed sometime around one in the morning, happily exhausted after a night of delicious food, long conversations, and if lucky, some emotional drama. All but one of my uncles would stay awake to forget all blood ties and loot each others’ savings in a friendly game of poker. My youngest uncle always won, perhaps because he managed to stay the most sober. The uncle who went to bed early was a teetotaler and made sure that his disapproval of the behavior of his brothers was conveyed through grumbles and grunts. With the guards (the children) gone, a few urchins from the neighbourhood would steal the bamboo fence bordering the adjacent ground on the right, and use it for the bonfire.
We would wake up frighteningly early and had bath before sunrise on a freezing January morning. Then with wet hair plastering our skulls, we would bow down before the leaping flames of the Meji fire. I never bothered to inquire which God to invoke, how to phrase the prayer and what to pray for. So I called on one representative God from every religion known to me (so that no one got offended!), asking them to protect from any harm my family and friends, and ended with the only thing that stuck from being convent educated, ‘Amen’. I would have been mortified if anyone had the faintest inkling of the contents my prayer.
The men would be groggy, nursing hangovers and the grief of empty wallets (except for my youngest uncle) and sat grumpily around the Mejifire. The women were more pious than them, and bribed the Holy Fire with pithas, betelnut, coins etc. The children, led by me, would roast sweet potatoes in the fire and eat them with relish. These simple traditions were repeated every year, and just its comforting regularity provided such joy.
Last year a few of us had gathered in our Jorhat home for Bhogali Bihu, and it recreated some wonderful childhood memories for me, reaffirmed the importance of family ties, and filled my heart with a new love for my roots, for the place I spent my childhood in. Jorhat.
Tonight we would visit the home of my youngest uncle, who is the only other fragment of our scattered family in Guwahati. We would eat uruka bhoj at the dinner table instead of an outdoor tent; we would have fewer people to converse with; we won’t have a Meji waiting for us tomorrow; we would miss the boisterous feasts of the past. But the laughs would be just as loud, the food would have the same flavor of home; and the hearts would be just as content in holding onto a beloved tradition.