IT WAS more than drizzling when I stepped out of the railway station in Dinajpur. I was tired because of the night-time travel. I could hardly sleep the night before. I was looking for a rickshaw to go to my home a little more than a kilometre in the west. There was none of them. But there were a horde of battery-powered auto-rickshaws, or easy bikes, huddled along the porch. Some were going out with five to six passengers, headed for long distance. Others were coming in. I walked down up to the main road and yet there were no rickshaws.
Walking back near the porch, I asked one driver if he could take me to Baluadanga. He declined, with a smile. As I asked for the reason for his smile, he said that he could not take me as I was alone. I offered to have the auto-rickshaw reserved and he agreed, for Tk 100 while at other time of the day, as I could understand later, he would charge me only Tk 10 to Tk 15. On my way home, he told me that there were hardly any rickshaws in the town. Auto-rickshaws have taken over the road. Up to almost midnight that I had been on the roads that day, I could see three to four of the rickshaws. This was a stark change in a bit more than five years since my last visit to Dinajpur in 2012, when my mother died. Drivers were saying that most of the auto-rickshaws were running illegally. Easy money with easy bikes, perhaps.
As I approached the neighbourhood, a large one with four quarters, where I had lived since my birth until I left for Dhaka, I found that the Thomson Canal, cut at the expense of the Maharaja of Dinajpur in the 19th century to improve the drainage system of the town, had almost been choked with constructions. It measured about 30 feet in breadth, with clear water, when we were young children in the early 1980s. We even caught fish there, with fishing rods, especially in the afternoon. That was a favourite pastime of ours. Coral and flame of the forest trees used to line along. It looked flamboyant in the spring. The breadth has now narrowed down to hardly two feet to the south of the culvert and almost the same to the north. It is said that the canal measures 43 feet on the municipal documents.
Open space has become scarce. Not even a few feet are left open in the quarter of the neighbourhood, where I lived, where there were at least four playgrounds and three to four ponds, big and small. Just beside the main, with an alley leading to our house, there was a big ground, running to a bend of the road, dotted with large trees, spacious enough to hold seasonal cultural programmes and winter-time badminton tournaments. New-generation people raising families have built their houses on the ground. To the other side of the road, an alley jutted out into a forest of a sort, mainly mango trees, lost in innumerable kurchi (Holarrhena) trees.
Far down to the west of the embankment, there was a vast expanse, by the River Punarbhaba, which could provide for the space to practise and hold football matches. I remember once, during a recess of a football match, being chased by a monitor lizard. The open space now holds small houses, a few having more than a storey, huddled as they are in a slum, for close to three decades. The neighbourhood, once known as Hathatpara, which sprang up suddenly with people, mainly poor, migrating to the town to earn their living from other districts, now forms an extension to the main neighbourhood of Baluadanga.
In the south of the neighbourhood, close to the railway, a long canal has almost been occupied, legally or illegally, making room for houses and shops. The ground hosted yearly sports event, cultural programmes, religious sermons and, at irregular intervals, trick with a bicycle a man who had been at the pedal for close to a month, almost every time breaking his previous records.
To the south-east of the point called Andha Hafiz Mor, a long expanse was used as a playground every afternoon. A date tree almost in the middle of the field, with a small pond close by, had stood there for ages until someone bought the land and erected a house with high walls. I have always heard that climbing fish is so called as it can climb trees. One afternoon during the monsoon, I witnessed a climbing fish repeatedly climbing the date tree, almost into shin-high water for a few days, two to three feet and slipping down into the water. The ground was best suited for matches of football, cricket, volley ball and badminton.
Open spaces coming to be occupied has left almost no space for neighbourhood-based cultural and sports events, leaving the happy 1980s children, who are now grown up enough, to wander what the young generation children do now as their pastime. Clubs, one of which was famous for hosting a music band, in three corners of the neighbourhood have also been long dead. The inevitable effect of urbanisation, perhaps. But a bit of planning, in society and at the government level, could have saved a bit of the past pastime for the children of today.
