Thursday, March 10, 2016

As Chhath changes character in Bihar, for Biharis in Delhi it's about retaining an identity

I have been away from Bihar for almost a decade. For all these years I have wanted to visit my hometown during the Chhath festival, but for some reason this never happens. The Wednesday morning was the first time that I visited a festival celebration site in Delhi, away from family and with strangers and few familiar faces. 
Chhath has been the most revered festival for our family. My grandmother used to perform every ritual. My childhood memories include celebrating Chhath in Chapra at the ghats of the Ganges. I vividly remember the early morning truck rides of the entire neighbourhood to the ghats of the river, some 30 kilometers away from our home. Thousands of people used to gather at the ghats to offer prayers to the Sun god. Everywhere you could listen the Chhath songs. Women sang folk songs. Caste was not a barrier at any point. People from every community offered prayers together, dipped in the holy water together and shared the enthusiasm. 
That was then. Away from Bihar, things were different. I witnessed the festival rituals in a small, make-shift pond in an isolated corner of a farmhouse in Sultanpur in south Delhi. The owner of the farmhouse had given permission to local Biharis to use his premises. I got to know about it from my cook Gudiya Di. She had taken the vow of Chhath and asked me to come for the rituals as I am away from my hometown. A total of 10 families were using the premises to offer prayers. The makeshift pond was too small to accommodate all the women at once. The water was too cold. But, people were happy, as they were able to celebrate the festival in their vicinity. Else everybody has to travel to the Chhatarpur temple complex, where many people offer prayers. 
There was something missing from the festival. Nobody was singing folk songs – the quintessential Chhath songs. When I asked a few people the reason for it, the reply was saddening: “We do not know the songs.” A young man in his early twenties smilingly said, in his Delhi accent, “We are not true Biharis. This festival is our only identity and connection with Bihar. We are Delhi-wallas.” 
Sometime back I had a discussion with the father of a dear friend. He is from Bihar but has been residing in Goa for the last three decades. “I do not think you people ever experienced, or can experience, the real Chhath festival. I remember the festival from the 1940s and 1950s, which can now only be written about in a book.” he told me. Later he shared notes from his childhood memories. He said, “After an elaborate Durga Puja and Deepawali, Chhath was a festival designed by our forefathers essentially to clean the waste materials collected in villages. Just imagine the cost a municipal body would incur if it has to clean every nook and corner of so many villages! We used to clean our entire village in the name of religion. Religion was the only binding force at that time.” He continued, “Things have changed a lot in the recent past. I visited my village a few years back during Chhath. I saw people celebrating the festival in isolation – only with their families. It defeats the purpose of a festival like Chhath, which is meant for social inclusion. The waste left after the festival is humongous. It too defeats the purpose of a festival, which propagates cleanliness to a great extent.” 
Few days back I asked Gudiya Di why she celebrates Chhath in Delhi despite keeping ill health. Her reply was an eye opener. She said, “This is the only way I can reconnect with Bihar. We do not go back there. But, we were born there. Our childhood was spent there. This festival gives me strength, like nothing else does. This is part of my identity.” It is a futile attempt to rationalise faith; and, when faith gives you a sense of belongingness, there is no reason to rationalise it.

First published on on November 19, 2015


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