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     Volume 4 Issue 41 | April 8, 2005 |

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In Retrospect

Garai Nadir Pare

A District Officer's Story

Azizul Jalil

Rene Kuthi, now a hundred year old red brick building, on the banks of the river Garai was my residence when I worked in Kushtia as the District Officer in 1966-67. The Renwick Company (1904) was the original owner of the house. Their factory was next door, manufacturing presses for Sugar Cane crushing. At the time of the partition of India in 1947, the Kushtia district was carved out of the Nadia district, which went to West Bengal, India. As a suitable residence was required for the District Officer, later designated as the Deputy Commissioner (DC), the Government of East Pakistan took over the house. However, the adjoining Renwick factory and some other bungalows remained in private hands to conduct their business.

Tagore's Kuthibari, Shelaidaha. Photo: Abul Hussam

Garai, a small river, would nearly dry up in the winter. People would wade through or go by rickshaw to the other side and go to Shilaidaha, about ten miles away. The Nobel Laureate, Tagore's Kuthibari was located there near the banks of the Padma. He lived in that house a number of years with his wife, Mrinalini Debi Raichaudhuri after their marriage in 1883 and wrote some of his finest poems there. The Archeology Department during Pakistan days had declared it a protected site. When my parents came to visit me during the winter of 1966, we went by a motor launch to visit Shelaidaha. We boarded the launch at the Renwick Ghat adjoining our house. From the Garai it soon took us to the Padma, which was quite turbulent that day with strong winds. We reached Shelaidaha at about 11:30 am.

My mother was unable to walk on the sandy stretch of about a mile from the launch to Tagore's house. She went on one of the palanquins belonging to the house. The beautiful and well-maintained house with a garden and a nice big veranda upstairs seemed to have similarities with a Burmese Pagoda. Interestingly, Tagore a hard tennis court built behind the house and sometimes played tennis with his wife. As the Collector of Revenue of the district, I inspected the nearby Tehsil office. This was also Tagore's revenue office for his family's Zamindari business in the area. He had the reputation of being a strict landlord, sitting on a huge pillow on the floor supervising the collection of khajna (tax) and keeping of records. Old records from his time were still there. After sightseeing, meeting the local people and shooting birds in the afternoon, we returned to Kushtia safely in the evening.

Tagore's ancestors had built a house named the Tagore Lodge at Amlapara in Kushtia town. Tagore stayed there sometimes and conducted business in raw materials. Close by was an iron works, which he established to make sugarcane presses. Tagore started this in protest against the foreign companies like Renwick. They were charging exorbitant fees for sugar crushing or renting of the presses to the peasants. Tagore, the poet was also a practical man.

Mohini Cotton Mills (1919) was an old Bengali-owned enterprise, producing inexpensive saris and other clothing materials in Kushtia. In our school days, we had read that this Mill, along with the Dhakeswari and Chittaranjan Cotton Mills in Narayanganj were as important industries of the then Bengal. Before 1947, the Mohini Mills was the largest employer in town, which was literally dependent on the Mill for its economic wellbeing. For some time, the EPIDC was operating the Mill through a General Manager appointed. The Mill suffered from mismanagement. It gradually decayed, lost money year after year and towards the end of 1967 was literally selling its assets to survive.

The two outlying subdivisions of the District, Meherpur and Chuadanga, important as they always were, became prominent during the Bangladesh Independence War in 1971. There was fierce fighting in both the places and for some time these remained free of the Pakistani Army. I had visited the Baidyanathtala Aam Baagan in Meherpur with hundreds of mango trees in long and neat rows a couple of times. On April 17, 1971, Professor Yusuf Ali read the Declaration of Independence of Bangladesh during the formal inauguration of the Mujibnagar Government at a mango grove close to the Indo-Bangladesh border. Chuadanga had the Darsana Sugar Mill and the Carew Distillaries from before 1947, where it produced sugar, beer and some export quality gin. While visiting Darsana in 1967, I learnt over the phone from Dhaka that my second son had been born. I had to cut short the visit and fly back to Dhaka, foregoing the dinner for me for which my host, the British manager of the Mill was naturally very upset.

Another place of great interest was the Lalon Shah's darga and akhda at Cheuria village, close to the Kushtia town. During my time, there were less than two hundred ascetic Bauls in the area. Since then, the number has grown manifold. We held a conference on Lalon's poetry and a musical function on his Baul songs in Lalon's akhda. There were many enthusiastic Lalon devotees, writers and artists, young and old, including some artists who had come from Dhaka. Anwarul Karim, a professor of the Kushtia College, who was doing research on Lalon at the time, later wrote a book about him. He thoughtfully presented a copy of the book to me at our Dhaka house many years after I left Kushtia. Some local people resented and disapproved of Lalon, his unorthodox beliefs and practices and the style of living by the followers in his akhda. Fortunately, support of the Deputy Commissioner backed by mild police action at times, kept serious trouble away.

[To be continued]
Azizul Jalil, a former civil servant and a retired World Bank Staff member, writes from Washington.

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