How living in Kolkata as a Bangladeshi made me more culturally aware

In August of 1947, the Bengali nation found itself divided into two countries. But geopolitical borders can only separate people, not their cultures and souls. West Bengal and Bangladesh are two bodies with one soul, with their hearts beating within the people who contain a bit of both entities. The culture differences might be overwhelming to some, but to many, the similarities is where the harmony is strengthened. The capital of West Bengal, Kolkata is specifically loved by many Bangladeshis because of still containing the residue of original Bengali traditions and inspirations gracefully enough, while becoming a modern cosmopolitan city.

A tale of two cities

Kolkata is not just a city to many, it is also an emotion for being the heart of emergence of the historic personalities, events and art that have shaped the dimensions of our collective culture. It will forever remain precious since it has still preserved it all with simplicity, sincerity and joy.

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Read more: In Kolkata, the city of joy

Dhaka is different. It might not be as aesthetically pleasing but it has had the fortune of being the home of Nawabs. This 400-year-old city still preserves the faint scent of its lost glory days in the narrow alleys of Old Dhaka. Being someone who appreciates food and fraternity, my love for Dhaka is eternal since you will find it in loads here. The versatility of cuisines and food habits here beats some of Kolkata’s for me. Old Dhaka is undeniably the heart of likeable chaos and urban heritage. This is how it steals my breath, even after being overwhelmingly crowdy.

Read more: 6 places in Dhaka that remind us of our glorious past.

A tale of two teachers

I have been blessed with the fortune of having a residence in Kolkata, unlike many. Being a wanderer in nature, Kolkata as a city has always actively taken part in shaping my emotions, feelings, values and cultures. The city has a particular aesthetic that no other city could beat for me till now. This is a city for the people with a hearty appetite and curious eyes. Kolkata gave me so much more than a place to stay. It gave me comfort, peace, diversity and joy. So much, that I became addicted to its roads flooding with sodium lights, yellow ambassadors with loud Bollywood songs from the 80s, earthen tea cups that have their own flavour and so much more!  The air of this city has a distinct smell, the smell that will excite anybody who is familiar with the diversity it offers.

How life in Dhaka University changes you

Dhaka pampers you with unpredictability and availability. It gave me a home to grow up in and understand myself better. Nothing in Dhaka is too far but it consumes time like no other. Even then, it will still give you hope. From the delicacies to the nightlife, everything here is a trade. The trade of time, energy and sometimes, life.

Kolkata or Dhaka, why not both?

While Kolkata wows me with art and ethereal beauty, Dhaka prepares me for the worst. It is like Yin and Yang, balancing each other in harmony. Kolkata was originally inspired by the British. Their credit? They built it. Kolkata’s credit? It preserved and carried it, even today, like it’s their own. The historic buildings, churches, temples, mosques, offices.. everything gives you the feeling of being in the right place, no matter how many times you’ve visited the place already. The best thing about Kolkata carrying its cultures so devotedly even today is the candidness behind everything in this city. Nothing feels forced, nothing feels odd. Even the shady alleys will offer something to your thoughts.

6 places in Dhaka that remind us of our glorious past

Being a frequent visitor of Kolkata since the age of 4, I realized there’s more of Kolkata in me than Dhaka, as I am now labelled an adult by society.

The cultural similarity we share has been sowed within me by Kolkata and was nourished here in Dhaka. Every time I visit Kolkata, I learn something new, even if it isn’t directly associated with anything cultural.

A tale of two art forms

Dhaka has its own way of expressing itself. It will express its ‘sorrows’ through the sweat stains of a tired Rikshawala on a humid day, ‘happiness’ through the smile on the face of a mother when her child returns home, ‘fear’ with the speeding buses and trucks on busy streets, ‘anger’ with every innocent life lost, ‘hope’ with every warning a girl receives from random strangers when her orna is tangled to the wheels of a rickshaw and ‘joy’ with every cricket match Bangladesh team manages to win. We have our own graceful way of doing things here.

