A pandemic Pohela Boishakh

In an alternate universe somewhere, it’s the day before Pohela Boishakh (Bengali New Year, for those unfortunate ones not in the know) and I’m in my bedroom in Dhaka, picking earrings to wear with the saree I’m going to wear tomorrow. My mom is in the kitchen, making sure the bhortas are all prepped for the annual panta bhaat and ilish maach meal with family. The blouse I’m to wear tomorrow has just made it back from the tailor, must make sure to try it on unless I want to be substituting with a crop top at the last moment!

I love Pohela Boishakh. It’s my favorite festival in desh. When I was twelve or so, I wrote a whole essay about my fascination with this day. I remember writing about how it was truly a holiday for the masses, celebrated by the rich and the poor, the young and the old alike, barring no religions. While at twenty-four I see that the celebrations are never quite the same for everyone, the day still hasn’t lost its charm for me.

I haven’t been to a Boishakhi mela at my school (also known as the CGS Charity Carnival) for six years now, yet the news that there won’t be one this year (and quite rightly so) makes me sad. Planning carnival outfits with my best friends, sampling snacks from our friends’ stalls, watching the more artistically gifted ones of us apply henna on others, queuing for a ride on the nagordola, checking out the traditional musical performances being put on in the main hall, posing for countless pictures – these are some of my favorite memories from school and I can’t imagine not being able to do these things in my last year of high school, as the Class of 2020 is being forced to now.

Of all the things this pandemic has taken from us, the loss of a one day festival where you dress up in primary colors and eat lots of mashed vegetables with watery rice (that is the correct description of pantha bhaat and bhorta, no?) seems like something not worth mourning maybe. And yet here I am, dreaming of shorsha ilish and nokshi pitha. I think a lot of us feel guilty right now for complaining about being quarantined in our comfortable homes with ample food and plenty of entertainment options, while others are losing lives, loved ones, jobs, and more. Yes, it’s definitely necessary to recognize the privileges we are blessed with and to express gratitude for it. But that doesn’t mean we should hide or suppress the disappointment and sadness we feel over things that seem trivial in comparison. It’s okay to say you miss going out for a meal at your favorite restaurant, or hitting the gym, or even your daily Starbucks latte. And it’s okay to feel sad that there’ll be no Noboborsho celebrations this year, no alpona on the streets, no Boishakhi melas, no nagordola (the Bangali version of a Ferris wheel) rides. It doesn’t make you a bad person, it makes you human.

This is not even the first time I am missing out on Boishakh celebrations in Bangladesh. I was away at university for three Boishakhs, but somehow this time, when there are no actual festivities to miss, it feels sadder still. I liked seeing people’s saree pictures on my newsfeed, I enjoyed snaps of their panta ilish, even when I couldn’t get any. My first year in Berkeley, I whimsically dressed in red and white for class and had butter chicken for lunch (the closest I could get to a deshi meal there – pathetic, I know). On the weekend, I donned a saree by myself for the first time (thank you, YouTube) and caught the bus to a small celebration held by local Bangalis. Those who know me will understand how uncharacteristic that was for me – I’m not one to leave my introvert den to seek out strangers (even if they do share my skin color and mother tongue) and put myself in situations where I’m likely to attract curious stares, as was the case in that bus.

Celebrations or no celebrations, the new year is still here. I hope while we Bangalis stay home for our own safety and that of others, we reminisce on Pohela Boishakhs of the past, the memories we made and the people we made them with. I hope those who are able to enjoy a special meal still do, and share with those that they can, safely. I hope that we appreciate the next time we are able to meet friends and family on a special holiday more than we ever have before.

Wishing you all a very Shubo Noboborsho – may the Bengali year 1427 be kind to you.

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