Visiting the streets of Old Dhaka gives one the feeling of walking through history. Many worn out buildings here are still standing tall as witnesses to the past, with their damp walls, open balconies and dark windows.
One day, we were walking through B K Das Lane towards Farashganj among the book shops of Banglabazar.
Around the year 1740, many French merchants came to the country and permanently settled in this part of the city. The name Farasganj came from 'Faras' which stands for French and 'ganj' which means market.
The architectural style of the old buildings of this area was influenced by French designs.
The lane was named after Basanta Kumar Das - a businessman who came from Barishal and settled here. He was also renowned for his philanthropic endeavours.
We strolled through B K Das Lane and passed famous buildings like Lalkuthi, Rooplal House, Bibi Ka Rowja and then, we saw an old yellow building with a hanging balcony.
The gate of the house was locked, as were the doors and windows. The front yard was surrounded by a low iron fence. It was clear the house had had no inhabitant for a long time.
The house had 1911 written on it, which made us more curious, because it meant it had been built more than a hundred years ago.
We saw a mosque with a red building next to the house. Beside the mosque stood another dilapidated house.
We entered this place through a small iron gate and although it seemed no one lived in the building, there were some makeshift structures in its premises. We realised some people live in these structures and knocked on one of the doors.
A middle-aged woman named Rozina opened the door after a while. At first, she looked a bit hesitant when we wanted to know the history of the building. But after knowing our identity, she agreed.
"My family and I have been living here as tenants for many years. I came to this house when I was very young. Later, I married and had two sons and daughters. We live in two rooms on the ground floor behind the main building," she informed us.
Although she had little idea about the history of the building, she said her husband's family have been here for more than 40 years.
However, Rozina said she heard from people that the building was the residence of a Hindu Zamindar during the British period. A Muslim family from Kolkata got ownership of the house during the Pakistan period. But no one from the current owner's family lives here.
Rozina told us the hall of the main building at the front was formerly the office of Janata Bank. About 17 years ago, that office shifted. Although no one lives in the main building now, about 15 families live in the two-storey building behind it.
No one from the owner's family now visits the main building, which is in a state of ruin. The plaster from the roof often crumbles and the walls absorb water during monsoon.
Rozina said that after the death of the original owner, the house was looked after by his three sons. "The eldest son used to come every Friday and pray at the mosque in front of the house. He is currently paralysed. Now, a caretaker and a manager look after the whole house," she said.
She also suggested we talk to Pinky, another old tenant, hoping she could shed some light on the history of the house. Pinky's family has been living here for 47 years.
Pinky's husband Kazi Abdul Qayyum said it was the house of Basanta Kumar Das, aka B K Das.
He said, "Basanta Babu and his brothers had several houses in this area. All the houses were built in the style of European architecture," adding, "after partition, they moved to Kolkata and exchanged this house with Asrarul Hossain, whose family moved to Dhaka from Kolkata."
The Hossain family constructed the nearby mosque.
Pinky said every Friday, many tourists come to see the house. She said foreign tourists seem to take more interest in this establishment than locals.
Mostaq Hossain, who has been the manager for less than a year, said he knows nothing about the early history of the house.
He said, "My father-in-law served as the manager for more than 50 years. No visitor can be taken inside the house as per instructions of the owner."
Mostaq also said Barrister Asrarul Hossain got ownership of this house during the Pakistan period. He died almost two decades ago. After that his eldest son Altaful Hossain used to come regularly to look after the house. Asrarul's second son Ajmalul Hossain is a prominent lawyer and member of the Queen's Counsel, and lives in London.
What the locals said
Khitish Pal runs a grocery store opposite the main gate of the house. He said he has been living in this area since birth.
He claimed he saw the original owner of the house. "He used to wear a dhoti and panjabi. He was a tall and distinguished man of the area. He had a brick and wood business."
According to Khitish, at the time, the family owned the only car in Farashganj. The children of the house used to go to school in that car.
However, he also said the name of the owner was Ajit Das.
Confused by Khitish's insistence, we asked another shop owner nearby about the history of the house. Afzal Hossain, an elderly man in the shop, could not say anything about the owner.
However, he said that there is a dance hall in the main building. "Famous dancers from India and Pakistan used to come here. The sound of their performance could be heard in the house even a year ago."
As the information seemed unreliable, we went to the Sutrapur Police Station. But the duty officer Masud could not tell us anything about the house.
At last, some clues
We were frustrated from not getting reliable information about the house's history. During the British era, only wealthy families lived in B K Das Lane. The owner of such a house with perfect architectural style must have been someone influential.
All over B K Das Lane there are many such beautiful houses, including the Jiu Mandir, Bara Bari, Mangalalay and Putul Bari.
However, the authorities never took any measures to preserve these historical houses. The government has no visible plans to renovate them.
Various sources confirmed our belief that the mysterious house actually belonged to the prominent businessman Basanta Kumar Das. But we could not find detailed information.
The Urban Study Group has been working on the preservation of traditional houses in Old Dhaka since 2004. As a last attempt, we contacted its head, Architect Taimur Islam.
He said this house of Basanta Kumar Das was called Lakshmi Villa. Basanta Kumar indeed had a brick, wood and clothing business. He built this house at the beginning of the 20th century.
In 2019, one Jenny Gustafson wrote about the history of this Lakshmi Villa in the Guardian with the help of Taimur Islam.
The Guardian article mentioned how the Hindus in Pakistan and Muslims in India had to face dire consequences during the partition of 1947. They had to flee their respective countries, leaving everything behind.
At that time, the families of Basanta Kumar and Asrarul Hossain agreed to swap their properties as they were among the victims of partition.
Asrarul Hossain was a famous barrister of Kolkata at that time. He was introduced to the Das family during a case. At that time, Basanta Kumar's descendants were living in this house.
The family suffered greatly during the riots of 1950 in East Pakistan. After that they decided to leave the country.
"My grandfather was reluctant to leave East Pakistan until the last moment, but we had to," Anjan Kumar Das, Basanta Babu's great-grandson, told Jenny Gustafson.
Basanta Kumar Das's Lakshmi Villa was an aristocratic residence of style and architectural grandeur. The huge hall was furnished with expensive furniture and also had billiard courts.
The Hossain house in Kolkata was not even close to it in terms of grandeur. However, it was located in Shakespeare Sarani next to Park Circus, an elite area of Kolkata. At that time, rich Armenians lived there.
According to the house exchange agreement, Asrarul Hossain settled in Lakshmi Villa with his family but the Das family never got possession of that house in Kolkata.
The governments of both countries at the time marked the homes of those who left the country as 'enemy property'.
The Das family could not get the ownership of the house in Kolkata even after many years of legal battle. Later they built a multi-storied complex in another place and started living there.
Meanwhile, after living in the Lakshmi Villa for several years, Asrarul Hossain turned the house into the office of his law firm. Other buildings of the premise were rented out to several families.
Asrarul Hossain's son Ajmalul Hossain told Gustafson that he was thinking of renovating the house.
He also said that while the Das family took most of the furniture with them when they moved to Kolkata, some furniture remained here, including 15 expensive chandeliers. However, the chandeliers have been destroyed by monkeys living in this area.
No one in this area knows house number 47 in ward number 79 of Farashganj was once called Lakshmi Villa. Residents of the house often hear rumours that the building will soon be demolished.