By Neeman Sobhan
February is ending and with it my trip to Dhaka. By next week I will have returned to Rome and be back in my woollies. It is still frosty there; while here, the end of Bengali winter has already been heralded by a heating up of both the weather and the political climate.Keeping the conversation to the weather, I wake up earlier just to soak in the residual coolness of the fast-fading morning. By seven, the sun crackles like shimmering foil. I am already nostalgic for the wintry freshness of a fortnight ago and especially that fleeting, evanescent hour of a golden winter’s afternoon in Dhaka: three to five o’clock. The short and fast-fading hour that calls out for a transfusion of tea in some space where the last sunlight has room to ripple and dance like ebbing water.
Late afternoon on my lake-facing balcony here in my flat in Dhaka is my favourite time and place to be alone or with friends: to sip and sit, to reflect and refresh over a steaming cup. I love tea time, anytime, but in Dhaka I am especially fond of afternoon tea and tea parties. And in the frenetic world of Dhaka during the short but festive winter season, when people’s social calendars are booby-trapped with lunches, dinners and weddings, tea-time is the only loophole to escape and snatch a sane moment with a few friends.
I love having friends over for tea and I adore making, serving and consuming teatime finger foods and other snacks. Freshly baked cakes and pies; bite-sized cucumber or chicken sandwiches; peyajus, pakoras, puris, samosas and kebabs hot from the frying pan; homemade dahibaras and chat, and handmade peethas, haluas and borfis. Other meals pale to insignificance.
My best memory of Dhaka socialising is centred around teatime. I have met up with friends at congenial ‘coffee-shops’ in the Gulshan area, where I stubbornly ordered my tea. ‘Bittersweet’ is among such places, and the name is appropriate because the approach to this cosy café (almost anonymous, with no discernible signboard) is shabby with a rickety stair going up from an alley behind the Weaver’s shop in Gulshan 2; but the bitterness lifts swiftly and sweetly as soon as one is inside. There are many other places for young people to hang out, and not just for coffee, like the newly opened Panini.
But during my trip to Dhaka, my most relaxing social outings, apart from hanging out with friends and family around tea tables in their homes or mine, have been attending tea parties. I enjoyed some elegant tea socials on apartment rooftops (a Dell-She power event hosted by the dynamic Tootli Rahman) and a private family birthday party on the beautifully tended roof garden of Maliha Quddus (featured once in Lifestyle).
Outstanding, though, was a recent literary session at the gracious home of Ananya’s editor Tasmima Hossain where a dialogue of upcoming young women writers with celebrated poet Syed Shamsul Huq started out in the covered veranda of her Dhanmondi home overlooking the manicured and old-world garden, complete with swing and a lawn edged with a riot of winter blooms. It made everyone nostalgic for the time when most Dhaka homes were single unit and had a patch of garden. Images of tea trolleys and wicker chairs set on the grass created the right poetic mood for a teatime discussion on matters literary, about perceptions in a changing world, especially from the perspective of women. Reflecting over a cup of tea with fellow writers, that too mentored by a master craftsman of words — what a privileged way to spend a waning winter’s afternoon.
As things wane so they also wax, in Time’s grand rhythm. The important thing is to flow with it all and not try to cling to experience or thrash against change. But what helps fix the fleeting moment is memory, and writing about it — with some poetic editing. For example, I choose to recall with joy yesterday’s evening tea on my balcony (before the mosquitoes attacked at sun down!) as much as my two-month long winter trip to Dhaka (now seeming to be a mere fleeting hour) remembered with all the minor downsides erased.
About the fleetingness of things, here is this gem from William Blake’s metaphysical poems:
“He who binds to himself a joy/Does the winged life destroy;/ But he who kisses the joy as it flies/Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.”
Neeman Sobhan is a writer and journalist, living in Italy and teaching at the University of Rome. She also writes the fortnightly ‘A Roman Column’ that appears in the Star Weekend Magazine of Fridays.