Maula Bakhsh Sardar was one of the 22 panchayat leaders of Dhaka. He was also the chief of Sutrapur in Farashganj and the commissioner of Ward-1. Maula Bakhsh Sardar died in 1987. Soon after, his son Azim Bakhsh formed the Maula Baksh Memorial Centre. The Dhaka Centre, an affiliate of the trust, works on preserving the heritage of Old Dhaka. In conversation with The Business Standard's Saleh Shafiq, Azim recalls the colourful Eid days of his childhood.
"The whole day was a blur of pesta sherbet. There was a lot of community bonding at the time. The whole day processions relating to Eid would take place."
I remember everything clearly from 1953. My father Maula Bakhsh Sardar stood for the election. It was the first election of the Dhaka Municipality after the partition of the country. At the time, Dhaka was divided into six wards. There were three commissioners from each ward.
Our ward, Ward-1, was from Postagola to the intersection of Raisaheb Bazar. The election posters of the time were different. They were basically old newspapers which had been turned into posters by using ink. Tin stencils were used for the walls, to give it a finishing touch.
Back to the Eid day. It wasn't just one day but a series of days that led up to it. It began with Shab-e-Barat, the night which came with the message of Eid-ul-Fitr. We would stay up all night and offer our prayers.
Some would cycle to the High Court Mazar, while some would go to the Shah Ali Mazar.
But the path was scary back then. At the time, there were relatively few people in Dhaka and not all the streets were lit. The nights were also full of myths and terror.
The wall of the Christian cemetery in Narinda was not as high as it currently is. The cemetery also had a white stone statue of a woman. It was said that the statue would turn its head towards the roads sometimes. Whenever we crossed the cemetery, our hearts would beat fast in our chests.
Back then, a notable area was Farashganj. The area's beauty is not easily explained.
Let's talk about Farashganj at that time, for no one can even imagine how beautiful Farashganj was. There was a dam which started from Shyambazar and ended at Badamtali. The dam was built to emulate the banks of the River Thames in London. Carved iron chairs, and later mosaic chairs, dotted the dam.
The location of the VIP terminal in Sadarghat was back then a barrier for big boats and then there was also a grass market. The grass was used to feed horses and cattle.
Inspection boats of the naval authorities could be seen near the Nawab's house. The wholesale market for vegetables would be open from midnight, and it would end at seven in the morning. After that, a bullock cart would arrive with a water tank and everything would be washed.
Farashganj also housed the offices of Turner Graham, Burma Eastern, Indian Insurance, Spencer & Company and many others.
The offices of Graham Turner and Indian Insurance were inside Ruplal House (a famous two-storey building in Shyambazar in the 19th century). And Spencer's office was near Bibi Ka Rowza (the oldest Imambara in Dhaka built in 1800). I myself saw Ranada Prasad Saha come to Spencer's office wearing shorts, T-shirt and sneakers. The Spencer Company imported more chocolates, including the famous AB biscuits.
Sadarghat, the beating heart
Motijheel began to develop and offices started to rise one by one from Farashganj, where a furniture showroom was set up. Eid back then wasn't only beautiful, but it was also a happy, exhilarating occasion.
At the time, the Banedi Taylor House was located in Islampur at Charta-Sharif & Sons or M Rahman. This Sharif Sahib was the son of an aristocratic family of Dhaka. He had an elite hotel called River View in Sadarghat. Usually the customers there ate food with forks. There were seven or eight tables covered with white tablecloths. Sharif used to sit quietly at a table on one side. He was a chain smoker, his favourite brand of tobacco being 555.
However, I think the first English restaurant in Dhaka was opposite the Judge's Court. The name was OK Restaurant. Then its hand changed and it came into the possession of Mrs Dorothy. I heard that their home was in Shillong. At one time the name of the hotel was Alexander.
Mrs Dorothy had a very good relationship with my father. Dorothy had a fridge that ran on kerosene oil. Chops and cutlets were a treat at Alexander.
The wearing of bikinis at Sadarghat was stopped after the 20th Ramadan.
On Eid day the shops were open all night and till morning. The shopkeepers would themselves do the Eid Bazar.
There was a glass pillar in Coronation Park at Sadarghat (erected on the occasion of the inauguration of King George V), much like the Eiffel Tower. Next to it was the Ladies Park. Now that place has become Hawkers Market or Ladies Market. There was another restaurant in Sadarghat, near Rupmahal Cinema Hall, called Cinema Cabin.
Relatively cheap food could be found there. But it was as beautiful as a bungalow.
