Celebrating the Bangla Nababarsha, 1409


by Mahbub Husain Khan


A favourite quotation of mine on this day of Pahela Baishakh, is Rabaindranath’s lines: "Jukto Karo Hey Shabar Shonge / Mukto Karo Hey Bandho"

Yes, indeed: This is the ideal chant for the New Year: "Unite us with all people / Free us from our shackles." The celebrations of Pahela Baishakh were, years ago, the feast of the night of the last day of Chaitra, the feast of Chaitra Shangkranti. Now it is a day-long adda on the first day of Baishakh, celebrated all across our country, and also in West Bengal, Nepal, Sri Lanka. and Thailand.

And since 1952, the high point in the struggle for the Bengali identity and Bengali nationalism has been the two dates: Ekushey February in Falgun and Pahela Baishakh. Over the years. till 1972, these dates have been the milestones in our struggle for Bangladesh. From 1972, when these dates became more of days for celebration, book fairs, cultural functions, celebrations of Bengali nationhood, some of the spirit of the occasions as a struggle against oppression has been lost So much so, that in institution such as the Dhaka Club, the premier social club of the country, the Shaheed Dibash of Ekushey February in 2001 and 2002 has been termed Ekushey’r adda. So much so that we received missive this year from Dhaka Club, signed by one Imrul Choudhury which informs us that: " Ekushey means holiday, holiday means adda " Is there a man who thinks that Ekushey is just adda and that day has no sacrifices, other connotation. Breathes there the man, with soul so dead, etc etc.

But the real occasion for adda is the day of Pahela Baishakh, from the first light of day, till the gloaming transforms to the night. There is this Bengali institution on which no one will turn down an empty tea-cup. The ongoing life and times of ourselves on this day can be summed up in a four-letter word - adda. To the archetypal Bengali, adda is more than just a way of life — it is and irresistible detour as well as an eventual destination.

The secret behind the popularity of the marathon talkfests, particularly on the day of Pahela Baishakh is that we, since childhood, have developed a passion and a lifelong affair with the language we speak. A Bengali does not converse or convey information, he declaims. This holds true whether the subject at stake is the quickest way to get to Comilla or the nuances of Brechtian drama. Ask us a question and you will get an oration.

On Pahela Bishakh, the adda becomes most importantly an instrument of cathartic release. All the pent-up emotions of that the average Bengali builds up in the course of his daily odyssey, careering between the Scylla of chronic shortages and the Charybdis of chaos rampant, are poured out in the Homeric epic of the adda on Pahela Baishakh. This is the secret behind the obdurate sanity of the Bengali, a phenomenon which is achieved against all odds and which never ceases to astonish outsiders. The daily adda acts as an emotional armour which protects the participant against the stings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and the annual event of Pahela Baishakh is the crowning event of the year. The event of the day is the Pahela Baishakh Madhayna Bhoj, the New Year’s luncheon. The jealously guarded recipe that each household has, of fish and vegetables, works its alchemy as the ingredients are prepared, and cooked. Appetising aromas wreathe the backlanes like mist and

the pithas emerge. golden brown and faintly hissing, to be cooled and some prepared earlier to be matured till the big day. You have to do your shopping early - Markets are clogged with customers determined, in this, season at least to follow the expensive prescription (these days) of eating the best of Hilsha and the biggest of Rui and Pangash. With the eclectic gusto that he displays for other exotic items of culinary consumption, the Bengali has made at least this aspect of Pahela Baishakh as much part of indigenous gastronomic tradition as nolen gurer shandesh.

Despite hard times, many families, not all of them affluent, keep an open house all day, with guests dropping in to exchange greetings, eat some pitha, drink a glass of cooling sherbet, preferably freshly-pressed mango juice if available, and swap reminiscences of seasons past and friends remembered, children scamper, for once unscolded, around tables crowded with food, and the afternoon drowsily curls up on itself, as people start departing to the homes, maybe in the teeth of an approaching Kalboshakhi storm, somewhat prophetically predicting a stormy year ahead.

And now its nearly evening on Pahela Baishakh, and you’re feeling wonderful. Good food and drink is fizzing through your stomach, and beautiful stranfers are lounging around to titillate you. The New Year, a fig of promise as a rich and indulgent mama, lies ahead. A fine old time is being had by all. And then someone - there is always someone, comes up to you and asks "What are your New Year’s resolutions ?" For people like us, at least like me, I make new Resolutions, on Pahela Baishakh, the Eid Days, my birthday, and on English New Year’s eve. So if you carefully count, I have made Resolutions on Eid day in December 2001, English New Years’ Eve 2001, Eid-ul-Azha in February 2002, and my birthday on 5th April 10-02, and now on Pahela Baishakh, 1409. ‘And in nine time out of ten, the Major Resolution on such occasion has to do with physical appearance or heath. In many of the cases, obeying the natural law that says vacuum must be filled, the resolution requires two steps: give up a pleasant but unhealthy habit, and replace it with a healthy alternative. But it is never that simple.

Anyway, after many years of going along with this ridiculous nonsense I have decided to kick the Resolution habit on this Pahela Baishakh I will get up at dawn, and go to Ramna botomool. I will mingle among the crowds in the stalls of the Baishakhi Mela, and maybe also partake of Panta Bhhaat and Hilsha fry. I will get pickpocketed in the processions of singing and dancing.

I will spend the day luxuriating in the hospitality of friends. But I will Resolve no more to change my way of life. This is my Major Resolution for the year 1409. A prosperous New Year to you, all and a happy Pahela Baishakh replete with food and drink and add.

Source: The Independent, Dhaka, April 14, 2002

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