Come Ashwayuja, the Hindu month that corresponds to September-October of Gregorian calendar, faded memories of school days breeze in like a gentle wind caressing the heart. Those were the days when we used to wait for this month so longingly. For it was not only a month of festivals — Dasara, Atlatadiya and Deepavali, but also a month of maximum holidays for us, the school-going children.
Depending on the date of Vijayadasami, our quarterly exams were held either in the last week of September or first week of October so that Dasara holidays could be declared in consonance with the celebration of Devinavaratrulu/Saratnavaraatrulu from Asvija Padyami to Dasami. It was at Devi Chowk located to the south of our school that Devi Navaratrulu were celebrated on a grand scale. Pandals were erected in front of the temple and cultural programmes were conducted — Puranakalakshepam in the noon and music concerts/dance and Harikatha were planned for evenings from 6:00 pm to 11:30 pm — on all the nine days.
Once exams were finished and holidays declared, everything turned joyous: heaving a sigh of relief and throwing away the books, ran out to play whole day freely in the slushy lanes and by-lanes. No matter drizzle or beating rain—incidentally, incessant rains were the order of those days of Asvija that even courtyards, compound walls, and roads, all turned green covered by moss and small plants — playing in the cesspools was cherished. After all it was through those slushy/slippery lanes and bylanes that we as primary school children once waded through from house to house led by our Pantulu garu (Teaher) singing “Ayya variki chalu aidu varahalu, pillavandraku chalu pappubellalu…Jayeebhava vijayeebhava digvijayeebhava…” (Five coins are enough for the teacher… enough for the children if treated with peanuts mixed with nuggets of jaggery… Victory be yours!... may you be victorious!… universal victory be yours!...).
During those days, members of the organizing committee of Navaratri celebrations at Devi Chowk temple, accompanied by musicians playing nadaswaram, used to go round the houses, for donations. One morning they were before my house. As my father greeted them, someone from the team started reciting Ghana Panasa —
Om gananam tva Ganapatim havaamahe kavim kaveenaam upamashra vastavam …
….ganaanam tva ganaanam ganaanam tva …
ganapatim ganapatim tva ganaanam ganaanam tva ganaanam …
tva ganaapatim tva tva ganaapatigm …
siidasaadanagm saadanagm siida siida saadanam…
saadanamiti saadanam …
What a recital! It was so musical to ears. It engendered a kind of spiritual vibes all around. I used to listen to it with utmost devotion. As they finished the recital, my father silently conveyed to my mother who was waiting for his direction from behind the door, to offer rice, for after all that was what my father, a farmer could perhaps share, by nodding his head. I ran behind my amma with tambaalami, a large brass-plate, into the room, and as she filled it with rice, I carried it to the man with a big cloth pouch hanging from his shoulder and poured rice in it. As I was doing it for the second time, my father joined me to place a five rupee note in it. And turning to the team at large, he offered his salutation. And they, blessing us, walked away to another street.
With that started the festive spirit. Soaked in it, every night I used to go to Devi Chowk pandal to listen to Harikatha. Incidentally, one good thing for me in those days was none in my house objected to my going to Devi Chowk for listening to Harikathas and staying even late into the nights. It was something I cherished most. One night, I went to listen to Viswanatham’s Harikatha — ‘Sitaapaharanam’. He was one of those eminent Bhagavatars. He was adept at making his narration peppier with trendy one-liners, pittakathalu (parables) and lucid presentation. Right from the invocation to the finish, whatever raga he chose — be it Mohana, Kalyani, Sindhu Bhairavi, Shanmukhapriya or whatever — he would simply bring out the charms of the raga in consonance with the lyrical mood of the narration in all its richness. With astounding vocal span and perfect Sahitya expression — be it of Telugu or Sanskrit verse — he would delight the audience by embellishing his narration with aptly enacted scenes from the story. The narration was made trendier by the accompanying violin and mridangam players.
