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East Pakistan to Bangladesh: Chittagong after 50 years


It was the beginning of the Eid Holiday weekend and we were in the mother of all traffic jams reaching back into Dhaka.  Kamikaze drivers were venturing up the other carriageway into the teeth of oncoming traffic, but waiting was the only safe option. A detour onto the other highway was soon discounted. There are few roads, and it would have taken many hours longer to reach our destination, Chittagong. So we stuck it out. At the toll station, a fight broke out amongst some of the drivers.

In Dhaka, now

It was quite ugly for a while but we were not worried ourselves as there had been no animosity towards us all week. Quite the reverse, we found nothing but pleasantness from the locals and even the intense curiosity was welcoming and friendly – not quite the London Underground with its crushing anonymity.

It took us 15 hours to reach our destination. I can hardly tell you how grateful we were, not least the driver, to see the Chittagong gate. In the guide books you are advised to avoid the road at night as often buses pull out in front of you with no lights on, and no warning, and we had a few nervous moments particularly after the sun dropped below the flooded paddies.

Each market we passed through on our long journey we saw oxen made to look pretty, wearing garlands around their collars and their horns decorated.  There was a certain macabre element to it though, seeing these grand party animals unwittingly participating in their own fate for they were all about to be slaughtered for the Eid festival.

For my sister and I, it was our big home-coming. In 1959 when I was a very young boy, I lived in Bangladesh – or rather East Pakistan as it was then known. I was growing up in a bungalow on a school just outside Chittagong run by the military where my father was in charge of the Science Department and a housemaster. Those were the days when colonial influence was still strong, after partition only a matter of 10 years earlier.

My father was typical of the new generation. He was there to educate the elite in a new country, not to exploit the local population in any way, as had some (but not all) of his predecessors. However the old ways of the Raj had not completely died down. My father acquired a status he could not even dare dream of back home – well beyond the ambitions of a normal 33 year old. He was one of only three European teachers- the headmaster, a rumbustious colonel in the New Zealand army, a shy bachelor who was the classics teacher, and my father on his first overseas posting. It was a time when Europeans were highly respected, and well served. We had several servants- an ayah ( a children’s nurse), a bearer ( a general factotum similar to a butler), a cook , a driver and not forgetting the chokidar (or night watchman).

Author with other boys, on verandah

In those days, social life amongst the expatriates was very elegant with everyone dressing for dinner, cocktail parties in the club and balls stretching into the small hours. It was quite possible to live life in a rarified bubble and not have anything to do with the local people except when in need of service.

However the three of us, (I have a sister and brother and a baby brother who came along later), did mix “with the locals”. We were not used to being too sheltered and did not come from an over-privileged background. And so we often played with the children of my father’s colleagues just like normal children playing together irrespective of the racial differences. This included my sister playing hopscotch, me playing football and my younger brother joining in whenever his little legs would let him. I spent many happy hours roaming around the college compound and into the hills, where there were all sorts of jungle species lurking which have been in decline ever since. I proudly walked to the sea which was no great achievement, being only about 2 miles away, but for me it was a real adventure emerging through the jungle onto the huge expanse of sand with fishing nets for beach furniture.

It was in a small building in the grounds of the Chittagong Club where I received my first education.  My mother valiantly took on the job of running the school in order to keep it open. It was nice and intimate and I was not threatened in the same way as at a full-blown school – although I am told that I was rather prone to spend break time poring over Famous Five books in the classroom on my own.

In those days there was no easy escape valve- jetting back to the UK for reasons of homesickness was not an option. Once you took up the post, that was it until it was time to come home at the end of the tour of duty. We did not mind- we were too innocent as youngsters amusing ourselves in the sun to miss Blighty. It was in many ways a perfect place to grow up.

I suppose I was too young to have memories although I was half hoping something from the past, (maybe a piece of trivia dredged out of obscurity), would flood back to me.

One less panther in the wild

Maybe I thought I might be revisiting a spiritual Jalna but it was not to be – I was only 5 years old after all and my mental note of what it was like has been strongly influenced by the excellent and unique cine film my father took at the time, and the experiences and anecdotes conveyed to me by my parents. All the more reason to go back, you might say.

