‘Dancing the Bihu’ by Juanita Kakoty

Short story selected for the 2014 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology

Bhaity da had curls that came down to his shoulders and a slender waist that gave the girls a fever. His complexion was flawless; he took great care of his skin. He would never go out in the sun without an umbrella. After all, he was the reigning Bihuwoti of his neighborhood, a title most girls would give their lives for in the small town of Golaghat. That spring in 1991, he took part in the Golaghat Bihu Kunwori competition. All the Bihuwotis from the town came to showcase their grace and mastery of the art. Bhaity da looked resplendent in the golden yellow of the Muga silk mekhela chadar he wore, embroidered with green and red flowers. He wore orchids in his hair, adorning the side of his bun. A glowing red phut adorned his forehead. His round eyes with an ever so slight slant were accentuated with kohl; and he wore red lipstick. He looked like a porcelain doll. Golden muthi kharu adorned the wrists of his hands, over the sleeves of his red blouse. “Bhaity, should I get you a new pair of gaam kharu? The old pair has lost its sheen,” his mother had asked a few days before the contest. The 16 year old had replied, “Ma, please get me a pair of muthi kharu instead. I learnt in the last Bihuwoti competition that men wear the gaam kharu while its delicate cousin muthi kharu is worn by the women dancers.”

That day on stage, when he moved to the beats of the dhol and swayed to the sounds of the pepa, people couldn’t take their eyes off him. He moved so gracefully that none of the other contestants could match up to him. The judges knew that he was a boy competing for a title that glorified the feminine Assamese beauty charming hearts with the Bihu. Yet they also realized that none of the girls could even come close to what he had exhibited. The results were postponed by a few hours for deliberation. A never before seen affair had cropped up. The field where the crowds had gathered to watch the performers had suddenly grown tense with anticipation. The tension, in fact, was as dense as the night. The judges and organizers stood in a circle behind the stage and discussed for a long time the big ethical question – should a boy be allowed to win the Bihu Kunwori competition?

I first met Bhaity da when I had gone to visit my grandparents during the summer of 1990. My 15 year old cousin Chintu da brought him home and told me casually, “You’ve always wanted to dance the Bihu. Why don’t you learn it from him?” I laughed out loud at the thought because I found the effeminate boy who stood before me quite funny. His curls were held in a pony tail, he had red nail polish on his little finger and he had a very peculiar pronunciation. Also, he had a very odd way of looking at my cousin, a peculiarly shy way. My laughter seemed to discomfort him a little as he shifted his toes and wired his fingers into a knot. His cheeks reddened and he forced out a nervous laughter. “Well, I am a good dancer you know,” he told me without looking into my eyes. “I have been the best Bihu dancer, in fact the Bihuwoti, of my neighborhood for the last two years.” My eyes widened and I shut them before, I felt, they would jump out of my face!

My cousin affectionately pulled Bhaity da towards him and said, “He is not only the best Bihu dancer ever but also the most beautiful in our class!” Bhaity da hid his face in my cousin’s chest and let out a feeble, “Chintu! Don’t make me blush!” At that time my cousin and he looked like a romantic couple from some film poster. Chintu da: a broad-shouldered, square-jawed male in a jeans and T-shirt protectively shielding the frail Bhaity da who was dressed in a pair of tight black trousers and shiny yellow shirt. I was horrified. Two boys!

Once Bhaity da had said his goodbyes and left for home after eliciting a promise from Chintu da that they would meet again the next day, my cousin rolled on the floor and laughed. Tears spilled from his eyes. “Did you see that? Isn’t he nuts? But I tell you he is actually the best. No woman can ever match up to the way he dances! If only he were a girl!” In those last words, I thought I sensed some sadness. And then he came up with the bizarre confession, “The boys in our class suspect that he wears a bra. I have been given the duty to find out.” I looked at him quizzically. What? Did you say he wears a bra? “It will be easy to find it out you know,” Chintu da said with a wink, “He has a thing for me.”

That vacation, Bhaity da gave me a few Bihu lessons. And he told me that it will take me a long time to acquire the grace needed because I was growing up in the city. “Here in the villages and towns, every kid learns the Bihu in the fields. Come Spring and boys and girls and kids are out dancing the Bihu in the fields. We grow up seeing the dance, feeling the dance and living the dance.” I knew that. On our trips to upper Assam where my maternal and paternal relatives lived, during March-April, I saw groups of boys and girls dressed in fine Muga silk dancing the Bihu in the fields, under the trees. They would dance unmindful to the cars and buses that drove down the highway. “That is how we learn the Bihu. But for you city kids, learning the Bihu is like cosmetic surgery,” Bhaity da jerked me out of my suspended thoughts, of images by the highway. “You don’t live the dance like us. It’s not a natural part of your existence.”

