February 15, 2014
It was winter 1989, I had turned twenty in November and two months ago had started my three-year finance degree in London. I decided to visit Bangladesh as my parents had flown out there a couple of months ago. My parents place in Bangladesh had two buildings, one which had been rented by a Hindu family headed by the eldest brother called Narayan. They had been renting for the last five years and it would be another twenty odd more before they moved out. Narayan's personal story I will write another time but this one also includes him too.
During my trip, Narayan was visiting his family and asked if I would like to join him in south eastern Bangladesh, in the district of Chittagong. The main purpose of his visit was to celebrate the Hindu festival of sacrifice known as Bali. My mother was worried sick because I would be seen as an outsider and certain parts of Bangladesh even today are like the Wild West. I re-assured both my parents I would be OK and with a small backpack left for the city port of Chittagong by train. We took an overnight four berth cabin, shared with two other passengers from Sylhet train station.
Our railway journey began in the chaotic atmosphere of the station to buy our tickets. Once that was accomplished we pushed and shoved our way on board the ancient 1950's diesel run locomotive. We had some tea and biscuits as our evening meal that were being sold by a young boy walking up and down the carriages. Shortly afterwards two other men came in to our carriage to occupy the third and fourth bunks. We spoke to them briefly and before we all turned in for the overnight clickety-clack train ride south, one of the men locked the door from inside and further tied the door with hessian rope as tightly as he could from within.
"You can't be too careful, there are thieves everywhere and god willing we will not be boarded by armed bandits during night," he warned and lay down on his bunk.
There were many horror stories of gun-wielding bandits holding up night trains and buses robbing the passengers, killing the drivers or worse. I fell asleep with a lump in my stomach and being a light sleeper I was up every hour. Relief came about as we pulled into Chittagong railway station early next morning. After Narayan had finished some chores in Chittagong city centre we took a baby-taxi or tuk-tuk out into a rural village where his parents resided.
In the countryside my heart lightened as the emerald greens of the tropical foliage blew my mind away. Peace, serenity and calmness washed over me, an experience I get whenever I am surrounded by tropical flora and fauna. Our only distraction was the buzzing noise of the two-stroke engine from our ride. We arrived at Narayan's parent's house, a two-storey building constructed of mud and wood in the late 1960's. The building was pukka to say the least, the interior cool with the heat being kept out by the thick mud walls. His parents were delighted to see me, as they had last seen me in 1987 when they visited Sylhet.
It was only his parents at home as all of Narayan's siblings had moved to Sylhet and one brother had moved to Kolkata, India. We had a light breakfast before resting from our train ride. We spent the day with me accompanying Narayan visiting friends and relatives in the village. After our evening meal under oil lanterns we took to our beds, with mine on the first floor.
The next day we were awoken by two alarm clocks, one was natural and one man-made. The cockerel in the yard began his cock-a-doodle-do and was swiftly followed by the muezzin's prayer calls from the village mosque. After breakfast we packed and headed to catch a bus to Narayan's in-laws village. The journey was cramped, hot, dusty and sweaty. By the time we arrived at his in-laws I was tired, hungry and thirsty, and I looked as if I had just come out of a trek through a jungle.
As Narayan and I walked up the path to the house of his relatives a teenage girl, probably seventeen or eighteen came running up the path and greeted him. She stopped for a while and stood frozen staring at me, she then broke her gaze and asked Narayan who I was, he smiled and explained I was a guest from London. She blushed, took hold of his bags and ran back the way she had come, barefeet and her pony-tail tied hair bouncing away. Narayan looked at me and smiled but did not say anything. I did not realise what had just happened until a few seconds later as my grey matter began to whir into gear.
Narayan's father-in-law greeted us in the yard, he was a short stocky man with dark Dravidian features and complexion. He had was wearing a lunghi, Bengali sarong and a white a-shirt. His lunghi was tied up to his knees and looked ready for work. I shook his hand and said "adab". Adab was a secular greeting between Muslims and Hindus in Bangladesh, and as I was the former I would not use "Assalamu Alaikum" nor would I use "Namaste".
