Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Picnic Party

Picnics in Assam were a lot of fun.

Come December, and the sight of buses with  happy faces smiling and waving at the traffic would usher in the picnic season. Picnics are organised by schools, colleges, offices, neighborhoods, even large families.

The preparations start a few weeks earlier with the organizing committee doing a recce of the place, given the overflowing abundance of breathtaking spots by rivers and streams in nature blessed Assam. The menu would be agreed upon, cooks briefed, the mutton, chicken, vegetables, spices, eggs and snacks bought.

The day would start at dawn, with everyone piling into the buses at a particular pick up point. Big cooking utensils would be loaded into the bus, with bundles of firewood and sacks of coal, gas cylinders. Boxes bursting with food would be stacked in.

The bus ride would begin with everyone shouting a combined cry of joy. Some youngsters refused to sit, preferring to walk up and down, or stand balanced against a seat, taking the lead to start a song, while the rest of us joined in.

Oohs and aaahs would punch the air as the"picnic party" got off the buses and took in the beautiful picnic spot. The kids would rush towards the stream and the rocks, with the mothers asking them to be careful and also to come back for breakfast. The advance party would have arrived earlier, setting up tents, plastic chairs, carpets, the cooking area and also make shift toilets.

A voice on a microphone would welcome everyone  and talk about the things in store for the day. Usually it would be one of the organising committee member in charge of the activities. This would be followed breakfast- bread, butter, boiled eggs. And yes, bananas.

The cooks and their helpers would get going. The fires would be lit, the gas cylinders fixed to a burner. Some of the helpers would roll down the big saucepans and pots to the water side and give them a rinse. They would then light a diya, make their offerings and prayers to the deity and the cooking would begin. The peeling, the chopping, the sizzling of the mustard oil, and soon, the aroma engulfing the area like an unseen mist.

While the adventurous would set off to explore the hills and the woods, the games would begin. Tug of war and musical chairs a must. Mothers would rush to drag their children from the water and rocks to play the games, proudly clapping if their child would be the last one  grasping the chair firmly as the winner. The tug of war would sometimes be between the men and the women, or boys and girls and it would lead to lots of fun, comments, laughter. Snacks like fried fish, chips, fried brinjals in batter would do the rounds. With cold drinks and tea.

In the midst of this would be a couple of two in love, sitting on a distant rock together, feet paddling the water, creating their dreams of togetherness. Nature has a way of making love seem powerful.

Lunch would be ready around 2 p.m.
Banana leaf or paper plates, glasses lined up in front of folded bedsheets, and the hot food ladled out. Food never taste as good as it does in a picnic. The music would now be blaring. The men ( when I was young, don't remember women drinking in picnics unless what I thought was cola was actually spiked with rum) would be high  now, both drinks and the fun of the picnic making them sing, dance, laugh. Bihu songs would be played and people would soon start dancing to the beats, the hesitating ones would  be pulled by the rest into the circle. In the middle of the stillness of the forests and the water, the music and the fun would seem like one big concert of nature.

Soon , we would start feeling the chill in the air.
The shawls, sweaters, mufflers and coats would come out.
In the distance, we would see the cooks , the rest of the helpers having their food in their own circle, music playing from a player placed on a rock or a wood pile.

Finally, it would be time to board the bus again.
The mood would be strange.
Tired happiness, yet a sadness that this was over.

The journey back was always quiet.
Maybe an odd song or two.
But mostly everyone would doze off.
Or maybe we all wanted to be alone with our thoughts.

A few weeks later, the photographs would do the rounds.
We would make sure we got "copies", which would find their place of pride in the family album.

I miss the picnics.
After I left Assam, all the picnics I have been too are in resorts with waiters serving starters and a buffet table. And a DJ.
They are good. They are fun.
But to me, can never ever replace the streaming river gurgling over the rocks, the birds, the grass, the trees and the romance of the wild.