Saturday, December 30, 2000
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

Assamese are the friendliest Indians
by Khushwant Singh

WE got talking about the friendliest people in our country. We analysed Panjus (Punjabis), Bhaiyas (Uttar Pradeshis and Biharis), Bongs (Bengalis), Dakhanis (Telengas, Kannadas), Mallus (Malayalis), Madrasis (Tamilians), Mian Bhais (Muslims), Makapaons (Christians) and Bawajis (Parsis). We went down the list demolishing each group for one defect or the other. Panjus: very forthcoming but uncouth and loud-mouthed, who wants to make friends with them ? Bhaiyas: non-descript, neither as extrovert as Panjus nor as introspective as Bongs. Bongs: think they are number one Indians and very arty; when Bengal sneezes, the rest of India catches a cold etc. And clannish. No cuisine culture, only moshti doi and roshogulla. Maharashtrians, Dakhanees, Madrasis and Mallus, all lumped together as Madrasis, are full of caste prejudices and rarely invite people to their homes. Makapaons and Bawajis are half-baked firengis: you don’t feel relaxed in their company. General conclusion: people who prefer their own kind — language-wise or caste-wise — don’t qualify to compete for the "friendship championship". Nor do people who keep their women in purdah or in the kitchen.

The Father Teresa of Punjab
December 16, 2000
Metros bursting at the seams
December 9, 2000
Going for Ganga darshan
December 2, 2000
To be among celebrities
November 25, 2000
The dawn chorus at Santiniketan
November 18, 2000
A priceless Divali gift
November 11, 2000

Making documentaries is her forte
November 4, 2000

The Indo-Malaysian connection
October 28, 2000
Lessons terrorism taught us
October 21, 2000
Blood-letting in Punjab
October 14, 2000
Translating the Japji Sahib
October 7, 2000
Indian concept of beauty
September 30, 2000
To forgive and forget
September 23, 2000
Memoirs of Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit
September 9, 2000
Times are out of joint
September 2, 2000
His voice is immortal
August 26, 2000
No end to hostility
August 19,2000
Visit to a once peaceful metropolis
August 12, 2000
The most abominable crime
August 5, 2000
Unveiling Indian women
July 29, 2000
A spiritually incorrect mystic
July 22, 2000
India without Pilot
July 15, 2000

So who are we left with ? I go over my encounter with my country men and women. I have been just about everywhere in Bharat. I could not make up my mind when I got a letter from Bobbeeta. I had all but forgotten her but for her odd name Bobbeeta. I had met her briefly in Guwahati and Delhi. I went over the names of other Assamese I knew: Baruas, Bezbaruas, Hazarikas, Gogois, Bardolois Saikias, Phukans, Bor-Thakurs, Raj Khowas, Goswamis, Chaudhrys, Sarmas, Acharyas. It is surprising that even though I have not been to Assam more than four or five times and for that too three or four days each time, I keep in touch with more Assamese than with any other people. Why? For me the average Assamese woman is better-looking than the average-looking woman anywhere else. For another they are more forthcoming and more hospitable, with no hangups about caste or class. My vote for the friendliest of Indians goes to the Assamese.

Back to Bobbeeta. She was nurtured on films and electronic media. As a child, she started playing roles in may films till she came to Doordarshan in Guwahati as a news reader and also began acting in serials. While she teaches history in Pandu College (Guwahati), she is a research fellow in the Department of Film studies in Calcutta’s Jadavpur University. Her crowning achievement has been her being the anchor and co-producer of Geetimalika, a song-based programme, which will telecast its 100th episode on Boxing Day — December 26, a record for any programme telecast in Assamese. For the centenary of Geetimalika, a bash is planned to honour Bobbeeta, her husband and co-producer Chinmoy, director-editor Manas Adhikari and script writer Jimoni Chaudhury. Bobbeeta has written to me about what they plan doing for the big day but has not invited me to join them. This is a very unfriendly act by people I vote as the friendliest of Indians.

Poonch is dead

My neighbour Reeta Devi Verma is passionately fond of dogs and cats, not the pedigreed variety but strays, born in gutters or abandoned by their masters. Her husband Bheem, a prince of Cooch Bihar, is even more dedicated to them. Every evening he sets out in his ancient car with packets of food to do the rounds of the locality where dogs await his arrival to be fed. He occasionally takes a vet with him to inject dogs with anti-rabies vaccines and treat them for mange and even gets them sterilised. Caring for abandoned animals is more important to him than social norms. No matter who has invited him at what time, he will not turn up before 8.30 p.m., till he has fed hundreds of dogs who depend on him. He never goes away from Delhi.

Reeta has taken on more. She is building a hospital for TB and AIDS victims in her hometown Guwahati. She has a fully-equipped ambulance van which goes round villages treating people no longer able to travel to the city. She has also set up a laboratory. She has to spend many days in Assam every month.

Reeta found a mongrel abandoned in the Greater Kailash market. It was scared of humans and as Reeta approached it, it ran away and hid under a car. When she tried to get it out, it bit her. Nevertheless she managed to get hold of it and bring it home. It had been traumatised. It took some time for Reeta to win its affection. She fed it, nourished it to health and virtually became its human mother. It was a hairy cuddly Apso kind of dog. It developed a terrible mother fixation. It slept in Reeta’s bed, growled at anyone who came near its mother and followed her wherever she went like her shadow. I named her Poonch (tail), Reeta’s tail.

Reeta and Poonch became inseparable. Whenever she came to see me, Poonch followed. She felt unhappy till Reeta took her in her lap. It took me a long time to win Poonch’s confidence. Reeta would put her in my lap and let me cuddle her. She returned my affection but as soon as Reeta stood up to leave, she jumped off my lap to run after its mom, happily wagging her tail.

When Reeta left for Guwahati, Poonch was desolate. Bheem brought her morning and evening to let her sit in my lap for a few minutes. Poonch became possessive about me. If anyone came near me, she growled at them. She was not as eager to go back with Bheem as she was with Reeta. A bond of affection grew between us.

One morning last week, Bheem and Poonch did not show up. I wondered what had happened. A couple of hours later, Reeta rang me up from Guwahati. "Poonch is dead", she said in a choked voice. She could not speak any more. A heavy gloom of depression came over me. I kept thinking of Poonch all day and the time she spent in my lap, how she fell asleep as I stroked her fat bottom and whispered into her ears, "You sensuous little bitch!"

So passed the day. After dinner I was sitting by my fireside. I was lost in my thoughts when Bheem walked in carrying Poonch’s body wrapped in a shawl in his arms with tears streaming down his eyes. I extended my arms. He placed her body in my lap. I stroked her body. It was as cold as a slab of ice. Her eyes and mouth were slightly open — just as they were when she was alive and enjoying my stroking her.


Raghupati did nothing important without consulting his astrologer. Had it been feasible, he would have checked with the stars even before buttoning up his shirt or scratching his elbow or breaking wind. A family tradition. Over the years, astrologers and palmists, yogis and fortune-tellers had advised him on whom to marry, what new first name to give his wife, when to copulate so as to beget only sons, when to officially drop his caste-revealing surname, when to angle for a transfer, which posts were both lucrative and safe, whom to be beware of, whom to trample on, whom to suck up to, when to separate from his wife, which functions to attend, what colours to wear on which occasions, what food to eat when, when to divorce — in brief, how, when and where to place every step of life.

(Upamanyu Chatterjee in The Mammaries of the Welfare State).

Note: Khushwant Singh is away on holiday, there will no column next week.

This feature was published on December 23, 2000