Chapter 12:  Fairs and Festivals


Gullo Shah was a patron saint of cattle. A big annual fair was held in his name in the month of March in the land near his mazar (mausoleum) about eight miles from Daska. It was a big affair and people came from villages far and near to attend this fair. It became quite famous as the annual market for purchase and sale of cattle — oxen, buffaloes, milch cows, calves and even horses. Well before the start of the fair, the district civic authorities started making elaborate arrangements. Fences were erected for pens, tents were put up, bazars and shops were set up. The tehsildars, the thanedars, the zilledars | and sometimes even the Deputy Commissioner held court and shifted his offices to the Gullo Shah site for the duration of the fair. A strong security force - danda police and mounted police — was drafted for the fair. In the later years, strict medical measures were also enforced — vaccination, anticholera inoculation, etc.

A large number of entertainers congregated at the fair. There was no dirth of choice for the visitors - a touring circus, sometimes a touring talkie, a variety of jugglers, merry-go-rounds, bhaluwalas with their performing bears, monkeywalas, fire eaters, magicians, snake charmers, rope-trick artistes, hypnotists, clowns, jokers, street singers, dancers, kawwalisingers and kathputtliwallas (puppeteers) - and all these wandering showmen jostling, rubbing shoulders and vying with one another to draw the crowds. There were the not-so-innocent stalls which flourished under the very nose of the policeman — gambling dens, whore houses and liquor booths. Simple farmers, away from the grip of their families and the probing eyes of village society, used their spell of freedom to indulge in forbidden pleasures and sometimes went back minus their cattle and minus money. There were drunken brawls, fights, feuds, casualties and sometimes even deaths.

Another feature of the fair was the trade in stolen cattle. Farmers who had lost their cattle the previous year would be on the look out to spot their beasts. If they were lucky enough to do so, they had to prove their ownership before a tehsildaror magistrate - and this was not always easy. The thieves might have altered the shape of its horns or tail or ears and may have coloured it differently. Witnesses had to be produced, some identification marks located and sometimes the final decision left to the cattle itself. An intelligent cow, for example, would know its master and would express affection unmistakably. If left untethered, it would follow its master and this was enough evidence for the thief to be arrested. Tricks were also played. An unscrupulous man once fed a cow secretly for two or three days and then staked his claim on it in public. The cow, by now familiar with his scent and anticipating the tempting feed, showed signs of recognition and followed him, much to the chagrin and discomfiture of the real owner, who could now be pronounced a liar, a thief and taken into custody and beaten up.

Another great attraction was the quack's stall. He had an array of nicely coloured bottles neatly displayed alongside a tray full of what looked like pickled scorpions, cockroaches, snakes, toads, lizards and variety of other insects and reptiles. He was always the loudest and the most indefatigable of the men around - quoting couplets, epigrams and sometimes vulgar jokes to gather a crowd.

To balance these unholy flourishes he would then recall, in pious terms, his trip to the remote snowbound regions of the Himalayas where he met a two-hundred-year-old sadhu whose hair fell loose upto his feet and whose nails were as sharp and long as a tiger's claws. This sadhu had not touched salt for nearly one hundred and fifty years and, according to the narrator, there was so much poison in him that a snake biting him would die instantly. The sadhu had spent his life in meditation and herbal medicine research. There was nothing that he did not know about the beneficial and harmful herbs of the entire Himalayan range. This is his tale as recounted by the quack:

"I, your khadim (your servant), served the sadhu for ten long years — never shirking, never asking, never talking - with the hope that one day the sadhu maharaj would pass on just a drop from the great sea of his knowledge to my humble self and send me forth with instructions to serve ailing humanity. And it did happen on a full-moon night when the sadhu opened his godari, the cloth bag, and extracted a handful of what looked like ashes. Extending this towards me the maharaj said 'Son you have served me well, I am pleased with your devotion and choose you as my envoy to the land of mortals. Go and seek the mazarof Gullo Shah and on the fourth day of the moon and the great fair, distribute these ashes to suffering humanity. Whoever partakes of these ashes will never suffer from small pox.' It is now forty years, and year after year I have been handing out these ashes. Such is the miraculous power of the maharaj that the small handful he gave me is not exhausted. It grows in my hands as I give."

