One cannot but be nostalgic when a group of septuagenarian schoolmates plan to visit their places of birth in Bangladesh they had to leave due to the political settlement of 1947. On November 5, four friends boarded the Sealdah Balurghat Gour Express to explore and relive those moments of childhood and youth that they were forced to leave behind during Partition.
All of us were in a very high mood being together in the same compartment, enjoying the inseparableness with steaming hot tea. The lady-hawker came to us and said: “I have snacks too.” We took two packs of tit-bits from her when she started singing Tagore-songs one after another and we also joined her. She looked beautiful, radiant and so proud of her individuality. After she sang her last song, one of my friends said: “You not only sing well, you are also very pretty.” I quoted from T Gray’s Elegy — “…full many a flower is born to blush unseen…” What a waste of talent! She told us that she has two daughters who are college-going. She looked very happy in interacting with us and wished us ‘happy journey’.
Next morning, we reached Balurghat. We were to enter Dinajepore (Bangladesh) through Hili. Unfortunately, we got detained at Balurghat for two days because of an ongoing strike in Bangladesh. After a couple of days, we headed for Hili. At the check post we saw a long line of empty lorries from Bangladesh returning to India after depositing their wares. It took one and a half hours to complete immigration formalities on the Indian side and 12 minutes on the other side of the border. We stepped into Bangladesh, our birthplace.
Our host was Tapan Chakravarty, a Chemistry lecturer in a Dinajepore college, and our friend. We boarded his eight-seater Toyota and after the primary examination of our visas and documents, the Bangladesh Border Police welcomed us.
Bangladeshis are famously friendly people. And our journey was destined to be as breathtaking as the lush landscape with more shades of green that one can ever imagine. The smooth broad roads flanked by trees on both sides forming an arch overhead and the tranquil all the way was a delight in journeying. After about one and a half hours, we reached Dinajepore Ramkrishna Mission where we were scheduled to spend three full days. The mendicants’ cordiality touched us and we felt as if we were the centre of attraction.
In the afternoon, I accompanied my friends to explore their respective places of birth. We reached Kalitala and were trying to find out from local people about our places of interest. All of a sudden one of my friends could recognise one Firdose Chisti, his classmate. Both got interlocked shouting each other’s names while crystal drops trickled down their cheeks. The sight made our eyes wet too.
Chisti took us to my friend’s paternal home, a dilapidated one covered with shrubs and trees inside completely uninhabitable, still bearing the name ‘Maya Niketan’.
The surrounding areas are now inhabited by Muslim settlers. Another friend of mine could find his paternal home with broken doors and windows showing bricks without plaster. My friend entered the front room where he was born and lay prostrate for quite some time on the floor that has accumulated dust over all these decades. He looked so satisfied with all the dust of the floor transferred to the frontal part of his body. Then Chisti took us to have a look of the surrounding area which we found dominated by Hindus who live happily with their Muslim brethren there, performing various festivals and rituals together. We then went to a sweet shop owned by a Hindu. He invited us to have breakfast at his shop next morning when he learnt that we had come from India.
With a lavish spread awaiting us, the next morning we went to his shop. He served us parathas with dal and curry. Then came the rasgullas. I had never tasted so soft and smooth, creamy rasgullas ever. He took us to his nearby house and treated us with tea and pithas stuffed with kheer inside, a delicacy the Bengalis enjoy in the winter. We then went to visit Maharaja Girijanath High School founded in 1913 where my friends received their first lessons in academics. We then visited the famous Kantaji Temple, an 18th century terracotta construction, worshipped till today and attended by hundreds of devotees. We had Bhog-Prasadam there and then went to see the Kanchan river, the bank of which was the playground of my friends.
There is a ‘new friend’ syndrome everywhere. Famous for their hospitality, Bangladeshis have a marked ingenuity in winning hearts. There is hardly anyone who will meet you will an ulterior motive. Very near to the Mission, a Muslim tea-seller made wonderful chai and we gathered there every evening discussing our day’s events and indulging in the quintessential Bengali phenomena – the adda. There were times when we could not pay her because we didn’t have change. At every instance, she used to smile and never refused to offer tea. The day we left, she said she wished to invite us for her daughter’s wedding.
Dinajepore has modernised a lot. There are medical colleges and hospitals, heart clinics with modern equipment, schools, universities, madrasas, shopping malls, good roads with rickshaws and totos (Bangladeshi version of auto-rickshaws).
There are a lot of hindrances for a foreigner in Bangladesh. The ubiquitous language barrier (not as many people speak English here as you might think) means one will often be left frustrated while trying to travel in a hurry. The best thing to do is take it easy, relax and take a boat ride along a river which can be one of the most rewarding things you can do during your visit. If you are on the small wooden boat all by yourself, floating down a country river, it is very easy to feel jubilant in one of the world’s most densely populated countries.
On the fourth day, we availed the morning train to reach Dhaka. While my friends busied themselves in buying the world famous dhakai sarees, I started for Faridpore, my paternal home. I hired a car and went to Faridpore crossing the Padma in a barge at the Aricha Ghat. It took around 45 minutes to cross the river. I then passed the Goalondo town, the Faridpur town, Bhanga, Shibchar but could not find Dheukhali village, where existed my paternal home.
However, the landscape is breathtaking, dotted with gorgeous green fields, rich in alluvial soil and laden with waterways.
The sun was going down and it was time for me to return. While going back, I availed a barge that reached Mawa Ghat after two hours of journeying upstream the Padma. While on the barge I saw a number of dredgers desilting the river bed. I saw speedboat-ambulances carrying patients to Dhaka; launches, motorboats ferrying passengers. Next day, I went to Narayanganj, on the banks of Sheetalakhya.
The river is not that broad but has jetties and is a very important business centre. I visited Nagmahasay’s ashram and then to the house where we lived at old Palpara. To my utter surprise I found the house still there. For a moment my childhood days flashed before my eyes. I then visited Barodi to offer prayers at the Loknath Brahmachari temple. There, a kilometer off, I visited Jyoti Bose’s paternal home. Bangladesh government has built a library in his name. I returned to Dhaka with a lot of prized memories and promised to come back again.
Being the capital city of Bangladesh, Dhaka is very congested and it is really difficult to walk through the streets, laden with rickshaw-pullers. Next day, we went to the Dhakeswari Devi temple, went to see Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s residence. He was a preeminent Bengali nationalist leader of Bangladesh and later became Prime Minister in independent Bangladesh. We also visited the Ramna Maidan, the Buriganga, the Ahsan Manzil or more commonly known as the Nabab’s Palace. Next day, we took the Maitreyi Express and reached Kolkata.
I returned rich and remembered Alexander Smith’s great words: “A man’s real possession is his memory. In nothing else is he rich, in nothing else is he poor.”
Bangladesh is fascinating. When the whole world is anxious about environmental pollution, the sylvan hamlets of pristine beauty and serenity render a picture post card view from any direction you look at her landscape; inhabited by simple, honest, humble people who believe in conventional cultural traits of Bengali style of living but do not lag behind to take the advantages of modern amenities of life.
I met many of them who lamented: “Why did you leave your homes, please come back and live with us as before”. The country is predominantly rural; economic activities principally agricultural; where endless paddy fields on either side of the railway tracks stretch as far as the horizon as we saw from the carriage. As is the principal characteristic with any agrarian society, Bangladesh has an aversion towards changing their traditional ways of living. They are very happy with their own style
of living, their culture and laid back attitude, brimming with humanity. Feel their pulse. and you can feel happiness.