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DHAKA TRIBUNE SUNDAY, AUGUST 4, 2013

Idgah was the very centre of the busy life of court, and mart, and camp, and many a stirring sight it must have witnessed as the crowd of whiterobed worshippers thronged from every quarter of the vast city to celebrate the welcome festival that closes the long fast of the Ramazan.

— The Romance of an Eastern Capital (1906)


NOTE

A Editor Zafar Sobhan Editor Arts & Letters Khademul Islam Assistant Editors Pushpita Alam Tamoha Siddiqui Artist Shazzad H Khan

ssembling a compilation of quality English writing in Dhaka is not always an easy task. There is not much to choose from, and such collections therefore tend to be repetitive and limited in range. An Eid supplement is no different and it can take the fun out of things. This particular Eid supplement was pleasurably different. A few years back I had thought of a volume of collected writings on Dhaka. Things didn’t pan out, and the dream lay unrealized. The idea, however, never left my head. With an Eid supplement of the Arts & Letters page due, it seemed as good a time as any to transfer that idea onto this platform. Leaving aside coffee-table confections and historical accounts, we have never had a true compilation of English writings on Dhaka, something that would encompass genres ranging from historical narration to poetry and fiction. Such books exist in Bengali, of course, but not in English. Aside from being interesting in its own right, it affords us a view at how such a future volume would look, feel and read. How does Dhaka come across when, in one go, we see it from so many perspectives and angles, reflected and refracted through poetry, nonfiction and fiction? Our editor Zafar Sobhan was immediately supportive of the idea, and we at Arts & Letters are indebted to him for his unstinting support. Dhaka is a city older than Kolkata, and the totality of writings on it is a vast and cluttered mess. Much of it is in Bengali. English translations of some of these works do exist, but are of sub-standard quality. With not enough time or resources for new translations, we decided to limit publication to only original English writing – a small sum of the existing works. Even then it was a time-consuming task – of searching, reading, winnowing and organizing the material. It was also enlightenment by slow degrees. English writing about ‘Dacca’ of course began with the arrival of the British colonialists. Their earlier accounts had an implicit sense of wonder at life in Bengal as they hunted, boated, played polo, cricket, hockey and held ball dances. This expansive sense of play faded from their writings from the 1920s onwards as nationalist movements gained traction, and imperial accounts began increasingly to be written by police and administration officials. The Bengal Renaissance, unlike ‘Calcutta’, had no effect on ‘Dacca’. It certainly produced no Derozio or Young Bengal or the equivalent of a Hindu College or a flowering of thought and writing in English.

NON-FICTION Dacca 1608: The Mughals Found the City F B Bradley-Birt

Dacca 1660: Of Atheism and the Original Cantonment B C Allen

Dacca 1824: A Dilapidated City Bishop Reginald Heber

4

5

5

Dacca 1912: Hindu-Muslim Divide Over Dacca University Ahmad Hasan Dani

Dacca 1949: Government Housing Stephen Hatch-Barnwell Dacca 1950: Eliot, Tagore and Shakespeare Amy G Stock Dacca Mid-50s: Bus Stop Mahmud Rahman Dacca 1962: A Galling Examination! Hasnat Abdul Hye

2

9 10

10 12

Dacca 1970: Cyclone and Naxalite Lookers Dom Moraes Dacca March 25, 1971: Forewarned? Nurul Islam Dacca: December 15-16, 1971 Peter R. Kann Dacca Club 1972: Redemption Like Fireflies Khademul Islam Dhaka 1988: Sadarghat Francis Rolt Dhaka 2003: An Unshackling Amit Chaudhuri Dhaka 2008: Out of Place, Out of Time Zafar Sobhan

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Dhaka’s elite, largely Hindu, throughout the colonial period were inert in that sense. Muslim scholars did write about ‘Dacca’, but in Persian. It was only after 1947, during the Pakistan era, that ‘locals’, i.e. Muslim Bengalis, began to write creatively in English. Tentatively, hesitantly, they produced novels, short stories, poems, some literary journalism. For the first time, writing in English by women emerged here – a trend that has continued to grow spectacularly ever since. Dhaka in these works provided locale and mood, its inhabitants were models for fictional characters and the city’s bustle and politics was the grist for imaginative mills. Interestingly enough, the divide between East and West Pakistan was reflected in the English literary works of the two wings. Despite a common language – unlike real life – the writing streams of the two wings remained separate and apart from each other, illustrating in its own way how deeply flawed was the concept and practice of Pakistan. Historically Dhaka has experienced ups and downs. When Mughal rule ended, and later when Murshidabad became the center, Dhaka’s decline was severe. During the Bengal Partition, as capital of East Bengal, and later of East Pakistan, it flourished. After 1971, as the capital city of an independent state, its expansion and growth has been nothing short of phenomenal. Many would say this growth has come at an unacceptable price. But in one sense, in the visible expansion of English writing by Bangladeshis, this development has been beneficial. Never before has so much on Dhaka been written in English by us, by Bangladeshis – and here I include those of us abroad, all those who, no matter where they reside, feel the tug of this frenzied city. Irremediably, undeniably. I frequently bemoan the state of our English writing – I began this Note on that note – yet, I was astonished to encounter the sheer volume and variety of writing on Dhaka since 1971. It gladdens the heart. It lifts the spirits. As the centuries fall away while you leaf through these pages, you too should feel heartened. Dhaka is the one city we can call truly our own, and so the writings gathered here give us an authentic sense of ourselves, and perhaps expand it, hinting at future possibilities. That alone makes it worth our efforts, and worth the reading. Wishing you all a very happy and festive Eid. n  Editor Arts & Letters

FICTION

POETRY

Dacca 1889: The Baboos Take Over

The Dove of Dacca

Qurratulain Hyder

Dacca 1963: Dhanmandi Amitav Ghosh

15 16

Razia Khan

14

Dacca 1980: A View of the Park Dhaka 1984: Gandaria Iffat Nawaz

Huzoor

Adib Khan

25

18 19

Sabrina Sadique

27

Dhaka 1999: Basti Shazia Omar

Dhaka 2006: Taxi Wallah Numair Chowdhury

ARTS & LETTERS

Abeer Hoque

Published in the Streets of Dhaka Kaiser Haq

Rumana Siddique

Recycled

Nausheen Eusuf

Tree Without Roots Put It Up!

Tanvir Malik

3 8 11 18 19 21 28

22 23

Dhaka 2000: The City of Deferral

Here I Love You, Dhaka

Ahsan Akbar

21

Dhaka 1999: Only Way to Bring Him Home

Rudyard Kipling

Dhaka Rains

20 Dhaka 1989: The Eskaton

K Anis Ahmed

13

13

Dacca 1969: Back Home

Javed Jahangir

17

7

SKETCHES British in Dacca: 1866-67 Arthur Lloyd Clay

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DHAKA TRIBUNE SUNDAY, AUGUST 4, 2013


Poetry

The Dove of Dacca

Rudyard Kipling

T

he freed dove flew to the Rajah’s tower— Fled from the slaughter of Moslem kings— And the thorns have covered the city of Gaur. Dove—dove—oh, homing dove! Little white traitor, with woe on thy wings!

The Rajah of Dacca rode under the wall; He set in his bosom a dove of flight— “If she return, be sure that I fall.” Dove—dove—oh, homing dove! Pressed to his heart in the thick of the fight.

“Fire the palace, the fort, and the keep— Leave to the foeman no spoil at all. In the flame of the palace lie down and sleep If the dove—if the dove—if the homing dove Come, and alone, to the palace wall.”

The Kings of the North they were scattered abroad— The Rajah of Dacca he slew them all. Hot from slaughter he stooped at the ford, And the dove—the dove—oh, the homing dove! She thought of her cote on the palace-wall.

She opened her wings and she flew away— Fluttered away beyond recall; She came to the palace at break of day. Dove—dove—oh, homing dove, Flying so fast for a kingdom’s fall!

The Queens of Dacca they slept in flame— Slept in the flame of the palace old— To save their honour from Moslem shame. And the dove—the dove—oh, the homing dove, She cooed to her young where the smoke-cloud rolled!

The Rajah of Dacca rode far and fleet, Followed as fast as a horse could fly, He came and the palace was black at his feet; And the dove—the dove—the homing dove, Circled alone in the stainless sky.

So the dove flew to the Rajah’s tower— Fled from the slaughter of Moslem kings; So the thorns covered the city of Gaur, And Dacca was lost for a white dove’s wings. Dove—dove—oh, homing dove, Dacca is lost from the Roll of the Kings! n

From Departmental Ditties and Ballads and Barrack Room Ballads. April 1892.

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ARTS & LETTERS


Non-Fiction

Dacca 1608: The Mughals Found the City

I

Excerpted from The Romance of an Eastern Capital. 1906.

It was no easy task that awaited Islam Khan on his appointment [by Emperor Jahangir] to the Viceroyalty of Bengal in 1608. The province, torn by the long struggle between Afghan and Moghul, lay exhausted and disorganised...The Mughs had boldly sailed up the great rivers and robbed and plundered in every direction unchecked...Along the river-banks they swept like locusts, leaving desolation in their wake… [The Portuguese], escaping from Chittagong, made their home on the islands at the mouth of the Ganges, where they continued their acts of piracy undisturbed. In order to cope with the danger that beset Eastern Bengal, Islam Khan at once resolved to take up his headquarters there, at the very centre of the scene of disturbance. Quitting his capital of Rajmahal, with all his court, he set sail for the eastern province, and the Afghans evacuating their fort of Gonakpara, on the Bunsi, at his approach, he halted there with the intention, it is said, of making it his capital. But finding the land too low-lying, and the Bunsi river prone to overflow its banks, he quitted it and moved on down the Dullasery and Buriganga, in search of a more convenient site. Arriving opposite the spot where Dacca now stands, Islam Khan was struck with its strategical position and the facilities offered by the wide stretch of high ground that lay beyond it, and at once determined to build his capital there. What Islam Khan found

on the site of his future capital at his first arrival is a matter of considerable uncertainty. So shrouded in doubt is its previous history that it is almost impossible to state with any definiteness whether a town of considerable importance or merely a collection of insignificant villages was formerly in existence there. Several attempts have been made to identify this site with the city mentioned by European travellers and in Mussulman chronicles as Bengalla. Tradition says that in pre-Moghul days there existed here fifty-two bazaars and fifty-three streets, and the town, from this circumstance, acquired the somewhat unwieldy name

F B Bradley-Birt

of ‘Bauno Bazaar and Teppun Gulli.’ One of these fifty-two bazaars, known as Bengalla, is said to have been the most important of them all, and its fame as a centre of trade was well known throughout the neighbouring district. It is possible that, from the importance of this bazaar, its name was accepted by travellers in place of the more cumbrous one of ‘Bauno Bazaar and Teppun Gulli.’ The identification of Bengalla with Dacca is strengthened by the fact that no traveller or chronicler ever mentions them both. The traveller Methold, in the sixteenth century, speaks of Rajmahal and Bengalla as fine cities, making no mention of Dacca. Mandelslo, who visited Bengal about the same time, mentions Dacca, Rajmahal, and Satgaon in his book, but in his map he has written Bengalla making no mention of Dacca. If Bengalla is not to be identified with Dacca, its site remains a mystery. Had it met the fate of Serripore, and completely disappeared from sight, washed away by the river, it would assuredly have left some tradition in the neighbourhood where it once stood. But none such remains. How Dacca acquired its name is almost as great a mystery, and the endeavour to explain it has been fertile in many inventions. One story is that it derives its name from ancient pre-Mussulman times, when Ballal Sen, having found the image of the goddess Durga concealed in the jungle, raised a temple to the ‘Hidden Goddess,’ the Dhaka Iswari, by which name the city that gradually sprang up round it came to be known. Another story is that the town takes its name from the dhak tree (Butea frondosa), which is said in ancient times to have covered the whole of the river-bank where the town now stands. Yet another tradition associates the name with ‘dhak,’ the Bengali term for a drum. The story runs that when Islam Khan first landed to inspect the site which he had chosen for his new capital, he found a party of Hindus performing one of their ceremonies to the accompaniment of drums and music. Struck by the noise of the drums, a whim seized him, and he ordered the musicians to stand on the river-bank and beat their loudest. Then, sending out three of his attendants, he ordered them to proceed two in either direction along the riverbank, and one inland as far as they could within sound of the drums. Where the sound ceased, they were ordered to place flagstaffs, and here Islam Khan erected boundary pillars, and fixed the limits of his capital. It seems probable, however, that the name ‘Dacca’ was in use before the time of Islam Khan, as that of one of the numerous local bazaars that went to form the town. In tracing the history of Indian towns it is repeatedly found that, owing their origin to a collection of small villages which gradually expanded and united, they eventually took their name from the largest of these villages, or from some famous shrine or temple in their midst. The villages themselves often retain their own individual names long after they have become known collectively under a common appellation. Dacca itself today is a striking example of this retention of local names still used to distinguish the different quarters of the town. It is probable that the fame of the Dhakeswari temple, or the fact that Islam Khan first resided in that quarter, accounts for its having given its name to the new capital. Islam Khan, in compliment to the Emperor, gave the city the official name of Jehangirnagar, by which name it is generally known in Mussulman annals. n

n n

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DHAKA TRIBUNE SUNDAY, AUGUST 4, 2013


