I had resolved that never in my life will I visit Dhaka for I feared to face a city that would have been mine had the Partition not taken place. I have no idea why my mind thought that way because none of my relatives ever belonged to Dhaka. Some were posted in the city on a transferable job before 1947 but as far as roots are concerned I have never been able to trace any. Even then by the stories of origin my paternal family was supposed to have lived in Vikrampur in Dhaka district and by that token the members of my mother’s family which hailed from Katwa in West Bengal created enough centripetal forces to push me to believe that I was a refugee in India and I was supposed to live forever in Dhaka. Such sentiments lie beneath the CAA against which the real, historical India of an unbroken tradition of thousands of years has risen. Nonetheless the nagging guilt in my subconscious infused and concocted by people who have understood very little of the land they are born into, that I must be on the other side of the border inculcated in me a kind of repulsion towards Dhaka. Chittagong however is comfortable.
But this time Dhaka it had to be for I had friends to meet and new avenues to explore for the development of economic research in the steel industry. Bangladesh like Japan and even United Kingdom has no mineral deposits that can make steel and yet like England and Japan Bangladesh actually makes very good quality of steel. They have to make their steel strong because their structures rise high upon moist and soft soil of the delta. The country has built a bridge across the mighty Padma with strong undercurrents and violent tidal pulls wholly with steel produced by BSRM, which melts scrap in the induction furnace! No one quite associates Bangladesh with steel and yet in terms of quality products it is a formidable country. Steel is heavily advertised in public spaces, in airport billboards, road signage so road dividers and in traffic barriers. In every corner of the city, steel advertisements abound in posters and plaques, signboards and walls.
The police who frisked me in the Delhi airport asked me whether I was a Bangladeshi. She was an Oriya and a Hindu with an ostensible sindur on her hair parting. She must have done well in her life to get a job in the police force, a government service in days of severe unemployment across the country must have been very good for her. In a sense of victory she must have set out to attack her core enemies, or the ones like us who constitute the social class of her bosses. Also, there is a cultural attack, a woman like me, single, unmarried and wearing western clothes without covering my body with a dupatta must have irked her because despite her reaching her own zenith, she finds herself so much lower in social standing than me. Hers is a typical fascist ire that hides behind the veil of nationalism to throw out some people from the reckoning, namely those who are too poor or, in her eyes, like me, too rich. Hence she assigns me a Bangladeshi nationality. You must be a Bangladeshi, she asks me. I retort that I can only expect such foolish stuff from an anti Bengali Oriya as I tell her of the anti Bengali riots in the late 1960s in Orissa. Then I scold her for she being a policewoman she must notice that I am carrying an Indian passport. Then I scare her by asking whether she owns her grandparents property papers for if her grandparents don’t own any property she will end up spending the rest of her life in a detention camp. So she should never dare to speak up to propertied people like me because I will report her state of property lessens to the CAA authorities for her to be picked up. You want to converse, please then ask about the weather or some such stuff. Don’t you dare start foolish talks of nationalities for Indians, I cower her till her eyes develop some fear. I am happy, sadistically.
Indigo was very late because they messed up with some paper work which they tried to pass off as a technical fault. Immigration clearance in Dhaka was very slow again. As the queues got longer and people impatient, I learnt that such things happen whenever Indians arrive because the weblink to the site of the Indian passport is too weak and the immigration staff have to enter the data manually. The cab that was coming to pick us up for it took close to an hour to reach to the arrival gate. Traffic was pathetic and legendary in slowness, not only troubled with traffic signals but more so due to the movement of the VIPs, the military in this case. By the time we reached the hotel it was well into the night. The city, despite its traffic looked lovely as it was all lit with fairy lights, green and red, to celebrate the victory Day, which were also the Christmas colours and bright shades of silver, gold, jade and turquois for the New Years.
