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THE MIGHTY BRAHMAPUTRA

She hovered there in the doorway of the 4WD; half in, half out – balancing on her bottom just this side of catastrophe. The new Madam let out an elegant squawk and landed on the banks of the Brahmaputra with a thud, lost amidst a cluster of brown arms. Her hat and bag were passed to her and with an assistant on each elbow she was escorted slowly to the edge of the river.

Miss Jill’s voyage of discovery had begun.

She was a sprightly seventy-six, neatly dressed in sensible clothes, crisp, clean and perfectly coiffed: dark blue slacks, a starched white blouse with pink stripes, pure grey hair swept up and tucked back in a swirl and a face that still retained a brittle freshness. She was a spinster, maybe that was why. Her face looked soft but those fleshy pink cheeks were the only thing soft about her – she was sharp as a tack and twice as dangerous. Our Miss Jill had lived a considerable life.

As she was man-handled down the bank, it was clear that my companion wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry. She gingerly pottered down to the gang-plank, wrenched one arm from her servant and held out an imperious hand.

“Pleased to meet you,’ she said with a faint smile, ‘I am Miss Gillian – and your name is?’

That clipped British accent gave it all away.

‘Mr. Dogster,’ I replied and shook her proffered paw. The merest touch and she recoiled but then, with a conspiratorial smile, leant towards me and smiled.

‘I’m so-o-o glad you’re Australian. In my experience, they’re always the best companions on a voyage.’

The one thing we both had staring us both in the face was that I was her only companion on this voyage – for the next fourteen days. Nobody warned me about that.

*

All of Assam tried to cram onto a single flat roofed ferry, tethered to a pole at Neamati Ghat. Shouting and swearing, laden with chickens and children, passengers swamped the boat, scrambling, jumping and shoving their way across precarious planks aboard a precarious perch to an equally precarious future. Once on board they dumped their belongings and grabbed a space, guarding it with their lives. Young men squatted on the top deck and gambled, others chatted with mates and kept watch as twenty, thirty bicycles were loaded on the roof, a dozen motorcycles – then, amazingly, a car.

Below decks was crammed with women and children piled one on top of the other, anxious heads poking out of the open sides of the boat, gasping for air.  A baby was passed hand to hand through the masses then disappeared, wailing, into the hold. Not that anybody was looking at the baby nor caring for its fate – something far more interesting was happening. A white monster had come to town.

A row of little brown eyes followed my every move.

In turn I followed theirs. It was a fair bargain – everybody was happy.

‘Ma-a-a-a-a-aaah!’

There were goats as well – but then there always are, heading off to Shiva; goats and chickens and a pig on a pole, lost amidst the laughter and the fight to be first on the ferry of death. Multiply this scene ten-fold and that was Neamati Ghat. Whole families headed for extinction but nobody seemed to care. There was a distinct air of festivity.

‘It’s so busy, Bongo.’

Yes, I had another Bongo. An Assamese one this time – a handsome lad, in a solid, blank kind of way – dependable but dull.

‘Is it always like this?’

‘Yes, sir, yes. Always like this,’ he lied.

*

The car screeched to a halt. In front of us was a herd of decorated cows being pelted with slices of cucumber. This was something I’d never seen before. There are big miracles and little miracles – here was a little one. I got out of the car. Miss Jill was content to observe from a distance.

Lao kha, bengena kha, bosore bosore barhi ja,’ the woman in front of me muttered, ‘maar xoru, baper xoru, toi hobi bor bor goru…’

‘Eat gourd, eat brinjal, grow from year to year,’ she was saying, ‘your mama is little, your papa is little – but you’ll be a big cow…’

Various other intimacies were performed with the lucky animals; they were washed, garlanded, their big stupid foreheads smeared with ground turmeric, their horns and hooves rubbed with henna then lightly whacked with little bundles of dighalati and makhiyati twigs.

Whack, whack, whack!

‘Dighlati dighal pat!’

Whack, whack, whack! 

‘Makhi maro jat jat!.’

The cows, to their credit, appeared completely unconcerned.

Her husband unthreaded the old pogha ropes from their neck and threw them aside with a flourish. Slapping his holy cows on the rump, he shouted and threw more cucumber slices at them, anxious they taste their freedom – today was their one day of the year; today they were allowed to wander anywhere they wanted.

