Contrary to popular images of celebration of Pohela Boishakh, usually replete with the early morning epicurean ritual of feasting on plentiful platters of panta-ilish, my earliest memories of the Bangla New Year are suffused with the serotonin-rush of the taste of sugary, pale creamy-white, wafer-thin moon-shaped candy, batasha. Close cousin to the egg-white whipped meringue, the boiled batasha is as light and exhilarating as the cool evening breeze of summer. Deliciously crunchy and crumbly between the teeth and tongue, the sound and sensation in the mouth is poetically onomatopoeic of a sudden shower of raindrops. Heavenly, pearly, rainbow bearers, the seven colours bursting against the red lining of the full cheek, spontaneously sending sparkling signals of ecstasy to the brain's neurons.
The memory of the juicy luxuriance of mouthfuls of batasha, ubiquitous boishakhi junk-food, childhood's candy-coin, is my present currency propelling me on a journey into the past, into a time of a child's wondrous discovery of her roots, her people and her land, its rich history with its glorious fusion of diverse cultures. Autobiographical memory relates to things we remember during the course of our lifetime. Tonight, as I dwell on Pohela Boishakh 1421, my fingers play a staccato symphony on the keyboard, with the inner eye evoking images and perceptions of bright boishakhi nights in my lifetime's time-line. The poet in me observes the images that arise in my mind as I write. This, I know now, is how the human mind works: we construct narratives through the imaginative process as memories of actual events are trawled unconsciously through word-association or object-relation. Time is a river, and my consciousness dragnets across ripples of memory to gather the few indelibly imprinted scenes of boishakhi nights.
The first memory of such a night, a memory which is a constant source of positive sustenance, comes from the warm, wholesome family reunions in Dacca in the years 1960-63, when my father was a newly promoted Major at the Combined Military Hospital in Comilla. These were the years when the First Bengal Regiment was raised and the cantonment was an idyllic retreat of hills and valleys nestled among the ancient archeological ruins and stupas of Mainamati. Dacca was so close, my grandfather's sprawling two-storied mini-mansion at 2 A C Roy Road, Armanitola, beckoned me and my brothers on weekends and school holidays. Father would put mother on the train, the Green Arrow, with the small children tightly holding hands, sheltered close to their mother inside the noisy, crowded compartment. We would reach Dacca at night, our anticipation of receiving lavish entertainment and opulently stored harvest produce from grandfather's estate in Dhamrai, Savar, increasing in direct relation to the decreasing distance between Comilla and Dacca. The train's terrific tooting pushed back the sleepy dark hamlets, as a few more loud toots soon brought the twinkling lights of the city within sight.
It was during one such visit to Armanitola that my grandfather, my dada, took me and my brothers to the boishakhi mela at Chowkbazaar one evening. I do not remember where my brothers roamed or with whom. All I remember is my dada holding my hand in a firm grip and leading me through the crowd, stopping now and then to exchange greetings or to buy toys and appetizing snacks. Naturally, the visual perspective in this mental movie is that of a small girl-child, just tall enough for her beribboned ponytail to brush against her dada's knee. In this fluid sequence of silent cinema projected in the present, I cannot see above the adult knee-height. As I weave through the parting path amidst the folk and the arts and crafts, in quiet and secure contentment, my eyes make contact with children of my age and my curious mind ponders the magic of the makers of the terracotta figures, the moveable wooden toys, the beaten tiny tin and brass cooking pots and pans, all laid out neatly in rows on mats on the ground. Dada stops and looks down and calls my name as he offers me a small paper bag of batasha with his free right hand. His eyes shine with the light of unconditional love as I happily, quickly, pop a coin into my mouth and crinkle it in one bite. Behind dada, just a bit to the left, I am entranced by the intricately latticed bamboo conical stand and the underside of a large oval brightly painted tin tray.
The mela-space becomes brighter, and there are more people as evening turns to night. We went our way towards the parked car and home and to dadi and my mother. Both awaiting our return to feed us all the dishes they had companionably cooked together on the two wood choolas in the large rectangular kitchen on the eastern side of the inner courtyard. (One house beyond the kitchen wall, on the east, lay the large colonial structure of Anandamoi Girls' High School, where my father's youngest sister attended classes. I remember watching her having brunch of rice and curry at 10:00 in the morning to begin classes at 11:00 AM. As soon as tiffin-time bell rang at her school at 3:00 PM, I would be ready after my own lunch at home downstairs, and scamper upstairs to the long mesh-grilled, chessboard black-white tiled verandah-cum-sitting room. Aunty would be waiting with a few friends on a flight of open stairs on the outer western part of the school ground, and wewould merrily signal or wave or sometimes shout across the expanse of the single-storey house between us.)
