Everything that ain't India

SIBASAGAR

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. 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.

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

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

I think Bongo might be telling me a little fib.

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.  The sound of prayer, a splash of water; a long corridor into the inner sanctum, a high-vaulted ceiling and blackness everywhere except for the flickering of flames from thirty tiny lamps on the floor. On one side a priest crouched on the stone floor receiving a queue of faithful, bowing and whispering, offerings piling up. On the other a new altar set up with a massive statue of Mrs. Shiva, the one with many arms.

More blessings, more offerings, then off, like all the others, to the Shiva lingam, to pour milk and oil – then leave. There’s no hanging around in this Sibasagar Temple – make your offering, get your blessing and get out. That includes tourists. It was time to clear a space, take a break from the whispered prayers, the blood and muck of Hindu worship. It was all a bit fervent. Something strange was going on.

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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 gold 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 then stood proudly aside. There was a smattering of applause. Pictures were taken on a hundred mobile phones.

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.

So the celebrated Mr. Dogster made a speech. It was brief and very gracious – he thanked them all for the privilege of being there, wished them luck in all they did, told them all how fortunate he was to be in such a place on such an auspicious occasion, complimented them on their beautiful town and thanked the organisers profusely for inviting him up on the stage. More pictures were taken.

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.’

Mr. Dogster was in the local paper the next day; the most famous white man in Assam.

*

 excerpt from THE MIGHTY BRAHMAPUTRA