‘What’s going on, Bongo? This is very strange.’

‘Ohhh,’ he said absently, ‘we love our cows in Assam.’

*

In Assamese Sibasagar is pronounced ‘Hiba-hagar-r-r’, best said with a guttural growl.  Try it. Pretend you’re a pirate. Lower your voice to a sexy purr, add a bit of a throat-clear to the letter ‘h’, imagine you’re seducing a handsome Spaniard and say it:

‘Hiba-hagar-r-r-rrrr…’

Very satisfying. Much more interesting to say than to see.

I’d already had that privilege on the way down to Neamati Ghat. It’s a perfectly ordinary Indian town about half way between Dibrugargh and Jorhat with an odd temple complex of aesthetic note and some very uninteresting ruins.

Today it was full of life. Something was happening.

A steady stream of the faithful pushed their way up a long flight of stairs to a pod of strange conical temples on the hill, past the beggars, across a well-tended pathway to a corrugated iron roof on poles, shelter to the dozen or so sadhu’s lined up inside. The holy men dispensed blessings, sold bits of string and strange powders wrapped in paper, clay prayer lamps by the hundreds and I suspect goats, judging by the four wandering around contentedly nearby. Shiva is quite a bloodthirsty god – he likes a bit of ‘maa-a-a-a!’ chop! Watch out goats.

The outer wall of the main temple was painted blood red in anticipation; worshippers muttered prayers and lit lamps, knelt, bowed and whispered secrets to a butter-lamp candelabra before walking barefoot into the dark.

Oh, God of gods, my Mahadeva,

blue-necked, knot-haired divine.

I have blessed you Mahadeva.

Now – destroy the storm, destroy the rain…

It was all a bit fervent. Something strange was going on..

‘Why is it so busy, Bongo?’ What’s happening?’

‘Ooo-o-o-oh, this is not so busy,’ he said, ignoring the multitude, ‘just a normal day.’

I think Bongo might be telling me a little fib.

*

My Brahmaputra Bongo was an upstanding, clean living Assamese, all of twenty-five years old with a young wife and child – Dog was his ‘duty’. He was professional and somewhat distant, stoically followed where I would go, stood off to the side and let me run, translated when I needed and kept silent when I didn’t. He was happy to wait, I was happy to wander. His English was adequate but he had nothing to say; as my Assamese wasn’t coming along too well deep conversation was never on the cards. His ‘duty’ was to guide where appropriate, facilitate movement from A to B, make sure I wasn’t mugged and get me back alive. This he did perfectly well. I didn’t want a new Assamese best friend, nor was he offering.

I was a ‘thing’. The less this ‘thing’ knew about what was going on the better. Bongo would never maintain his schedule otherwise.

*

Miss Jill went off to the uninteresting ruins. I thought that was appropriate. Dog headed happily off down the main street on an adventure of his own. Bongo dutifully trotted along behind. This was his first experience of Mr. Dogster off the leash. It’s always a bit of a learning curve. He didn’t seem too concerned. He has a toddler at home.

After many stops and many starts we stumbled across a gathering in the middle of the main street. I looked at Bongo. He shrugged. No idea what was happening.

‘Let’s go!’ I said, ‘let’s check it out.’

Whatever you like, you stupid old fart, he thought.

‘Yes, sir,’ he said.

We chanced upon a stage on which sat a great many Very Important Men perched patiently on red plastic chairs, waiting for something Very Important to begin. They were all dressed in white and each wore a silk scarf hanging loosely round their neck.

‘Gamosa,’ hissed Bongo proudly.

He was apparently talking about the scarf. This gamosa has some great significance for the people of Assam. I never worked out quite what it was, but it was everywhere.

Twenty or so post-pubescent lads arrived in a pack, all dressed in pressed white sarongs tied with a red sash, topped with loose golden Muga silk shirts and red gamosas wrapped around their heads. The boys promptly began bihugeeting in the street, an alarming cultural practice reserved for special occasions. The performers were evidently the local student dance group and more than made up for their lack of skill with boundless enthusiasm.

Within minutes there must have been a crowd of five hundred good-humored locals watching with another hundred or so sitting on more red plastic chairs down in front of the stage. Dog moved in amongst them, being a tourist, taking pictures, trying to be as unobtrusive as he could – difficult when one is a different color. Luckily, for the most part, the dancing was far more interesting than him – but not to the sharp eyes of the important men, stuck up there on stage.

