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Tilak Rishi, born in India, has been working as a career corporate executive, after doing his MBA. Passionately pursuing his hobby for writing, he also remained a regular contributor to newspapers in India and the U.S. Many true happenings and characters he came across in life, including interaction with former president Bill Clinton, inspired Paradise Lost and Found, his first novel. A family saga, it starts from Kashmir, when this paradise on earth is lost for the tourists who thronged in thousands every year to enjoy its scenic splendor. Terrorists have turned it into one of the most dangerous places in the world. The family is not only a witness to the loss of this paradise, but also to another tragedy of much bigger magnitude. In the aftermath of the partition of India, along with millions uprooted from their homes in Pakistan, the family leaves behind all that it has in Lahore. Starting from a scratch on the difficult path to progress, it still has many joyful moments when along the way it makes a difference in many a life. The survival-to-success story climaxes in California where the family finds the paradise that was lost in Kashmir.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Lohri Is The Liveliest!

Lohri is much more than a festival in our family. It is the day to cherish the most cheerful and lively time we had with our mother alive. Her greatest happiness was hosting guests, friends and relatives, the biggest gathering of them being for the Lohri festival. For her, this was more than just a festival, it was also an example of a way of her life, hosting as many guests as would come and enjoy her hospitality. A true believer in the age-old saying that God visited us disguised as a guest, this was the festival when God blessed us with His presence in full force.

In the evening, with the setting of the sun, huge bonfire was lit in the front yard of our house. Family, our friends and other guests gathered around the rising flames, circled around the bonfire and threw puffed rice, popcorn and peanuts etc. into the fire as offering, told funny anecdotes and sang popular folk songs. Mother would distribute 'Prasad' comprising five main items: til, gajak, jaggery, peanuts, and popcorn. The traditional dinner of makki-ki-roti and sarson-ka-saag was then served around the bonfire. Throughout the day besides cooking the special cuisine for the festival dinner and making preparations for the big night, mother would keep busy with generous distribution of money and winter savories to enthusiastic children who went from house to house singing songs and asking for offerings for the festival. My wife, my mother's best friend after our marriage, and a true follower of the traditions my mother believed in, helped her throughout to make the festival most memorable for all with festivities and feeding that went on till wee hours.

Next to her love for Lohri and hosting guests, my mother's most favorite hobby was going to movies, a must every Wednesday when it was 'Ladies Only' matinee in most theaters at half the normal rates. All her friends had open invitation to watch the latest movie, where she would not only buy them tickets but also treat them to sodas and snacks, which were sold by hawkers inside the hall during interval. She enjoyed all movies, musicals and mythological, comedies and tearjerker tragedies, with no exceptions. She would even watch some movies, which she liked most, many times. Veer Zara, for sure, would have been one such movie, had it been released in her lifetime. The movie, starring Shah Rukh Khan, Preity Zinta and Rani Mukherjee in the leading roles, had the loveliest Lohri scene with Amitabh Bachchan and Hema Malini in guest appearance, singing the mood- lightening and fun-frolic Lohri song . A frothy number about the male-female teasing, the song and the sequence would have been immensely liked by my mother and all those who appreciate Punjabi folk:

Lo aa gayi lohri ve,bana lo jodi ve
kalaayi koyi yun thaamo,na jaave chodi ve
Jhoot na boli ve,kukur na toli ve
jo tune khayeen thee kasme,ik ik todi ve...

