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In one life: the memoirs of a third world civil servant

Kamal Siddiqui

It was the time of the first martial law in the country, imposed  by General (later field marshal) Ayub Khan. I heard of some of the excesses of martial law functionaries in Narayanganj. Everyday abba would come home from office in a most dejected mood. The reason was that he was member of a martial law court headed by a Punjabi major who knew nothing of either the law or the local conditions and he would order a lashing on the slightest pretext. Abba would regularly protest against such cruel and senseless sentences, only to earn the wrath of the major. We got into serious difficulty with the family that lived on the

first floor, just above us. The head of the household was a circle officer. As soon as he went out on tour, his wife’s paramour would turn up and stay there for days together. It became a public nuisance, which was brought to abba’s notice by several neighbours. When the matter could not be rectified

otherwise, abba brought it to the notice of the SDO, a Punjabi CSP officer. He succeeded in having the lover declared as a ‘tout’ and legally forbade his entry into Narayanganj. That enraged the lady, and she would literally throw rubbish in our courtyard from the first floor.Another neighbour was Mr Zaman, whose daughter, a student of the local Tolaram College, had eloped with a fellow college student from a very poor background. Mr Zaman filed a criminal case against the boy and charged him with kidnapping his ‘under-aged’ daughter. The case was in abba’s court. But he could not help Mr Zaman because the girl was neither under-age nor kidnapped. In open court, she declared in front of one and all that she was in love with that young man and that they had married lawfully of their own volition. However, after he dismissed the case, abba called the newly-weds to his chamber and advised them to fall at the feet of Mr Zaman and beg forgiveness. They did as advised but it had no effect on Mr Zaman. He simply refused to accept the marriage. In the process, he also misunderstood abba. However, a few years

later, Mr Zaman did accept his daughter and son-in-law.Not very far from our place was the house of Khan Sahib

Osman, popularly known as Osman Dalal. He had become enormously rich and well established through his brokerage business in jute. The joke of the town was that he had many

wives, some legal, some not so legal and that he himself did

not know how many children he had. He was still alive when we were there but quite old. He was a strong supporter of Mr Suhrawardy and the Awami League. The era of his sons had already started and some of them were known for using strong-arm tactics in politics. One day one of them came to

abba, demanding bail for one of his buddies, then in hajat for some heinous offence. I happened to be at home at that time.Abba asked him to get out since he would discuss bail matters only in the court. Not only would he not move out, he said something obnoxious. Abba in his anger brought out his licensed gun and threatened to shoot him. After that he left.It was at that time that barda and I got into acting in a play

called ‘Black Market’. We had days of rehearsal and abba himself directed the play. On the day it was finally staged in the main auditorium of Narayanganj, we were both excited and nervous. It went through all right. Barda was obviously the better actor and the character he played was far more important than mine. But a few days after the staging of this

