Celebrating Eid in the Forties
As I look back to the Eid festivities during my youth, some thoughts and images come to my mind. Eid came every year to each household and there was a commonality in the manner of its observance in all families, be they rich or poor, small or large.
One joyfully anticipated the coming of Eid and a generous spirit prevailed all around. This was also true of those who were not practicing Muslims and not fasting regularly. Another thing to note is the spirit of brotherhood that permeated on Eid day. People would embrace each other, irrespective of their social position. In the Eid congregation, the beggar who came to your house yesterday with a stretched hand, stood proudly next to you and performed the same prayers. This indeed struck my young mind as a unique feature of Islam, which, over the ages, had attracted millions into the ranks of Muslims throughout the world, including Bengal.
In our Calcutta days, the biggest and the most prestigious Eid Jamaat was held in the 'Garer Math' near the Octorlony Monument. We lived in Park Circus. As children we went, holding our father's hand, to the Park Circus Maidan, which was within walking distance from our house. We got new clothes and shoes for the happy occasion and a small cash allowance. A few of our aunts and uncles, then senior students in colleges and universities in Calcutta, would visit us after the prayers and stay on to have a festive lunch with us. In the late afternoon, we would hire a comfortable Fitton-a high carriage, clad in leather and drawn by a big, often decorated, horse. We would visit a few of our relations elsewhere in Park Circus, Bhawanipur or in Upper Circular Road. The Fitton had a folding cover, which on good days and in the evenings, would be left open to allow the breeze to come in. To us, it was a joyous ride on a happy occasion.
Once we went to our village home in Dinajpur to celebrate Eid with our Dadi. It was cold and taking a hot bath in the morning was complicated. We prayed in the small family mosque in the outer yard with our relations, which basically meant almost everyone in that small village. Later, we visited the graves of our grandfather and other elders buried beside the mosque. Those days one taka was a large round coin in real silver. I remember my father with a small bag of takas, distributing these to all the children in the village who were absolutely delighted. Dadi chose large 'morogs” (roosters) and young goats from her house for the special meal for her Calcutta-dwelling grandchildren. Most of the other ingredients were fresh from her own land. She cooked in large earthen pots over fire, burning wood and patkathi. Everything tasted so good to us, partly because it was our old Dadi's excellent cooking. Dadi's gifts to me and my brother were two beautifully hand-painted ceramic plates made by Delft, a famous Dutch factory for hundreds of years, which we visited in the 1980s. I have no idea how Dadi got hold of these items in a remote village. We still have these but use only as decorative pieces. Although there was no electricity, lighting was by hariken lanterns, and the day was short in the cold winter of North Bengal, I remember that Eid in our village as the most memorable one. In Jalpaiguri, a small and prosperous district town, Eid was a big social and family affair when in 1942-43 we lived there for two years with our maternal grandparents. Most people knew each other and mixing and exchanging Eid greetings was on a large scale.
Coming to Dhaka in 1947, we had the good fortune of living in Purana Paltan in a number of adjacent houses with quite a few uncles, and other relations within walking distance from our house. This unique situation in Dhaka made the celebration of Eid-ul-Fitr in our family more enjoyable in both scale and quality compared to Calcutta. In Dhaka, we would jointly share the interesting preparatory days for Eid with other family members in the 'Ghetto.' This would start from the 27th day of Ramadan and end midnight before the Eid day, when the tension over whether the moon has been seen will be finally over. As children, we fasted a few days but always on the 27th day of Ramadan. It was a special day and an improved iftar would be prepared in our home and exchanged between other homes. On other days, whether I fasted or not, mother would always call me just before iftar and I would obediently eat the iftar with my parents. That was supposed to give me some 'sawabs' (divine blessings).
It was the 29th or the 30th day of Ramadan that was most exciting. We would secretly pray that the moon would be sighted on the 29th and would go on the roof or stand in the lawn for an exciting moon watch. If that faint thin slice of the moon was seen on any of these days, crackers would burst and people would clap their hands. My mother would look at the moon, offer a prayer and salaams. She would call us and kiss our foreheads in happiness. People would rush to their homes and get busy with the preparation of the house for the august occasion and any last-minute shopping of food items. Women in the house would bring out fancy curtains and tablecloths, decorate the drawing room and prepare the main dining table in the best linen, crockery and cutlery that they possessed. Clothes for the special occasion had to be ironed and made ready, as well as arrangements for getting up early to attend the first prayer next morning. Visiting our next-door relations, greeting them and checking on the state of their preparation were in vogue.
Then the great morning of Eid would finally come. We would go with our father and uncles to Paltan Maidan for the prayers. As we walked the short distance, we would be joined by hundreds of others who were also going to the same place with prayer mats in their hands. It felt so good to be part of a large prayer gathering and gave one a sense of unity and purpose. Upon return, the first thing was to salaam our parents, particularly our mother, who was patiently preparing the food and waiting for us to return. One ate a little, as the obligatory visits to our relations next door and others nearby, particularly our Nani, could not be delayed. We knew that she was waiting to bless us and affectionately give us small gifts or cash. It was so sweet an atmosphere that I retain vivid memories of those days.
The whole morning would be spent in these visits. We would periodically return home to receive guests in our house and entertain them. A big smile was on everyone's face, and nobody seemed to have any concern, at least on that day. I wished the day never ended, but it inevitably did. Relations would come to visit until late evening and by nighttime we would all get very tired. The festive mood lingered on for one or two more days, when the circle for the Eid greetings would extend to cover people beyond the close family.
Obviously, my experience was not very different from any other family. Eid was universal and by its very conception, touched all in the same joyous way. Here in Washington, we have retained the same spirit of the Eid and the tradition continues. We do the same things on Eid day -- enjoying with our children and grandchildren, dressed up in colourful clothes and sharing with them and friends the blessings of the happiest day of the year.
Azizul Jalil writes from Washington.
(R) thedailystar.net 2006