The Gift of the ‘Meiji’

It is often that the most familiar of situations take the most unfamiliar turn of events. The shrill clang of the cup shattering on the floor brought me out of a reverie of sorts. Drinking from it had been my granduncle, who was now clutching at his chest and breathing heavily from his mouth, his eyes startlingly wide open. “Boraaita…!” I screamed, calling out to my grandaunt as I went up to hold him. The heavy set man collapsed onto the floor as he bent forward in pain with the chair slipping from under him. “Call your father”, my grandaunt bellowed, unnerved but holding steady on seeing her husband in a mangled heap. “He’ll know what to do. Go NOW!”

“Thirty two years is a long time kid”, declared my granduncle as he supervised the construction of his house, right next to our ancestral home. “Especially when you’re working in a place that refuses to make your grandfather happy to have his elder brother right next to him. I think it’ll suit my health better as well.” The vociferous roar of a heaving engine shifted our attention. It came from the monstrosity of a truck that was carrying a humungous pile of firewood. However, what surprised my granduncle was the sight of my grandfather at the wheel with the driver occupying the passenger seat, his expression showing clear relief on reaching the venue safe and sound.

“You’re scaring that poor boy to death, old man!” Borkoka taunted “Why do you have to always make a big show out of everything?”
“I can’t let you steal my thunder all the way, dada especially with you taking over the village’s Magh Bihu celebrations from me this year.”

“Sigh!” he said, putting his arm around my grandfather’s shoulder “It’s too late to even ask you to grow up anymore.”

My grandfather held back his tears as I narrated the horror to him. Recounting the dreadful tale to one after another made me feel nauseated and a fear deep and dark. A fear emanating from the vision of my granduncle’s hand slipping from his claw grip on my arm as it went limp. His eyes had been wide with terror and his face contorted in pain while his entire body had writhed and convulsed with a sinister dance, brought upon him by the seizure playing the puppeteer. The scene that had been burnt into my memory. A throng of people had begun to gather at the house, the air pregnant with tension and stinging smell of paint and varnish. My vision was a blur of figures who ran helter-skelter in their efforts to provide any kind of assistance. I could see my father, the only doctor in the family, constantly by my granduncle’s side doing everything that his mortal powers allowed him to. My grandaunt, whose devotion to God was unquestionable, was caught in a fervent prayer; her brows furrowed, her lips quivering and a chain of pendants rotating by her forefinger and a thumb like the slow ticking of a doomsday clock. Both the sceptic rationalist and the prisoner bounded by her shackles of religion attempted to do their bit, one depending upon years of study and rigorous practice while the other, desperately clinging on to fables of miracles and hope.

“Do you know why we celebrate Magh Bihu?” my granduncle asked a six year old me. It was a surprisingly pleasant January morning but Assam was still in the throes of the final wave of winter. The firewood from the truck had been allowed to dry even further in the sun and was now being chopped into pieces. With the stump of a eucalyptus tree serving as the platform, my grandfather worked it while basking in the hues of the morning sun spreading across the sprawling lawn of his newly constructed house. Friends and relatives exchanged greetings as they passed by and his grin became even wider with every onlooker marveling at the place. Retirement seemed to suit the man just right.

“It’s the festival of harvest!” I quipped excitedly. The axe was luminous as it was raised but on hearing my answer, he put it down and laughed out loudly. When he saw the look of hurt on my face, he picked me up by my shoulders to sit me down on the stump.

“Magh Bihu is much more than just a festival, buddy” he explained. “It’s not just the harvest. It is about the very act of rejoicing in the company of people who we love the most. It’s about reinforcing friendships and brushing enmity aside. That’s the very essence of the Meiji.” Scrutinizing my bewildered face, he realized that I had no idea what he was talking about. “Meiji is the fire that we light at the crack of dawn after the night of the Magh Bihu feast. It symbolizes gratitude for what we have received from the one above all and hope for a better tomorrow. Burning away the past, it paves the way for a new beginning. Why do you think I am cutting all this wood? Tonight is the feast! And tomorrow morning, we’ll have the brightest Meiji in the village this year. You’ll see!”

An eerie silence had crept over the members of the immediate family hurdled together in the household, broken from time to time with the muffled sound of sobbing. A few unsteady hands prepared tea which was passed around in disposable cups to the largest part of the village community that had settled down on the lawn outside. Despite the dire state of affairs, the villagers kept themselves busy with various activities. Men could be heard betting loudly at a game of cards while irony died a slow death as children played “Ring a ring o’ roses”. Wisps of smoke from several burning opium buds intermingled with the thick blanket of fog, the air of relaxation much in contrast to the tumultuous storm of emotions raging in our minds. The wailing blue sirens continued their swansong long after the ambulance had whisked my granduncle away, their haunting ring still fresh. Only my father and his elder brother had been allowed to accompany him on the three hour ride to the City Hospital. The traumatizing hours seemed to pass by at a painful pace. Boraaita had her head bowed down all this while, her lips quivering and the prayer beads turning at a frenetic pace. However, there is only so much that her weary self could take. With sheer exhaustion overcoming her body, she collapsed forward with her hands folded as it would be in veneration. And as if it was only the fervent prayer that had been keeping the man in peril alive, the telephone in the house began to ring like an ominous death knell. When my father delivered the news from the other end of the line, it only confirmed what we had feared.

An hour and a half of hard work had taken a toll on the old man. Rivulets of sweat trickled down his face and upper body, making sure that the Gamusa around his neck was never at bay. Yet he continued to toil, the large heap of wood behind him steadily growing. The task at hand seemed to create an aura of happiness radiating from him. His constant stream of inappropriate jokes and mocking commentary played no part in inducing the smile on his lips today. It was brought forth by the sheer thrill that his work gave him. On looking up to catch his breath, he noticed my transfixed eyes and gaping mouth and smiled sheepishly at his grandnephew.

“It’s time for my cup of tea now. Why don’t you come inside for a moment? I’ll make sure Boraaita gives you a warm glass of milk.”
Only with the arrival of the body in the evening did the reality of departure finally sink in. The medical report had identified the cause of death but the term had been lost in the midst of teary eyed rituals and the conduct of traditions. The chaotic preparations for the departed to be laid to rest resulted in a flurry of such movement that the house turned into a maddening circus of incongruity. The poignant smell of incense choked the air while incessant howling could be heard from different rooms at tandem. Frenzied instructions were hurled at each other in unison, intermixing with the chant of mantras and making them even more incomprehensible. And in this commotion of their own making, the funeral pyre was completely overlooked. The priest hollered incessant warnings that the auspicious hour was running out while the family knocked their heads together to come up with a plan. It was then that somebody pointed at the Meiji that had been built just this morning.

The burning Meiji was quick to engulf the body, its radiant flames shinning its light on each face burdened with distraught and disbelief. My grandaunt was inconsolable, her prayer beads lying in a forgotten corner of the house. It is true that faith only stands strong until you test it. Instead of a long night of celebration, we bore the fresh wounds of a tragedy that would continue to scar us long after. The smoke wafting out of pyre only served to remind us of the dark days that were yet to come. We would remember it at every Magh Bihu that came after, a bitter-sweet memory that would continue to haunt us. Watching the fire devour its prey was unnerving to say the least but we stood our ground. It was my granduncle’s first Bihu with the family after all. Borkoka had been right. The Meiji did bring us all together at the end.