Narayan's father-in-law was not expecting me and to say that he was honoured to have me attend his house and village during the festival of Bali was an understatement. Even though the yard was thronging with people waiting for the festivities to begin, he fell over himself to make sure I was comfortable and happy. He ordered one of his workers to get me some towels so that I could have a shower in the pond behind the house. So as I went to have a shower the villagers and the Pundit (priest) were preparing for the Bali. I did not have a clue about Bali and was just going with flow of everything enjoying the sights the sounds and festivities.
After I showered I came back to the yard which was now cleared at one end near the Mandir (temple) without standing space anywhere else. I squeezed into a position with my back against the mud wall of the main house and all I could see were men and boys with the odd young girl, but no women. I was told that Bali was a festival of sacrificing an animal, especially goats. At the cleared end of the yard next to the Mandir two curved wooden posts were inserted into the soft earth. The man who would carry out the sacrifice cleaned and sharpened a curved sword-like implement which was about a metre long. Finally he ran a lime along the blade edge and then the sacrifices began.
The first sacrifice of the day was brought over. A pale green pumpkin was placed between the two wooden posts and swiftly the man brought down the blade onto the pumpkin slicing it in two. Another man grabbed one half of the pumpkin dunked it in a pail of water, walked into the Mandir and placed it on an altar.
Next it was a duck whose feet and wings were held back with the head placed between the wooden posts, then a small pole to hold down the bird's head. Again after a swipe of the lime on the blade the man swung down and severed the head of the duck. As the duck's head was dunked in water and taken into the Mandir, the carcass with wings flapping was flung into the crowd and in my direction, landing squarely on my chest. The blood splattered on my shirt as a yell went out from Narayan's father-in-law who admonished the person who threw the body of the duck at me. The guys standing around me offered,
"It is considered lucky to have the blood of the sacrifice on you," smiling at me.
Without further ado the sacrifice continued and this time a large black goat was brought forward. The goat had its front and hind legs pulled back with its head placed between the wooden posts. The Pundit then came up touched the goat and from what I could gather said a prayer and stepped back. The man with the blade then swung up and down, the blade severed the goats head in one fell swoop. The goat's head was treated akin to the pumpkin and duck and taken into the Mandir. The sacrifices continued into the afternoon with more goats being taken through the same process.
After the sacrifices the animals were prepared by local butchers. Narayan, me, his father-in-law and other menfolk sat around drinking tea and eating biscuits. I was treated like the guest of honour and my needs were always being tended for. I felt a bit embarrassed that me being here was causing Narayan's relatives such hard work and effort. He conveyed this to his father-in-law, who replied,
"We never have guests from London and one that is close to my son-in-law. I will not hear any more of your concerns, we are happy to have you with us today," he beamed the brightest and biggest smile I had seen to date.
That night we feasted on goat curry, vegetables, breads, rice, yoghurt and washed down with Coca Cola that Narayan's father-in-law had his son purchase from the bazaar just for me. I literally did not do anything apart from sit and eat and enjoy, my plate was never empty as multiple people would serve me. Eventually I had to raise my hands and say no as I was beginning to feel like Jabba The Hutt. Then late into the night we talked, joked and laughed, people joined us and some left for the night. Eventually I was shown to my bed where I slept peacefully.
Following morning was time for us to go and shortly after a breakfast of flat bread, vegetables, tea and biscuits we said farewell. Even though I had never met Narayan's father-in-law and I never saw him and his family again the kindness, generosity and hospitality afforded to me was heartwarming to say the least. What struck me most was that here I was a total stranger and a Muslim at that, yet Narayan's in-laws opened their hearts and home to me, including me in one of their religious festivals.
Our lives could not have been more different but for that brief moment in the sands of time we were family.