As the Bhagavatar sang mangalam, the audience, at once standing up, took to their heels. For, on that crispy autumn night of Ashtami that was set to turn into Navami, a few dark clouds escorting a three-quarter moon over the sky threatened us of a likely shower. Even in that brisk walking towards home, people, recalling the Bhagavatar’s one-liners, parables, etc., laughed all the way mirthfully. But as I neared the park and took a turn to the left on the tank bund leading to my home, it had become silent, for people had already thinned out. In that still silence, the occasional cry of a bird from the fig tree on the tank bund was exhilarating. Fear overawed me.
With the breeze having gone away, water in the tank remained motionless. Up in the sky, the moon turned aglow again. Interestingly, moonlight in Saratnavaratrulu was distinctly different. As Kalidasa described, it had “impeccable lustre.” Perhaps, it was the passing dark clouds that made the moon glow more brightly and more pleasingly. There in the still tank, stars glistered. It was so pleasant to watch the scene that fear at once evaporated and pleasure pushed me to the edge of the tank to have a deeper look at it. As I looked in awe, the tank looked “like a piece of the sky fallen on earth with the rain.” That was the beauty of Devinavaratrulu, Harikathas and the Sarad?utuvu at large and the life during Dasaraholidays.
As the school reopened after the festival and classes picked up momentum, there came in about a week another festival called Atlatadiya. This festival of the third day of Krishna Paksham (fortnight) of the month was marked for real fun and frolic. It was a truly designated sports day—both for boys and girls. We looked forward to this festival with all enthusiasm, for it granted allowances to play pranks with the known/unknown and tease even those who one would otherwise dare not go nearer.
Whenever I think of this festival, very caressing memories flash in my mind. It was, if I remember well, when I was in III form, that on the night before this festive day, my amma put mehendi (henna) on my palms (though it was usually girls who would decorate their hands with mehendi for this festival) in the traditional style of small dots circling a larger dot in the centre of one palm, while on the other she put the terminal three leaves of the axis of a marigold plant over which she simply smeared mehendi all over. Getting up early in the morning of the festive day, I had pulihora with curd to my heart’s content, and lo, what a treat it was to eat pulihora with the palm that had been fragranced by the just washed mehendi!
In that misty moonlit morning, I went to my friend’s house behind the school to fetch him for company. As I reached his house, there assembled quite a lot of girls—homely Tulasi and her sister papai, Hyma and her sister Ramudu, their neighbour Bulli, the soft-spoken and Padma, cranky Hemalatha and her sister, proud Sarala, Prameela and her sisters Sujatha and Baby, those two Raakshasis (devils): Peddammai and Chinnammai, to whom, of course, I had never braved to tell on face about my perceiving them as truly Raakshasis, that tomboy Raji and her neighbour Neelaveni with her twinkling eyes….. and so on … all decked up in the best of their attire… silk Parikinis (skirts), nylon Voonis with braids adorned with chamanti (Chrysanthemum) flowers, who were all either my erstwhile seniors or contemporaries in Basavasankarao’s primary school — assembled in his courtyard and were already into their games.
Elders like Hemalatha, Prameela, Hyma and Padma were playing Oppulakuppa — the favourite game of girls played in pairs holding each other’s hands in a twist and rotating fast until they were tired — with their hems of Voonis (Upper-cloth) fluttering and braids freely flying even in that misty morning air to the accompanying jingling of their anklets. Another pair was into Chemma Chekka — another favourite game of girls played by two girls standing opposite to each other and clapping the opposite girl’s hands by bending to front and back, while of course, singing very interesting songs. Youngsters were playing Dagudumutalu — hide-and-seek — while a few others were busy in their game of tokkudu-billa, hopscotch.
A few of them were around the Uyyala, swing, that was hanging from high above the branch of the neem tree at the entrance of the courtyard. Incidentally, on this festive day, it was mandatory for every girl to play Uyyala — to swing at least once on the day. Caught by surprise, as I stood there staring at the Uyyala, a few of them yelled at me: “Why the hell are you here at girls’ play?” I was taken aback. Amidst that hoarse noise, Hyma — that dynamic and sprightly girl who had rather one distinctive quality of speaking from the heart — came forward questioning, “Entrea Radha… What’s up?” and giving a friendly thwack on my head went on saying, “OK! Take a few swings and get lost quickly”, she silenced the lot.
