Published in a supplement by The Independent on 14 April 2010 (not available online)
On the morning of Pohela Boishakh I will wake in the dark. I will groan and grizzle and wipe my tired eyes as I put on a red and white salwar kameez before heading off to Ramna Park with a friend. If there’s time I’ll go to the Institute of Fine Arts to photograph the colourful procession of decorative floats that students were excitedly preparing yesterday. I am looking forward to seeing how Bangladeshis see in 1417 and I want to make the very most of it.
When I first heard that the Bangla New Year was approaching, I had something else entirely in mind. I assumed there would be parties on April 13, much like there are on January 31st. I didn’t realise that it is New Years Day rather than New Years Eve which is the focus of celebrations, and I was impressed to learn that people here actually do stuff to celebrate the occasion, rather than standing around in someone’s apartment at a party. This came as a bit of a shock to me, I admit. As an Australian, New Year’s Eve is all about going to a huge party, staying up really late, and sleeping through New Year’s Day. It is not an event of national or cultural significance – we have no Tagore, no memories of repression, nor any Banyan tree to gather around. But New Year’s Eve is definitely considered an opportunity to start afresh – making (and breaking) New Year’s resolutions is popular.
My favourite New Year’s Eve was in 2005, when I stayed in a rented beach house with friends. On the afternoon of the 31st we took part in a “mini-Olympics”, which involved drinking a can of beer while jumping on a trampoline and other such feats of “Australianess.” Before midnight we went down to the beach, lit a fire and had a swim in the unruly and jellyfish-infested ocean. Other young people staying along the beach road had the same idea, and it turned into a wonderful and long night.
Last year’s New Year’s Eve was a disaster in so many ways. My chief complaint was that I spent the night alone in a cold hotel room, which just felt so wrong. I was in Iran, and the year was officially 1388. I was on a doomed mission to find miniature Caspian horses, which were bred back into existence by an American woman who had spent the last 40 years living in Iran. Once I heard of this, I decided that finding the fabled horses was much more worthwhile than pursuing a cold beer in a dry country. I’d invited an Australian photographer to come along and our plan was to catch a train on New Year’s Eve and to reach Gorgon by the evening. I saw myself seeing in the new year beside a campfire in the grasslands with teeny-tiny ponies snoozing nearby. Heaven.
However on the morning we were due to depart, Adam called to say his travel plans had changed – he was continuing south to Oman. When I finally managed to get hold of a phone number for the stud farm – just hours before the train left – I was informed that the stud owner was dead and her children had dismantled the farm.
It wasn’t too late to cancel the plan altogether, but I didn’t – I’m still not sure why. After sharing a ladies’ train compartment with the goalkeeper of the Iranian women’s football team, I was deflated when I finally arrived at my guesthouse, which was tatty, depressing and had no TV. The only other guests were a handful of men from Turkmenistan. No one spoke a word of English. And yet, regardless of the fact that no one knew or cared that 2009 was about to be ushered in, I decided with characteristic stubbornness to celebrate on my own. My attempts were meager: I’d saved a new book to read and I bought beautiful Persian pastries that were dripping in honey. And because I couldn’t talk to my friends or family, I made a pathetic Youtube video clip documenting my plight (see below).
Afterwards I indulged myself by smoking a cigarette. Needless to say after all that excitement, I fell asleep before midnight. However I subsequently decided that the upside to this rather peculiar experience is that I can remember it – clearly. It stands out among a long series of pleasant New Year’s Eve celebrations that have blurred into a single, hazy memory. Fortunately, as I have never before celebrated the Bangla New Year, I am confident I’ll be incapable of forgetting it.
Here’s the “sad little me” video I made on NYE in Iran –