Those fifteen days that I got to know Bhaity da, I grew fond of him. Actually, it’s quite difficult to state what I felt for him. Because there were times when I thought he was just being absurd. And there were times when I thought he was good looking and should act like a man. But when I saw him do the Bihu, I was fond of him the way he was. And I thought he should remain like this forever. What joy his dancing brought! Even the elders in the family nurtured mixed emotions for the kind of person he was. But everybody loved the dancer in him. Nobody mocked at the sight of a man dancing gracefully and beautifully like a woman. But they did voice their concern over his future.

I was told that Bhaity da had a tough past. Born after four daughters, his parents desperately hoped for a son during his time. They did get a son, but with the soul of a girl. They found out about his predicament when he was five years old. He preferred to dress up in his sisters’ clothes, painted his nails and lips, chose to be with girls than boys, and never ever touched the toy cars and plastic pistols that his father bought him. With time, he began to learn dance too. At first, they found the little boy amusing. But slowly his father started protesting. Stop that dancing! You are not a girl! Rub that powder off your face, you are a boy! Go out and play with the boys! Don’t stay in with the girls! Good Lord! Stop covering your face like a girl when you laugh! Be a man! What are you?

His father also tried to beat “all this nonsense” out of him. But no amount of flogging could change Bhaity da. His mother was sympathetic though. And she encouraged him to dance all for the love of her son, with an extremely heavy heart. In time, his father was reduced to a nagging man who began telling people that he had only four children, all girls. He never mentioned the fifth child to anyone. Bhaity da was an embarrassment he would rather not talk about.

When Bhaity da was 14 years old, he confided in his mother that he wanted to compete in the neighborhood Bihuwoti contest. She threw a fit! How could a boy contest in a girl’s event? But after much imploring, his mother agreed to be his aide. She concocted a female name for him – Bijuli Baruah – and entered him in the contest. He took the stage by storm. He was the winner hands down. “Where was she all this while?” asked all those who saw her. And when she disappeared after the contest, they kept asking for a long time, “Where is she all this while?” Nobody knew where she lived. Bijuli Baruah appeared again the next year and reclaimed the title. This time the organizers were smart and requested her address and phone number for future occasions after the prize distribution. Bhaity da quickly provided some fake accounts. But a few days later, the secret was swelling inside him and making it difficult for him to breathe. He was a proud dancer and he wanted the world to know what he had achieved. No man can beat a woman in Bihu dance. But he had accomplished the feat by participating not only amidst women but that too as a woman! His insides were bursting. He had to let it out!

Chintu da was the first person he broke the news to. They celebrated with some cigarettes, tea and goja. And then one fine day, they thought of a plan. Chintu da had formed a cultural club with a few friends, which was housed in a spare room in my grandparents’ house. They decided to host a Bihu program in a very off-season, in the mad heat of July. A kind of prelude to the coming Durga Puja festivities with a Bihu program, a new twist they called it. The major attraction of their program was Bijuli Baruah. They put up a stage in the field in front of the house, chasing the stray cows away with great difficulty. The word spread and on the given day, quite a few people turned up. Bijuli Baruah enthralled once again. Two days later, members of the club chipped in money and brought a few pamphlets that spoke of the success of the program and revealed the identity of Bijuli Baruah. It created quite a controversy and Golaghat had something to discuss for the rest of the year.

In the spring of 1991 too, Bhaity da unleashed an unbelievable mix of pure energy and grace on stage. He was participating by his stage name yet again – Bijuli Baruah. Everybody knew about it, even the judges. But no one stopped him. “We will not declare him the winner! But at least we will get to see him create poetry on stage again,” the judges and organizers had reasoned.

I was there with Chintu da and his friends. As the sounds of dhol and pepa emerged, Bhaity da floated in with such poise that a thunderous applause greeted him. Young men in the crowd had their hearts throbbing when Bhaity da’s hips swayed with rhythmic grace. Girls felt envious and inspired at the same time. The judges were left speechless, spellbound. They encountered quite a dilemma in their lives. They knew who the winner was, but what they didn’t know was what to do about it.

As the judges and the organizers got into an hour long discussion behind the stage; nobody from the crowd left the field although it was almost early morning by then. Everybody wanted to know who the judges would declare as the winner.

At that point I drifted into a reverie; images came up in my mind, images of Bhaity da dancing the Bihu in spring with other girls and boys in the field. I saw him dressed as a boy but dancing with and like the girls while the boys formed a circle around them and danced in their masculine manner. Then I saw him dressed as a girl and dancing with the girls, the boys in a circle around them. But this time, the girls and boys were making fun of him, yet he danced paying no heed to them. Finally the others left him and he was left all alone in the field dancing.

