I was first introduced to Pahela Baishakh by the Bengali community in Gaya, Bihar, India, where I lived and worked in the late 1960s. If Songkranti brings the year to a close, Pahela Baishakh on Apr 14 is a new beginning. Bengali or Bangla New Year is a relatively ‘new’ celebration, but ‘Songkranti’, or in Thailand, ‘Songkran’, goes back into the millennia. It comes from the Sanskrit, ‘Sankranta’ and means “a move or change”. It is, I understand, related to the Zodiac cycle and, of course, any point in the circle is both a beginning and an end. In northern India, for instance, April is the beginning of spring when the trees start to bud and bloom and the hibernating animals come out to find food, so, a new beginning. So, for the ancient Indian people, April was a sign of new life and marked the beginning of a new year. That is why they observed (some still do) their New Year’s Day on Apr 13.
In 1971, while refugee camps were being hurriedly set up in the border areas of India and Bangladesh, Indians living near the border shared the special foods of that day with the families that had fled in fear from Bangladesh. The singing of Tagore songs about Pahela Baishakh gradually brought a few smiles to the faces of the refugee families.
At the same time The New York Times in its issue of Apr 14, 1971 had a news item by Sydney Schanberg with the heading “Pakistan Calls for Execution of Top Rebels-Scorched Earth Plan to Crush E. Pakistan Economy is Reported”. Written from Agartala, Sydney Schanberg had visited a number of villages in what is now Bangladesh. He wrote, “This correspondent, who has just completed a four day trip along the border and inside East Pakistan, saw Pakistani soldiers burning villages to deny the resistance forces cover or hiding places. As the smoke from the thatch and bamboo huts billowed up on the outskirts of the city of Cumilla, circling vultures descended on the bodies of peasants, already being picked apart by dogs and crows.”
Sydney Schanberg went on to say, “There is no way of knowing how many of East Pakistan’s 75 million Bengalis the army has killed, but authoritative reports from many sources agree that the figure is at least in the tens of thousands. Some report it much higher.”
“However, several members of the East Pakistan independence movement’s high command have survived and have formed a cabinet. They include Tajuddin Ahmad, second in command to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, whose Awami League took the steps for independence that brought West Pakistan’s military crackdown”
“The army, now consisting entirely of West Pakistani troops, has killed students, intellectuals, professors, engineers, doctors and others of leadership calibre – whether they were directly involved with the nationalist movement or not.”
This was a look back on Apr 14, 1971. Years later, after coming to Bangladesh and enjoying many Pahela Baishakh occasions, I have always looked forward to tasting the special foods of the day especially Panta Bhat and Fried Illish, always accompanied by different types of Bhorta.
It is such a very special day with the colours, the new clothes, the music and the wonderful food and everyone wishing each other ‘Shubho Noboborsho’. It has been a long journey since that day in 1971. Joy Bangla!