Non-Fiction

Dacca 1660: Of Atheism and the Original Cantonment

W

e must now turn back to trace the origin of the English factory at Dacca. It is not known when or by whom this factory was first established. Thomas Platt, or Pratt, who was Mir Jumla’s [from 1660-1663 the subahdar of Bengal appointed by Emperor Aurangzeb] ship-builder, would seem to have represented the East India Company at the Durbar and he appears to have been the Company’s Agent when Tavernier visited Dacca, for he mentions Mr. Pratt as being the English chief or President. Before his time there was another Englishman in Dacca, for we read that a few years later a deed purporting to be signed by James Hart and dated 1658 was produced in support of a claim for the land on which the English factory stood and which was formerly owned by this James Hart. The deed was treated as a forgery, but the fact that Hart was in Dacca in 1658 and owned the land was not disputed. Nothing further is known about this man, and he may have had nothing to do with the Company. In 1672-73 the Company was represented by Messrs. John Smith and Samuel Harvey, but the two seem to have fallen out, for we find that in 1677 the former alleged “that Mr. Harvey said to me that there was no such thing as god or divell that religion was broached to keep ye world in awe, that it was done by ye cunning of Moses and afterward Christ, or words to ye same effect.” The court charged Harvey with “atheistical notions,” and he was put on his trial but acquitted. In 1676 Mr. Fytch Nedham was the Agent at Dacca, but in that year Mr. Harvey was sent

B C Allen

back there as chief with Nedham as his second. One of the first things he did was to procure sanction for the erection of brick buildings for the Company’s factory. Ten years before, Tavernier tells us, the English house was “fairly good “ but it was probably not of brick. Even at this early time the English appear to have had some prestige and influence at the [Dacca] Durbar, for one “Emin Cooly” the former “faujdar” of Hughli, got a letter of introduction to the English officers at Dacca to help him in some business he had with the Nawab… It is not clear when a military guard was first entertained at the factory. In 1736 the military stores included “3 Brass Swivel guns, 2 Mortars, 3 long Swivel guns, 4 large Brass Swivel Blunderbusses, 10 small (3 of which are iron), 2 iron Canon, 10 spare Bayonet pieces, 4 Carbines, 5 Pistols, 5 Swords, “ etc. Such was the beginning of the military guard at Dacca. In 1745 it had increased to one Lieutenant, five Sergeants, six Corporals, 47 European privates, and several others…The original cantonments at Dacca were near Tezgaon, in a village called Baigun Bari. The place is still called Kalipaltan, and a portion of it still retains the name of Chandmari (shooting range). Some time about the beginning of the nineteenth century the cantonments were moved nearer the town to the Purana Paltan, but the site was thought to be unhealthy and a few years before the Mutiny the troops were transferred to the Lal Bagh. n

Excerpted from the Eastern Bengal District Gazetteers: Dacca. 1912.

Non-Fiction

Dacca 1824: A Dilapidated City

Bishop Reginald Heber

W

hile we were approaching the shore, for the purposes of having a nearer view of the extensive ruins in the neighbourhood of Dacca, when at the distance of about half a mile from those desolate places, a sound struck my ear, as if from the water itself on which we were riding, the most solemn and singular I can conceive. It was long, loud, deep, and tremulous, something between the bellowing of a bull and the blowing of a whale; or, perhaps, most like those roaring buoys which are placed at the mouths of some English harbours, in which the winds work, to warn ships off them. “Oh,” said Abdullah [native servant], “there are elephants bathing. Dacca much place for elephants.” I looked immediately, and saw about twenty of these fine animals, with their heads and trunks just appearing above the water. Their bellowing it was which I had heard, and which the water conveyed to us with a finer effect than if we had been ashore…The cemetery is a wild and dismal place as ever Christian laid his bones in, at about a mile’s distance from the inhabited part of Dacca, surrounded by ruins and jungle, containing several tombs of former residents, when the province was in its prosperity, some of which had been handsome, but all were now dilapidated and overgrown with ivy and the wild fig-tree… [Nawab Shams-ud-Dowla] is now, of course, shorn of all political power, and is not even allowed the state palanquin. He has, however, an allowance of 10,000 rupees per month, is permitted to keep a court, with guards and is styled “highness”. The palanquin, indeed, was a distinction to which his brother [Nasrat Jang] had no very authentic claim, and which this man could hardly expect, having been very leniently dealt with in being allowed the succession at all. He had in his youth been a bad subject, had quarrelled with government and his own family, and had been concerned in the bloody conspiracy of Vizier Ali. For his share in this, he was many years imprisoned in Calcutta, during which time he acquired a better knowledge of the English language and literature than most of his countrymen possess. He speaks and writes English very tolerably, and even fancies himself a critic in Shakespeare. He has been really a man, Mr. Master tells me, of vigorous and curious mind, who, had his talents enjoyed a proper vent, might have distinguished himself. But he is now growing old, infirm, and indolent, more and more addicted to the listless indulgences of an Asiatic prince; pomp, so far as he can afford it, dancing girls, and opium, having in fact scarce any society but that of his inferiors, and being divested of any of the usual motives by which even Asiatic princes are occasionally roused to exertion… The Nawab’s carriage passed us, an old landau drawn by four horses, with a coachman and postilion in red liveries, and some horse-guards in red also, with high ugly caps, like those of the old grenadiers, with gilt plates in front, and very ill-mounted. The great men of India evidently lose in point of effect, by an injudicious and imperfect adoption of European fashions. An eastern cavalier, with his turban and flowing robes, is a striking object; and an eastern prince on horseback and attended by his usual train of white-staved and high-capped janizaries [jar-nisars], a still more noble one; but an eastern prince in a shabby carriage, guarded by men dressed like an equestrian troop at a fair, is nothing more than ridiculous and melancholy.” n

Excerpted from Narrative of a Journey Through The Upper Provinces of India. 1828.

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ARTS & LETTERS


Sketches

British in Dacca: 1866-67

Arthur Lioyd Clay

From Leaves from a Diary in Lower Bengal. 1896.

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Fiction

Dacca 1889: The Baboos Take Over

T

he last Nawab-Nazim of Bengal, the heroic Siraj ud Daulah, lost out to Lord Clive in the Battle of Plassey in 1757. The administration of Bengal passed into the hands of the English East India Company… Calcutta became the second largest city of the British Empire and a kind of poor man’s London. Dacca, in East Bengal, remained a neglected provincial town, important only for its river-port of Narayan Gunj which handled the jute trade of the hinterland. Muslims were in a majority in East Bengal, and some of their nobility and the titular Nawabs of Dacca continued to live in this dreamy old town surrounded by broad rivers. The city had many splendid houses, built during the days of the Dutch and English East India Companies… Caledonia was also a planter’s house, built in Dacca by a Scotsman called MacDonnel Saheb. It was not as large nor as imposing as Joost House, next door, which belonged to a Dutchman and also faced the Old Ganga. In bright sunshine the waves of the river reflected on the outer walls of Caledonia like the undulating scale of Vangala Raga, or it was time playing upon time. The silent, visual music struck no discordant note because Georgian architecture had long been a part of Bengal’s landscape. People like the ruddyfaced and jovial MacDonnel Saheb and his family had been around since the days when they rowed inland on their barges in order to trade in European goods. Slowly and subtly they had taken over as the river-country’s blustering new masters. They had come to stay… MacDonnel Saheb lived frugally in Caledonia, died of old age and was buried in the European Cemetery in Dacca. Young Angus MacDonnel took over his father’s vast business…In late middle age Angus MacDonnel decided to marry a bonnie lass and return home. Before going back to Glasgow he sold the house to a dreamyeyed baboo of Mymensingh. Romesh Baboo, the new owner of Caledonia, did not have an aristocratic hyphenated name like Roy-Chowdhry. He was merely a Sarkar, a member of the middling Kayastha caste of scribes. The Kayasthas had mostly worked in the departments of revenue and civil administration from the time of the early medieval Afghan Sultans, the Mughals and the Nawab-Nazims of Bengal. They were an adaptable and diligent people, and had become proficient in English with the same ease with which they had mastered Persian in earlier centuries. Romesh Chandra Sarkar’s family owned a small estate along the Brahmaputra in the district of Mymensingh. It had been given to his forefathers for services rendered to the East India Company after the Battle of Plassey. When his father died, young Romesh Chandra decided to leave the backwaters of East Bengal and live in Dacca. He wished to be in touch with modern times. After purchasing Caledonia in 1889, he added a high-walled courtyard at the back for his womenfolk and set about purifying the house. With much beating of tom-toms and blowing of conches, a tiny black idol of Kali, the mother goddess, was installed in the erstwhile ballroom… Western education led to a Hindu cultural revival in Bengal. Romesh Baboo had passed his F.A. in Mymensingh. He began subscribing to English and Bengali newspapers and journals, and as a gesture to the new revivalism, he changed the name of the house from Caledonia to Chandrakunj—Luna’s Grove. Like most Bengalis, Romesh Baboo was interested in music and poetry. While the Muslims continued to write poetry in Bengali and Urdu, the bhadralok—westernised Hindus—went in for versification in English. They lived in neo-Georgian houses and composed poems in heroic couplets. The Hindu Zamindar class was created by the British after the Permanent Settlement. The new landed gentry and the merchant princes of Calcutta lived in the style of the former Nawabs of Murshi-

Qurratulain Hyder

dabad, but had also modernised themselves. Romesh Baboo began to follow the same trend, which was also prevalent in Dacca.

It was summer time. He was in the process of settling down in his new house and was being inspired by its picturesque setting. One evening as he strolled in his garden, delicately smelling a bunch of jasmines, it suddenly came to him—

Mango-birds’ ode to Goddess Laxmi

Winged songstresses in the Garden of Moon, Trill they and lilt in mellifluous June: Lady of the Lustrous Lotus River, O Padma, Bountiful Ma, Prime Giver— Not quite satisfied, he began again— O flighty singer of emerald June, Trilling and lilting while the limpid moon. The Muse was rudely disturbed by the coachman’s child, Abdul Qadir. Instead of Chandravati, the Moon-Maiden, he had materialised like a mischievous little imp, holding a big, fat book in his grubby hands. He gave the master a toothy smile and said, “Huzoor, I was cleaning out MacDonnel Saheb’s landau when I found this lying under the seat. Bootiful pictures of Mem-log and Saheb-log and Nawab-log! Look—!” n

Excerpted from fireflies in the mist.1994.

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ARTS & LETTERS


Poetry

Here I Love You, Dhaka

Abeer Hoque

H

ere I love you, Dhaka. In the neon streaked night, your streets rise and roar. The hoarse hawkers and blighted beggars vie with their ululations. A hundred times I listen. Horns, whistles, engines, breath. A thousand times I hear anew. The crows swoop and cry. Dust whips off their wings in slow motion. Your black water-stained buildings are unremembering Of the rains. Oh the lurid flutter of your clothes. Beckoning. The sultry hoods of the rickshaws unfurl and wink. Saris weep and wave from crumbling balconies. This is a window. Here I love you.

Published in ‘Slate’, New Age. 2006.

Here I love you, and the winter shrouds you in vain. I love you still amidst the dull and deep. Sometimes your path is lined with dark slow streams. I see myself lost in your staining excesses. Your brides of the late afternoon light fade. I love what I do not see. You are a vision. My words wrap around you to no effect. But then the moon reveals itself over your lakes. The boat on the water is a sculpture Carved and set upon a gleaming stone. And as I love you, the wind threads its fingers Through your rippling heedless body. n

Lalbagh Fort. Charles D'Oyly. 1814

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DHAKA TRIBUNE SUNDAY, AUGUST 4, 2013


Non-Fiction

Dacca 1912: Hindu-Muslim Divide Over Dacca University Ahmad Hasan Dani

O

n 31st January, 1912, Lord Hardinge came to Dacca in order to pacify the Muslims. This occasion was availed of by them to press for another demand. It is recorded: “In an address presented to the Viceroy [Lord Hardinge] at Dacca on 31st January, 1912, a number of Muslim representatives of Eastern Bengal and Assam placed certain proposals with the object of safeguarding the interests of the Muslim community. They pointed out that the Mussalmans had not taken advantage of Government educational institutions to any extent comparable with the Hindus, and they expressed their doubts whether the modification of the partition of Bengal might not retard the educational progress of their community. In his reply Lord Hardinge said that the Government of India realised that education was the true salvation of the Muhammadans and that the Government of India, as an earnest of their intentions, would recommend to the Secretary of State the constitution of a University at Dacca. On the 2nd February, 1912, a communiqué was published stating the decision of the Government of India to recommend the constitution of a University at Dacca.” This proposal for a University at Dacca… and the controversy that started on its account throws interesting light on the attitudes of the Hindus and the Muslims. These have been preserved in the questionnaire, made by Calcutta University Commission, 1917-1919. In his answer Mr. A. K. Fazlul Huq points out, “It was at first meant to be a concession to the Muhammadan sentiment as a set off against the injustice done to the community by the annulment of the partition of Bengal.” Quite in keeping with this sentiment, Mr. A. F. M. Abdul Ali says, “If, as is generally believed the idea in giving a pocket edition of a University to Dacca is to reward the Muhammadans of East Bengal for submissively accepting the annulment of the partition, the jurisdiction of the Dacca University should be extended as much as possible. A purely residential University may be the correct thing, but it will hardly benefit the Mussulman community of East Bengal. A residential University is a luxury out of the reach of the majority of the members of a proverbially poor community. In my opinion, the Dacca University should be both a residential as well as an affiliating University. All the colleges of East Bengal, nay, even those of Assam, may be allowed affiliation to the University.” These points have been more clearly brought out in the representation of the Dacca Muslim Deputation, “Eastern Bengal, as is well-known, was till the time of partition a neglected area. Muhammadans were the principal suffer-

Excerpted from Dacca – A Record of its Changing Fortunes. 1956.