When the judges came back on stage, everybody hoped that they would announce the unbelievable. And, God knows how it happened, they did! Bhaity da was declared the Bihu Kunwori that year and this news traveled far and wide. His glory increased and so did his critics. Evangelists left no stones unturned to condemn him. Yet he danced on.

It was during the following summer that somebody played a prank on Bhaity da. I was outside the house swinging by the gate; Chintu da was picking some greens for his mother at the other end of the compound when Bhaity da came almost gliding, with the glow of a bride pasted on his face. It was seven thirty in the morning. Quite early. And he came in a shiny pink shirt and a red rose. He held a note in his hand. Chintu da had his back to the road so he did not see him coming. I was about to greet him when he gestured me to be quiet and slowly opened the gate. He then tip-toed up to the busy Chintu da and grabbed him from behind. Chintu da let out a loud yelp and leapt into air. “Bhaity!” he chided, “You could have killed me!” To this Bhaity da replied coyly, “And what about the fact that you have already killed me!” Chintu da looked confused and stammered, “I mean…excuse me… what…” I believe the nervousness was triggered by Bhaity da’s behavior.

“Why?” asked Bhaity da coquettishly, “Didn’t you send me these?”

Chintu da looked at the red rose and the note with an expression that suggested “what are you talking about!”

“Isn’t this your handwriting?”

Chintu da snatched the note from his hand and stared at the I LOVE YOU in it. The words stared back at him. And then he stared at me and then Bhaity da before finally spitting out, “What is this! What kind of a joke is this! How dare you even think of something like this!” I didn’t know who to feel bad for. Bhaity da ran out of the gates hiding his face with his hands while Chintu da kept looking at the road in front long after Bhaity da had faded into the distance. And then he wept.

We didn’t hear from Bhaity da after that. The news arrived a few days later that some people had attacked his house with stones in the night, hurling curses at the family. The tin roof had made jarring noises but nobody from the neighborhood came out to intervene. The family had turned off the lights of the house and had stayed indoors. A week passed, yet the family stayed indoors, day and night. Finally one day, Bhaity da’s father came out, looking like a ghost. Slowly, other members of the family started coming out. But there was no sign of Bhaity da. He never came out.

Nobody knew what happened to him, not even his family. Some speculated that he committed suicide. That he had caught a bus to Dibrugarh to visit his married sister and flung himself into the Brahmaputra. Some said that for all the moral wrongdoings and unnatural existence over the years, he had been punished by the Gods and annihilated. Yet there were others who said that he had gone to some big city and had got a sex change done.

I am telling this story because the other day, I bumped into him after twenty long years at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus Railway Station, Mumbai. His eyes sparkled, very briefly, with recognition. I was stunned that I could recognize him. The curls were gone. His hair was chopped short. His complexion had tanned. He had put on weight and looked quite rough. “Bhaity da,” I blurted out. A fleeting emotion crossed his face. “Sorry,” he said kindly, “I am not Bhaity,” and walked away holding hands with a lanky fellow, his partner perhaps. As he disappeared into the crowd, I noticed that he still had the grace of a dancer. And suddenly I realized that he had responded to me in Assamese.

 

Glossary

mekhela chadar: Traditional attire worn by Assamese women.

da: Term used to address an elder brother in the family or any boy/man outside the family older in age than the one who is addressing.

Bihuwoti: A title earned by a Bihu dancer who wins a Bihu dance competition.

phut: Traditionally a dot of red color applied in the center of the forehead close to the eyebrows.

kohl: A cosmetic used to darken the edges of eyelids.

muthi kharu: Traditional Bihu ornament worn by women.

gaam kharu: Traditional Bihu ornament worn by men.

dhol: A twin-faced drum

pepa: A flute-like instrument made of buffalo horn

goja: A kind of sweetmeat

Author’s Bio: Juanita Kakoty, 33 years old, is a freelance writer and journalist. She has written on the arts, cultures, travel, food, etc. for publications like The Deccan Herald, The Thumb Print, India Today Woman, The Assam Tribune, etc. She is from Assam, a northeastern state of India, and holds an M.Phil. degree in Sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University. Having taught at two Indian universities, she is now taking a break from academics and concentrating on feature stories, short stories (fiction) and documentation. Her short stories have been published by New Asian Writing and Writers Asylum. Her short story ‘Betrothed’ was selected for the 2013 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology. Her published work is available at her blog juanitakakotywrites.blogspot.in

 

Illustration by Alan Van Every (Featured image on the front page)

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2 comments for “‘Dancing the Bihu’ by Juanita Kakoty

  1. 07/05/2014 at 9:31 pm

    Thank you for sharing the exotic Bihu dance of Assam.

  2. 18/05/2014 at 1:59 am

    awesome 🙂

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