‘Pahela Baishakh has long ceased to be our festival; it’s now a gimmick for you city folks,’ Abdul Kader Mridha had a grin on his face, as the octogenarian of village Joyshara under Atrai upazila in Naogaon sat on the makeshift bamboo bench facing the only convenience store in the vicinity. Calling out to the young men, who had timidly trickled from the surrounding paddy fields to gather around the spot, Kader Mridha pounded the dusty ground devoid of rain for nearly four months with his thick wooden walking stick, and yelled out, ‘So, what do you men say — is Pahela Baishakh our big festival?’
Blank stares at first, and then one of the teenage faces with watermark traces of a juvenile moustache, blurts out: ‘There is a mela near the haat. It goes on for a week. We go there.’ Several sceptical glances from the relatively more wrinkled faces turned towards the boy. ‘What?’ ‘To see those filthy cinemas, and drink “bad liquid”?’ ‘Is that what you call mela?’ The accusations and questions crashed onto the already shrinking young faces in, in what was a small crowd, as the morning sun climbed further up the sky to a blazing mid-afternoon glare.
Joyshara is a typical village. It’s what the Roads and Highways Department lexicon would term ‘remote’. The motorbike taking me had to stop twice, as the resurrected feeder road to the village was having new soil and crushed brick spread over it. The diggers — both men and women with bare rippling muscles — were mostly from in and around the village. The dust rising from the constant thumping of shovels wafted the warm, dry air with a grainy taste, lingering on at the roof of my mouth. Despite all the work on the road which snaked through several villages, and the dust, Joyshara and everything for miles and miles on both sides of the rail track, on which the local train from Shantahar had brought me to Atrai Sadar station in the morning, was stroked with a gentle green. The paddy fields were gestating for their final gradient shift in colour: from green to gold. A sense of trepid excitement was sparkling on the pupils of the rugged faces standing with me at the crowded entrance of one of the train’s eight compartments.
At Raninagar, the station before where I got off, some of the commuters and I had to lend our hands to a man who was trying to pull up a heavy, iron machine with crude blue colour onto the train. ‘What is that?’ Several curious, forgiving glances shifted between those around me. ‘Bought a new thrashing machine for this year’s harvest,’ the man with the machine answered.
As I casually brought up the subject of Pahela Baishkah, the initial blank faces and then meek smiles of recognising an alien idea was a potent nudge to the understanding that Pahela Baishakh was no longer a part of ‘their’ way of life. Someone, somewhere in the cities have been telling them through television, newspapers and the dominant urban popular culture that this — Pahela Baishakh — was a festival they should be calling their own.
While Baishakhi offers for cheap mobile lines and opening of glass-rapped shopping malls and swanky cafés crowd airwaves and newspaper pages, and as millions migrate to be part of the great dream of prosperity that has come to represent the ‘elusive’ urban middle-class, through our looking glasses the lives of the other millions in Bangladesh’s villages have somewhat become a ‘fabricated reality’. Monga, flood, micro-credit, fertiliser crisis, diesel prices have become fables many of us read in newspapers and say, ‘Ishh!’
Ananda (Joy), the quintessential Bengali word for happiness, was always there under the waves of sunshine and over the green paddy fields of rural Bengal. Its condensed expressions had been through the many festivals dotting the seasons. But before romanticising over the ‘spontaneity’ of these festivities, it is essential to understand their roots. For many of these celebrations, though expressed through a festive mood, were borne out of feudal, agrarian systems. And Pahela Baishakh is the best example of such festivities.
Like many borrowed traditions, and transposed ideas, during the early rule of the Mughals, the Hijri calendar started being used. But as the Hijri calendar was based on lunar readings, it was in gross mismatch with our native agricultural cycles. This also created a problem for the ruling class: taxes. And in order to streamline agricultural tax collection, a new calendar — a mix between the Hijri and the then existing Bengali Solar calendars — was formulated by a renowned scholar and astronomer of the time, Fatehullah Shirazi, and instituted by the Mughal Emperor Akbar. This new Fasli San (agricultural year) started off on 10/11 March, 1584, and was known as Bangabda or Bengali year (Source: Banglapedia).
It was during Emperor Akbar’s period that saw the first celebrations of Pahela Baishakh. And throughout the British colonial times, though the festivities changed in variation and form, the zamindari system of landlords collecting taxes at the end of the year sustained these celebrations. While the tax was collected on the last day of the Bengali calendar, that is the last day of Chaitra, the celebrations organised by the zaminders — quite logically — started off the next day.
Different localities had their own way of celebrating. But while local forms of celebrations were customised with the climate and topography of the region, the actual formal celebrations were mainly focused around the fairs and other festivities, in the form of entertainment and food, organised by the zamindars.
