We also had many in our own age group to play with. On a hot summer day, before lunch, it was always time for a swim in the Gangina (rivulet) at the outer boundary of the village. That meant taking off all clothes and getting into the fast current of the canal and swimming to our heart’s content. In the evening, it was mostly ha du du again by the side of the Gangina. When I later returned to nana bari as a grown-up man, to find the Gangina of my childhood much reduced, I enquired about my co-swimmers. They had mostly become agricultural day labourers. Some of the luckier ones had become industrial workers in Narayanganj. Far removed were the carefree scenes and pastimes of childhood.
In those days, water-borne diseases were quite common, Syedpur being a low-lying area. The only hand pump in the village would often go out of order and contaminated water also got into it sometimes. While water for drinking would be boiled and treated with alum in richer and educated households, which were few and far between, most households of Syedpur drank the untreated water despite warnings from my nanaji. So, the outbreak of cholera was quite common in those days. Once when I returned to Syedpur after a year, I came to learn that one of my good friends had fallen victim to this dreaded disease. It was perhaps my first encounter with death and hence extremely painful. As if this were not trauma enough, in the village graveyard I also came across his skull, which the rain water had flushed unceremoniously out of his grave.
We had to go to the qari sahib (the religious instructions teacher) in the mosque to learn Arabic and the suras (verses from the Qur’an). Since he knew that we were guests in the house of the union board president, he did not cane us much, only once in a while, perhaps in order to keep some parity with his treatment of other students. However, he fed us with a lot of horribly wrong information during our discussions with him. First, according to him the sun revolved round the earth. Second, women were the original source of sin. Third, at the feet of husbands lay the heaven of the wives. Only years later did I learn that none of these had anything to do with Islam.
It was at this time that I came across a song and an official related to jute. One important line of the song was ‘Nailla Uraiya Nilo Chaura Loker Man’ (The jute has swept away the dignity of the people of the alluvial land). The official was the PLA (public loan assistant) whose job was to implement the government policy of restricting the jute acreage. The PLA for nanaji’s union lived in Syedpur. I did not understand why the jute acreage had to be restricted at all since I would see many villagers approaching him with folded hands to leave their jute fields outside the restriction and he had acquired the reputation of making money out of granting favours in this regard. It was only much later that I understood that in order to reduce the wide fluctuations in the price of jute from one year to another, the government went for restricting the jute acreage, lest the cultivators suffer from low prices due to over-production. Indeed, over-production and low jute prices ruined many farmers, and hence this song.
From village to small towns
In late 1951, Abba was posted to Netrakona as sub-divisional controller of food. We had a lovely and spacious tin-roofed house in the so-called Sahib Para (officers’ neighbourhood) on the bank of the Mogra. Behind our house was a large playground where football matches were regularly held Sundays. Before my admission to the school, my favourite pastime had been watching football matches in this playground. I wondered why the players at half-time would take a lot of lime. I also failed to understand why most players were barefooted and only a few had boots on. I observed that every team had different jerseys and that star players were more interested in exhibiting their individual skills, particularly in dribbling, than in short passes and teamwork.
I thoroughly enjoyed the exchange of provocative comments and occasional brawls breaking out between the fans of the opposing teams, and sometimes the police would have to intervene with a light lathi charge to disperse the unruly crowd. However, it was the decision of the referee in one of the matches that enthralled me. A player had committed a serious foul but he not only refused to accept that in good grace but also prevented the free kick awarded by the referee from being delivered. At this point, the referee blew his whistle, called the player in question and thundered in English in a loud voice, ‘Get out of the field’. This was my first acquaintance with a complete English sentence, and I would often repeat it, lest I forgot.
Barda and I were admitted to Dutta High English School, Barda in Class IV and I in Class III. Later I learnt that some of my father’s colleagues had recommended Anjuman HE School. After much thought, abba and amma decided in favour of Dutta School because most of the teachers there were Hindus. Abba, despite his brief Muslim League sympathies during his college days, firmly believed that Hindu teachers were far more sincere, knowledgeable and idealistic compared with their Muslim counterparts. He told us how his Hindu teachers at Laksam HE School had changed his academic life. It was, therefore, no surprise that a Hindu gentleman, Deben Babu, was also employed as our private tutor. That was indeed a stroke of good luck for us. Deben Babu was calm and patient and I soon became his willing disciple.
In Dutta High School, chalk and slates replaced jingla and kalapta that we used in Kailash Pundit’s pathshala. Soon we also got into the habit of using pencil for rough work and inkwell, nib-pen and blotting paper for home work and examinations. By the time, I went to the PAF Public School, Sargodha, the age of the fountain pen had arrived but I could only afford the cheapest brands. That meant my right hand was often covered with ink leaking from the pen. In Dhaka University, life became easy with the coming of the ball point. Several decades later, we were word-processing on the computer, which meant an unimaginable leap in writing technology in our life time. Who knows what will come next?
I had no difficulty at school either. The teachers made learning so easy and interesting that soon it became an addiction to me. The teachers in the school did not openly exhibit their admiration for good students but made it implicit that we were in their good books. However, for breaking school discipline and being rowdy and naughty, the cane was used quite liberally, irrespective of one’s academic standing. I had my due share of caning. However, the same teacher who caned you would visit you at home to cheer you up if you were sick and unable to attend classes.
