The Covid-19 caused lockdown and norms of physical distancing have robbed the people of the opportunities to congregate and celebrate their festivals. Many religious and cultural events have passed unnoticed in the last over five months of the novel Coronavirus and related restrictions.
The month of Savan which otherwise used to witness the saffron clad kavanrias— vessels of water suspended in bamboo poles across their shoulders, making a beeline for Lord Vaidyanath temple at Deogarh– was dry and dull. The people couldn’t gather to feast on the occasions of Eid-ul-Fitre and Eid-ul-Azaha. They couldn’t celebrate Ganesh Chaturdarshi and Onam in Maharastra and Kerala in the manner they did in the past.
The last one which involves huge gathering and processions was Muharram that too passed off unnoticed on August 30.
When we are deprived of the events and the occasions we have grown with, we remember them more. We miss them. I remembered Tazia Baba—a synonym of Muharram or Hajrat Hussein’s martyrdom—I had grown up observing at my village. I missed Ramnavami and Savan Saptami which we celebrated with gusto when I was a small boy, growing at Daraili Mathia—a very remote village on the borders of north Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh.
Let me begin with Muharram: It was in the early 1970’s. We had Dulai Chacha—a short and thin man—as our next door neighbour. He would begin making Tazia Baba, about ten days ahead of Ashura. I would sit around watching him cutting the glazed papers and decorating Tazia Baba at his door. It was a great work of art. He used to have glue of boiled flour to stick the finely cut and chiselled papers of various hues in a dome shaped structure of bamboo.
Oblivious that Muharram was observed to mourn the martyrdom of Hajrat Hussein, we children used the occasion to play with banaithi –a stick with wooden balls at its two ends—sword, scimitars and rapiers. Our elders who included my uncle, Lallu and neighbours, Issak chacha, Israil chacha, Majid Chacha, Jhulena and Phulena chacha would train us in chanting “shers (poems)” hailing Hassan and Hussein and picking the weapons.
Raja and I were fond of becoming Hadra-Hudri or what others in neighbouring villages in U.P described us Paikar. We would wear special costumes with jingle bells tied around our waist. We had to be on the run fanning Tazia Baba with peacock feather fans in our hand. We were not supposed to sit or sleep till the end of Ashura. Dulai chacha and other elders would place Tajia Baba first at our door and then Tajia Baba would be taken on each and every door.
My grandma Sona Devi would lead the folk song, “De ray Dadi lawang ki chharia; Main chalun karbal ko (O Grandma! Give me a piece of clove and let me go to Karbala)”. My grandma would turn emotional while singing it. We didn’t know the meaning of this song then. Later on when I grew in my knowledge I found out that Hajrat Hussein ahead of going to Karbala and achieving martyrdom against the demonic forces of Yazid had asked for a piece of clove while parting ways with his grandma. Our elders grieved Hussein’s martyrdom but they didn’t interfere with our playfulness.
Hundreds of our villagers would take Tajia Baba to neighbouring Tandawa village for “Milan (meeting) with another Tazia baba —two kilometres away. After the meeting, the two Tazia Babas were placed in a sprawling field and the villagers would play banaithi, swords and scimitars, chanting Hassan-Hussein in chorus.
Let me tell you in the name of the Almighty: as a small boy I never felt that Muharram was something associated only with the Muslims. Our village elders—women or men—never described it in such a manner. My grandma offered water soaked rice to Tazia Baba—in the manner she offered puri and kheer (bread boiled in ghee and rice boiled in jaggery) to Kali Mai– when he was placed at our door. Later the offering was distributed among all of us as “Prasad” which we enjoyed eating.
Other festivals that passed during the lockdown and that I remembered most were Ramnavami and Savan. My grandma and my mother would place a water filled pitcher on the mound of sand and earth grown with green barley plants in our puja room. The pitcher had a yellow towel tied around its neck. They worshiped near the pitcher every morning and evening for nine days during Ramnavami. Our women neighbours—Muslim barbers—would mop and plaster the puja room with cow dung. Dulai chacha would buy a piece of red triangular cloth from the market to flutter on the bamboo pole—known as Hunman ji ka dhaja—in our courtyard. Dulai chacha would assist our family Purohit (priest), Gajadhar Mishra in planting Hanuman ji ka dhaja in our courtyard.
As a child I remember many of my villagers going to the river Saryu and filling a small pitcher with holy water to travel on foot in the group to Mehandar to offer the water to Lord Shiva in a temple.
I do remember a conversation between my father and Rahman chacha on an Eid day. Here it is:
My father: “Eid ke Ram Ram, Rahman Bhai (Salutation for Eid, Rahman)”
Rahman: “Salam babu! Allak ke rahmat apn-e par banal rah-e (Salam babu! May Allah bless you)”.
My father banters: “Lungi ganji ta bada lahradar pahinl-e bada (You have donned colourful lungi and vest)”.
Rahman: “Haan babu! Beta bahara kamala. Uh-e naya kapda le ail baa (Yes, babu! My son works at a faraway place. He has brought new clothes)”.
My father: “Bara nek ladika ha, Bhagwan okra ka abaad rakhas (Your son is polite and obedient. May God keep him happy)”.
Rahman: Haan babu! Sab apn-e saban ke pyar mohabbat ke phal ha (Yes Babu! His (son’s) conduct is the fruit of you people’s love and affection)”.
My father: “Awa khaini banaw, khail ja (Come over! Rub khaini—raw tobacco—and let us have it)”.
Times rolled by. Rahman Chacha, Dulai Chacha, Gajadhar Mishra, my grandma and my father died long ago. I too moved to the cities for higher education and job. I was a student of history at the college level. I had deep interest in mythology and biblical books—Ramanaya, Mahabhararata, Bible, Quran Sharif, Tripitaka and Gurugranth Saheb. I can’t claim to be a scholar in religion and culture but I read many of the great treatises and tales. By late 1980’s I had become a journalist.
But my initial years as a journalist in late 1980’s and early 1990’s came as a big cultural shock. The RSS-BJP launched the movement for demolishing the Babri mosque and building Ram temple on its debris. Many Muslims groups too turned violent asserting their separate religious and cultural identity against the aggressive Hindutva.
I got bewildered. The more I read the biblical books, the more I remembered my childhood. The more I watched the politicians doing politics in the name of religion, the more I remembered my father, my grandma and my villagers—mostly illiterate and poor but large hearted and loving.
Now, I feel like unlearning everything that I have learnt as a student and journalist and going back to my village to celebrate the festivals the way I did it as a teenage boy. But I am told that the villages too have changed. Many of the young boys hold mobile phones in their hands and have TVs in their room, getting influenced by the messages and pictures they get on the screens.
Confined in my room because of the Corona, I remembered all these festivals and how they shaped me in my formative years. Thanks to Corona in the sense that it barred the celebrations that invariably triggered violence, hate and clashes and in the process allowed to me go down my memory lane.