Pahela Baishakh In America

Maswood Alam Khan
This is the second time I’ve been to Bangladesh embassy in Washington. The last time I had been there was on a Monday, March 28, to attend a reception on Bangladesh Independence Day. Then, I wondered why the Independence Day function was organized on a working day, delayed by two days from the actual day of celebration, as the event, I guessed, could easily be organized on March 26, the exact date of our Independence! Moreover, March 26 was also a Saturday, the weekly holiday in America and a convenient day for working Bangladeshis to attend a function. Nobody could give me the right answer to my wonder. Of course, only a select few, including diplomats, were invited to attend the Bangladesh Independence Day event in our embassy.

This time however I attended another function at our embassy on a Sunday, the weekly holiday in America, on April 17. The function was an open house invitation to any Bangladeshi living in America. It was on the occasion of Pahela Baishakh, the first day of Bangla New Year. Though a bit delayed, by three days from 14 April, the exact English date corresponding to Bangla date of Pahela Baishakh, the delayed celebration on Sunday was logical as the weekly holiday facilitated the participation of maximum number of Bangladeshi people in the greater Washington DC area.

Independence Day function in our embassy on March 28 was a bit dry and formal. The invitees were a bit tight-lipped, had put on their neckties and flaunted their pinstripe suits as the protocol demanded the guests had followed some kind of dress codes.

But Pahela Baishakh function on April 17 has been gorgeous and warm and full of merriments with hundreds of Bangladeshi men, women and children packing the embassy premises to its brim and interacting with each other in true Bangladeshi style, in a real Bangladeshi spirit of camaraderie.

The messages of the President and the Prime Minister of Bangladesh on the occasion of Pahela Baishakh were read out. Bangladesh Ambassador to the USA, who enjoys the status of a State Minister in Bangladesh, His Excellency Akramul Qader, a veteran diplomat and a pleasant personality, in his message on Pahela Baishakh, expressed his heartiest greetings to all Bangladeshis living in the United States, Brazil, Columbia and Mexico (the countries covered by the Bangladesh embassy in Washington) on behalf of all the officers and employees working in Bangladesh embassy office in Washington and consulate offices in New York and Los Angeles.

The cultural function participated by our embassy officials and their family members and some of the cultural activists based in Washington DC area was okay with choruses, poetry recitations and songs of a variety of genres and features: folk songs, patriotic songs and Tagore songs.

With so many people thronging the main hall room and occupying all the chairs available I found it rather comfortable to spend the splendid evening standing on an open-to-sky verandah at the back of our embassy office building and listening from there to all the dramas, drums and music.

The elders were all glued to the cultural show. But their children were in a different mood they were playing, running around and climbing up and down the staircase of our embassy office building in a picnic spirit, as if the embassy were their home.

The invited guests perhaps felt more homely inside the embassy premises as it is a property owned by our government. Years back our government purchased a big plot of land in a posh diplomatic area in International Drive, near the University of District of Columbia (UDC) and constructed a modern multi-storied building to house our embassy office.

Somehow chipping myself into one of the rowdy and unruly queues I was lucky to find my disposable plate filled with a few servings of mouth-watering ‘khichuri’ and curries and a dessert of delicious Bangladeshi ‘roshogollah’ dabbed in a bowl of Bangladeshi curd. But, what I really missed was a meaty piece of fried Hilsha fish! The taste of Hilsha I got was from a bony piece from the head of a Hilsha fish the bartender was kind enough to place on my plate. I thought I was unlucky not to find a meaty one but, to my consolation, I found out all those who were in the queues on the verandah were also served the same head bones bereft of fish meat. Anyway, it was a nice feast for anybody who cherishes and relishes culinary beauties of Bangladeshi foods.

Nevertheless, what must have been irritating to any conscious Bangladeshi citizen attending the function was the way a few Bangladeshis were behaving during the function. I found it a bit weird and funny to find quite a number of Bangladeshis conversing only in English, some in their infused American accents and dialects and some in their own styles of Pidgin English. I simply wondered why on a day like Pahela Baishakh Bangladeshis, all of whom should know well how to speak in Bangla, were not using their mother tongue!

The remarkable difference, however, I had found was in the behavior of a Bangladeshi young lady named Sharmin A. Syed who was also attending the Pahela Baishakh function in our embassy. Sharmin was born and brought up in America. A Masters in Energy and Environmental Analysis from Boston University in Massachusetts, Sharmin now works in the Office of Water in Washington DC as an environmental scientist. I got introduced with Sharmin by her father Syed Nuruzzaman, an MIT graduate, who had migrated to America back in 1971 and worked as a mechanical engineer in different American companies.

I knew Sharmin would find it very difficult to speak in Bangla. Still, with some trepidation I ventured to converse with her in Bangla on Pahela Baishakh. To my sheer surprise and excitement I did not hear Sharmin utter a single word in English during our half-an-hour conversation. Though Sharmin had to strain her memory and stammer a little bit to find the appropriate Bangla words to express her feelings I was surprised to notice that she spoke in Bangla all through though, at times, I used some words and sentences in English.

Why should Sharmin speak in English with me, especially on Pahela Baishakh? She can’t, because she must have been groomed by her parents on how to behave properly.

“How do you look at Bangladesh, Sharmin? What about Bangladesh do you love the most?” I asked her. Sharmin replied in perfect Bangla: “I love Bangladesh and I am loved by all my friends and relations in Bangladesh. Whenever I along with my parents would visit my relations and friends in Chapai Nawabganj, the place of my paternal home in Bangladesh, I was always offered by my hosts a lot of mangoes and sweetmeats which I relished greatly”.

My conversation with Sharmin, the American Bangladeshi, would remain to me the most memorable part during the event on Pahela Baishakh in our Washington embassy. It was a pleasant experience to find Sharmin making every endeavor not to use a single English word on the first day of Bangla New Year. Such a decent behavior from a young lady of Bangladesh origin would not have been possible had she not been properly nurtured by her parents.

No wonder she carries genes of a noble family of an illustrious background! Sharmin’s mother is the daughter of Arifa Begum, the eldest granddaughter of Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah, the great Bengali philologist and linguist, who had his Masters in 1912 from the University of Calcutta and a PhD from Paris Sorbonne University, a university of immense reputation in those days dating back to the 13th century, which was one of the first universities in the world, dedicated to Literature, Languages, Arts and Social Sciences.

– From Washington, USA. Connect: maswood@hotmail.com

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