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Inside Beauty Boarding: Dhaka’s oldest literary den

  • Published at 04:58 pm October 14th, 2018
beauty boarding
Photo: Syed Zakir Hossain & Mahmud Hossain Opu

Feature                                

Shris Das Lane lies in old town. It’s a lonesome alley that once hummed with many old businesses—newspaper office, book binding shop, printing press, hotel, and restaurant. The adjoining area, the famous Banglabazar—a pre-Mughal period neighborhood and still the largest publication and book market in the country—is bounded on west and southwest by a black stretch of the Buriganga and Sadarghat Port; on north by Bahadur Shah Park, formerly known as Victoria Park where many Indian soldiers were hanged upon public gibbets during the Indian Rebellion of 1857; and on east and southeast by Dholaikhal area, named after a canal excavated in 1608-1610 by Islam Khan, the first Mughal subedar of Dhaka. 

In the middle of Shris Das Lane stands an old structure, with a signboard at the top of a small front gate that announces its name in Bengali: Beauty Boarding. The yellow-painted walls of the establishment—which, according to one of the current owners, dates back to at least three centuries—echoes little of its history to its new visitors. Looking at the house and its flaking plasters on some parts of the wall, it’s almost impossible for a wayward poet or traveler to realize that this house was the most vibrant literary den in Dhaka from late 1940s to 1960s. 

However, a few guideposts can help. And there’s something in its calm surrounding that still reflects nostalgia for a long lost past. From the front gate, a narrow, unpaved road leads to a central court yard. The first thing that may seem inviting to anyone is a semi-square garden in the middle of the yard, which is surrounded by mango trees and different species of flowers planted in small tubs. The garden offers some cool to its visitors in the oppressive heat of Dhaka even during late autumn. 

The two-story house has the form of the capital letter T. The office lies, apparently, at the bottom of the letter; a restaurant on the ground floor occupies the letter’s long vertical part, and the two wings on both stories contain rooms for boarders. There are other small constructions connected to the main structure—a kitchen, a few washrooms, and a puja mandap with a tulsi tree planted in a small, tower-shaped structure. The stair to the second floor—located on the other side of the vertical part of the letter—is built in time-honored fashion. It’s not inside the house; rather, it lies outside in the backyard, and is shaded by an old guava tree that also covers a small patio on the second floor. All the rooms on this floor are closed, padlocks hanging from the door hasps.   


The patio on the first floor


I stand alone on the patio and watch a middle-aged man scaling fish in the backyard. A housecat and an army of crows are waiting for their turn of luck in the indolent afternoon. A soporific silence hangs over the place, except some occasional cawing and the cat’s low purring. Only half an hour later I see a young lady in black and white sari climbing the stair, followed by a heavy cameraman, talking about the place and how he can make some vintage photo for her. 

By then, the man scaling fish seems to be done for the day. I come down to the backyard and ask him about a man named Samar Saha. After a while he takes me into the restaurant, which contains a few roughly-made tables and steel chairs, and can accommodate not more than a dozen people in one session. Behind the counter sits a plump middle-aged man with sparse hair. Samar Saha is the son of Prohladh Saha—who founded the boarding house with his elder brother Nalini Mohon Saha—and one of the owners of the boarding house. He greets me with a namaskar and shows me the way to the office, a dinky room full of old photographs of its famous former boarders. In one of them Poet Syed Shamsul Haq is shaking hands with another man while Poet Shamsur Rahman is standing in the middle with a smile on his face. Asked about the man Syed Haq is talking and shaking hands with, Samar Saha reveals the identity of his namesake of sorts—Samar Das, the celebrated music composer who directed music for numerous Bangladeshi films including Dhire Bahey Meghna, one of the first films made in independent Bangladesh. It’d be next to impossible to find any acclaimed singer in Bangladesh who didn’t work with him at some point in their career.

Samar Saha was very young when Beauty Boarding had already become one of the most famous literary hubs in Dhaka, as well as a meeting place for intellectuals. Though the common agreement about its founding goes back to 1949, Samar believes that the boarding house actually started its journey at least a few years earlier. According to him, and one of the guideposts that welcomes the visitors at the central yard, the building originally belonged to a zamindar named Shudheer Das. Before Partition of India in 1947, it was the office of a famous Bengali daily, Shonar Bangla, christened by Rabindranath Tagore, the only South Asian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Shamsur Rahman (his first poem was published from here) and many other Dhaka-based poets and writers published poems and stories from this newspaper during its heyday. Back then the paper was brought out in crown size. 


