Last Friday (13th July) I woke up to some wonderful news. A young girl from a small town in Assam had made history by becoming the first Indian to win a Gold Medal in a track event at the World Junior Athletics Championship. I watched the video of the event. I watched Hima Das touch the ground, bring it to her chest and then to her lips, praying to the Gods to be with her as she braced herself for the race. I heard the gunshot, watched the women start running and squinted my eyes to make out Hima Das’s nimble form. I tuned out the rest of the commentary, wondering why she was nowhere in the lead for the first 30 seconds (I admit I know pretty much nothing about running) until I finally spotted her, and heard the words:
“But here comes Hima Das!The Indian is surging! She can see the line, she can see history! India’s never won any medal in a track event, but DAS HAS DONE IT HERE! Brilliant! 51.47. History made in Tampere.”
I’d started feeling the lump in my throat around the same time, but then I saw that smile on her face after she’d crossed the line, and I watched her walk up to her coach who handed her the Indian flag, but draped the gamosa around her neck.
That’s when I lost it, breaking down completely, laughing and crying at the same time, with no idea why the sight of that simple white and red cloth draped around the neck of this amazing girl, was tearing my heart into pieces.
About two hours later, when I could finally watch the video without tearing up, I talked to my Deuta, and told him about how I couldn’t stop crying when I saw the gamosa on her neck. Deuta told me he’d felt it too… those goosebumps on my skin and that lump in my throat. We talked about how proud this girl has made us, and how I wanted to fist bump in the air and go, ‘Yes! This is what I am talking about! This is the Assam everyone must know about!’
So what was it about the gamosa that made me so emotional? What did that seemingly humble rectangular piece of cloth mean to me?
A volley of images came rushing through…. The almost threadbare but unbelievably soft cloth that worked as a hand-towel and hung from a rod next to the wash basin, the red faded to a near pink from multiple washes… Aita tying a gamosa around her waist as tightly as she could for support as she pruned some plants in our backyard… Deuta being felicitated at some meeting and coming home with a brand new gamosa that would be all stiff and starch-ironed… Ma preparing a ceremonial xorai and covering it with a gamosa before offering it in front of the Kirtan at our thapona… Aita taking the gamosa off her neck and using it to wipe the ground in the naamghor before we touched our head to the ground and bowed in front of the Lord. Ma handing me a silk gamosa and telling me it was to be kept separately for my groom… My unpacking our Kirtan at our Vietnam home, and wrapping it in that gorgeous gamosa that had been gifted to my husband, spending long minutes admiring the intricate work all over the gamosa… my Uncle gifting my one-year old her very own gamosa with her name lovingly woven on it by my Aunt…
I started to write a post, but then I changed my mind. I realised that I can’t possibly be the only person who feels this way about our gamosa, and so I decided to seek help from friends and family. I sent a message to some of my friends, and asked them to send me a few lines about what the gamosa means to them, and if they have any specific memories related to gamosa.
The first thing that everyone said was that that our gamosa is our identity. It is an icon of the Assamese culture after all, just like our japi and pepa. One cannot really think of the Assamese society without bringing to mind the image of the gamosa. Sohel Da, who is the General Secretary of the Assam Association in Singapore also mentioned that “it signifies the very essence of being Assamese.” Nidarshana Ba, who lives in Hyderabad says that while she never really gave the gamosa a thought until she left Assam, now it has become “an insignia of our Assamese identity. So unique in its colours and patterns… it stands out.” Interestingly, Nidarshana Ba has turned the gamosa into a piece of art worth displaying. She has framed two of them and hung them on her wall in her Hyderabad house, making sure that it is the first thing that guests see when they enter her living room.
My Deuta mentioned feeling proud each time someone felicitated him with a gamosa, while Himangshu, a family friend who currently lives in Malaysia, said that the gamosa itself is a symbol of pride for him. My friend Amrita, who also happens to live in Singapore and ahem, loves my lusi-aloo bhaji breakfasts, adds that to her it is the highest honour. It is a symbol of respect and regard after all, like Ananya, an assistant professor in Tezpur University (but more importantly, a former band-mate) says.
To many of us, gamosa and Bihu are so intricately intertwined, that Bihu is incomplete without the Bihuwan, the form gamosa takes when offered as a token of love during the Assamese New Year. My husband has fond memories of being offered a Bihuwan every single year by his Abu (his grandmother) right from when he was a young thing wearing half-pants that showed his skinny legs. Even now, my mother-in-law sets three gamosa aside for the three of us (my little one not dismissed by any means) each Bihu. To my husband, it is that thread that connects him to home.
Mayurakshi, a friend and the first person to have given me feedback for my first book ever (and hence very, very special to me) has vivid memories of her Pehi weaving gamosa in her handloom every afternoon after lunch. “I would be in awe of the effort that goes into the entire process and the skills needed to weave out a single gamosa,” she says. The best ones would be kept to present to guests during Bihu. Himangshu remembers his mother weaving twenty gamosa all by herself each Bihu, finding time out of her busy schedule, and says that each one of them that comes out of his mother’s “mohura, taat-xaal, maku, xuta, asu and jotor” still means a lot to him.
What is unique about the gamosa, in my eyes, is its versatility. Nowhere else have I seen such a homely everyday object being regarded with so much respect and veneration. For the longest time, I had treated the gamosa like nothing more than a towel. Not surprising, since it literally translates to something to wipe your body (ga=body; mosa = wipe) My Ma didn’t allow us to wipe our feet with a gamosa, but that was about it. A gamosa could have a very long lifeline, depending on how it was being used. Because it soaks wonderfully, and dries very fast as well, it makes for a very convenient travel companion. Satyakam Da who works at Indian Revenue Service (but more importantly, is a khar-khuwa through and through) recalls this time when he used it as a headscarf in Leh, “when it was too cold and I didn’t even have a monkey cap!” I asked him all earnestly if it provided enough warmth. Pat came the reply, “It had the love of Assam in it. How could it not be warm enough?”
Adil Hussain Da (yes, the same award-winning actor of Hotel Salvation fame) believes that “Gamosa is an extension of our selves. It’s almost like a part of our biology. Once it is resting on our body, we feel like we are rooted, and yet, we can take off! It’s like an organ. It is a mirror reflecting the smell, sound and taste of our Land.”
I think I know exactly what he means when he says it feels like a part of our own body. And yet, no spiritual ritual is complete without the gamosa. We don’t bow our head in front of the Lord unless we have a gamosa around our neck. It is the ultimate sign of respect.
So what does the gamosa really mean to me? Everything. I have a big stack of gamosa that I have been carrying with me through all the countries that we have lived in, and to me, it is still my most prized possession, because each one of them has a different memory attached to it. To me, I treat my gamosa a lot like I treat my parents: I love them to bits, but wouldn’t hesitate to tease them because I treat them like my friends, but they are also the ones I respect the most in this whole wide world.
But no one could have said it better than Angana, a dear friend whom I have come to admire a lot.
“Gamosa is humble enough to absorb the dripping sweat of my dad’s forehead, carelessly slung across his shoulder while he does yard work. It is a giddy reminder that bihu is here, while mom buys gamosa for the whole extended family. It is the catch-all garment for everyday dirt and grime. And also the respect, love and much more, making an appearance in every social gathering back home, from weddings, naam, bihu or xokam. And when you stay so far away from home, gamosa is also nostalgia.”
As for the gamosa around Hima Das’s neck, may it be the first thing that comes to people’s mind whenever they recall the moment a young girl made history in Tampere.