Rad more: 5 unique experiences in Dhaka that most tourists never see

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Kolkata is a living art. From Howrah to New Market, the extended roads with shadowy alleys, sodium lights and oversized billboards, the faint smell of incense coming from a distance and the classic yellow ambassadors lining up one after another in traffic, everything will please your eyes. Kolkata isn’t entirely modern but it doesn’t want to be it either. It is almost like a modern cosmopolitan woman draped in a saree, unpretentiously appreciating the combination. This effortlessly beautiful city has always been therapeutic for me, whenever I felt dilemmatic, whenever I needed a breath of fresh air. The discipline of this city despite the chaotic charisma as it may seem to many, is praiseworthy as well.

In Kolkata, the city of joy 7

Being in a love-hate relationship with Dhaka has enabled me to appreciate the best of both cities.

Dhaka will always capture a bigger part of my heart and a broader part of my understandings of culture. The city may not be as artistic and aesthetically pleasing, but it will make you appreciate the little things in your life. Dhaka lets you set priorities and act on it everyday. Dhaka will disappoint you, but some days it won’t and you’ll fall in love with it. The heart of Dhaka is not what it contains but the people who make this city liveable. Culturally, Dhaka has given me the concepts of assertiveness, relationships and the importance of being there for each other. Dhaka will destroy you first and then build you up better. Compared to Kolkata, Dhaka gives you hopes with conditions. Dhaka gives you freedom with restrictions. But Kolkata?

Divided by a border, united by culture

Kolkata lets you live, in all the ways you want to. As Dhaka keeps me grounded, Kolkata gives me the wings to fly. The combination of two didn’t only help me appreciate the beauty of the Bengal, but also it gave me a strong sense of security and cultural awareness.

If these words didn’t make enough sense to you as someone who’s yet to breathe the air of Kolkata, why don’t you pack your bags and board the next flight to make sense out of it? And if by any chance, you’re reading this from Kolkata, it’s never too late to visit this cousin city at least once.

Kacchi Biryani: The ambrosia of Old Dhaka

It was a Friday afternoon. The monumental city was waiting for us with all its glory and sparkling chaos. Right after entering into Old Dhaka (Puran Dhaka), we felt alive as if nothing there stops even for a second. It was all very happening!

Old Dhaka in all its charm

The unplanned, unorganized buildings smelling like warm shrubbery are archaic, the spindled creepers hanging from some of the houses make the pale concrete alive. None seems to mind the mild dust everywhere as if its presence is essential in adding more noise in this old city. Life is rush here, no time for complaints!

My friend Nitu and I came to Old Dhaka to get a taste of its famous Kacchi Biryani. We had been hearing a lot about it, and finally, we decided to pay Old Dhaka a visit.  

The tale of Kolkata Kacchi Ghor

We entered in the warm room of a renowned local restaurant, Kolkata Kacchi Ghor, with the expectation of having a good plate of Kacchi. The place smelled like butter and thyme. After waiting for four minutes, the aroma came from across the room; oh, they had started serving our biryani on the plates! We were hungry and impatient.  It took them two more minutes to bring the plates to us due to adding the beef Jali Kebab, sliced cucumber salad, a couple of pieces of lime and plum chutney to the side.

Visually, each plate looked like ambrosia.

A plate full of colours: white basmati rice with the pop of mustard yellow, one glazed piece of well-cooked mutton, a big piece of potato perfectly burnt on the sides and the salad and lime added a touch of green. We were salivating. We could not wait anymore and started digging in.

A culinary masterpiece

The non-sticky basmati rice was cooked to perfection. The slow rising steam was forming a piquant cloud. I gave the rice a taste first and right then I realized, it was the most delectable form of rice I had ever tasted. I started tearing the big chunk of well-cooked mutton. It was so tender that the flesh would tear apart just with a light pull of my fingers. My mouth was watering and without wasting a second, I ate it. The succulent meat was bursting out with flavorsome tenderness. Gingerly, while enjoying every mouthful, I started to add all the elements to it.

The potato was the highlight of the plate, the element that brought it all together. The charred sides tasted like salted savoury caramel. The texture in the middle was pulpy and roasted. The beef kebab was filled with goodness. It seemed like the match of the spicy minced beef and sweet chopped onion was made in heaven.