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The Dacca University Committee.1912

DHAKA TRIBUNE SUNDAY, AUGUST 4, 2013

ers. This was the case especially as regards their education. It was during the days of the partition that serious attempts were made by the Government to devote their exclusive attention to the needs of Eastern Bengal and its people…The annulment of the partition was, therefore, looked on with serious misgivings, especially by the Muslim section. For it was during the partition days that the problem of Moslem education received at the hands of Government that amount of attention which their importance justified. The Mussalmans naturally felt that the annulment would bring back the old state of things and that they would again be relegated to the background. It is quite clear that, though the Dacca University question is not essentially a Moslem question, it is a subject which is vitally connected with the problem of Moslem education in Eastern Bengal. As regards the jurisdiction of the University, Public opinion in Eastern Bengal is opposed to the idea of confining the University to Dacca proper. It is held that its benefit should be shared by all alike; and not by only those who can afford to proceed to Dacca for study. To aim at an ideal state of perfection for its own sake is to sacrifice the larger interests of the Eastern province for whose benefit the University was intended.” As against this Muslim opinion, the Hindu view may be given in the words of Sris Chandra Chatterji: “At the outset let me tell you that I am strongly opposed to the idea of a separate University at Dacca or at any other place within the Presidency of Bengal, for a separate University would mean the establishment of a separate controlling agency. The creation of a separate controlling agency would lead to very serious political results. It would mean interference with the steady growth of a feeling of nationality, which is essential for the well-being of the people, and which is being developed through education under the same University. As a matter of fact, I would take the same stand with regard to it as I did with regard to the partition of Bengal.” This attitude of opposition was expressed in a different language by the Hindus of Dacca, who made a representation on behalf of the “People of Dacca.” They said, “In our opinion, instead of spending twelve lakhs of rupees in the establishment of a new University, which means a heavy recurring expenditure on account of the costly machinery, this sum may be very properly spent in starting a few useful educational institutions in this town. If the above institutions are granted, Dacca can well afford to be under the existing Calcutta University for a decade or more.” n

ARTS & LETTERS


Non-Fiction

Dacca 1949: Government Housing

F

Excerpted from The Last Guardian: Memoirs of HatchBarnwell, ICS of Bengal. 2011.

ortunately, Dacca had been a provincial capital in the first years of the century, but, even so, in the first years after independence accommodation was very scarce. The staff required to manage an independent government was a very different affair to what was necessary fifty years earlier. Space now had also to be found for numerous diplomatic missions. When promoted to Director’s rank, we first arrived in Dacca fresh from our splendid house in Barisal. We were allotted a most miserable little flat and lived there in acute discomfort for the few months before I managed to get some leave. On our return we managed to get a half-share in a house as good as the one we had had in Barisal. This, however, was only an interim arrangement pending the construction of some new official residences. In due course, we ascertained which of these was going to be ours and we watched it grow. It was not on the same palatial scale as those of earlier days, but it was sufficient for our needs. It had, however, certain small defects. The doors inside at first had their locks and bolts on the wrong side. You could bolt the door of the loo from the outside to imprison its user inside, but somebody enthroned inside could not bolt the door to keep out an intruder on his privacy. The great day arrived and we started moving the furniture in. About midday a man arrived to give us our connection with the electricity mains. It was very hot and the connection having been proudly announced, we turned the knob on the regulator to switch on the fan at full speed. The only result of this was to set the electric light

Stephen Hatch-Barnwell

competing with the bright daylight. If the fan regulator controlled, in fact, the lights, then the reverse should apply, so we turned on the light switch—and this time the bell rang. The third alternative was, then inescapable. We pressed the bell push and the fan at last revolved merrily as long as we kept pressing. These minor defects were quickly remedied and we finally settled in. All went well until the first storm. All these houses had flat cement roofs. When it rained, the water flowed down a drainpipe which passed through our closed verandah into a sump supposed to be connected with the world outside. Unfortunately, there was in fact, no such exit from the sump so that when the first tropical storm broke, we got its entire fall of rain on our roof inside the house. We were to have a garden and there was land enough around us. A fine row of concrete fencing posts was erected round what was to be ours, but when the wire was hung on it, all the corner posts collapsed and had to be replaced by monoliths which would have done credit to Stonehenge. In due course these little shortcomings were removed and we lived there in comparative comfort till we went on leave a couple of years later. On my return from leave and posting to the Board of Revenue, having reached the top of the tree, I was senior and lucky enough to get a house with three acres of garden, which provided also residence for hares, squirrel monkeys, civet cats and even a nest of iguanas, to say nothing of mongeese. n

Non-Fiction

Dacca 1950: Eliot, Tagore and Shakespeare

D

Excerpted from Memoirs of Dacca University 19471951. 1973.

10

acca when it was working normally — which was seldom — was a good place to teach in. We [English Department, Dacca University] had a few brilliant students, but later, when I had taught in enough places to make comparisons, I found much the same range everywhere, from the very talented to the very dull: the students differ in background, the universities in their gift for reducing everyone to a dead level of mediocrity. In Bengal, East or West, students came to English literature with a much more intense awareness of their own literature and language than in the Hindi and Punjabi speaking regions where I taught later (as I never taught in the south I can make no comparisons there). It does not necessarily make them better students, for that after all depends mainly on the quality of one’s mind and the amount of work one is ready to do, but it gives them a different approach, a more sophisticated interest in problems of expression, form and style. Bengali is a well-developed language, flexible and adaptable, with a literature at once old, alive and full of experiment. The relation of the written to the spoken language, the extent to which the former can or should mirror the latter, the recasting of traditional forms for new kinds of sensibility and experience were living questions there, and students who aspired to do creative work in their own language were alive to them in English... After Shakespeare, the poets most revered were still the Romantics, but the most studied by the more active minds at least, were Yeats and Eliot. There seemed to be an inexhaustible appetite for lectures and broadcasts on Eliot. At first I wondered if it was more than a desire to be up-to-date, for he seemed to me the most European of modern poets, even if he did use four Sanskrit words in The Wasteland; but I think he may have been a lifeline of escape from

Amy G Stock

Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore, less appreciated in English than the Bengalis thought he should be, was undoubtedly a very great poet in his own language. But a great poet casts a circumscribing shadow like a great tree. A young Bengali sat down to write a poem, and in spite of himself Tagore possessed his eyes and ears and feelings; poetry had no other rhythms, no other range of images. Only a master of language with an utterly different sensibility could break the spell, and T.S. Eliot more than anyone showed them how to extend the province of poetry. It was that summer, if I remember rightly, that we presented Shakespeare… We settled on a public performance of two long scenes from Othello (a sure hit with the B.A. Pass, since it was prescribed that year)—the scene of Cassio’s disgrace, and the last scene, and played them in the enormous Curzon Hall, packed to capacity. It was not too bad: decor and production left everything to be desired, since neither I nor anyone else concerned knew anything about them, but the acting carried the show. A mixed cast, however regular in reallife political demonstrations, would have outraged Islamic propriety on the stage and damned us with press and public. The students did suggest borrowing a couple of Christian girls from the local convent school, since Christians were not known to have any proprieties, but I doubted if this would do, and anyway it would have curtailed the little time available for rehearsals, so we played in the true Elizabethan tradition with men in the women’s parts. Even so Shakespeare triumphed; the gasp that rose when Desdemona died had no laughter in it. n

ARTS & LETTERS

DHAKA TRIBUNE SUNDAY, AUGUST 4, 2013


Poetry

Published in the Streets of Dhaka

Kaiser Haq

(Pretty objects continued to be admired until 1875 when the phrase ‘pretty-pretty’ was coined. That did it. For the truly clever, apt, and skilful,the adjective pretty could only be used in the pejorative sense, as I discovered thrity years ago while being shown around King’s Collegeby E M Forster. As we approached the celebrated chapel (magnificent, superb, a bit much), I said, ‘Pretty.’ Forster thought I meant the chapel when, actually, I was referring to a youthful couple in the damp middle distance. A ruthless moralist, Forster publicized my use of the dreadword. Told in Fitzrovia and published in the streets of Dacca (now spelt Dhaka), the daughters of the Philistines rejoiced; the daughters of theuncircumcized triumphed. For a time my mighty shield was vilely cast away. Gore Vidal, ‘On Prettiness’, New Statesman, March 17, 1978.)

P

retty, isn’t it – sure he’s caught you On the wrong foot, Mr. Morgan Forster Broadcasts his priggish amusement Over cigar and port in the King’s SCR, The story travels swiftly – and why not, It’s suitably droll – to Fitzrovia, Where poets moustached with Bitter froth Nibble nuts and gossip in equal measure. But all the way to monsoon-racked Dhaka? That’s a stretch! I should know, I was born and live here. Your pretty tale swinging into print Under the bamboo, the banyan and the mango Is the height of absurdity – isn’t that your point? Point taken, now imagine the dread Of a writer from Dhaka. Yes, a writer, Homo Scriptor has a local branch, you know, And at bazaar booksellers’ such things As lyric verse and motley belles lettres Peep out of routine stacks of Exam Guides Like rusty needles – I too have perpetrated a few. But your unsolicited publicity may well put paid To the prospects of any pamphlet or book Published in the humble streets of Dhaka. After all, Mr. Gore Vidal, You are almost as famous As Vidal Sassoon. Your word may not be law But it comes close, in certain quarters – Deservedly. In assailing the iniquitious You never beat about the bush Or blare like a bully. In my axiological tree You are up there with Chomsky, Honderich, Arundhati. That makes your snide Aside rankle all the more. Now, What are we to do, Mr. Vidal? Stop writing? and if we do, not publish? Join an immigration queue, hoping To head for the Diaspora dead-end, Exhibit in alien multicultural museums? No way. Here I’ll stay, plumb in the centre Of monsoon-mad Bengal, watching Jackfruit leaves drift earthward In the early morning breeze Like a famous predecessor used to And take note too Of flashing knives, whirling sticks, bursting bombs, And accompanying gutturals and fricatives of hate, And evil that requires no axis To turn on, being everywhere – n

DHAKA TRIBUNE SUNDAY, AUGUST 4, 2013

ARTS & LETTERS

From Published in the Streets of Dhaka: Collected Poems, 1966-2006. 2007.

11


Non-Fiction

I

Excerpted from publication in New Age Eid Special. 2006.

n the early 1940s my father Lutfur Rahman had settled in Dhaka, and when the British left and it became capital of the old province of East Bengal, he opened a car dealership and service station. He named it Pak Motors. I was born in the house that lay right behind. He sold Austin and Morris cars manufactured by the British Motor Company. The BMC, along with its trademark car names, would in a few more decades itself pass into history. But it has left some ghosts behind. One of those is the sporty Mini Cooper, now made by BMW, but based on the Austin Mini of the ‘60s. Another is the sturdy Ambassador that’s been rolling off the assembly line at Hindustan Motors in India. Pak Motors the business collapsed in a few short years. BMC cars continued to be sold by the larger dealership, Dienfa Motors, located near Dhaka’s Phulbaria railway station. But by the late 60s, British cars were overtaken by such Japanese imports as Toyota and Mazda. In the brief time that Pak Motors existed, though, it managed to slip into history as place name. It became the name of the local bus stop. In Bangladesh, perhaps elsewhere in South Asia as well, there is a simple act of popular democracy through which a bus stop gets named. There is no government dictate involved, nor even the desire of any local personality. It may come to be simply because a bus conductor needs a name when he drops off a passenger at a new location. Or the passenger might supply the name. Once the transaction is complete, rickshawallahs will take it from there and that name becomes imprinted on the transport map in people’s minds until it rolls off the tongue of all who desire to reach that destination. Who can trace how the process works? Sometimes there’s clearly a major landmark – Press Club, Farmgate, New Market. But in newly built-up areas, it’s often a matter of first rights. If Zahura Market had been constructed before Pak Motors, we might call the area by that name today. In other cases it’s a mystery why one name wins out. Between Gulshan 1 and 2, the midway stop is named Agora after the supermarket branch there. But why not other businesses in the area such as Grameenphone or Trust Bank? Pak Motors the business might have passed, but what of the brick and mortar that had housed it? In 1956 my father rented out the pukka building to the U.S. Consulate for use as their commissary. I remember that when the Americans cancelled the lease a few years later, my brother Sani and I eagerly

Mahmud Rahman

rummaged through the discards they left behind. In the leftovers of the American goodam, we also stumbled across some cans of ‘diet drinks’. Since we were thin ourselves we didn’t care to drink something that might make us even skinnier. The word around the house was that if some food item was suspect we ought to take it over to an uncle who was a communist – he would eat anything. He lived in our Nani bari just a short walk away. Once after our father had shot a sparrow, we had taken the bird over to our uncle. So now the diet drinks went to him. I cannot remember if we checked to see if they had any impact on his weight. Every few years the authorities would widen Mymensingh Road. From a narrow road it became the broad, divided avenue that it is today. The first time the contract went to an Italian company and they brought in orange-coloured, flat-nosed Fiat trucks. When I take myself back to that time I can still smell the sweet diesel fumes of those trucks and even feel the heat of the melting asphalt. The building was shorn of its front and my father converted it into a commercial building with a row of storefronts downstairs and offices upstairs. Sibco came here to sell bread, cakes, and patties. My mother started up her father’s defunct Azad Pharmacy, later selling it off to the compounder. A young doctor, Dr. Mokaddem, began his practice in the pharmacy, then moved upstairs. He would continue to serve his many patients with dedication and generosity into the new century. A handful of tenants came and went, but many became permanent fixtures of the block. Next door was another business that my father started, later passing it on to someone else: a petrol pump and service station. It began as Burmah Shell, changed to Burma Eastern, and after independence it sported the Padma brand. Across the road were Minerva Studio, a tailor shop, and the Hotel Daffodil (and bar). In the mid-60s, the large Zahura Market was constructed just north. It housed the VIP Store, the PLO rented its first local office upstairs, and in the back there was a courtyard surrounded by a labyrinth of shops, offices, and mess quarters. In 1971 when Bangladesh became independent, there was no way people would mouth Pak Motor any longer. Overnight, to bus conductors and passengers, rickshawallahs and local residents, the name of the area became Bangla Motor. The ghost easily embraced the new name. n

n

photos by abeer hoque

Dacca Mid-50s: Bus Stop

12 ARTS & LETTERS

DHAKA TRIBUNE SUNDAY, AUGUST 4, 2013


Non-Fiction

Dacca 1962: A Galling Examination!

