Former bureaucrat, social scientist, academic and writer Dr Mizanur Rahman Shelley is no longer with us but we are fortunate to have had him as a regular columnist for The Daily Observer. Moreover, we are indebted to Mr Shelley for providing us with an entire volume of his memoirs to be published in our post-editorial page. Rest of the late Mr Shelley’s memoirs will continue to get published on every Monday.
March 26, 1959 was Wednesday. We had no way to know that this day from 1971 would be observed as the blood-soaked and glorious Independence Day of Bangladesh. That day in our far past was engraved in our memory as a day dedicated to Chakrabak, our small and modest literary circle. The session of the circle was initially held in the Ramna Green, by the scrawling lake side. As the session of poetry reading progressed under overcast sky sending reflections of sad clouds on the still waters, there was a sudden disruption. It started raining incessantly. We ran for shelter under a big tree. There was no sign of the rain relenting. We were forced to proceed to our normal meeting place, the Baishakhi restaurant at Segun Baghicha. This enjoyable session was made all the more memorable because it was the last one before our forthcoming Intermediate (HSC) examinations.
With only a few weeks left for the examinations, we were all busy preparing for the ‘dreaded’ event. There were frequent meeting with classmates of the final year Intermediate Arts with common subjects. In these meetings held in our respective places by turn or in the National or College restaurant of the New Market, we deliberated on the plans and strategies for doing well in these terminal examinations.
On my part, I overcame the depression and pessimism of the past few days. The negative feelings were replaced with a strong resolve to achieve an immediate goal: to give a good account of myself in the forthcoming Intermediate Arts examinations.
I, therefore, set a part of the days for taking regular and copious notes from authoritative textbooks in the central Public Library opposite the Ramna Race Course (now Suhrawardy Udyan). These books were on geography, economics and world history, my subjects. Friend Aga Kohinoor Alam also had these subjects. He often joined me in the library in the mornings. We took notes for two or three hours. Then in the radiant light of the days of end- March and early April we walked along the tree-shaded avenues of Ramna.
As our time stood eager before the portals of 1960s, Dhaka was a cute, quite and sparsely populated city, the fledgling ‘New Dhaka’, mainly the Ramna area including Dhaka University, engineering and medical colleges, Eskaton, Moghbazar, Dhanmondi, Banani and Gulshan. These areas were mercifully insulated against the dins and bustles of today’s noisy, dusty and unliveable city. There was, therefore, also scope to marvel at and enjoy the picturesque beauty of nature in a green and wooded urban environment.
That year saw the virtual return of mellow winter in mid-spring. Like the rest of the country, Dhaka was awash with rain-bearing clouds. The cooling rains lent a nip to the air making it flow with a slight shiver of cold. Dhaka, as it was then, took pride in the numerous trees along road sides, green grassy fields along its ample lakes, swamps, canals and water ways. Unfortunately by the second decade of the 21st century that pristine beauty has been lost in the concrete jungle of high rise monstrosity and upstarts garish shopping malls.
However, in the last year of the 1950s it was a spring with a difference in Dhaka. One saw nature’s beauty at its best. The new city was flooded by radiant sunlit hours following spells of rain. The afternoons became alive with the beauty and fragrance of rain-soaked nature, green and colourful with the splash of downpours. The krishnachura trees along the avenues of Ramna were adorned with flaming red flowers. The elms standing upright beside the road from the SM Hall to the old Arts Building near Chankharpool made it seem like a forest-walk. All these made an impression even on prosaic but highly emotional teenager, Aga Kohinoor Alam. As we walked along the fascinating streets he started humming long lost tunes? Aga did not write poems excepting naughty rhymes but at moments like these one was tempted to say about him, ‘he was no poet, but there was a poet in him’.
As March drew to a close, we got more nervous and edgy thinking of the imminent examinations and hastily increased the tempo of our preparations. Nevertheless, there were islands of quite getting away from the cares and worries of studies.
March 29, 1959 was one such day. I played truant. In the afternoon, there was a tea party at nana’s house–Mannan Manzil–on the Green road of vintage times. After high tea, there was a memorable musical evening on the generous terrace. The star artist was mejo mami Rashida Bari, wife of my uncle Abdul Bari Warsi. She was a regular singer on Dhaka Radio and had a voice as lilting as that of the West Bengali singer Utpola Sen.
After the session of songs was over chhoto khalamma, Shawkat Ara, apa, elder sister Rezina and I had fulfilling talks about the many hurdles and joys of life. The serious discussions under the mellow dark skies did not seem grim and heavy. On the contrary, it filled my heart with a new optimism.
From nana’s place, I walked to the residence of elder aunty, ma’s second sister whom Lalbuji called Shahida and we called bara amma. She lived with her husband Mr Sirajul Islam and young sons and daughters in a cozy house with tin roof at Tejturi Bazar.
The area was almost rural. I always enjoyed visiting there. My younger cousins Lenin, Robin, Polin and their sisters Mohua, Mithu were delightful playmates. The difference in our age did not matter. Usually I went to Tejturi Bazar in daytime on holidays. The afternoons were busy with war games played with tree branches acting as rifles and sticks as bayonets. That I was a student of final year in the college made no difference. On that night, however, there was no game but only story telling in lamp-lit room. There was yet no electricity in the Tejturi Bazar, Raja Bazar area.
On the way back from Green Road, I went to the Dhaka College hostel for a brief session of chats about studies with Salam, Mohiuddin Hafiz and the other (fair) Salam. At one point, Mr Shafatullah, our geography teacher, came by and spoke with us. He said to me quite confidently, ‘I expect you to stand first in the Intermediate Arts examinations’.
I was no doubt enthused greatly. Nevertheless, as I made my way home alone in the night, I felt apprehensive about the future. What if history is repeated? What will happen if I do as I did in the Matriculation examinations (not too well)? Working up expectations is no good. It will make disappointment even bitterer. I thought of what my classmate plump jolly (Anis) said after I had stood first in the college test. He looked at me grimly and said, ‘Look Shelley, you shouldn’t have done this. You will never be able to be first in the final. Lie low!’ What if the prophecy of doom, what if his prophecy of doom comes true? Such dark thoughts induced a sinking feeling in my heart.
The author, founder Chairman of Centre for Development Research, Bangladesh (CDRB) and Editor quarterly “Asian Affairs” was a former teacher of political science in Dhaka University(1964-1967) and former member of the erstwhile Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP) (1967-1980) and former non-partisan technocrat Cabinet Minister of Bangladesh (1990).
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