Bangladesh and me !!
Inspiration to write on a such a subject came in the form of a request from one of the Sulekha members. I wrote a comment on one of her blog "Mutton Curry" added that
people from Sylhet are famous for their fine and delicate cooking. I mentioned Shillong,
Capital of Assam then was had very intimate connection with Sylhet. This Lady was born
in Shillong and lineage would go to Sylhet and Coomilla. Soft corner is understandable. I too have the same soft spot. My father's side hailed from Mymensingh and Mother's side
from Sylhet ,to be precise LAKHAI. A small pocket of Sylhet district - had produced many highly illustrious sons and daughters and some played important roles in them Assam.
I was a small boy in 1947 when Bengal and the Country was divided. After the dust of riot and partition settled down ( wounds though had not healed) ,my father decided to take us one last time to the places we hailed from before hassles of Passport and Visa was added. My father was posted in Shahjahanpur (U.P.) in those days. My father took is annual vacation of one month which expense paid leave and called "Home Leave", British Officers went back to England and hence it was called "Home Leave". Many Indians who reached the level of what was known was "covenanted officer" of some British Companies were also entitled take the home leave and go with family to England. British Co. Mangement liked it because they thought it made those Indians more loyal to British . My father was slightly different,he never took this privilege and had gone to England himself or with family. Another think he never accepted was "drinking" as must for Social life. He went to Club - played Cricket and Tennis. If he went to the club in the evening - he was in the Card Room playing Bridge with his friends sipping "Mitha Pani" - those who have been to a Planters' Club even in 1960s would know what it meant.
My father announced we would embark upon our "real" home leave. He promised that we would visit Mymensingh town, if situation was good may be to the Village - Singhroiil
where the family came from and my Grand Father put his life time saving in buying land to add to what he inherited as small "Zamindari" and then Sylhet town where Grand mother from mother's side still shuttled between Sylhet and Shillong ,where her husband practiced law as a Govt. Pleader. It was few hours Bus ride ( one could hire Taxi too for comfort and odd time departures) away via Dawki .
The objective of this trip was for my parents to visit the places they belonged and was born and for us the children ( four of us - 2 girls and 2 boys) to get a flavour of our roots. We reached Mymensigh Town after a long and tedious train journey. Some trains had First Class and others had II class as the highest class. We crossed rivers by steamers.I don't remember the route we followed. My father was very keen that we eat the food he ate when he travelled as a student after his B.Sc. in " Dacca University " to Benaras Hindu University for few years. When you crossed the huge rivers by Steamer options were - one could buy food from Cafetaria in the Steamer for upper class Passengers, then locals would come in small boats with food and one could order by shouting . The rice and what ever was ordered would be put in a White Enamel Plate with high brim and tied to the string hanging from the railings in Deck. All I can say, the food -hot rice & Mutton Curry or Fish curry (Eilish or Hilsa) was out of this World. One could
order "Dried Fish " ( Shutki) curry.
Another one place was Eating joints on the Steamer Ghats on both ends, which also served
meals with slightly elaborate spread - starting from Dal and possible to have a meal of Rice and Dal and a green Chilli,which did not cost much. My father made us eat in one those thached roof joints - it was good but did not compare with the stuff one could get from the Boatman - it had the touch of individual care but the other was mass produced.
We spent few days in Mymensingh and stayed with my uncle (my fathers cousin) who practiced law in Mymensingh District Court. He did not think it would be appropriate for all of us travel to our Village. So, the plan was dropped. We then went from there to Sylhet town stayed couple of days, my Grand mother ( my mother's Mom) was there to receive us.
We were told ther her brothers who had a Zamindari in a place called "Pancha Khanda" insisted that my mother who was the eldest Child must visit her Mama's place ( Mamar Bari), my father agreed.
We were informed that it is going to be night long Boat ride. As per the programme one my mother's Mama arrived in the evening and met us . We had early dinner and we left the river ghat by a Horse Carriage. I saw two large boats. We boarded one of them and found that it was a very spacious boat and covered portion was about 8/10'X 6/7' .We all lied down, my father was sitting outside at the read end so that he could smoke
My mother's Mama (our Grandpa) also was in our boat and he carried a gun. The other boat was loaded with men, all carried lathis and some kind of swords and two more guns. We were scared. My father explained that it was not unusual for boats carrying families are attcked by dacoits.There were several 4-cell flash lights. The other large Boat had 2 or 3 very narrow small boats in tow.
We were informed that we would travel on the river and then across what was know as "Beel" a huge expanse of water body and then may through a small river or canal
to "Pancha Khanda".