Beauty Boarding Sudhi Shangha


However, shortly after the Partition in 1947, the newspaper moved its office to Kolkata, a decision which was perhaps motivated more by political reasons than any other consideration. But soon this place was to be a literary and cultural hub in Dhaka when it’d be rented from a local neighbor by Nalini Mohon Saha and his younger brother Prohladh Saha. They started a restaurant and boarding house business in the old house realizing the significance of its location in Banglabazar, a major node in the intestinal road networks of old Dhaka. Back then the neighborhood was a bustling business center for book traders from all over the country and the centre of book publishing, printing, and stationery wholesale market in Dhaka. Nalini Mohan Saha decided to name the boarding house after his eldest daughter, Beauty, who, according to Samar, is still alive and lives in US.

Poet Shahid Quaderi—whose poetry marks one of the strongest pillars of modern Bengali (read Bangladeshi) poetry—lived in a nearby building in the same alley in the late 1940s. He asked his friends—Rahman and Syed Haq, among others—to come here for literary addas (chat) and readings of their poems and creative works. Over the years, more writers and poets began to frequent this place. Tea, snacks, and lunch were sold at a reasonable price; the rooms could be rented as low as two/three takas. So in a decade, the place truly became a literary den in Dhaka. “They [Rahman and Syed Haq] would dandle me on their knees and give me lozenge and chocolate. I was very young; I’d call them uncle. I grew up seeing them talking hour after hour and jesting occasionally,” says Samar. 

Soon Beauty Boarding became a nucleus of creativity for poets in erstwhile East Pakistan in the post-1947. Poet Nirmalendu Goon lived here for almost five years. Syed Haq created many of his famous works staying at this place. Painter Debdas Chakrabartee, and poets Shamsur Rahman, Abu Zafar Obaidullah, Belal Chowdhury, Zia Ansari, Rafiq Azad, Al Mahmud, and Asad Chowdhury, among many others, used to gather here for their evening tea and snacks, and engage in prolonged spells of addas about the future of politics and literature in this part of Bengal. That’s precisely why this place, entwined as it is with the growth of our poetry and literature, is so highly regarded by younger generations of writers. One can barely imagine charting a path for the development of Bangladeshi poetry without frequent references to this place. 

The trio—Rahman, Syed Haq and Quaderi—spent much of their time here in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In fact, there was a separate writing table for Syed Haq who used to write sitting there for hours. Prohladh Saha, however, would sometimes find it difficult to keep things in order in the house, with the presence of these creative and fun-loving souls. “When Poet Zia Ansari was here,” recounts Samar, “he used to call his girlfriend using our land phone. Sometimes my father would tease him, saying, ‘If you occupy the land phone for all day, where will my other boarders go?’ The young poet, bogged in romance, would always reply, ‘I’m almost done, Prohladh babu. Give me only five more minutes!’ But he could never finish it in five minutes, not even after half an hour. But my father wouldn’t rebuke him afterward.” 

The politics of Bangladesh took unexpected but revolutionary turns in the late 1960s. After running a very vibrant business for two decades, the boarding had to stop all its literary and cultural activities during the Liberation War in 1971. The war also saw the killing of 17 people involved with this place, including the owner of the boarding house, Prohladh Saha. “The Pakistani Army also tried to demolish the house. Their collaborators destroyed doors, windows and even took away water supplying pipes,” remembers a dejected Samar. 

After the war, the boarding house remained closed for a long time. Prativa Rani Shaha, Samar’s mother, finally resumed the business after a few years, despite facing a lot of difficulties. The former boarders—mainly Syed Haq and Rahman—came forward and helped Prativa Rani in many ways. “At some point they asked my mother to also resume the restaurant. It continued to be closed for a long time after the boarding was reopened,” says Samar Saha.  

Time also changed after the war when the country was new. Many old customers and visitors didn’t visit the place as they used to in earlier times. Sometimes there was no boarder in the house, no strange whisper or laughter of aspiring poets, no crooning of young musicians, no magic show by a young magician. It was then that Beauty Boarding and its famous literary adda began to find a place in the lore of the old town. 

