Pahela Baishakh in Carbondale
Celebrating Pahela Baishakh is only getting more and more colorful. It is no less than a carnival these days. As far I can remember, since the days of my girlhood I have been visiting Ramna, first with my parents, then with friends. The companions changed, but the spirit never did. It was always the same—birds chirping, getting ready in a frenzy, dressing in red and white, the same but ever new “Esho he Baishakh,” chotpoti and fuchka, panta and hilsha, and everything else that comes with it. The day is no different from any other, but it's the spirit that makes all the difference. Come to think of it, however, I suddenly realize that the most memorable Pahela Baishakh in my life is connected not with Ramna Botomul and the greenery of Dhaka, but a small nondescript town in Illinois, USA. In Dhaka, I have been a more or less regular botomul goer. But in that alien town of Carbondale, where there was nothing Bengali, we strove to evoke the spirit of Baishakh with all our might—a handful of 25-30 Bangladeshi students and some spouses and children.
That particular year, I was the general secretary of the Bangladesh Student Association at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. I don't recall exactly how it started, but we were determined to have a grand Pahela Baishakh. The worst thing about Bangladeshis, as we all know, is our divided existence. If there are four Bengalis in one place, there will be at least three groups. Carbondale was no different. But in spite of everything, we decided to celebrate the Pahela Baishakh. A venue was chosen, the funds were raised, the Bangladeshi faculty members were generous, and the students came forward with whatever little they could spare. There was no lack of spirit. The cooking and the decoration were divided in two groups. And then it began….
There was a residence hall with a huge kitchen with seven ovens with a total of 14 burners. Two of our graduate students lived there and we swarmed the kitchen the night before Pahela Baishakh. It was difficult to get hisha that year. Apparently, hilsha export was banned by the Bangladesh Government and no hilsha to be had.
Then, a Bangladeshi bhabi called me up. “Apa, there's boal maach at the International Grocery.”
I was kind of short tempered for many reasons, and barked, “So? Do you want to feed people boal maach?”
“Yes, I mean the boal looks and smells exactly like hilsha fish,” the bhabi replied hastily.
I was dumbfounded. As it turned out, our deshi brethren exported hilsha under the name of 'boal' to fool the customs officials. And of course, we got fifteen pieces of 'boal maach' and turned them into hilsha.
At the kitchen, there was complete chaos. Nobody wanted to chop onions. The ladies were all yelling, “We can't cook and chop onions too.” I am not sure how the selections were made, but suddenly, Zaman, Halim, and another young man whose name I no longer remember, were sitting with several plastic containers, chopping knives and a huge pile of big, round purplish onions. They were peeled but not chopped. We all got busy and there were laughter, banter, squeals, and of course, the din of sounds of pots and pans. The hilsha fishes were entrusted with one of the bhabis and were being cooked elsewhere. We were busy with ten different kinds of bhorta, daal, chicken and beef.
At a crucial moment, Tariq came in with a huge bundle of potatoes and said, “Hey Zaman bhai, why are you crying? Are you missing bhabi?”
We all looked and saw poor Zaman and his two comrades in copious tears. We laughed out loud, and Zaman yelled back, “Why don't you come and take my place? You'll be wailing for your yet-to-be-bride.”
At this moment, someone remembered, “O dear, we did not rehearse for the chorus. Should we try it now?”
Right. So there was the cultural program. While we did prepare for the decoration and had everything ready, the cultural program was a total mess. The individual songs and recitation were fine, I guess. But the chorus of “Esho, he Boishakh” had not been practiced even once.
Tariq was the BSA president. He said, “Why do we need to practice? Isn't it like our national anthem?”
We scowled and somehow started singing right there in the kitchen with the seven ovens. The pots and spoons became our musical instruments and we were chopping, cooking and singing all at once.
I think we probably slept only for a couple of hours that night.
The morning of the program now seems like a blur. The program was supposed to be held at a local church. We had created a large painting showing a bright sun, blue sky, trees, birds and butterflies. There were kites and other ornaments hanging all around the large room. The guests were yet to arrive and I barely had time to wear my Baishakhi saree. Toma had borrowed one of my sarees and suddenly I heard her squeak, “Apu!” she sounded horrified. Both my hands were full of treats for the kids and I asked, “What's it now?”
“You have to look. It's Tariq bhaiya.”
Tariq had gone home to put on Baishakhi panjabee. So, he had returned. I turned around and dropped whatever I had in my hands.
A blazing red something was standing at the bottom of the stairs. It had eyes and it was grinning at us. Then I realized that it was Tariq, and he was wearing the most horrendous shade of red panjabee I had ever seen. And it did not seem like a simple panjabee, but something out of a Bollywood film.
“W..where the hell did you get that?” I gasped.
“Arif bhai lent it to me. Is it so bad?” Tariq's face fell at our expression.
“Bhaiya, don't you have any sense? You are the BSA president. What will the faculty members say?” Toma moaned.
“You have nothing else?” I asked.
“The ones I have from home don't fit any more,“ came the embarrassed reply.
“Then I guess it will have to do,“ I said decisively.
Toma groaned while I smiled, “At least, nobody can miss him.”
The hallroom slowly started filling up. People from our community and others came in twos and threes. I could see some critical glances and some derisive ones. But most of the faces seemed happy and expectant. Lunch was being served as a buffet. People were interested in hilsha most, of course. No Pahela Baishakh can happen without hilsha. People praised the cooks highly. There were light skirmishes over the hilsha too—who would get the bigger piece, etc.
The dreaded cultural program was after the dinner. And one of the notorious singers of the community stepped forward to grab the microphone when singing the chorus. We were all yelling at the top of our lungs, and I prayed fervently that nobody would detect the off notes. No such luck though. Right after we finished, a senior apa who had not sung, whispered into my ear, “Good lord, who asked that cat to sing?”
The rest of the performances went better. I would not say that we were stars, but everything was spontaneous. At one point, I realized that everyone was enjoying the day tremendously. The games were a lot of fun—frog leap, hari bhanga, belun phutano, musical chair for the ladies. The most serious of professors suddenly became zealous defenders of their respective balloons. We laughed and laughed till our sides ached.
By the time we were done with the program, it was almost evening, and we were totally exhausted. But everyone had huge grins on their faces. Someone said, “Thank God, tomorrow's Sunday. I don't think I can get up in the morning.”
As we were packing, Tariq shouted, “We need hari dhowa party. The pots and pans are still lying dirty in my kitchen. You guys better help!”
Halim yelled, “Why did we ever agree to organize this program?”
And someone grumbled, “Yet why do I have this feeling that we'll do it again next year?”
Sohana Manzoor is Assistant Professor, Department of English & Humanities at ULAB. She is also the Editor of the Star Literature and Review Pages.