While today’s popular history mostly projects a time of merriment during the time, this period also culminated in a crude reality: it was the time when farmers had to give away much of their earnings. Of the three crop cycles of the Bengal delta — ayush, aman and boro — the harvest of the last one, which in fact was a leaner season during those periods compared to the other two, coincided with Pahela Baishakh. As a result, after the tax collection and the initial merriment of festivities were over, the farmers of the Bengal delta were hit by poverty in the following months as the remaining meagre crop and other savings started getting eroded. Though this phenomenon has changed in nature, with the abolishment of the permanent landlord, or zamindari, system, today’s monga is just the acute and more complex manifestation of that crack in the system. One of the reasons for this can be attributed to the ever decreasing crop holdings per household.
Another aspect of the festivities of Pahela Baishakh was the opening of a new halkhata at trading establishments. The point to note here is that in Bengal trading and capital-intensive businesses, as in every society, was limited to a certain segment of society, namely those closest to the ruling class. And as the majority of the populace were purely producers, i.e. farmers, Pahela Baishakh manifested itself in a two-prong erosion of savings as they had to part with another large chunk of their seasonal earnings. Therefore, if put together, it is natural that the rentier class, i.e. landlords (zaminders), traders, were the most enthusiastic in organising formal celebrations as their coffers started filling up.
Yet, Pahela Baishakh celebrations in more localised forms have long been around, before the British, or even the Mughals, came. And these celebrations had little connection to the ushering of a new year as a calendar, or cycle. That, unfortunately, is simply the post-modern expression of a colonial tradition. The celebration of Pahela Baishakh as an event ushering the Bengali New Year is, therefore, fundamentally a transposed idea: an urban ‘re-imagining of popular memory’ of sorts. What started in Dhaka in the mid-sixties as a nationalist, cultural movement rooted in urban/semi-urban middle-class values, and centred on the native reinvention of the classical Rabindric mould of the Calcutta intelligentsia, has now manifested itself through ‘a selective post-modern screening of indigenous motifs’ befitting that transformation — or rather metamorphosis — through present day Pahela Baishakh celebrations.
Today’s Pahela Baishakh, dotted with the enveloping grasp of the localised capitalist establishment, is Bangladesh’s latest addition to the never-ending parade of confidence in selling our own culture, but it is albeit not a holistic representation of our present-day rural, agrarian countryside. The urban intelligentsia should be careful in claiming so, as is often the case. For if that claim of origin is made, much larger dilemmas will suddenly surface; probably they already are out. Questions of identity, of coping with the painful transition from a feudal, agrarian system to a winner-take-it-all, predatory capitalist system are looming at the backdrop as we are slowly awakening to the realities of our new-found confidence of ‘re-invention.’
The men of Joyshara village have ‘bigger fish to fry’ than Pahela Baishakh, as they laid it out bluntly. For now their vigils, often nightlong, are for the dreaded pangapal, or locust, also known as ‘brown grasshoppers’ among many local insecticide agents of Cyngenta, BAYER. The agents relish like opera conductors at this pregnant pause before imminent catastrophe for they know that the hybrid crop verities are highly prone to those and other insects, and eventually most of these farmers will have to rush to them for the solution.
Apart from the irrigation done through hired shallow tube wells burning over-priced diesel as the Rural Electrification Board’s lines are lacking any of the promised sparks, till the beginning of the IRRI harvesting (which is the main hybrid crop variety of the boro cycle), they are petrified over the idea of current poka, another name for the locusts. This harvesting incidentally is not before or even during Pahela Baishakh — as the logical deduction of a festival supposedly rooted in agricultural harvesting, and tax collecting thereafter, would indicate — but at least two to three weeks beyond that time, at the end of April.
‘And even after I bring the crop home, I immediately have to start selling many maunds of it at painfully low prices. Everyone sells. They have to. For the dozens of creditors — diesel dealers, insecticide agents, the landlord from whom I have taken borga (agricultural land rental system), all start pounding me for their dues,’ Mohammad Saiful was now irritated at any insistence on bringing up the joys of Pahela Baishakh.
‘So, young man, now you understand what is Pahela Baishakh to us!’ a sheepish smile of greater wisdom glowed over the wide-bearded face of Kader Mridha, as he raised his face to the sun with his eyes closed, giving off the impression that he is sunbathing. His hands strongly holding onto the darkened wooden walking stick he was pounding the cracked dirt road of the new road with.
As thousands clad in red, white saris and punjabis throng to Dhaka’s Ramna Batamul to listen to the quintessentially Bengali songs of Rabindranath, on both sides of the newly finished feeder road snaking through Joyshara village under Atrai upazila of Naogaon — incidentally, the district is the source of nearly one-third of the rice brought in for consumption in the capital — men with bare torsos and tucked up lungis will be spraying the highly effective, but toxic, Fedi insecticide over their crops to fend off locusts. It is not a time for celebration in Joyshara; it’s a question of survival.
‘I heard you eat panta and hilsha for hundreds of takas to celebrate Pahela Baishakh. That is sad. We celebrate in more grand ways. We just eat panta with maybe just a green chilli to finish off our leftover rice. But I guess that’s way things are nowadays.’
The wise, old Abdul Kader Mridha had a way of telling things.
Published: Pahela Baishakh Special/ The New Age/ April, 2006