Remembering Roja: A devout festive nation

Rumi Ahmed

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The last time I was in Bangladesh during roja, it was 1995. It has been 17 years since; I’ve regularly visited Bangladesh, but never during roja.

Over the last 12 years, in this ‘bidesh bibhui’, ‘roja’ has been replaced by ‘ramadan’.

Typical conversations like “roja rakha”, “roja bhanga/khola”, “roja dhora” is now “Ramadan Mubarak”. Back in desh never heard anyone wishing Ramadan Mubarak (Mubarak was reserved for Eid only). Joshmmin deshe jodachar.

Although from a religious point of view the month of Ramadan/Roja is meant to be a month of austerity, prayer, meditation and sacrifice, roja comes to Bangladesh carrying a big bag of festivity on its back. The funfair begins with pre-roja food shopping spree. The preparation for a month long improved diets as well a daily variety of iftar!

My early childhood memory of roja is in fact the memory of waking up at ‘shesh raat’ (early morning) and eat ‘bhaat with shagor kola and dudh’. Then wow! The pride, the self proclamation of being able to or being allowed to fast! Also those horrible mornings when you would wake up to see the day light through the window. What a heart break, inconsolable anger and sadness! The goddamn parents didn’t wake you up at ’shesh raat’ to eat ’sehri’. Immense depression engulfs the whole morning.

And then Iftar! The whole country, irrespective of religion, race, resource, creed – would suddenly get spiritually bonded together. Every smallest of the streets will turn into a makeshift iftar marketplace. Young people will sell chola in an aluminium bowl. Fried dried chili will be half dipped into those chola vertically. Hot fresh peaju/beguni (Yeah, those days beguni was beguni not pepeni or aluni) will be fried on the street sides. The whole city would suddenly go crazy to return home.


All in the family would sit together to have iftar. The pre-iftar hunger and the excitement to find what was the day’s menu was incredible. Then one or two neighbours would come everyday, carrying a tray full of iftar. Explore quickly what is in their tray! Do they still do this iftar exchange between neighbours?

At iftar time, all the maddening chaos will suddenly come to a dead halt. Azaan, siren will pierce and fly through the sky. Traffic will come to a standstill. All, including traffic police, shopkeeper, vagabond, beggar will sit together in front of a store or in some market’s porch, to share whatever they can have for iftar. In mosques, musullihs will sit in an oval shaped pattern. All the iftar donated from the households of the moholla (neighbourhood) will be mixed and smashed together and served on a huge-size dish. Each will take handfuls from the iftar cocktail.

Little slum kids will wait impatiently outside. Immediately after iftar, they would start raiding house to house in search of iftar. Everybody will keep something for them. What do they do these days when Dhakaites have imprisoned themselves in grilled, gated and guarded flats?

Khatame tarabi is another Bangali Muslim extravaganza. Not too many Muslims around the world are enthusiastic in performing khatame tarabi. This is an interesting part of roja in Bangladesh. Mosques in every para/moholla get ready for it well in advance. Two teenage frail looking long white shirt and tupi wearing Quran-e-Hafiz will be appointed for the month. They will recite the whole of memorised Quran with tarabi prayer throughout the month. During their 30 days stay, 30 families will host their dinner. So 30 days of polao-korma. Is it too tempting? The tarabi will be a good exercise of endurance and religious devotion. Young kids will be creating a lot of noise in the back rows and older murubbis will yell at them during each prayer break. Occasionally those kids will be affected by a laughing spree. One will start laughing during namaaj and the rest of the row will be affected by the highly contagious laughing syndrome.

‘Shesh raat’ also would begin with a big bang. Some very conscientious people in para/moholla will take a challenge not to let anyone sleep during this time. All kind of noise making strategies will be improvised. First, an old man will walk by dinging his tin container. The next will be a bearded man walking fast asking all the brothers and sisters to wake up and reminding the divine importance of roja. Then a group of young moholla boys will come in a group, singing song… mafi kalmi zallallla, Nur Mohammad sallalah… Nice tune. I was part of the choir once.

Middle-class kids will eat dudh-kola in half sleepy eyes, slum people will eat rice and chilli fry. All will gallop glass full of water until the first of a dozen fazr azan shattered the pre dawn silence. Only during these 30 days, people will get the opportunity to listen to the magical lines from the muazzin… assalatu khairum minan naum… Imam Shahib at the mosque will lead the prayer with very long sura in a kirat mode. People will finally go to bed looking for another day and ultimately the end of those days, the Eid.

Darkness will give way for dawn.