Making Peace with Sylhet
Original location of Blue Bird School. Our Assembly Hall was just inside the collabsible gate.
Deep in my heart, I have wanted to make peace with my hometown Sylhet for many years. I spent my childhood there, but we moved to Dhaka in 1970 for better schooling. Since then, I have felt estranged from Sylhet for several reasons.
First was the loss of my grandfather's house where I grew up. Shawkat House was a sprawling estate of four bungalows, a barn, assorted animals, and numerous trees, with a rope-and-plank swing hanging from one of them. My family sold the house in the early 1970s. With it went many fond childhood memories.
Second, I spent three decades abroad. Whenever I returned home on holiday, Sylhet was a quick one-night stop in a hectic trip spent mostly in Dhaka.
Third, in the 80s and 90s, Sylhet became overpopulated with narrow streets and traffic jams. Fortunately, the infrastructure has improved substantially in the last few years.
Fourth, I had no friend left in Sylhet. They had either moved to Dhaka or lived abroad.
Fortunately for me, my Father has maintained his house in Sylhet (different from Shawkat House) and spends much of his time there. This link provided me a foothold to revisit places from my childhood, thus rekindling my relationship with Sylhet.
During a recent trip I retraced my childhood footsteps in a bid to make peace with Sylhet.
Across the street from our house was a large Dighi, or pond, where I learned to swim. Torijullah Bhai, our big and powerful security guard was my swim teacher. Today the pond is still there, though a little dirty.
At the ripe age of eight I learned to dive for pearls at this pond. I teamed up with a household employee who knew the trick to opening and precisely flipping an oyster to find the pearl. We collected oysters by the bucketful and got dozens of pearls.
I gave the largest pearl to my Mother, who had a ring made around it. Years later, she gave it to my wife.
My first school was Blue Bird School. After the freedom of Shawkat House, it was a prison for me. For every day of the first month, Torijullah Bhai waited for me outside class every day during school. I am told that on the day he left me there by myself, my howls could be heard clear across the Surma.
Blue Bird School has done very well over the years. It is now in a much nicer location, and has expanded into a School and College. During my time it only went up to Class Five (which is why we left Sylhet in the first place.)
The outer courtyard of Shawkat House was surrounded by a see-through wrought iron fence, but the inner yard had a high wall around it. You entered it through a small gate. When I was six, this gate gave me a nasty surprise.
The gate at Shawkat House.
It was during the time I found total freedom because my parents were in Dhaka for medical reasons and my Dadu (grandmother) took charge of me.
I decided going to school was a bad idea. Every morning at about 7am I concocted a different ailment: stomachache today, headache tomorrow, pain-in-my-neck the next day. Dadu tried to reason with me but failed.
One night she warned me, if I missed school the next day, there would be consequences. And by the way, she said, the police were now authorised to imprison children who missed school. Yeah, right, I thought.
Next morning I had the usual symptoms. But then a servant came to my room and announced I had a visitor at the gate. Something in his voice caught my attention. I ran up to the gate to see a fat, mean-looking policeman standing there.
"I heard there is a child in this house who is not going to school." he said in his deep, nasty voice. That was it. Rushing to my room, I dressed and went to school in record time.
The night before, Dadu had made a surreptitious phone call to the local Police Station, pleading with them to send an officer “for a minute, just to show his uniform to my grandson, so he resumes school.”
Dadu also known as Zobeida Rahim Choudhury - was a feisty woman. Later in her life she was recognised as the first female politician among Bangladeshi Muslims.
Ahia Villa, where my Nanu (maternal grandmother) lived, was a short walk from our house. Many children of my age lived there, scattered among a dozen bungalows. Naturally I was always eager to visit. The house was named after Mr. Ahia, an illustrious Sylheti (and my Nana's great-uncle). Among other things he was the first person in Sylhet to own a motorcar.
The outer courtyard was a large concrete building called Dalan. It was the first such building in Sylhet, built in 1911 with bricks, stones, and sand before cement was available.
You went around Dalan to enter the inner courtyard where my Nana's extended family lived in the bungalows. Any outside male had to yell "Mardana! Mardana!" before entering this space to respect the Purdah observed by the women. Nowadays no one says this.
Two or three years ago, a preposterous government plan was drawn up to build another bridge on the Surma that would destroy Ahia Villa (due to road widening required for this bridge.) It boggled the imagination that such a historical house could be cast aside so casually. Luckily a storm of protests followed, and the plan, while still alive, has been slowed. It needs to be terminated.
Incidentally, if you write a letter to someone in Ahia Villa, it is enough to address it as "Ahia Villa, Shekhghat, Sylhet" and the post office will deliver it. It is the only house in Sylhet for which you don't need a numbered address!
When I was not in the pond or on the swing (or, heaven forbid, at school!) I wandered in the neighbourhood.
Closer view of the Dalan in Ahia Villa built in 1911.
Next door to Shawkat House was a "moholla" called Shekhpara, where date palms graced the banks of a pond. A palm tree is still standing, but the pond, alas, is filled in.
Shekhpara had a field where I played my first and last game of soccer. It was a rainy day. I lost count of the number of times I fell in the slippery Sylheti mud, and decided it was not a game for me. (Later I started playing basketball but that is another story.) The field where I played this game is now occupied by an apartment building. No big loss, if you ask me.
A few doors down across the street was Shadhu Babu's house. It had a giant Bokul tree at the entrance. On summer mornings, tiny Bokul flowers carpeted the ground. When Dadu and I went for a morning walk, I stopped to collect a few.
The Bokul tree is gone today, leaving a morose green patch in its wake.
On the other direction from Shawkat House was Monipuri Rajbari. The Monipuris of Sylhet are doing well. Monipuri saris - once rare - are now available in many stores in Rikabi Bazar. At the Rajbari temple, they still offer prayers.
Sylhet is one of the few places in Bangladesh where right after the Maghreb Azan you can hear the ululations and bell-ringing of Puja. The town maintains considerable diversity.
The biggest draw of Sylhet is Dargah, Hajrat Shahjalal's tomb. Compared to the relatively simple Dargah of my childhood, today it is a large, shiny place (though the actual tomb, of course, remains unchanged.)
The Jalali pigeons descended from a flock brought by Hajrat Shahjalal are increasingly rare. They thrived in yesteryear's A-frame bungalows, but today's concrete high-risers have nearly finished them. It is awfully hard for a pigeon to build a nest when a building has no nooks and crannies.
Still, at Dargah I found a Jalali pigeon among special coops made for them.
In the outskirts of Sylhet are numerous new developments. Parjatan Motel on a hilltop offers grand views of tea gardens and other hills. Down the hill is an amusement park with a ferris wheel.
Tamabil, Jafflong and Jaintiya - all childhood picnic spots - have remained surprisingly pretty after all these years. The big flat rocks where the kings of Jaintiyapur offered human sacrifices are still there, looking just as ominous.
When I was seven, a Jafflong picnic became agonising after I had spent the day frolicking in a field of pretty bushes. Unbeknownst to me, the bushes were BichhuTi (poison Oak), and the rashes took weeks to subside. I was glad to see no Bichhuti in Jafflong, and my respect for the environment notwithstanding - hope they are made extinct in Bangladesh.
The road to Tamabil still offers exquisite river and mountain views. These views, as well as what remains of my old stomping grounds, will draw me back to Sylhet again. Now if only my old friends would come back!
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