Thereupon, he would distribute ashes on to some of the hands I extended before him and again seem to go into a trance. He would then come out of it intoning a few more appropriate couplets, raise his eyes heavenward and seem to get lost in prayer, seeking inspiration. The crowd which by now would have grown thicker, with expectations rising high, would eye the ashes, the tray of pickled monstrosities and the colourful vials and bottles — curiosity mingling with hope. His next move would be towards the tray and discourse delivered on a new theme - the lack of virility — failures with a mate in bed. A long list of the symptoms of sexual debility would follow, meant to convince every man that he had been afflicted with lack of vigour, since vistas of sexual potency unveiled by the quack's descriptions made all the prowess that he had seem puerile. Dreams of prolonged, almost interminal ecstasy arose in every mind.

"I am no hakim or tabib", continued the quack, "I am just your khadim. You will all say that this man is making futile noises standing by the roadside and is barking like a dog. I will say 'no'. I have been sent here by the order of the maharaj to allay the sufferings of humanity and I have already passed on to you —gratis - the essence of the toil and sweat of the great maharaj. I am now going to present I to you an extract of all these creatures that you find in this tray. In this there is a cobra from Brazil, a scorpion from Burma, a lizard from Africa and the great centipedes of the Steppes. This tray contains the pick of a worldwide collection, garnered from the rovings that I undertook at the command of the maharaj and now I am ready to fulfill the great and cherished desire of the maharaj— to supply the great animal oil to those young men who are old before their time, who have wasted their life-blood and are ashamed to face their wives and sweethearts."

This was followed by a long harangue on the virtues of manhood and the problems of modern youth, in language so juicily interspersed with couplets in Urdu and Punjabi, that the crowd was charmed into ecstasy. From the lips of their charmer would now come the final exhortation, "And for this rare medicine, just to make up for the expenses of my journeys to various lands for collecting these ingredients, I have fixed a throw-away price of eight annas per bottle. All those who want it may extend their hands."

There was a moment's hesitation as nobody wanted to publicly acknowledge any lack of virility. One of his own men planted nearby would then shout from the crowd, "Here pass on two bottles, please." "Only one bottle per man are the orders of maharaj. I do not want to spread immorality through release of uncontrollable passions," he would declare. The sale would now be on and in the twinkling of an eye, a score of bottles would be gone.

The crowd looked on with growing despair as the bottles vanished and those who did not have the courage to order one would look on with wistful eyes. The quack was quick to spot such fellows and would draw each of them close and whisper, "Come to me near the mazar three o'clock, I will have some more ready for you". The whisper was loud enough to be heard by other wistful looking simpletons and die trade would continue later in the day at a slightly higher price. Towards the evening the quack would pack up and slip away unobserved from the Gullo Shah o repeat his performance at some other place and some other time.

Another institution to adorn the Gullo Shah was the wayside dentist, hawking toothpaste that he professed could cure all dental troubles. In addition, he offered to carry out painless extractions of decayed and painful teeth for a paltry sum of eight annas. A planted man would once again break the ice and encourage the hesitant audience. Years later Opana read about a nerve in the neck which, if pressed properly at the right place and with the right pressure, can create numbness in the jaws with the result that no pain is sensed. Opana often wondered if that quack knew of this nerve, of the right place and the right pressure. For indeed he had seen the man hold the neck of his victim, order him to open his mouth and while talking to the audience tighten his hold on the neck. This was done for a sufficiently long time after which he inserted his unsterilised pliers into the open rnouth and pulled the tooth out. The victim confessed that he had felt no pain.

Whatever the secret, the quack dentist always managed to lay his hands on quite a few victims and got away with four or five rupees - a sizable income in those days.

Not only did this quack extract teeth but he fitted dentures too. These were proper human teeth, obtained from God knows where — graves, dead men or just through similar extractions. Fitting was not done in public and the customers had to wait till after the session to get these fixed by a simple process of matching and fitting. How his patients came to fare later on never came to light as quacks are clever enough not to tempt their luck too much and shift from place to place briskly, and relying on the short memory of a crowd, come back same place only after a lapse of time.