We cleaned up our plates completely. Luckily, there was no elachi on my plate to ruin it all! I was overwhelmed with the taste blast, but it was not over yet.

They came up with glasses of Borhani and small cups of Kheer. We started sipping the borhani slowly. It was like taking a breath of fresh air, we were revived. Conclusively, we wanted to end it with sweetness. I took the kheer with a little plastic spoon. Smelling like luxury, the saffron was very refined and mesmerizing. The sugariness of milk and boiled rice was not overwhelming at all but was light and airy. I was on cloud nine after finishing it. It was a FEAST.

A dash of old Dhaka hospitality

We went to the counter to pay the bills. The manager was sitting there. He had a handlebar mustache and a head full of thick dark hair. He looked at us curiously and with a big smile he said, “I can tell you guys loved the food, didn’t you?” We nodded joyfully. “We sure did and you will see us again soon!” replied Nitu. He laughed and said “Don’t forget to order the mutton leg roast next time!”

It is the hospitality that cannot be bought, and it can be found everywhere here in Old Dhaka. The friendly faces, the generosity and the cordiality; the ‘people’ is what differentiates Old Dhaka from another old busy city.

That day we came back home with little more than a satisfied tummy; a happy heart.

6 places in Dhaka that remind us of our glorious past

Dhaka might be the second worst city in the world to live in, but it once had a glorious history. This four hundred-year-old city once boasted beautiful Nawab palaces, lush gardens, Mughal mosques, ancient temples and more. Dhaka, during the Mughal and British eras, was a prime example of urban settlement of the respective periods. Communities and diasporas like the Armenians, English, Portuguese and of course the native Bengalis, all settled here and made their own share of contributions to the growth of a great city.

The modern 21st century Dhaka has lost much of its old charm. But there are still places and landmarks in Dhaka that will take one back to the old glory days. Many of these places are now in near ruin due to mismanagement and a lack of interest in preserving their appearance. But if you’re looking for something off the usual path, these are the places to head to if you want a reminder of what Dhaka used to be and, perhaps, still can be.

Here are six such places for the history aficionados who want to reminisce about the golden days of Dhaka.

Bahadur Shah Park

Bahadur Park dhaka travel bangladesh heritage

Bahadur Shah Park, formerly known as Victoria Park, is located in Old Dhaka near the Sadarghat area. In the late nineteenth century, the park used to be the city centre of Dhaka with several important colonial establishments built around it. It was the main node of the road network of urban Dhaka back then. This is the site where the British performed public execution of the soldiers who took part in the failed Sepoy Mutiny of 1857.

It was also the site from where the accession of Queen Victoria as the Empress of India was announced amidst much fanfare in 1858. Hence the name Victoria Park. It remained Victoria Park until 1947, after which it was renamed Bahadur Shah Park as part of the decolonizing that followed the Partition.

The park houses a memorial built by Nawab Khwaja, dedicated to the soldiers executed in 1857. It also has Dhaka’s only obelisk, erected in memory of the Nawab’s late son.

Bara Katra

Bara Katra old dhaka bangladesh travel heritage

Bara Katra is one of the oldest surviving Mughal palatial buildings in Dhaka. Built between 1644 and 1646 CE, it was built to be the official residence of Prince Shah Shuja, son of Emperor Shah Jahan. The prince later endowed it to his diwan.

Bara Katra boasted a magnificent Mughal architectural style and used to be one of the finest Mughal buildings during the time of its construction. In the 19th century, James Atkinson described it as a “stupendous pile of grand and beautiful architecture”.

Located near the Chawkbazar area of Old Dhaka and close to the Buriganga river banks, much of its grandeur is now lost due to the negligence of the authorities tasked with its preservation.

Armenian Church

Armenian Church Dhaka Bangladesh Travel Heritage

This magnificent church in Armanitola of Old Dhaka is a significant architectural monument. It bears testimony to the existence of the Armenian diaspora in the Bengal region in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Following the invasion of Armenia by the Persians in the 17th century, a significant number of Armenians were sent to Bengal for establishing an Armenian community overseas in the interests of self-preservation. The Armenians played a major role in the political and economic scene of Bengal back in the time. They were mostly traders and businessmen dealing in jute and leather, operating out of the Armenian district, which now bears the name of Armanitola.