***

The dearth of written material on the history of Beauty Boarding is shocking. Both Asad Chowdhury, who frequented this place with his peers named above, and Pias Majid, a young poet interested in the history of Bengali poetry, mentioned a memorable piece written by Belal Chowdhury, but that article could not be retrieved even after strenuous searches through Banglabazar, and Aziz Super, and Katabon book markets. Tarok Saha, younger brother of Samar Saha, also referred to Belal's piece but he also mentioned another book, an autobiography, Dhire Bahey Buriganga (Slowly Flows the Buriganga), written by Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury, famous for writing perhaps the most memorable song lyric etched in the psyche of this nation—"Amar Bhai er Rokte Rangano Ekushey February" (My brothers’ blood-smeared 21st February). Though the physical searches for this one met the same fate, the web finally came to our aid, providing us with a PDF version of the book. 


Samar Saha


Finally, after scanning 450 pages over the span of two days, the name Beauty Boarding popped up:

“After living a long time abroad, I went to Dhaka in January 1993. For once I wanted to visit Beauty Boarding in Banglabazar area. However, I didn’t fulfill my wish later. I asked myself: what’s the point of going there? What’s the point of seeing some old stones and bricks and woods? Prohladh Saha, the man who was the heart of the place, is no more. And Shahid Quaderi—who founded a vibrant literary adda there—lives abroad. All the friends of my wild youth days—Debdas Chakrabartee, Aminul Islam, Kaisul Haq, Samar Das, Belal Chowdhury—and I, too, are in our twilight years. Sometimes I look back at our heyday and sigh. For us, Dhaka’s Beauty Boarding is now a memory of long ‘pitiful sighs’. It’s only a memorable house—a place full of joys and sorrows.” [My translation]

In a reply to a letter sent by Tarak Saha, Abdul Gaffar, who also published his fiction and poems from Shonar Bangla, expressed his reluctance to revisit the place of his nostalgia. But Tarak continued to exchange letter after letter with old boarders and visitors to revive the literary adda at Beauty Boarding. Eventually, he and poet Imrul Chowdhury (another ex-member of the adda) formed a 60-member trustee board in 1995, calling it “Beauty Boarding Sudhi Shangha.” One of the objectives of the trustee board was to arrange reunions of old members and make the place as vibrant as it was in the 1950s and 1960s. 


Tarak Saha


The new generation of poets and writers has also responded to the trustee board’s call and started flocking to the place. “They [the young poets and writers] gather here for adda on the first and last Fridays of each month,” says Samar while showing me some of his personal photos with the old and new visitors. “The trustee board is also functioning properly. Every year in December or January they arrange a reunion party. They also give awards to reputed writers, poets, artists, and cultural activists of our country,” he adds.

To increase the frequency of visitors and boarders, the Saha brothers have kept the food and room rent at an affordable price. “We have 15 single rooms and 12 double rooms in the boarding. The rents of these rooms range from 250 to 500 takas, depending on size and quality,” says Samar. 

The food served at the restaurant still retains one of its original legacies. If you’re looking for a veritable feast of a quintessential Bengali meal, this is still the place you should visit first and foremost. Local fish curries i.e. kalia of rui carp, curries of poma, pabda, aaidh, sarputi, chital, chanda, koi, and boal; lentil soup and different mashed items, locally known as bhorta, are served with steamed rice for lunch and dinner. However, their special item is hilsa fish curry, cooked with mustard seed, which is an all-time favorite to most Bengalis here as well as in West Bengal.


Food menu


Undoubtedly, the re-launching of literary adda at Beauty Boarding is a promising prospect for a literary culture in Bangladesh. But can this place play its former role in shaping the literary goals of young poets and writers? Or does Dhaka—one of the most populous cities in the world, with an estimated population of over 18 million—need more lit hubs to cope with the demand of a technologically advanced time? 

Poet Asad Chowdhury, who was also a regular member at Beauty Boarding during its prime, thinks that the capital city has a handful of places for literary addas. “There is, of course, a dearth of places for literary addas in Dhaka. While I was studying at university, I’d rush to Beauty Boarding after finishing private tuition to students. People from different backgrounds visited the place. In fact, any modern and progressive Bengali would frequent Beauty Boarding back in those days.” The septuagenarian poet believes that though Biswa Sahitya Kendra and a few other places offer a good literary ambience in Dhaka, the bustling capital needs more places like Beauty Boarding for healthy literary growths of budding poets and writers.

The vibrant past of Beauty Boarding is so glorious that Bangladesh’s literature will celebrate its role for a long time. While new hubs should be created, it’s now up to writers and poets of the present time to make the “second coming” a reality, which can only happen through reviving old hubs like Beauty Boarding and flocking to new ones as well, and producing more and more creative works. 

Let all falcons come back to the falconers. 


Mir Arif is Staff Writer, Arts & Letters.

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