A Trip To Dhaka

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A month or so after we moved to Himaitpur, my Dadu (Nanaji – maternal grandfather) got transferred to Dhaka from Barisal.   Since the living conditions in Himaitpur were troublesome and none of us kids were in any school or college, it was easy for Ma to volunteer to go down and help Dida (Naani – maternal Grand Ma) set up the new house there.    There were many ways to get to Dhaka from Pabna; none of them were comfortable or easy.   The shortest route would have been – by bus to Ishwardi – by train to Poradah – by bus to Goalondo Ghat – by steamer to Dhaka.   It was too daunting for Ma with four kids in tow.    Another alternative could have been – by bus to Ishwardi – by train to Sirajgunj Ghat – by a Very LONG steamer journey to Dhaka.   Monsoon was still active.  That Very LONG river journey with little kids was not advisable.   We decided upon a longer but relatively more comfortable route; by bus to Ishwardi – by train to Sirajgunj Ghat – Steamer Ferry to Jagganth Gunj Ghat – by train via Jamalpur and Mymensing to Dhaka.      It was a long and boring overnight journey by train.   However, there was no one else in the Second Class compartment that we got into.   We seldom traveled in second class.   However, for this once, exception had been made.

The relocation from Jessore to Pabna had upset my study routine.   With Baba away to Jessore, and no news papers in the mornings, and no trips out by the car, and no time in the library (there being no library at home any more), and with Ma busy in the kitchen or sweeping swabbing or washing all the time, my time became totally unstructured.    Ma tried bravely to keep the process of learning going by all means available to her.    It must have been a great challenge, but she never gave up.   One incident stands out in my memory.    It occurred during our journey to Dhaka from Pabna.   The trip from Himaitpur to Ishwardi and then on to Sirajgunj Ghat then a steamer ferry to Jagannath Gunj Ghat had tired us out.   As we got into the train we slept.   However, the train was slow.   As the morning dawned we awoke to utter boredom.   The sisters took out their story books and disappeared into their own dreamland.   I did not know how to pass my time.   Ma then set up an elaborate game with me.   She told me that next time a train crossed us with its whistle blowing; the tone of the whistle will change as it crosses us.    Indeed it happened so.    Slowly she started with her game.   She taught me how sound was transmitted.    She taught me the definitions of compression and rarefaction, of frequency and amplitude, of tone and volume.   All this she did with the pallu of her saree as the sole training aid; spreading it on the seat, pushing on it to create waves long and short, with large and small folds to show the difference between frequency and amplitude.   She then took out a sheet of paper and a pencil.    She made me draw concentric circles on the paper using a length of a string.   She then made me draw the circles big to small while the center moved along a straight line.    The whole magic of the tone-change of the whistle from a passing train became crystal clear to me.   The morning wore on with breakfast and more stories.    How simple it was to understand how the tone emitted by a moving body changed when it passed you by.   And how simply wonderful was the fact that the movement of the body had to be in relation to you.    It did not matter whether the emitting body moved or the listener moved or they both moved in relation to each other.   And wonder of wonders; did I know that this simple explanation was discovered merely a hundred years ago by an Austrian mathematician named Doppler in 1841?    Years later, when I was taught about supersonic flight and Doppler Effect, I was amazed at the breadth of general education provided to me by my parents.   What made me really curious was how did Ma learn about Doppler Effect?    She was a student of liberal arts and mathematics.   Was her education that wide too?  Or did she learn up things just to teach me?   I guess I will never know! 

 We reached Dhaka to find the city engulfed in one of its perennial communal riots. (It was that period of the year where the festivities of Durga Puja and the Eid following the month of Ramadan superimpose on each other.  For those who thrive on communal tension, it is a time for endless opportunities!)  Normally we would have taken a Ghoda-Gadi (the four seat two horse carriage that was the common public transport in Dhaka) to get home.  Because of the tension in the town, however, Dadu sent down his small car with a driver to fetch us from the railway station.    The five of us were a tight fit in the tiny car with our luggage strapped on to a small carrier at the back.   We reached Dadu’s new official quarters at 30 Ramna Road in a state of high excitement.   It was a two storied bungalow over looking a sprawling lawn with manicured gardens all along the borders.   The house was full.   Six of Dadu’s eight children were already there.   Then Ma arrived with four of us grand children in tow. A couple of days later, the remaining daughter also came down with her two children.    It was a re-union of the full family from Ma’s side.

Ramna, where Dadu lived, was the residential area for the high and the mighty.   Wide roads in good repair flanked by large bungalows of senior government official made for an elite environment.   One Mr Trivedi was the District Magistrate.   He and Dadu were very close friends, as were the two ladies of the two houses and all their children.   His house was just a five minute’s walk.    Dadu’s front lawn had a tennis court.   In the evenings it was always full of young people playing tennis. One Mr. Dey was the District Judge and his son Jayanta was a daily visitor to the house. We had some other relatives too who were settled in Dhaka.   The eldest of Baba’s three younger sisters was married into a family from Dhaka.   Their ancestral house was in Armanitola.  Dida’s brother also had a house in the same locality. 

