Festival of colours: Holi in Kolkata

I’d always wanted to just throw myself into the pictures. Clouds of pink, blue and yellow powdered dye, exploding above people dancing and celebrating. Who wouldn’t want to visit India during the Holi festival?

Celebrated at the start of spring in honour of the victory of good over evil and the end of the winter months, Holi is a chance for everyone to let loose and play – children and older people alike chase each other through the streets with water cannons full of dye, throw water bombs from the tops of roofs, play music, dance and attack each other with fistfuls of iridescent powdered dye. Everyone’s welcome – whether you’re a street kid, a Muslim neighbour or a tourist – it’s the more the merrier as the party takes over the city.

While it’s celebrated in Bangladesh by the small Hindu community, a group of my deshi friends decided we would hop over the border to Kolkata to experience the festival in its home country. And was it worth it.

Kolkata’s an amazing city – a perfect mix of British retro nostalgia (a hang over from its life as the trade hub of the colonial British Raj) and the colour and playfulness of the Indian culture. From the ‘Ambassador’ cars to the amazing food, wide green parks and cheap markets, I pretty much fell in love straight away.

Putting on our old white clothes and wrapping up our hair in bandanas, we asked our hotel manager where the best place was to ‘play holi’. We were pointed in the direction of the flower market under the famous Howrah Bridge – as we wound our way through the city we started to see people walking down the street with fuschia dust in their hair and rickshaw drivers with bright red faces, and we knew we’d found the right place.

We stopped at a market stall to buy bags of dye and had a few first blessings of ‘happy holi!’ from grinning bystanders.

While the major streets were fairly quiet, once we turned into the alleyways the fun really started. We were beckoned into a small courtyard where at least 50 rainbow-soaked people danced to music playing from one of the upper floors. With cries of ‘happy holi, happy holi!’ people shook our hands and welcomed us by rubbing dye between both hands then smearing it down our cheeks, poured liquid dye over our heads, and shoving our faces full of special festival sweets made of rice, milk and spices.

(I took my little point-and-shoot in a plastic bag, so most of the photos aren’t great! Even then, all the buttons on my camera are now bright pink. 🙂 )

On our way out, a gang of five-year-olds carrying waterguns and soaked in red dye ambushed us at a narrow intersection. The dye gets EVERYWHERE – in your mouth, in your ears… After that, we were varying shades of dark purple and red.

We spent the rest of the weekend walking around town, visiting the Indian Museum and eating. Happy Holi, everyone!

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Joy Bangla! Victory Day in Bangladesh

A roar tears through the smoggy December sky. I look up but I can’t see anything – the fighter jets have already disappeared, leaving their thunder behind them. After weeks of practicing loops and low-flying formations (that have only mildly terrified people in high-rise offices), the Bangladeshi Air Force finally gets to strut its stuff: it’s Victory Day.

Celebrating the Allied Forces’ defeat of the Pakistani Army in the Liberation War of 1971 and the secession of Bengal (East Pakistan), 16 December is a national holiday, stuffed full of flags, marching bands and displays of military prowess.

We avoided the crowds closer to the old town and went for a walk around Banani, enjoying the general festive feeling (wearing red and green, I couldn’t help also feeling a bit Christmassy), music in the streets and multitude of flags.

Happy birthday, Bangladesh!

Stepping back in time: Panam/Sonargaon

A few weekends ago we went to Sonargaon, home to the old city of Panam. The historic capital of Bengal, Panam was first the seat of the Hindu Diva Dynasty and in the late 13th century became the Muslim Mughal invaders’ buzzing centre of power: emperors and administrators ruled from here, and boats came from all over Asia, the Middle East and Africa, up the kilometers-wide Meghna river from the Bay of Bengal to trade.

Centuries later, the city saw a revival as the centre of trade in the Bengal region of British-ruled India. Building their stately homes and impressive commercial buildings in a neo-classical imitation of European buildings, 19th century colonials established a main street lined with columns, curlicues, orchards and mosaics.

The town remained occupied until the Indo-Pakistani war of 1965 saw the mostly Hindu population flee to India. It’s now an empty, mossy, crumbling museum of successive histories, jumbled together and loosely protected by the Bangladeshi government.

Hiring a driver and minibus from Dhaka, a group of us explored the abandoned beauty of roofless palaces and rusted locks.

NO ONE goes to Bangladesh

So I’ve settled into my new job, found a house (more on these later) and am finally writing.

After a few posts on facebook, the other day I got an email from an old friend I’d met while travelling in Tibet. He asked what the hell I was doing in the Desh. Apparently a few years ago he and a friend had a spare week at the end of a trip to India, and had stopped into a Travel Agent to sus out their options. Looking at the map, they asked, “Dhaka’s not far – how much for a flight to Bangladesh?”

The agent deadpanned:

“What do you mean? NO ONE goes to Bangladesh.”

Looking around, the dusty streets, the poverty, the ugliness, the sheer lack of stuff to do or see… I can see why tourism isn’t really booming in Dhaka. The traffic’s nightmarish congestion is famous for a reason, and after 4:00 in the afternoon it’s really hard to get around. Alcohol is illegal. There’s not much street food, and what there is will probably kill you. They don’t even do chai. (This has been a private pain of mine since arriving as I’d staked a lot of enthusiasm on spending a year consuming mega-sweet, spiced milk drinks. It’s my fault, I should have done my research.)

So it’s not exactly a backpacker heaven.

So why go to Bangladesh?

I’ve never had the fantasy of being a humanitarian, leaping into war zones to save people’s lives and rebuild a crumbling system. I thought Emergency Sex was kinda bullshit.

Being here is a chance to live differently, to learn, to be a new person, to value new things, to challenge new things, to contribute, give, take…  These are life lessons. But work is life too, and in many ways I ended up here because on top of all those other things, I want my work to be:

  • interesting
  • useful
  • true to my values.

The last one is, for me, very important. Knowledge, storytelling and the beauty of the written word led me to editing… Wanting to work for an organisation that produced writing that was socially responsible, meaningful and analytical led me to publishing non-fiction… An interest in health lead me to an NGO… A passion for women’s empowerment, and the writing that can help make that happen, drew my attention to communication for social change, to CARE, and a place where the skills I have could actually make that happen – Bangladesh.

Of course there were other factors involved in each of those decisions. I needed a job, I needed to move to Canberra, I wanted a payrise, I wanted to travel. But I believe in keeping your ears and eyes open and following your nose – looking for opportunities to grow professionally and personally, and using your intuition to know which ones are right for you, which ones you should grab with both hands. For me, being in Bangladesh and working on CARE’s projects was too good a chance to pass up.

My boss asked me the same question this morning. ‘So Heather, why did you choose to come to Bangladesh?’

‘That’s a hard question to answer, Monjur. But I guess… To learn.’