Most modern Indian cities strive to rise above ethnicity. Tell anybody who lives in Bombay that he lives in a Maharashtrian city and (unless of course, you are speaking to Bal Thackeray) he will take immediate offence. We are cosmopolitan, he will say indigenously. Tell a Delhiwalla that his is a Punjabi city (which, in many ways, it is) and he will respond with much self-righteous nonsense about being the nation's capital, about the international composition of the city's elite etc. And tell a Bangalorean that he lives in a Kannadiga city and you'll get lots of techno-gaff about the internet revolution and about how Bangalore is even more cosmopolitan than Bombay.
But, the only way to understand what Assam is about, is to recognize that the city is essentially Assamese. What's more, no Assamese minds you saying that. Rather, he is proud of the fact. Assam's strengths and weaknesses mirror those of the Assamese character. It has the drawbacks: the sudden passions, the cheerful chaos, the utter contempt for mere commerce, the fiery response to the smallest provocation. And it has the strengths (actually, I think of the drawbacks as strengths in their own way). Assam embodies the Assamese,love of culture; the triumph of intellectualism over greed; the complete transparency of all emotions, the disdain with which hypocrisy and insincerity are treated; the warmth of genuine humanity; and the supremacy of emotion over all other aspects of human existence.
That's why Assam is not for everyone. You want your cities clean and green; stick to Delhi. You want your cities, rich and impersonal, go to Bombay. You want them high-tech and full of draught beer, Bangalore's your place. But if you want a city with a soul, come to Assam
When I look back on the years I've spent in Assam - and I come back so many times each year that I often feel I've never been away - I don't remember the things that people remember about cities. When I think of London, I think of the vast open spaces of Hyde Park. When I think of New York, I think of the frenzy of Times Square. When I think of Tokyo, I think of the bright lights of Shinjiku. And when I think of Paris, I think of the Champs Elysee. But when I think of Assam, I never think of any one place. I don't focus on the greenery of the maidan, the beauty of the Rang ghar, the bustle of Fancy Bazar or the splendour of Saraighat 'Bridge'. I think of people. Because, finally, a city is more than bricks and mortars, street lights and tarred roads. A city is the sum of its people. And who can ever forget -or replicate - the people of Assam?
When I first came to live here, I was told that the city would grow on me. What nobody told me was that the city would change my life. It was in Assam, that I learnt about true warmth; about simple human decency; about love and friendship; about emotions and caring; about truth and honesty. I learnt other things too. Coming from Bombay as I did, it was a revelation to live in a city where people judged each other on the things that really mattered; where they recognized that being rich did not make you a better person - in fact, it might have the opposite effect. I learnt also that if life is about more than just money, it is about the things that other cities ignore; about culture, about ideas, about art, and about passion. In Bombay, a man with a relatively low income will salt some of it away for the day when he gets a stock market tip. In Assam, a man with exactly the same income will not know the difference between a debenture and a dividend. But he will spend his money on the things that matter. Each morning, he will read at least two newspapers and develop sharply etched views on the state of the world. Each evening, there will be fresh (ideally, fresh-water or river) fish on his table. His children will be encouraged to learn to dance or sing. His family will appreciate the power of poetry. And for him, religion and culture will be in inextricably bound together.
Ah religion! Tell outsiders about the importance of Puja in Assam and they'll scoff. Don't be silly, they'll say. Puja is a religious festival.I never know how to explain them that to a Assamese, religion consists of much more than shouting Jai Shri Ram or pulling down somebody's mosque. It has little to do with meaningless ritual orsinister political activity.The essence of Puja is that all the passions of Assam converge: emotion, culture, the love of life, the warmth of being together, the joy of celebration, the pride inartistic ex-pression and yes, the cult of the goddess.
And to understand festival,you must understand Assam. And to understand Assam , you must understand the Assamese. It's not easy. Certainly, you can't do it till you come and live here, till you let Assam suffuse your being, invade your bloodstream and steal your soul. But once you have, you'll love Assam forever. Wherever you go,a bit of Assam will go with you. I know, because it's happened to me. And every festival, I am overcome by the magic of Assam. It's a feeling that'll never go away.