play, he was bitten by a dog. He had to be given anti-rabies injections 19 times through a long needle near his navel. He groaned in pain for a month and after that, he hated and dreaded dogs, however nice looking and friendly they might be. Khasru was now attending the Narayanganj High School. But sadly, he could never escape the cane not because he was a bad student but because he led a carefree life and often did not complete his homework. I felt terribly sorry to see the signs of caning on his hands. But Khasru was an all-forgiving, jolly good fellow, always smiling and content with whatever life offered. He was also very innocent. In those days, he had the strange notion that anybody with red eyes was a drunkard. Once coming by train from Dhaka to Narayanganj, he counted 10 such people on board. Despite my arguments to the contrary, he was certain that all those people were drunkards and hence also dangerous. In those days, Khasru had developed fantastic angling skills. From the big pond in front of our house, he would, almost every day, catch one or more rohu, katla and mrigel (fishes of the carp family). One family that we all liked tremendously was that of Minu and Rani apas (elder sisters). Their father was also in business. Minu apa had just passed her matriculation whereas Rani apa was just finishing her master’s in history at Dhaka University. Rani apa stayed in Rokeya Hall, but came home whenever there was an opportunity. Our friendship was with Minu apa who was extremely kind and considerate and with whom we could share our little secrets. She, in fact, fulfilled the role of the elder sister we did not have. The relations between the two families became so strong that through the good offices of amma the two sisters were both married to our relatives.The top leader of the young people was Faruque bhai, son of Mr Zaman. He was several years older than us. He had just started going to the college, and was the repository of all news and gossip about the town. We used to go out with him to the chandmari (shooting range) used by the police, quite a distance from where we lived, and on holidays we spent many hours gossiping with him and eating nuts or chanachur.Faruque bhai did not have much of a social conscience. His stories were mostly about the rise and fall of our neighbours in the jute business. For example, it was from him that we learnt about Ripon’s father. He started his life as a police constable in Kolkata before partition, married Ripon’s mother (a Hindu lady) from the Sonagachi prostitutes’ quarters and then came over to Narayanganj after partition, gave up his job and got into the jute business. Ripon’s family became enormously rich but Ripon’s father could never give up squandering money on whores and liquor and so their economic condition was now in sharp decline.Barda, on the other hand, always wanted to contribute towards the collective good. In Sylhet, for instance, it was a public library, in Kalabagan (Dhaka), a Green Sporting

Club. He organised the youngsters around the idea of cleaning up the neighbourhood including the big tank (Gola Kata Pukur). One Sunday we were all there under his leadership, picking up rubbish on the banks and also inside the tank. In the process, barda had unknowingly taken in some water from the tank. Next morning, he was very sick, and going in and out of the toilet. First, it was diagnosed as diarrhoea but thanks to the timely intervention of a doctor friend of abba, it was found out to be nothing less than cholera. So, medicines were changed and intravenous saline fluid was given to him, and it was by a miracle that his life was saved. Before he could recover fully, I had to leave for Sargodha, and I felt great pain leaving him in this state of health. As PAF Public School underwent Pakistanisation towards the beginning of 1959, a number of highly qualified Pakistani teachers joined the teaching staff. They were Messrs Nasir and Chughtai (mathematics), Abdur Rahman (physics), Mushtaq (history), Taqvi (biology), Zafar Alam (Urdu), Hussain (English literature and history) and others. They were a great help to me in picking up the respective subjects they taught. Mr Catchpole taught us the English language. He never referred us to any book on grammar. He had his own peculiar ways of teaching, and if you followed him to the letter and in spirit, you would never write incorrect English. Indeed, the little English that I know is because of what Mr Catchpole taught us in his inimitable style. He not only forbade us to learn grammar, he also urged us to follow what he said in the classroom and read a lot of books, including novels. English literature was taught by Mr Hussein. King Henry V by Shakespeare was included as the works in our syllabus. He made the whole drama seem so lucid to us that despite the Shakespearean idioms, I still remember the passages I had then committed to memory.In place of Mr Taqvi, we had Mr Motilal Massey, a native Christian who taught us biology (he was also responsible for games and sports), for a few months in Form V (the pre-Senior

Cambridge class). When he took over from Mr Taqvi, it was time to teach the human reproductive system. Thameant that the class dragged on for several extra weeks because the questions from the precocious and naughty adolescent students were never-ending. At one point, Mr Massey got so disgusted with us that he dismissed the class with some foul mutterings in Punjabi under his breath but loud enough to be picked up by all of us.

