Thursday, 21 August 2014

Those Were the Days

Busy Moulvibazar has all the hallmarks of a Bangladeshi regional centre.
The shrine of Hazrat Shah Mustafa.

There’s no shortage of vibrancy to Moulvibazar town. The bazaar area is a kaleidoscope of dusty, coloured political banners and business signs. Electric wires entangle the streetscape and hundreds of notices once important to someone have papered over the best part of every electricity pole. It’s that usual dollop of localised chaos that signifies a district hub.

It’s not easy to imagine: this is the town named for a resident Islamic preacher, a maulavi descended from Hazrat Shah Mustafa, a companion of the famous sufi saint of Sylhet, Hazrat Shah Jalal. Hazrat Shah Mustafa’s shrine is in Moulvibazar.

Shoppers and passersby crowd footpaths and in the hotel restaurants there’s barely a vacant table. As has become the regional centre hallmark across Bangladesh there’s been that invasion of whirring electric buggies with their synthetic lollipop sirens. No, aside from the buggies, Moulvibazar’s commercial centre feels like a few square blocks of suburban Dhaka.

Hazrat Shah Mustafa's shrine, Moulvibazar.
Abdur Rouf Torufder, 75

Yet just a few rickshaw-minutes from the small-time traffic jams of the centre, still very much in town, Abdur Rouf Torofder, 75, has found a moment’s peace. He’s sitting in a rather happening cane rocking chair at his shop, Fouzia Cane House, waiting for customers and brushing off flies. Torofder remembers an altogether simpler Moulvibazar.

“There was the hospital, the high school where I studied and the police station,” he says, “Those were the three brick buildings. There was nothing... open land with dirt roads. There were horse carts and ox carts and we used to walk barefoot – only outsiders wore shoes. There were hardly any shops that sold them. A tin shed building in Moulvibazar was luxurious when I was young.”

From a time when perhaps only two hundred people lived in the town, Torofder remembers the twice weekly market days, the only relatively busy days. “Hawkers sold peanuts and mori puffed rice snacks – much tastier than you can find now. Half a kilogram of peanuts cost fifty paisa. We could enjoy bakery biscuits but there was no ice cream.”

“The town has become very big since,” he says.

The high school was one of three brick buildings in the town, decades ago.

On her way home to her daughter’s house in one of the side streets at the start of the Sreemangal Road, Fatema Begum, 70, likewise remembers the food. Born in Sylhet, she arrived in Moulvibazar some forty-five years ago to stay with her daughter who currently works as a maid. There, she discovered wonderfully fresh milk and curd. “People used to eat really well,” she says, “Now everything is expensive.”

The paradox is that like the other districts of Sylhet Division, Moulvibazar has benefited from large scale migration over many decades, principally to the United Kingdom – the Londoni phenomenon. Foreign remittances brought greater prosperity to many. “There was lots of open land, ponds...” Begum says, “Rich people were few – but now they are available. Now, too many people are fraudulent. They used to be very kind.” And kindness is an attribute she demonstrates by stopping to chat – we are lucky. “I’ve had two strokes, you know,” she says.

Before she continues her walk home she pauses – she’s had another thought. “In 1971 I saw the Pakistani army catching brothers and sisters. I saw everything.”

Vegetable seller Faruk Miah, 60.

Meanwhile at the market in front of the court house, father of three Faruk Miah, 60, originally from Chamorkuna village, is selling vegetables – he started as a retailer when he was thirteen. “My father died when I was seven,” he says, “I was alone. I stayed on government khas land and eventually started business. At first I sold betel nut – and for the last thirty-five years, vegetables.”

The Moulvibazar court house complex.
He remembers a damp Moulvibazar of open fields. “Taro plants grew wild in the town. At that time vegetables were seasonal – now they run year-round. Moulvibazar used to supply rice to other districts but now we import. All the vegetables were local too.”

Faruk still trades in local vegetables but remarks that the town has since been “attacked” by wholesalers and it’s become harder for the local sellers. “It used to be good – and the court market is still better than other places,” he says, “But now I have no peace.”

“Before people didn’t have anything,” Faruk recalls, “They used to sell their house land for hand-to-mouth crisis. In 1980, 30 decimals of land cost about 200 taka. Now one decimal is five to seven lakhs taka. Yet in those days people didn’t bargain.”

The courthouse hill, Moulvibazar town.
He remembers the floods before the barrage was constructed on the Manu River. In 1984 the whole town was under water except the small hill where the court is situated.

“I was a member of a theatre group,” he says, “and we used to sing songs all night – then in the morning we’d cultivate land, with everyone joining in.” It’s hardly surprising he has no time for modern entertainment. “Now it’s all cinema-ninema,” he says, “It’s all circus... not like before.”

“You know, the country was poor then,” he comments, “Many went to your country to make money.” He’d surely be right if I was born in the United Kingdom.

The Manu River, Moulvibazar town.
Md Salam Box with his son Noyon

Beside the Manu River weir is a tea shack called the Brother-Sister Variety Store. It’s the business of Md Salam Box, 51, from Matakarpon village. He’s somebody who believes in hard work. “In our family there are seven,” he says, “and I am the chairman. If I tell my family, ‘Today you will eat rice’ and they don’t eat it, who is at fault?”

From his sense of responsibility he wanted his children to study. But a few years ago circumstances changed. “My intestine busted,” he says, “It had a six by two inch hole in it, and after I became sick I couldn’t work like before. I opened this tea shop.” His thirteen-year-old son Noyon was unable to continue studying and took a job as a brickfield labourer.

“My son works very hard,” he says, “but these days so many young men like to stay in their houses and eat. Nor do they wish to study. These days the kids want a Honda to go to college, but if you give them an English newspaper they can’t read it.”

“Thirty years ago, I was very afraid of my father. It’s not like that now. There was no zom-zom then,” says Box, referring to noise and bustle.

He also fondly remembers yesteryear’s food. “There were many pineapple gardens. We had coconuts, palm syrup, mangoes, jam, jackfruit... There was room to grow vegetables everywhere – now it’s all buildings. The river was full of fish.”

Now Moulvibazar is all buildings. It's all zom-zom bustle.

“I miss bhubis and nashpati pears,” he says, referring to local fruits, the former called langsat or lanzones in English. “I miss latiall and kasalath rice.” These are traditional Sylhet-region rice species. Latiall is recalled as small grained with a nice aroma, while kasalath is an aus variety.

Yet he also considers that more development could have been achieved. “In other countries, how happy they are!” says Box. “Everything is already digital there.”

As we speak, Box’s dust-covered son Noyon appears, on a break from the nearby brickfield. He asks for a cold drink and before he leaves – he’s been taught responsibility – pays.

Meanwhile, back at Fousia Cane House, Torofder also attests to changed values. “People used to keep promises,” he says, “People didn’t lie. Even a murderer would say sorry back then.”

It was when he was twenty that Torofder finally got his first shoes, a parental gift that cost one taka – the same price as a large hilsa fish. “They were tyre-belt, wooden chappals,” he remembers, “I really liked them. At first it was strange to wear shoes but I got used to it. It was luxury and I felt like a king!” 

The Manu riverbank.
The Manu river from the weir.

The Manu River weir, Moulvibazar.

The weir sluice gates.

Behind the weir.

This article is published in Star Magazine, here: Those Were the Days

The Manu River.


  1. Those are awesome posts and photos published about way back Pakistan life.
    Compliments from the Tenerife holiday home home insider.

  2. Thanks Tozcal. Greetings from Bangladesh to Tenerife!