Categories
Slices from Life

Three Men at the Lalbagh Fort

Marjuque-ul-Haque explores a Mughal fort left unfinished in Dhaka, a fort where armies were said to disappear during the Sepoy mutiny of 1857

Lalbagh Fort, Photo Courtesy: Marjuque-ul-Haque

We decided suddenly to visit the Lalbagh fort. Normally, I would never have considered going there, except the night before we had been discussing with our cousin how nice it would have been if our whole extended family could go on a trip together somewhere. So, the next day the three of us —  my brother, my cousin and I — decided on a day long visit to the famous Lalbagh fort.   

The fort was an architectural complex from the Mughal era in the late 17th century. The three main structures of the fort included the tomb of Pari Bibi, the diwan-i-Aam (the hall of audience) and a mosque. The story of the fort’s creation begins with Muhammad Azam Shah, the son of the emperor Aurangzeb who was then the subahdar (governor of a subah or province) of Bengal. He was recalled and he left the construction to Shaista Khan, the later subahdar of Bengal. Khan also discontinued work on the fort after the death of his daughter Pari Bibi, who lies buried there. The bereaved father halted construction, believing the fort was cursed. It remains abandoned and unoccupied to this date.               

The walk leading to the fort’s compound is lined with gardens in neat rows and patterns on both sides. Parallel to it runs a long strip of pool. The entrance is several feet long and domed at the top. The walls are grooved with rectangular recessions for decoration. The tomb, being a few hundred years old, seemed pinkish and off colour. However, the mausoleum with its high red dome was the most impressive of the three monuments. It housed the grave of Pari Bibi.   

The Grave of Pari Bibi. Photo Courtesy: Marjuque-ul-Haque

We next went to the diwani-i-aam. The interior is far more impressive than the exterior. Inside are exhibited various Mughal weapons of war and everyday artifacts from the same period lined the walls of the museum. Swords, shields, spears, hand cannons, chain maces, clubs and other interesting things are part of the exhibits.

The last of the three monuments we visited was the mosque. This proved to be a disappointment, owing to the fact that the interior was not open to visitors as indicated by a placard. From the entrance, we peeped and saw clotheslines with garments drying on them and men in tupi (cap) and jubbah (a gown worn by Muslim men). Apparently, it seemed that they had a madarsah (Muslim school) and the students and staff resided inside. As we were but outsiders, we could not enter. However, we were able to climb atop a roof (or was it a verandah) to get a view from above. Up on that ledge, the breeze was light and frequent. We took a few pictures and spent some time before heading down.   

Sauntering away from the mosque, we noticed a woman, a foreigner, a European tourist no doubt, dressed in pinkish white, quite absorbed in photographing of one of the buildings. Unfortunately, three eve teasers started making remarks in English near her. In the sunlight, she had shades on as she ceremoniously took pictures pointedly ignoring the three miscreants as they occasionally walked around her. The three of us felt embarrassed and discussed how this experience would impact the way she would describe Bangladeshi people to her friends and family. We were dismayed by their bad behaviour.

We had completed two circuits of the compound. It was five in the evening and the microphones blared an announcement that the place would close in forty minutes and that the visitors needed to leave the precincts.

The evening sky that swathed the nearest monument in a bluish glow was different from the one I had seen in the light of the afternoon. I recalled a few instances when buildings evoked a distinct aura. In fact, the buildings had been in a state of flux at all times but I had only been present to observe it at certain moments. The protagonist of the translation of Yukio Mishima’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion had been shown as obsessed with the building’s beauty, reflecting in the same manner as me. In seeking respite from his imperfections, the protagonist of the novel had endowed the ancient temple with unattainable beauty. Unfortunately, his obsession with its appeal led him to set fire to the monument with himself inside; thus hoping to prove the mutability of the Golden Pavilion’s beauty. The Lalbagh Fort has endured a long stretch time and no doubt grown in beauty like the temple, but hopefully its beauty will only serve to inspire.

The Lalbagh Fort. Photo Courtesy: Marjuque-ul-Haque

Marjuque-ul-Haque is an MA student Department of English at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh.

