New Year and Nostalgia . . .
Syed Badrul Ahsan
New Year causes a revival of lost times in the soul. The earliest of memories I have of New Year celebrations is of the late 1950s in Quetta, Baluchistan. It was all a celebration of snow, which came down from the clouds in an unending stream, sending thrills through me, making me silently ask God not to let the festivities end. Winter in Quetta was forever a cold, forbiddingly beautiful spectacle, a season I waited for all through spring, summer and autumn. Come the 1960s. It was in December, as the first specks of snow began to fall, that my annual school results were announced. It snowed as the principal of the missionary school I studied in made public the top three results in every class. In mine, I was always first. Clutching the report card in my fist amid the falling snow, I ran home to tell my mother. Father was meanwhile rushing home in good cheer.
On New Year's Day, it was a celebration at home. Mother cooked unusually well and prepared all the pulao, khichuri, kofta and korma you could imagine. The snow fell, the flakes dancing their way to the ground in the blast of wind cutting right across our cheeks. A blazing fire warmed the house. Father piled coal into the fireplace even as the earlier pile vanished into ashes. As the years passed and I moved into high school, New Year's Day turned into a daylong celebration of snowball competitions all along the street we shared with our Pathan, Baluch, Punjabi, Sindhi and Urdu-speaking neighbours. Faiz Jan and Nadeem, among my other friends, pelted me with those soft white balls which nevertheless hit me like meteorites. And, of course, there were the girls, pretty and red-cheeked in the wind and snow. Nighat Farzana, long-haired, dimpled and dreamy-eyed, ducked as a snowball from me flew towards her. It landed straight on her hair even as Arifa, the Punjabi I kept hoping would get friendly with me, threw a hard one my way. It felt romantic, in that teenaged way, to be her target.
And then we all went home, to wolf down warm food and dive straight under the quilts. In the early 1970s, January 1972 to be precise, I was in free Bangladesh on New Year's Day, praying with millions of other Bangalis for Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to come back home from his dark prison in Pakistan. He would return nine days later. And then, for me, time moved on. New Year slowly declined in significance for me and my family, for we had fallen on hard times. Father was the harassed breadwinner for a family that could hardly cope with rising prices. I made New Year resolutions, which were really prayers for a job, for a chance to tutor schoolchildren in their homes. It would not be till 1976 that I would earn anything. Life was made slightly easier through a quarterly stipend of 2200 taka which began to come in after I entered university.
Ah, the university! That is another story. Every New Year's Day, we would spot a long list of names, mine and my classmates', posted along the corridors of the English department, along with some intriguing titles attached to all of them. For the girls who used an excess of make-up, there was the honorific War Paint. For one who did well in his tutorials and wore spectacles to boot, there was Dilton Doily. For a girl who played hard to get, there was the very suggestive Still Waters Run Deep. No one knew who devised those titles or prepared that list, but there it was, year after year. And we enjoyed it, sometimes tongue-in-cheek.
On New Year's Day in 1996, it snowed in Quetta. A quarter century after I had left it, I was back, standing before the home where Nighat Farzana once lived. It was empty and the street was deserted. As the familiar wind whistled through the bare trees, I broke into Ghulam Ali's soul-stirring “hum tere shahar mein aaye hain musafir ki tarah / sirf ik baar mulaqat ka mouqa de de”.
This morning, a bohemian, I brood on lost times in the cold wind rushing through the grey streets of London.
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