Turjo, our young friend was waiting for us and he looked visibly tired and exhausted. Anyway we had excellent and authentic Japanese food in a restaurant in Gulshan. Turjo told us that there was a huge Japanese presence in Bangladesh almost in every avenue of high technology and that it was because of them that one could find such fine Japanese food in Dhaka. Also, the authorities were pretty strict about quality and so were the Bangladeshis themselves and restaurants had to be very fine in order to survive in the business. We walked back to the hotel almost close to midnight, we did not find speeding cars with loud music, nor did we find drunken riffraff nor any footpath dweller. Some rickshaws sailed past us and soon a group of boys in their early twenties were coming from the opposite side. In India this would be a risk especially in the nightly hours and when there is no policeman anywhere in the vicinity. But the boys just went past as though they were only mist. I felt much safer in Dhaka than I would ever have in Delhi or Kolkata. Dhaka seemed to be more like Mumbai.
The hotel staff as well as the driver warned us that if we have to reach Motijheel by 10am we may have to start two hours before time. That did not happen and we started only with an hour and fifteen minutes to our appointment. The driver was very smart and clever too for he drove through the lanes and by lanes to duck the traffic and I reached my place ten minutes before time. As he manoeuvred through the chaotic parking spaces he was generous in his abuses. But those who caught his irritation most were the timid looking drivers wearing the skull cap. He called them as Tupi, meaning caps and as soon as he cat called them, some parking lot help would rush to clear the poor tupi away. Islamists did not seem to be too comfortable in the city.
Listening to Bangla everywhere was indeed very pleasant but it was more pleasant to see the language being used officiously and formally. In India we descend into Bengali to take off formality and sink into chatty and the familiar mode. Since Bengali is the only language in the country, it is used more as the official language while the variety of dialects were used for the more informal communications. I thought that I heard some Hindi being spoken here and there and also I distinctly heard Hindi being spoken at the washrooms of the airport in Dhaka. When we spoke to Turjo about this he said that the Biharis were a substantial minority in Bangladesh and they were so populous in Mirpur, a locality in Dhaka that the zone won Independence only in 1972 and not in 1971 when Bangladesh was finally free of Pakistan. But Bangladesh had much closer ties with Bihari in terms of the proliferation of the Bharta in their cuisine and much closeness with Hindi in the many phrases like banana as in pair and mojaa as in enjoyment of palette and so on.
After Motijheel I was keen to drop by at BUET, the IIT of Bangladesh. They have a commendable metallurgy department and I wanted to meet Prof Fahmida. It would not have been out of the way because we were in any case going as far as the Dhakeswari Temple and from there to Ahsan Manzil and then visit Lalbagh Quila. Our driver, Hassan dropped us off at the heavily guarded Dhakeswari Temple gate. I suppose no government takes the risk of any possible harm to a minority community and hence the precautionary measure with impregnable police barricades, CCTV cameras and batons weilding men on duty. Hassan sped off into zones away from the police. We walked to Lalbagh biting into crunchy guavas which were larger than our palms. The walk was fairly comfortable despite the roads being narrow and soon we were in front of the fort built by one of Aurangzeb’s sons who looked after Bengal. The poverty of the structure shows the poverty of Aurangzeb and his sons, lesser people invariably have communal and divisive minds.
Across the Lalbagh was a Bhooter Baari, a gaming centre with some small and modest fun stuff for children. There is often a long queue to enter the site and the entertainment house served as a clever distraction for children who get impatient. From Lalbagh we took a rickshaw to reach the estate of Nawab Salimullah Khan called the Ahsan Manzil. Situated by the Buirganga the estate sprawled no less than an acre and a half, now restored into a museum. I was long under the impression that Nawab Salimullah was the political head of Bengal, or at least of Dhaka. Much to my surprise I discovered that he had no political authority and was a very wealthy merchant hailing from Kashmir. His family was into the business of raw hides and timber along with other commodities, made much money and settled in Dhaka. It becomes immediately apparent that Dhaka is the Mumbai of the east. As the rickshaw veered dangerously through narrow serpentine streets packed with merchandise, food grains, wheat flour, daal, textiles, steel and scrap and even timber one sensed that the Bengalis of the east are searching for self fulfilment but not chasing competition or aspirations. Perhaps the only sign of modernity and of prosperity was the intense use of stainless steel. Banisters of staircases, front gates and door frames of shops and offices were made overwhelmingly of very robust quality of stainless steel and stood out as anomalies in this part of the old town. Again the quality of steel was very good.
