“It’s time,” my mother said one day. Seeing the confusion on my face, she proceeded to declare grandly, “for a cultural rendezvous! To get to know your heritage! To be proud to be Assamese.” At this point, putting on the face of a world-weary teenager, I placed my headphones on my ears with practiced nonchalance. None of this daunted my mother, of course, and soon with my grandmother in tow, we were on our way to Majuli, the largest river island in the world, nestled deep in the heart of the Brahmaputra.
Majuli is an expansive island ringed with shores of grey sand on the outside; on the inside it is a mix of marshy wetland and agricultural land. It is home to a variety of flora and fauna. Majuli is historically important for its role in the religio-cultural renaissance of fifteenth-century Assam. Srimanta Sankardev, a Vaishnavite saint and a prominent figure in the history of the region established numerous satras (monasteries), where the head monk and his disciples lived a life of celibacy and dedication to practicing the saint’s way of life. These settlements were also the focal points of the art, theatre, music and dance forms which made each satra unique.
To get to the island we travelled towards Upper Assam, passing through some major towns like Nagaon and Jorhat, which especially pleased my grandmother since in these places we had relatives by the score and it gave her the golden opportunity to have me meet my extended kin. As cups of tea were handed around, smiles and khobor-khati exchanged I could not help but feel myself being warmed by the journey. Inspite of myself, I think I was ready to open my heart and learn something new about myself.
From Jorhat we took a ferry to this far off island: cars, people, packages piled precariously on a floating bundle of wood and metal, we sliced through the steely Brahmaputra which flowed on unperturbed. I sat on the edge of the ferry floor and dangled my legs over the water. Water bodies have a strange effect on me. Staring into the unyielding currents I found myself feeling the urge to jump overboard, dissolve and become a part of the world beneath my feet. Most of all, I really wanted to catch a glimpse of the elusive river dolphin, a creature I had last seen when I was nine years old.
On reaching Majuli, we checked into a guest house in Kamalabari satra and spent the next two days exploring the island and its various monasteries. The island had a total area of 1,250 square kilometres but the devouring river tides have reduced it to 421.65 square kilometres. The size and nature of the island still surprised me as it was lush and contained fields and houses just like the villages in the mainland. The monasteries were peaceful and had ponds and old namghars or prayer houses with detailed murals of the avatars of Lord Vishnu. One particular satra intrigued me the most. This one was dedicated to the art of mask-making for the raas festival. I met a master craftsman, who my mother featured in a film on years ago. Pleased to see us, he invited us to his home and workshop.
The workshop was delightfully messy; it immediately captivated my curious, roving eyes. Incomplete statues with empty eyes and graceful limbs leaned on the walls of the craftsman’s house as the apprentices assiduously painted them in bright colours. We were then led to a room where the masks were stored. Entering the room was like being transported to a surreal world. The shelves and the floor of the room were occupied by the heads of fearsome demons with bulging eyes and lolling tongues; Hindu myths and epics came alive in the glowing goddesses and coy apsaras. I was most enchanted when one of the apprentices donned the mask of the monkey king Bali and enacted his part; the jaws and the eyelids of the mask actually moved which made it seem almost real. I wondered what it meant to wear a mask on the masks we pull on our faces every day. I thought of the word mask which also means to hide. The masks intrigued me so much because they drew attention to exaggerated features and colours only to also completely mask the face that wore it.
On the last day we decided to drive around the island before boarding the ferry. It was a Sunday, and what I remember most about that drive were the startling and disparate scenes in courtyards of houses we drove past. I saw a woman kneeling in a pool of sunlight, grieving, and near her lay a body shrouded in blinding white. In another home I saw a man cooing over a newborn, making faces to capture the baby’s attention. Women filling kettles, buckets, and pans, chatted over the clatter of metal. I remember thinking about the masks I saw the day before and the ones we wear every day. I think also of moments when we drop the mask thinking that no one is looking. There are masks for each of the parts we play. Sometimes we are so absorbed in enacting our little parts that we don’t see the larger play.
Rowing back to the mainland, I cannot help but see that being Assamese is a kind of mask. A mask that I am happy to put on and walk around in. Playing with this thought, I gaze far out into the river and see a dolphin leap out and disappear in the span of a heartbeat.
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