400 years, Neglected, yet still Loved by Some!
There was a book launch on Dhaka the other day. The book was named “400 years of Dhaka alias Jahangirnagar”. The book, written by Professor Enamul Huq is quite exhaustive. It includes almost all information about this favourite city of mine. The book is fairly comprehensive and includes many facets of the city sectioned by events and characters. I have been living in this city since my childhood when it was a tiny provincial town to what it has become now. My foregoing words, “what it has become now” would more than amply reflect my annoyance with what we have done to this wonderful city. We have indeed graduated from a small provincial town to a mega provincial town. The true personality of a metropolis is all but absent. Still, this is the city that I have grown up in. This is the city that has given me sustenance. This is the city that I go back to in my time of jubilations and despair. As I was leafing through the book it dawned on me, once again, what a grand little city Dhaka was in the good old days. But we, who have made our lives here and live here, have done precious little for the city. As I was thinking of Dhaka, almost immediately, another city in the vicinity which was born much later and is also one of my most favourites came to my mind. I could not help compare the two. Calcutta (now Kolkata) is about a hundred years younger than Dhaka and, therefore, historically less diverse. Whereas that city has been able to preserve its entire heritage deftly, we have been most careless about ours to say the least. I remember, a few years back when Calcutta was about to celebrate its 300th birth anniversary they had coined a slogan that said “Calcutta is forever”. This slogan is so expressive that nothing more needs to be said. The responsible Calcuttans, the government inclusive, were aware about this historic phenomenon from long before and were warming up to it. We, on the other hand, woke up one fine morning and suddenly realised that we had come upon the significant 'four hundred'. The outstanding achievement of Kolkata, I think, is in being able to first, recognise its heritage and second, preserve that heritage, something that we have failed to do. Needless to say, history takes an insignificant place in our lives. Many of my friends tell me that we as citizens had lost interest in Dhaka when the British had shifted the capital of Bengal from Dhaka to Calcutta and built for themselves a city that largely resembled their own capital of London. But after Dhaka became the capital of East Pakistan, when India was partitioned and we had the opportunity, hardly anything was done to rehabilitate the old glory of this dear city of ours.
We have failed to restore and preserve the outstanding old buildings like the 'Katras', 'Ruplal House', the Armenian church, the 'Rebati bhaban', Colonial tenement houses, the Victoria Park tank et al. I remember having seen as a boy the remnants of the bridge and the watch tower at 'Pagla' on the Dhaka-Narayanganj road, the bridge at Ta(n)ti Bazaar, the old Tongi bridge, extraordinary old buildings in Farashganj or Armanitola and many historical parks and play grounds. These have been thoroughly disfigured if not obliterated. We have not even made an effort at looking after any of our sites of old glory. By contrast almost all old buildings of significance in Kolkata have been restored and are well looked after. Buildings and landmarks aside, a city also lives through the fables, stories, life-style, foods and eateries. These are spiritual and gastronomic fare that a city offers. In the years of my growing up in this wonderful city I have had the privilege of knowing and, indeed, seeing a number of these. The shopping areas of Islampur and Potuatuli are places that we visited with our mother. Those visits wouldn't be over without a treat of prawn cutlets at the River View café at Sadarghat or Savar Boarding at Wiseghat. I also fondly remember the Baqarkhani, Tehri, Nehari, and Omriti, foods that are quintessentially Dhakaia.
We used to go for an occasional stroll on the Buckland Bund adjacent to Wiseghat, by the Buriganga River. There used to be a children's Park by the East Bengal High School at Sadarghat. Much later, when we had entered our youth, a family treat wouldn't be complete without seeing a movie in Roopmahal Cinema at Sadarghat. Roopmahal could take pride in showing hit Bengali films of yester years from Calcutta. We used to go to Bangla Bazaar looking for books. That was the area best known for book shops. The famous collegiate school that gave birth to many intellectual luminaries of Bengal was also close by. This entire area is history abound. But there neither is any effort at preserving the landmarks here nor is there an effort at organised documentation of the anecdotes of the area. There are scintillating stories about the Lion cinema of Islampur. I have heard these from Sayeed Ahmad, one of our eminent playwrights. The owner of Lion cinema, Kader Sardar, was given to theatrical performances and the Lion cinema used to be known as the Lion theatre. Kader Sardar used to bring Parsee theatre companies comprising good actors from Bombay. This used to be a high point in old Dhaka's entertainment world. Every young Bangali man used to fall head over heels in love with the beautiful actresses of the Parsee theatre.
Much later, Dhaka had its own version of cafes that resembled such meeting grounds of the intellectuals elsewhere in the world. Beauty boarding at the Hemendra Das road used to be one such joint. Most poets and intellectuals of the city used to congregate here and raise storms on tea cups. There are also fables centring around the ghosts of Dhaka. The archetypal Dhakaites who could narrate these most engrossing stories are still around. The greeneries of Dhaka have been famous since the Raj days when, it is said, that the Curator of the famous Kew garden of London was brought here and the landscaping of Ramna was done. The extraordinary Baldha garden owned and laid out by the Zamindars of Kashimpur is perhaps one of those precious hubs of the rarest plants that any city can pride over.
One could keep talking on Dhaka's interesting past encompassing all facets of life of the city. The best would, however, be to compile it in the form of a book through which an intimate relationship with the city's spirit could be forged.
(R) thedailystar.net 2009