In the very early 1960s, something akin to rural charm enveloped Dhaka. Memories of those days, memories specifically mine, speak of areas like Malibagh surrounded by water bodies.
Trees – of mangoes, kotbel, bananas, coconuts – were in abundance. It was a joy watching monsoon clouds sailing across the skies before bursting into overwhelming showers.
In the open spaces, which today have been devoured by highrises, fishes floated in cheerful manner and for children – and we were children — it was an invitation to net them and bring them home.
For me, despite the fact that my siblings and I, along with our parents, spent long years in Quetta, Balochistan, Dhaka has consistently been an object of fascination.
I recall observing for the very first time the cluster of kotbel on a tree and cheerfully telling my parents that I could see potatoes up there. Not until they told me what the fruit was did I realise that there was something delectable called kotbel and that potatoes did not grow on trees but under the ground.
And then there was the moment when I discovered that fishes could be alive. We had just arrived from Quetta, where all the fish my father bought came in iced containers by train from Karachi.
I had little idea that fishes were actually living creatures. And so when all those koi and sheeng fish began to leap out of the basket and onto the floor, I excitedly called my mother, to inform her that the fishes were moving.
Everyone – my parents, my uncles who had come visiting – broke into laughter at my innocence, before giving me my initial education in fisheries.
There are all the stories, not all of which are personal. People of my generation recall the beautiful place that once was Dhaka before it dwindled into becoming the sprawling urban slum it is today.
Modernisation, contrary to many of our notions of progress, often leaves the elegance and charm of cities mutated beyond recognition.
On my walks through Dhaka, I often go looking for the old landmarks which once stirred the imagination in all of us. Mercifully, there are still the old symbols of heritage like Curzon Hall, to which my niece, a student of Dhaka University, goes these days for her classes.
I am grateful to our urban planners that they have not yet decided to pull down Curzon Hall and rebuild it in tune with the times. But we know we will soon lose the Teacher-Student Centre (TSC) at DU to modernity. Must that happen? When the present TSC goes, with it, will go a formative phase of our lives.
And when I walk by the Islamia Eye Hospital towards Farmgate, I remember with deep sadness how a British-era red structure housing a government department was felled a few years ago because the authorities needed to bring up a modern-looking edifice in its place.
That modernism is often a rude rejection of tradition is a truth not many understand or are willing to acknowledge. Think of the incomprehensible move by the Ershad regime to remove the centuries-old cannon from in front of the old Gulistan cinema hall and place it at Osmany Park opposite the secretariat.
That was the death of a significant part of history. When I visit the Gulistan area, or more appropriately Bangabandhu Avenue these days, something of a vacuum greets the eye when I observe the emptiness where the cannon used to be.
But, again, it is not just the cannon so many of us miss. There once was a place called Paltan Maidan, where some of the more resplendent aspects of national history were shaped in the long stretch of time between the 1950s and mid-1970s.
That has now been closed off by the Moulana Bhashani stadium. In a similar manner, a wall now blocks the way to the Baitul Mukarram mosque. In our times, we used to walk straight up from Bangabandhu Avenue, then turn left toward the shops and move on, to walk out of the place a little further ahead and on to the road facing part of the General Post Office.
In a lane off Bijoynagar were traders dealing in old books (my copy of A.L. Khatib's Who Killed Mujib? was bought there). It was soothing to walk over to those little bookstores and often go back home with some rare collections.
That haunt is now a memory, as is Readers View on Bailey Road. In the years soon after liberation, excellent magazines and journals could be found on the pavement in Gulistan. That is gone too.
And yet there is the consolation in knowing that Nawabpur Road, with its traffic chaos heightened by its narrowness, is still there. It is one place where perceptions of Dhaka society and history come together.
When I walk down the road, I am transported back to the 1970s when my family used to reside at Rankin Street in Wari. Ah, but Rankin Street is not the same any more, nor is Wari, for the old placidity represented by the old homes has been pushed aside by newer but not necessarily comfortable structures.
On a visit to the street, I tried locating our old home. I ended up locating the spot, but the old beauty typified by those original structures was gone.
Time was when citizens could walk past Bangabhaban through the road leading all the way to Motijheel. In the process, their eyes could feast for the umpteenth time on the charm of the structure, with all its embedded history.
But, again, the Ershad dispensation walled off the road from the Toyenbee Circular Road side, depriving people not only of their right to walk there but also concealing the beauty of Bangabhaban from them.
My walks in Dhaka include visits to the shops peddling old books in Nilkhet, though these days their stocks have more to do with preparing the young for a variety of examinations.
Even so, it is probable that I will come across a rare book or two, of the kind one finds on the road before the HBFC building and CPB office in Purana Paltan.
At New Market, Zeenat Book Supply remains a temptation and so do the other bookshops in the area. Besides New Market, there are the bookshops – Batighar, Pathak Shamabesh, The Bookworm – which are places you feel like spending hours browsing.
Much of Dhaka as we remember it has been consumed by time and predatory commercialism. Even so, there is the old pleasure in walking from the Bailey Road end all the way to the old Gonobhaban, today the Foreign Service Academy.
The silence is comforting as you walk and remember the old days when as a young man you were a habitue on this road. At Farmgate, beside the main road, are the stalls with their displays of fruits, vegetables and a rich assortment of other products which make one happy.
On the way home late in the evening, one will likely collect – and especially in winter – some vegetables or fruits to be shared in the family. Markets in Dhaka have consistently been reasons for happiness, be it Shantinagar or Mohammadpur or Malibagh.
Abul Hotel, actually a restaurant, in Malibagh Chowdhurypara rekindles memories of lazy evenings sipping tea and digging into shingaras with friends. At Mouchak, that ubiquity of food joints is something I do not miss in Dhaka.
The old familiar smells of food, the warmth of the managers and waiters is a journey back to the past, as is a walk to Viqarunnisa School, where I used to accompany my sister every morning for her classes and bring her back home every day long ago.
In Azimpur, the maternity home where my third sibling was born is yet a link to the past. At Rothkhola, walking to the place to purchase milk in the hot sun was curiously satisfying.
Dhaka can be infuriating and yet it is a place we go back to all the time, for it is home. On what is today Kazi Nazrul Islam Avenue, there used to be the timber shops before the area succumbed to corporate culture.
Under the huge tree at Farmgate (it was murdered long ago), many were the days when we stood and watched foreign heads of state and government, on visits to the city, go by in the company of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
A little up ahead is Red Button, one of the very few remaining signs of the past. And then there is the old Tejgaon airport, today the preserve of the air force but which once was a place for us to climb up to the first floor and watch aircraft land and take off. Images of the old hangar remain seared in the memory.
Dhaka lives and throbs in us. Its noise, its subdued voice in the monsoon rains, its steamy streets brimming over with politics and processions, its rickshaws that we condemn but cannot do without, the bus rides and the inevitable arguments between commuters and helpers, the sight of the homeless sleeping under the sky as the city goes to sleep, the street food which is plain magic – all of these are part of us.
Beauty Boarding, the Asiatic Society at Nimtali, the Shaheed Minar, the Christian Cemetery, the handicraft stalls opposite Curzon Hall, the mausoleum of the three leaders, the old pillars, once gates at the edge of the city, near Doyel Chattar testifying to what the city was long ago – all of these are part of the romance of Dhaka.
What Dhaka has lost in these past many decades breaks the heart. And what it retains is what we preserve deep in our souls.
For those of us who remember, Dhaka has always been emblematic of raucous poetry. But it is poetry all the same.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a senior journalist, columnist & political commentator.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.