By Raktim Sharma
As the airplane circled the sky over Guwahati I peeked down to watch the Luit. Unlike always, this time the sight of the mighty river filled my mind with pity and anger. Its most famous lover had died three days ago, and there it was flowing by, as he sang, shamelessly and languidly. Maybe I was expecting it to cease its flow when the clock stuck 4.37 PM on the 5th of November, 2011…when Dr. Bhupen Hazarika breathed his last in a Mumbai hospital. He was flown into Guwahati two days later where he received a hero’s welcome. In fact, the welcome he received will remain as one which has been paralleled only a few times in world history. On my ride in the familiar red bus to the, now hallowed, Judges Field, I could see flower petals that lay strewn over the road at several places, as if testifying the historic and emotional scenes that took place the day before.
Judges Field and its surroundings were over flowing with what seemed like an ocean of people. Finding out the loose end of the queue that formed to see his mortal remains was quite a task in itself. I rambled around Cotton college hostels, Meghdoot Bhawan, Reserve Bank and adjoining areas for half an hour until I found the place where I should stand in queue. It was 11 am of 8th November 2011, and I could see three clear lines snaking its way into the Judges field, one from the direction of Machkhowa, Fancy Bazar and Pan Bazar. At its longest, it supposedly went up to Bharalumukh! Another line came from the direction of Gauhati Club, Dighali Pukhuri and Handique College. I stood on the third line which circled the hostels of Cotton College and went towards Meghdoot Bhawan before taking the eventual right. It seemed the shortest at first sight but would have to circle the Cotton College hostels three times before reaching Meghdoot Bhawan. Meanwhile at around this time my plan to attend his funeral was dashed when it was declared that the funeral was postponed till the next morning due to the massive crowd gathered around Judges Field. I was scheduled to fly back early next morning. I would miss what I came to attend at the first place — the funeral. However I was to be left with little to regret as the day passed by.
The hawkers carrying flower garlands were doing brisk business whereas the florists had earlier claimed that they had sold more wreaths and garlands in Guwahati than they had ever done. The day was declared a holiday, which meant that every shop and commercial establishment was closed. People were relying on a few street hawkers for food while the boys from the surrounding hostels of Cotton College were serving drinking water to all those who stood in the line. “I hope you went to see him?” I enquired to one of them. They had paid their visit last night. And today they have come out spontaneously, placed their music systems by the road that played his songs and they stood by. As I found out in my three revolutions of the hostels, they served water to the visitors all day and night. I asked them if this service was a part of the College’s or any student union’s plans. The slightly built 20-year-old just shrugged and smiled, he said that it was something that they decided to do then and there, no strings attached. Another group of girls were doing the same in front of the Cotton College main gate. And there stood a desk outside another Cotton College hostel; it had a harmonium and a pair of tabla. If you knew to play them and/or sing one of his songs you could join the jolly group of hostellers’ who had been playing his songs for three days, nonstop! As the queue proceeded past them, the singers changed, so did the players. But the paeans remained the same. Processions regularly circled the Judges Field, holding banners and pictures and singing his songs as they marched by. Someone in the crowd would suddenly start out a stanza of one of his songs and hordes of crowd join in unison. This crowd represented every nook and corner of the society. During my eight hour long vigil there, I saw the mekhala chadar clad grandmother, the neatly dressed retired septuagenarian Bengali, the skull cap wearing devout Muslim, men and women in traditional Bodo, Mishing, Karbi and other tribal attires, the members of Nepali Sahitya Sabha, missionary nuns from some convent and young punks in rock band t-shirts. It was not necessarily a representation of the Assamese speaking people, instead this crowd represented all who had stayed or were connected to or maybe happened to pass by the banks of Luit at any point of time in their life.
As the queue I stood in slowly moved forward, I stood amazed by all that I was witnessing. Never in my past or future life would I expect to see something as magical as this day. The air resonated with his voice, hidden teardrops rolled down drenching the ground beneath and words from his compositions hung like a halo above us. Someone lost a father; someone lost a brother…a friend, a soul mate, an uncle. But everyone had lost their source of inspiration. For those living outside Assam, Dr. Bhupen Hazarika was also an identity. Before asking questions about ULFA, illegal migration and one horned rhinos, people would mostly ask, “You are from Assam, the land of Bhupen Hazarika?”
A few curious ones looked around for shortcuts to Judges Field though most of those assembled were not bothered by all that. “I have come to see him, not to a ration price shop”, as one sneered viciously. “For all that he gave us all his life, standing in this line decently is the least we can do”, he mumbled later. That probably summed up the sentiment of the day. A couple who stood behind me with their young son had arrived that morning from Jorhat. They would catch the late night Inter City express back to their home. A young couple drove from Tezpur that morning to be here. I was surrounded by people from Guwahati and all over Assam and beyond. Some sobbed, some sang, while some recalled that night when he went to that town to play in that show. I had come to see a man whom I saw only once, at the Axom Xahitya Xobha, Diphu session in 1982. I was a four-month-old in my mother’s lap. I had to see him one more time, one last time. The million people who came down also had to see him one last time, more than anything else. It was something everyone felt they had to do.
Against these backdrops Dr. Bhupen Hazarika’s compositions seemed to have found new connotations. When Gauhati University requested that his final resting place be the university premises, one would have recalled his song, Jilikabo Luitore Paar, where he hoped that GU would “sparkle by the Luit’s banks”. GU now in turn wanted him to sparkle on by the same riverside, indeed a fitting tribute. The second line of his song, Moi Jetia Ei Jiwonor, when loosely translated, meant, “After I am gone, I would expect you by my funeral pyre”. A million seemingly took it as a personal request from the maestro and turned up. The events leading up to his funeral drew parallels with songs like Mur Geetor Hejaar Shrota which was another directly addressed to his audience, making it a clarion call of that moment. It is noteworthy that in spite of such a huge gathering, the crowd was very dignified and conducted itself remarkably. I would link that to the humanitarian anthem Manuhe Manuhor Baabe. It was definitely on everyone’s mind, and as I noted, it was the most sung song that day. And the much translated Moi Eti Jajabor proved to be fittingly autobiographical when Dr. Bhupen Hazarika returned home for the last time after a life of a vagabond. Lines from his timeless songs, probably written years and decades ago, came back to emphasize their relevance that day, and as they would, every day. So maybe it would be untrue to say that Dr. Bhupen Hazarika has died, maybe it was the magician’s last vanishing act whereby he transcended his body and entered the mind and soul of each of his admirers. And on a day when people exclaimed that he is immortal, I, standing there that day, felt that his immortality was beyond any doubt. As I looked around me, I saw that we were a hundred thousand Bhupen Hazarikas…carrying his essence within us, carrying it along for posterity.
Raktim Sharma ; email: email@example.com