There were restaurants and most had long queues waiting to grab tables. The most popular ones were Sultan and Kolkata Biriyani, not to miss the adjective authentic. But unfortunately there were no Bhaater Hotel. Dhaka is not showy but it is very clean possibly because street food is so restricted. We did see a jhaal muri man near the Dhakeswari temple but others on carts were only fruit sellers basically selling their own produce. I realised that the Tk 100 which I gave to our driver would fetch nothing and like us, he too may have to go without food. Bangkok is clean but with plenty of street food, Kolkata struggles to keep up a semblance of cleanliness but has food stalls any and everywhere in the city. Access to food is very important and the Bangladeshi municipality having disallowed food vendors in street, I learnt as expected kept our driver hungry through the day. Not that we had any lunch either because our friend, philosopher and guide in Dhaka, Zahidbhai refused to eat food anywhere but in his own home. So the guava it was.
Old Dhaka is a commercial city, shops and warehouses stuffed and even overflowing with textiles, cereals, packing material, corrugated paper, steel pipes, sheets and rods, cycle wheels, glass sheets, wooden furniture and so on. Restaurants had long queues and with no street food, people had to go for big meals only. There were numerous mosques including the star mosque, a famous tourist attraction, and only a few hair cutting saloons and beauty parlours. Mobile shops about selling chips and data, a few shops selling footwear but surprisingly hardly any shops for ready made garments except for salwar kameez. Women’s cosmetics, hair clips, diaries and lens, knives and nail clips were almost absent from the streets. Old Dhaka was wholly a commercial centre with very little space retail outlets, far too occupied by delivery vans and wholesale merchants so as to leave space for the casual buyer shopping at the Windows.
Ahsan Manzil was an eye opener not only because the family of Salimullah was Kashmiri and not Bengali but because he was a man who spent every bit of his mind and money towards Europeanizing. The palace itself is modelled in a Gothic style with its petal domes and high arches and they have felicitated every Bengali worthy of notice both Hindu and Muslim. We see portraits of all eminent Bengalis from Maharshi Debendranath Tagore in his youth, Acharya Jagdish Bose, Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray, Sri Aurobindo Ghosh and many others. Very noticeably missing are Swami Vivekananda and Sri Paramhansa. This means that the last mentioned never visited the place. Perhaps because the family of Salimullah hailed from Kashmir we have so many Kashmiris in Dhaka, many immigrants come as students to study medicine.
Salimullah could have been Sir Syed Ahmed and perhaps even greater but he worked without a well supportive elite by his side. Yes, modernity was his pursuit. He designed and implemented the city water supply in the late 19th century, a time when very few European cities had water supply. He also got batteries to run electric fans, lights in his banquet halls. Salimullah entertained heavily, every eminent person namely scientists, poets, educationist and even religious leaders were in the august guest list. He entertained the Bengal governors as well. The ballroom is exquisite with provisions of fusion music, baijis on one side and the grand piano forte on the other with the dance floor in the middle.
The women of the family of Salimullah Khan were educated and politically and socially aware. They wrote and spoke, taught and counselled on the importance of girls education. The Bengalis of the land often lament that a Vidyasagar was not born in the Muslim community but Nawab Salimullah and especially the women of the family answered the need very well. They promoted education of women, gave liberal donations to Sanskrit college in Varanasi as well as to girls’ schools across East Bengal. Salimullah also contributed generously towards flood relief, earthquake relief, famine relief. He established the Dhaka University. He was a modernist, a reformer, secular because he promoted every religion, a humanist, a liberal. He was keen to promote a life style, a style statement to the world that he was in no way any less than the glitterati of aristocratic England. The main aim behind Salimullah’s initiative was to create a Muslim elite along the lines of the Hindu elite; from the photographs, the artefacts, the architecture and the altruistic activities it does not appear that the aims of the Muslim League was communal politics. In fact, it seems that Nawab Salimullah’s aims were quite the contrary. It may be worth exploring of how the liberal and secular and a nationalist party descended into a communal, regional and parochial outfit.
