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Ramadan in Chittagong

Mohit Ul Alam

Daily Star Home

 13 November 2002

Chittagong, as a city, has a strong religious fervour. People from outside districts might call it a little conservative too. Religious occasions in both Muslim and Hindu communities are being observed here with more jest and enthusiasm than are seen in other towns of Bangladesh.
It may be because many rich people live in this city. For ostentatious observation of festivals, excess money is required. The rich merchant class of Chittagong, therefore are ideally suited. As money reigns, religion also becomes a matter of competition. During Kurbani, every locality finds a group of rich people who contest for buying the biggest/costliest cow. And in Ramadan, the contest is about who gives away the biggest amount of zakaat.

But Ramadan is a month of austerity, even then austerity can wear a festive look, and exactly so in Chittagong. The Ramadan culture consists of fasting which includes letting your friends know that even your minor son insists on waking up at Sehri and keeping the (fasting), praying that includes the discussion among friends about which mosque one goes to for the Taraabi prayer, and exchanging banters between friends on the sanctions enforced in the private lives or the enforced withdrawal of the sanctions.

In the street the Ramadan culture constitutes in having all the restaurants shut down at daytime, handbills and one-page calendars announcing the Iftar-Sehri timings as well as the piety of this holy month being delivered free, and the shopkeepers and businessmen talking confidently that they speak nothing but the truth.

Ramadan is a month of freedom too. Freedom from food and rest. At work, one can work from morning till Iftar time not having to bother about breakfast, pre-lunch snacks, lunch itself, and the inevitable tea. If one is a workaholic, he can forgo his siesta too, because one doesn't sleep well on an empty stomach. For people mindful about body fitness, Ramadan is probably the best month.

At home, Ramadan is made felt to you by a certain ritual of piety; silence everywhere except for the TV which your children have understood as needed to be continually put on as replacement for their frequent invasions into the kitchen which also remains silent until the early hours of the afternoon, when suddenly seized by a frenzied action for the preparation of Iftar.


Your wife then wakes up from her long afternoon slumber, lazily holding an unfinished novel in her hand and walking heavily to the kitchen to give necessary instructions to the housemaid. Your starving nose tickles.

To me, on the earthly plane, Ramadan is basically an agreement between husband and wife. The husband fasts and buys the grocery, and the wife fasts too, but she prepares the Iftar.

Ramadan Iftar can be very simple, just dunking a bela or gole or rose biscuit in a glass of sherbet, or it can be very elaborate -- a ten-course meal, starting from sherbet to cholabhaja (fried grams) generously mixed with muri (puffed rice), added with the fried things like piyanju (round fried pieces of paste lentils), beguni (fried slices of egg-plant), marichycha (fried chilies), then dishes of sweet, that is all kinds of pie, then a serving of fruits like bananas, apples, grapes, and papayas and pineapples, and guavas or mangoes depending on the season, and then in the final round, luchi or puri or parata with beef or chicken, and then of course a bowl of haleem (cooked chicken/beef/mutton in dense gravy of lentils) to be finally rounded up with hot juicy jilapi (a very delicious sweet of flour, tortuously coil-shaped, soaked in steaming sugar juice) and a tubful of curd, and then the hot tea is served. After all these, some fasters are yet hungry enough to wait for the night meal.

I mentioned bela and gole and rose biscuits, and of them the first two are typical cookies only baked locally in Chittagong. Bela is round shaped like the moon, baked

from flour and sugar and nothing else. Once bela used to be of very big size, four inches in diameter, but with the rise in prices of things it is getting both costlier in

price and smaller in size.

Now a bela biscuit of the size of one taka coin should surprise you. Gole biscuit, also made of the same ingredients, has nothing gole or round about it. The naming of the biscuit as such is surprising, because it is shaped like the letter R with the inside filled up. The rose biscuit, shaped exactly like the letter D, is baked all over Bangladesh, so does not need a separate mention.

After fasting for the whole day, the bela or gole-soaked sherbet provides a real relief. They puff up occupying the whole space inside the glass, and you drink up the sherbet slowly along with the well-soaked soft good things of the biscuit travelling feelingly through your mouth. Chittagonians are not well known for their cuisine sense.

They eat bare parata with sugar sprinkled on it, they breakfast with bela and tea, and, as one of my friend's mother from another district surprised me by saying, they sprinkle ground dry fish over pilau. The average Chittagonian Muslim diet goes by the basics, rice and one curry and beef. It is reflected in their Iftar too. Presence of beef in the Iftar menu is as mandatory as the presence of chilies and pepper.

But then my Hindu friends are also fond of Iftar, so my wife preserves a special dish of chicken or mutton when I invite them. Once or twice we had some European friends in the house during the Ramadan month, they also relished Iftar. Iftar perhaps is a great bonding force. Over the years Iftar has turned into a great social and political culture. Nationwide Iftar party is thrown at the highest level for greater political amicability.

In Chittagong, it is more felt. Because Chittagong is a city of very rich people who don't mind spending. So by the later half, the Ramadan month turns into a kind of Iftar festival. Iftar invitations are too many, and so are return invitations. There are at least five invitations from the in-law side, and at least another five from the

friends, and then there are ten or so from the social or political groups. The invitations often clash. No problem. You know how to go about it.