S

oon after passing the honours examination he [the author] received a letter from USAID Dhaka informing him that he had been offered a scholarship under Foreign Student Leadership Programme... At first he thought there must be a mistake and the award was meant for a teacher by the same name. When he was asked to pick up visa form from the Consulate there was no doubt left that it was real and meant for him… The application for visa to enter America was long and some of the columns to be filled up appeared ludicrous. One was to answer questions like whether he or she was a prostitute and whether there was a case of conviction against him or her. More galling was the requirement to have one’s stool examined in addition to submission of x-ray report. He had seen their statistics lecturer Wahidul Huq carrying a cigarette can with his excrement inside for test in a pathological laboratory. At that time he did not realise that one day he also would have to do the same, eating his humble pie. For x-ray the American consulate had authorised the Holy Family Hospital who sent the x-ray report direct to the consulate. The stool examination was to detect amoebic dysentery and other serious intestinal disorders. For the stool test, the Consulate had designated a pathology professor of Dacca Medical College who charged fees from both the applicant and the Consulate. He used to live in Dhanmondi and turned out to be an eccentric fellow, almost a crackpot. He talked non-stop which made his charcoal black bony frame shiver in excitement. After sometime he started to drool like a tiny tot or a half-wit. He looked at him suspiciously and said, “Full Bright? Bright Fool? Eh? So you want to be go to America to be a Fool Bright? Not half bright but Fool Bright. Well, we will make you a Fool Bright.” Saying this in his chamber, he started cackling like a sly jackal… The pathological and x-ray reports were sent direct to the American Consulate and he was asked to see the Honorary Consul in Adamjee Court. The building was the tallest in Dacca in those days and had the

Hasnat Abdul Hye

second elevator, the first one being in the Co-operative Bank in Sadarghat. When he was about to enter the elevator (‘lift’ in English which was in vogue then) to go to the top floor for the appointment, the liftman asked him to go by the stairs. He saw a man in suit entering the lift, overtaking him and the lift went up leaving him on the ground floor. He felt very much insulted and came back to the S.M. Hall. His roommate Tareq Hossain had a light brown suit, the second resident student in the Hall (thank heavens for that!) to own one. He borrowed the suit from Tareq Hosain and after putting it on (it was a bit loose) he went back to the Adamjee Court. The same liftman was on duty and seeing him (nay, his suit) he gave a smart salute and stood aside to let him in. He reached the top floor with his head high, not even looking at the obnoxious fellow. His eyes were riveted at his suit. Poor fellow! Had he heard the story told by Sheikh Saadi? The Honorary Consul shook his hand and asked him to take a seat. Then he opened the thin file and brought out the medical reports. “Your chest is fine, no problem there. But your stool test is kind of negative.” Saying these words he paused for a while. Negative? He thought only x-rays were in negatives. But stools? So opaque, solid and messy! The Honorary Consul said, “You have amoebic dysentery and because of this you are not fit to obtain a visa”. He thought he was hearing his death sentence, till then America was within his grasp, now it was receding away. In fact, it had always passed him by. He thought about the money spent on the tropical suit made in A.D. Paul tailors, the suitcase bought from the new market, the farewell lunches and dinners. The Honorary Consul read his mind and said, “Apply after one year. Next time the report may be good. Take care of your stool”. Next year he did not go to the crackpot pathologist who greeted his patients with his howling laughter. Compared to him, the liftman was a gentleman. He had respect for suit, and perhaps also, er, for stools! It was not only a new doctor that he would choose next year but the stool also would be different. Isn’t there a saying: money has no colour? n

Excerpted from All Those Yesterdays 1954-1964. 2009.

Fiction

Dacca 1963: Dhanmandi

Amitav Ghosh

I

tried then to see Dhaka as she (my grandmother) must have seen it that night (in 1963), sitting by her window. But I hadn’t been to Dhaka, and in any case her Dhaka had long since vanished into the past. I had only her memories to go on, and those put together could give me only a faint, sepia-tinted picture of her other arrivals in Dhaka, decades ago: a picture in which I could see dimly in the middle distance, a black steam engine, puffing smoke, and a long line of carriages vanishing into the right-hand corner; in the foreground a deeply shaded platform, porters and vendors, and a crowd of relatives jostling to meet the new arrivals as they step out of their carriage; in the background, perhaps, a glimpse of the minarets of a mosque. I can guess at the outlines of the image that lived in her mind, but I have no inkling at all of the sounds and smells she remembered. Perhaps they were no different from those in any of the thousands of railway stations in the subcontinent. Perhaps, on the other hand, they consisted of some unique alchemical mixture of the sounds of the dialect and the smell of vast, mile-wide rivers, which alone had the power to bring upon her that comfortable lassitude which we call a sense of home-coming. At any rate, the one thing she was completely unprepared for was the bare glass-and-linoleum airport, so like the one she had just left. Nor was she prepared for the drive to the Shaheb’s house, along a straight road, flanked by tall eucalypti and the occasional suburban bungalow. May liked it. She said: What a pretty road, it’s so much more open than Calcutta. But as for my grandmother, she kept saying: I’ve never seen any of this. Where’s Dhaka? The Dhaka she was thinking of was the city that had surrounded their old house. She had talked to me often about that house and that lane. I could see them myself, though only in patches, for her memory had shone upon them with the interrupted brilliance of a lighthouse beam. So, for example, I could see Kana-babu’s sweet-shop at the end of their lane with absolute clarity, I could even see the pink cham-chams stacked in their trays, the freshly pressed shandesh heaped in orderly mounds beneath the cracked, discoloured glass of the counter; I could hear the buzzing of the flies, and I could see Kana-babu sitting hunched behind his cash-box, scratching his stomach, the same Kana-babu who had once caught their cousin stealing a rosogolla and poured a whole potful of sticky syrup down the front of his shorts: I could see all that, because people like my grandmother, who have no home but in memory, learn to be very skilled in the art of recollection. For me, Kana-babu’s sweet-shop at the end of the lane was as real as the one down our own road, and yet I could not tell whether the lane itself was paved or unpaved, straight or curved, or even whether it had drains running along it. n

DHAKA TRIBUNE SUNDAY, AUGUST 4, 2013

ARTS & LETTERS

Excerpted from The Shadow Lines. 1988.

13


Fiction

Dacca 1969: Back Home

Razia Khan

I

had seen Noyon once before last winter. But I had neither tried to seek her out, nor to speak to her. It was at a reception thrown by the Australian Embassy. This was before I had joined the university. Noyon stood in the well-lit lawn shivering in the cold breeze. She had worn a white sari with golden polka dots. Foreign office friends of Mihir had put me in touch with the First Secretary who had known Mihir in Bonn. Noyon probably had no warm thing to match her white sari. I was watching that smart husband of hers with his perfectly cut warm suit and sophisticated bearing. Definitely good-looking…The Austral-

Excerpted from Draupadi. 2009.

ian Ambassador Mr. Baxter was elderly and a keen Orientalist. He was discussing Tagore’s songs with Noyon in clear Bengali. I overheard snatches of their conversation. In spite of the glass of champagne in my hand I was immersed in ennui. Here Noyon stood before me. The white tuberoses in her hair and her white and gold sari made her look like a wood nymph. But somehow she seemed unfamiliar — as if I had never been in love with her. Everyone was talking politics — Sheikh Mujib’s long imprisonment, the impending fall of Field-Marshal Ayub Khan were mentioned. I took an indifferent part in the talk. The kind of political philosophy imported from the West had always seemed unsuitable and irrelevant to our problems. Eighty percent of the population was uneducated. I could never believe that persons clad in immaculate clothes, sitting in an air-conditioned parliament could represent the half-naked, hungry population. Western democracy was just a game which they had learnt to play, using the people whose votes they needed. The indiscriminate squandering of state-funds had also always bothered me. The faces of the men who were babbling politics desperately reflected self-centred blindness. I did not feel like going up to Noyon to speak to her. When I said good-bye to Charles Schuman, the First Secretary, he laughed: Your pal Mihir Kamal told me that when in Dhaka I had only to know two people. Sohrab Khan and the charming Professor Nazneen Rahman. I gave a toothy smile: Did he? …I gave my flat key to Kodom and went for a walk. The entire area gave way to endless memories. The most colourful days of our youth seemed to be dozing in the graceful branches of the Shireesh trees shading the campus, waiting to be awakened by a loving touch. Profes-

sor Bannerjee was now the Provost of Jagannath Hall. He had already invited Noyon and myself for dinner to his house next Saturday. Keeping Fuller Road and Jagannath Hall behind me I faced the gymnasium compound, where all the annual games of different halls used to be held. Ultra-modern structures, multi-storied buildings stood before it. Teachers’ flat-complexes, and the main building of the women’s hall, designed by Louis Kahn [The author probably made a mistake here by referring to Louis Kahn instead of Konstantinos Doxiadis, who designed the TSC], had deprived it of its openness. Yet standing in the old playground, I thought I could hear our young voices announcing the events of the Inter Hall Sports. The place was overgrown with weeds and bushes. Now the new gymnasium was the venue for all university athletics. Sometimes I accompanied Mihir who was used to morning exercises and push-ups. The dew on the grass turned golden in the mild sunlight of the morning. On the right-hand side of the road I was passing through a quiet lane which housed the quarters of our Head of the Department, Dr. Jamshed. His two daughters Nina and Nahar were playing badminton on the lawn. Seeing me walk by they shouted: When did you return from England? Sometime back. I joined the department today. Good for you. These self-confident girls had stayed abroad with their parents. They invited me to tea. I said: Some other time. Is your father enjoying being a Provost? Not in the least. Such a lot of bother. The girls pulled a long face. I gave them a smile of sympathy and crossed Fuller Road to stand right in front of Curzon Hall. Yes, those clusters of mauve blossoms were on the tops of trees, which stood like sleepless sentinels as witness to the crazy laughter of our young days. In between lay only a few years of turbulence. We were then carefree, ready to shed tears at the slightest provocation. Melody poured down from our throat like uncontrollable waves. To walk down these roads laughing and talking was our morning and evening recreation. Sometimes I would do the rounds alone, enjoying the fresh breeze. n

n

n

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DHAKA TRIBUNE SUNDAY, AUGUST 4, 2013


Non-Fiction

Dacca 1970: Cyclone and Naxalite Lookers

T

owards the end of the year, as the Delhi winter set in, news came of a cyclone that had struck East Pakistan and killed a number of people. The number was first surmised to be 100,000, but rose with each successive estimate. Shapiro telexed me from New York, asking me to fly out and do him a story. It was one of the greatest natural disasters of the century… I flew from Delhi, leaving Leela behind, to Dacca, the East Pakistan capital...When we landed at Dacca, at nightfall, there were clouds overhead, and a faint rain fell. Going through immigration, I encountered a plump official, who said, ‘You are one of the journalists from Delhi?’ I assented, and presented my passport. ‘Hah,’ he said, ‘you are Breetish? Velcum to our beautiful country. I vas thinking you vere Indian. Indians we do not like. Indians are terreeble fellows—vot you say—like sheet.’ I wondered what Mrs. Gandhi or Mr. Pant would have said at this point. A taxi took me to the Intercontinental Hotel, where I was booked. The driver spoke a kind of English. He did not seem much concerned about the cyclone and its effects. ‘Too many poor people on coast,’ he said. ‘What matter they die? You tell me, sir.’ But he seemed very concerned that there were also poor people in Dacca, of which, he emphasized as we neared the hotel, he was one. ‘All fault of West Pakistanis, sir,’ he said. ‘West Pakistanis very bloody people. They care about me? No, they not care.’ The Intercontinental floated, like a huge upended liner in whose portholes lights shone, above the darkened slums of the city. The lobby was full of other correspondents acquiring accreditation cards and government handouts at a desk that had been specially set up…I had no credentials, apart from Shapiro’s telex and a rather imprecise letter from the New York Times bureau in Delhi. When I applied for my press card with these, the government man turned me away, saying, ‘This data is insufficient, mister.’ But a young man who was assisting him followed me as I walked off. ‘Sir,’ he said, and called me by my name, ‘you are the poet, isn’t it? I have seen your photo on your books. Please, sir, why you are here? You want to write poetries about cyclone?’

Dom Moraes

At this time I was very easily irritated by people who called me a poet. It reminded me of something I wanted to forget, like a botched but important love affair. However, there was a look about the young man which struck me. Perhaps I had inherited a quality from David Archer: I could see and feel a poet without reading his work. I asked if he wrote poetry. ‘Oh, yes,’ he said. ‘I am writing in Bengali, of course. And all my friends are poets. They will be too pleased to meet you. To think it is taking a cyclone to bring you to us!’ We fixed an appointment for the next day. He said, ‘How I can serve you?’ I asked about my press card. ‘I will fix,’ he said. ‘I will fix. The government man there is also too much appreciating artists. When I tell him you are artist, he will give.’ Within two minutes I had my card, without which I could not have gone anywhere near the disaster area… Next day the young poet showed up exactly on time, and took me, in a bicycle-rickshaw, through the bazaar to a flat above a sweet-meat shop. The occupant, I was told, was a senior Bengali poet, and he was the mentor of a group of younger men, of whom my new friend was one. The young poets were all university students; the older one was a professor. Though my particular poet had described him as unimaginably ancient, Asif could not have been more than thirty-five. The front-room was filled with unshaven young men, with very Naxalite looks about them, but with manuscripts, rather than AK-47s under their arms. Everyone welcomed me effusively. Asif’s wife brought sweets and tea. I was later told that it had been a singular honour to me that she had appeared in male company at all… I read [my poems], and then, with the younger men all squatting round, Asif and I—we occupied the only two chairs in the room— entered into a political discussion. They were all young and very enthusiastic, and they desperately needed to be understood… the cyclone? ‘Ah, the cyclone, the cyclone,’ Asif said. ‘That is only one more entry in a long list. How have the West Pakistanis helped us? All the other nations offer assistance, even India, but the West Pakistanis sit still. They hoped perhaps for a bigger cyclone, which would wipe us all out.’ Everyone present laughed bitterly. n

Excerpted from A Variety of Absences: The Collected Memoirs of Dom Moraes. 2003.

Non-Fiction

Dacca March 25, 1971: Forewarned?