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Categories
Stories

Magnum Opus

By Ahsan Rajib Ananda

Rony was all by himself, waiting for an airplane to fly past above his head as he twiddled the knob of his DSLR* camera. He was sitting on a stool on his balcony. The railings were about waist-high, and one could have easily toppled over. He aspired to be a photographer of extreme proportions, but he believed his magnum opus had yet to be captured. He took pride in his works because it was only photographers who can keep a moment in time infinitely suspended. They stopped not only a tide on an ocean but the very fabric of time from wilting. He just needed to capture one great moment.

None of his photographs had ever been selected for any exhibitions but he was somewhat well known in the community for he was very sociable. But whenever he talked about getting his photos into an exhibition, the curators somehow brushed the topic off. He did, however, get a fair number of paid jobs, but not of the artistic kind. He usually got gigs for taking landscape and architectural photography, a lot of them for calendars.

Even though he made a generous sum of money every month, he was quite jealous of the younger photographer from his university. This person left his studies because he could not afford it, but somehow, he became very well-known; his work was often displayed at the best exhibitions across Asia. He rose to be regarded as a young talent. Everyone seemed to be talking about him. Rony craved that kind of attention, but he was not a peacock, flaunting his talents from far away, and quickly hiding them in front of others, to establish a fake sense of humility. Zaid was like that, pretended to be humble, but he was one of the most arrogant men. He flaunted and lured people to himself, and then masqueraded as if they flocked of their own accord. 

Rony recalled an event that he could never forget. He was taking photographs near a train station that night. He noticed a man in a black shirt inconspicuously dragging a dog down the rail tracks. Upon closer inspection, he noticed the dog was battered, and almost dying. He stealthily moved towards the injured dog. The man in the black shirt quickly turned on hearing his footsteps and indicated that he needed help. Rony could not see the man’s face clearly as it was too dark and the man wore a hat with a wide brim, but he drew close to pick up the dog. As soon as he touched it, he heard some clicks. The man had taken some photos of Rony reaching out to the dog. Rony also noticed there was a machete on the ground beside him. The man laughed out loud and said in a strange, muffled voice, “Haha, the dog butcher of Kamalapur!” as he stared at the photo in the camera’s viewfinder.

Rony got up and tried to attack the man with bare fists, but he stopped in his tracks when he heard a train approaching. He did not even get the time to get the dog off the tracks. The two men saved their own lives, as the blood of the dog splattered all over them. Rony heard a few more clicks as he stared dumbfounded at the train that passed by. He felt enraged and helpless. It was late but he noticed a few people, staring at them. The man beside him had disappeared too. He later discovered the man’s identity when “The Dog Butcher of Kamalapur” was exhibited. The photo showed Rony’s back, so his own identity remained a secret.

But with time, Rony did become better known. He met Zaid more often, mainly at big exhibitions across town. Their encounter from that night etched Zaid’s smug and proud face into his memory, and he had always hated the sight of him every time they met. For Zaid, on the other hand, Rony was almost non-existent. Zaid did not reveal the identity of the so-called butcher, and neither did Rony, for obvious reasons. Rony did not know what to do about Zaid, he simply silently abhorred that man.

He still did not know why Zaid’s was so cruel to the dog. Obviously, he had not wanted to save him. Perhaps, he wanted to take a photo, but Rony’s presence had interfered. As usual he turned it to his advantage. Rony often wanted to ask him, but he hated his guts, and he was scared that he would harm him more, not actively, but perhaps do something that would cause Rony to harm himself. Rony hated himself partly for the unreasonable fear he experienced.  

Rony hated Zaid’s shrewd characteristics, and his drive to rise to the top. Zaid was not a talented photographer, and he lacked the pristine technic that Rony possessed, yet he could speak with his photography.

Rony could not give up, he decided.  He needed to shoot the greatest photo he had ever taken. He had decided to rise above notions of morality like Zaid because if it meant he could win against Zaid, it would be worth it. However, Rony could not bring himself to cause shame or hurt to another person or even an animal. If guilt and shame were to come at a certain time in his life, it should not be of an act harming others. An artist must make sacrifices to achieve greatness, and he knew what he could do. He needed to get over his fear as only the ones with the courage to make sacrifices achieve greatness.