In 1781, they built a church adjacent to an Armenian burial ground. After several years, a massive clock-tower was erected in the church. The bells of the clock tower could be heard from four miles away and people used to synchronize their watches according to it. It was destroyed in an earthquake in 1897.

In 1996, Mother Teresa stayed in the church compound during her visit to Dhaka. The Bangladesh Archeological Board recently recognized it as a heritage site, and personal efforts by an Argentinian of Armenian descent is looking to preserve the history of the Armenian diaspora in Bangladesh.

The Dhaka Gate

Dhaka gate travel heritage

Dhaka Gate, also known as the Mir Jumla gate, is located at what is now the Dhaka University Campus. It can be seen on the two sides of the road that leads to TSC from Doyel Chattor. The Dhaka Gate was originally built by Mir Jumla II during the reign of Aurangzeb, as a gateway to enter Dhaka from the North East side.

The Dhaka Gate marked the official entry to the capital city. Adjacent to it was the Bagh e Badshahi, the royal garden of the Mughals that added to the beautification of Dhaka. The site of the garden is now known as Suhrawardi Uddyan.

The Dhaka Gate was later damaged in an earthquake. Magistrate Charles Dawson re-erected it in 1825 in a mixture of Mughal-European architectural style.

Today, the Dhaka Gate lies in neglect but still bears the signs of its glory days.

Rose Garden Palace

Rose Garden Palace Dhaka Bangladesh Travel Heritage

The Rose Garden Palace is an elegant 19th-century mansion in K.M. Das Lane of Tikatuly, Old Dhaka. Zaminder Hrikesh Das built it as a Jolshaghor in the late 19th Century. Statues and fountains adorn the large garden in front of the main building. The main balcony of the building served as a viewing platform for the performances that were held in the garden.

At that time Jolshas, or lavish parties with music and dancers, were an important aspect of the social life of rich Hindu merchants and landlords. In 1936, Hrikesh Das declared bankruptcy due to his extravagant lifestyle and sold it to a wealthy Muslim businessman.

It was at this palace that the Awami League, the political party closely associated with the Bengali independence movement in 1971, was born when East Bengali liberal and social democrats converged here to form an alternative political force against the Muslim League in Pakistan.

Ruplal House

Ruplal House Dhaka Travel Bangladesh

The Ruplal House in Farashganj of Old Dhaka is a mansion built in the late 19th century by Armenian landlord Aratun. The Ruplal brothers bought it in 1835 and hired Martin and Co. of Calcutta for the renovation work. Ruplal House and Ahsan Manzil, which is nearby, used to be the architectural jewels of Dhaka back in the day. The area served as the residence for the rich merchant class and top-level British officers. Ruplal House hosted a significant portion of the cultural activity of the time. Gurus of Indian classical music like Ustad Alauddin Khan, Ustad Wali Ullah Khan and Lakshmi Devi regularly hosted shows here. Ruplal House was also politically important at times.

The Ruplal House was expensive to build on site. The structure features an Indo-Greek architectural style, massive blocs, porticos, tinted glasses, ballrooms and banquet halls. There used to be a clock tower at the top, which was damaged by an earthquake. The fall of Ruplal House began after the Ruplal family left during the Partition in 1947. Now the Ruplal House is jointly owned by several private and commercial owners and is in a state of disrepair.

Dhaka: A city on the edge

I would like to begin this article by offering my condolences and heartfelt prayers to the victims of the fire tragedies and their families. Many acquaintances have been deeply affected by the incident. Relatives of a close friend of mine are still unaccounted for. The nightmare might have ended, but its effect lingers on.