Nurul Islam

T

he night of the 25th March 1971 turned out to be the night of reckoning. There was great suspense and rumours were rife about some sort of military action by Pakistan. I had lost contact with the team involved in negotiations with Pakistan and there were rumours that negotiations with General Yahya had broken down. Curious to find out any sign of an unusual nature I went out for a drive towards the centre of the city but decided to return. It looked like the lull before a storm. That night there was a very boisterous and largely attended party at the house of my neighbour, a First Secretary in the US Consulate. Around midnight, there was a rumble of tanks and artillery moving along the road towards the New Market and accompanying fire. All this was visible from the rooftop of my nearby house in the Dhanmondi residential area. At the crack of dawn, anxious to know what had happened during the night, I tried my telephones. Finding them disconnected, I walked over to the house of my neighbour, the US First Secretary. His phones were also disconnected. When asked about the occasion for such a big assembly of so many US families in his house, he responded that it was a birthday party for one of his friends and because of the midnight commotions they had stayed overnight. I wondered what so many children of all ages, including infants, were doing at the birthday party of his middle-aged friend. It seemed as if the Americans were forewarned by the Pakistanis about the military crackdown so that they could assemble in the designated houses that would not be in the line of fire and would be safe and out of harm’s way. Next day, a student of mine who was an activist in the National Awami Party (Muzaffar) came to convince me that I was very naive to stay in my house and that I should go underground. In the course of the night, the army had killed numerous civilians, including women and children, Awami League activists and students, in order to quash the struggle for autonomy. My close association with and assistance to Sheikh Mujib during all these years, including active help in the civil disobedience movement, were well-known to the army. They were sure to come looking for me. I heeded the advice given and went underground that day and sure enough, the army came next day, ransacked my house and took away my domestic help for questioning. While hiding from the army, I stayed for a day in Ford Foundation’s guesthouse in the company of one of the American advisers to PIDE [Pakistan Institute of Development Economics] in Dhaka. n

DHAKA TRIBUNE SUNDAY, AUGUST 4, 2013

ARTS & LETTERS

Excerpted from Making of a Nation Bangladesh: An Economist’s Tale. 2006.

15


Non-Fiction

Dacca: December 15-16, 1971

W

Excerpted from Peter R. Kann’s ‘Dacca Diary’ in Foreign Correspondent: Fifty Years of Reporting South Asia. 2009.

16

EDNESDAY, DEC. 15: Indian air strike during breakfast. Dining room [Hotel Intercontinental] empties in about ten seconds. Whole roomful of half-eaten instant scrambled eggs. The chairman of the Dacca Peace Committee, a key collaborator with the West Pakistanis, arrives at hotel gate and is turned away. He argues for a while, finally walks off as if in a trance, like a man walking to his death. Gen. Farman arrives about 9 a.m. Will the Pakistani army surrender? ‘Why should we surrender? The question of surrender does not arise.’ Farman is riding around in a Mercedes camouflaged with mud, two general stars on its licence plate. No armed escort. A few minutes after 10, a British journalist runs by, yelling that Farman is coming to hotel to surrender within the hour. Great excitement. TV types pleading with one another to get organized, form a line. ‘For once,’ they say, ‘let’s not have to photograph each other.’ Farman enters gate on schedule but turns corner and gives TV cameras nothing but long shots. Rumour is that President Yahya gave approval to surrender plan last night, but Gen. Niazi may be balking. Pak army doctor, a colonel, arrives at hotel… He says Pak army has taken terrible casualties. Gen. Farman leaves the hotel. Many surrender rumours still floating. Too many. Lee Lescaze of Washington Post and I now doing four-hour guard duty at gate. Lee stops a mongoose trying to scurry under the gate into neutral zone. We suggest mongoose get Iranian passport. Evening radio news says dollar being devalued. Seems like pretty distant crisis from here. Japanese consul general remarks that Pak army must surrender ‘like Japan at the end of World War II’. Staggering rush of events these past days. Like watching a pro football team play its whole season in one week. THURSDAY, DEC. 16: At 10.10 a.m. a hotel official walks up: ‘It’s definite, it’s definite. It’s surrender.’ Five minutes later, UN aides in the hotel make it official: ‘The ultimatum to surrender has been accepted.’ Several reporters hitch a ride out to Pakistani army cantonment to try to see Gen. Farman. No luck but quite a spectacle at cantonment gate. Soldiers now pouring into cantonment in every sort of vehicle— buses, trucks, cars, even rickshaw. Rolling by is a microbus with these words stenciled on back: ‘Live and let live’. West Pak and Bihari civilians also trying to enter cantonment. Most of them seem to have deserted all personal belongings except transistor radios.

Peter R. Kann

Pay visit to Paul Marc Henri, UN chief here, who is operating out of another neutral zone at Notre Dame College. Henri in ebullient mood over surrender but stresses his role only as channel of communications. He’s walking around college campus with big, black Labrador on a chain. Labrador keeps getting into fights with another dog, interrupting Henri’s monologue. Henri still concerned over possible massacres of minorities. One of his assistants puts it plainly: ‘Tonight will be the night of the long knives.’ Rush out to airport with other reporters. At 12.45 a Pak army staff car with two stars on plate rolls up. Figure it’s Pak general coming to meet Indian helicopter. But a general in purple turban and another in cavalry hat get out; that isn’t Pak military headgear. ‘Hello, I am Gen. Nagra, Indian army,’ cavalry hat says, ‘and this is Brigadier Kler,’ he adds, introducing turban. They had led Indian column that pushed into Dacca suburbs from north early this morning. We hear of mob trouble at Intercontinental and return to the hotel. A hysterical Mukti is carried through hotel gate with a light leg wound. Mukti finally is laid out on three hotel chairs. Hotel official arrives, dapper as ever in glen plaid suit. ‘He’s bleeding all over my damned best chairs, and all the bastard did was stub his damned toe,’ hotel man says. This city is full of panicky men with guns: excited young Muktis, confused Indians and frightened Pak troops who are trying to surrender but who don’t know how or where to do so. This afternoon Gen. Nagra and Pak Gen. Farman come to hotel gate in jeep. Mob begins shouting at Farman: ‘Butcher, killer, bastard.’ Farman walks towards mob and says, soft-spoken, ‘But don’t you know what I did for you?’ He means the surrender, which saved lives. Maybe the mob knows, but it doesn’t care. It’s 5 p.m., and reporters rush to golf course for formal surrender ceremony. Surrender papers are signed in quadruplicate. Takes a while because Gen. Niazi reads the documents as if for the first time. Scene after signing is complete chaos. Mob trying to carry Indian generals on shoulders, Pak generals being jostled by crowds. Gen. Farman is wandering alone, dazed, through milling mob. ‘You see, we are beaten everywhere,’ he mumbles as two running Bengalis bump into him. Farman continues walking slowly, one hand in sweater pocket. ‘How do I get out of this place?’ he asks no one in particular before I lose him in the crowd. n

ARTS & LETTERS

DHAKA TRIBUNE SUNDAY, AUGUST 4, 2013


Non-Fiction

Dacca Club 1972: Redemption Like Fireflies

I

first experienced Dhaka Club back in November of 1972. Being a Bengali escapee from Pakistan meant that Dhaka was new to me: Bengali and not Urdu spoken on the streets; rice at mealtimes, not naan; a greenness to the city, and UNROB vehicles on the streets of Dhanmandi. It was different in other ways too. On a rickshaw one sunny morning, as I neared New Market, I saw four ‘Muktis’ cross the road in front of me. In boots, jungle fatigues, sunglasses and Castro beards. Sten guns slung on shoulders. Outside Dhaka, the green countryside was littered with burnt-out hulks of Pakistani army tanks and APCs. In Jessore, on our first night in a free Bangladesh after crossing over the Benapole transit point, the elderly night guard at the guesthouse compound pointed out the places where the Razakars had lined up Bengalis and shot them. Fireflies had glimmered and winked over the spots. It was this environment to which I was adjusting. Then a classmate at then Dacca University said that tonight was housie night at ‘the Club’, why not go. I had no idea what he meant, and therefore naturally said yes. Another classmate, a girl, was duly informed and she said she would get her brother-in-law to arrange entry. That evening I was in a quandary: what to wear. Having escaped from Karachi with two suitcases, and now tiding over winter nights beneath Red Cross blankets, glitzy threads were hardly top priority on my family’s list of must-have items. So I was reluctantly forced to wear one-of-the-two pairs of shirts and trousers that had been rendering me yeomen service in Dhaka. I needn’t have worried. Nobody in Dhaka Club that December night was unduly worried about things sartorial. My cares fell away as soon as I entered the place. The lounge area, where the housie event was being held then as now, was a brightly lit, cheery place. Men with their shirtsleeves rolled up leaned against the walls with glasses in their hands calling out to each other. The more domesticated ones sat with their families at tables. I could guess at the source of the happiness, which was the same I saw on the faces of people on the streets, in the bazaars and fish markets. It sprung from the sheer delight at the fact of rejuvenation, from the end of the stark horror and the long dark night of 1971, that now life could get back some semblance of normality. Nearly every face there in the club lounge was papering over its tale of brute pain, but (and mustn’t it, mustn’t it?) life and housie and the band had to play on… I had never played housie before. On the way to school in Karachi I would see discarded, torn sheets on the streets outside community centers but that image had no bearing on the sheets that were placed before me. A drink, enquired the gentle brother-in-law. Till then I don’t think I’d

Khademul Islam

had more than two semi-scared sips of whiskey lifted on the sly from some distant dad’s stock of Scotch, and certainly not enjoyed. Not a bit. But tonight, beneath the starry lights, high on the humming swings of animated conversation, teetering on the brink of winning a fortune at the housie table, with the beginnings of a promising round of footsie beneath the table, what the heck, why not! I desperately wanted to drop by the wayside all my worries, forget armies and killings and Red Cross blankets. Easy, warned my buddy while sipping a suspicious liquid from a glass in his hand. This is Carew’s whiskey. What’s Carew’s, I asked. Locally made shishkey, he said. The phoren firewater is yet to make its way to Dhaka. Please, I said to the brother-in-law, wafting away my mate’s warning with a wave of my palm. One whiskey. A lift of the finger and almost magically a waiter brought one to my side. I took a swallow and almost choked. But in a little while a strange warmth swept through my insides. Right, what do I do, I asked of the table as a voice over the microphone intoned, “Testing, testing…” It then told us to get ready. You cross out the numbers, dummy, the elder sister of the girl from my class tartly informed me. Right. So where’s the pen? There’s a pencil given to you with the sheet. ‘Dummy’ though unsaid hung in bright letters over my head this time. Hmmm, not a good start. Take a look around, I told myself. I took another swallow of the drink, which now tasted better, and gave the room a 360-degree scrutiny. Some good-looking women here. Another swallow. Actually very good looking. At which time the voice over the microphone boomed, “Railway lines…” – a cue for everybody except me to busily scratch out a number on their sheet. I, a complete novice to housie, had to wait for the sentence to be completed before I could wield my pencil. “… Number eleven!” Right! Well, where was the bloody number on this damn sheet… It was a wonderful night. A feeling akin to redemption like fireflies flitted through me as we walked out of the clubhouse later and I looked up at the night sky. I was empty-handed. No fortune had been won at the casino tables, but sometimes you can win a kind of cash that you can’t count with your fingers. n

Excerpted from 'Ramna Green’. 2010.

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ARTS & LETTERS


Poetry

Dhaka Rains

Rumana Siddique

C

From Five Faces of Eve. 2007.

ity of immense music Music of life being sung in the throaty solo of the vendor Rising over the orchestra, bells twinkling, keys clanging, bricks banging Swinging to the drum-like rhythm of the inter-city bus Gabtoli-Gulistan, Mirpur-Gulistan, Syedabad-Gulistan Accompanied by the choral chants of peddlers and beggars Pappoosh, Chanachooor, Kaccha aaam, Allahumma Salle Alla… The trumpeters blow horns on cars and autos The crows sound the distant note The prayer call set afloat pierces the sky A sudden sound more remote Yet deeper, more native to the land Thunder joins the crescendo below His troupe of clouds overshadow all A sudden lull slices through the city Like Godiva on her horse, the hooves of her mare Seem to be echoed everywhere Fat waterdrops on tin, concrete, tar and soil Notes of rain take the lead, street urchins join in glee All other notes subdued Like damp sulking crows The sky, earth and man hum to the tune As Dhaka rains. n

Fiction

Dacca 1980: A View of the Park

T

Excerpted from novel Ghost Alley. Forthcoming.

