“Bahaaron ko chaman yaad aa gaya hai
Mujhe woh gulbadan yaad aa gaya hai!
Lachakati shaakh ne jab sar uthaaya
Kisi ka baankapan yaad aa gaya hai!
Mile woh ajanabi ban kar to ‘Rifat’
Zamaane ka chalan yaad aa gaya hai!” – Rifat Sultan
[(Just as) the spring (season) has remembered (and returned to) the garden
I am reminded of that beloved (with the body delicate as a rose)
When the supple bough quivered to lift its head
I was reminded of the budding youthfulness of someone (special)
When that person met me as one would a stranger, O Rifat (could also be Ra’afat or kind, compassionate)
It served as reminder of the circumvolutory ways of the world/society]
Spring is in the air (taking liberties with John Paul Young’s version of Love is in the Air)! Nature is working its magic and throws out little hints each day – fresh blades of grass lending color to the lawns, tender shoots of perennials emboldened to emerge after their winter slumber and branches of dark, forlorn trees starting to show the first budding leafy growths. I also noticed my first snail of this season when out for a walk the other day. It could be just my mind playing tricks, but the very air feels fresh and invigorating, laden with a promise of flavors that it will serve anew for us to savor and shed our winter blahs.
Basant or Vasant (Spring) heralds the end of winter and Indians have accorded it the status of “Ritu Raj” (the “King of Seasons”). Basant Panchami (literally, the fifth day of Basant) is usually a national holiday in the Indian sub-continent and celebrated with great enthusiasm by peoples particularly of the Punjab (across both India and Pakistan) and in Nepal. I remember as little kids we would go around singing mindlessly “Aayaa Basant, paalaa uddant” (Spring has arrived, the cold has vanished). Living in the Punjab we would still be wearing woolens to counter that nip in the air when two major festivals of Holi and Basant were celebrated. Just like in Canada where the “official” onset of spring is accompanied by the weatherpersons simultaneously forecasting fresh snow!
As a kid visiting a village in the Punjab I have fond memories of rolling farmlands carpeted in riotous green topped by bright yellow flowers of “sarson” (mustard) plants. Early in the morning one would see the “kohra” (fog) gradually dissipating with the rising sun and savor the cool gentle touch of the “baad-e-sabah” (early morning breeze, zephyr) diffusing a fresh bouquet of sarson and eucalyptus leaves. Farmers would set out tightly wrapping their arms and the “dhussa” (coarse and thick blanket) around themselves to ward off the early morning chill. Tube wells would start to pump out ground water to the rhythmic sound of “whump whump” and our young minds could not understand why the water thrown out was “steaming” as it felt so cold when we were forced to stand under the spout and bathe in it!
On Basant Panchami it was de rigueur to display saffron color in the outfits that ladies and kids wore on the day. It was also a tradition to celebrate the occasion with special sweets and other delicacies. The proverbial “sarson kaa saag” (cooked mustard leaves, ground to a paste-like texture) and “makki ki roti” (unleavened corn bread) both smothered with very generous dollops of fresh home-churned white butter have now become an iconic signature dish in restaurants serving “Indian” and “Pakistani” dishes across the globe. My paternal grandmother whom we addressed as “Beji” (short form of “Bebe” with the mandatory respectful “ji” appendage used for all seniors) would also cook a special dessert of sweet rice (“meethe chawal”) flavored and colored by saffron, garnished with almonds and raisins. The aroma and taste remain fresh in my mind to this day.
For us another major attraction was the tradition of “patang baazi” [kite flying] associated with Basant. This was a very elaborate process and not just the act of getting one’s kite soaring up in the sky. Several days before the “big day” an older cousin, siblings or a “learned” senior would accompany us “kids” on an exciting expedition to shop for kites. There were all sorts of shapes, sizes and colors on the market to select from. One was wont to display superior knowledge and understanding when buying these articles that eventually served as insignias of individual, family and indeed neighborhood pride. Even more important was the selection of the “charakhi” (reel) and the “maanjhaa” (string) that would be used for the “kanni” (to tie up) the kite. This was no ordinary string (“saddi”)! The cotton, silken or other materials used to produce the basic string would be coated with a perfectly textured paste of wheat flour and water and shards of ground glass. To inhibit the growth of mold and fungus copper sulphate was usually added to this potion. The maanjhaa had to be strong and sharp to outlast the “dogfights” with other kites. We would be trained in the art of “pechh ladaanaa” (literally “coil fighting”) that involved crisscrossing the string used to fly a rival’s kite and use intricate and quick maneuvers to “cut” their kite loose, screaming “woh kaataa!” (“There, it is cut!”) Strategically pre-positioned kids would then scramble after the free-floating kite to collect it as a trophy and show the rivals down. It was also a matter of pride to collect as much length of the rival’s cut string as “loot”. Lahore, Pakistan used to be the undisputed center of kite flying around Basant, until sadly the Government banned kite flying, declaring it a safety hazard due to people accidently falling off rooftops while flying kites.
The essence of this season of reinvigoration and joy is also reflected in music. Raag Basant features prominently in Indian classical music and is said to have evolved as early as the 8th century. It is 25th of the 31 ragas in the Guru Granth Sahib and has shabads and other compositions by Bhagats Kabir, Namdev, Ramanand and Ravidas in raags Basant-Bahar and Basant-Hindol. Amir Khusro, the famous Sufi poet’s compositions like “Aaj rang hai ri maa” [“today, see the colors O Mother”], “Sagal ban phool rahi sarson” [“the entire forest is ablaze with the (color) of the sprouting mustard”] and “Aaj basant manaa ley suhaagan” [“today celebrate Basant O wedded lady”] are still being sung in qawwalis nearly 700 years after his time here on earth.
“Koi lautaa de mere beete hue din” [“how I wish someone could re-gift those past days to me”] wrote the poet Shailendra. I wish.
Nostalgia. This is all I can pass on to the youngest ones in my family – fresh sprouts emerging in this never ending chain of the life cycle.