It has been a few days since the flames at Chawkbazar of Puran Dhaka or FR tower in Banani have subsided. But the sizzling wounds the tragedies have left in our hearts may never heal. The horrifying incident of Chawkbazar left a death toll that may be anywhere between 60 and 200, depending on the news source you choose to believe. The number, as great as it actually may be or as small as those in control would want you to believe, can’t possibly deduct any amount of horror we have experienced here. Parts of the inferno caught on footage have made our blood run cold. One can’t even begin to imagine how it would have been to be there in person.

Facts and Speculations

Let’s talk about the Chawkbazar tragedy. There have been copious amounts of speculation and debate over the specifics of the Chawkbazar tragedy. Everything from the source of the fire to the death toll possesses conflicting reports.

The general consensus is that the chemical warehouses in the area contributed to the spread of the fire. This was heavily denied by a minister and some of the local homeowners, who insist that a gas cylinder from a pickup truck triggered the fire. So much so, during a live report on the incident, a commotion of “Cylinder” chants was heard in the background. Although these parties denied the presence of chemical warehouses in the Churihatta area, none of them denied the presence of a perfume and cosmetics warehouse. I was under the strange impression that those things are made of dangerous and flammable chemicals. Especially after reports of them shooting in every direction like firecrackers during the incident.

Snide remarks aside, the Department of Explosives has confirmed that the fire did indeed have flammable chemicals at its source of spread. They also uncovered an intact gas cylinder from the pick-up truck where the fire allegedly began.

A game of shadows is evidently at play, but I don’t really want to get into that. I would rather center this discussion around the potential consequences of our acts as a nation, perhaps even a species, that have been exposed to us by this tragedy.

The Seneca Cliff: A recipe for disaster

The Seneca Cliff is a mathematical model proposed by a Florentine professor of Physical Chemistry, Ugo Bardi. The name of the model is a reference to Latin Philosopher Seneca the Younger and his verse from Letters to Lucilius, “The rise is gradual, the fall precipitous.” The model deals with problems in nature that experience decline at a considerably faster rate than growth, under some constraints. A very apt example of this would be pollution caused by humans, which is fated to doom us all rather quicker than we anticipate.

That might sound alien to our discussion, but it is frighteningly relatable with what we have faced and are yet to face. Bangladesh is one of the largest deltas in the world and is very vulnerable to Natural Disasters. About 80% of our lands are floodplains, meaning the imminent rising of the sea level due to climate change is going to drown a big part of the country. Against this geographical disadvantage, even if the defense of our coastal lines were formidable, which they are not, would fall short.

Moreover, Bangladesh is situated on the very tectonically active Himalayan orogenic belt. The possibility of a large-scale earthquake has been very real for a very long time now. We are completely helpless if such an event should occur, as Dhaka is the second densest city in the world. And the faulty construction practices in our country has resulted in a staggering 80% of our buildings being non-engineered. Meaning they are very likely to collapse if an earthquake of magnitude 7.2 or above should hit us.

The precipitous fall

All this information adds up to a simple but horrifying fact.

We are sitting on a network of ticking time bombs primed for a devastating explosion.

Be it natural or induced by man, any disaster of considerable scale holds the potential to obliterate most of us. And we have played the role of a catalyst in this, we have accelerated the process of our own doom.

The Chawkbazar tragedy is a cardinal precedent of what we have brought upon ourselves. The streets of Puran Dhaka are infamously narrow and congested. The lightest drizzle waterlogs the area, the slightest vehicular mishap blocks an entire avenue. Could you imagine the ramifications if a large-scale disaster should hit this place? You don’t really need to, the fire showed us. Say the chemical warehouses were as conveniently innocent in the disaster as claimants would have you believe. How much sense does it make to even have chemical warehouses in a residential area in the first place? Especially if said residential area is as prone to mishap as Puran Dhaka? And if chemicals really didn’t contribute to the incident, they were in the vicinity. And when they do indeed contribute to another fire (approved by all this time), do we expect even greater consequences?

The poorly planned construction, the dangerous chemicals stored near residential areas, the inadequate coastal defense, all adds up to one thing. The greed and negligence we have adopted as a nation. We have operated with personal profit in mind on every wake of our daily lives. We have made towering fortresses with matchsticks underneath. The smallest spark will set off a chain explosion that ends us all. And if the Chawkbazar Tragedy has taught us anything, we are running out of time to undo our end.