18

hey were not very high up. Maybe five stories. View of Ramna Park. The balcony was connected to a bedroom, which Mazhar thought was likely hers. It was cool and dark, and he wished she would sit for a moment so he could breathe it all in, but Shyama had rushed out of the French window to the small terrace. He had been right about the view. Gray buildings seemed to have rusted in the deep red colors of the burning sun. The university district, the domes of the High Court, the sinewy streets in between, choked with rickshaws and bodies, had all caught the dull fire. “Where are we?” He marveled, “It’s like a different city.” Through the familiar noises of bus horns and political slogans, he felt a strange longing for a city he could not quite see. Shyama, who seemed calmer with another cigarette, stared outwards too. “Do you know what they say?” She asked, pointing in the direction of Ramna Park, which was dissolving into a large spill of darkness. “No,” he said. “I told you I don’t listen to gossip” “Oh, no, not that, you goof,” she laughed, “About this city. What they say about that.” She pointed at a random minaret. “The university?” She was pointing to a dim but ornamental set of buildings with her glowing cigarette. “The shrine and the university,” she said. “My mother goes to that shrine.” “They are equidistant, you know,” she said. “And?” “From the park, they are almost an equal distance away,” She slowly untied her hair behind her head. “And so?” “Doesn’t it strike you that these are the two institutions that fight for

Javed Jahangir

your soul?” He laughed out in surprise. “Someone fights for my soul?” He laughed again, pretending to speak into his shirt, “Did you hear that, Soul?” A pause. “Come on, who fights for this?” he asked finally, slapping his chest and laughing at her a little. But it felt good to laugh; it seemed to cut through the weird tension of the place, of Shyama. He was reminded of their meeting at the wedding – her playfulness, like she always knew something he didn’t. Five steps ahead. “Empiricism, you goof,” she said. “Western philosophy over there,” she pointed at the university, “and eastern mysticism on that side, the shrine.” She pointed at the shrine’s dome. “Do you see it now? Two forces that shape this city – doubt and faith. This country, even.” Mazhar considered this through the evening light. “And what does that park in the middle do? Do you know?” she asked. Mazhar shrugged, their conversation not even remotely close to how he had anticipated it would go. “What does it do?” he asked. What Ramna Park did, he knew, was provide a place for him and his friends to procure ganja and get very stoned in peace. He said, “I don’t know. Let me guess, something corny, right? Love? Honor? Faith? Some shit like that?” She shrugged and exhaled. He stared at the darkness. “Heart,” she smirked. “It’s the heart of the bloody city,” she said. “They’ve plucked it right out. We cannot really avoid talking about the missing heart of ours one way or another.” Shyama stood straight from where she was leaning on the railing. She extended her arms above her head to stretch her back. “Shit,” he said with a smile. “That’s got to be the most twisted thing I’ve ever heard. About hearts.” n

ARTS & LETTERS

DHAKA TRIBUNE SUNDAY, AUGUST 4, 2013


Fiction

Dhaka 1984: Gandaria

Iffat Nawaz

W

e lived in a big, ugly house when I was young. The house was in old town Dhaka, Gandaria to be precise. I hated that name. Gandaria, extremely unsophisticated until recently when I found out Gandaria actually derived from ‘Grand Area.’ The name shortened with time and lost all its grandness in the process. Anyway the point is I hated uttering the word ‘Gandaria’; when the girls at school asked, I would say I lived in Wari which sounded way better and was supposed to be a bit more posh than Gandaria though it was still in old town. My grandfather, Dada, decided to also build a few new arms to the house, and being someone who believed in instant gratification, he just hired construction workers and started building where he pleased. A new veranda in the middle of the house that was slightly tilted, a new room next to the kitchen, which received no daylight and always smelt of day-old curry and stairs in the middle of the dining room that went up to a bathroom. Yes, nothing really made sense in our big, ugly house in Gandaria. But we still continued living there. My brother was born and brought back to that home, my parents left it for a year at a time twice to finish their higher degrees in the States, I broke my first set of teeth and grew them back and even had my first crush standing on top of that big ugly house’s rooftop, He was a shoemaker’s son, untouchable. He had mocha skin tone, big eyes, slanted in the corners like the ones of a deer, full lips that carried the perfect amount of intelligence and allure. But then we spoke and everything went wrong. His voice didn’t go with the face and his words didn’t go with his physique. He left me with my very first disappointment towards the male sex; I was approximately eleven by then. It was around then that Kusum came to stay with us. She was a few brief years older than I. She was replacing another young maid who had just left a month back. Kusum, fair and short, with a thin, wooden stick

on the left side of her nose where a nose-ring was supposed to be. She had a round flat face with light brown eyes, and long hair that concealed her thin structure. The first thing my grandmother, Dadi, did to Kusum was shave all her hair off. Apparently she had lice. Kusum sat in our tilted veranda shedding useless tears as her hair fell off her head like dust bunnies. She looked terrible bald, but we got used to it in a day or two and in a week, she knew not to sit on the sofas or eat on the same plates as us. All part of the usual maid training that went on in most Bangladeshi households. Before we knew, months had gone by and Kusum’s hair grew back into a cute bob. She roamed around in my old dresses with unmatched pajama bottoms taking orders from the household and watching television during her little breaks. The most number of orders came from my Dada. He was one of those men who had many processes in place to accomplish just one task. For example, he had separate lungis for each one of his activities during the course of a day. One for namaz, one for relaxing and watching television while chewing paan, one for going out for his walks and one for using the bathroom. Each hour he changed from one lungi to another and screamed at the top of his lungs for things to be brought to him. At times it was his walking stick, or cubed papaya to snack on, or his spittoon, or a special paan made by my Dadi. The orders never stopped; in fact, they grew with his age and Kusum, being the good little worker that she was, fulfilled every single one of them with a smile. My Dadi was quite pleased that her husband was well taken care of though she never expressed any gratitude towards Kusum. Dadi had separated her bed, in fact her room, from my Dada since my brother was born. No one thought anything of it since it was because of me that Dadi initially left Dada’s bed. I had just started sleeping in my own room and inevitably needed someone to sleep with me because I was scared of the dark and the noises that only old houses in old town can make. n

Excerpted from ‘Gandaria’, in Lifelines: New Writing from Bangladesh. 2012.

Poetry

Recycled

Nausheen Eusuf

his one conjures a boy slaving over his sums, and this one, a child tracing his ABCs.

T

Here’s one that proudly flaunts the precision of its lines and angles, triangles and trapezoids

This one, perhaps, wanted to be a plane, to soar to distant heights and alight in a far-flung land;

now strangely transformed into neat paper squares in which a peanut seller wraps his wares, the scraps

instead, it recalls the clash of steel, the thundering hoofs of kingdoms and conquests, Mughals and sultans.

of other lives that filter daily through our own, just as mine will pass into other hands, unknown.

Previously published in Apple Valley Review. 2011.

n

19 DHAKA TRIBUNE SUNDAY, AUGUST 4, 2013

ARTS & LETTERS


Non-Fiction

Dhaka 1988: Sadarghat

T

Francis Rolt

he Moinamati rounded a long, slow bend and Dhaka’s waterfront slid into view. For most of the city’s history the Buriganga, which loops its southern edge, has been the road by which invaders, pirates and rebels have attacked. For all its size it isn’t a real river, merely a linking stream between the Brahmaputra and the Meghna. Even so it’s quarter of a mile wide at Dhaka. The river, as usual, was so crowded as to be almost impassable and the Moinamati sounded its fog horn continuously. Every kind of boat was there, from the rusting hulks moored in the centre of the river to Arablike dhows, sails billowing, and the piratical motor passenger boats, which forged up and down regardless of everything else. As we heaved into view like a hippo, dozens of rowing boats set out from the shore, wide-bellied craft lying low on the water. They approached like attackers, coming at us from all directions. The captain maintained a steady course towards this mass of predators, and it seemed impossible that none would be swamped by our bow wave, or disappear beneath the keel, to be pulped like the rafts of mauve waterhyacinth through which we’d ploughed unheedingly on our way north. Dhaka’s waterfront came closer; it’s not a particularly prepossessing sight, although the noise, the colour and the confusion would delight a child. The buildings are old, but most are falling down, blackened and crumbling. When we came level with the Dhaka nawab’s palace I didn’t recognize it for a moment. The last time I’d seen it the building had had the grandeur of all big ruins: trees grew from its rotten brickwork, squatters inhabited its reception rooms, and like an ancient wreck it stuck out of a sea of shanty houses, built from bits of plastic, corrugated tin and cardboard. The palace’s once stately steps leading down to the river had collapsed, and it seemed only a matter of months before the building itself would sink into the mud beside the river. The vision before us bore no resemblance to that wreck.

The squatters had been cleared out and grass planted where the shanty-town had stood, the brickwork had been repaired and, most remarkable of all, the whole, massive construction had been painted virulent pink. Restored to its original vulgarity it looked good in the sunlight which had forced a way through the clouds. The dinghies came alongside and their owners clung onto the Moinamati’s lower deck while passengers elbowed one another aside for a clear leap. The moment they were safely in the boats they settled down, and arranged their bundles, bags, chickens, and in one instance, two goats. Some opened black umbrellas. These escapees were the passengers without tickets, who had to get away before we finally docked. There were more of them than fare-paying passengers. Above the noise of the engine came other sounds, the first in days: air horns of trucks edging their way down the dockside, the incessant, cheeky, answering jangle of rickshaw bells, the thwack of women beating clothes at the water’s edge, and the delighted screams of small, naked boys diving from the massive anchor chain of a hulk moored in mid-stream. On the dockside all was confusion. This is the city’s business centre – not business in the sense of offices and banks, but of the transport, the buying and selling of goods. From storehouses ranged along the dock road bananas, pineapples and sacks of rice spilt prodigally into the light. You could almost hear the money changing hands, of great wads of dirty taka stapled together in thousands. No one doing business down here trusts banks; it’s cash or nothing. When we docked, with a terrific clang and scrape as the Moinamati rammed the floating iron pontoon, passengers streamed off and porters leapt the rails to reach First Class before their competitors. After two days on board, with nothing to look at but the river, the sky and boats it was difficult to step into the maelstrom of Old Dhaka, to give up the calm. n

Excerpted from On the Brink in Bengal. 1991.

20 ARTS & LETTERS

DHAKA TRIBUNE SUNDAY, AUGUST 4, 2013


Fiction

Dhaka 1989: The Eskaton

I

am startled by his appearance. A pair of owlish dark glasses gives him a sleazy touch. It is like looking at King Faroukh during his years in exile. Maulana Azad is a huge, urceolate man with a belly which juts out in front of him like a balloon on the verge of bursting. It quivers like a terrified animal trapped under a cover as he rolls toward us on unsteady feet. The size of his head is grotesquely small in proportion to his massive torso. Perched on top of the head is a faded, black fez. The face is ridged and puffed. Layers of adipose tissue lie beneath the crinkled skin. The snub nose is like a polished stone nestling in a cushion of soft leather. The fish mouth is a mere slit. His lips are caked with dried betel-leaf juice. He is wearing a Rajshahi silk kurta and a blue lungi. The overpowering smell of attar nauseates me. “Aas Salaam a lai kum!” He greets Ma. She steps back in awed deference. She bows and touches her forehead with the fingers of her right hand. “Aadaab Huzoor!” I am expected to bend down and touch his feet. They are encased in expensive leather sandals. The best that can be bought at Bata. I offer him a limp handshake and the coldest of smiles. “Ah, the foreign way.” The slit widens. “Mashallah! How well you look, my boy! Your daughter?” “Not well, Huzoor!” Ma answers on my behalf. “She was so looking forward to meeting you.” We are invited to sit down. I prefer to move to the large window overlooking a paved courtyard edged with rose beds and sheltered by an

Adib Khan

ivy-covered pergola. From a brown paper bag Ma produces a carton of cigarettes and offers it to him. So! This was the reason for the frantic request which made me carry the cigarettes all the way from Melbourne. “Huzoor, a small gift for you.” Discreetly she places a small white envelope on top of the carton. Flared nostrils sniff the air suspiciously. He senses no danger. Esurient hands snake out like deep sea tentacles and snare the tendentious offerings. In a quick, smooth motion the envelope disappears into the side pocket of the kurta. “Dhonobad! Dhonobad!” He responds with pleasure. “The doctors tell me not to smoke. Rascals! They would deprive me of one of the few pleasures a man in my position can allow himself.” He raises his hands toward the ceiling. “My life is entirely in His hands. Even without smoking I shall have to go when my time comes.” The trite expression of Islamic fatalism draws words of comfort from Ma. By the Grace of Allah, may he live to be a hundred. The prayers of millions will not be unheeded. He is the light of hope for the unfortunate. A source of inspiration for the spiritually weak. Maulana Azad looks impatiently at his Rolex watch. The hint is too obvious to miss. Ma launches into a long-winded exposition about my life in a foreign land. A melodrama of epical proportions about love, marriage and cruel betrayal unfolds. I am blameless. She is the culprit. She is the one who trapped me into marriage and then heartlessly initiated the break-up. It is all her fault. n

Excerpted from Seasonal Adjustments. 1994.

Poetry

Tree Without Roots

Ahsan Akbar

D

haka frightened you. Dhaka Where I feel at home. The raw daylight, The sun-beaten faces, the sharp Corrupt edges to everything, frightened you. Your schooling had somehow neglected Bangladesh. The martyrs of 1952, of 1971 and the floods You could not appreciate the language, Your soul was empty Of the rustic Bauls, the rickshaw bells, and the hartals Made your heart shrivel. Nazrul could not invoke A blood rush, and awake the rebel in you. Zainul Held out a famine-struck lean hand and you took it Bluntly, indifferent to human feelings. You did not criticise but you pitied The endless beggars tapping your window, You sniffed the history books like a condescending foreigner Hoping to recognise your roots but somehow recoiled As your love for the West asphyxiated you, And your panic clawed back towards your Exeter days. You came visiting every summer and the odd winter Assumed yourself as a tourist, armed with mineral water, Mosquito repellent, beach shorts and funky flip-flops Watching with bewildered eyes and behaving awkwardly At the butchered traditions, that somehow still held. With the occasional stab to impress your pink tongue You tried your luck, relishing on digestive tablets,

DHAKA TRIBUNE SUNDAY, AUGUST 4, 2013

ARTS & LETTERS

With the street savouries: haleem, futchka, chotpoti And I saw you vomit with food poisoning. Dhaka, the city of mosques and shrines Had offered you more than the customary rituals But you did not hesitate to puncture the spiritual mystic Seeing only religious bigotry and fanaticism And the sound of azaan Was what annoyed you more than five times a day. You told me this was the land of your dreams: But the kaalboishakhi was one You dared not wake with, the incandescent spirit No literature, no creative writing course had glamorised. Perhaps this land is your nightmare, or perhaps, Your wet dream, you did not realise Monsoon had long spoilt your crisp bed.

From The Devil’s Thumbprint. Forthcoming.

