Picnic or Choruibhati is something that we Bongs indulge in, especially in the month of December. Many of us usher the New Year by heading out for a Picnic, Boro diner (New Year’s) Picnic as it’s popularly called. When we were growing up, Choruibhati or Picnic meant a big group of friends and family heading out in a minibus to the outskirts of the city early morning, to a riverbank or forest land, making a makeshift clay-oven, gathering woods and then cooking and eating a meal out in the open. We carried the ingredients and the utensils with us. Of course, there would be a lot of fun and games, singing, dancing etc. in between cooking and the meals. Late afternoon lunch would usually be hot dal, bhaja, mutton and rice served on disposable plates. There was something special about those freshly prepared Choruibhati meals that we would sit on the grass and eat!
Since we went for Picnics to idyllic locations away from the city, Bonbhojon (feast in the forest) is another apt Bong term for Picnic. Bengali zamindars or aristocracy added flavours of hunting and boat riding as well to Bonbhojon. Often, they would shoot a duck or a bird to be cooked in the open and stroll the river in their boats. But for a long time, I couldn’t fathom why we Bongs loved to call Picnic Choruibhati, that literally translates to Sparrows Feast. What does a cute little sparrow have to do with Picnic? Only recently I learnt that Chorui also means open space while bhati means feast, and Choruibhati thus translates to a grand feast in the open.
Interestingly, in its early days, Picnic was an indoor affair that originated from France. It is speculated that French Pique-Nique may have been derived from verb piquer (‘to peck’ or ‘to pick’) and the noun nique (‘a small amount’ or ‘nothing whatsoever’ in the mid-18th century. By late 18th century Picnic or Pique-Nique was a fashionable affair – a dinner to which each guest would contribute, very similar to potluck lunches. It was a favourite pastime of genteel, sometimes involved singing and dancing but was always indoors.
Picnic travelled to England after the French Revolution, where many from French aristocracy fled fearing for their lives. It soon gained popularity amongst the English upper class. A Pic Nic society was founded in 1801 by a group of 200 wealthy young Francophiles.
Sometime in 20th-century Picnic travelled outdoor. It was supposed to be an outdoor meal in idyllic locations, an innocent pleasure that aristocracy indulged in. Picnic basket for packing in cold lunch came into being. Soon wine found place in the Picnic basket. Eventually, it also became more mass, with the working class enjoying their own Picnics.
From England, Picnic travelled to America. I assume Britishers’ brought Picnic to India and genteel Bongs embraced it. Kolkata being the British capital then, Bongs did enjoy certain proximity with the British Colonial rulers. Though we adopted the concept, we packed more punch to it. Rather than carrying packed food, we decided to cook out in the open. Bong food tastes best when freshly cooked.
We modern Bongs sometimes become lazy though and, we just drive to a Picnic spot that serves cooked meals. Though it is fun, it can’t match Choruibhati – the excitement of gathering woods and a cooking meal in the open!