An expatriate’s Pohela Boishakh in New York

Pohela Boishakh in New York City is both weirder (and more ordinary) than you think. Weather is a big, big thing here, and although there aren’t millions of Bengalis here, nearly everyone appreciates the good tidings brought by spring (and its promise of summer).

Read more: The story of how Bengalis owe Pohela Boishakh to Mughal emperor Akbar

Far from home

Of course, there’s no Mongol Shovajatra to see in Queens. But there is Jackson Heights, which holds Pohela Boishakh celebrations every year at the Diversity Plaza. The same place is home to a variety of Bengali restaurants, such as Ittadi, which often serve their own versions of Panta and Ilish on the day.

It’s especially hard for me to find more traces of Pohela Boishakh here because I was never into celebrations myself back in Bangladesh. But we get to see people embrace the inner Bengali inside them more frequently than expected, often arranging small events in their own communities, such as those in Astoria or Ozone Park. Perhaps, absence does make the heart fonder.

Pohela Boishakh is just one festival

There are other ways to celebrate spring too. Sakura festival celebrates the coming of spring (and cherry blossoms), taking place throughout 28th to 29th April. There’s already been a Cherry Blossom festival on Roosevelt Island, but the only train station on the island was swarmed with people afterwards, as escalators broke down and trains arrived infrequently. The MTA later rerouted other trains to the island station to relieve overcrowding, while the police helped to direct and control the crowds.

So far, I have only had one fried Hilsa fish and some sweets. Dieting doesn’t really allow me to stuff myself, but it was pretty good, all things considered. If you happen to live abroad as well, do let us know how you are spending your Noboborsho today. Especially if you have weird and exciting stories to share.

The story of how Bengalis owe Pohela Boishakh to Mughal emperor Akbar

It’s that time of the year again. Pohela Boishakh is tomorrow. As usual the country will welcome the Bengali new year 1426 with music, parades and day-long celebrations.

Even though every year we engage in the celebration of a day that is unique to our own heritage, we seem to have forgotten where it all started. In fact, we owe our very own holiday to the Mughal emperor Akbar.

Here’s how emperor Akbar invented the modern Bengali calendar.

A new religion?

Source: Creative Commons

During his tenure, Mughal emperor Akbar had set up one of the most powerful empires in the world. The seed of aspiration that emperor Babur had sowed when he first came to Hindustan had bloomed into a strong rooted tree by Akbar’s time.

With his empire and his hold over Hindustan secure, Akbar shifted his priorities to a more intellectual side of things.

His interest in religions and theology eventually prompted him to come up with his own new religion. It had elements of both Islam and Hinduism. Amartya Sen believes that a new lunisolar calendar was a part of his plan to float this new religion.

Taxation: The higher motive

But a different group of historians, perhaps more authentic accounts, suggest that Akbar had a higher motive than religion; taxes. Since the mughal empire followed the Islamic lunar calendar, it often posed a conflict with the common subjects as the lunar calendar was not in sync with the on and off seasons for cultivation in India. For the ease of his taxmen, Akbar ordered his astrologists to take the Islamic lunar calendar and prevalent solar calendar in India, combine them, and come up with a new lunisolar calendar.

Tarikh-e-Ilahi

This new calendar, known as Tarikh-e-Ilahi, was introduced all over India. But just like Akbar’s newly introduced religion, Din-e-Ilahi, this too didn’t last after his reign. Except for Bengal. In Bengal, this new calendar became an integral and useful part of daily Agriculture and the local Hindu religion.

The calendar that was invented by Akbar and introduced all over India has now become the sole identity of the Bengali nation and culture. This Pohela Boishakh, let’s take some time to remember the emperor who gifted us an integral part of our national identity. Literally. Shubho Noboborsho.

The story of Non-Bangalis in Bangladesh and the book that rescues them

Imagine having to speak in Bengali only with your parents, very close friends and sometimes with your significant other, if you’re lucky enough to find one who knows your words. Imagine no one understanding when you’re speaking in Bengali. Imagine people whispering behind, and sometimes in front of you, when you’re telling your mother over the phone that you’re going to be late for dinner, or asking your brother which comic he wants. Imagine living in a place where the words you grew up with are alien.

Would you be able to call that place home?

A place called home

If you’re still not getting the direction I’m trying to push you towards, then imagine speaking one of the 18 languages (more or less) as your mother tongue, in a country where people condemn you for speaking anything other than the majority’s language (even your typical English medium accented Bengali).

Imagine living in Bangladesh as anyone other than a Bangali.

If you can’t, here’s a step-by-step rundown of how your life would be:

  • You would barely know how your letters look like- because there’s barely any literature published in it. You’d grow up reading and writing the ever glorifying Bangla letters before you even know how your name looks like in your language (If you’re lucky enough to have a school in your vicinity that is)
  • The stories and fables your mom told you to make you sleep at night would be swamped under the weight of “Thakumar Jhuli” and “Gopal Bhar er Golpo”
  • You’d start high school and on the first day when you introduce yourself in front of the class, you’d hear a lot of sniggering, whispering and even a little loud laughter
  • College is going to be tough (If you have the audacity to attend one) – there’s no sugarcoating here
  • Afterwards, your life is going to be a series of “Hey do you really eat frogs?” “How hard is it to sleep on a machang?” “Are you Chakma?” “Are your eyes open or closed right now?” and a few (!) more FAQs till death does you part

Does that scare you? It should. Because that’s what most indigenous people in Bangladesh go through every day. In this country, it is not particularly a delightful experience to be a minority. We have not made it easy for them.

A ray of hope

But, the scenario might just change the slightest bit in the upcoming years as textbooks in three native languages (Chakma, Marma and Tripura) has been published and distributed among the pre-primary schoolers. They are already complaining about the lack of sufficiently qualified teachers, but hey at least they have the books for a start, right?

The tale of the first book in “Mro” language

Speaking of books, during the Ekushey Book Fair 2019 Biddyanondo Publication has already made headlines twice. One of these times is for a book they published called “Mro Rupkotha” or “Mro Fables”.

What’s special about this book is, it’s the first book ever printed in Mro/ Murong alphabet.

Imagine holding in your hand the first ever printed book in Bengali alphabet. Now imagine doing that in 2019. You’d look like this Mro man holding this book up from his impatient son, getting a closer look with an immense concentration in his eyes. Biddyanondo not only published it, but they also made sure the book reached the Mro households free of costs. According to them, it’s their version of the International Mother Language Day celebration.

All the 35 stories of this book are written in Mro, as well as translated in Bengali. So you and I can enjoy their stories, as old as time, for a change.

Rethinking our pride

For a country that takes such intense pride in their dedication respecting mother languages, we sure have been very negligible towards our very own. And even though this book is one small step for Biddyanondo, it’s a giant leap for all Bangladeshi people.