The events connected with Ramanavami, in Asansol, as reported in the media, reminded me of my first experience of Ramanavami in Eastern India. I thought I should share this with anyone interested.
I had gone to Ranchi, on my first job after my BE, in December 1978. Ranchi was then in Bihar as Jharkhand state was still decades away. It was a bitter winter and the spring of 1979 was exhilarating. The days were getting longer and the idea of an evening was creeping back. One evening, I went to Main Road with a friend. As the name suggests, there was one main road in Ranchi and it was named, appropriately, Main Road. Steel towers of about five meters height were being erected at various places, on both sides of the street. Each tower was separated from the other by about a hundred meters. They supported a platform with a railing around it and appeared capable of allowing four people to stand on it. They made me curious.
I asked the friend what it was all about. He said, “Ramnavami aa raha hai na?” (Ramanvami is coming, no?). I was not aware that Ramanavami was approaching and could not understand what connection the towers had with the festival. I asked. He pityingly explained to me that communal riots are to be expected during the festival and there will be guards on these towers, just in case. He said this as if it was as “natural” as people preparing paanaka and kosambari for the festival.
A few days later, foolishly - I now think, I went to Main Road again with the friend. Ramanavami was a day or two away. I saw two dapper army men, holding AK47s (I think, with hindsight) standing atop each tower. I gaped. It was the first time I was seeing a real machine gun. When the friend had told me earlier about the guards on the tower, I had visualized lathi-wielding policemen. That is when the gravity of the trouble expected hit me. When I mentioned this to the friend, he laughed at my backwardness and explained the situation to me.
The juloos (I think that was the word he used for procession) goes from one end of Main Road to the other, carrying an image of Rama. Main Road, being the main road, was broad enough for a stately, impressive procession. In front of the image would march many youths displaying their martial skills. They would twirl and swing lathis. Others would display their skill in swordsmanship and swing swords. An awe-inspiring sight, I could imagine.
Hailing from Mysore, Ramanavami meant; spring, paanaka and kosambari, good food at home, evenings of public music concerts, approaching examinations and the conflicting pulls of the need to study and reluctance to miss a concert by M D Ramanathan or Lalgudi. Lathis, swords and machine guns found no place in my mental picture of Ramanavami.
Still, I could not figure out where the fear of violence stemmed from. I asked the friend and he explained to me the tradition of Ramanavami in Ranchi, patiently. The procession proceeds from one end of the suitably broad Main Road to the other. At some point, it is overtaken by an irresistible urge to make a detour and enter a narrow lane. It just so happens that the lane goes through an area in which a majority of the families are from a minority community and the lane also has the community’s place of worship. (I wrote that sentence for nostalgic reasons. This was a supposed nicety till recently and now, with the advent of social media, fake sites and openly hostile groups, the euphemisms are gone.)
The friend told me that the idea was to show off the strength of the majority community. There would always be a possibility of miscreants or hot heads from either side creating trouble and a fight would ensue. I was told that on one Ramanavami day, a few years ago, someone threw raw pork at the place of worship and all hell broke loose. The news of this reached nearby Jamshedpur and all hell broke loose there too. (Because of this experience and the fear of rumour mongering leading to violence, the telephone connections to Ranchi and Jamshedpur would be cut off, in preparation for Ramanavami.)
Tens, if not hundreds, died by the time the army was called in to quell the riots. Another South Indian friend who was in Ranchi when that happened, told me that blood flowed, literally, in the small river, Hinoo, next to where he lived. He commented that once mixed there was no knowing which community’s blood it was. At the same time, he told me of heroic stories of people of either community hiding people from the other community in their houses and protecting them from the murderous mobs.
Almost anticlimactically, nothing happened that year. The procession ended peacefully. No fights, no bloodshed. My friend, who was always seemed to be in the know, told me the story. No one knows under whose leadership or initiative, the organisers of the procession and some influential members of the minority community met. And it was agreed that Rama might not like to leave the “chakkani raajamaargamu”, aka Main Road, and meander into the “sandula”*.
Whether the city and good sense heaved a sigh of relief or not, I did.
* I allude to a kriti of Tyagaraja. It goes, “cakkani rAja mArgamulunDaga sandula dUranela O manasA” meaning O mind! When the spacious royal path to salvation is available, why should you take to by-lanes?