Just outside Dadu’s front gate were the Police small-arms firing ranges. From our first floor window we could see policemen in khaki shorts marching out.   We could also see a red pennant flying over the small mounds of earth.    Faint sound of rifle firing drifted in from the range filling our young minds with wonderment.

 Dadu’s new official bungalow held many novelties for me.    First of all, right at the entrance to the main building there were two chained dogs.   An oldish snappy bitch named Rintin and a smaller nondescript dog named Buchcha.   My experience with dogs had been quite at a variance from what I received from these canine specimens.    My Kallu whom I had left behind at Jessore was never kept in chains.   He never snapped at me.   He was ever ready to romp and roll on the grass or chase me around on the lawn.   In contrast, both the specimens at Dhaka were kept chained.   Rintin snapped and Buchcha growled.     Rintin was a hairy Apso.  Despite all the brushing and grooming she received, she would nit-pick lice all day.   I was instructed to keep strictly off these dogs.   For a dog lover, it was a sad injunction.    Circumnavigating the chained dogs one could enter the foyer where resided another object of wonderment:  a black telephone.   It had a microphone on a pole with an earphone hung from a Y shaped toggle fixed to it.   I had never had any access to a telephone till then and the instrument filled me with intense curiosity.    Having watched the elders use that instrument, I mentally worked out its modus operandi.   One afternoon when I found an unsupervised opportunity, I picked up the earphone and very confidently spoke into the mouthpiece asking for Armanitola 22 which I knew was the number for Dida’s brother.   Some one answered me.   I identified myself and had a long chat.   Unfortunately I was caught in the act by one of the aunts and had to yield the instrument. 

One more novelty in that house in Ramna was a small photo studio set up in a disused toilet.    There was a small box camera at home.   Every one had access to it.   However, only Boromama and Rangamama (the eldest two of the mamas) had the authority to activate the ‘Developing Room’.   The mysterious process of measuring chemicals on to trays in a darkened room lit by a small red lamp, the eerie emergence of shapes on the face of the immersed film, the rituals of ‘fixing’ and ‘washing’ and then drying of the film on strings strung across the tiny room were indeed a fascinating sequence.   Later,   there would be another expedition into the dark room to print the pictures from the negatives hanging serenely from those strings on to photographic paper and another round of developing / fixing / washing / drying / cutting before the pictures could be shown around.    It was of course a privilege to be allowed into that dark room to witness these procedures that I could earn only by being a ‘good boy’.   The definition of being a good boy included my not tattle telling to the elders that the mamus and their friends smoked cigarettes when they were out of sight of the elders! 

One of the boys in the mamu group was called Sayed.  I was given to understand that he had accompanied his parents to Haj a few years earlier and hence this nick name.   What his actual name was, I never learnt.   Sayed was a good boy; mild and respectful of elders and serious about his studies.   He was quite determined to join the ICS after his graduation.    My Dida (Grand ma) often extolled his virtues and asked her sons to follow his example.    We were told to call him as Sayed-Mamu. 

Dadu’s gate-man was a lad names Alla-Rakha; a kind fellow who was for ever ready to give me a piggy-back ride.  In the evenings, Alla-Rakha doubled as a ball boy when the young adults played tennis on the lawn 

For a whole week after we arrived in Dacca, the town continued to be troubled by communal tension.    Ramna, being an elite enclave mainly populated by the senior bureaucrats and other such brown sahibs, was not touched by the riots.   However, the elders in the house talked constantly of the problem.   Going into the town had to be properly timed and planned.    Some routes were OK and others were not.  In general, an environment of uncertainty was always around.    In my young mind, a question slowly arose.   Why did the town Hindu and Muslim people fight each other?    Alla-rakha and Sayed Mamu were both such nice people! They never fought with us!       I took my question to Dida.   She smiled and said that it was a good question but I would not understand the reason as I was too young.   ‘You will understand when you grow-up’ she said.   Any way, the riots petered out after a few more days.

