On the eve of the Bengali New Year, as Facebook feeds fill up with new year greetings, I sit in my London house, listlessly surfing the internet. I stumble upon some animated e cards in Bangla which I promptly send to some friends, get bored, move onto blogs discussing special menus for Poila Bhaishak. The menus look elaborate and a quick skim shows I need to do grocery before I can prepare the meal. Tomorrow's dinner is already planned, so I give up the idea and look for another diversion.
I am in a strange mood, I feel nostalgic, yet I do not feel like making any effort to make the day special. I miss those times when one did not have to work hard to make a day special, it automatically became so,or maybe our parents put in all that effort and we just lapped up the fun.
Growing up in Kolkata, Poila Bhaishak was a very personal celebration as in we celebrated it at home. This day always came/comes in the middle of April, soon after our annual examinations got over. Though it became hot, the weather was not as stifling as May. And if we were lucky evenings would cool down with a kaal baishakhi (tropical storm which comes in from the Bay of Bengal with some fierce gales and rains, it brings sheer bliss, specially if you get a good drench standing on your terrace!). The odd cuckoo still sang to announce spring, filling the summer air with music.
To get back to Poila Baishak, it fell within our holidays. Those were really special holidays since annual examinations were over and results were not yet out, so no studies at all. Ah those long, lazy days of just not doing anything in particular, no studies, no pressures, one could float around the house and amuse oneself without being scolded by any elder for wasting time. The house would abound with fresh seasonal fruits-- mangoes (both ripe and unripe), lychees, jack-fruits, jamrul/bell fruit and you could have those to your heart's content. Also the fridge used to be stocked with our favourite squashes and my mother's special kulfi malai (Indian version of ice cream) My favourite time of the day was the afternoon. After lunch, we would draw all the curtains, make the room cosy, the ceiling fan would swirl monotonously and Hemanta Mukherjee or Subir Sen would sing soulfully in the background while we played Ludo or Chinese Checker-- my mother, brother, whichever cousin was available and of course me. There was always a lot of laughter and some sneaky cheating too. The evenings were also nice, once the sun set, the temperature would go down a bit, a nice breeze would start and the sweet smell of bel ar jui phool/jasmine pots in our and neighbourhood terraces would fill up the evening air. Most people would be out in their terraces, neighbours sharing jokes or waving at each other. Good days!
So in the middle of this idle came Poila Baishak or the first day of Baishak maash/month and of course the new year. My parents would start planning for Poila Baishak a month or so ahead-- shopping for new clothes, usually cotton ones in light pastel shades to beat the heat, organizing a pujo at home, picking up the new panji (a fat thick pink book with details of Hindu calender and auspicious dates which was/is published every year around this time), my mother would start stocking up on home made sweets like malpoa and narkol naru for the expected visitors, plan a special menu for that day and of course a long series of visiting relatives' houses for exchanging greetings for the rest of the month.
Invitations from shops/businesses we frequented would start coming. In Bengal this is also the beginning of the business year...so shops/workshops would start their new accounting book known as haal khata (a hard bound, red covered note book with coarse thick white paper inside). The shops were throughly cleaned and freshly painted and decorated with flower garlands and they would hold a Ganesh (God of Wisdom) and Lakhhi/Laxmi (Goddess of Wealth and Prosperity) pujo. The regular customers were invited to the shop in the evening, where they were treated to cold drinks and a box of sweets and given a Bengali calender with the business advertised prominently. So these invitation cards would start arriving in the post.
The rule of the day was that you have to behave yourself, because how you behaved that day would set the tone for the rest of the year. So my brother and me, we would get up early in the morning and promise to be in our best behavior like I would drink milk without any fuss. Also since it was a special day, our parents would abstain from scolding us. In my mother's words "bochor kar din ee bokte chai na" (in this special day, I do not want to scold you). So the day had an extra charm, we felt whatever our dosh/ faults we had, we were protected by the special day! But, but if we were not model children that day, the whole year would go terrible. So extra care was needed to be on best behaviour. Such innocents we were. We were put on our best behaviour and then told that we would not be scolded. And that thrilled us to bits! It never entered our thick heads to question this duplicacy!
Mornings were dedicated to Shib/Shiv pujo. We have a family shivlinga and a special pujo was/is organised to usher in the new year. I remember as a little girl, quickly taking bath and then wearing a sari and rushing upstairs to the thakurghor (prayer room) for a solemn little pujo (it was tailored according to our sizes!). Once that was over, it was time for the prosad (food offerings from the prayer to be consumed by us) and touching every elder's feet for ashirbad (blessings). Since our's was a joint family it was quiet a chore. Lunch was always special-- as far as I remember there would be polao (Bengali sweet fried rice) with roi maach er kalia (fish in a rich gravy) and kosha mangsho (goat meat), chutney etc.
In the evenings we wore our new clothes and went to Charok er Mela/ spring fair in the neighbourhood. Oh what fun that used to be--the crowded stalls, the glittery lights, the loud music blaring from the juke boxes, the merry-go-rounds, all kinds of amazing stuff to buy and eat. My father used to pamper us no end there. I loved the glass bangles and spend hours in that stall gazing at those amazing bangles in magnificent hues. My father would also stand beside me patiently and help me choose the bangles. Soon my two hands would be full of bangles and I loved gazing at my own hands in awe!
The day would end with a visit to a couple of relative's house. And before drifting off to sleep needing reassurance from parents that we had truly been well behaved and that the rest of the year would go well for us.
I feel a little better, having written this post. The memories do not seem so hazy, home does not seem across continents...I realize yet again it is all here in my heart. Whenever I feel down or sad or nostalgic, all I have to do is take a walk down my memory lane. I may have grown up, Choroker Mela may have disappeared but in my mind's eye I am still a little girl gazing with wonder at those brilliant glass bangles and my mother still asks us to behave ourselves on the special day!
May you have a wonderful new year and may it be filled with beautiful memories of both the past and the present.
N.B. The photographs used are sourced from Google's image search.