The washrooms were cleaner than what I feared would be. Couples abound the compound of the estate overlooking the Buriganga, taking photos and selfies, holding hands and publicly displaying affection. Bangladesh did not look like a conservative society at all. I did not quite find all women’s gangs though. It was not too common to see girls moving about on their own without boys. I was also somewhat surprised to see far less families among the tourists unlike in India where it is more common to see people coming out as families in India Gate or to the malls.
We suffered the traffic as we dropped Zahidbhai to the outskirts of the city but our smart driver found a much better route than Zahidbhai’s GPS and we reached pretty comfortably to our hotel. At night we had lovely home cooked food for dinner with Prof Nashid Kamal and lovelier chats. Exhausted but fulfilled, we had Hassan drive us back to our hotel. She gave us many gifts of books, writtern by her, her mother and her maternal grandfather. I have of course finished reading Prof Nashid’s novel, I am yet to read the other two and cherish my anticipation of their contents.
This morning we were to head towards Sonargaon and picked up Zahidbhai on the way. I was eager to visit this old capital of Gourbongo. I read in history in school that Sher Shah’s Grand Trunk Road started from this place and went all the way to Peshawar. This was also Isha Khan’s seat of power, who like Nawab Salimullah Khan four centuries later was also a merchant and belonged to a Hindu family from Rajasthan. When Mansingh attacked Bengal in full gear of elephants and horses and guns, Isha Khan mobilised almost forty zamindars, Hindu as well as Muslim, used sophisticated imported guns from China, mounted these on bullock carts and routed the mighty Mughal army. Isha Khan’s endeavours were known as the Revolt of the Baro Bhuinya, though the participants were many more than the twelve.
Isha Khan’s palace was a maze, rooms leading to other rooms all around an open courtyard. The layout was so symmetrical that the palace looked exactly the same from every angle. Next to the main palace was another building which now housed the tourist and the estate offices that looked very different, almost like a house in the Middle East. Among the artefacts were giant earthen pots, the very same stuff that is used in Bangladesh to store grains and oilseeds. Then there were puppets which looked so typically from Rajasthan. It was much later that I learnt that Isha Khan’s grandfather, one Badrinath was a Rajasthani merchant who came as a trader to Bengal and his father, Kalidas continued to settle down in the land. Isha Khan converted to Islam when he joined the Sultan’s forces to defeat the Vaishnav King of Tripura, Gobindo Manikya and assume charge of the toll plaza at Sonargaon where the Brahmaputra merged into the Meghna and the river was wide enough to look like the sea. Here ships from Ahom and Tripura, Srihatta and even China would sail down into the Bay of Bengal. Tax collection would be of a mind boggling amount. It was from here, during Isha Khan’s father’s time that Sher Shah built the land route of trade. The Hindus and the Muslims were fairly divided on the sea and the land; Hindus did better on sea while the Muslims did better on land. But in Bengal, the Muslims, mostly converts for barely a generation or two and basically the sons of soil, dominated the waters of the Bay of Bengal. Orissa has a festival called the Bali Jatra signifying the times when ships would sail towards Bali, Indonesia, Java and Sumatra. The Trinity of Jagannath presides over the Bali Jatra. It was interesting to see Shubhadra’s idol at  Sonargaon, Bengal being a land of the various goddesses must have singled her out from her brothers.
We visited the crafts museum at Sonargaon, where the rulers, or the powerful merchants took care to promote and develop the various crafts, textiles, Kantha, woven paatis and baskets, metals like wrought iron and silver, wood and stone, bamboo and clay, porcelain and precious stones of various kinds. It was a three floor high museum of crafts. The artefacts mostly of use for the high elite as well as for the more ordinary householder but they were specific to the Bengalis and their culture. The only exception were the jewelry, these were purely for the Banjaras and were typically those we find in the deserts of Rajasthan, round, solid, thick and heavy.