So, Rony turns on the timer of his camera and turns the lens towards his face, holding the camera as far as he could with his two hands. He presses the shutter button. 

As the timer started ticking, 10, 9, 8… Rony jumped off the balcony. He would have captured a moment perhaps no artist could ever do. This would be his magnum opus — an expression that could only be captured within a brief frame of time. His fame would be posthumous; a man like Zaid would never be able to top this. This would be the greatest photo of the year.

Falling was not easy and uniform, and Rony realised his mistake as his camera fell from his grasp. It was exactly that moment that he experienced extreme fear for the first time in his life. Even more fearful than death was the sight he had under his eyes, a man with a camera taking continuous shots of his fall. 

Zaid had again won that year, he has captured an expression no photographer ever achieved before; he calls it, “A Portrait of Terror”. He said the photo embodies the terror of facing death, and he hoped it would make people to think twice before committing suicide. Zaid planned a series of anti-suicide campaigns, which were later acknowledged internationally as a humanitarian.

The photograph is still known as Zaid’s magnum opus. Even though Rony failed to create a masterpiece himself, he has become one.

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*D-SLR: Single-lens reflex (adjective): Denoting or relating to a reflex camera in which the lens that forms the image on the film also provides the image in the viewfinder

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Ahsan Rajib Ananda is a music teacher and composer from Dhaka, who writes poetry and fiction as a hobby. He completed his Masters from University of Liberal Arts, Bangladesh with a focus on Creative Writing.

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Categories
Slices from Life

Pohela Boishakh: A Cultural Fiesta

Sohana Manzoor shares the Bengali New Year celebrations in Bangladesh on April 14th, pausing on the commonality and differences with Poila Baisakh, the Indian version of Pohela Boishakh celebrated in the Eastern part of India

Happy & Prosperous New Year or ‘Shubho Nabobarsho’ in Bengali script

“Shubho Nabobarsho” (happy and prosperous new year) is the traditional greeting for the Bengali new year. The upcoming April 14 will herald the beginning of the Bengali year 1428 in Bangladesh, but in the Indian states of West Bengal, Tripura, Odisha and parts of Assam it will be the 15th of April. In Bangladesh, Pohela Boishakh is one of the biggest occasions of celebration, next to perhaps the two Eids.

Whereas the celebrations of Pohela Boishakh is now a regular thing, its history is somewhat unclear. According to most historians, the Bengali year or Bangabda was introduced by the Mughal Emperor Akbar. In those days, agricultural taxes were collected according to the Hijri Calendar. But then the Hijri calendar is a lunar calendar and naturally, it did not coincide with the agricultural year. The tax collecting time was not a time when the peasants and farmers could pay the taxes. It only added to the confusion of the people who tilled the land in various capacities. To streamline the tax collection, Akbar ordered a reformation of the calendar. As a result, in 1584 Bangabda was born. But the year started from 963, the Hijri year it was modeled on. According to some historians, however, it was adopted by another Muslim ruler called Hussain Shah of Bengal. There is yet another group that alludes to Shashanka, a seventh-century King of Bengal, for inventing Bangabda. It is quite possible that it existed before Akbar’s time and the Mughal Emperor reinvented it with the help of his royal astronomer and other pundits of his court.

An interesting aspect of Bangabda is that the names of the months were different in those times. The story of how the months of Farwardin, Urdibahish and Khordad became Baishakh, Jyoshthyha and Ashar is lost to us. But we do know that just as he had helped in modernizing the Bengali language, Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah helped in modernizing the Bengali year. Partially accepting his reformative suggestions, the Bangla Academy saw that the first six months had thirty-one days each and the last six, thirty. Hence there is no further confusion about which day of the Gregorian calendar Pohela Boishakh coincides with. In Bangladesh, it is always 14 April. But in West Bengal and other parts of India, it can be either 14 or 15 of April.

