All things colourful make up the Bangla New Year—boisterous celebrations of nature, art work, music, food, the quintessential Bengali warmth, and the Mongol Shobhajatra as its crowning jewel. This year, when the country is faced with yet another lockdown amid the recent spike in COVID-19 cases, perhaps re-reading some Bangla classics will take us closer to the spirit of Pohela Boishakh missing from our lives. These are some of the books that transport me back to the halcyon days of Pohela Boishakh celebrations in Bengal.
Adarsha Hindu Hotel by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay
Hajari, the protagonist of Adarsha Hindu Hotel (1940), is a Bengali Brahmin cook working in a hotel near a railway station. He dreams of opening his own hotel someday. As we travel along with Hajari as he tries to realise his ambitions, we are treated in the process with mouthwatering descriptions of simple, authentic Bengali cooking. It is Bibhutibhushan's focus on details and imagery that transform the story into such a feel-good Bengali novel to read or re-read on this occasion.
Kobi by Tarashankar Bandopadhyay
Jatra and Palagan are intricate parts of Pohela Boishakh and rural Bengal folk culture since time immemorial. Tarashankar Bandopadhyay's Kobi (1944) situates us in the lives of a group of Jatra artists, accompanied by a poet, the novel's protagonist. The book deals with complex human emotions through the life of this poet, takes readers on a turbulent ride through love and heartbreaks, and leaves them with a longing for life.
Gurudev O Santiniketan by Syed Mujtaba Ali
Pohela Baishakh celebrations, in both West Bengal and Bangladesh, remain incomplete to a great extent without Tagore's music and poetry. The cultural celebrations, too, are heavily influenced by the traditions and culture of Shantiniketan.
Gurudev O Santiniketan (1981) is a collection of memoirs written by Syed Mujtaba Ali during his student years at Shantiniketan. He was mentored directly by Rabindranath Tagore and came in contact with many intellectuals and acclaimed professors of the institution. This book delves into the rituals, the festivities of Pohela Boishakh, and Tagore's life in general. Syed Mujtaba Ali's humorous narration makes it an especially enjoyable read for the occasion.
Shei Shomoy and Prothom Alo by Sunil Gangopadhyay
Divided into two parts, Shei Shomoy (1997) is set in 19th century Kolkata under British colonial rule. The novel spans from 1840 to 1870, the time of the Bengali Renaissance when many societal reforms were being pioneered by Bengali intellectuals, namely Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, who introduced the culture of widow remarriage among the Hindu community. The cultural and literary dimension of the renaissance, meanwhile, was marked by the legendary work of Michael Madhusudan Dutta and the rise of Bengali theatres. Sunil Gangopadhyay's novel perfectly captures the time, the historical characters, and the essence of the cultural evolution that took place during that era.
Although published a year before Shei Shomoy, Prothom Alo (1996) focuses on life in the latter half of the 19th century. It offer a closer peek into the life, work, and muse of Rabindranath Tagore and the Jorasanko Thakurbari, with their Brahman way of life and pioneering cultural practices in Bengal. Gangopadhyay's effortless narration and the research he put into bringing that world alive helps one travel back in time.
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