Once I complained to abba about caning at school. He replied, ‘Baba, I also had my share of caning when I was in school. One day, you will proudly tell everyone that you were caned by your teachers.’ From 2005 to 2009, I was an elected member of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and I do take the public position that corporal punishment in the educational institutions is totally unacceptable. But I also believe that in our times, it was perhaps all right, at least for me. I have no bitter memory for being caned nor do I think that it in any way damaged me, psychologically or physically.
Rivalry between Dutta High School and Anjuman School in the football field was intense. Dutta High School at that time had the best school football team, mainly because of three brothers, mishti, manda and naru (all named after sweetmeats). They were perpetually in Class X because they would regularly fail in the matriculation examinations. In 1956, Dutta High School participated in the East Pakistan school football competition and came out as champion. Barda and I were there in the Dhaka University football field to cheer our old school in the final match. I was greatly amused to find that the youngest of the three brothers was still playing for the school team.
Barda at that time had tendencies which had little to do with studies. He was fond of playing football, stealing money from abba’s pockets to buy chanachur (a spicy snack), reading Dasyu Mohan thrillers, forming groups with boys of his age-group in the neighbourhood and spending time with them and engaging in all kinds of naughtiness. He did not always get along with them although he was their leader. As a sequel to one of those quarrels, he refused to return the football belonging to one of his friends. The matter was reported to amma, who gave him a thrashing, extracted the football out of his secret hiding place and returned it to the aggrieved boy. Barda also persuaded me to steal achar (mango pickle) from the almirah when abba and amma would take a nap in the afternoon of a holiday. If caught, I would bear the brunt; so one day, I spilled the beans and made it clear that I was only barda’s instrument in this stealing exercise.
Barda did not pay much heed to Deben Babu and his school records left much to be desired. Abba was much annoyed with him and once in a while gave him a thrashing while amma would add a verbal lashing. There also would be quarrels between abba and amma over barda. It was the usual story: whose indulgence was more responsible for his wayward ways?
At that time, sugar from Cuba would come in cloth bags. In our lower middle-class family where frugality was the order of the day, such bags were to be fully utilised. Amma had a Singer sewing machine and she would make the three of us shorts out of that cloth but when we went to school or played in those shorts, fellow students would tease us because the blue lettering on the cloth would not come off so easily (maybe only after several washings). When we would lodge our protest with amma and declare that we would not put on these shorts any longer, she would start sobbing. ‘Babara (children), this is all we can afford. Do you know how Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar got his early education? Do not allow them to upset you.’
We encountered difficulties not only with clothes but with shoes. In those days, most students came to the school barefooted and any exception would be ridiculed as ‘showing off’. Abba and amma would insist on us putting on shoes because it was the hygienic thing to do. So, between the two of us, we devised an alternative, namely walking up to the school with shoes on, hiding them in a bush and entering the school compound barefooted. In fact, we continued with this practice in Sylhet Government High School and Dhaka Technical School.
As the month of February approached in 1952, we saw that on a regular basis picketing was going on to bring out the students of our school for demonstrations in connection with the language movement, then raging in full fury all over the country. We had no idea what it was all about but we religiously refused to be drawn into the demonstrations. We had so many other things to do, like walking by the Mogra, playing golla chhut (a local outdoor game) or watching football games. However, perhaps on February 22, that is one day after the infamous police shooting had taken place in Dhaka University, leading to the death of several university students, we could not escape being drawn into the procession. We paraded the whole town and under the leadership of the older students shouted slogans such as, ‘Rashtra Bhasha Bangla Chai, Nurul Aminer Kalla Chai” (We want Bengali as the state language and the head of chief minister Nurul Amin). Despite being February, it was an exceptionally hot day, and though on empty stomachs, barda and I had been in the procession for several hours. We returned home rather late, thoroughly exhausted. After the late midday meal, I felt very feverish and soon took to bed. When I woke up several hours later, I was running a high temperature. Amma was beside me, slowly pouring cold water over my head to bring down the temperature and at the same time teasing me gently, ‘So why did you have to go into this procession? What do you understand of the language movement? Do you know what rashtra bhasha is? Do you know who Nurul Amin is? Where are those picketers now who dragged you to the procession?’
Abba did not rebuke us nor did he complain to anybody. We soon came to understand that both amma and abba were quite sympathetic towards the language movement. It was only after talking to Deben Babu that we understood the full import of what was going on. We felt proud of what we had done although at that time we did not know why we had joined the procession.
It was now the rainy season and the Mogra was in spate. The flood waters were all around us, and we saw Ali Newaz, our cook, catching fish by using pala and koch. Flood waters soon receded but the rains were incessant. Perhaps it was July or August. There was a big political meeting in the football ground behind our house. It was the afternoon of a holiday and we were also there to listen to the political leaders although we understood nothing of their speeches. The meeting was addressed by Shaheed Suhrawardy, Maulana Bhashani, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and many others. Suddenly, there was a heavy downpour and people started taking shelter wherever they could. We also rushed back home which was only a stone’s throw from the football ground. Soon we found to our surprise that Suhrwardy and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman also got down from the dais and took shelter in the servants’ quarters of our house. But as we learnt later, one person went on speaking in fiery language braving the rains. He was none other than Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani.
As soon as abba came to learn that there were these two VIPs in his servants’ quarters he rushed there and implored the guests to come to the drawing room. It was with much reluctance that the guests agreed, and when they came to the drawing room, Huntley biscuits and freshly brewed tea were served to them, which they enjoyed immensely. Towels were also provided so that they could dry off. Suhrawardy asked abba what he did for a living. When abba disclosed his identity, Suhrawardy was apprehensive lest this hospitality would affect abba’s job. Abba replied that he was not afraid of that.