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|Volume 11 |Issue| 15 | April 13, 2012 ||
A Roman Column
Confessions of a Non-celebrant
I have celebrated many a Pohela Boishakh in my thirty years of ex-pat life, organising and participating in a variety of cultural events and private functions. But I have done so without true conviction, and only to conform to social conventions.
I confess that at a personal level, living for decades in a non-Bengali environment, Pohela Boishakh does not really mean anything to me; and left to my self I would probably let it pass unmarked. The reason is simple. I use the Gregorian calendar, so my new year starts on January First. Why would someone who never had to use the Bengali calendar think of 14 April as a New Year?
I figure: I am an urban dweller, and though I love nature and respect agriculture, I am not a sixteenth century farmer in a remote rural Bengal of Akbar's era who under the moveable lunar Islamic calendar had to pay tax on his crops even when it was not the harvest month. So Akbar's adaptation of the Hindu solar calendar creating the fixed 'Fasli San' or Agricultural Year, starting it in post-harvest Boishakh was helpful to the long ago farmers, but irrelevant to me.
In fact, outside Bangladesh, and in the European world, April is a chilly month, the beginning of spring, not the start of high summer, so it never made sense to me to sing about a sweltering Bengali summer month or dance to rhythms depicting the anticipated stormy Kaal-boshekhi jhor. Yet, in deference to the cultural patterns in the homeland, we in a still cold Italy would gather in our delicate cotton saris and kurta-pajamas topped with shawls and coats, singing 'Esho hey Boishakh' or other songs about the scalding heat of Bengal without internalizing the words.
I always felt that here in Italy, lacking an organic raison d'etre for this celebration, instead of celebrating the Bengali New Year in our own western-urban ways, we merely imitated how our fellow-celebrants in the homeland greeted it. So, I always found our Italian Pohela Boishakh to be a contrived festival full of pretend rituals.
This year, too, I am preparing to greet fellow Bengalis and my Italian students of Bangla with a hollow 'Shubho nobo borsho' knowing it is an empty gesture, since it is not the start of a calendar that is used here. In Dhaka this day, a joyous secular festival rooted in rural life and country fairs, will be an excuse to sing, dance, eat and have fun in the city too; and since the rituals are attuned to the season, they are an organic part of the life of the land. The summery food served in terracotta to keep them cool makes sense; wearing light cottons is practical; painting alponas and faces, dancing to invoke rains, singing and reciting poetry about the season, all make sense in the true Bengali environment. In Italy, I am tired of recreating, on my own, something that has no basis in the world around me.
I remember Tagore once said about festivals: “Protidin manush khudro…Kintu utshober dine manush brihot, she shomosto manusher shonge aikotro hoiya brihot...” (Man in his daily-ness is trivial…But on a festival day man is vast; it is in uniting with all men that he becomes vast..) And it is in the last half of Tagore's words that my dilemma lies. How do you celebrate a festival alone, rise above your individual insignificance? What does a festival mean to you when you are by yourself, without co-celebrants?
Then this morning I woke up to a silent Italian world of Easter Sunday or Pasqua. As during Eid in Dhaka, many here have left for the country side to be with family, or gone away for the long weekend. The streets are empty and the neighbourhood is quiet except for the occasional peeling of church bells.
The Italians, who never eat eggs for breakfast, are today gathering in their homes to start their day with boiled eggs! Surely, there is nothing special about boiled eggs whether coloured or painted, or made out of chocolate. But the point, I know, is that they are bringing ritual to a day, creating significance out of the past, both the pagan, symbolizing the beginning of life, of spring; and the Christian, in the resurrection of Christ. So exchanging and breaking chocolate eggs is a gesture, of gestation, and not an empty one.
But how should I approach Pohela Boishakh, what gesture would make it relevant to my real world that does not involve wearing red bordered cotton saris on a chilly day, making 'typical' Bengali food, which we eat year round, anyway, or singing to myself 'Esho hey Boishakh'! So, shall I just ignore it, the way I ignore Easter? I am at a loss.
Driving through the residential streets of Rome I am thrilled at the sight of trees bursting with pink blossoms. Out on a walk I am accosted by hedges wild with purple wisteria. Stepping out to my patch of wintry garden I discover tiny buds on the dried branches of rose creepers. Everywhere: the renewal of life. The plants and trees, secular symbols of nature's resurrection, and a Tagorean recycling of trivial man into the vastness of eternal life. My heart too, buds with inspiration.
I decide that Pohela Boishakh coinciding with Easter and spring will be for me not a remote and artificially observed Bengali New Year, but a symbol of a second beginning, a second chance. In fact, it will be a truer new year, linked neither to the wintry January one, nor to the imagined summer heat and storms in a far away homeland, but to renewals and fresh starts.
I go to the local nursery to buy a flowering plant to root in my garden, and a chocolate egg. It is enough for now.
I am still not convinced that 14 April will ever be my functional New Year, but the first of Boishakh will be, as always, a second New Year festival to indulge in, an excuse to celebrate spring here.
Life is a celebration, and my Pohela Boishakh is being heralded by bells and flowers and eggs and earth and the warmth of a reawakening world around me, today and everyday.
Shubho Nobo Borsho! More importantly, Shubho Nobo Din!