The tangy aroma of sizzling shish kebabs, delicious chicken curry, freshly made mango lassi, and chestnuts roasting on an open fire (just kidding about that last) filled my slowly dilating nostrils as I finally discovered the crowded street where the mela was being held this week. Most people look forward to beach activities and things of that sort when the summer draws nearer, but Bengali residents in New York City share another joy: melas, or Bengali cultural fairs, that take place throughout the boroughs for as long as the sun beams, glowing upon and warming our naturally tanned skins. For some, the excitement lies in the large gathering and celebrations of our minority group, although the latter term has been questionable over the years as our population grew in our fair city. For others, like myself, joining in the events are our guilty pleasures, especially that of the modern Americanized South Asians.
I had not experienced a mela in recent years due to the gradual distance that I maintained between myself and my heritage. After outgrowing my rebellious teen years, I decided that it would be best to return to my roots, and where better to start than a mela? I nostalgically remembered past summers where, upon receiving word of an upcoming mela, my friends and I would chatter nonstop about the event that would likely complete our entire summer. It always did.
Now a self-declared “wise” young adult, I wondered what exactly about melas I once found alluring; filled to the brim with conservative Bangladeshis, especially the older generations, we would not even be able to enter in our normal clothes without being scowled at, and god forbid we try to arrive with a member of the opposite sex who isn’t our father-the rumor mill begins. There would always be some sort of drama going on at these fairs, because wherever there is Bengali people, drama will follow. However, the thought of mouth-watering Indian food was tempting, and so I sought one out. I convinced my childhood friends to accompany me for old time’s sake.
This particular mela was held in late August in the Jackson Heights part of Queens, also known as Little Bangladesh. This was because the neighborhood was overpopulated with Bengali families, stores, tutoring centers, meat markets and such. They usually begin late in the morning, and continue on into the evening. Of course, we arrived fashionably late. I’m not quite sure how we were unable to find it to begin with, considering the decibels at which the foreign music was blaring, but we did eventually. Once beyond the road blocks, I spotted a stand selling polaow and chicken masala-I made a beeline for it. After buying an overpriced plateful, my friends and I wandered down the street, occasionally greeting a familiar face here and there. It occurred to me that that was one of the perks of melas for us: we ran into friends, more often old ones who we hadn’t seen in a while, which was always a thrill. Nowadays however, with online social networks, it made it easier to keep in touch with these old friends, and wore away the excitement of seeing a familiar face.
There was a crowd forming at the stage set at the end of the street. There were planned dance performances, Bengali singers, and speeches to be made throughout the day. We stayed long enough to watch a friend of mine, who is a member of a popular [among the Bengali community] dance group perform, and an elderly woman serenade the audience in a rather wobbly voice. It wasn’t exactly impressive, and the crowd gave very little feedback-I guess no one told them about the “clap when the performance ends” rule; common courtesy people.
In the next couple of hours, we amused ourselves by pausing at every stand that lined the streets, talking to strangers, avoiding Bengali mothers staring at us, and buying more food. I was saddened that something that once brought me so much joy and excitement now bored me. I was too young to have become jaded, so I believe that it wasn’t that melas now lacked the fun that it was once known for-this particular mela was simply poorly planned. We never had to end up finding entertainment for ourselves in the past-entertainment came to the people.
In hindsight, I suppose I did bear a sort of cynical view of melas upon my last experience, and this may have influenced the mediocrity that I felt.