The country I saw 50 years later as an adult was a new country risen from the ashes of a bloody civil war – a country even after 30 years struggling to stand on its own feet, with few welfare or health schemes in place and still stuck very much in the Third World.

We were in a modern guest annex now but the old Chittagong Club was largely intact from my childhood, patronised instead  by wealthy Bangladeshis. The long verandah was much as it had been, but the atmosphere had changed. No colonial chit-chat with turbaned bearers on hand to bring on the next gin and tonic. We fetched our own drinks from the bar, and sat there feeling like we ought not to be there, being the only Europeans. And yet we were unique in a different era- we could feel like real travellers, special without feeling superior. It was 50 years ago to the day from the Caledonian ball when the haggis had been brought out specially from Scotland. Sir Hamilton Macaulay was the master of ceremonies then and those invited were the cream of European business. Now there are few Europeans outside the embassies in Dhaka, the charity workers in the NGOs and the teachers in the international schools.  We were on our own, drinking Heineken out of cans, and making our own entertainment.

The visit to the Cadet College had to be arranged well in advance. After all it was run by the military as it had been 50 years ago. However there was no pomp like that shown to visitors in the past- just a building used as a guest centre where we were cordially treated to tea and cakes. The principal was busy and we were shown round by the teacher of Islamic studies. At first it looked as if we were going to be tightly chaperoned, but our guide was very relaxed and informative and was happy to let us take photographs and explore as long as we did not go out of his sight. In the courtyard and parade area outside the main building we stood on the commemorative sign marking the 50 years since the school was founded, and I posed with my sister outside the science block. There were no boys at school over the public holiday,  so we were able to walk about quite freely except that we were unable to get into the classrooms. In the main hall there was a picture of my father’s old boss, Colonel Brown, with rifles hanging up alongside, and the school’s motto above the central staircase-” Deeds, Not Words.”

An Eid market is a bad day for cows

When reading this I realized that our action in coming back was much more powerful than endlessly talking about things I could not really remember from my childhood. There could be no instant recall but there was massive emotion and significance as we wandered around the campus. Finally “la piece de resistance” – the bungalow where we lived. We were not sure even when we got there- we only had a map and a cinefilm to go by, and it was looking sad and unpainted, no longer pristine. But somehow we knew, as my sister and I first stood gingerly in front of the lawn area at the front, and then on the verandah itself -the verandah where I used to play with Trotty, my much-loved wooden hobbyhorse, in the company of ayah, and across which my sister ran excitingly from room to room, and where big cats had wandered in the night.  There was no running now, just sublime contemplation.

The principal appeared in the middle of my reverie and conducted us into the main room of the bungalow itself.  I am not sure it was the same table, but I sat in the same position as I had on my birthday all those years ago, pretending to be about to enjoy my chocolate train cake which had been made specially by the Savoy cake shop. This proved to be the defining moment of the whole trip.

After that, it all began to hang together more but there were some changes. Gone were the days when you could take off into the hills and look over the Bay of Bengal from the viewpoint above the college grounds- it all seemed to be a no-go-zone now, and there were no obvious tracks up. The walk down to the sea used to be a attractive path going through the jungle- now our access was barred by deforestration, factories and mangrove swamps. The chance of finding a live snake in the grounds, or the bursar bringing back a freshly shot panther was nil. The real rawness of the setting was no more- you had to risk the hill tracts beyond and the bandits which came with them if you wanted that.

The bungalow, now

And I suppose that it is why you can be disappointed, eternally wallowing in the past- life moves on as it has to in order to avoid becoming too sterile. But it has enriched my memory bank immensely, and I am so pleased that I have returned and grateful to those who helped bring this about, particularly the Cadet College itself. Next time we hope to go back on a more normal holiday when we can relax more. It was so exciting we could not relax- all we could do was just draw breath, dwarfed by the scale of the experience and imagine with our own naked eyes what it really was like half a century ago. It was well worth all the gridlock on the roads – just make sure that you have as dependable a driver as we had for our journey.

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