When the Bengali new year was first introduced, the most important activities on the first day of the year involved halkhata, opening of a new book for zamindars who would treat their tenants with sweets. On the last day of the old year, there would be Chaitra Sankranti, a day celebrating the end of the year. Actually, in rural areas, this day was more colourful than Pohela Baishakh. Charak Puja, a Hindu festival honouring the god Shiva is central to this celebration. The actual puja used to take place on the midnight of Chaitra Sankranti, and it was a very special kind of ritual and not too many people even know about it anymore. The preparation would start a month ahead of the actual puja and a total of twelve devotees would take part in it. There would be different kinds of festivities through the day, and snacks like puffed rice, ground gram called chhatu,  dry sugary sweets like khoi, murki, batasha, kodma, and many varieties of leafy vegetables would be available. In today’s Bangladeshi scenario, Chaitra Sankranti has almost disappeared except in some distant villages. Only lately, some initiatives are being taken in Dhaka to reintroduce the fair, even though it looks like any other fair and very different from the original Chaitra Sankranti.

With urbanization, the more secular Pohela Boishakh became popular. However, some elements from Chaitra Sankranti have been integrated in Baishakhi celebration. For example, there are fairs that still showcase puffed rice, khoi, murki, batasha and kodma. There are products made by rural artisans. Performances on musical instruments like ektara, dotara and dhol by rural artists are show cased. Riding the nagardola (a mini and wooden version of the Ferris wheel, reminiscence of the charak) is a central attraction of the fair.

It is impossible to conceive of any Bengali festival without food. The first food item that comes to mind regarding Pohela Baishakh, is hilsa fish. Different preparations of mouth-watering taste are prepared with hilsa. Then there are panta bhat (fermented rice) with green chili, all kinds of bhartas (mashes) starting with potatoes to tomatoes, sweet pumpkins, lentils, beans, shrimps and different types of fish, chutneys, shutki (bitters), authentic Bengali sweets, savoury snacks like fuchka, chotpoti and even traditional ice-creams, kulfi. Bigger cities find fairs and programmes in almost every locality.

Chhayanaut, an institution devoted to the propagation of Bengali culture, started celebrating the Bengali Nababarsha under the Ramna Botomul (a historic banyan tree) in 1967. Since the Liberation War of 1971, Pohela Boishakh has grown into a national festival for all Bangladeshis irrespective of religions. In Dhaka, the Pohela Boishakh procession begins from the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka. The students start taking preparation for the procession from days ahead. They make masks and banners and wear elaborate costumes. This is known as the festive Mangal Shobhajatra, translated procession showcasing good fortune. In 2016, this festivity organized by the Faculty of Fine Arts was listed as UNESCO cultural heritage. Specific roads around Dhaka city are decorated with white and red alpanas, elaborate designs made with rice flour mixed with water.

At the break of dawn on Pohela Boishakh, people gather at the Ramna batamul festival ground. The day starts with singing the famous Tagore song, “Esho he Boishakh*” along with many others. The whole day is spent in celebration. Radios and TV channels air special programs on the day too. People dressed in white and red and other colourful attire flock around the city. It is also observed as a national holiday and a fun-day for everybody.

Sohana Manzoor is an Associate Professor of English at ULAB. She is also the Literary Editor of The Daily Star.

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Categories
Essay

Broken Glass and Shattered Dreams: COVID 19 in Bangladesh

By Sohana Manzoor

“Dance on broken glass;

Build castles with shattered dreams

Wear your tears like precious pearls.

Proud.

Strong.

Unshakable.”

–Anita Krizaan

At such a time as ours, I can identify with the first three lines, but not the last three. As I read the poem, I utter instead, “Ah, what dark tunnels are we crossing?”

I can’t believe that it has been six weeks since I have been to my office at the university. It has been more than a month since I was at my newspaper office. Things have been shifted online — without any of us having any preparation or training whatsoever. With the number of coronavirus affected patients rising rapidly in the country, sometimes I pinch myself to see if I am awake or if it’s only a nightmare. As I drift through one day exactly like another, I wonder if it is actually the beginning of a dystopic age. I recall all the science fiction books I have ever read and the movies that I have watched. This reality is more horrific than any of those because I am living in it. According to WHO, the worst is yet to come. And I wonder, I really wonder how my dear Dhaka city will look like after another month. How will Bangladesh feature in the world map after six months? Or next year this time how will the world function?