Two policemen in uniform came from nowhere and stood beside him, then a Very Important Man dressed entirely in white appeared. Hands were shaken, shoulders clasped then with a gesture, he smiled and invited me up to join them.

I didn’t really have much say in the matter, to tell you the truth – the foreigner was going up on display whether he liked it or not. I had no idea who they were but wasn’t about to argue – I was hauled up to the platform by more smiling policemen and sat feeling stupid on a spare plastic throne.

The dancing built up. Five sweet girls joined in. They were dressed in national costume as well. It was all very playful, energetic and pure – but by no means antiseptic.

There was a definite sexual energy in the dancing now: whoops of joy and happiness, a bang of drums and whirling silk. These young ladies were very mischievous. To my eyes it looked almost Balinese, a sensuous dance of many poses, intricate gesture and rapid-fire energy with a very rude edge – I found out later this dance was a celebration of female fertility. No wonder the boys were whooping.

*

The bihugeeting threatened to get out of hand. It was going on and on, becoming a little too enthusiastic, a little too fertile. My official friend stepped forward and held up his finger – suddenly there was silence. I had the feeling this really was an important man. He lifted a microphone to his lips and began to speak. I had no idea what was happening or what he was saying: I’d only been in Assam three days, the subtleties of the language still escaped me but I feigned respectful interest. Bongo was nowhere to be seen, hiding humiliated in the crowd. I was all alone with no idea what to do next so sat very still with a faintly retarded smile on my face waiting for guidance from above.

I slowly became aware of a subtle change. Many smiling faces were turning to look at me – I heard the words ‘Australia’ and ‘Mr. Dogster’ – little by little it dawned on me what was happening. I was being introduced.

It was like those dreams where you find yourself naked in public.

The important man in white approached me and held out his hand. I stood up, waved sheepishly to the assembled multitude then reached out and shook it. He grabbed my paw in a vice-like grip, gently pulled me forward and, to my complete astonishment, propelled me to the front of the stage. He said something into the microphone, reached back to a table and grabbed a Japi, a large circular bamboo hat, placed it on my head with words I could not understand, hung a white gamosa around my neck and stood proudly aside. Then he handed me the microphone.

‘Perhaps you’d like to say a few words,’ he whispered in English.

Did I know who these people were? No.

Did I know why these people were here? No.

Did I know what was going on? I didn’t have the slightest idea. But here I was in front of several hundred of them wearing a stupid hat, a gamosa round my neck – with a microphone in my hand.

The speech was succinct but powerful, a moving paeon to the many glories of Assam, the ne plus ultra of bull-shittery; as fine a soufflé as Monsieur Le Dog had ever whipped up. He was magnificent – even he agreed with himself on this matter. At the pinnacle of his triumph, with a slight bow to his host and a wave to his adoring public, Celebrity Dog returned to his red plastic chair, removed the stupid japi and sat down, flushed but happy.

They all seemed very pleased and clapped warmly, made clucking noises and went ‘ahh-h-h-h.’

‘That was the Governor of the Province,’ Bongo said as we left, ‘and the Chief of Police.’

*

We were driving back to the boat. I was still trying to find out just what had happened in Sibasagar. I liked saying it so much I kept asking questions.

‘In Hiba-hagar-r-r-r what was happening when…’

‘When we were in Hiba-hagar-r-r-r…?’

‘Do the people of Hiba-hagar-r-r-r, the Hiba-hagar-r-r-rians like to…?’

It was all very adolescent. I think Bongo got tired of it before I did. I didn’t care. He had to tolerate me, whatever my eccentricities. It was his duty. It was only when Miss Jill roused herself from her customary torpor and told me to shut up that I did. I’d forgotten she was there.

A mile down the road we stopped. Twelve little girls, exquisite little bundles of cuteness, stood by the roadside. Each was impeccably dressed in the newest of new traditional costumes, each with a fresh wild orchid curled tight in her hair. Various mums and dads stood behind them, looking on with all the joy of a parent at the primary school Nativity play.

The appearance of a foreign monster from the front seat of the car seemed to overwhelm them. One little girl looked very uncertain indeed and needed a great deal of hide-and-seek before she would consent to pose. Bongo smiled benignly. Now this was more like it. This was what tourists should do – terrify the locals. It was our duty to behave like ham-fisted fools.