At the Gullo Shah fair, the food stalls always sprang up like mushrooms. It was heyday for all the flies of the neighbourhood and sweetmeat which were covered with a thick layer of dust blown by the moving of cattle, acquired a second layer of flies. People ate them in spite of the dust and filth and the danger of cholera or typhoid epidemic always loomed ahead. The crowd did not care - the days of enjoyment were so few and so rare. Dhabas, cheap eateries, were very popular, serving tandoori rotis, mutton curry and da/. Many who were strict vegetarians at home would gorge on these exciting dishes, away from their pious wives and the watchful village brahmins. Farmers ate and drank, transacted business, gambled, whored, made merry for seven days and went back to homes and hearths to talk, for the next six months, of the wonderful time they had had at Gulloo Shah - the patron saint of cattle. The officials, with their shamianas and enclosures, slowly drifted back to their permanent sites and all that was left behind was the mazar and the heaps of garbage and offal. The soul of the pir rested in peace for the next eleven months.

Baisakhi the fair of the summer harvest season. Wheat fields turn a golden yellow and for miles and miles, eyes move only over ripening stalks swaying gently in the breeze under a serene blue sky. It is enough to gladden the heart of anyone and to the farmer it is the fulfillment of a season of hard work and toil. He is happy and his happiness expresses itself in the form of dance and song. With a little boost from draughts of liquor, he celebrates his good fortune on the first day of the month of Baisakh (roughly the thirteenth of April) at the big fair held on the occasion.

Every village and town of Punjab and people of all castes and creeds celebrate Baisakhi with gusto. Dance competitions constitute the main feature, with Bhangra the robust and rugged dance of the Punjab at the top of the list. Groups of farmers start practicing Bhangra days in advance and on Baisakhi day, compete on the open grounds of the village maidan. Dressed in colourful lungis, decorated jackets and stylish turbans, the men are armed with dongs (staves),gandasas — a stick with a steel knife fixed at one end — and kirlas, a wooden lizard fixed at one end of a stick and operated by a string which flips the tail up and down, moving the lizard itself so as to slap up a beat for the dance.

Groups of farmers along with their drummers converge upon the maidan. They carry sufficient supplies of liquor to keep up the high spirit of the occasion and hold on to bottles of malta or santra (country liquors) for an occasional tip.

The competition begins with each group displaying its prowess in the feats of endurance, in the flourishes of style, and dexterous footwork as also in reciting dirty couplets. This continues peacefully for some time till either somebody is licked or the extra liquor makes somebody rowdy. Fights on such occasions are very common and serious injury, even death, not to be ruled out. If the village headman is a wise and experienced fellow, he may just be able to avert a disaster and break up the meeting before it starts getting too ugly.

Though Baisakhi was celebrated in every village and town in old Punjab, two places were famous in the region - Wa/.irabad and Emenabad. Wazirabad was notorious for its bloody Baisakhi. Year after year, in spite of the police arrangements, large-scale fights took place among factions from different villages around the Wa/.irabad region. Family vendettas, personal or group enmities, hostility over litigation, disputes over canal waters, over boundaries of land holdings, or the previous year's scores to settle — any of these was enough to begin the clashes. Dozen of people would be sure to die and hundreds wounded. Revenge could last beyond the day, leading to setting fire to harvested crops lying ready for threshing. In and around Baisakhi, bushels of wheat burning as bonfires were common sight. A farmer's hard labour of six months and his glorious crop were reduced to ashes in the twinkling of an eye.

Emenabad, on the other hand, was famous for its peaceful Baisakhi — with pageants or jhankis and religious rituals. Wazirabad and Emenabad flourished side by side, mirroring the contradictions of human nature. Whether bloody or peaceful, Baisakhi was a robust affair, the festival of a proud and virile race with its deep love of nature in the raw. Bhangra is still the popular dance of Punjab, and essential part of any cultural exhibition on rural India, but gone is the spontaneity and keenness danced by the rival Sikh and Muslim farmers who inhabited the undivided Punjab.