The governments across the world have declared lockdown and curfew of one kind or another. The situation in Bangladesh is really at a problematic stage. Being one of the most densely populated countries in the world, if not checked, the pandemic will cause a devastation that nobody has yet encountered anywhere. The close proximity and the number of people also are the reasons behind our tension—how to control this mass? The city of Dhaka is home to 160,000,000 people. Even though some have left for their hometowns, the larger portion still abides here. But we are so many in number and most live in such congested houses that it is difficult for them to continue indoors through days and nights. So, at the slightest chance, they slip out of their dilapidated shanties and cluster around half opened tea stalls and shops; they whisper to one another over a biscuit and half a cup of tea about the strange epidemic they can barely comprehend.

They look in apprehension and curiosity at a said narrow street that has been sealed because a family living there has been identified as COVID-19 victims. Then the police arrive with their batons and sticks and start beating people and they run to hide into their holes. Except for a few residential areas, this is the general scenario in Dhaka. People are prohibited from going to work, but who can take away their addas? The Bengalis can go without food but they cannot live without adda and gossip.

Hence, even though the government is dictating social distancing, ours is a culture that disapproves of such distances. The month of Ramadan has begun and for the first time in history, people are not going to the mosque for mass prayer. In all probability, the Eid Jamaat will not be held on the morning of Eid-ul-Fitr. But there is this group of religious leaders that continue to claim that if one dies after going to the mass prayer, they will go straight to heaven. No wonder that just over a week ago, around 100,000 people turned up at the funeral ritual of a senior member of Bangladesh political party, Khelafat Majlish. Some people will always benefit from any kind of disaster and such incidents only testify to that. One might ask, what can one benefit from such mass gathering that might result in extreme suffering and death? Well, the answer is — the ultimate objective of any system is to wield power over others. If it leads to death even, so be it; you have power over the dead and for some leaders at least, human life is expendable.

The biggest problem for us in Bangladesh right now is that in spite of the wide accessibility of the news channels, we are not fully aware of what we are dealing with. I was reading an article just this morning quoting the Director of Transparency International Bangladesh, who observes how the country has failed in protecting its citizens from Coronavirus. The system is so debased that even at this stage of the pandemic, some government officials are busy making money and compromising the situation by buying lower quality equipment for doctors and patients. The public announcement says that Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) has been bought for all doctors and medical staff, but in reality, those have been distributed selectively. The doctors outside of the capital city of Dhaka are mostly purchasing PPE out of their own pockets. Across the country, about 120 doctors have been affected by COVID-19, and among these only a handful are from those chosen hospitals.

There are all sorts of rumours, and because of those, people are ready to ransack hospitals as COVID patients have been admitted there. No wonder that a number of people are refusing to reveal that they are carrying the virus. When even the educated and conscious segment of the society does not know what lies ahead, one can only assume how the working class, who live from hand to mouth feels. Their daily living has been wrenched away from them by an unknown force.

Strangely enough, amidst this chaos a group of people are hopeful that this cannot last forever and something good will surely come up. Many will develop awareness of what they have done wrong. For me, that is only a distant possibility. More prominently looming in the near future are scarcity of jobs, lack of provision, budget cuts and trauma. How hopeful can we actually be when we know at heart that there is nothing bright and hopeful in the coming months?

Sitting at the heart of the city’s posh area, some are congratulating themselves as a few trucks of relief goods are distributed to some lucky ones. What about the rest of the country? How do we know that they are getting to eat? But then, some might counter that these people are half dead anyway and hence it would not matter much if they actually die now. It might sound atrocious and something we do not want to face, but it is the reality.

I used to be a workaholic. But I have not really been able to be productive since the lockdown began. This might be the beginning of a different set of thoughts for me. But I do not yet know what that might be exactly. I certainly am able to concentrate on work or creative writing. I am watching movies and keeping track of the COVID news. I fall asleep at odd hours and keep awake through the night.  

On rare moments, I dream of a cloudless blue sky and endless green pastures, of the not so crowded roads and streets of the late 80s and early 90s, of the people I have lost over the years. I might lose some more in the near future. How do I stand proud, strong and unshakable when the ground under my feet is giving away and I feel that I am drowning?

Sohana Manzoor is an Associate Professor in the Department of English and Humanities at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh. She is also the Literary Editor of The Daily Star.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the author and not of Borderless Journal.