Happy Bengali New Year! Pohela Boishakh is the first day of the Bengali calendar and, 593 years behind our traditional calendar, today, on April 14th, we celebrate the beginning of the year 1423. No school today, but I head in anyway for New Year festivities with the Future Hope home children. After a dodgy uber ride, where our driver thought he could, quite literally, “take us for a ride”, I eventually arrive at school half an hour late, but in the elastic time of Kolkata, I am, if anything, early. I immediately join in painting an alpona pattern under the school gates, linking leaf, star and wave shapes together with paint made from clay and water. With the help of six or seven children, I then fill in the pattern with different coloured sand, creating a festive entrance for the school. Anando and Krishna nimbly shoot up the school gates, hanging off the railings like monkeys, and direct operations from above, careers in interior design and party planning calling them. With expert advice, we hoops strings of marigolds between the mango leaves and step back to admire our work. Krishna takes me by the hand and we rush off to apply the same artistic flair to the remaining doorways.
The Ballygunge and Station Road girls arrive – a walking rainbow of pink, blue, orange, green and yellow sarees – the girls look beautiful. Excited for a day of festivities, the girls skip off to help with decorations or to rehearse for their own upcoming performances. Clad either in Kurtas or smart jeans, the Ballygunge and Bompass boys swagger in, spirits high, shaking hands and high-fiving everyone they pass, some of the smaller ones bending down to touch my feet then bringing their hands up by their ears to say, “Shubho Noboborsho” (Happy New Year). Lucy (or Luchi as the children prefer) greets the children as they come in and gets ticked off by Anando and Sonali for saying “Hey Guys”, its Bengali translation being “cow”…
Immy, Lucy, Leanne and I cram ourselves into the small office loo so that Shuchi and Devleena can help us into our sarees. Dressed in an orange petticoat and a elastic choral crop top, the equivalent of “underwear” (hence being crammed into the hot office loo), Shuchi folds, pleats and tucks me into my brand new saree. Feeling like a princess, despite the fact that sarees, with their countless layers, are not as airy as they appear, but thankful that there is a slight breeze on my midriff, I add the finishes touches with fake gold bling from Gariahat market and a bindi.
In the school hall, I sit on a wooden bench ready for the festivities to begin. The children filter in through the doors and a nervous excitement fills the room. Our two fantastic MCs (Master of Ceremonies), Jhili and Russell, take two microphones, hush the chattering crowd and announce the order of performances. Like so often, I am wowed by the extraordinary talent of the Future Hope children. My photos cannot capture the lilting singing voices of Surojit, Montu or Debnath, or the flowing moves of the wonderful Amina, or the almost in time dance routine by the small girls. To finish? A volunteers’ song; in true Indian contradiction, leaving the worst for last. Avoiding the real microphones and opting rather for Luchi’s blow up ones, we stand in a line, arms crossed and linked together, recalling the Scottish Hogmanay, and sing, rather tentatively at first but gathering momentum, a Bengali translation of Auld Lang Syne; an Indo-Scottish mash-up. Our performance crescendos into all the children holding hands in an excited circle, rushing into the middle and out again to the volunteer rendition of Auld Lang Syne, drowned-out by squeals of laughter.
After some fantastic Bollywood dancing, our festivities round off with a delicious school lunch. Usually the children eat lunch in two shifts, the Middle and Senior school first, followed by the Junior school. However, today, the benches are carried out of the hall, the floor wiped down and everyone sits together on the floor, a cross-legged snake winding its way around the room, a banana leaf plate full of cumin rice, chicken curry, deep-fried potato chips and salad in front of each person. Two of the older boys heave a huge metal bowl around the room, ladling water into plastic cups, 60% in the cup, the floor receiving the rest. I am stuffed full, but due, of course, to my handy “pudding stomach”, there’s always room for more. A traditional Bengali sweet, swimming in syrup, is plopped onto my plate – a Rasgulla (a ball of cottage cheese soaked in sugar syrup) – so delicious and so sweet and certainly a lot better than it sounds. I am certainly honing my sweet tooth out in Kolkata.