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A New Year

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We never really celebrated Poila Boishakh in my family, while my brother and I were young.

By celebrate, I mean partake of a feast.  My family comes from a place and people who have a saying: there’s one more festival than there are months in the year.  Baro maashe tero porbon.  In a twelve-month year, there are thirteen reasons to celebrate.

We’ll take them all: to revel in plenty and sustenance, to dispel ill influences.  To celebrate births, marriages – and even death, for the possibility of eternal release.

My mother’s always cooked elaborate dishes and meals, matching flavors and seasonings to reflect the season and occasion. Shukto, meant to cleanse the palate and keep your system cool during the monsoon – but made of ubiquitous zucchini, since that’s what she could find that best resembled her favorite bottle gourd.

My father cooked as well – specific dishes that he loved made just so, as well as snacks from street vendors that reminded him of his college experience.  While it wasn’t quite the same as ordering it up with a flourish from his favorite food cart, at least he could replicate them: nimki (both kucho and three-cornered), kochuri with spicy potato curry, and of course, shingara.

If my grandmother offered a special prayer for us, she’d mail us tiny crumbs of the sweets she offered to the gods in the next letter or aerogram she sent us.  They were just small enough not to require added postage for weight. Those crumbs, having been blessed , were mighty. They were large enough to carry the weight of her love and caring across continents and oceans to us.

Nearly every meal we ate was home-cooked; birthdays and religious observances had their own elaborate recipes and dishes.We ate this way because it’s what my parents knew to eat and to cook, and what we children learned to savor.  We ate this way also because my parents wanted my brother and me to know our heritage: through food, as well as language and customs. Eating out was not something we did for convenience, but for curiosity and knowledge (what’s a chicken fried steak taste like?) – and community.  If it was the latter, it was more than likely home-cooked by ladies in the community – the wives and mothers in our extended, midwestern South Asian community.

So it’s unfathomable that of so many recipes and holidays, I can’t remember a single special New Year’s dish, leave alone a feast.  Not made by my mother, or anyone else’s.


In talking with my family over the weekend, none of us can figure out why the New Year went unmarked every year.

Perhaps it was hard to find fresh jaggery syrup for the requisite payesh (rice pudding)?  But that had never stopped us before – we either substituted solid jaggery, or enjoyed local molasses.  While its sulfurus taste is nothing like jaggery’s understated minerality, something in their viscosities are similar enough to satisfy my father’s palate.

Reflecting on it further, we figured out that our New Year coincided with a busy time of year in the New World and life, at least a century removed from the more pastoral life of our forbears.  My parents were preoccupied with commutes across a city to their workplaces, caring for a household without a network of family and household help (still more traditional in India and many parts of Asia), and making sure my brother and I made the best of our education, focusing on projects and papers, contests and concerts, and preparing for final exams.  In the heartland, it was an early year-end: we ended school between the middle and end of May, and resumed again in early to mid-August.  Perfect for planting season.

Then there’s the mid-April deadline that Americans love to hate – my father gnashed his teeth over it, every year.  My mother was preparing for her own last day of school as a teacher, every year.  We started preparing for my grandparents summer visit at around this time, every year.

It’s no wonder that among so much, with just small network of fellow revelers, we routinely missed celebrating the New Year.

This New Year, I ate with a purpose – I marked Poila Boishakh.  Shubho Noboborsho!


Written by marginfades

April 15, 2014 at 11:39 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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