One fine morning Dadu brought home an exciting new gadget:   a multi band radio receiver made by Phillips.   The excitement at home became all the more acute as a long overhead aerial had to be strung up on the roof top for the gadget to function.   Bamboo poles were erected.    Aerial wire was procured and all three mamus and their friends spent an entire afternoon fitting connecting and trimming the aerial.    When the instrument finally spouted the words – this is all India Radio Dacca – there was boundless joy all around.    The radio station at Dacca (that is how Dhaka was spelt in those days) had just moved in to its newly constructed studio.    Ranga mama (uncle number 2) sang well and was immediately enrolled as a local artiste.  Choto Maasi (the youngest aunt) who had just finished her school final and was all of 16 years old could not be left behind.   She was pretty and vivacious.   She sang reasonably well too.   She insisted on a voice test and was also accepted as a local artiste.     Within a week the two siblings procured an appointment for their first recordings.   The event naturally became an outing for the whole family.    Every one dressed up and was taken to the studio.   One of the senior executives gave us a walking tour and we were allowed to sit and listen in while the brand new artistes cut their first records.   This was followed by a treat of samosas and sweets.   Just as we were about to leave, some one suggested that the live broadcast of the children’s hour was about to commence and we could sit in the auditorium if we liked.   We of course liked the idea very much and promptly trooped into the auditorium.    I was sitting in the auditorium like a good boy when all of a sudden there was a distraction.   One little skit had ended but the performer for the next event was not ready to come on stage.     She was a little girl and she just refused to come on stage.   Ranga mama had a word with the moderator, came down towards me, picked me up and put me down in front of the mike.   I was quite perplexed.    The moderator came forward and announced live on the air that I was the surprise guest of the evening and I was about to narrate a story about a naughty boy named Totu.   It so happened that the moderator and Rangamama were friends and Ranga mama’s nickname at home was Shotu which in baby talk could very well be converted to Totu.   It was a heaven sent opportunity of being one up on one of my favourite uncles and I was certainly not going to pass it up.   I launched into a tale of how the naughty boy Totu once stole some sweets from the home larder and then, as a naughty boy, neglected to wash and brush his teeth after eating the sweets.   He then slept on the floor along with his toys and was attacked by an army of ants searching for crumbs of sweets stuck to his face.   The story went off well and I got a surprising round of applause from the audience!    That was how I chanced upon the first live broadcast of my life. 

Eastern Bengal had always been agrarian.    All industrial activity in Bengal was clustered around Calcutta.    Attempts were made from time to time to start some industrial activity near Dacca.  One of these attempts that was reasonably successful was a textile mill named Dhakeshwari Cotton Mills situated at Narayangunj, not even ten miles down the river Buriganga from Dhaka, at the confluence of the river Sitalakhya with River BuriGanga. The owners of the mill were known to Dadu.   Someone dropped a hint and promptly a formal invitation to visit the factory was received.   Every one wanted to go.    Each one perhaps had a different reason, but the enthusiasm was genuinely great.    It had to be planned as a day long expedition.   Though Narayanganj was only ten miles away, there was no way to reach it by road.    A large motor-launch was procured.   The news of the outing spread and the number of people wanting to join in increased.    There were some who were interested in walking through a textile mill and there were others who were excited by the chance of walking through the bazaar of Narayanganj famous for its commerce in Jaamdaani Sari.   There was a whisper that the goldsmiths of Narayanganj were also highly skilled.    Add all these to the thrill of a trip by a fast motor-launch over the swollen Buriganga / Dhaleshwari / Sitalakhya and an implicit assurance of a feast on the choicest Hilsa procured directly from the fishing boats! Who would not be excited?   The appointed day came with a cloud cover and fresh winds.   The captain of the boat was ready to launch off but would not guarantee a timely return trip if the weather broke.    The party left with trepidation.   There was no question of dawdling en-route chatting up fisher-folk and buying fish.   We landed at Narayanganj and were promptly taken to the mills. A quick walk through the mills was followed by a sumptuous lunch.    Then the womenfolk visited the bazaar while, fortunately I was allowed to stay back for a more leisurely inspection of the complexities of mechanical cotton weaving.   Our return trip had to be hurried lest we get caught in a storm.    Elders were in a happy mood.   Some one started singing and others joined in.   A new record had been released by Sachin Dev Barman: ‘Padmar Dheu Re’.    It was sung over and over again.    Chhoto Maasi also sang the latest smash hit of the season, which was labeled – Ek Haatey More Pujaar Thaalaa’.  It was sung by a new singer Utpala Ghosh.   It was Utpala’s first record.  There were much wink wink nod nod whispers about the song and the singer.  It seemed that Ma’s cousin Benu Sen was madly in love with this young thing and they were even thinking in terms of matrimony flouting caste norms!   I was too young to bother about such gossips; and yes Benu Mama did marry Utpala Maami pretty soon thereafter despite all the talk. 

An idyll seldom lasts long.   Our quota of holiday ran out in just five weeks.    Ma had lots to do in Himaitpur.   We came back.    Strangely, I just cannot recollect the return journey.   Perhaps there was no anticipation attached to it.   Or, perhaps we were too full of the wonderful time we had just had.   Any way, that was the end of my memory of that trip to Dhaka.

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