A Santal Birthday Party

Evening time in a Santal village

One of our delights, when having a day off, is to make a visit to the village of our Santal friends. We walk out of the LAMB gates, down the road and then walk along the railway lines for about a mile. Along the way, we have to make sure we don’t walk on any grains anyone laid out to dry, avoid cows, goats and chickens wandering around and walk on the railway lines themselves to get over the bridge with a scary drop between the sleepers down into the river below.

Finally, when we’ve braved all this, we turn right down a hidden path and come into the village where we are made to feel incredibly welcome. Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to go to two birthday parties and learn a lot about how village children here make their own entertainment.

There is not an awful lot here. The homes are made of mud with tin roofs, the cooking happens outside on chulas, earth ovens, and the only form of decoration is a handful of balloons. It is a beautiful village and my children often pester their mother and I to let them stay overnight. Our friends would be delighted to have them stay and I think, before long, we are going to have to let them do so.

Bangladeshis are not known for their time-keeping and so the party begins any time up to any hour later than everyone has been told. We’re quite used to this now and know that we have a good flexible time frame of, say, half an hour, to get to any social engagement we have an invitation for. Once everyone has arrived, though, the children and adult guests all sit in a circle and the entertainment begins.

Which one is the birthday girl?!

All the Santal children I know love to sing. I really enjoy listening to these songs which can be in Santali, Bangla or maybe Hindi. I can even join in with a few of them! They are so very tuneful and are often accompanied by little dances with anyone spontaneously joining in and following the others. This nothing professional, but it is a lot better than I could ever do and it is a lot of fun. (facebook link to a video here)

After a few of these songs and dances, the game begins and this, recently, has been passing a balloon around and everyone singing part of a song. When it comes to an end after a phrase or two, the person holding the balloon has ten seconds to think of another song for everyone to join in with and the balloon goes around again. I have never found out what happens if someone can’t think of a song in time – it’s never happened! Even my two kids are able to do this as they have a range of Bangla songs they can sing these days. I’m afraid, on my go, I ended up with the Bangla Christian song “I am a little flower” which brings much guffawing from my two kids because they know I hate that song so much. It sticks in your head, like, forever afterwards.

Blowing out the candles

After the game, the cake comes out, just as in the West, and the candles are blown out. Snacks are brought out on plates along with water, though my addiction to cha is so well known around these parts that, inevitably, I get a good steaming cup of tea brought out to me as well! This cha is usually black – milk is too expensive to buy for most villagers. When we go away on holiday our milk continues to be brought daily as it comes straight from the cow which can’t cope with a sudden drop in milk demand! As a result, our friends get our milk for those days. Shurola, the mother of both these girls whose birthdays are shown here, tells me that, each time, she makes everyone a delicious cake from the milk as a treat!

Finally, after all the songs, games and food, the area is cleared and the little speakers plugged into someone’s cheap mobile phone (these days one for a whole household in most areas – thanks to the work of Dr Yunus and his Grameen organisation) and the dancing begins (facebook link here). I can’t tell you how much fun this seems to be (I’m not a dancer – you can tell, can’t you…) and it is usually at this point that I start to philosophise to myself. Just how much do our kids really need to enjoy themselves in life? There is so much opportunity in the West to do things – too much, really, so that children and parents are often run ragged trying to get their ‘little darlings’ to every event, lesson and party going.  But seriously, do I see happier kids in the UK to what I see here? Absolutely not.

This little lad NEVER stops smiling 🙂

We tend to think of poverty as a terrible thing and, of course, when people suffer it most certainly is. But when poverty means simplicity of living – as it does for much of the time for our Santal friends here – then I’m afraid it is we in the West who are the impoverished ones. These parties are no exercise in ‘keeping the little horrors amused for an hour’. No opportunity to stick them in front of the TV or a video game to keep them quiet.  No need for a juggler, magician, clown, lazer quest, bowling trip or any other activity that I’ve certainly done for my kids in the past.

No, what happens here is the sheer joy of getting together and enjoying life as a community. This is what I envy Bangladeshis in general for more than anything else. So far, the West has not encroached enough into Bangla society to kill off the love and need for social gathering. It stems, in part, from the poverty because you cannot afford, when you are poor, to avoid others when you need them the next time a storm happens and your roof is blown away and you home melts around you.  But this is not how everyone thinks, true though it might be. People just want to be around people here – and so do I.

Westerner as I am, I may not be quite ready to leap up and join in with the dancing yet, but it’s not far off! When I do, I suspect there will be cries of laughter and it will be the ‘talk of the town’ for days. But it will be fun, it will be real and it won’t be just another way of ‘killing time’. God rescue us from that.

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