Dhaka Diary: Ah, Nanabari!

by Fakrul Alam

Every year, twice a year, during winter and summer vacations, my family would travel to Feni, where we would spend our holidays in our Nana Bari, the home of my Nana or maternal grandfather.

For days before the journey, our excitement would keep mounting. For one thing, Amma would make frequent trips to Nawabpur, or what was then called Jinnah Avenue , to buy fabrics or wool which she would then sew/darn/weave into clothes or woolens to gift her family members when in Feni. She would also spend more time in the kitchen than usual, cooking as many dishes as she could for my father, the only of us who would be staying behind since he had his office to attend to; he would join us, if at all, for a few days at the end. For days before she left, Amma would repeat instructions to our household helps till by the time we would leave we had memorized what they were supposed to be doing while we were away. Moreover, she would spend the last few days before the journey packing and repacking since she had to ensure that we had everything we needed, not only for the fortnight or so we would spend in Feni, but also for the journey back and forth.

And then, finally, the day of the journey to Feni would arrive! The six of us would board two or three rickshaws in the morning elatedly and head for the railway station in Phulbaria. However, once we got down things became frenetic as we tried to thread our way through a platform overflowing with passengers and hangers-on, coolies and vendors, beggars and con-artists, as well as railway police and ticket checkers. Intrepid and inspired, Amma would lead us through the milling and tense crowd. It was as if the whole world was heading for the same interclass compartment; indeed, it seemed that we always managed to reach it just when the train was ready to live the station.

Somehow, Amma managed to get us seated in the crowded compartment by the time the train had started to move, no mean feat considering that I can never remember one that was anything other than jam-packed. And no matter what the instructions on the compartment wall had to say about the number of people to be accommodated in it, there seemed to be at least thrice the number at any point of time. Even going to the toilet was a major achievement and yet it was amazing how when the train finally started to move, the vendors and beggars who had come on board managed to writhe their way through the mass of bodies in the breathing-room-only compartment.

Eventually, the train would leave Phulbaria and we would relax and feel exhilarated again. Because we did the trip so often, we looked forward to the highlights on the way. Bhairab Bridge, huge and unending, had views of the riverscape that were breath-taking at all seasons and for as long as the train clanged through it we were awestruck. Kosba, the station on the border where Pakistani and Indian troops skirmished frequently throughout the nineteen-sixties, was always the place where we tensed up a little. The red hills of Mainamati looked incongruous in the green world of Bangladesh ; junctions like Brahmanbaria and Laxam, where vendors hawked their wares and cries of “ cha gorom ” and “ deem ” filled the air inviting all passengers to quick glasses of hot tea and boiled eggs, too had their fleeting attractions.

Although the trip to Feni was supposed to be seven or eight hours long and we would start early in the morning, by the time the train reached Feni Station, it would be late in the evening; the journey would be inevitably lengthened by delayed starts in every junction and frequent stoppages because someone or the other had pulled the chain to grind the train to a halt, despite the sign painted inside the car in forbiddingly-red letters proclaiming the severe penalty for such an act. By the time we landed in Feni, therefore, we were exhausted and irritable, worn out by a journey that seemed to have gone on and on.

Feni in the nineteen-sixties was a small mofussil town, and as we got down from the train it seemed to us Dhakaites only quaintly interesting. For instance, rickshaws were often veiled! The traffic consisted almost entirely of rickshaws and bullock carts; the buildings seemed rickety or run-down, as if someone had forbidden them all to look good or finished or told them not to stand up straight. Although the trip to our Nana Bari from the station could not have taken more than a few minutes by rickshaw, to us it seemed to take forever; we just couldn’t wait for the journey to end by this time.

But all our fatigue evaporated as soon as our rickshaw took a bend and Nana Bari swung into view, revealing our uncles and aunts waiting eagerly to take us in. Nana, intensely religious at this stage of his life, would often be waiting to greet us with the warmest of smiles before hurrying off to prayer. My Nani would first embrace Amma and the two of them would sniff a little, both overcome by the emotion of the oldest daughter returning home after some months. Then she would hug the five of us turn by turn and dash for the kitchen where she had been supervising the cooking. We would join her there as soon as we had washed and changed so that she could serve us delicious pithas and all sorts of delicacies that Amma could cook in Dhaka only now and then.. If it wasn’t too late, Amma’s relatives and friends would drop in, making us feel very important, for everyone wanted to know what us children were doing in school and the details of our Dhaka life. Eventually, we would drop off to sleep in utter exhaustion, but not before our uncles and aunts would tell us what plans they had for us for the next few days.

The next few days, infact, would go in a whirl. If it was summer and the heat was too intense or the rain too heavy we would play carom or snakes and ladders inside for a while; if there was a cloud cover or only a drizzle outside we would play hopscotch or football in the courtyard or retreat to the shaded grove in the backyard. Sooner or later, though, we would head for the pond, the centre of our daily rituals, and once we went in the water we stayed in till Nani and Amma would drag us out for lunch. It was in this pond that we all learned to swim in successive trips; here we floated on banana-trunk rafts for hours and were thrilled at the way my uncles caught fish either with a net or a fishing rod. Sometimes a tiger-skinned snake would slither past us shushing us instantly until it disappeared. Then we would resume our water games once again. If it was winter, on the other hand, we would stay in bed as long as possible and until the sun was completely up ; afterwards, we would head for the courtyard where we would play hopscotch or cricket or go to the farthest reach of our Nana Bari in the plot of land adjacent to the pond, pretending to be picnicking. And then after we had psyched and warmed ourselves adequately we would go to the pond for a quick dip and rush out shivering to dry ourselves and have lunch in the sun.

