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A celebration of Poila Baisakh for Indians becomes a day of terror in Boston

Posted by Your Town  April 17, 2013 11:43 AM

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April 15 2013 – how I looked forward to the day on April 14 2013! It was going to be Marathon Monday and my plans were to sit back at home, relax and enjoy the day as it unfolded.

And you know what? It was also the Bengali New Year. Bengalis – are those who belong to the state of West Bengal in India and even those from Bangladesh. Called “Poila Baisakh” or the first day of the month of Baisakh is celebrated with family, sharing the bounties of harvest, making delicacies to welcome the New Year and seeking blessings from those older.

As immigrants we tend to latch onto festivals that can be celebrated abroad where we live without much effort. Some festivals require complicated rituals which unless you gather resources and material, it is hard to pull it off. But Poila Baisakh is always simple and picking up the phone to call or answer calls and wish is the easiest thing to do. It is such a folksy day (unlike other stern, ritualistic festivals) that welcomes all and it is the inclusive nature of the day that makes me happy and I look forward to it every year. It gives me a chance to carry forward some of my traditions and I surprise myself sometimes at the food I whip up like my mother did. As a child watching her cook and helping her around in the kitchen has paid off although at the time of, it was a chore!

In the news early morning I read that US Secretary of State John Kerry sent his Poila Baisakh wishes to the Bengali speaking people across the world. “On behalf of President Obama, I convey my warm greetings to all Bengali speaking people around the world as you celebrate Poila Baisakh. The American people wish you all happiness and prosperity in the New Year,” he said in a statement. Those words made me feel like it was going to be a beautiful day. Some days are just like that.

As I finished my calls to India by late noon, wishing friends and family I was wondering what would be on our festive dinner menu. It must have been around 3 pm that I switched on the news and all channels on TV had a rider at the bottom of the screen saying “breaking news.” What was so urgent that they had to stop regular programming? Maybe the Marathon runners were being felicitated, I thought. I waited for the sound to come on and that is when I realized how ominous the day had turned into.

I looked aghast at the at the plume of smoke and fire as the “explosions” came on, people running injured and crying, the shock on their faces writ large and the police, EMTs scattered on the screen. It took me back to 9/11 and the subsequent fear, shock and devastation. Why? And why Boston? People from all over the world were participating – what a way to target innocent people! Time stood still and all the festive spirit with which the day started for me had completely diminished.

Again calls poured in from India and rest of the country asking if we were safe – and everyone asked about the eight year old Martin who lost his life and his mother and sister have serious injuries. What has the world come to? Who are the people who thrive on killing a child? And innocent by standers supporting and cheering on the runners – what was their fault? In the years that I have spent in and around Boston and made it my home I have never seen anything as violent, despicable and alarming as this. May be DC because it is the political hot seat, maybe New York because of its financial status but never Boston. I made calls to people I know who work and live around Boston and was relieved to learn they were safe but for some it was quite close. Either they walked down Boylston Street minutes before the explosion or they were stopped by the police much before they reached the finish line.

My day changed. If the New Year begins on such a violent note, what is the rest of the year going to be like? I shudder as I keep my eyes peeled on the news updates. Stories of brave men and women helping those injured pour in. Yes we are in mourning – we have lost people – lives and their being. We have lost a way of living and trusting.

What I am sometimes uncertain about is how as a regular law abiding, hard working immigrant am I supposed to mourn? Is there a template that I could follow so I am recognized as a viable mourner? Am I allowed to be part of a shared sense of loss? I see my colleagues share their experiences as Marathon runners, bystanders and just regular people and then write about how “American” it is to help each other in times of distress. At one go, I am shut off from what is going on.

Did I hear that the devices used were packaged in a pressure cooker? It is as common as an oven or a microwave for an American as a pressure cooker is for many cultures and cooking. It even forms part of wedding trousseau because the cookers are sturdy and last a life time just like silverware and dishes in this country.

At this point I am angry that something so cultural has been usurped for a heinous crime. And I want to reclaim that and much, much more. At the time of writing this piece, no one had been found responsible or at least reported. I hope they do find out and soon because we are hurting and need closure.

Understandably, loss is private, personal but when there is breakdown of the normal, let us recognize that bereavement is across family, community, national boundaries and an essential step in rebuilding our lives.

Rajashree Ghosh is a resident scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University in Waltham.

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