This piece was written a while ago when an issue referred in the piece was current.
My mother, mai as we call her, has now got unwittingly symbolized for me as the victim of the hatred for Biharis spread by some in Maharashtra! Mai does not reside in Mumbai, she has never worked there (though some of her children have), she cannot speak a word of Marathi (she speaks in Bhojpuri, and at best speak broken Hindi) and she is thoroughly apolitical. Mai resides in Jamshedpur (part of erstwhile Bihar, now in Jharkhand) and after much dissuasion from all of her offsprings has stopped performing chhatth puja for the last 5-6 years. She is now in her 79th year. This is the story of mai‘s chhatth puja observance meant primarily for those who are not aware of this festival but have heard about it in the recent times for all the wrong reasons.
Chhatth is probably one of the toughest festivals in all of India. It follows Deepawali by 6 days. This festival is observed by married women for the well-being of their husbands and their children. Chhatth word is derived from shashti, the sixth day of the month. Some say “Chhatth” is the combination of two words (Chhah which means six and Hatth which is the abbreviated version of Hathyoga; Chhah+ Hath = Chhath.)
I can believe that. This is an extreme display of religious fervour of the devout. Let me tell you how “extreme” is extreme.
You have a normal dinner one night and go to sleep. You wake up the next day and you do not even brush your teeth. You do not eat anything, no water even all through the day (this day is called “kharna“). In the evening you cook some food yourself (puri and rasiyao (kheer made with gud– jaggery.) All cooked yourself after a very, very dry day. Then you sleep (or try to) and fast through the next day, again without water. The evening of day two you walk to a river or a pond and pray (offer arghya) to the setting sun. Nothing to eat and drink the whole day. Or night. You sleep and wake up pre-dawn on day 3 and walk back to the body of water and offer arghya to the rising sun. After this pooja (to the rising sun) you break your fast, perhaps with a glass of mosambi juice. Life would then limp back to normalcy in the following days.
Days before the festival preparations would start. There was “daura” (basket) and “soop” (sieve) to be bought. Copious amounts of fruits to be obtained, the chief among them being an entire bunch of small yellow bananas (“ghawadh” of bananas as the bunch was called). Sticks of sugar-cane. Coconuts in their casings. And lots of other items of pooja requirements. And the separately and freshly ground “atta” (wheat flour) to make the main pooja ofering of “thekua“, kilos and kilos of it. Drenched in ghee. And the largish round red fluffy paper stickers which adorned the doorway to the family pooja room which was the hot-bed of all activities for the chhatth puja.
I still remember mai coughing away over the smoky chulha on the day of the “kharna” as she tried to stoke the chulha in the pooja room cooking her repast of puri and rasiyao. The only people allowed to help are those who are married which, in the days of our childhood, was only Pitaji.
Come the day of the arghya to the setting sun all the pooja samaan and the prasad was piled onto the daura and we would all march in a procession (family, friends and neighbours) to the river nearby. The lead ‘walker’ who was the cynosure of all eyes was the person carrying the daura on his head. This “position” was open each year and several people would vie to do the service. Mai walked a little behind the daura-bearer with an amazingly sprightly walk despite the hours of fasting. Some of us kids would walk with either the sugar-cane sticks or the banana bunch. What sticks to my mind even now, and still manages to bring a lump to my throat was the soulful rendition of the favourite chhatth song: “Kaanchahin baansa key bahangiya, bahangi lachakat jai. Poochha na Suraja Ram ke kanhariya, daura ghaatey pahunchay….” Sung by mai and accompanying women. There was one more which I do not quite remember, “Khetwa key aari, aari…..“. As we neared the river ghat several other groups of women would coalesce and join together for an even more throaty rendition of the song or some other chhath songs. Mai’s voice always sounded the strongest and as mellifluous as ever!
At the ghat the mingled crowds would split into their own groups and occupy their own patches of the sand-bed. This patch would be zealoulsy marked out by the jetsam and flotsam which we would collect (even as the pooja proceeded for the setting sun) to be able to occupy the same spot for the next morning’s rituals. The evening pooja itself comprised of mai stepping into the water knee-deep with Pitaji helping her to offer the arghya to the setting sun. She would go round-and-round with the multi-decker soops she held on her hands. Time to trudge back home on our wearied feet after these rituals . Mai would show no signs of discomfort, at all.
Tne major concern for all the kids at home and neighbourhood was how to wake up early in the morning for the morning arghya! Parents and elders promised that they would wake us up well in time but we were never sure if they would keep their words. We would lie down on our beds pledging not to sleep lest we miss the morning arghya as we were certain that the elders would ditch us. But sleep we did! And, miraculously, we would wake up just in time to join the morning procession to the river ghat to offer the morning’s arghya to the rising sun. The daura, sugar-cane, singing etc etc. would resume much before dawn. Back to the ghat for the morning arghya. Occasionally there were small altercations among the younger people from different families disputing the exact location of the previous evening’s spot for their families. But these were solved with some prompt intervention from the elders. The only addition this time was the patakha. Yes, crackers saved from Diwali celebrations from just a week ago would be burst just as the dawn broke. Some images which remains in my mind are the shooting rockets against the dull, dark pre-dawn sky and the hilarious locus of the zameen-chakkar on the sand bank. We were never quite sure where this would land up! Children had a great time while the elders were busy performing the rituals.
After the morning arghya, the fasting for mai ended with Pitaji giving here a glass of juice. And then the trudge back from the ghat back home. Once at home, prasad was placed into several different thalis and dispatched to our neighbours via, us, the kids. Neighbours were nearly all non-Biharis but would eagerly be awaiting the prasad. Life would take some time to come to normalcy for mai. And the wait for the kids began for the next chhatth!
When I read the recent reports attacking chhatth celebrations in Mumbai, I wonder what the politicians are upto! Such a pious festival being turned into a political tamasha? I am sure there are non-Bihari women in Mumbai as well who understand the emotions behind festival.
So, why, I wonder, why?