Holi in Daska — till it was reformed upon protests from the influential and saner members of society - used to be a filthy and obnoxious affair, which every decent person in the town dreaded. The spring festival of colour and revelry lasted for seven days. Well before the festive week, lumpen revelers started collecting the remains and skeletons of animals, human excreta, rotten eggs and tomatoes, animal droppings, garbage, putrid water and similar foul things. Over the first one or two days, shopkeepers found muck smeared over their shop fronts and animal skeletons hanging from the doors. Urchins and mischief makers waited round the corner to watch the poor shopkeepers swearing and abusing while cleaning up the foul harbingers of Holi. He would have to take a second bath that morning to remove his uncleanliness. Key holes filled with night soil gave off a foul smell for days.

The preliminaries started hotting up seriously by the fifth and sixth days. Everybody in sight was drenched with the foul mix of water and animal droppings. The last day before Holi, would be the most horrible of all. Gunny bags soaked in the gutters (referred to as the kite or eagle) were hurled from rooftops. Rotten eggs and tomatoes were thrown at passersby or at each other. A crude way of making fun was to nail down a fake one rupee coin in the path of the main thoroughfare. A passerby may stoop to pick it up and down swooped the sodden 'eagles' from various roof-tops to knock the victim off his balance.

Thereafter, he was open to attack by all the devious means at the disposal of the revelers. Some senior citizens who were either not strong enough to bear this treatment or were specially respected were treated more lightly and garlanded with strings of old shoes and chappals carefully collected from the garbage heap, while others were made to carry loads of refuse on their heads. The finale to all this was, of course, the bear dance by Rama Mota. On the morning after Holi, the bazaar literally was a garbage heap and the municipal sweeper who was hard put to clean up all the mess, earned a few extra rupees in tips as he washed out the shop fronts.

As things changed, the obnoxious customs gave place to processions and pageants depicting scenes from Hindu mythology, accompanied by dancing and the traditional spraying and throwing of colour. The municipal sweeper was never reconciled to such sissy ways of celebrating Holi. But Rama Mota's bear dance continued unchanged and always formed a fitting finale to the seven-day ceremonies which ushered in spring after the severe winter months.

The mythological stories about Rama has exercised a powerful influence on the life and thinking of Indians for centuries. There are three important festivals connected with the life of Rama which are celebrated with piety and great pomp. While Ram Navami celebrates the birth of Rama, Dussehra commemorates his victory over Ravana, die demon king of Lanka, and symbolises the triumph of good over evil. Diwali, the festival of lights, celebrates the return of Rama from fourteen years of exile, which he had undertaken to honour the word of his father.

Dussehra is preceded by ten days of Ram Lila through which episodes from the life of Rama are enacted by the amateur theatre groups of all towns and villages. Normally, in rural Punjab, no woman ever took part in these performances and young boys dressed up as women played the part of women. Men from different vocations in life with a yen for art and drama came together, raised funds from door-to-door collection and put up ten days of continuous theatre depicting Rama's life from birth to the day of his triumph over Ravana.

The Ramayana was recast for the theatre by one Jaswant Singh of Tiwana who incorporated numerous couplets, dialogues, fiery speeches and also some funny anecdotes in the episodes. Children avidly read this dramatised Ramayana and memorised large portions of it. Simple village people and townsmen sat as if in a trance, watching the enactment of episodes which all of them knew thoroughly well — they could even repeat all the dialogues by heart. There was, however, such fascination for the theatre that nobody ever missed a day of the performances which usually started at about eight in the evening and carried on till midnight. The theatre was in the open air and quite cold. People brought along their blankets and quilted raza/sand sat comfortably wrapped in them. Some dozed off and when their snores interrupted the voices of the actors, they had to be 'shushed' or shaken awake. There were separate enclosures for women, and the front rows were reserved for children.

The legend unfolded slowly, reaching its climax on the night before Dussehra: battle is joined between the forces of Ravana and Rama's regiment of monkeys, vanar sena, with Hanuman as one of the generals. The next day brought the final celebration of Dussehra. Huge effigies, some thirty to forty feet tall, of Ravana, Kumbhakarana, his giant brother, and of Meghnad, Ravana's powerful son, were built on bamboo framework with paper surfacing. The effigies were filled with various kinds of fireworks and crackers. These effigies were built as always by the traditional Muslim craftsmen — darugirs or firework makers. In the evening the whole population of Daska gathered on the parade ground around the effigies. Carriages made up as chariots then arrived carrying the two boys dressed up as Rama and Lakshmana and the two divine brothers circled round the effigies of the wicked enemies, shooting arrows at them in mock battle. Just as the sun began to set on the horizon, fire was put to the huge paper and bamboo dolls which went up in a blaze of flames and a roar of fireworks and crackers which went on and on for a while. Superstitious people, scurried around afterwards to pick up charred pieces of bamboo representing the bones of Ravana, for it was believed th'at these would ward off evil spirits from homes. Children afflicted with frequent nightmares were cured by a piece of this 'bone of Ravana' kept under the pillow. Another custom forbade Hindus from eating sugarcane before Ravana's cremation. On this day, therefore, there was a brisk sale of sugarcane and householders took them home to inaugurate the sugarcane chewing season.