In fact, Sadarghat was the heart of the city at that time. I read in the memoirs of Amatul Khalik, principal, Women's College, that women's sports competitions were organised on the Ruplal House grounds.
Behind Ruplal House, there was a crowd of saints and monks at the Buckland Dam till 1971. They used to offer their prayers here. The monk king of Bhawal was first seen here. Probably a girl from Bhawal came to Ruplal House as his wife.
But the king did not want to return to the palace. He would sit on the embankment and take pictures with the camera brought from the Orient Studio in Nawabpur. I say these things because Dhaka of the last century was actually centred on Sadarghat.
The tailor trysts
With only fifteen days left of Eid, the tailors would come to our house and take measurements for Eid clothes. And from then on we would often go to their house. Our constant barging meant sleepless nights for the tailors.
The Thaan cloth era had come and deep green and deep blue colours were popular. There was a showroom of Chittaranjan Cotton Mills on BK Das Road.
For shoes back in the old days, there was only Bata. They had a shoe called Naughty Boy, never to be torn in life.
Before Eid, a lot of reading of the holy book would be done in the mosque. Washing the mosque the night before Eid day was an important task for the locals. At the time, there was no water system, but there were wells adjacent to the mosque.
It was difficult for the muezzin alone to wash the whole mosque. So teenagers and youths of the locality would pitch in. Before that, spotting the Eid moon was another important thing. Climbing tall trees, climbing tall minarets, climbing on to the roof of the house, were all means to catch a glimpse of the moon. And when it was spotted? It was such joy!
Immediately the mosque would make the announcement of Eid. A siren went off during iftar. Sutrapur Thana, Mill Barracks, Dhaka Jute Mill had sirens. The siren also sounded at the end of Sehri. Before Sehri, it was customary to wake people up by singing the Qasida. Sona Mia was a famous Qasida singer in the Bangladuar area of Nazirabazar.
The Qasida were verses usually used to wake people.
Those had rhyming sentences to awaken fasting people, such as:
Rozdaru, Deendaru, Allahka Peyaru (Those who fast, those with faith, those who are loved by Allah)
Raat do baj gaya, sehri khao roza rakho (It's 2am. Have Sehri and fast)
We Dhakaiyas used to eat semai before going to Eid prayers. At that time semai was made by hand. Chutki and Choi Semai were famous. Lachcha Semai is old but not so old. And I used to eat khichuri and beef after prayers. Polao Korma was cooked at noon and night. After the prayers, I would embrace my neighbours and invite them home.
Pesta sherbet was served in the morning. Saffron mixed with sherbet was kept in a glass jug, from which it was served in small glasses. Throughout the Eid, 10-15 litres of pesta sherbet were made.
The food scene in Dhaka has changed much since. For example, after the partition of the country, those who came from India imported their food habits, malai tea being one of them. I call this tea the Liquid Payesh. Amjadia and Amania Hotel in Nawabpur launched it.
Eid or Eid salami is another big thing of Eid. Competition among all the children was to get as much Eidi as possible. One of the original publications of Banglabazar was owned by my cousin's husband. Their original home was in Moulvibazar. Later they moved to Bangla Bazar. My cousin would give Tk5 as Eidi. At that time it was a lot of money. I used to bring it to my mother and save it, but it was my own money. This means that there was a sense of ownership and there was no strict rule during Eid.
The adults used to love the children very much. Another interesting thing is that at one time hats were available. Made of paper, they were very cheap. They would be painted red and blue.
On the day of Eid, the chief of the panchayat would take two feuding people to his house. He would hold their hands and make them drink sherbet. They would soon forget their enmity and from the next day could be seen hugging and walking together. At that time there was a lot of love between people. I hardly notice it now. This is why it is more regrettable.
The Eid procession was the big event after Eid. The now around 300-year-old tradition was introduced by the Nazims. The Eid procession would gather at Chawk Bazaar. From there, the procession travelled to Islampur, Nawabpur, Narinda and Gandaria. The procession was not only a joyous journey, but also a manifestation of a lack of grievances.
There was a travelling gallery of sorts on a bullock cart. If someone was making squeaking sounds and clapping their hands, it was actually a message for the city corporation about the growing menace of mosquitoes.
At another time, someone was beaten with shoes, which meant that the number of thieves had increased in the city.
Many people joined to watch the procession. They would be on the streets, the porches and even on the roofs of homes.
Qasida competitions were held after Eid. The competition in our area (Sutrapur-Farashganj) was held in Faridabad. There was also a central competition, probably in the Hosseini building. A fair was held at the Buckland Dam for three or four days.