Dhaka Requiem: From Stories of Liberation to a Dirge for the Dead

From a city that celebrated liberal values 32 years ago, Dhaka today is not recognisable, writes Chandan Nandy.

5 min read
Dhaka Requiem: From Stories of Liberation
to a Dirge for the Dead

I landed at Dhaka international airport, not any larger than Delhi’s Safdarjung airport, on a windswept autumn afternoon in 1984, 13 years after Bangladesh’s liberation from Pakistan. The skies had darkened. They would open up any moment.

By the time the rain came lashing down, we were already in Dhanmondi, one of Dhaka’s upmarket residential areas; the other two being Gulshan and Banani. Much of Dhaka’s who’s who, the movers and shakers, the politically-connected, the military elite lived in these sophisticated and elegant neighbourhoods – islands of wealth and affluence in a sea of wretched humanity. My father would often slip out in the dead of night to clandestinely meet his contacts in Gulshan.

The Indian High Commission was located in Dhanmondi’s Road No 1. Close by was the expensive New Market where snapshots of the rich and wretched were a common sight: stylishly attired women alighted from sleek Japanese cars and took home loads of jamdanee sarees while limbless humans rolled on their torsos to beg for alms.


Japanese Vehicles

For someone living in Calcutta where Ambassadors then ruled the roads, I would watch with wondrous eyes the Japanese cars on Dhaka’s streets. The black taxis were Toyotas, Datsuns and Suzukis. Autorickshaws were (and perhaps even now) called “baby taxis”. Tricycle rickshaws were in hundreds, perhaps even thousands.

And even as loudspeakers in street corners blared the morning, afternoon and evening prayers, doe-eyed girls in salwar kameezes and shararas would wink from cycle rickshaws. Boisterous, long-haired young men in polyester shirts and trousers rode bikes at high speed on Mirpur Road.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Bangabandhu Memorial Museum, at Road No 32, Dhanmondi, in Dhaka, the residence of former president and founding father of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, 6 June 2015. (Photo Courtesy:

Stories of Liberation

But in our Dhanmondi bungalow drawing room, the endless stream of guests – politicians belonging to the Awami League, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the Jatiya Party, the BAKSAL, journalists of all sorts, retired and serving military officers, former mukti joddhas (freedom fighters) and bureaucrats – would passionately recall, over copious drinks, chilling stories of the liberation struggle, the crackdown by the brutal Pakistani army, the death and devastation caused by the war that began in March 1971, culminating in liberation nine months later.

In 1984, House No 10 on Road No 32 in Dhanmondi was a symbol of two seemingly contradictory sentiments among Dhaka’s denizens: it was at once a martyr’s monument where free Bangladesh’s first president Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who embodied secularism, was assassinated and it was also a place where the democratic ideals of the liberation struggle were lost to a creeping Islamism, not to mention the solidifying of Lieutenant General HM Ershad’s dictatorship.

A man looks at the rear of a tricycle rickshaw with painted portraits of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s independence leader killed in a 1975 military coup, on a Dhaka street, 5 August 1996. (Photo: Reuters)

American TV Serials

Back in my first floor room, the large Philips TV would carry programmes related to the liberation struggle, the omniscient face of Ershad inaugurating some function in Dhaka or delivering a speech in Chittagong with his wife Roushan in tow, family dramas and popular American serials such as Dallas, Knight Rider or Mr T. But the programmes would be punctuated with the regular dose of religious sermons, discussions on the Quran and, of course, the evening azan broadcast directly from Baitul Mukarram, Dhaka’s largest and grandest mosque. I was forbidden from going to Dhaka University, the hotbed of violent student politics.

On a few evenings we would be invited to the sprawling Dhaka Club where bejewelled jamdanee-draped women and safari suit-clad men with military moustaches would drink wine from crystal goblets. Our Sundays would often be spent in Old Dhaka’s Ramakrishna Mission where Swami Aksharananda aka Kali Maharaj would insist that we leave only after lunch that would be the day’s bhog. Here, my father would meet his Hindu contacts who worked in various bureaucratic positions in the Bangladesh government.

Tearful Farewell

While still in high school in Calcutta, my last visit to Dhaka was in the winter of 1986 when I took the bus from the Benapole checkpost on the India-Bangladesh border. Dhaka hadn’t changed at all in the two years that I would frequently visit it on vacations. The parties where raucous and sloshed guests who could not make it back home would sleep the night over in the guest rooms. And when it was time for father’s transfer to another assignment, his Bangladeshi friends wept at the farewell dinner he hosted at the Dhanmondi residence.

Six years later, when the Babri Masjid was razed in UP’s Ayodhya, its reverberations were felt in Dhaka (with Khaleda Zia’s BNP in power) where a Jamaat-i-Islami-led mob attacked the Dhakeshwari temple in the old quarters of the city, destroying the Durga idol in the sanctum sanctorum.


Unrecognisable City

I last visited Dhaka in November 2005 to attend a workshop on migration. The morning bus from Karunamayee in Calcutta’s Salt Lake took the usual route via Benapole, unloading the travellers in Dhaka by early evening. The city, 19 years later, was unrecognisable. Dhanmondi, Gulshan, Banani and another plush new neighbourhood, Baridhara, were no longer the leafy residential areas from the past.

Everywhere, there was the crush of humanity. Women streamed in and out of hulking buildings where, in the sweat shops, they stitched clothes for the Western world. Young men in long, kaftan-length kurtas, lungis, skull caps and sporting wispy beards attentively read from the Holy Quran in newly-constructed madrasas.


The Islamic Tide

Rickshaws and shiny, sprawling cars – Japanese and American – inched forward in the midst of traffic snarls. The rickshaw pullers screamed bangaal obscenities at each other and the helpless traffic cops. Mosque minarets had sprouted in the congested neighbourhoods on both sides of Mirpur Road. Baitul Mukarram was as splendorous as any Saudi Arabian mosque.

Dhaka, the Mughal city where the All India Muslim League was established at Nawab Salimullah’s palace, Ahsan Manzil, had changed. Less than a year before my last visit, on 21 August 2004, the fundamentalist the Harkat-ul-Jihad-i-Islami carried out grenade attacks in Dhaka’s Bangabandhu Avenue, killing 24 people, injuring Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, and proclaiming the arrival of terrorism.

Also read:

Dhaka Siege: Blow for Hasina Govt, Spells Trouble for the Region
45 Years of Liberation, Is B’desh Still Insufficiently Imagined?

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