The library was amazing, scholars of Bangladesh have done encyclopaedic work on Bengal. It is not possible to explore Bengal intellectually until and unless one visits this marvellous library. Among others, there are definitive histories of the development of crafts, even I have a book on crafts in Dhaka in my collection. I think that I bought it just as a curiosity because who writes about crafts in a modern city? Crafts seem to do be a major interest for Bengal in its eastern frontier. I reviewed in my mind the ordinarily held ideas about East Bengal by people living in West Bengal that the east is agrarian and peasant like while the western part is more industrialized. I realized that quite contrary was the truth. Industry, crafts and manufacture was keener in the east because of the influence of the Afghans and Turks or because of the land being situated as an entrepôt. East Bengal has always had a predominant merchant class, and the so called important rulers like Isa Khan or Nawab Salimullah Khan were merchants and not political officers.
Zahidbhai suddenly struck up a conversation with the librarian, an elderly lady called Dilruba. She asked whether we were Hindus or not and then lamented why we had to move away to India. She said that she has seen Hindus really crying when they left their land, religion is nothing, it is abstract and vague. Only the motherland, land of one’s people, the real location of humans on earth. No religion ever has the power to rise above the motherland. The motherland is the truth, religion its false companion, asserted the elderly Libarian. Dilruba believes in the free movement of humans, there can be some tax collections and toll posts, collect money by all means but why restrict the movement of people. Humans should be like birds and animals, free to move about. Yes, I thought to myself, and for that we need an ecological security. That ecology for humans should be another set of institutions, another level of statehood.
We had to take an e rickshaw to go to Panam City, which looked very similar to Bhangarh, the abandoned merchant city of Rajasthan and an abode of the ghosts. The city constitutes a set of uniform buildings, mainly the offices of the merchants and their warehouses. The land at the back of these buildings on either side were the parking lots of the carriages which may have relayed the goods out of Sonargaon onto the highway, or what is the Grand Trunk Road. We veered towards the river for a boat ride and was surprised to see that a small shipbuilding yard still exists on the banks of the Meghna. Meghna is still navigable, Sonargaon is still an entrepôt except that the political boundaries of the Partitioned subcontinent has cut off trade along with its ties. So water hyacinths float where the Panamax vessels should have sailed.
Unlike in Ahsan Manzil where one saw only tourists and couples, Sonargaon looked more familiar with bunches of picnic parties consisting of family with elders, children and their parents. We drove through the crowded areas of the old Dhaka city in Ahsan Mazil, we rode through the lush villages of Sonargaon. Both looked prosperous and clean but not ostentatious or wannabes.
Life turned into Hell as we tried to reach back to Gulshan on the night of the 31st. All roads were blocked and the single entry to Gulshan via Kakoli was jam packed. Hassan poured out his grievances, how it is so useless to visit Ahsan Manzil as it only showcases a rich guy’s lifestyle, how Isa Khan is a better guy because he fought battles, though the museum at Sonargaon was absolutely devoid of any weapons while Ahsan Manzil had a few basic stuff of personal security guards and some tiger hunting guns but nothing suggestive of desiring yo fight wars. Hassan was very smart, well-spoken and very articulate often intolerant of people with lesser abilities than his. He scolded incompetent drivers and was pretty annoyed with Zahidbhai’s GPS when it took us into the blind alley. Expectedly, he was from Barisal. Barisal is as much joked about in Bangladesh as it is on its Indian side.