How Holi became a festival of the masses in our country

Anyone relishing his or her adulthood in the early ’80s has been well acquainted with the quintessential Holi song ‘Rang Barse Bhige Chunar Wali’ from the classic movie Silsila. After three decades, the age-old, romantic song cast with Amitabh Bachaan and Rekha is still the song to be played in every street when the festival of colour is upon us.

Read More: Here’s how you need to prepare for Holi this year! Happy Holi!

Every year, Bangladesh, like our neighboring country, celebrate Holi with great enthusiasm and zeal. The festivity is mostly celebrated in a grand nature at Shakhari Bazar, Old Town. Although Holi indeed is a celebration that stems from the Hindu religion, this festivity breaks communal religion boundaries and encourages people of all age and religion to participate in this grandiose festivity of colour.

Origins

Hinduism, a religion enriched in rich history celebrates Holi to signify the demise of winter and the arrival of spring, colour and festivity in the surrounding nature. In some cultures, this festivity stems a stronger meaning where holi bids goodbye to broken relationships and encourages taking a step towards forgiveness and fostering love towards renewed relations.

In our country, Holi is commonly known as ‘Dol Purnima’ or full moon. This lasts for an entire evening on the night of the Purnima and the following day. In Hinduism, the first evening is known as Holika Dahan and the following day has many names such as Rangwali Holi, Dhuleti, Dhulandi or Phagwah.

The night of full moon, (Holika Dahan) is concerned more towards the religious aspect of the festival where people gather to perform religious rituals in front of the bonfire, and pray that the wicked nature within every individuals is destroyed. The next day we celebrate the eve of holi festivity, which we call the Rangwali Holi.

Holi in Dhaka

As experienced in the streets of Shakhari Bazar, Holi calls for every soul to embrace a jovial spirit of the day where people smear each other with colour (abir) and drench each other with water guns and watercolor filled balloons. Holi celebrates the beginning of a new season blossoming with love and aims to break boundaries between every caste, hierarchy, race and religion. The thrill of playing with colors is seen in every yard, rooftops and alleys. It is often a very popular spot for photographers with the intention of capturing these priceless moments.

Over the years, Holi in our country has surpassed the religious barrier and become a festival of the masses.

People from all stages of life come together in celebration of spring in frivolous dance, music and color splashing. The festival of Holi truly comes to life with the participation of people from all the corner of the society.

Colloquially celebrating Holi is also known as ‘Rong Khela’ in our country. On this day, those celebrating also often indulge in a customary drink known as ‘bhang’ made from cannabis. Whilst it is slightly intoxicating, it is drank only a celebrating purpose and in order to make this even more memorable.

The history and the myth

Similar to all other festivities in Hinduism, the beginning of Holi is also commendable in history.

The tale of Hindu deity Sri Krishna and Sri Radha gave birth to this ceremonious day.

As a child, Krishna was born with dark skin tone a demon Putana poisoned him with her breast milk. Nonetheless, throughout his adolescence he has been worried wondering if the fair-skinned beautiful Radha would ever reciprocate the romantic feelings, he has towards her. Krishna’s mother who also shared his anxiety approached Radha for his son and requested her to paint Krishna’s face with any colour she would like.

The festivity of colour, Holi, began since then and Krishna and Radha has been a regal couple throughout our legends.

Every year, Dhakeswari National Temple offers religious song and prayers to begin the Holi festival followed by rong khela to reminisce the abundance of love that fostered between Sri Krishna and Sri Radha and embrace the festivity of color with open arms.

Nights at Nazirabazar

One of the few places that stay open late enough to meet the mid-night cravings of Dhaka’s nightbirds – Nazirabazar. An Old Dhaka hotspot for those in the know, this place offers delectable items for your taste buds – from kala bhuna dripping in gravy to fiery sweet paan (for those brave enough to try it), Nazirabazar has it all. Try it. Get your friends, make the trip. Well worth it – it’s not like Dhaka has traffic at 2 AM.