The symphony of our times

Published: 00:05, Jul 17,2017


IN THIS environment of gathering tumult, our joint camp ended and we were divided into groups of two or three for proceeding to the month-long split camps. Waliul Islam, Shamsuddin and Alamgir Faruk Choudhury of the 1966 batch who received settlement training with the 1967 batch were members of a group with its split camp in the Chapai Nawabganj town. Abdul Muyeed Choudhury and I belonged to the group which had to proceed to the Baliadanga union, on the other side of the river Mahananda which skirted the Chapai Nawabganj town. We were quartered in the two-storey building of the Baliadanga union council headquarters. Muyeed and I were accommodated on the first floor while Saif Mizanur Rahman of the EPCS with one of his colleagues resided on the ground floor. We were not very pleased with our surroundings. We were distanced from the town by the bridge-less Mahananda of that time. The union council headquarters was deep inside a dusty rural area that felt remote and isolated. There was no electricity and the nights were lit by dim radiance of hurricane lanterns.
In our room upstairs, there were two beds leaving just enough space for two tables and chairs for our use. The bathrooms were downstairs and we shared these with our EPCS colleagues. The days were fairly busy. Muyeed and I received practical training in surveying and recording land titles from the ameens and kanungos engaged in real operations of Revisional Settlements. The working hours from early morning to 1:30pm went speedily as we did our work surrounded by villagers who came to have their titles verified and recorded. On completion of the work, we retired to our temporary quarters. After a refreshing bath that helped to wash away the dust of the surroundings, we had hearty lunch of simple and fresh vegetables, fish or chicken cooked by our orderly. Whatever was the standard of their cooking, the food tasted delicious as hunger provided the best sauce.

Playing truant
WHILE in the Baliadanga split camp, we were very infrequently supervised by the assistant settlement officer of the district. He would come on a bicycle once in 10 or 12 days to check if we were at work in our station. Taking advantage of these wide gaps, I took the weekend off to go to Dhaka to meet my family. The route was through Natore to Iswardi which had a small airport. A small F-27 Fokker Friendship plane plied between Iswardi and Dhaka. The flight shortened the time of the journey. Muyeed once expressed his desire to play truant like me and go to Dhaka. He returned one day too late on a Monday evening. As ill luck would have it, the assistant settlement officer visited the field in the forenoon and found me working alone. He asked me, ‘Where is Mr Muyeed Choudhury?’ I shakily replied, ‘He may be at the union parishad building.’ The officer, Giashuddin, said with a suspicious look at me and observed, ‘I have been to the UP, but he is not there. I am sorry that I have to report him absent without leave.’ He exactly did it. Although nothing serious followed, Muyeed, on hearing the incident, said, ‘Look at the injustice. You were in Dhaka twice and was not caught and I, doing it only once, got caught!’ After work and lunch every day was more for us to do. There was just enough time for a brief rest as Muyeed insisted on cycling four miles each way to the Chapai Nawabganj town and play tennis. The partners were Hafizullah, the SDO, and our colleagues Wali, Shamsuddin and Alamgir Faruk Choudhury.

