As Bengalis prepare for Poila Boishak, the Bengali New Year which falls on April 15 this year, much of Kolkata and other parts of West Bengal have begun reverberating with a buzz of excitement. Though not as huge as the Gregorian calendar new year of January 1, Poila Boishakh comes with its own fanfare, traditional celebrations and nostalgia. However, as we enter 1425, there will be a sense of forlorn in the clustered and narrow bylanes of north Kolkata’s Baithakkhana bazaar. The seven migratory book-binders will finalise and sell the last shipment of the kheror haal khata, the traditional red-cloth-hand-bound copy that traders use to note down their transactions.
Read this story in Bengali here.
One of the symbols of the Bengali New Year, the kheror khata has been a part of the celebretory rituals for traders for at least as far back as the 18th century. Though no one can actually pin-point when the practice of using this unique material for ledger books started for Bengalis. Small workshops in Baithakkhana bazaar, one of India’s largest paper market, have been producing this item for centuries. For many years, there has been only one such company and they too shall end production this year, as the shift to more easily available and cheaper regular and machine-stitched copies – though still bound by a red cloth – will be complete.
Khero, a red-coloured, rough cotton material used as a cover for these ledger books has been in Bengal’s history for many generations and centuries. The foldable, scroll-like books are handmade and are stitched using white thread. The same twine is then used to tie and preserve the books, that is not hardbound. As red symbolises good luck, prosperity – it is considered shubho or pious — these transaction record books all have red covers. And even though red-cover books are still part of the Poila Boishak ritual, these twined khero khatas have steadily given way to more mass-produced, hardbound version, or even computers.
With the advent of computers, people these days do not maintain actual ledger books. They’re now digital — the final nail in the khero coffin, as demand for these books edge towards a sifar. However, those who still buy symbolic ledger books, they prefer the hardbound ones, not soft and delicate handstitched ones. “People have to maintain records, submit taxes and returns, they can’t run businesses using haal khata anymore,” says Indranil Saha, proprietor of the Nitananda Saha and Sons; they have been manufacturing these books since 1955. “Some old family traders still buy them but don’t care much. It’s all a show for just one day.”
Talking to indianexpress.com, Saha talks of better days when they would make 20,000-odd books a month, and still struggle to meet the year-round demand. Last year, they sold 5,000 on Poila Boishakh. This final year, the sealing number is 3,500. As demand for hard-bound books grew, the kheror khata took a hit. “Next year onwards we will not make kheror khata as the material is hard to source (their current shipment comes from Jhansi) with so little demand. It will be available in salu or canvas material from now on.” As far as they know, the material khero – which wins over sulu and canvas because it’s more resistant to water – is not used for anything else, which is what makes it difficult and expensive to source.
TALES THAT BIND
In Saha’s small workshop, in a narrow lane within the busy market, seven men are continuously working – but only for 44 days now, a sharp contrast to the 180+ days a decade back. As the books are fully handmade, it’s a taxing job. Making this one-of-a-kind book involves several meticulous processes.
First, the red starched material is cut and is glued to thin films of paper and dried out in the sun. “Earlier the work of making the cover used to begin in late December or January,” says Mohammed Rahim, 60, who supervises the group. A resident of Joynagar, he has been involved in making kheror khata for almost 40 years now; he started at 13. “Back then we used to make these in tens of thousands, there wasn’t enough time or space to accommodate all workers at one time. So, the covers were prepared beforehand and dried so that cutting of sheets and stitching was the only task left in rush,” he says.
Of all the painstaking processes involved in making each book, hand-counting the fine sheets after they have been machine-cut to make one distah (372 pages) that would be sown into a book is the hardest. One extra page, and that would mean a loss. The estimated cost to make a book of one distah paper is about Rs 80 and are sold around Rs 90 and Rs 100 only. Merchants placing orders buy them reams of A1 paper (500 sheets) and the cost is determined at wholesale rates. The employees – otherwise farmers and labourers – earn around Rs 16,000 to Rs 22,000 for this short time, irrespective of how many books they produce and reside in the same workshop for their time in the city.
This amount – though fairly substantial – is irrespective of the quantity of job, which has its pros and cons alike. For the makers, it’s steady money, for the employers it’s an amount they have to given even if the books don’t sell. This is one of the reasons for the shift to the more profitable and popular hard-bound books.
Finally, the books are readied in various thickness, stitched and tied with the same cord. It is then carried to small wholesale business houses or retail shops where they are sold for the upcoming festivities.
Read in Bengali | Pohela Boishak celebration in Bangladesh
THE FIRST DAY, NEW MONEY & MUGHAL TAXES
Poila Boishak also marks the beginning of the new financial year for the Bengali business community (like Diwali is for many other parts of India, or April 1 for the corporate world). Old accounts are settled and new accounting books for the year ahead are started after seeking blessings from God. Merchants and traders visit the temple with idols of Lakshmi-Ganesh and these haal khatas. Priests chant mantras and put stamps of coins using sindur and paint auspicious symbols of the swastika and Om blessing the book, hoping for prosperity and success.
The practice of settling old accounts and welcoming the new year is not new and not entirely a Hindu practice, in fact, it has a Mughal connection. A practice that goes back to Bengal in the 18th century. According to historians, Mughal governor Nawab Murshid Quli Khan had the tradition of Punyaho (a day for ceremonial land-tax collection), when zamindars – in and around the region – were invited to Murshidabad to submit their earnings and begin new accounts for the coming year. The festival coincided with the spring harvest and it was marked with celebrations, feasting and exchange of gifts. This practice was aligned with Akbar’s economic policy and coincided with the start the Bengali calendar.
THE FINAL STITCH
The workers at the factory say the kheror khata has been in use since the early British Era, when the Nawabi system was the order of the land. Earlier its makers came from present-day Bangladesh. Now, the binders are from the state and hail from Joynagar and Pandua. And with the sharp decline in work, they have ventured into other trades – from farming to working as labourers.
Interestingly, in an example of traditional communal harmony, the khata that now holds very little importance and is just a ritualistic symbol in a Hindu puja is made by Muslim workers. So, as this year Bengali business community buy kheror khata for the puja on the auspicious occasion of Poila Boishak, to welcome the new year, these books will not make it to 1426, as its final pages will turn recording the last of 1425.