Some evenings Amma would take us out to visit her relatives. Other evenings we would go out for strolls. At least one evening we would spend promenading all around the dighi or large tank around which colonial Feni had grown and where the dak bungalows and the offices of this sub-divisional town were. On one of these evenings, our uncle would take us to the edge of the town to show the old bridge and the massive and ancient bat tree on the Grand Trunk Road, narrating to us as we went the story of how Sher Shah had built it and the bridge hundreds of years ago as part of his plan to administer efficiently the territories he had wrested from the Mughals. On another evening our uncle would take us to see the ruins of Feni airport, for the town was once one of the key forward bases of the Royal Air Force, even though it would be abandoned at the bend of our history when India was partitioned. At least once every visit we would sneak out and go to see a film, for our now-Puritan Nana was known to frown even at the mention of the cinema and would get mad at my uncles and aunts if he came to know where they had taken us.

At night, we would go occasionally go to dawats; once every trip Nanu would reciprocate by inviting relatives, friends, and even acquaintances she considered important to Nana Bari so that they could also meet us over dinner. On nights when we stayed home all by ourselves Nana would join us after evening prayers, relaxing and joking with us for at least an hour, and the sixty minutes or so he would spend with us would remind the other elders of how he had been full of life and a swadeshi campaigner once, an activist in the cause of self-rule and one Bengal, but how he had become other-worldly now. Sometimes his step-brother would visit us, tooting his odd-sounding bicycle horn as he came and went entirely for our benefit, and filling Nana Bari with his booming voice and loud laughter. Nani, too, would join us for a while, finally relaxing after another day of hard work, and would tease and banter us as grandmothers are supposed to do, making us grandchildren feel silly and important at the same time.

Reluctantly, we would go to sleep after dinner; some on beds and some on the mats spread out on the floor. But sleep would take a long time to come, for we would first review the events of the day or plan for the one that was coming up, exchange secrets in the dark, or whisper stories about the ghosts and robbers that were supposed to be all around Nana Bari.

But we felt totally secure in Nana Bari, wrapped up in the love of my grandparents and uncles and aunts. Every part of the Bari was full of family history. ”There” an aunt would say, “was where you were born!” “Those rooms are where all of us used to live before your Nana decided to extend the house for all you grandchildren” my Nani would tell us proudly. In time, I began to fill parts of Nana Bari with my own memories too, although I was still a boy. Wasn’t that the room, for instance, where I was painfully initiated to the faith, though the occasion led to a feast in my honor afterwards? Occasionally, we all became part of family history in the making, as an uncle or an aunt got married, or one of us or a cousin had his akika or birthday celebrated, and Nana Bari would then take on a festive air for days.

For the fortnight or so we were in Nana Bari we were thus completely happy. Little did we know then, the financial difficulties my Nana was experiencing due to the religious turn he had taken in old age; the hours he was spending in prayers and meditation meant that other people were taking advantage of him, encroaching on his land and trying to defraud him in business. Little did we know the strain Nani was going through then running the large family on a reduced budget—Amma has three brothers and seven sisters!—for she was always generous with us. Little did we realize that our uncles and aunts had to make do with much less than they had been once used to, for they seemed to be totally indulgent and giving whenever we asked them for anything.

. No wonder that when the time to return to Dhaka came we were all quiet unhappy. As we departed, Amma (and Nani) cried a lot, this time because mother and daughter knew that they would not be seeing each other for at least six months, and because every leave-taking now confirmed to them that the first parting was irrevocable, and we felt a little sad too. School was something to look forward to, but how could the cramped life we led in the busy city compensate for the freedom and the open spaces and the love swirling all around Nana Bari? The journey back therefore would seem uneventful and unending and we went back to Dhaka a fatigued and melancholy lot.

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Last year, two of our sisters and I visited Nana Bari for a few hours. My Nana had died in 1970 and my Nani went in 1997; all my uncles and aunts were now in Dhaka or abroad. Nana Bari had shrunk in size, for my uncles had decided to sell parts of it in a strategic move to secure the main house from the machinations of the covetous and grasping lot that were now in power in remittance-rich and hooligan-infested Feni. We found out that the pond and the shaded groves and all our favorite haunts had gone and felt totally depressed at the diminished thing that the Bari had become. “Better not to come any more” I told myself; better to keep Nana Bari intact in memory than confront the diminution of the place where more than anywhere else we had once been totally happy. Better to wax nostalgic then than be confronted with the ever-increasing intimations of mortality. Ah, Nana Bari !

January 24, 2007
Fakrul Alam is on leave from the University of Dhaka and now teaches English at East West University, Bangladesh.