A Glimpse of a Chittagong Childhood
Posted by bangalnama on October 2, 2008
Chittagong, Chattagram as its real name is, must be amongst the most beautiful places on this earth. It is unfairly endowed with the natural beauties of towering mountains, grand rivers, verdant meadows, lush forests and even beautiful sandy beaches. Amongst these wonders live several Mongoloid tribes like the Chakmas, who have until today, preserved their tribal customs, dress, diet and lifestyle.
My mother’s family were originally from Dhaka Bikrampur, its rich and hoary past ingrained in lives of its peoples. However, my maternal grandfather moved to Chittagong in the course of his government job with the Customs department. It was a struggle to make ends meet, with his family of eight children- a fact the children were unaware of. They grew up in the riches of their transplanted home, enjoying a carefree life in the fringes of a Chakma village. Their humble home was made of ‘byara‘, a kind of matted bamboo sheet, and topped with a tin corrugated roof. There was a small cottage garden surrounding the modest dwelling, with the ubiquitous ‘chal kumro’ white gourd growing on its roof. My thrifty grandmother wasted nothing. Every part of the vine was cooked and eaten. The recipes are now treasured in the family’s kitchen.
Just as music is needed to brighten our lives, theirs was a home full of song and laughter. Close to their home, there was an ashram and an ‘akhra‘ of one Baalak Sadhu- simply called Thakur– by all who lived close by. Every morning there was a recitation of prayers and songs called ‘Stawb Paatth‘ and a similar program for the evening vespers. The children of course, sang at home, picking up everything they heard with great skill. My grandmother, also gifted with a beautiful voice, shocked all by becoming an afficionado of a then modern poet- Atul Prasad Sen; singing his ‘adhunik bangla gaan‘ as she went about her day’s chores! Eyebrows were raised slightly, but Amodini DasGupta, my grandmother, was a natural iconoclast and an original thinker within the external mould of a traditional woman. However, the neighbourhood stood in awe of this statuesque and exceptionally beautiful woman, who was the first to volunteer, to care for anyone who needed help. There are stories about people who had suppurating wounds, that she would go and clean, applying bandages of clean old saris and dhuties; counsel wayward youth; having a portion of simple food sent to the old men and women who did not have a care giver; and so on. She was very strict with her children, applying a liberal dose of swift and sure justice with a strong and practiced hand, to those who broke her rules of good behaviour and deportment.
One of her rules was that all the younger children must be home before dusk. In those days, human encroachment of the forests was low. As a result, wildlife abounded in the surrounding forests. The Chakmas had a special bamboo ‘bell’ that they would ring if a tiger was sighted near a human habitation. Upon hearing this ‘bell’, all the children were taught to run indoors and stay put until deemed safe to emerge outdoors once more. Naturally, the DasGupta children also learned to heed this warning.
Just beyond their homes was a scenic garden on a hill called Nandan Kanan, where there was a sparsely attended Buddhist temple. Also close by was the dargah tomb of a 7th century Persian Sufi saint Bayazid Bastami, or Sultan-ul-Arefin on another hilltop. The children called this place Baaje Bostam, perhaps confused by the tale of evil spirits converted into turtles, that lived in the tank in front of the mazhar tomb. Both places were actually out of bounds for them because these were remote places and the roads to them were wild. This, of course, added a special lure to secret visits!
On one such occasion, my ten year old mother and her eight year old brother spent a very happy afternoon playing in the hill of of the dargah. They were imaginative, well read children, who enacted various stories of valorous men and women to their hearts content. They failed to notice that the sun was dipping rapidly on that winter’s evening. As does happen close to the Tropics, the sunset is quite swift, and dusk is brief. Alarmed, at the growing darkness, the children hurried home; though not fast enough it seemed to them.
Pushing past thickets of bamboo and brush, they scurried as fast as they could. The newly heard story of Kapalkundala, was hardly one of cheer; after all no one had told them that there were no ‘kapaliks‘ (a sect that beheaded victims as sacrifice to the Goddess Kali) here. After all how could one account for some missing children in the area? With hearts pounding they ran helter skelter homeward. Then came another challenge. They had to cross an area of land that had been cleared for cattle to graze in. This clearing, though easier to traverse, also made them more visible to dangers lurking in the forest. With a skill born of desperation, they decided to walk sideways, arms linked in the manner of a crab. In this way each would scan 180 degrees of the field. At the hint of trouble they would flee in the opposite direction!
After what seemed to be ages, they came within sight of their homes. The older brothers and other concerned neighbours had already launched a search party, and were calling out for them. They were so so scared that they could not even respond. No sound seemed to come out of their parched throats!
That evening, my grandmother’s punishment was received with an unusual gratitude, as it was far less than what they had given themselves.
Article by:- Devalina Sen