Anyway it probably gave the sugarcane crop time to ripen. On the following day Rama and Lakshmana rescue Sita from captivity and the three, escorted by Hanuman and his vanars then rode back into town, cheered by the rejoicing citizens.

Diwali is the day for lighting up the homes, all rooms cleaned and whitewashed by then. It is the day of sweets, on the first new moon day after firecrackers and the worship of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and comes after Dussehra. Diwali follows Dussehra after nineteen days and follow on the first moonless or amavasnlght after Dussehra, commemorating the triumphal return of Rama to Ayodhya. All houses are lit by rows of candles or the little earthen ware diyas. The rows and rows of flickering flames on rooftops and on cornices and eaves and along the sides of courtyards, truly transform the drab towns and villages into enchanted places. Crackers of all kinds, phuljharis, rockets, fire showers (anars), bombs, matabis, bindas, chakras fill the air and sky with sound and light.

Long before the night of lights, children as well as grown-ups gear up and make preparations for the annual festival. Children get busy with various kinds of crafts, making lamps and decorations or forcing elders in the home to sit and watch their improvised plays with bed sheets strung up as curtains. Some enterprising young boys arm themselves with kunjis, hollow iron tubes or an old key, fixed to a stick. These, they fill with a mixture of sulphur and potassium chlorate and use another iron piece to ram the mix. This contraption when hit against hard ground produces a big bang. The bang of these home made devices late in to the night begin days ahead of the festival to herald the approach of Diwali.

All houses are cleaned and decorated with colourful fanoos, paper lanterns, and festoons of kundals, or paper chains. It is generally believed that the goddess of wealth and beauty, Lakshmi, looks into all houses on this evening and chooses the one best decorated and cleanest to stay in. So, no effort is spared to please her. And then, goes the story, anybody who does not have the guts to gamble on Diwali night, is reincarnated as a house lizard in his next life. So, even the most priggish and refined of men take part in some sort of gambling on this night. In Opana's house, they played at guessing the number — odd or even — of a fistful of almonds, using the same almonds as currency. The entire household joined in.

Diwali is also the feast of sweets. All shops are stacked to full capacity and decorated to vie with one another. New and bizarre designs and fanciful arrangements of sweets on the display trays, are re-arranged cleverly each day, shielded from prying eyes of rivals. Sweets are gobbled, gifts exchanged, servants rewarded and the goddess Lakshmi propitiated. Everybody spends extravagantly on this day and miserly persons are jeered at. Gian, Diwan and Desa - the three fat brothers - were the best halwai cooks in Daska. Each hefty man weighed at least three maunds, but they worked hard, some sixteen hours at a stretch each day, sitting in front of the fire frying jalebism boondior stirring the boiling milk into khoya for things likeguhbjamuu, burfiand kalakand. Every morning they supplied a special breakfast to a large section of the population by way ofpuris, halwa or mahlpuras, with either hot milk or lassi, buttermilk, to wash it down. The evening snacks were different, like kachoris, mat/u's, gajarhalwa, jalebis or hot boondi and badana. They sold their sweetmeat briskly all through the day. Later they made puddings for the evening meals such as rabrior ras-malai. They had no trade union standards for work and rest, and to ordinary folk it seemed as if they worked twentyfour hours a day, since during waking hours they were always present in the shop.

The zest and abandon of these festivals broke a number of social barriers and hierarchies for a while. They brought together the several generations in the extended family, roped in the lowly servants and tradespeople, women and girls moved about a little more free. Everyone had something special to do, including Muslim friends, professional and tradespeople as well as household workers.