Monday, February 27, 2006

A Spring in My Step

I stepped into my third decade last year. You'd think that the consolation and compensation for slower metabolism and wrinkle paranoia would be freedom from acne. But dammit, here I am, who used to be the most acne-free teenager in my school, having to deal with these random little devils. Believe it or not, the weather is to blame. My face has become a barometer, for the past few years it announces a turn of season by breaking out in acne. Once the turn of season is completed, the acne disappears. Yes, I am that in tune with nature. I wonder how I can fool my face into believing that it's the same season all year.

But quite apart from the little pestilence, I'm completely enamoured of the celebration of spring. For me, no time of the year deserves more joyful festivities and brings such an immediate sense of wellbeing. Unfortunately my Bengali Hindu ancestors chose to reserve their most lavish festivities for a period in the middle of autumn which does not seem to mark any significant transition of season. Of course there are people who are fond of saying (including many in my family) that Durga Puja harkens the arrival of winter, and coincides with the blooming of the ubiquitous kash flower in the Bengali countryside. However there is nothing like the grand riot of flowers and foliage, the slowly invigorating warmth of the sun, and the anticipation of the early bounty of summer harvest.

We do celebrate spring, but tend to do it in the middle of winter, a lunar calendar date that usually coincides with a date in January. I still have traumatic memories of being woken up at a ridiculous hour on Basant Panchami, subjected to a cold shower, and then dragged off to a temple freezing and sneezing all the way. It almost seems as if we are trying to coax spring out of what is still a dismal winter day. By the time the Bengali New Year rolls in, spring is on its way out, and the first rumblings of kaalboishakhi winds have sounded. Bengalis are very fond of saying that they celebrate 13 festivals in 12 months (Baaro mashey tero parbon), but there is overabundance of celebration in some months and not much to look forward to in February and March. I have a feeling I'm inviting outraged comments admonishing the probashi Bangali (diasporic Bengali) for her ignorance, but I'm willing to stand by what I say :).

Of course I'd be directed towards Holi or Dol Jatra, which usually falls in the middle of March, and in its original form was all about the celebration of spring colours and a happy camaraderie born out of the advent of good weather. However, in the last two decades or so, the festival has degenerated into aggressive water battles, use of toxic chemical colours and physical injuries due to use of water balloons. The last Holi I ever fully participated in had ended in tragedy for my hair, after it got coated with something that looked like car paint and had to be completely chopped off.

Which is why I am considering switching to the Japanese and Persian calendars for the months of February and March, given the great significance accorded to spring celebrations in the calendars. In Japan March 3 is the Hinamatsuri or Doll Festival day, also celebrated as Girls' Day. It is marked by a display of dolls, also including peach blossoms. One of my favourite Japanese restaurants in LA has a special, seasonal menu of food traditionally consumed for Hinamatsuri. When I went there last week, I was told I was one day too early for the start of the special menu. The place is pricy, so I don't know if I can afford another meal there anytime soon. For that kind of money, I can buy a set of gorgeous Japanese tableware and create my own Hinamatsuri lunch. They had put up the doll display though, which was beautiful, especially since it was set off against their serene Zen garden.

Spring is also the season for a celebration that is almost instantly recognized worldwide as a Japanese tradition. This centres around cherry blossom or sakura, a flower deeply beloved of the Japanese. So beloved is the sakura, that the Japanese have found innovative ways to incorporate the sakura into their foodways. There is the sakura cha, a beautiful clear infusion with a tangy taste, with the blossom languidly suspended in it. I'm determined to hunt down sakura cha in Little Tokyo, even if I have to bug and pester every Japanese store attendant in sight. Then there is sakura mochi, salted sakura blossoms, desserts, etc.

Of course, the very fleeting blooming season is eagerly anticipated, and the Japanese even have a name for watching cherry blossoms bloom: hanami. This year I've decided to attend the local cherry blossom festival, which given LA's very peculiar blooming calendar is held all the way in the first week of April. Apparently even in Japan they are expecting a late blooming. Now why we Indians couldn't come up with a festival to celebrate the blooming of amaltas and gulmohar? Apparently the blooming of the ashoka tree was cause for much celebration in ancient India, but in contemporary times I suspect many urban Indians would be hard pressed to identify the flower.

The Persian Norooz on the other hand, does not centre on a specific flower or a feting the girl child, but revelling in spring itself. It is almost ironic for Muslim Iranians to pick a celebration based on the Zorastrian calendar as their biggest festival of the year. However, Norooz has remained an integral part of Persian identity from its very inception, and reflects the importance of spring in Persian life. Some of the metaphorical use of "bahar" or spring in Urdu poetry can be traced to Persian poetic influences (the word "bahar" is of Persian origin). As in Indian classical music, many melodies in Iranian traditional music are intrinsically associated with spring.

And since the festival focuses on the rejuvenation that is spring, the colour that dominates Norooz is green. Green sprouts (sabzeh) take pride of place in the haftseen display that is de rigeur for Norooz. The traditional food for the day consists of a pilaf made with rice and greens (sabzi polo). The subtle symbolic meaning associated with the handful of rituals for the day are accessible to all, and everyone enthusiastically shares in setting up displays.

