What does our GAMOCHA mean to us?
Last Friday (13th July) I woke up to some wonderful news. A young girl from a small town in Assam had made history by becoming the first Indian to win a Gold Medal in a track event at the World Junior Athletics Championship. I watched the video of the event. I watched Hima Das touch the ground, bring it to her chest and then to her lips, praying to the Gods to be with her as she braced herself for the race. I heard the gunshot, watched the women start running and squinted to observe Hima Das’s nimble form. I tuned out the rest of the commentary, wondering why she was nowhere in the lead for the first 30 seconds until I finally spotted her, and heard the words:
“But here comes Hima Das! The Indian is surging! She can see the line, she can see history! India’s never won any medal in a track event, but DAS HAS DONE IT HERE! Brilliant! 51.47. History made in Tampere.”
I felt the lump in my throat around the same time, but then I saw that victorious smile on her face and I watched her walk up to her coach who handed her the Indian flag, and draped the gamocha around her neck. And that’s when I lost it, breaking down completely, laughing and crying at the same time with no idea why the sight of that simple white and red cloth draped around the neck of this amazing girl, was tearing my heart into pieces.
About two hours later, when I could finally watch the video without tearing up, I talked to my Deuta and told him about how I couldn’t stop crying when I saw the gamocha around her neck. Deuta told me he’d felt it too… those goose bumps on my skin and that lump in my throat. We talked about how proud this girl has made us, and how I wanted to fist bump in the air and go, ‘Yes! This is what I am talking about! This is the Assam everyone must know about!’
So what was it about the gamocha that made me so emotional? What did that seemingly humble rectangular piece of cloth mean to me?
A volley of images came rushing through…. The almost threadbare but unbelievably soft cloth that worked as a hand-towel and hung from a rod next to the wash basin, the red faded to a near pink from multiple washes… Aita tying a gamocha around her waist as tightly as she could for support as she pruned some plants in our backyard… Deuta being felicitated at some meeting and coming home with a brand new gamocha that would be all stiff and starch-ironed… Ma preparing a ceremonial xorai and covering it with a gamocha before offering it in front of the Kirtan at our thapona… Aita taking the gamocha off her neck and using it to wipe the ground in the naamghor before we touched our head to the ground and bowed in front of the Lord... Ma handing me a silk gamocha and telling me it was to be kept separately for my groom… My unpacking our Kirtan at our Vietnam home and wrapping it in that gorgeous gamocha that had been gifted to my husband, spending long minutes admiring the intricate work all over it… my uncle gifting my one-year old her very own gamocha with her name lovingly woven on it by my aunt…
I started to write a post, but then I changed my mind. I realised that I can’t possibly be the only person who feels this way about our gamocha, and so I decided to seek help from friends and family. I sent a message to some of my friends, and asked them to send me a few lines about what the gamocha means to them, and if they have any specific memories related to gamocha.
The first thing that everyone said was that our gamocha is our identity. It is an icon of the Assamese culture after all, just like our japi and pepa. One cannot really think of the Assamese society without bringing to mind the image of the gamocha. Sohel Da, who is the General Secretary of the Assam Association in Singapore, also mentioned that, “it signifies the very essence of being Assamese.” Nidarshana Ba, who lives in Hyderabad says that while she never really gave the gamocha a thought until she left Assam, now it has become “an insignia of our Assamese identity. So unique in its colours and patterns… it stands out.” Interestingly, Nidarshana Ba has turned the gamocha into a piece of art worth displaying. She has framed two of them and hung them on her wall in her Hyderabad house, making sure that it is the first thing that guests see when they enter her living room.
To many of us, gamocha and Bihu are so intricately intertwined, that Bihu is incomplete without the Bihuwan, the form gamocha takes when offered as a token of love during the Assamese New Year.
What is unique about the gamocha, in my eyes, is its versatility. Nowhere else have I seen such a homely everyday object being regarded with so much respect and veneration. For the longest time, I had treated the gamocha like nothing more than a towel. Not surprising, since it literally translates to something to wipe your body (ga = body; mocha = wipe). A gamocha could have a very long lifeline, depending on how it was being used. Because it soaks wonderfully, and dries very fast as well, it makes for a very convenient travel companion. Satyakam Da who works at Indian Revenue Service recalls this time when he used it as a headscarf in Leh, “when it was too cold and I didn’t even have a monkey cap!” I asked him all earnestly if it provided enough warmth. Pat came the reply, “It had the love of Assam in it. How could it not be warm enough?”
Adil Hussain Da believes that “Gamocha is an extension of our selves. It’s almost like a part of our biology. Once it is resting on our body, we feel like we are rooted, and yet, we can take off! It’s like an organ. It is a mirror reflecting the smell, sound and taste of our Land.”
I think I know exactly what he means when he says it feels like a part of our own body. And yet, no spiritual ritual is complete without the gamocha. We don’t bow our head in front of the Lord unless we have a gamocha around our neck. It is the ultimate sign of respect.
So what does the gamocha really mean to me? Everything! I have a big stack of gamocha that I have been carrying with me through all the countries that we have lived in, and to me, it is still my most prized possession, because each one of them has a different memory attached to it.
As for the gamocha around Hima Das’s neck, may it be the first thing that comes to people’s mind whenever they recall the moment a young girl made history in Tampere.
About the author: Sankhya Samhita was born and brought up in Tezpur and currently resides in Singapore. She is the author of the book 'Revelations of an Imperfect Life.'