Nawabganj and Baliadanga
Baliadanga and Chapai Nawabganj town became an intimate part of our exile in the heart of rural North Bengal. I recorded the feelings of that encounter in a writing called ‘Beyond the Door Steps’, published in June-July 1989. Here in Godagari, both Lalgola and Bhagbangola are as distant as the sullen past and that far sky. Nothing acts as a beacon to the hopeful road. It gets tougher and dustier as you approach journey’s end.
Shahghata, another village market, swarmed with people thick as summer flies. The mango groves enclose the dusty thickness and the weight of greater cold becomes more pronounced.
To the right, in the very heart of a shady mango grove, was a neat little rest-house, the joy of the recluse. Further up, the road forks. Straight ahead stands the unmistakable red-brick structure of the railway station; a turn to the left and the town; Chapai Nawabganj welcomes the travellers with a whiff of dusty wind.
In this part, the dust is less oppressive for it is all a nice big orchard and the ground is littered with fallen leaves. Neat and narrow new roads, tender white, skirt the feet of the leafy trees, pass by clean new buildings where officials reside. The roads then broadened and expanded, right in front of the modern-looking court building.
A new district town with a difference, Chapai Nawabganj has more brick houses to its credit than many of its counterparts elsewhere in the country. There is newness all around for as a town of the subdivisional level in pre-1971 days, it was no older then 1947.
A part of Malda district, Nawabganj was a thana headquarters and the proud possessor of a munsif chowki. Achintya Kumar Sen Gupta, well-known West Bengali writer and chronicler of the Kollol era, once served here.
A cinema hall was also relatively new. A public library was named after a civil servant who happened to be the chief officer of the area when it was a sub-division once. The collection of books appears rich simply because one does not expect such a thing in so remote a corner as this.
The narrow road, alive with men and rickshaws, leads to the bank of the River Mahananda. A sorry relic of its old self, the river has all but dried up. In the winter months, in its very middle you can see high sandy deposits rearing their head right under the bow of your boat.
The Mahananda is on its deathbed. You can count its remaining days on your finger tips. At least that is what you think when you meet it in the cold months of no rains. When the rains come, people may tell you, old though it is, the Mahananda can get pretty rough.
From the town-side bank, you can see the countryside, green and shining in the sunlight, and visions of soothing villages typical of Bengal plains hover before your eyes.
Across the river, there are the roads, most of them yet unmetalled, furrowed deep by cart wheels. On both sides of the road, paddy fields and mango groves stand and stretch.
The branches of the trees are alive with the endless twittering of little birds: doyels, tuntunis, bulbuls, drongos, shaliks, and so many others. The doves coo mildly but insistently and the koyels calls imperiously, demandingly. The whole blends into a symphony that softly reverberates everywhere.

Hiranati’s Sarak: hump-backed, abandoned road
Hiranati was a dancing girl who held spellbound the wealthy landlord who built the road so that people would remember her name and marvel at the extent of his love for her.
The narrator does not stop there. He has more to offer. Hiranati was beside herself with joy on receiving from her beloved this precious ‘gift’. She wanted to dance all the way from the beginning to the end of the road named after her. It was her road.
She danced on it, danced and moved forward so that every inch of the road would become a part of her after having met her so intimately. The feat tired her out. She danced to the very end of the road and of her life.
She died as the marathon dance reached its climactic close at the spot where the road ended. That is where you stand now. The crossroads marked by a culvert around which past and present mix in awesome majesty in the failing light.
This is a dangerous place for one to meet nightfall. Stories abound of robbers waylaying the lone traveller who returns from the town when night settles over the solitary landscape. You better hurry up or join the groups of people who are returning home from the market across the river.
You are accepted. You draw courage from them, they from you. Together you march past the dark and shaded corner where the way bends and stops on the high bank of the river.
The Mahananda again lies before you after having taken a near 180-degree turn since leaving the vicinity of the Nawabganj town. The familiar wait. The boat that ferries the latecomers on to the other side is in mid-stream, a patch of deeper darkness on the dark water interrupted by the dim light of a lantern placed aft.
You wait and look at the evening sky; there is still light there. The suppressed rays of the sun have tinged the darkening clouds with impossible colours that defy the imagination of the boldest painter.
The stars have just started coming out. They are twinkling at you, and their looks are mature with knowledge and time. As you think of all that you have seen on the road, the mango groves, the temples of history and men, the stars whisper to you their eternal message: ‘In the endless universe, there has been nothing new, nothing different. What has appeared exceptional to the minute mind of man, has been inevitable to the infinite “Eye of God”. This strange moment in life, that unusual event, those remarkable coincidences of environment, opportunity and encounter — all of them have been reproduced over and over again in the galaxy that revolves once in two hundred million years and has revolved nine times already. There has been joy. There will be joy again.’
To be continued.

Dr Mizanur Rahman Shelley, founder chairman of the Centre for Development Research, Bangladesh and editor of the quarterly Asian Affairs, is a former teacher of political science at Dhaka University (1964-1967), former member of the erstwhile Civil Service of Pakistan (1967-1980) and former non-partisan technocrat cabinet minister of Bangladesh (1990).

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