We reached in the morning and were received by the Elder Mama and a very large group
people who looked like valets deputed to look after us. Next 3-4 days just flew . We lived in small towns but but our life style was too urban for even the Zamindari style . This family owned Karimgunj Electric Supply Co. ( now in India ) but their home was oil lamps, Lanterns and Petromax and very powerful flash Lights. We saw lot of things ,which my father wanted us see. The local Fishermen came and caught lot of fish with net but they were put various kinds cages made with canes and they were dipped into water and tied to post. So that they were dragged and fishes taken out through trap door and taken to the kitchen
Our return trip was a day journey and when we passed through the "Beels" ,it was an unbelievable sight. Unless some one is familiar with water bodies in Bangladesh,it might be difficult for any one to imagine. We started early in the morning and reached Sylhet in the evening. Lunch was mostly cooked in the boat and a few things were pre crooked..
Next day we left for Shillong via Dawki - First class was cars. But we were seven in the group, six of us and our Gramdma ( my mother's mother - Didima) . We we too many for one car. So we travelled II Class which front two rows of the bus which was separated by a partition. Seats and backrests had cushion and separate entrance. No crowding.
This was the first time we did travel on that route. It was beautiful. Dawki was busy market place. Lot of ladies were selling fruits and vegetables.
Shillong was Capital of Assam. Shillong has always been underated as a Hill Station,reasons I do not know. If I am correct Shillong could be proud of having one of the highest Golf Courses in the World.
If my recollection is correct, Sylhet was a part of Assam in undivided India. Sylhet I am sure in those days certainly had high literacy as a result , all lawyers,Engineers and Doctors in Shillong were from Sylhet. Besides, Secretariat ,Govt.Offices,School and Colleges were full of Sylhet.
I have had the fortune of visiting Bangladesh between 1975 and 1995 atleast 4-6 times per year in connection with my work and travel by road. I saw Dhaka a few days before the Military Coup and assassination of Banga bandhu Mujibur Rahman. My self and my American colleague were walking on the street and were shocked to see the families begging on the street - it is not very often one can see such human existence.
We walked back to our hotel Dacca Intercontinental. We walked into the Bar. It was packed. Mostly youngsters - dozens of empty Beer cans lying on the tables and counters.It was filled with smoke - 555, Dunhill etc were the brands visible. One can of beer did cost
in Inter Cont.Bar 150 taka. As my friend came out of the bar and decided to go back to the room commented that there may be a coup or some thing when there is so much of economic disparity. I do not what made him say so , but it did happen.
My next visit to Bangladesh was after normalcy returned and I ventured to fly out to Chittagong. I am sure those who are interested in History of freedom Struggle against British Rule surely is familiar with the name. Chittagong - I was thrilled that visited the place which had the distinction of being only place which was "liberated" may be for few hours. I always felt, we have failed to give due recognition to "Masterda" alias Surya Sen and his brave soldiers who made it possible. There are hearsays that when there guns jammed due to constant firing for hours,they used blood to lubricate barrel. I always thought that incident went grossly unrecognized in the history of freedom struggle. I dod not know how many Indians know about the capture of Chittagong Armoury by a few brave hearts,who laid down their lives what at best was of symbolic value in the struggle aginst mighty British Empire.
As I came out of the Fokker Aircraft of Biman,I was greeted by the Director of the Company I was scheduled to meet. I would avoid too many details - since this is not a travelogue and I have a request to write about Sylhet- Shillong connection.
I have chosen to cover Bangladesh because I wanted some Sulekha members who have connection with Bangladesh to know - the way I see Bangladesh and what feelings are. I have no hesitation in saying that I felt I would have been incomplete as a "Bangali" ( Bengali) , if I had not made that many trips to imbibe the spirit and psyche of a "Bangali".
I was to visit the Tea areas of Sylhet. We drove in a Landcruiser (Toyota) ,not so kind terrain to reach Sylhet. I told my friend about my soft corner for Sylhet. He had arranged for us to stay in the Director's Bungalow of Tea Co. owned by the well known Kabir family. We were going round in Tea Estates and come back to this Tea Estate and spend our evenings. The staff was super and headed a super cook. A Sylheti by origin was settled in a small place called Kakojan -near Jorhat in Assam.When I said I go to Jorhat 8-10 times an yearand pass through Kakojan,he became very nostalgic and told his story.How his forefathers moved to Assam while working for a Tea Co. and how he moved back after the partition as an youngster.He spoke Sylheti bus was delighted to spaek a few sentences in Assamese ( Ahamiya). He poured his heart in his cooking for 3-4 days we stayed.