Dhaka was what you tried to wake up from And could not. You have been sleeping Ever since; you knew you could afford The luxury of distancing yourself from you. You preferred to break out of your lineage And have your real self still to be found. Yours is a hapless soul, not understanding Thinking it is still your prerogative To remain in the happy world, With your whole life waiting, As a tree without roots. n

21


Fiction

Dhaka 1999: Only Way to Bring Him Home

R

upa lives with her mother-in-law, Meghna. A mechanical engineering student at BUET in Dhaka, Rupa has a Shakespearean forehead—not a congenital endowment but rather a recent growing expanse from excessive hair loss. The weekly protein concoctions (egg yolk, milk, and henna) that Meghna’s deft fingers rub onto her scalp are counterproductive: the bath today was clogged by a nauseating clump of thick, curly black hair leaving Rupa benumbed in sadness, fury, and vapor, coldly immune to the steaming burst of hot water on her breasts. Trivialities as small as the hairy clump make her want to

Excerpted from ‘Four Quartets’. 2006.

pull the blow dryer off the socket and switch it on under water foaming with Pantene Pro-V Sheer Volume. After class when Rupa remarked on the plight of the receding hairline that forces her to part her hair instead of tying it in a customary, tight ponytail, Zurvaan kissed her forehead and said, “Adds character to your face.” Zurvaan is the youngest assistant professor with the promise that only a sharp bachelor with a doctoral dissertation on photonic systems can bring from McGill University. A year-and-half ago, semi-comatose Zurvaan had answered the phone at 4:16 in the morning EST, groggily unraveling his legs from Caroline’s waist. Despite his inarticulate mother’s jumble of Bangla grammar diffused in a spell of sobs and hiccups, he was able to decipher that his father was in Suhrawardy Hospital allegedly fighting cardiac arrest and cerebral hemorrhage—in that order. He left Quebec for Dhaka on the next available flight leaving a heartbroken Caroline with swollen eyelids and salty cheeks at the airport’s sliding door. “I’ll call you,” was his hoarse promise as he pulled his lips away from her forehead. “No, you won’t,” she had whispered, convinced that the seventy-five inches of warm, exotic intelligence that she had irrecoverably fallen in love with was abandoning her, never to return from an unheard-of equatorial country some thousands of miles away. “Silly” Zurvaan had said, unknowing that the intuition of a caffeinated, Celtic tarot card reader writing her dissertation on The Angst of the Aesthetic

Sabrina Sadique

Judgment in Kant deserved more credit. For it would be seventeen years before Zurvaan would find Caroline (married to a Nigerian Chukwuemeka) still listed under her maiden name in the phonebook. And by that time, even in the warm bustle of a coffee-shop, the air between them would sag so low in the weight of formal accusatory silence that to call her “silly” like he used to would be travesty. …What soon shocked Zurvaan were not just a pair of his father’s healthy nose-holes sucking in bulk amounts of Dhaka’s microbe-heavy airport air but also the patterned branch of deep lines, like the creases of a Chinese fan that sprawled on his onceimmaculate forehead, eye, and mouth corners. There stood Mr. Aref Khan, neither strapped to an ICU Suhrawardy bed nor wired to a heartbeat monitor, a bulging bag of intravenous electrolyte solutions, or a web of alien tubes. In fact, except for the shock of loose skin, two prominent balding spots, and his guilty nervousness, Zurvaan’s father looked as robust as most rich, retired government officials are notorious for in Bangladesh, post-senility, with a Viagra-inspired second coming in an indefinitely long vacation in Mauritius and Seychelles. His first words (accompanied by a vigorous scratch of the posterior bald spot) to his son were, “There was no other way to bring you back. It’s been nine years.” “You saw me eight months ago.” “It’s been nine years since you have been home. And then... that girl….” “Caroline?” “Driver! Luggage.” …The following afternoon, as he sipped a quick cup of tongue-blistering Lipton before meeting with the Dean of Electrical & Electronic Engineering at BUET, he watched Rupa’s fingers embarrassingly but deftly reconcile with the fury of her curly hair, curlier in April moisture, by knotting the feisty mass into a stern, compact bun. Trenches at the bottom of her neck were deepened by the sharp incline of her collarbones. Her smile, equally hollow, was nothing to die for really but was enough to be curious about. And five weeks later, despite her widow- and mourning-hood, Rupa found herself whispering to the professor, “Keep the lights off.” As Zurvaan, the sensei who believed sex to be a martial art, dauntlessly proceeded toward her breasts, Rupa rasped a bellowing, “No!” Two mounds of untouchability on a very touchable body. “Reminds me of Rashad,” she confessed, “Memories, Professor, are inevitable.” And yet she fought them with so bold a denial in bed that in Zurvaan’s baffled mind, the long legs and dainty feet of Caroline Livingston made a posthaste exit into memory trash, ready to be displaced and soon forgotten. n

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Fiction

Dhaka 1999:

Shazia Omar

D

een twitched anxiously as they made their way up Airport Road, right at the gas station towards Tongi, sharp left into the dirt road in front of the basti, braking to a bumpy halt at the dilapidated brick wall that had been erected by the Prime Minister to hide the ugliness of poverty. The road smelt of piss and was deserted apart from a few skeletal children. Deen and AJ stepped behind the wall, past the tea stall and the mosque, and entered the basti. The stale air of the shantytown enveloped them, heavy with the smell of fresh cow dung and burning garbage. They made their way through the narrow alleys cramped in between rows of tin shacks and ducked under clothes lines draped with yellowed t-shirts with American idols printed on them. Rejected export merchandise for rejected local people... Underneath a bench in the corner of the room were a pile of pots and a kerosene lantern for the evenings. Sitting on the hard mud floor, between Majid and Kala, was Falani. She had a bailey flower garland wrapped in her hair, scented and fresh. She was chewing paan. Her lips were wet and red from the betel nut. She beamed deeply stained teeth at Deen and moved to make space for them to sit. “I’ve got some nice sweets for you today, you boys will be happy.” She pulled out a plastic packet from her peacock-feather purse and handed it to Kala, who was slouching next to her. “What’s up?” said Deen to Kala. The petite man smiled as he pulled off the foil wrapper of a chocolate bar. His pitch black hair was combed back neatly, no traces of white. He wore a fresh shirt and a soiled lungi. He sat cross-legged, with calloused feet caked in mud. Clean on top, dirty below, classic junky style, thought Deen. “It’s goddam Izthema next week,” said Majid taking a swig from a bottle of cheap liquor. He was only four years older than Falani, but he looked more like her father than her brother. The combination of a lifetime of manual labour in the oppressive Bangladeshi sun and an intense addiction had left him a skeletal man with a confrontational attitude towards everyone, especially Falani. Deen hated the way Majid barked orders at her, but Falani did not seem to care, accustomed to the violence of frustrated men. Instead, she gushed an endless stream of affection over Majid. “We can’t keep stuff here during Izthema. There’ll be too many people around,” Falani warned gently. “Fuck the mullahs.” AJ shrugged. He had no respect for religion or religious men and the second largest Muslim pilgrimage in the world meant only one thing to him – an obstacle to his addiction. “It’s crazy. Millions of Muslims from all over Bangladesh pitch tents along this riverside. Stay for days! Why can’t they pray in their own goddam space rather than crowding up mine?” Majid had not chased in a while and he was becoming belligerent. “Crowding your space, are they?” Falani asked playfully. “It’s our baba’s land, isn’t it?” “It is my land!” Majid roared. “I’m the one that lives here and sleeps here and shits here.” “They’re poor people. God is all they’ve got,” said Deen, happy to stoke Majid’s frenzy. “That’s not why they’re here,” Majid countered. “It’s not devotion, it’s fear. They’re scared of Hell! Goddam Godfearing. They’ve come to beg for forgiveness. I see their ugly faces year after year, calling to God,

before they go back home to sleep with whores and drink keru.” Majid pulled his bottle to his lips. “Like me, only I’m not a hypocrite.” Kala glanced up. Majid was getting out of control. The foil was cut, the pipe was ready. Kala hurried to prepare the tillis. “Nobody’s scared,” said AJ. “They’re greedy bastards. Come to pray for fast cars and pretty wives. Come to pray for better lives. Simple-minded folks. They don’t know that God isn’t listening.” “God-forsaken and GOB-forsaken,” Deen sighed, referring to the Government of Bangladesh.

“God only loves the wealthy,” continued AJ. “Perhaps they pray to thank God for their blessings?” said Falani. “Prayers are powerful. Can keep a man happy if he believes,” Kala joined in. The smoke was ready. Kala was a tiny man, not a labourer, but like Majid, skeletal from years of addiction. He spent his days hanging around the basti waiting for Falani’s clients to arrive. He prepared the smoke for them in return for a few drags to feed his own addiction. He could not afford a stash for himself so the boys were usually generous with him, unless their urges were too strong. n Excerpted from Like a Diamond in the Sky. 2009.

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ARTS & LETTERS


Fiction

Dhaka 2000: The City of Deferral

W

hat we need to do now, Ramkamal said – always in medias res – is to bring the city and the novel together in a whole new manner. Dhaka’s a new kind of city, a glimpse into our postapocalyptic future, and it’s time to find a form suitable to its reality. We were sitting in my store, which he had turned into his primary operating base. He stopped by, sometimes several times in a day: to leave his keys or pick up messages; to drop off parcels or laundry; to make phone calls or secure an abbreviated meal; to borrow cab-fare or cigarettemoney, and then to return those puny hand-loans and even to conduct complex, confusing arithmetic concerning these small exchanges. But,

Excerpted from ‘Ramkamal’s Gift’ in Good Night, Mr. Kissinger and Other Stories. 2012.

most importantly of all, he came by to hold his addas. Bahar and Joydeep were regulars from the start. Bahar worked as a statistician for a research institute, but his heart, as with the rest of us, was sewn to literature. Joydeep was an anachronistic soul, and resisted any set occupation. Most of the others were students, or recent graduates, and many connected to some facet of the writing world: newspapers; publishing; little magazines; even copy-writing in advertising firms. It was the spring after our first meeting, the start of a new millennium, and prophetic goals entered the realms of the possible again. Ramkamal held his addas, almost nightly, explaining how we would supply this city with a new grammar. It can’t, sure as hell, be borrowed from places where the streetlights or plumbing work. What we need to

K Anis Ahmed

write is nothing short of a manual. The Manual will explore how to be a citizen when the city itself is perpetually in deferral. More than his ideas, at first, it was the verve with which he pursued them that affected us. And even more, his innovation lay in his ability to turn his personal mission into a collective enterprise. Everyone who entered his orbit was assigned a role. I was his keeper, in every sense. I kept his clothes and his cash – the erratic quantities that transected his days. And, increasingly, he started consigning to me his memories, unreliable as they were, and even more unreliably, his secrets. There were references, ever oblique, to his training in a Gandhi Village, before he turned sour on communes. Years spent as a distributor of East European farming machines. Visits as a functionary of a small-time Left party to Havana and Ho Chi Minh City. It was hard to tell what was true, and what he believed to be true. Once I even asked Shamsu, my friend in the Special Branch, if he could find out anything. These are not chaps who volunteer information easily. But we went a long way back, so he subjected me to a litany of standard queries: Has he taken money from you? Has he ever hit anyone? Does he keep the kind of company that worries you? Has anyone – since you met this guy – asked you for money? Suddenly, I felt bad that I’d asked Shamsu at all, and I prevaricated as much as I could to protect Ramkamal. “If he’s basically harmless, then why ask me to look into it?” Shamsu was a bit annoyed. Besides, people go missing all the time, he said. Fathers who can no longer bear to be duty-bound, and walk away to what unknown respite, no one knows. Girls who are taken, one can only imagine for what nefarious purpose, in what distant capital. Young men, who go out for a cigarette with friends, and never come back. There are always whispers – about money or a political rival, and dark speculations about special forces and interrogation cells – but who really knows where the missing go? …Only Ramkamal could mock a person to his face without making them feel actually insulted. We were sitting in my store: me on a high stool on my side of the counter, and Ramkamal on another stool on his side. My cramped little store could barely hold Ramkamal. Why blame my store; the city could barely contain his personality. That was possibly the other attraction of Ramkamal. It was thrilling to see someone defy the conventions of the city so thoroughly. Until Ramkamal came along, Dhaka to me was a gigantic composition in concrete, and a poor one at that. Nothing was well made, or quite in place. Rickety buildings with unfinished paint jobs jostled for an extra inch of land. The roads were narrow and twisty. People, thousands of them, exuded the noxious stink of sweat and avarice. Everyone affixed to their place, like the letters on the pages of a crude and merciless text. n