I also have a sneaking suspicion that what appeals to me about these festivals is the fact that they are disengaged from religious rituals, and even an agnostic like me can participate with wholehearted enthusiasm. I almost invariably feel guilty about taking my place with the devout when Hindu festival rituals are performed. I love the grandeur of the ceremony, the precisely choreographed sequence of events, the emotional surge. But my interest is purely aesthetic and social, and hence feels a bit insincere next to the faithful who invest their spiritual energies in the ceremonies. These are the times I fervently wish that the Bengali New Year, on the whole a non-religious celebration was a much bigger deal than it is right now, and encompassed more than merely wearing new clothes and eating sweets.


Anonymous Sanity Starved said...

You have given a license to admonish! Okay:
Yes, very very bad. How can you say such things about Bengali traditions! Roots and all....

Is there anything that substantial around this time in Bengal? It seemed always green to me. Didn't have anything in Gujarat either... it was always dry with only neem and eucalyptus trees!

I have officially stopped pestering you for not posting. Your posts sound really nice after good breaks. Nice one!

1:38 AM  
Blogger Rimi said...

I also have a sneaking suspicion that what appeals to me about these festivals is the fact that they are disengaged from religious rituals...I almost invariably feel guilty about taking my place with the devout when Hindu festival rituals are performed.

my sentiments exactly. i have been wanting to post about my religious 'guilt' for a VERY long time now, but somehow haven't got around to, maybe.

and KNEW you would bring in food somehow! *very accusatory voice*

1:56 AM  
Blogger Adagio For Strings said...

Oh pish tosh! (Just wanted to start the comment with that for no apparent reason) One should hardly feel guilty about celebrating festivals just for social and cultural reasons (against religious ones) for in doing so in addition to celebrating them, we cerebrate them too (What kind of puns DID you expect with entire paragraphs devoted to Japanese :D) because invariably social and cultural reasons are by far the more logical ones to celebrate any festival. (If you dont agree, picture karwachauth, where gaudily decked up auntie gees try to cold starve themselves off of some of the excess fat gathered over 363 and a quarter days and try to throw water at the moon through a sieve....I mean seriously, was there sense of distance that badly developed). Excuse the rant, you must have touched an excitable nerve that I did not even realise existed. Seem to be discovering a lot of those these days....but you probably already know that Ahem! :D

2:30 AM  
Blogger Vijayeta said...

Adult acne! It's an inseparable part of my PMS. And it's been a month i've been following my grandma's advice (she's 76 and has great skin!) on devoting 1 hour on sundays on hair and skin. I do look more human now :)
Festivals always remind me of food! And i cant afford to break into yet another daydream on food, so i'll just leave it at that. But most wistfully so... :(
I see you've done the tag too :)
Guess i was the last one, and the laziest one too!

3:19 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Pidus, there is always a certain amount of tropical greenery in Bengal, so perhaps spring is not such a contrast to the winter. But there are clearly demarcated seasons and the change of seasons have been noted in Bengali folkways traditionally (our food is very, very seasonal). Also the first major extant work of Bengali literature, Phullurar Baromashya, is all about seasons.

Thanks, will keep taking those breaks :)

Rimi, please do write. Knowing you, it'd make for excellent reading. What to do, I'm obsessed with food only.

Adagio, that makes me feel better, because I'm only too happy to let the social and cultural reasons take precedence. Apropos karwa chauth, I do miss those excess fat laden aunties, dressed to the nines whose bling would put any Bappi Lahiri to shame. I mean seriously what is it with our gold obsession? Makes every Indian bride look like a kitsch fest.

Vijayeta, amazing how we all have grandmas with fabulous skin. Wonder where we manage to screw up. But seriously I'm fed of getting this acne with such regularity. Will check out your post :).

1:57 PM  
Blogger swar said...

ah! there you are with a wonderful post.

10:43 PM  
Blogger eve's lungs said...

Acne - part of everywoman's PMS syndrome ! Don't worry they still continue to plague me ..thanks for passing by my blog

4:49 AM  
Blogger Urmea said...

Sigh, ah the acne... And what is it with grandmoms and lovely skin? My thakuma claimed it was all thanks to boroline! Can you get any more bangali than that? I think not!

As for seasons, I guess there is a drift in how months and seasons coincide, so what used to be spring earlier (as in hundreds of years ago - I am hand-waving so please to bear with me) is probably mid-winter now (or the reverse - what do I know?). And anyway why blame bengalis for not having Saraswati Pujo late enough to avoid Delhi winters? Hah!

3:13 PM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Bem, thank you! And welcome.

Eve, so you mean I'll keep getting acne till I menopause? Nahinnn....
By the way, I really loved your blog. More perfume tales please :)

Urmi, Boroline na chhai! I'm sure this is a collective granny conspiracy, there is some magic potion that we are being denied and fobbed off with such tales. But yes, a greasy layer of Boroline before hitting the bed is a quintessential Bangali ritual.

Aah, climate change? Makes sense Urmi. Perhaps that's what it is. He, he, your accusation would hold water if Saraswati Puja was held in Phalgun or Choitra, the official spring months. But not, that is not the case, so there :)

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