We greeted the New Year by looking out of our hotel room on to the Jheel that ran along side. Today we would head back to Delhi and the only a few hours we had with us would be spent at a breakfast meeting with Rifat, a bright young person with a good knowledge of his country. People of all hues were walking down the walkway around the Jheel. They were not strolling nor were they in their cardio morning walk, they were going for work, head down, resolute jaws, purposive steps. I realized that in the two days that we were continuously driving down the city jammed with cars, buses and lorries Dhaka was rather silent despite its vehicular density. People hardly used the horn, even when they did, the tones were mellow and not sharp. There were arguments but these did not proceed beyond two or three sentences, Bengalis in this land are so different from the Indian Bengalis. Dhakais are sentimental and emotional but very formal in their public demeanour, there was nothing to suggest that they would snap, neither at the drop of a hat nor ever. People spoke less, rarely ever moving beyond the necessary, and when they did, they were articulate, specific and to the point. Not only there was hardly a horn blowed, but people spoke little making the city fairly silent and as free of noise pollution as of city garbage. That’s so true, now I recall, I could not see garbage piled along any street.
Madhusree and I were strangers, dressed differently, heads uncovered and perhaps too old to be gallivanting around the city. We were aboard on rickshaws for quite a while too. But never did we feel eyes looking at us, in fact no one looked. But people noted nonetheless because at Ahsan Mazil a young man came rushing towards us from inside the ticket enclosure and asked whether we were Indians or not. I knew that my dread has come true, Zahidbhai tried to pass us off as Bangladeshis by buying a ticket meant for citizens and not as foreigners from the subcontinent. Bangladesh laws are very strict, enforcement even more so, there is no question of going past the guards and the police. The level of alertness is very high, eyes those never cast a glance at you seem to have memorised you to the hilt.
The streets were free of animals, no stray cattle, or dogs, nor cats, and not even birds like the crow or the sparrow. A possible reason for this could be the utter lack of food or because many of the animals, especially the cow is eaten as food. Bangladesh seems to be liberal with beef, but that is also a recent matter because many among the Bengalis believe that eating beef is harmful for health. It is interesting that the streets were also free of plastic wrappers strewn inattentively around. However, in tourist places, there were cats and dogs because of the picnickers and plastic wrappers were found here as well. Bangladesh was a different country because of the behavior of its people in the public space.
Madhusree noticed and Zahidbhai seconded that women now wore the borkha, something that was nearly absent even ten years earlier. Zahidbhai spoke of his own family and how his sisters and mother and aunts now thought that it was very fashionable to do the dress. I am not sure whether a return to Islamic conservatism or a growing religious fundamentalism can explain this. There is something else, as women emerge more and more in the public space, the veil is often a good way to feel comfortable against the annoyance of the male gaze; because it bears a religious connotation, women might feel more protected against the bad touch. Besides, the veil is now a designer fashion statement, the colours, the brooches and the pins. Girls have to now be freer, move on their own and into spaces where women usually did not venture and the veil became a talisman protecting against possible lapses of safety. Also, the veil hid from the public eye, many of the revealing dresses women now wore as fashion, only to be seen by those they want to see them, and eliminating from sight the unwanted ones.
Yet, despite its public discipline and professional acumen, its high social skills and work orientedness, Dhaka somewhere conveyed to me that the governance system had its problems. It was not a democratic country in its core; people were suspicious of the government and the government was not as empathic as it should be in democracies. The gap between the ruler and the ruled was very apparent. The trust between the government and the people seemed to be a bit precarious. But some policeman here, some bureaucrat there, some technocrat as the odd one out were trying hard to bridge the divide. Bangladeshis spoke far less about politicians than they spoke about opportunities for work abroad, of migration and investments, of business prospects and education, accepting the fact that the governments would forever be corrupt and immoral.
After a nice coffee and conversation with Rifat, Madhusree and I rushed to Arong for last minute buying of gifts and mementoes. The rickshaw puller almost passed out, partly because of our combined body weight but also in part because he had no food since the morning. He cried Allah and Ma, and puffed and panted. It seems that he comes out early in the morning for work, his mother too old and wife too lazy to cook food for him. This is funny, I thought, for he can at least keep some leftovers which he can heat and eat in the morning. He is wont to get his own food, because like a true Bengali, he believes that since he is the sole breadwinner of the family everyone should pamper him. Well, such an attitude, I thought would make us one of the same history and sociology.