Better Late than Never -- Pohela Boishakh in Banglatown
Nadia Kabir Barb
It has been almost nine years since I celebrated Bangla New Year in Dhaka and I do miss the buzz that surrounds the whole concept of Pohela Boishakh. Even if you just sit at home, you are still aware of the festivities around you and the excitement people seem to feel is palpable. So this year I decided to attend the Boishakhi Mela held in the East End. It usually takes place in May instead of the actual Bangla New Year itself and as far as I am aware the reason for this is that the weather is usually expected to be better in May than April and likely to attract more people. So on the day of the Mela, our small group consisting of me and my three children, my aunt, a friend and her son headed off to Brick Lane.
This was my first visit to Brick Lane and I was quite curious to see what 'Banglatown', the name bestowed upon it, was all about. This name of course comes from the fact that there is a huge Bangladeshi influence on Spitalfields, the heart of the East End and particularly Brick Lane. The history of the area is also extremely fascinating as it has been known for providing a safe haven for those escaping persecution. 'In the 18th Century the area was occupied by silk weavers largely descended from the Huguenot refugees (French Protestants escaping from Catholic persecution in France). A hundred years later, Jews fleeing the Pogroms in Eastern Europe founded a thriving community. Nowhere is the diversity of Spitalfields more evident than in the history of the building that now houses the Brick Lane mosque. It was first built as a church by the Huguenots but later became a synagogue when a Jewish community replaced the Protestant population. By the middle of the 20th Century the Jewish community had mostly moved on and the building was converted in to a mosque to serve the Bangladeshi community.' And now Brick Lane is host to events such as the Boishakhi Mela which has almost 80,000 visitors!
The Mela was scheduled to start around eleven o'clock and we managed to get there at midday. We had heard that there were supposed to be a vast number of activities planned including a procession of Musicians, Dancers, a Bridal Ride with Palki (Palanquin) and Rickshaws, and we were delighted to find that our timing was impeccable as the procession had just started. The Mayor of London Ken Livingston had been invited to inaugurate the Mela. However we did not see any sign of our Mayor. I doubt it would have been as much fun as watching the hordes of people go by, some dressed up in traditional garments, others with face paints or with masks. I was also surprised and very pleased to see that many of the participants in the procession were non-deshi people. My kids were thrilled to see a huge metal tiger pass by on a float followed by children with tiger masks waving Bangladeshi flags. We even saw the couple dressed up as a bride and bride groom riding on a rickshaw. The girls were quite keen to see the bride in a Palki but we were either unlucky to have missed it or it had been replaced by the rickshaw Bridal party. I have to admit the sari the bride was wearing was a bit garish for my taste with the tomato red and yellowy golden tinsel like zari on the border. But it was definitely colourful and added to the festive atmosphere. We clapped and cheered until the train of people had turned round the corner and we were left to carry on with our expedition.
As the whole of Brick Lane had been closed off and pedestrianised, we were free to stroll down the street absorbing the ambience of our surroundings which felt a bit like a bustling market place with different stalls selling handicrafts, shalwar kameez outfits, delicious looking snacks and an uncountable number of 'curry houses' hoping to attract customers by extending their restaurants onto the streets. I had no idea that there were so many restaurants in Brick Lane, in fact it looked like every other shop was an eatery. One of the stalls I passed was selling jhaal chanachur, jhaal boroi and kaachaa aamer bhorta and my aunt and I could not resist the temptation to stop and taste these mouth watering items and we just had to try the aam bhorta. Sadly we were let down with the first mouthful as the ratio of mangoes to green chilli was 5:1! It was so hot that we had to surrender and leave the poor container in a bin down the road.
There was also supposed to be a cultural programme in an adjoining field so we followed the crowd and headed for weavers fields. The field was relatively packed when we got there and as we walked around, I was suddenly hit by a wave of nostalgia. It reminded me of being a teenager wandering around the WVA Meena bazaar. As I looked around me I could see the women dressed up in brightly coloured shalwar kameezes and saris, their wrists adorned with brightly coloured bangles and the men in their kurtas and jeans, everyone smiling and chatting. The atmosphere was lively and we were in time for our traditional folk songs including Baul songs. There was a whole line up of entertainment to follow starting from Bangla rock, Bollywood songs, to bhangra and contemporary east/west fusion. I just assumed that as the Baishakhi Mela was catering not just to the Bangladeshi community but to a much wider audience that there was such a mix of songs and genres.
Having four children with us meant that we did not have much time to listen to the songs or watch the cultural programme as we were dragged into the fairground that had been set up in the field. There were a number of different types of rides, some catering to the younger children and other rides that would get the adrenalin flowing for the more adventurous. There was also a bouncy castle, games stalls, 'henna tattoo' stalls and many more activities that would have kept all of us busy for hours had our stomachs not reminded us that we needed to have lunch! Even our exit from the fair was slowed down as my children wanted to buy a Bangladeshi Flag (which now hangs from their bedroom window!)
Our stomachs led us back to the streets of Brick Lane in search of a place to eat. The problem was that we had so much choice, we were in a dilemma as to where to go. As we deliberated and procrastinated, the decision was taken out of our hands by my youngest daughter who was, by this time, so hungry that she made us enter the restaurant we happened to be standing in front of. I was a bit thrown by a menu which had "Mass Biran" on it and spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out what it meant and was finally put out of my misery and told that it was fried fish. 'Mass' being 'Mach'. There was definitely a lull in the chattering of the kids and our conversation as we gobbled up the food presented to us and after we were fed and watered, we had to finally make way to the tube station to get back home.
I think all of us throughly enjoyed our Boishakhi Mela in London and it was just the right way to celebrate our Shubho Nobo Borsho albeit a month late.
(R) thedailystar.net 2006