Tea Industry - major area was with British Companies like James Finlays,Shaw Wallace and Duncans. Ispahanis also had several Tea Estates. Besides there were several other small Tea British Tea companies. Sylhet Tea was better than the Cachar Tea and some the Estates I visted were very well maintained.
Very large percentage of Managerial staff of Tea Estates were from Sylhet. My connection with Sylhet got me instant acceptance. Hospitality in Bangladesh is some thing one must experience.It is like being in live concert to really feel and appreciate Ghazal, one must be recipient of the hospitality to know how it is .It not not show off ,it is from the heart. My mother's side hailed from a small place called "Lakhai"- which was
famous and Datta Family was welknown for it produced many worthy sons for Sylhet.
I felt for the first time in my life a that person who was a total stranger and may be just polite to a visitor ,instantly acceped me as one of them the moment I mentioned my linkage with Bangladesh,especially Sylhet.I did not feel in minutes that I was visting the place for the first - whether it was an Agency House General Manager or the owner of a small Restaurant at Srimangal ,a small Tea town.
I made many many trips to Bangladesh- Dhaka, Chillagong, Coomilla,and Tea areas of Sylhet including Sylhet town. All that I would like my Sulekha friends to know that all Bengali speaking population in this World must visit Bangladesh on two occasions -
- Poila Baishakh - Bengali New Year Day
- Bhasha Dibash
I have been in Dhaka on both these occasions on several times. My first time in Dhaka in Poila Baisakh made me realize what is Bengali New Year. Yes - as kid I some seen some activity in Kolkata ( then Calcutta) ,which has diminished further.
But in Dhaka it is spontaneous - "Prabhat Pheris" since morning. Huge gatherin Ramna. One must personally see. See how spontanously various groups do their programs.
People moving from one spot to another.It is an experience to eat Pantha and Eelish Bhaja.
Bhasha Dibash is another occasion must be present to feel it - not musch to see when starting from President ,Prime Minister visit Martyr Tomb for laying wreaths. I was really moved a when I saw a man in Lingi and a vest stood in line holding just one flower ,that is what he could afford from meage income.
I always felt the political leadership in Bangladesh failed to utilize the bond which bound all Bangladeshis togethers to the Nation /Country ahead instead chasing petty political
I would fail in my duty if I do not may mention a few things and they are -
- I was in Chittagong once and my host/friend was little disturbed that he had to leave
alone for a few hours because he had to attend a reception ( Wedding). He wanted to
if I would come along ,he was confident that his friend will be deghted to have a guest
from West Bengal. I said I have problem but I must take a gift - he said I need not
because the families will not accept a gift from me. My friends wife had some
reservation because it was all Sylheti affair. When they heard my Sylhet connection
they were not willing to discuss it any more.I just got into the car and before I
realized what was happening,I was surrounded a group who were entrusted to look
after me. I was made to share a table where other 3 were local dignitaries and I
ate the Murgi Biriyani from the large Thali kept in each Table which had 4 chairs.
I am not too sure how many of us would do the same to a strangerwho just arrives
- The hospitalilty of my friends in Dhaka and Chittagong. May be I will write a blog
on hospitality I have experience in Bangladesh
- If are out in in strange country - be it airports in Saudi, or malls in Dubai or streets
USA or Canada or UK ,if any one comes forward to talk to you after over hearing your
conversation in "Bangla" ( Bengali ) - I promise he or she will be a Bangladeshi. It will
not be much maligned BONG from Kolkata or West Bengal. I am the Bengali
bashers would either go crazy after experiencing the hospitality or become a
Bengali fan and may even support Saurav Ganguly.
My last visit to Dhaka and Sylhet was in 2003,when I was consulting for a US Co. If I can afford a trip, I would like to visit Dhaka and Chittagong any time.If any one wants to
visit Chittagong - please don't forget Cox Bazar - one of the finest beaches I have seen.
I think ,Cox Bazar beach is one of the longest beaches. Correct me if I am wrong.
For those who visit Dhaka but do have friends to take care must vist - "KASTURI" - glimpse of Bangladeshi Cuisine. I will end it,I do not know If I would live up to the expectation of my friend who requested to write about about Sylhet.
Any one who wants to reconnect, contact any member of Srihatta Sanmilani - very organized network of Sylhetis all over the World- be it Delhi,Mumbai or London or NY. I am proud of my heritage and Sylheti connection.