In the summer of 1959, I returned to Narayanganj on a three-month vacation. Abba was still posted there but our family had moved to another house in Quaid-e-Azam Road, renamed after independence as Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Road. It was the first floor of a requisitioned building with a balcony overlooking the road. At this time, there were too many guests coming to our house in Narayanganj and we had to huddle together in one room to make space for them. Perhaps because the house was old and rundown, it was not a healthy place to live. Everyone in the family was falling sick and Dr Majid, a distant cousin of amma, was in continuous attendance. He was ever smiling and kept our spirits up. Our greatest source of entertainment in those days was the Anurodher Asar (public request session) on Kolkata radio (Akash Vani) after lunch, when we could hear the best of modern Bangla songs by Hemanta Mukherjee, Sandhya Mukherjee, Alpona Bandopadhyay, Dhananjay Bhattacharjee, Satinath, Geeta Dutt, Manabendra, Manna Dey, Jaganmay Mitra and many others. During that one particular hour, we were all transposed to a world of melody beyond ordinary life and we would eagerly wait for the next session the following day. Amma felt very grateful to Majid mama; so when he suggested that she should help him in getting married, she readily offered to become the matchmaker. Amma was successful and Majid mama was to get married to a beautiful young lady from an aristocratic family of Bihar. The marriage was to take place in Azimpur in the house of the bride’s brother-in-law. We were all invited and accompanied the bridegroom. Now, although Majid mama was a fine doctor and a kind human being and had inherited a lot of property from his father, his only shortcoming (if you like to call it one) was that he was very dark. So, when the time came for shah nazar or shubha drishti

(the occasion when the bride and bridegroom look at one another formally), the bridegroom and the bride were required to say of each other looking at the mirror that they had seen the full moon. This was too much for one of the bride’s cousins to accept. He said quite loudly, ‘There is no doubt that the bridegroom has seen the full moon, but the bride has seen only the amabasya (the dark moonless night)’. Amma now got into a remonstrative mood, and loudly contested such a derogatory comment about her brother, and within no time, everyone from the bride’s family was profusely apologising to amma on behalf of the young man who had made that true but impertinent remark.

After all, we belonged to the bridegroom’s party and hence had the upper hand. This was my first encounter with colour consciousness in our society.

In particular, a girl with a dark complexion was at a severe disadvantage even among the educated middle classes, particularly when it came to marriage. The truth is when people in Bangladesh, or for that matter South Asians, criticise apartheid in South Africa or racism in the United States, they conveniently forget their own dark secret.

In 1959, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II visited East Pakistan and her itinerary included Narayanganj. It was a joyous occasion because people in Pakistan really liked her, whatever the reason. Lakhs of people had thronged the Quaid-e-Azam Road to catch a glimpse of her despite the mild lathi-charge by the police from time to time to control the over-enthusiastic crowd. In order to ensure that she did not see anything unpleasant on the way, such as open drains or makeshift wayside latrines and urinals, the authorities had put up temporary walls around those areas and painted these white.

So, Her Majesty the Queen must have been greatly amused by this massive display of white in Narayanganj.In 1958, as I have already narrated, barda had been bitten by a rabid dog and attacked by cholera. In 1959, he was still in trouble. He was now studying at Notre Dame College and was a daily passenger to Dhaka from Narayanganj. The Intelligence Branch (IB) was after him because he was visiting some place in Dhaka in order to procure banned communist literature. One day, one of the officers of the IB came to our house and warned abba that if he did not control his son, they would have no other choice but to take very different actions. Abba very well knew the import of ‘very different actions’. So, he called barda and told him sternly that if he wanted to ruin his academic career, he should continue with what he was engaged in because this was martial law and once arrested there would be no bail, and that he did not have the influence to get him out of jail either. I think that brought barda to his senses, at least for the time being.It was in that summer that I read the novel The River by Rumer Godden, which was also made into a film a few years after its publication. It is about a young English girl Harriet who lived in Narayanganj a long time ago and it is a memorable tribute to childhood and Bengal. The poignant description of the River Sitalyakha and Nature in Bengal and the pangs of growing up in a young and sensitive girl (her sister was no longer her playmate and her brother was still a child) kept me in a daze for days. I thought it must be autobiographical; how else could she have explored so deep into the recesses of a young girl’s mind or how could she have become so intensely sensitive about her surroundings? Later on, I found out that I was right. Rumer had lived in Narayanganj for some time with her family.  She died in the late nineties and I remember reading her obituary in some British newspaper while travelling by air. To be continued. Kamal Siddiqui, a career civil servant, worked as the principal secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office and as the cabinet secretary. He has to his credit a large number of academic publications from both home and abroad.