Dada bought me small handicrafts from the fair that bright night. He bought me terra cotta figures. I remember holding the specially moulded horse, the horse of Gandhara art. I felt an eerie sense of déjà vu; I knew him. I had met him in Taxilla and Mohenjo-Daro when I was four years old; I knew him in Mainamati. He was my spirit-guide, my Sagittarian soul-mate, infusing me with the breath of fiery quest and freedom, infusing me with the unquenchable thirst to run with the wind, to let my mind and the senses explore the uncharted vastness of the earth and the sky. I am made in my grandmother's image. My dadi's gene, her X-chromosome, makes me sentient, makes me passionate in life and laughter. But, sadly, such is the paradox of chance and time of birth, the remnants of nineteenth-century bourgeois culture of Bengal kept dadi unlettered, covered, confined in the andar mahal. Dada could not alter the cultural conditioning of his beloved wife, but he could, and did emancipate his daughters with education and the right to choose.
For me, my dada was the true hero: life-giver, saviour, protector, benefactor, a role he proudly passed on to my father, his first born. Grandfather recognized the free spirit that I am from the moment I was born. He led me forward into light and love of learning and would let me lovingly gaze at the rows of thick brown, bound volumes of law books in his large downstairs Chamber rooms. I would read the gold-embossed titles and sometimes, in the evening, he would have me sit beside him and let me hear a client or a group consulting civil cases. He never let me sit in on a single criminal case. Even as a child, I was especially blessed in that my curiosity, my precocity, my love of reading and sports and athletics were not taboo in this household. I was loved; I was powerful in the knowledge that I was respected and admired. More significant, so essential for self-esteem and positive growth, my dark brown skin was never, ever, a factor in qualitative assessment of my worth as a female. With wisdom and affection, I was gently guided into a lucid understanding of appropriate personal and social conduct. I learned to love and respect myself, I learned to love and respect others. Unconsciously, in a smooth process of osmosis, I also imbibed life-lessons on respecting moral boundaries.
I truly discovered Bengal in the three years I lived flitting back and forth between Comilla and Dacca in those precious three years of the Sixties. The road from Armanitola to Savar and Nayarhat became familiar terrain, with rest stop at the sweet-shops at Nayarhat for the famous roshogullas of my home district. I remember the car arriving at Nayarhat, and taking a boat to our village, Equria, with the entire village receiving us like royalty. I remember the boat-ride vividly, and I can still feel the water touching my trailing fingers as I tried to trap the large flat lotus leaves to capture the pink jewel of a flower in the centre. I remember running through fields of bright yellow mustard plants. I remember the towering kashful, and how I loved to bring back long-stalked bunches of the silky, feathery wild flowers to illuminate the Armanitola upstairs verandah with their light, silvery elegance.
I remember my father taking it upon himself to teach us about the geography of the land and the navigability of its river. He took us once on a daytrip from Sadarghat on a flat steamboat all the way to the ghat at Equria. I remember one glorious Pohela Boishakh we began our journey at Daudkandi on a double-decker steamboat, and arrived at Sadarghat around midnight. I remember the exquisite beauty of sunset on the river, of dusky smoke surrendering to the night-dew. I remember the bright colours of life's activities along the sloping banks of the river, and the gliding majesty of the simple sampans. I had been immersed in live performances, in the music and songs of the folk dramas, Beder Meye, and Nakhshi Kantha'r Math, successively in those three years in the two cities, and on this voyage the little girl's soul connected palpably with the land and the river of Bengal. I can still feel my heart melting as it did then as the plaintive song of the sampanwallah drifted across the night air over the steady flow of the water's current. An incorrigible romantic that I am, as I was even then, of course without the knowledge of the word or of its definition, I remember a sense of perplexed yearning deep in the recesses of my mind as I quietly turned my head to catch the distant call of a melodious flute.
That journey on the river has been for me the most treasured gift a father can give to his only daughter. It is a journey of such great magnitude of joy in my mental landscape, that in moments of feelings of loss or anxiety, dreams of this event subliminally surface from my subconscious to restore, to heal, and provide strength to complete my life's work. The memory of this journey is momentous because it defines me, the kind of person I was at that tender age, and am now in maturity. As I compose the last few lines of this soliloquy, I feel I have circumnavigated the globe on the back of the zodiac archer, the centaur. My memories have beatified me, have let me live again the years of my own individual history, and reinforce my distinct identity as a Bengali woman. Memories of bright nights in Bengal have enlarged my soul, added a new dimension to my personality. I am free to reach my journey's end. I am strong in my resolve to be worthy of the gift of life and promise of trust given to me by my grandfather and father.
Memory of a bright boishakhi night bespeaks a prophecy of a benevolent New Year. I wish all to spread the message of the essence of Bengal: unity in diversity, celebration in song and dance, efflorescence in art and creativity.
I wish to put a candy-coin in the right palm of every Bangladeshi child, man, and woman. A sacred batasha to sweeten each and every person's breath and being. A sacrament of trust and respect.
The writer is Professor, Department of English, University of Dhaka.