Living in Eskaton Gardens
Looking back, the olden days often appear as the golden days. Is it due to senility, nostalgia or truly the memory of wonderful times? Who knows! Whatever the reason, to me, the years in Eskaton Gardens have been most memorable because of the quality of life and the warm and intellectual environment that we had with family and friends. Looking at flowers and trees or just sitting on the grass and engaging in a fine conversation have always been a source of great enjoyment for me. And that was one of the innocent pleasures we had in our houses in Eskaton from the early fifties. It continued for many decades until our parents and uncles and other senior family members passed away one by one. That tradition still continues, but occasionally and in a somewhat subdued and diminished form. This is due to the fast pace of life of the younger generation, many of whom live in other parts of Dhaka or scattered all over the world. The following are reminiscences of the life that we had in bygone days.
During those days, after the day's work was over we would gather in the evenings, usually in my eldest and most favourite uncle Mr.Latif's front yard, sitting in a large circle on cane chairs with our bare feet touching the soft green grass. There we would discuss the day's events and much more. All our houses were on one side of the Eskaton Gardens, and these were inter-connected. This meant that we did not have to go on to the road - we could safely and quietly come and go to each other's house via the private inside pathway between numbers1 to 4, as we used to call them.
My parents and uncles had come from Calcutta or places outside East Bengal at the time of the partition of India in 1947. They were doctors, engineers and civil servants. Luckily, they were living in a number of contiguous houses in Purana Palton. In 1949, they started looking for private land in a less-congested Dhaka locality where they could replicate their good fortune of living together in Purana Palton, build their own houses and happily live side by side. Fortunately, my uncle knew Dhaka well as he had served for many years as an engineer in pre-partition Dhaka, until he went in 1946 for a degree at Harvard. His father-in-law, Khan Bahadur Kazi Imdadul Huq was a well-known educationist and the first Bangali Muslim novelist. In the early nineteen twenties, Mr. Huq had built a tin-roofed pucca bungalow, a kind of 'baganbari' on a large plot in Eskaton as his residence. It was connected to the nearest gravel road, the Elephant Road, by only a long and kutcha path. Imdadul Huq had died in 1926, but in 1949, his wife was still living in that house with its variety of fruit and other trees, including mango, sopeta and guava, which he had planted..
Naturally, the first choice was Eskaton, which was a rustic area with many jackfruit trees. The area was originally part of the Bhawal Estate and after the East Pakistan Assembly abolished Zamindary in 1950, land in the area was directly owned by the tenants. With Mr. Latif's initiative, the family was able to buy a private plot of land there, which was very close to Mr. Huq's house, and large enough for division among the family members. Then a Dhaka College student, I learned to drive by practicing on that land with my uncle's personal vehicle, which was a small second-hand Willy jeep, used by the US army during the Second World War.
By early 1953, construction of the buildings was completed and we all moved to our new quarters. Electricity connection, water pipes and telephone lines had to be brought from the main road, mostly at own expense. I remember that in order to make the mud road to the houses all-weather, trucks of used coal and coal dust from the Dhaka Electric Supply Company were brought, and the road leveled with rollers. The locality was then named Eskaton Gardens. Similar pioneering private house-building activities took place in New Eskaton, Green Road, Naoratan Colony in the Circuit House area, west side of Dhanmondi and other neighbourhoods.
The only government-sponsored assistance was from the House Building Finance Corporation, which had started to give loans up to 80 percent of the cost of building against the collateral of land and building. Finance and banking those days, were conducted strictly according to rules, and departures from the rules were unheard of. At that time, majority of the houses were not designed by architects. My uncle himself designed our houses in Eskaton Gardens on sheets of graph paper. These, there fore, looked quite similar. Dhakai 'Ostagors' (skilled mistris themselves, who also acted as contractors) constructed the buildings with their gang of 'Rajmistris' (bricklayers) and 'Kamlas' (workers). Their families may have been builders for generations from the Mugol times. After more than half-a-century, the houses are standing up strong.
We had quite a large and close-knit family ourselves. Our sittings, more often than not, would be in No.1 Eskaton Gardens. These would attract Kazi Imdadul Huq's sons (also our uncles), who lived in a cluster of houses about fifty yards away on an adjoining road with a slightly different name - Eskaton Road. Shamsul Huq, a former Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister, also built a house on a plot adjoining our houses and would often come by in the evenings. Additionally, other friends and family members, who knew that they could depend on a sizeable gathering, would often drop by for a chat. Those days it was not the custom to call before visiting someone. Roads were not busy and distances were short. It was not a big deal if you went to someone's house and found none, which in our houses could never happen. Our informal club had open doors!
Youngest in the crowd, I belonged to the next generation. I was perhaps the senior most of the juniors, my elder brother having left for the army in 1949. My uncles loved to talk to me and gave me the indulgence to join in the discussions, whatever the subject - family matters, country's educational, cultural and economic development, functioning of the government or politics. It also introduced me to a variety of senior people, many of whom were quite prominent and held important positions in various fields. During those days, simplicity and prominence existed in mutual harmony.
The sittings usually started about six or so in the evening during the summer months when everyone had their tea and changed into something more comfortable. The first lively session would go on until 9 pm when inevitably the dinner bell rang. Soon after dinner, which lasted about 45 minutes, people will reassemble at the same place for a second session. By that time, it would cool down considerably and become very pleasant, especially if it was a moonlit night. People would then be in a pensive mood and speak softly, usually with 'pan' in their mouth. It would nearly be 11 PM when participants would have to be dragged from their chairs to go to their beds in respective houses. This was the pattern of life throughout the year, except for the two winter months, when the gatherings would move indoors during the evenings.
The weekend at that time really meant the Sunday, as there was only one full-day holiday in the week. On Sunday, there would usually be three sessions-during the morning, post-lunch and evening. The 'adda' sessions would start at 10 in the morning and continue until lunch time in a front veranda under fans, with a few rounds of tea. Friends and relations would come and go. They would leave behind stories, which were mostly benign. There would be a short post-lunch gathering to conclude, if that were at all possible, any unfinished item of discussion. The usual evening session, of course, was a must. It would be an enlarged edition of the earlier sessions, again enriched by people of fleeting nature and of external origin.
Life in Dhaka those days was slow, sweet and uncomplicated. The province was moving along, relatively speaking and opportunities were gradually opening up for the middle and upper classes. Most of the pleasures were the interchanges and each other's company, visits and 'khanas' (we called these 'Daoats') within the circle of friends and relations, and occasional outings to Chandra, Savar, Tungi, Rajendrapur, Jaidevpur or Narayanganj. Good and artistic movies from abroad would quickly arrive at the movie halls, and dramas and cultural shows were accessible to the middle classes without much formality and concern about security. These enlivened and enriched our lives. For our uncles, fishing in the dighis (ponds) and some bird and duck shooting in close-by lakes and rivers were also a great pastime. People had a positive outlook. They accepted their respective positions in life, not in a fatalistic sense, but in a true spirit of modesty and fear of society and God. Jealousy, backbiting, aggressive or conspiratorial conduct and dishonesty were frowned upon. Most things were reasonably cheap in Dhaka and people lived simple lives within their means, which in those days, was considered a virtue.
Azizul Jalil writes from Washington
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