With more people, from outlying areas, settling in the town, with more concrete structures filling in open spaces, what comes to easy notice is the condition of the roads. The town, in some areas, seems to be decaying, with filth and dirt, which were almost absent when we were young. Traffic on the road has not increased much, yet it definitely seems to have thickened. I remember an incident that happened shortly after the noon in a point called Lily Mor, where there was a cinema that has long been dismantled to make room for a market.
On the hot summer day, two rickshaws were coming to cross the roundabout with a traffic constable standing on it. Rickshaws were, and probably still are, run by people who were mostly farmers, trying to earn some money when there were no farming jobs around. With a considerable distance between them, both raised their hands to signal the other to stay clear of the way. As they reached the roundabout, they collided, head-on, both falling off the seat, with the constable watching. They both stood up, dusted their shirts and abused the other for not learning how to pull rickshaws properly.
Congestion on the road was rare but on two occasions, a day or two before Eid-ul-Fitr and the day of Bijaya Dashami, when rickshaws rolled down the road slowly so as to stop but never actually doing so. The roads then looked half-deserted, especially around the noon; they are now never empty. The roads have remained the same — in some areas they have rather improved — yet the neatness has gone, forever perhaps. Shops and markets are now impending on the roads. The municipal corporation is to blame.
Every town, everywhere perhaps, have two phases, alternately coming one after the other. Towns, or areas of towns, seem to be improving for some time and they start giving a taste of decaying for some time next. Town comes to be built this inevitable way, never to look complete. Yet memories of association with places remain, sadly — with the living and the way life moves forward.
I had been in Dinajpur this time for less than a day to attend the Sapphire Jubilee celebrations of St Joseph’s School in Dinajpur, my first school where I had been a student for three years since 1975 before moving to Dinajpur Zilla School in 1978. When the celebrations were going on in the afternoon, I furtively walked out to meet my teacher, Chandrashekhar Bhattacharya, a pundit in the Zilla School, who heads Dinajpur Sanskrit Mahavidyalaya, which was set up in 1870.
When we were his students, the room that the entrance to the college, with a large sign sporting the name of the college and the religious forum of Nitya Dharma Bodhini Sabha that it houses and their years of establishment, would, and still does, lead into had teachings from all religions and quotations picked up from great writers, on white paper, properly framed and mounted on all the four walls. The room seemed to be dying this time, with furniture dumped here and there in the dusty environment.
The pundit a few years ago became the headteacher at the Government Girls’ High School in Dinajpur. A happy piece of news, for him and for his students. But he was not keeping good health. Although he goes to school everyday, with the help of two others, walking down a short distance, he was asleep that time. His daughter, who now takes classes in the Sanskrit college, one of less than 150 run under the Sanskrit and Pali Board, said that the pundit stopped giving tuition to students after his health had failed a few years ago. Yet, he has never missed taking classes, not even when his health did not allow him to move about. With all that he was suffering, he was proud that he has never been negligent in his duties.
I went back and returned in the evening. I could meet him, seated in chair, having breathing problem. He could hardly sit straight. When I met him last in 2012, he could clearly remember me. This time, his memory failed. He was affectionate and redoubtable at the same time, especially when we were inattentive to what he was teaching in the classroom. Simply dressed in white, with a royal gait, he had always walked down the road. No one saw him riding a rickshaw. Like his father with whom we had read the Bangla grammar for a year in school, he was a great story-teller; he had us all spellbound with his magical skills, coupled with perfectly timed, well-enunciated words, class after class, day after day, provided that we prepared our lessons. I had the chance to argue with him about quite a few intricate issues — they seemed intricate to me as a high schooler — of the grammar.
I am immensely indebted to this man, our pundit, for what I know of or about the Bangla and other languages. Not that he taught me or us all, but he instilled in me a kind of love for Bangla and language — linguistics was something I was not fully aware of at that age. This is what a teacher could do and he so did, successfully. We have hardly seen him without a smiling face. Meeting him this time left me with an unpleasant feeling. I never had thought of a day when I had to see this proud, upright man distraught.
Abu Jar M Akkas is deputy editor at New Age.
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