The otherwise sunny Singapore has turned all grey and cold for the last few days. Summer dresses are out, cozy flannels and socks are in, and we’re making the most of this freak weather that somehow feels just right on Uruka. For the uninitiated, below is an excerpt from my book “Revelations of an Imperfect Life“.
Of all the three Bihus in a year, Magh Bihu was my favorite. It celebrated the end of harvesting season, and marked the beginning of the month of the Assamese month of Magh. It was that time of the year when food reigned supreme, and Ma went out of her way to stock the pantry with delectables. From two weeks before Magh Bihu, Ma would immerse herself in the kitchen, emerging from it only when she was satisfied that she had enough pithas and larus to feed generations of hungry cousins. On the evening of Uruka, the day before Bihu, the neighborhood would come together to have a feast together, and a hasty tent would be set up with an area dedicated to cooking. It would be an extravagant affair, with food plentiful and a special “deck” player being brought to make sure the entire neighborhood got to listen to disco music. Younger kids would have their fill first, some of them barely making it through dinner without slumping asleep right there, lulled by all that food and the crackling bonfire nearby. The men ate next, with laughter and conversation much louder than usual. Finally the women would sit to eat, having tucked their kids in bed, hunger long gone.
Uruka was also the one night when stealing was in fashion. It was not uncommon to find whole sections of a bamboo fence missing; after all bamboo makes for superb firewood. Vegetable patches would frequently have cauliflowers and cabbages harvested untimely and stealthily, potatoes dug out noiselessly to end up in a huge pot of curry being cooked elsewhere. Neighbours went around “stealing” small things from each other’s places, only to return them the next morning, all in good humor. One time, the Kakoti sisters decided to “steal” Pahi, who was fast asleep in her bedroom while Nobou Mami was busy in the kitchen, and it was only three hours later when Mami started yelling and shouting that they brought Pahi back, who had miraculously slept through all of this.
For our part Nila and I went around scaring people, getting a kick out of being pretend thieves. Our prime target was Dariya Borta, who always wore a Nehru jacket and was rumoured to love his evergreen rose bushes more than his wife. Called Dariya Borta because of his immaculate beard, he was the kind of person who begged to be provoked. Easily angered, with a peculiar tendency to become overtly sentimental, Nila and I always treated him with utmost respect to his face, and then pulled harmless tricks on him to see if we could get that purple nerve on his forehead to show. That’s all we did though, rustle leaves and shake branches to make him run out of the house brandishing a walking stick. The one time we tried to actually steal a rose from Dariya Borta’s tree (we were certain he had them counted and would know for sure if one was missing) we got cold feet in the last moment and ran away.
A major part of Uruka celebrations was staying up all night to guard the neighbourhood. Men wore monkey caps and thick shawls and sat around the bonfire to make sure the fences at least were secured. It was a night of merriment, one that culminated the next morning with the auspicious meji being burned until the high pile of hay lay in ashes on the ground, after which people again ate a heavy breakfast and slept all day long to make up for a lost night’s sleep. As if all that eating was not enough, for the next few days people visited each other over tea. It wasn’t just about inviting each and every family in the neighbourhood to our place for tea. We had to visit each of their places to have tea too.
Over time things changed. Small disputes sparked by an inch of road claimed “unknowingly” by someone putting up their new fence, or over a budding romance between so-and-so’s daughter and so-and-so’s son, got fanned until they turned into cold wars that stretched for years. People picked sides, over-the-fence conversations stopped midway if a certain someone passed by, and tears appeared in what was once a tight-knit community. The final straw was the raging argument that took place during an Uruka feast when someone turned up drunk. Nasty obscenities got hurled while the kids snickered, and things were almost about to turn violent when a few wise people interfered in the last moment. What that futile argument did achieve was to ensure that the feast got cancelled.
Uruka was the home stretch of Ma’s frantic Bihu preparations, and so after the community feast was cancelled it fell on Deuta to prepare the feast for us, something that he pretended to be disgruntled about. The pretence would last barely a few minutes though, because Deuta loved to cook, and he loved an audience, and the Uruka feast was just the time to bring those two together. It was Aita’s responsibility to engineer the makeshift stove out of an old cement mixing tray and a tripod-like thing balanced precariously over to hold the pan. Nila and I would be Deuta’s audience and assistants, because he couldn’t be bothered to do anything other than the actual cooking, and all the peeling and chopping and pounding fell on us. We would sit by the fire, singing songs. The faster the song, the faster Deuta’s ladle would move. Watching Deuta cook was also supposed to be a learning experience so we could later make the perfect, the very best version of whatever dish Deuta was making, which is how I know that in a maasor tenga salt is crucial, and in a chicken curry, frying till the chicken is almost cooked and only then adding water is key. We would eat till we could no longer move, and loll by the fireside praising Deuta’s cooking, the smoky chicken smell still lingering in the air, the simple yet intense flavours unforgettable, and Deuta would not so humbly lap it all up.
Ah, to be home for Uruka… But then again, it’s not like we are sitting at home wishfully twiddling our thumbs. Even as I type this, the husband is out shopping for our feast tonight.
“Get the baby potatoes!” I remind him, “I need to make hesa aloo”
I associate hesa aloo with my Aita, because she made them the best, and also with our ancestral home in Sipajhar, Assam. The recipe is simplicity itself. You boil baby potatoes, skin and all, and once cool, flatten it between your palms (hence, hesa). You then sprinkle a little coarse salt and pan fry the potatoes until they are crisp on the outside. Throw them in the oven and give a sprinkling of fresh rosemary and call them baked potatoes if you will, but for Bihu one does not make “baked potatoes”. No, Sir. To make it even more authentic, you fry the potatoes in mustard oil and dig into them hesa aloos. Sigh, happiness.
When evening comes, my sister and her family will join us, as will friends who are our family here. We shall stuff ourselves will food, and talk about missing home, and then stuff ourselves some more. And then, like stuffed pythons after a meal, we’ll groan that we’re full. And when desert will be brought out, we’ll lift ourselves off the floor because hey, no one says no to doi-rosogolla.
And I’ll feel right at home.
(Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons)