Returning to Bangladesh is like going away to find myself home
DHAKA IS a bit like Calcutta – noisy, chaotic. I connect the Bangladesh capital with traffic jams and those cage-like green auto-rickshaws that give new meaning to claustrophobia. But this time, as I leave the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport behind, on my way to Banani in the north of Dhaka, I cut through an eerie silence.
The city is a ghost town. The autos are missing, and there are no crippling gridlocks. A festival is around the corner, but there is little sign of the joyousness that comes with Eid.
Dhaka is observing a two-day national mourning to pay homage to those killed in a terror attack in an upmarket cafeteria. I land there three days after the attack that killed 20 people, most of them foreigners, in Dhaka’s diplomatic zone, Gulshan.
Chaos on the roads is a sign of normal life in Dhaka; calm indicates that not all is well. When I visited Dhaka for the first time in 2011, all was well: the city was loud and messy. I was on my way there from Jessore – and was surprised to see towering buildings, flyovers and glitzy malls in the capital. Jessore, on the other hand, was the archetypal sleepy town.
Jessore is an hour’s drive from Benapole, the Bangladesh border town which is commonly used as a crossover between Dhaka and Calcutta. I was there to chase a story on child carriers who illegally ferried sugar, urea, bicycles, cough syrups and even country-made pistols to Bangladesh from India.
Unlike Dhaka, there was no “rush hour” in Jessore. There were no newly-paved footpaths or highrises either. There was a time when Jessore had the biggest cinema hall of Bangladesh. But Monihar had been overtaken by multiplexes elsewhere. Jessore, however, now boasts of a technology park, multi-cuisine restaurants and malls.
It is also a treasure trove of heritage. The Jessore Institute Public Library, established in 1851, is Bangladesh’s oldest and largest library, with a huge collection of books, manuscripts, journals and newspapers. And you can’t go to Jessore and not see the massive sculpture called Bijoy, at the Michael Madhusudan Memorial College campus, dedicated to the martyrs of the Bangladesh War of Liberation of 1971.
Going to Jessore was like going home – albeit a home I had never visited. Jessore is the place my ancestors came from. For years, I held up the flag of “Opaar Bangla” and participated in various Bangal vs Ghoti debates, where I left no stone unturned to make the former look superior in every respect (knowledge, food, hospitality and much more) to the latter. So when I reached Jessore, it was like a dream come true – I was in the place that I belonged to. Like a true Bangal, I told myself, ” Aah, amago dash.”
My paternal grandfather, Adhir Kumar Sarkar, a timber merchant, lived in a sprawling two-storey house with long white columns, overlooking a thakur dalan (where the deity was kept for daily worship), in the erstwhile Khashial village in Jessore. Several acres of rice fields surrounded the house, we were told. Middle-aged Nakuruddin Mia used to look after the fields when grandfather shifted his base partially to Calcutta in the late 30s. Even though he visited Khashial at regular intervals, the visits during the Durga Puja were special for the family: gatherings, lunch, new clothes, entertainment, celebrations.
My efforts to locate Khashial were in vain. The village doesn’t exist anymore, I was told. But I traced my roots partially to the ancestral house of the Bengali poet and father of the Bengali sonnet, Michael Madhusudan Dutt. At his house-turned-museum in Sagordari, I came across a signboard of the Jessore and Khulna Co-operative Bank, which had an office in the complex. My grandfather was a member of the board. I felt like an achiever to have partially traced the past.
The spiral staircases of the house took me to the room on the first floor, whose walls were plastered with photographs of Dutt, his poems and even some of his answer scripts. At the entrance of his house was his epitaph, a verse of his own. A few days before his death on June 29, 1873, Dutt gave the verse to Debaki, who, some historians say, was romantically interested in him. It read:
“…On the bosom of the earth,
Enjoys the sweet eternal sleep
Poet Madhusudan of the Duttas.”
These words rang in my ears for days.
As I touch the soil of Bangladesh once again this June, I wonder how life would have been if my grandfather had chosen to stay back, like many other Bengali Hindu families. But the thought doesn’t stay with me for long as I quickly recall the words of a Hindu friend from Dhaka: ” Din kaal bhalo na, bujhla. Amra khub bhoye thaktesi” – these are not good times, we live in fear.
Indeed, attacks on Hindus – bloggers, priests and activists – by Islamic radicals are rampant in Bangladesh these days. The social fabric of Bangladesh is changing. Young men from elite families are joining terror outfits. The other sign of radicalisation is the use of veils by women. Hijab or burqa is not mandatory in Bangladesh, yet more and more women are wearing one these days. An old timer of Dhaka tells me, “Even some years ago, if a woman from the relatively conservative part of old Dhaka stepped out of her house in a burqa, the local urchins would tease her with the words ‘Burqe wali bua, tere burqe mein chuha’ (There is a mouse in your burqa, aunt).”
But I decide that for my grandfather’s sake, I will always celebrate Bangladesh. I leave for India after a special Eid meal at my friend’s place. The taste of the shorshe ilish – mustard hilsa – and maachch chorchori – a mix of various kinds of fish – stays with me long after I return home.