n

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Non-Fiction

Dhaka 2003: An Unshackling

Amit Chaudhuri

W

hen I told people I was going to Dhaka, they asked me if I’d been there before. I could neither say “yes” nor “no”. In effect, I hadn’t. But my wife and I had been offloaded there by Bangladesh Biman in 1994. …We were deposited at the Mid-Town Hotel, which we have always referred to, in retrospect, as the dharamshala. The novelist Sunetra Gupta, a close friend, was on the same flight, and now, like us, off it. When we asked if she wanted to go out in the afternoon, she demurred; she’d rather sleep. I admired her, in private, for taking this decision; to resist curiosity, to not lay claim to the “homeland” even in the casual capacity of sightseer — this seemed to me the more morally courageous position. My wife and I decided to be somewhat predictable; besides, we were less tired. All three of us, it has to be said, have our ancestral antecedents in this part of the world. What I saw in those compressed hours of transit was so fuzzy that nothing remained with me except a jumble of rickshaws and intersections. The visit last month, then, properly represents my first trip to Dhaka… Almost all of (Mr. Abul Khair’s art) collection consists of the works of Bangladeshi artists, with a few exceptions — among others, a large, strangely fascinating Shuvaprasanna I saw in his house, a picture presumably of a Calcutta terrace, empty except for crows and television antennae; a well-known Gaganendranath cartoon, charged with his characteristic, violent, expressionist humour. The rest — displayed on the walls of his properties: his company office, the guest house we were put up at, even an employee’s flat, not to speak of his own home — is the art of this other Bengal, whose power and variety, before this visit, I knew nothing about...I’d already become familiar, in the last three days, with Zainul Abedin’s transfiguring and exquisite line drawings; with the figures in Rokeya Sultana’s paintings; with the exaggerated bucolic panoramas of the man they call “Sultan”. Three days was what it had taken me to realize that I had to now rethink my understanding of the term, “the art of Bengal”… Looking at the paintings arrayed on the walls of several rooms, I was reminded of other things: of Panini’s eighteenth-century painting of Cardinal Valenti Gonzaga’s picture gallery; of Teniers’s seventeenth-century portrait of the Archduke Leopold Wilhelm with his private collection, standing amongst subordinates, dwarfed in size by the paintings he owns, but augmented in stature. But, even at that midnight hour, I knew that Bangladesh was not seventeenth-century Europe, nor Mr Khair the Archduke. Thirty years ago, at the inception of this troubled nation, roughly around the time that Mr Khair has discovered his passion for owning paintings, Henry Kissinger called Bangladesh an “international basket case”. What did this achievement, then — both the collection, and the art itself — represent; and in what ways did they illuminate each other' I don’t know… The company guest house was in an area called Gulshan II. This, and Gulshan and Banani, neighbouring enclaves, comprise what one might call Dhaka’s Greater Kailash. I don’t make the comparison flippantly; there’s an air of New Delhi about these sections, and much of what I saw of “new” Dhaka. A Pakistani friend says the more affluent areas resemble their counterparts in Karachi; I can’t say, not having been to that city. You see a new city in terms of what you know; and “seeing” becomes a subterranean form of remembering. One thing became clear — Dhaka is not a lost suburb of Calcutta, nor its “backward” twin. Dhaka is a different conception of what it means to be a Bengali metropolis. For one thing, much of the development I saw took place in the Fifties and after. This is what reminded me of New Delhi, I suppose; the mildly bureaucratic air of the long interconnecting avenues, in which, in spite of the burgeoning population, there is no street life: the green, suburban enclosures of the rich. The grand and derelict colonial architecture that makes Calcutta surprising is missing; but there are striking new buildings, among them the parliament house and, overlooking a canal, the red-stone houses with large hemispherical arches in which its members live… Having been to Dhaka and met these people marks a significant break for me in my inner relationship with that country. For the political entity we call “Bangladesh” has been integral to the Indian Bengali’s — whether or not they’re originally from East Bengal — mythology of origins, a narrative of loss. A whole literature and archive of the liberal Bengali imagination have made it so. It’s through the prism of that mythology we experience — indeed, are at all interested in — Bangladesh: as the site of a quest-journey to our beginnings. It’s as if, at the journey’s end, we will have solved a problem, found an answer. Occasionally, the journey is made; often, it remains a powerful and poetic idea. I, too, who have atavistic links to Sylhet, have always wanted to, and always delayed, embarking on that quest. Travelling between Gulshan and Dhanmandi and Baily Road and the University, however, I feel I can leave aside that quest temporarily; it remains to be made, and perhaps it will be. But going to Dhaka has, in a sense, unshackled me from that search; and that brings with it a sense of liberation from an old and all-encompassing self-definition. Contemporary Dhaka confirms within me something else; a current exploration. As if I’d confronted a twin who’d grown up separately and become somebody else, it provides me with a different notion of identity. The question, “Who am I'” is only partly answered, after all, by returning to our beginnings. n

Excerpted from ‘This Other Bengal - The mythology of origins, a narrative of loss’ in The Telegraph. 2003.

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ARTS & LETTERS


Fiction

Dhaka 2006: Taxi Wallah

I

n front now I press against the metal fence that separates the arriving passengers. Damp chests shove from behind as arms snake their way around and inside, wrestler’s feet and bodies right behind. One breath, one tight exhalation of air, behind. Trying to create leverage. A bee in flight is seldom perceived as harmless. Rats, cockroaches, red ants, all of them. They would throw you on the mat, and sit on you. Lay eggs on you, give birth, set up home and house. A squat with a corrugated tin roof. Man has cloth in hand and drinks from a Coco-Cola bottle. He drinks piping hot, brown tea. Sugar, he must like sugar. Sure. He finds space between my chin and elbow, to drip the thicksweetstuff into his cockroach dark mouth. Must give up sugar, cramps getting too bad at night. Loud desperate voices grate my ears as I sidle my way to glass doors. Six passengers remain, guarded by disinterested soldiers. Harriers. Nice new Lexus, looks very nice. Rich bastards. Stickers on tightly clutched suitcases tell me that they are the six o’clock Singapore Airline’s flight. Bright stickers already peeling. One angry passenger made me wash his before I could drive him. “Sonsofbitches, look at them. Look at my new suitcases, they have lifetime warranties. Mothersleepers sticker-fied, manhandled, kicked my luggage. Mother must see suitcases new. We have to wash them before you take me home.” …So, now, six rich-looking bastards from the flight. Welcome to Dhaka, jewel in the lost crown, Bangladesh. Here from America, via London and Abu Dhabi. They stare at us frustrated. I gesture and yell for several minutes before attracting any attention. A blue suit, much too hot. These white people are mad, A/C will be a problem, “You,” his voice creaks, “how much to Purbani?” I leap forward, villains fly aside not expecting my new kung-fu. Purbani Hotel? “No problem, Shahib.” I nod, smiling, assuring, hands not allowing for intercepting fists reach for his luggage. “My taxi new, air conditioned,” lie I. Do or die. Others step between us, scooter-wallahs, beggars, porters. Pickpockets. Man whores. Cheater cocks. He pulls his cases back, Samsonite, not too shabby, once smart, still presentable, charge 250 takas, at least, I know he will tip. And he will, but just a little. “How much? Koto, koto, tell me first!” Bastard speaks Bangla. Some probably. “Sir, shaheeeb, whatever you wish. Up to you, I ask for nothing, no Shahib, nothing. Please sir, come, come.” I manage to curl fingers around still, airport lobby 60 tonne capacity, cool plastic handle and

Numair Chowdhury

pull gently. Some Bangla. Lets go. In the car, nice-smelling suit talks a little. Where does the city hide its secrets? He beckons, tired prostitute, as if to entice secrets from me. He has been to Dhaka before, but purely for business. This time he will have a week to spare. I look him over, trying to guess what he likes; what old Samsonite can afford. Which Dhaka does he want? Mid-thirties, quite carefree. Nice American, even knows Bangla. Not wealthy or important enough to be met at the airport, but had a certain breadth of vision, a length of stride that is not characteristic of the poor. Dhaka Museum of Magic? Snake charmers? Dance parties? Expensive handicraft stores? The Lal Bagh Fort? Heroin? Yaba? One can never tell. “I want to watch a Bengali movie. In one of those big cinemas where everybody goes.” This afternoon rush is always bad. But then there is always traffic in this city, people on the move trying to find a way to the money; maybe the money moves faster than them. The privileged travel fast. In brand new plimsoled sneakers. In a Lexus. They look very comfortable though. Fancy shoes. “What kind of movie sir? Action movie? Good dancing, lots of fighting. Bruce Lee. We have James Bond also if you want English. Live or Let die. Golden Eye.” “No, no. A Bengali one, action sounds fine.” “I will show you where to go sir, no problem. Close to hotel.” Too close to miss, or I could driven him elsewhere later. Need the work. Cricket balls, cupboard with metal hooks, pretty bangles, ribbons, battery, shoes. Always a need. Can help him with what he wants. We have all kinds of pictures showing. Even if he wants the latest pirate copies, I can find him those that come in from Malaysia. East Asian Tigers, rich country, tallest buildings, Royal Bengal Tiger, skins, teeth, all very expensive. Big cut. But he only wants a Bangla movie. If he wanted porn, we could go to Old Dhaka where young, nervous boys fill dark rooms. Easy to find a prostitute there. Maybe probably a pretty one. Make his own movie. A prostitute knows you will lie, she knows how to bargain and she knows at some point, she’s going to have your semen on her hands. Some are very pretty. Like that one what’s her name? Girls always want to make the big boys skip. With her free use of cheap, pink lipstick, she did stain my very soul. But such a sinner she is! n

Excerpted from ‘Taxi Wallah’. 2006.

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Non-Fiction

Dhaka 2008: Out of Place, Out of Time

D

haka today is utterly unrecognisable as the sleepy, charming, tranquil town it was even half a century ago. There is something thoroughly startling about this transmutation from a genteel and sedate town of tree-lined avenues, ponds, canals and spacious bungalows set amidst overgrown gardens – to this present incarnation as a dizzying metropolis of 12 million people, blaring automobiles and block after block of unpainted concrete apartments, as far as the eye can see. But the difference is more than merely in the physical transformation; it is also one of tone and feel. The city is a tinderbox, where muggers, petty thieves and hijackers are routinely beaten to death by angry crowds of vigilantes; where disgruntled industrial workers take over the streets at a moment’s notice; where violence and anarchy are never far away. Dhaka is always seething, swelling, heaving and pulsating. Sometimes it seems as though the one thing that everyone in Dhaka has in common is anger. It is this anger – this wrenching coarsening – that differentiates the Dhaka of the 21st century from the Dhaka of the past. At the time of independence, the population of the city was still under one million, but this swelled to over five million by the end of the decade. Today, the population of the city is anywhere from 12 to 15 million, and it is growing by the day. Everywhere one looks in Dhaka, construction is taking place. Sand, cement, bricks, iron rods, half-finished construction sites and armies of wiry, emaciated builders. The houses that have not been subdivided are being knocked down, to be replaced by apartment blocks. The apartments are built as close to the boundary perimeters as permitted by law – indeed, more often than not, much closer – as everyone wants to make the most out of that most scarce of resources, real estate. This inevitably gives the new developments a crowded, cheek-by-jowl look and feel. And it is fitting that the crowdedness of the city’s streets finds its parallel in the congested skyline, where the new buildings likewise jostle with each other for elbow room, no different from the pedestrians below. Dhaka is now a city of concrete blocks. The emblematic neighbourhoods are the lower-middle-class ones, which stretch from one end of the city to the other – Khilgaon, Jatrabari, Badda. Street after street of unpainted five- and six-storey concrete boxes stacked one next to the other; whole families occupying two rooms, maybe 500 square feet in total, that are suffocating, claustrophobic and sweltering cauldrons of misery. Nonetheless, the stifling concrete boxes are a clear step up from the slums that have sprouted in every untended corner of the city, by the railroad tracks, under flyovers, on the fringes of stagnant and decaying ponds and water bodies or perched on rickety stilts that rise up out of the murk and filth. Estimates of Dhaka’s slum population range anywhere from 10 percent to a third of the entire population; and it is expanding relentlessly with new arrivals, particularly refugees from riverbank erosion and other rural calamities. The majority of houses in these places are warrens of woven bamboo and cardboard and blue tarpaulin, all crammed into the most fetid and godforsaken byways of the city, places that no one else wants or cares or thinks about. Occasionally, a developer will turn his rapacious eyes onto such plots of land, and fire will suddenly rip through a slum, clearing it out and reducing it to smouldering ashes within a few hours. Once upon a time, Dhaka was not like this. There were always slums and there were always ugly concrete dwellings, just as there were elegant bungalows set in rambling gardens. But more than anything else, there was space, breathing space. The city was marked by ponds and lakes, and crisscrossed by canals. The open spaces were not wasteland and scrub, but rather green with vegetation, bushes and trees. Dhaka today seems thoroughly out of place when compared to the villages that surround it and make up most of the rest of Bangladesh. Even today, many of the country’s villages are charming and picturesque, neatly arranged around ponds amid precisely planted shade trees and small patchwork-quilt fields. Looking at such villages, it seems clear that Bangladeshis must have a strong aesthetic sense, not evident anymore in the capital city. But we do not live in our villages anymore. We live in our cities. Specifically, one in ten Bangladeshis now lives in Dhaka. And the difference between Dhaka and the villages that surround it, and

DHAKA TRIBUNE SUNDAY, AUGUST 4, 2013

ARTS & LETTERS

Zafar Sobhan

that gave birth to it, is no less than the difference between the Dhaka of today and the Dhaka of antiquity. People change, cities change and countries change. In our minds, we are still a simple, pastoral people of farmers and fishermen, listening to folksongs and dreaming of our idyllic village homes and our green-and-gold fields. That is who we think we are at heart. All the while, however, Bangladesh is moving quickly from the rural village-based agricultural economy that has sustained it for thousands of years, to an industrialised country of cities and city-dwellers. And, for better or for worse, Dhaka reflects this new Bangladesh. If the old

Abridged, ‘Himal Southasian’, 2008.

Bangladesh was to be found in the shaded byways and sleepy villages, and reflected in the genteel courtliness of the Dhaka of days gone by, today’s Bangladesh – brash, teeming, heaving, angry, crowded, chaotic – is perfectly reflected in the honking car horns and jam-packed footpaths of today’s Dhaka.

n n

27


Poetry

Put It Up!

Tanvir Malik

R

ickshaw-puller, put up the hood! I’ll be pressed to her – My thigh against The warmth of hers, Arms, round her shoulders, Breaths, sword-fighting… C’mon…! No time-wasting! She’s gotta be back by 8. Sitting with the hood down Is an unfortunate affair. No freedom’s there – Only repressed instincts:

But the body craves pleasure; And whatever’s here, Is behind the curtain – Nobody can know. Pleasure delayed is pleasure denied. Blessed be the hood – Boon to us all. Secrecy saves us from ignominy. Covering spares us embarrassment. So, rickshaw-puller, I’m begging you: PUT THE DAMN HOOD UP! n

Wooden bodies on the seat Barely touching – For all to see. How boring! The hood sets us lovers free Greatest invention ever For togetherness: Brushing, crushing, gushing. How ingenious, this hood – Secret enclosure, as it were, In the open. And the bumpy ride Adds to it. She likes it too. Lets my hand straggle Through uncharted territory. Her eyes close, Body tautens.

From 9th Edge: Creative Writings from Bangladesh. 2012.

My enterprising hand Glides through the velvety folds Of her borkha Sending out shivers in both spines. Think of what would happen If the hood weren’t here! Where’d we lovers Get the privacy? This city’s a sworn enemy To lovers: Barrier to whims Of the body. Baton-clenching cops Infest the parks. Bushes are cleared, Nooks, well-lit. Pesky beggars look on.

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Arts & Letters Vol 1 Issue 4