Veer Zara's above scene tells the true picture of what Lohri is all about, especially as seen in Punjab's prosperous countryside. Amidst the freezing cold weather, with the temperature wobbling between 0-5 degrees Celsius and the dense fog outside, everything seems stagnant in the northern part of India. However, below the apparently frozen surface, you would be amazed to find a palpable wave of activity going on. People, especially in the northern Indian states of Punjab, Haryana and parts of Himachal Pradesh, are busy making preparations for Lohri — the long-awaited bonfire festival — when they can come out of their homes and celebrate the harvesting of the Rabi (winter) crops and give in to relaxing and enjoying the traditional folk songs and dances. Lohri is a festival of zeal and verve and marks the culmination of the chilly winter. Dances are one of the most fun loving aspect of Lohri celebration. Punjab is a land of exciting culture, myriad images of swaying emerald green fields and hearty people whose robust rustic dances that reflects unique camaraderie and bonhomie. Lohri dances are very much a part of the heritage of Punjab. Bhangra and Giddha are the most popular form of dances performed by men and women on Lohri. Logs of wood are piled together for a bonfire, and friends and relatives gather around it. They go around the fire three times, giving offerings of popcorns, peanuts, rayveri and sweets. Then, to the beat of the dhol (traditional Indian drum), people dance around the fire. Prasad of til, peanuts, rayveri, puffed rice, popcorn, gajak and sweets is distributed. This symbolizes a prayer to Agni for abundant crops and prosperity. Lohri is also an auspicious occasion to celebrate a newly born baby’s or a new bride’s arrival in the family. The day ends with a traditional feast of sarson da saag and makki di roti and a dessert of rau di kheer (a dessert made of sugarcane juice and rice). The purpose of the Lohri harvest ceremony is to thank God for his care and protection. During this festival the people prepare large quantities of food and drink, and make merry throughout the day and night. Therefore everyone looks forward to this day. According to legend, a good Lohri sets the tone for the whole year ahead - the more joyous and bountiful the occasion, the greater will be the peace and prosperity.

The origin of Lohri is related to the central character of most Lohri songs, Dulla Bhatti, a Muslim highway robber who lived in Punjab during the reign of Emperor Akbar. Besides robbing the rich, he rescued Hindu girls being forcibly taken to be sold in slave market of the Middle East. He arranged their marriages to Hindu boys with Hindu rituals and provided them with dowries. Another story relates that once Dulla Bhatti rescued a girl from kidnappers and adopted her as his daughter. When he got his daughter married off his people would remember their hero every year on Lohri. Groups of children moved from door to door, singing the Dulla Bhatti folk-song:

Sunder mundriye ho!
Tera kaun vicaharaa ho!
Dullah bhatti walla ho!
Dullhe di dhee vyayae ho!
Ser shakkar payee ho!...

It has elements that offer similarities to the American Holloween. Much like Holloween, the children sing folk songs outside the door and ask for generous reward, 'lohri," which is often roasted peanuts in shells, sesame-covered molasses-candy known as "riori" or other special gift that family may choose to share with the revelers.

In recent times, with more and more people from Punjab, especially the youth, moving to other countries, particularly USA, U.K. and Caneda, the festival of Lohri has also spread out far and beyond the fields of Punjab. Lohri is the annual event at Stanford! The event includes traditional singing and dancing around the fire, live dhol beats from renowned dholis, free food and snacks, bhangra music, and a special performance by Chardi Jawani, the Stanford Bhangra Team. This is a community event - grandparents to grandkids, all are welcomed. Newly born, Newly engaged, and Newly wed especially encouraged to come! Entrance is free, though there is always a request to bring a blanket or quilt to sit on while you eat and watch the performances. Energetic beats of the dhol and spirited voices of one and all is how the guests are welcome to the festival of Lohri. And, what sends the merriment quotient higher and louder is the rhythmic beating of the double-sided barrel drum. Popular lyrics and a bhangra swirl all come alive to its enthralling beats. Dressed in bright red and green kurtas and a tamba (something like a dhoti) the dholis are an essential part of any celebration, especially on Lohri. With celebrations getting bigger, these artistes are booked much in advance. What follows next is a mix of Bollywood and Punjabi numbers. — Kajra re, Dupatta tera nau rang da, Mauja hi mauja, Nagada nagada in Bollywood, Jazzy B’s Romeo, Jine Mera Dil Luteya and the all time fave Boparai’s De De Gera. Mouth-watering munchies, mountains of Moongfali and popcorn, trays of gachak tempt. And we succumb. (You would have to be a saint not to!) Forget calories and bite into the 13 varieties of gachak, Til (sesame seeds) coated in lip-smacking golden gur (jaggery), gachak and chikki is just the beginning of what will lure you here. A treat for all the senses is the aromatic, eye-catching and scrumptious gulab gachak. Garnished with rose petals, this is quite popular for obvious reasons. If it’s nuts you like to gorge on, then bite into the dry fruit preparations. This rich gachak is very much in demand. Since Lohri is incomplete without these high-cal goodies, no wonder a vigorous version of the bhangra to go with it?

Whether as nostalgic memories of mother's festivities or as the hearty heritage of Punjab's exciting culture or attending the event at Stanford in USA, of all the festivals, Lohri is the liveliest.


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