*

She was posed accidentally in front of her house. We screeched to a halt yet again. Out tumbled the white man to take her picture while the guide and driver stood and ogled. Orchids in her hair, the widest of wonderful eyes, dressed in her absolute finest – this young lady was art. Bongo was like a Cocker Spaniel on heat. The goddess was joined by her mother, sister, aunt and, with much persuasion and another Oscar winning performance from Mr. Dogster, one recalcitrant grandmother for the obligatory tourist picture while Bongo and the driver ejaculated silently and giggled behind their hands.

This was not the rut of randy young men, not the slash, burn and run of Western youth, this was a pagan juicy thing with the whiff of the beginning of time. The girls were frank and strong, they feared no man, let alone my drooling Bongo. Everything was fresh, everything was new.

‘Why were they standing here by the road? What is going on? Is it dress-up day – what?’

He was still juiced up from the beautiful girl. He was full of the wonder of life. For once in his life Bongo forgot to lie.

‘It’s New Year’s Eve!’

*

The great Bohag Bihu celebrates the arrival of the Assamese New Year in mid-April, the coming of Spring, the beginning of Bohag, first day of the Hindu solar calendar and this year at least, the unexpected arrival of Mr. Dogster – quite a confluence of events.

This Assamese New Year goes on for a week. Today was the first day of the festival, the last day of Choitro or ‘Chait’; the last month of the Bengali calendar. The Bangla calendar is a traditional solar calendar used in Bangladesh and India’s eastern states of West Bengal, Assam and Tripura. The current Bengali year is 1415. The year begins on Pôhela Boishakh, which falls on 15th April in India. I guess you knew all that.

No? Well, neither did Dogster.

There was a big party brewing and we old foreign monsters were definitely not invited. Bongo had decided our fate. It was easier that way.

As per plan, neither Miss Jill nor I knew anything about this till we were safely on our way back to our ship-board jail where we spent a sedate evening having our usual ‘dinner a deux’ – locked away safely while the rest of Assam had a really good time.

‘Happy New Year!’ I said to Miss Jill.

‘Mm-m-ph-h,’ she grunted.

Miss Jill didn’t give a toss. It wasn’t on her itinerary. It was all for savages anyway. She eased herself up, belched gently and made her way to the door.

*

That night we berthed beside a river bank, much like all the other river banks of Assam, equally stark, equally silent – but this one had a village just a kilometre away.  The moon was nearly full, white river sand shone silver into the distance, a slap of water flapped gently against the bow – but that was all, just Dogster, the Brahmaputra and that delicious daily silence.

From over a small rise came a black shape. It seemed to hesitate on the ridge then disappeared into the darkness – then I saw another, then another. I could hear drums. A flood of dark figures appeared over the brow of the hill, twenty, thirty people walking together towards the boat. They were all having a lot of fun, arrived like a great moveable party and laughed and stumbled around on the sand directly below.

Then they began to sing.

Song after song, dance after dance, the young men and women showed off, tried to out-do each other, danced provocatively to roars of laughter, whooped and hollered or listened quietly when the best of them crooned. The songs they sang were the Bihu songs, the bihu gits, or bihugeets. Sometimes they were tear-jerkers, sometimes raucous sing-along but all were about romance and sexual love, requited or not. Mostly not, I suspected from the love-sick looks on the faces of these happy young men. The bihugeeting was gently rude, never vulgar, but there was no doubt as to what was going on: this was a mating dance and the ladies were not at all shy.

Upstairs, in Cabin One Miss Jill lay sleeping. She was old, she was withered, she was barren, bleak and dry – a woman without passion, without joy. Miss Jill felt no sexual urge at all.

Outside the glowing fruit of youth danced and sang, laughed and loved, celebrated the coming of spring, the natural cycle of life. I hovered on the top deck, somewhere between the two. In my heart I was down there dancing – but a swift glance in the mirror gave the lie to my heart.

The lights from the boat clicked on, for one beautiful moment spread long dancing silhouettes across the sand then, as secretly as they had arrived, the group dissolved. With a final shout the last one disappeared over the hill and fell back into moonlight – an unexplained moment in the gentle Assam night.

I stood alone on the deck as the Great Silence fell around me. It was midnight. Happy New Year Dogster.

I saw a shooting star.

*

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