“Choroi bhati korche maathe choto cheler dol
Bhojon cheye digun beshi pulock kolahol
Unone foo dey keo, chokkhu kore laal
Kather lagi bhangche keo shukno mota daal…”
So runs on the poem “Choroi bhati”. And it is this poem, which most of us were coerced to memorise (and produce in our exam scripts verbatim), that captures the true essence of 'choroi bhati'.
The term may appear meaningless to the younger end of the age spectrum. However, occasions such as these are not only many people's favourite pastime, 'choroi bhtati' has become deeply embedded in our cultural infrastructure. Often termed as “jholabhati” or “bonbhojon”, 'choroi bhati' is a children-version of picnic. It is a small-scale cookout that can take place in fields, yards or even on the rooftop.
What seems like child's play is, in real terms, not that simple. There are rules, responsibilities, duties and rituals. After all, this is not mere pretence- it is real cooking. The usual scenario is something like this: a few youngsters get together, and invite their friends and fellow children in the neighbourhood to join in for a cookout. Everyone contributes. With all the ingredients and utensils set out… the game begins.
“The whole concept of 'choroi bhati' was intriguing to us all,” says Sayeeda Sultana, “Each of us was assigned to collect a particular item- eggplants, rice, 'daal', salt and what not. We had clay stove in the shed, which we brought along and stuffed with tree branches and sticks for the fire.”
Fahmida Rahman used to be another such 'choroi bhati' enthusiast. “We were a big family. So naturally, there were a lot of children- siblings, cousins, friends and neighbours. Among them, the little ones had to contribute 50 paisa each, while those who were relatively older chipped in Tk.1. Then came the task of role assigning- the boys were to do the shopping from the local bazaar and the girls were in charge of cooking. The younger boys had the duty to collect sticks and branches to feed the fire, and the small girls assisted in cooking.”
Needless to say, the whole event was accepted with much fanfare and infantile mischief. “I was keen on shopping for grocery items and fish from a very early age,” boasts Russel Chowdhury, laughing “Naturally, I feigned indifference till everyone begged me to go shopping. After the shopping, the fish was handed over to our eldest brother, who had an amazing skill of chopping up fish. Again, he used to put on quite a show before he got into the real action… especially if the neighbourhood girls were around.”
The excitement that marks 'choroi bhati' is contagious. Everyone is in the mood to execute their duties and obligations. Once that is done, it is the time to wait for the cooking to be done. Scuttling and shuffling around the stove (the epicenter of the occasion), only one question bombards the mind: 'When can we get to eat?' The aroma that wafts past only serves to whet the appetite.
“There was this one time when we decided to have a feast. We all worked hard and threw in Tk.5 each (which was a large sum back then),” says Fahmida Rahman, “We thought of preparing polaw and meat curry. Not that the end product was delicious, but we all went home at dusk with a sense of achievement.”
Sadly, with life running on the fast track these days, children today rarely have the time for such activities. They have become captive to the computer, television and video games.
Nevertheless, some still like to unwind for a while and uphold the much-valued tradition. Fatima Nawmee Rishta, a student of law, is one such person. “I still consider 'choroi bhati' fun. Some things just stay with you. The toughest (but undoubtedly, the most interesting!) part of it is lighting the stove- you have to blow in air hard till it lights. Mind you, it gets real sooty and smoky, and it stings your eyes.
“One of my most memorable of 'choroi bhati' was in Cox Bazaar,” she continues, “We could hear the sea gurgle and smell the salty air as we prepared. It was long after dusk when we could finally sit down to eat. But it was a completely different experience.”
This can be seen as an interesting variation to the typical 'choroi bhati'. If the city life takes too much toll on your schedule, you may consider weekend escapades- while the elders can use this time to unwind, the children can have their picnic.
There may be other attractive twists, too. Perhaps dumping utensils can be an option. The alternative? Banana leaf. Not only is it fun to eat out of, it is a thrill of its own to hunt for the leaf.
No matter how catalysed our lives have been metamorphosed to, 'choroi bhati' is a timeless aspect of the Bengali culture. It represents the spirit, the passion, the zest of our merrymaking.
By Shahmuddin Ahmed Siddiky
Special thanks to all those who took a jog down their memory lane