In the meanwhile, as my friend came out, we both simply ran away from there to the playground and joining the rest of the lot there played Chedugudu (kabaddi). A little later, another common friend joined us with a pocketful of Duradagondi aaku, leaves of Bengal velvet bean, known to cause extreme itching if rubbed against the body. Sharing the lot, they both went around the gathering greeting them with the leaves and stealthily slipping away from there. What a fun it was to watch them jumping up and down in irritation and scratching the skin with their nails!
Incidentally, on this festive day, some boys would even tease their teachers who were known as strict disciplinarians with these leaves deceitfully. In the meanwhile another smart fellow had tacitly sprinkled a few pallerukayalu (bristly starbur’s thorny seeds) on my hair. And I had it: it took a long time for me to get those spikey nuts out of my hair. It was while struggling to pull out those nuts from my hair that I could realize why the girls had shouted me out from their play-field, but I was never into such ventures. Not that I didn’t enjoy such mischief but I was afraid of doing wrong, perhaps. By then, it dawned and all the fun was over… so, went home to mind the day’s homework and to get ready for the school. So funny!
In the evening I went to Lalitamba gari house. Her nephew, who was a friend of my brother, used to teach me mathematics. They used to treat me almost as an inmate of their house. That evening her daughters were offering prayers to the moon and invited me for prasadam. As the tradition goes, they, observing fast for the day, were busy preparing naivedyam (offerings) for the moon. Placing atlu (dosas) on a plantain leaf with pappu (Dal) in the centre, they, making a dip in it and filling it with ghee and lighting a wick in it, kept themselves ready for offering the naivedyam to the moon. Standing in their back yard, I craned my neck up to spot moon. As and when it was spotted, I used to shout: “Come, come, here is moon!” But as the girls came out with all that paraphernalia, dark clouds masked the moon. And as this hide-and-seek continued for a while, the hungry girls shouted at me angrily, “You cheat, playing pranks!” Of course, finally spotting the moon, they succeeded in offering naivedyam to the moon and break their fast. At last they had given me prasadam. Wow! It was a real fun to eat attlu that were housing a flaming wick in their middle, though for a while.
Then within another ten days of Atlatadiya comes Deepavali—the festival of festivals. From a week before, I used to get engaged in making sparklers and chichhubudlu (sparkling flower pots). It was such a thrill to roll the papers into cylindrical containers and fill them with the grounded pyrotechnic mixture of aluminium mesh, potassium nitrate, Sulphur, charcoal, etc. The same mixture was also used to fill the earthen pots from the bottom and seal it with clay paste. Then, through the small hole at the top, black powder known to catalyse fire was thrust in. Then they were kept in the yard along with the crackers, bombs, etc. bought from the market for drying under Sun. It was such a fun to put them out to dry and hurriedly pull them inside as drizzle started and again put it outside as the Sun came out and this hide-and-seek went on till the night of Deepavali.
On the festive day, I joined my amma to assist her in filling pramidalu (the clay cups) with gingelly oil and placing wicks in it. At dusk, the clay lamps were lit one after the other, and after lighting the last lamp, I turned back to look at them … Oh! the rows of cute lamps with flickering glow greeted the evening with a splendour of their own. A scintillating scene! Then into lighting the fireworks…. It was a proud moment to first light the sparklers and flower pots that were made at home…. Then came the turn of the purchased stuff… crackers, Lakshmi bombs, rockets, spinning bhu chakras, etc. And all that labour of making the fire sprinklers, that enthusiasm to buy as many varieties of crackers as the pooled money would fetch and that looking forward for Deepavali night —all that had ended up in smoke and din in no time. But that deafening din was, of course, a lasting fun. Looking back, I often wonder: were we ever satisfied with what we had burnt! But then, that was what childhood was all about, perhaps.
So, that was the great romance with Ashwayuja masam (month)! Sweet memories … recollection of which douses the past in a romantic haze…